If there is one part of your body you need to think about the most on your Kilimanjaro climb it is your feet. Your feet are literally the vehicle that will be taking you up the mountain. And with the length of most routes being somewhere between 30 and 50+ miles (48 to 80+ km) you will be using your feet a lot (upwards of 100,000 or more steps!). Happy feet = happy trek!
The absolute most important advice we can give is decide on your footwear early and do your physical training in the boots and socks you plan to take on your trip. Shoes take time to break in, and having the opportunity to wear them for a long hike then give your feet a break from them for a couple of days then wear them again is a critical step. And you simply won’t have that luxury on Kilimanjaro where you will be putting in a full day’s hike nearly every day. In addition, as you train with your shoes at home, you will learn where you get “hot spots” or places on your feet that get uncomfortable or blister. And you can experience with what to do about it. Perhaps try different socks, or add a thin pair of sock liners, or a different insole or even lacing the boot differently. There will be some trial and error in breaking in any hiking boot and you want to do this at home long before you step foot (or feet!) in Tanzania.
Your feet coverage will need to include:
- Hiking Boots – The workhorse that you will wear almost every day on your climb
- Trail Runners or Gym Shoes – These are optional but highly recommended for wearing around camp and for backup
- Socks – You should bring 3 pairs of socks that are preferably made of synthetic material or wool. Sock liners are an additional option if you like them
- Gaiters – Gaiters are an important piece of gear that will keep your boots dry and keep mud, rocks and snow out of your boots
The terrain on Kilimanjaro can vary from friendly, flat dirt trails to very rugged, steep and rocky trails, to walking on snow. And you will need hiking boots that can handle all of it. We highly recommend getting boots that offer some level of support around your ankles, especially for the rockier steeper terrain. They do not need to go way up your calves, but having something a little higher than a typical gym shoe will not only protect your ankles but also help prevent you from “rolling” your ankle (stepping awkwardly on the outside of your foot, causing you to fall or almost fall). This tends to especially happen when you are tired after a long day and a good study boot laced up over your ankles will help.
By far, the most important feature of your boot is that it is comfortable for you. And you will likely not know if it is really comfortable until you’ve done some day long hikes in them. Also note that if you do not hike very often, these long hikes will likely hurt your feet regardless of what shoe you are wearing. Just like the rest of your muscles, your feet will start to “toughen up” with extended use.
Of all the places not to try and save money, this is one of them. And with literally thousands of models to choose from, you should have no problem finding a good pair at a good price. We especially like stores that allow you to return your boots even after you’ve worn them outside. Sometimes a boot can seem very comfortable in the store, but just does not hold up after several hours of hiking. Be sure to try on shoes at the store wearing the socks you intend to use on Kilimanjaro. The type of sock you choose can make a big difference on how the boot fits. Also note that if a boot feels slightly snug in the store, it will likely loosen up a bit when you put a few days on it as the padding in the shoe will flatten out slightly.
Some boot models will be marketed as waterproof. We highly recommend selecting this option as it will help keep your feet dry when crossing streams or walking through wet mud. But you should know that if you are in a torrential downpour (and we can almost guarantee you will be at some point on your trek), these boots will not stay dry. Your best line of defense in heavy rain will be a good set of gaiters .
There are many brands and models to choose from but some high-end options include the Merrell Moab 2 Mid Waterproof and the Asolo Synger GTX
Unlike hiking boots, trail runners and gym shoes are generally very light and do not go up past your ankle. Although most guides consider them optional, you will really enjoy putting on these clean, dry and comfortable shoes when you get to camp (you can leave them in your duffle bag that is carried by your porter). Perhaps nothing feels as good as taking off your hiking shoes and slipping on comfortable shoes at the end of a long day of hiking (well, maybe your first shower and beer at the end of your journey!).
In addition to the pleasure of wearing these at camp, they can also be a good backup in case something happens to your boots. For this reason, we do recommend getting trail runners (which have great traction on rocky terrain) as opposed to some basic gym shoes. We’ve seen any number of things happen to people’s boots. Everything from soles falling off, to broken lace holders to completely soaked shoes that almost never dry in the cool air. Consider the trail runners a good insurance policy in case you need them. And, with the exception of summit day, a good trail runner will serve you just fine on most of Kilimanjaro. Be sure to wear these in just as you would your hiking boots (although they are typically much easier to wear in).
