Climbing Kilimanjaro is a lifetime bucket list achievement for many hikers and travelers. A trip up Kili combines the cultural richness of Tanzania with days of dramatic scenery and the unique experience of walking to 19,000+ feet without the need for technical climbing.
It’s also expensive as heck, and its popularity has bred a baffling abundance of tour companies, itineraries, and routes. If you’re going to dedicate a small fortune and at least a week of your life to climbing Kili, you want to choose the best Kilimanjaro route for you. But how to decide?
Fortunately I’ve been through the process myself, and as a lover of both hiking and spreadsheets, I’ve got you covered. While planning my own Kilimanjaro hike in 2017, I put together a table comparing the seven standard Kilimanjaro routes. I read dozens of guide websites and trip reports to understand factors like length, cost, success rate, crowdedness, and more. I’m sharing this table below, along with some additional notes, to help others choose the best route up Kilimanjaro.
What to consider when choosing a Kilimanjaro route
Before we get to the route comparison table, I’ll explain the key factors to consider when deciding which Kilimanjaro route to climb.
If you’re an experienced backpacker, you’re probably used to paying attention to miles or kilometers when judging the difficulty of a hike. Kilimanjaro, because of its high altitude, is a different beast. It’s worth understanding the total distance of the route you choose (they vary between roughly 30-60 miles), but, it’s more important to understand how well the elevation profile allows your body to acclimate to the high altitude.
Elevation Profile and Acclimatization
The big rule of acclimatization is that the more slowly you gain elevation, the better your body adapts. Routes with a favorable elevation profile tend to start at lower altitude and climb gradually, giving hikers a better chance at staying healthy all the way to the summit.
Routes with unfavorable elevation profiles start high and/or climb quickly. These routes aren’t recommended for most hikers because of their increased risk of altitude sickness, as well as the physical difficulty of steeper climbing.
Number of Days
Guide companies will suggest how many days they think are appropriate for each route based on the distance and elevation profile. Again, slower is better, so longer routes that take more days often have higher success rates.
You can increase your chances of success on a shorter route by breaking it up into more days. Some guides even add an extra acclimatization day at the same camp, with an optional day hike, to give clients a better chance of reaching the summit on shorter distance routes.
If you’re an experienced backpacker, you may think the number of miles per day is absurdly low for all the Kilimanjaro routes. The first few days may indeed feel easy, but rest assured the altitude will eventually become a factor. Plus, part of the charm of the climb is taking time to enjoy the views, eat meals in the mess tent, and chat with your guides and fellow climbers.
Resist the temptation to rush your climb of Kilimanjaro. I know time off work and budget are both in short supply for many people, but consider this: all that vacation time and money won’t feel well spent if you fail to reach the summit because of altitude sickness. If you can possibly manage it, err on the side of choosing a longer itinerary.
The success rate of a route is directly based on the factors above. A route that is longer in distance and more gradual in ascent will have a higher success rate. The guide service you choose also impacts your success rate, as some are better at pacing slowly and attending to their clients’ needs.
Keep in mind what the success rate really means. Most people don’t spend thousands of dollars and travel across an ocean just to give up because they feel a little tired. Many people who fail to summit are forced to turn around by the potentially dangerous affects of altitude sickness. It’s worth avoiding climbs with a lower success rate for both your pride and your health.
The cost, unfortunately, is closely related to the number of days you’ll spend on the mountain, which means longer routes with higher success rate will cost more. Guide companies also vary widely in their rates relative to each other; more on this below.
No matter what route you choose, climbing Kilimanjaro is not going to feel like a solitary wilderness experience. Porters add considerable traffic to all routes, and groups converge at common camps that are basically bustling little tent cities. It’s best to just embrace the communal feeling of the climb and give up the search for solitude.
That said, some routes are more commonly climbed than others, and no one wants to be stuck at the back of a conga line. If climbing amidst larger numbers of people is likely to bug you, go for one of the less common routes.
Camping Versus Huts
All the routes except for Marangu require camping. As camping goes, it’s relatively luxurious, especially if you’re used to more traditional self-supported backpacking.
The guide company will provide the tents, and porters will carry all your sleeping gear and even set it up for you before you arrive at camp. Meals will be cooked for you and served in a meal tent, and depending on your guide company there may be nice extras like warm water for washing, or even a private bathroom tent.
Lodging on the Marangu Route is in dormitories filled with bunk beds. Personally I prefer the peace and privacy of a tent, but some people find the beds more comfortable.
Scenery and Wildlife
While this is subjective and any climb up Kili will be scenic, some routes are considered more scenic than others. This usually means they pass through more varied ecosystems, have more spectacular vistas, and/or provide a higher chance of spotting wildlife.
It’s also considered an advantage if the route descends via a different path from the ascent, giving hikers a chance to experience a new area instead of retracing their steps. All routes except Marangu have separate ascent and descent routes.
Kilimanjaro Route Comparison Table
The table below should scroll horizontally on small screens. If you don’t see all the columns, try swiping your finger to the left.
Kilimanjaro Routes Map
The map below, produced by a popular guiding company called Ultimate Kilimanjaro, shows how the routes are arranged on the mountain. The highlighted route is the Northern Circuit, but all seven of the standard routes are shown. You can find maps and elevation profiles for all of the routes individually on their website.
It’s important to understand a few points from this map while researching which Kilimanjaro route is best for you:
- Approaches exist from all directions, but all descents are to the south.
- Most of the routes (all but Rongai and Marangu) descend via the Mweka Route, which is only used for descending.
