Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

Sign for Gilmans Point at night time near the peak of Kilimanjaro

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness (a milder form of the more serious Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS) occurs when you are at high elevations for an extended period of time. Your body needs oxygen and if you live near sea level, the air you breathe contains about 21% oxygen. The higher you go up in elevation, the less oxygen the air contains. In fact, when you make it to the peak of Kilimanjaro the oxygen in the air will only be approximately 10%. That’s a lot less oxygen your body gets for each breath you take!

This lack of oxygen can cause several issues for climbers. Common symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Rapid heart rate

As you can imagine, none of these symptoms are very much fun while you are hiking. Indeed, the number one reason that climbers fail to reach the summit is because they have some level of altitude sickness.

How do I avoid altitude sickness?

The fact of the matter is that you probably cannot completely avoid it. More than 75% of climbers on Kilimanjaro will feel at least some form of mild altitude sickness. However, there are certainly ways to minimize the effects and not let altitude sickness prevent you from getting to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The best weapon to avoid getting sick from the lack of oxygen in the air is to spend lots of time on the mountain and move up in elevation slowly. This allows your body to slowly get used to the reduced oxygen in the air (a process called “acclimatization”). Quite simply, if you want to significantly decrease your risk of debilitating altitude sickness (and significantly increase your chances of summiting), select a route and itinerary that has as many days as possible for your climb.

While there are lots of statistics from different websites, all experts agree that the more days you spend on your climb, the better your chances will be to summit. For instance, if you select a short itinerary (like the 5-day Marangu route), your chances of successfully summiting will only be approximately 35%. Conversely, the 9-day route on the Northern Circuit (the longest route) has an over 95% success rate! And, while climbers may still have some mild effects of altitude sickness, it will be far less than they would have by racing up the hill in almost half the time.

How can I do a short route successfully?

We totally understand. Almost everyone that takes the long journey to Africa wants to be able to not only climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but also take in lots of other activities that Tanzania has to offer (Safaris, cultural tours, waterfalls, etc.). And we strongly encourage you to do so! The thought of “if I do a short 5-day trip, I’ll have more time for other activities” causes many people to feel sick during the entire climb and fail to summit.

For this reason, we strongly encourage you to select a route with at least 7 days (more if possible) if you want to successfully summit. While the extra few days seems like a lot while you plan your vacation, you will feel much happier about your trip if you feel good during the climb and successfully reach the Roof of Africa!

The myths of avoiding altitude sickness

Do not fall for the myths! Being more physically fit will NOT help you avoid altitude sickness. We have seen many very fit, endurance athletes fall victim to altitude sickness in the same manner as regular “office worker” types. In fact, sometimes the more advanced athletes fall more susceptible because they believe they can “work through the discomfort” and keep pushing harder and faster up the hill.

Drinking extra water on the mountain will also not help avoid altitude sickness. It is highly recommended that you do drink extra water at higher elevations to avoid dehydration, but it will not help you avoid altitude sickness.

One decision you will want to make is whether or not you want to take the prescription medication Acetazolamide (also known as Diamox) to help combate altitude sickness during your climb. There are several pros and cons to taking this medication, however you must know that it is not a good substitute for a gradual climb and will not always prevent you from getting altitude sickness.

The only prevention measure to avoid altitude sickness is being an experienced mountain climber that climbs at high altitudes (over 15,000 ft) frequently. If you do fall into this category, then by all means you can take a shorter route. For the rest of us, go for the longer and more scenic routes such as the Northern Circuit. You will thank us later!