There are literally thousands of models to choose from, but we tend to like Merrell, La Sportiva and Salomon shoes.
When if comes to hiking and mountaineering gear, even something as simple as socks deserves a worthy discussion. First and most important, do not wear cotton socks! Cotton tends to absorb moisture like a sponge and cannot wick that moisture from your feet. Not only will you feel uncomfortable in them, but if it rains for multiple days you could end up with major blisters trench foot or even damage to your feet from the cold.
Instead opt for a purposefully made hiking sock that is made from a synthetic fiber or merino rule (or some blend of similar materials). Merino wool is especially good in socks because it not only wicks away moisture, but it is also very comfortable and tends to be naturally odor resistant. You can generally choose socks that are thin, medium or thick.
Your choice of thickness will depend on the fit of your shoes (one reason we highly recommend testing your shoes with the socks you intend to wear). We recommend avoiding thin socks. You will not be fighting the heat as much as you will be fighting the cold on Kilimanjaro (the exception is perhaps the first and last days, so if you tend to run hot, you could take a pair of thin socks and wear them on those days). You choice of whether you select a medium or thick is really up to you and what feels comfortable. However, do not feel like you need to wear unusually thick socks even on your summit day. Your body will be working very hard that day and generate lots of heat. Your boot will trap that heat in your shoe and keep your feet warm. Thicker socks do not necessarily mean warmer feet. In fact if the socks are too think for your shoe and inhibit blood flow, your feet will actually end up colder.
Sock Liners are highly touted by some people as a great way to prevent blisters. The primary major cause of blisters is rubbing. As you take a step, part of your foot may rub on your sock and shoe and eventually get irritated enough to cause a blister. No fun. The liners are very thin (like men’s dress socks or women’s pantyhose) and are worn between the foot and the hiking sock. The idea is that the liner stays in place on your feet and any rubbing that occurs will be against the liner instead of against your skin. Other people say that liners tend to bunch up on them and actually cause more blisters.
If you are prone to blisters, we do recommend trying sock liners. But be sure to try them at home while you are doing your preparation hike. You do not want to be experimenting with liners on Kilimanjaro. To save the investment, you can actually just try wearing a pair of men’s dress socks and see if they help. If they work for you, go ahead and make the small investment in some liner socks. As an added bonus, many people take few hiking socks since the liner sock is a good barrier between your foot and the hiking sock and tends to reduce odors in the hiking socks themselves. Some liners (also called “toe socks”) have spaces for your individual toes and can help prevent blisters that occur between your toes on long treks.
Any reputable outdoor store will have lots of hiking socks to choose from. Some of the high-end brand choices are Smartwool, REI brand and DarnTough.
Many guides will list gaiters as optional on Kilimanjaro, but we highly recommend taking this important piece of gear. Gaiters are essentially a piece of waterproof plastic-like material that covers the lower part of your leg and the top of your boot. By closing off the top part of your boot, you eliminate the inevitable problem of getting rocks, mud, snow and even water from entering the top of your boots. You will recognize all the climbers that are not wearing gaiters…they are the ones sitting on a rock removing their boots to take out the rocks! Even the smallest of rock in your shoe needs to be dealt with quickly, otherwise it is highly likely that you will get a blister and have to deal with it the rest of your trip. Gaiters will almost completely eliminate that from happening.
If you have opted for waterproof boots, which generally protect water from entering the top or lower sides of your boots, adding gaiters will give you very good protection from getting your feet soaked in a heavy rain. Without the gaiters, your waterproof boots will likely not protect you.
Gaiters will also keep your feet much warmer as it traps in the heat from your feet and legs. In fact, wearing a pair of gaiters will be much more effective at keeping your feet warm than adding socks or wearing overly thick socks. This is especially needed on summit day, but can be valuable throughout most of your journey.
You need to make sure your gaiters fit you properly and are nice and snug around your legs at the top. The bottom should fit over your boot snugly and most have various adjustments on them for doing so. As long as they are properly fitting, you can opt for either long gaiters that go up to just below your knee or shorter gaiters that go up just below your calf.
The fit is the most important factor to your gaiters, and the only difference in price is generally the materials. For high-end options, we like the Outdoor Research Crocodile or Verglas gaiters.