- The three routes that approach from the west are closely related variations of each other: Northern Circuit, Lemosho, and Shira.
Kilimanjaro Route Summaries
Here are some notable points about each Kili route based on the table and map above.
The Lemosho route approaches from the west and descends south via Mweka. It turns out to be an excellent balance of success rate, scenery, time, and light foot traffic (especially for the first few days).
The Northern Circuit is a longer variation on the Lemosho Route. The beginning and end are the same but the middle veers north to less-busy trails, avoiding the more congested area to the south where several routes converge on the same camps.
Because of its longer distance and therefore longer time, it’s considered a highly successful route. Of course, it’s also usually also the most expensive, and not all travelers want to allocate nine whole days to their Kilimanjaro climb.
The Shira route is basically an older and less ideal version of the Lemosho route, so most hikers choose Lemosho instead. Shira begins at a higher elevation (11,800 feet) before joining with Lemosho for the remainder of the trek.
Sometimes hikers struggle to acclimate to the altitude because of the higher start, giving Shira a lower success rate than the new and improved Lemosho version.
The Machame route approaches from the south, and then descends back to the south on the Mweka route. It’s considered scenic and moderately good for acclimatization, especially the 7 day version.
The good balance of scenery, success rate, and shorter time period makes this a popular route, so crowdedness is one of its only drawbacks.
The Rongai approach is similar in steepness and difficulty to Marangu, making it one of the two routes recommended for people without prior backpacking experience. It descends via Marangu, allowing hikers to experience more varied scenery. The northern approach makes it a good choice in the rainy season because the north gets less rainfall.
Marangu is the oldest route on Kili and one of the two easiest (the other is Rongai) because of its gradual slope. It’s the only route that allows for sleeping in dormitories instead of tents. However, its popularity makes it crowded. Another major drawback is that it descends the same path it climbs, limiting the variety of terrain hikers get to experience.
The Umbwe route approaches from the south via a short, steep, and direct line, then descends via Mweka. It’s the most challenging Kili route, and the one with the lowest success route. It’s pleasantly uncrowded, but not recommended except for very fit and experienced backpackers.
So which Kilimanjaro route is best?
Once you’ve digested the above information, you’ll see that there are actually fewer good choices than you thought. The routes with the best balance of factors are generally considered to be Lemosho, Machame, and Rongai. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the choices, focus in on those three and choose based on the number of days you have (Lemosho is longest), how fit and experienced you are (Rongai is easiest), and how much you care about crowdedness (Machame is busiest).
Which route did I personally chose for my 2017 climb of Kilimanjaro? Lemosho. It was a great balance of time, success rate, and scenery, and I would definitely recommend it.
Thoughts on Choosing a Kilimanjaro Guide
Once you have a good idea of which route you want to climb, it’s time to choose a guide. This could be the subject of a whole other post, but I’ll share a few thoughts here.
First of all, don’t underestimate the importance of your guide. I was a bit smug in the early days of my climb, wondering if the guides and porters were worth the cost to a fit and experienced hiker. But during the summit push, when the impact of 19,000+ feet hit and I could barely feel my legs or verbalize a coherent sentence, I realized that my life depended on them. Summitting Kili turned out to be harder than I thought, and I was so glad to have chosen a responsible, reputable guide company.
So what makes a company reputable? Price is only part of the story. Certainly the cheapest options are highly suspect; you get what you pay for in life. Are the super expensive companies truly superior? Only sometimes. There are definitely foreign guide companies that charge a premium for the aura of luxury and familiarity they can provide.
Focus On What’s Most Important
If you’re watching your budget, my advice is to choose a reputable Tanzania-based company that provides the best value for money when it comes to essentials like safety, but doesn’t upsell you on luxuries you don’t need.
For example, when looking for my Kilimanjaro guide I eliminated budget companies that compromised on medical services in their lower tiers. Any company that would bring clients up Kilimanjaro without emergency oxygen is, in my opinion, irresponsible. I wouldn’t want to climb with them even if I chose the more expensive tier that did include oxygen.
On the other hand, more expensive companies will sometimes offer luxuries like a private toilet tent. While I admit the toilet situation on Kilimanjaro leaves much to be desired, this wasn’t worth the money to me.
You can also save money by joining a group climb instead of booking a private one. This means you’ll be climbing with strangers, but this can be a good thing. You’re going to spend a lot of time on the mountain and you may be thankful for the entertainment of getting to know new people.
Choose a KPAP Partner Company
I also highly recommend choosing a guide who has partnered with KPAP, the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project. The sad reality is that porters are easily exploited by guide companies. Many need the money so badly that their employers can get away with paying them too little, making them carry too much, and not providing adequate warm clothing.
Guide companies who partner with KPAP pledge to meet minimum qualifications for proper treatment of their porter employees. This means they are often a bit more expensive than the budget companies that don’t meet these qualifications. But if you can’t afford to support humane treatment of the people you’re climbing with, you probably shouldn’t climb Kili at all.
My Kilimanjaro Guide Company
There are many excellent guides out there, but I’ll give a shoutout to the company I climbed with in 2017: Gladys Adventure. Their prices were extremely competitive for the level of experience and professionalism they provided. Our lead guide had a 100% success rate in getting clients to the summit, and we could see why.
Nightly medical checks, careful pacing, and a skilled team of assistant guides allowed everyone in our group to reach the summit despite a few difficulties along the way. The guides did a great job dealing with the varied paces of our group, the porters were friendly and professional, and the cook made excellent food. On top of all that, the company is owned by a woman which is highly unusual in patriarchal East African society. Check them out during your search for a Kilimanjaro guide!
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