Clothing for Kilimanjaro
One area we often see guests plan poorly is their selected clothing on Kilimanjaro. While the mountain is very accessible and does not require special equipment or skills, it is indeed a “real mountain”. The mountain is subject to rapid weather changes and literally will “make its own weather”. So you need to be just as prepared to stay warm on this mountain as you would any other large high-altitude mountain.
While some guests bring way too many clothes (or not enough clothing), the most common problem is that they simply do not bring the right clothing. In a best-case scenario this will lead to being uncomfortably hot or cold throughout the journey. In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to a dangerous condition called hypothermia where your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Clearly, you should always alert your guide if you start feeling incredibly cold. But a properly selected clothing strategy can completely eliminate the problem.
So why not just bring a big, heavy jacket in case it gets cold? Well, unfortunately it is not that easy. Not only do you need to be prepared for the temperature on the mountain (which can vary greatly each day). You also need to be prepared for how much heat your body will be creating. For instance, if your scheduled day calls for hiking up 3,000 vertical feet you will be working hard that day! Even in near freezing temperatures you will likely need very little more than a light shirt on. However, if your day will be mostly hanging around camp in near freezing temperatures, you’ll probably need that heavy jacket on.
The strategy to help with these issues is the concept of layering, it is important (if not critical) to climbing Kilimanjaro safely and comfortably. Your layering system is made up of several areas where we will go in depth to explain. This includes:
One important thing to consider for any mountain climbing is that you never want to get too hot – especially when hiking hard and sweating. Not only does it exhaust your body, but it also makes your clothing wet. And when your clothing is wet and you take a break (and your body stops producing heat) you will get very cold very quickly. And it will be very difficult to dry as you repeat the hot/cold cycles while you hike and take breaks.
An important consideration as you invest in the right type of clothing is to ask yourself if you ever plan to do any additional high-altitude climbs/hikes in the future. If yes, we recommend spending the extra dollars to get great clothes that will last you years. If you don’t foresee doing any additional climbs, it does not mean you should skip any of the recommended clothes! It simply means that you can probably opt for a less expensive brand.
However, it should be noted that because of the concept of layering, most all of the clothes are relatively thin and can be worn as everyday clothing in your daily life. We often hear climbers initially lament about the high cost of their clothing, only to later hear them talk about how often they wear each layer back home. Obviously better materials and brands will last a lot longer for daily use as well as during any mountain trekking.
If you decide to invest in high quality clothing that is made for hiking/mountaineering, you likely don’t even need to worry about the materials they are made from. Top brands that make clothing for outdoor adventures will automatically be made from good, wicking materials. However, if you decide to shop around for the best deals and go with lesser-known brands, you should take a look at the materials the clothing is made from to determine if it will suit your needs on the mountain.
The most important thing to remember is: COTTON KILLS! This has become the mantra of all knowledgeable hikers. We recommend taking absolutely no cotton clothing on your mountain journey. Why is this so? The reason is that cotton soaks up water and sweat like a sponge. And when this happens it loses almost all of its ability to insulate you. Conversely, proper clothing has a quality called “wicking” that actually move moisture from the surface of your skin to the outer part of the clothing. And, when you have multiple layers on, the wicking will even continue to the next layer where it eventually dries.
You should also avoid materials like corduroy, denim and flannel, which are all materials that are essentially made from cotton. Cotton-polyester blends are also poor at wicking moisture. Wool is a better option than cotton because it does maintain its ability to insulate when wet, but it still absorbs too much water (36% of its weight) and does not wick well. Note that are some brands promoting “Smart Wool” that do wick properly.
Synthetic materials like rayon, modal and tencel are created from cellulose fiber. They should be completely avoided because the absorb water even faster than cotton and completely lose their ability to insulate. You should also avoid products that claim to be made of bamboo. While they may be more eco-friendly, they will not wick moisture or keep you warm when wet. Silk is also a poor choice.
Most clothing that is designed for mountaineering and hiking (often called “active wear” or “technical clothing”) is made from various blends of nylon and polyester. These materials wick moisture very well, dry quickly and retain the ability to insulate even when moist. Fleece is a type of polyester and is generally good material for Kilimanjaro. Merino Wool is another great choice.