Because the established routes on Kilimanjaro are not prone to rock fall or ice fall, the great news is that you will not need to wear a helmet on your trek! This is the only one of the Seven Summits that a helmet is not required. However, you do want to consider some important items to help protect your head, eyes, ears, face, mouth and neck from the extreme elements on Kilimanjaro.
Namely you will want to bring:
- A brimmed hat – You have a few different options, but you will want something with a brim on it to shield your eyes from the sun (brimmed hat or baseball cap)
- Knit hat – Also called a “toque” or beanie cap. This will help keep your head warm on cold days
- Balaclava/Buff – This is used to cover your face. It can be used to protect your face from the biting cold wind and/or from the blistering sun.
- Glacier glasses or goggles – Especially needed on summit day or when you are on the snow to protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful rays.
- Headlamp and extra batteries – This is a small flashlight with a strap that goes around your head. It is critical to have on summit day (and handy around camp on other days).
At the lower regions (the first few days) hiking Kilimanjaro is not unlike hiking anywhere else. While you are on the move, it can be windy and rainy, but can also be extremely sunny. On those sunny days, you will want to have some kind of a hat with a brim to help block the bright sun from your eyes. However, as you steadily increase your altitude, the sun’s rays get much more intense on your exposed skin and eyes. You may not notice how intense the sun is, because it also gets colder as you move up in elevation. However, the thinner atmosphere offers increasingly less protection for you as you get higher on the mountain. So, eventually, sun protection becomes more of a necessity than a luxury.
While some people smartly opt to bring a full brimmed sun hat to increase the shade on their head, you’ll want to make sure the hat stays on snugly in high winds. We’ve seen many a round, brimmed hat go flying into the sky like a UFO on windy days! For this reason, we recommend sticking to a standard baseball style had with just a front brim. It is preferred to avoid cotton as they get quite drenched in the rain and from sweat, but it is not critical in this case to avoid cotton (this is the only exception to the rule!)
In order to shade the back of your neck, you have a couple of options. First, if you purchased a base layer or light insulation layer with a hood, you can pull your hood up over your baseball cap. If not, you might opt for what is called a “Flap Cap” on “Sun Cap”. This is essentially a baseball style hat that has a flap or curtain on the sides and back that cover your neck in the hot sun. You can, of course, also just liberally apply sunscreen to the back of your neck and just use a baseball hat.
You don’t really need to invest heavily on your baseball cap, some high-end options include the Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap (which has a removable flap) or the Columbia Coolhead Cachalot.
A knit hat (often called a “beanie” or “toque”) is important to pack for your trip. You may not need it for the first few days, but as you get close to the summit (particularly on summit day) it is a critical piece of gear.
Most importantly, make sure that it is made of fleece, wool or some kind of polyester/nylon blend. It is likely that the hat your grandmother knitted you is made out of cotton yarn, and cotton will not insulate your head if it gets wet either from precipitation (snow or rain) or from sweat. So double-check the materials.
The hat should be nice and snug to trap the heat that your head generates. Avoid hats with big decorative tops (we’ve seen some with big decorative balls on top). The reason to avoid this is that the big top can sometimes catch the wind and blow off your head. But perhaps more importantly, you need to be able to easily put the beanie in your pocket.
Here’s why: As you leave your camp in the morning (or late night on summit day!), you will definitely feel a chill and reach for your beanie to keep your head and ears warm. However as you start hiking, particularly if your hike that day involves a lot of elevation increase, you will start getting hot very quickly. At that point in time, you can just pull the beanie off and cool down your head before you get too sweaty. Then, when you take a break or if a cold wind comes up, you can easily put it back on and get warm again. Of all the layers you have, your beanie is easily the most easy to take off and put on!
As useful as a knit hat (beanie) is, you really don’t need to spend a lot of money on it. You likely already have one in your closet. If not you can pick one up pretty inexpensively. However, some high-end options include the Smartwool Cuffed Beanie and the Black Diamond NM Merino Beanie.
In more extreme conditions on Kilimanjaro it can be absolutely necessary to cover your face from the cold wind. If left completely exposed, you will start to feel your face (particularly your chin, nose and ears) go numb. And this can even become dangerous on the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro. There are a couple of ways to protect your self from this: either a balaclava or a face buff. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
A balaclava is a mask that almost entirely covers your head and face with the exception of your eyes. (It is not to be confused with a baklava, which is a delicious Greek dessert!). In the US, we often refer to it as a ‘ski mask’. It is usually made of a thicker material like fleece, but you can also find ones made of a thinner polyester material. If your face tends to get very cold or numb in cold weather, this is probably the best option for you.
However, we recommend most people use a simple, thin “tube” of lightweight stretchy material called a “buff” or “neck gaiter”. First, it can be worn at all times around your neck – which offers some neck protection from the cold or from the suns rays. Anytime you encounter cold weather or ice winds, you can simply pull it up and cover your face. You don’t need to remove your hat. You probably don’t even need to stop walking – so you’re always ready.
But the even better reason to opt for a buff instead of a balaclava is that it is also a great way to protect your skin from the bright sun. Yes, of course you will be applying lots of sunscreen and sun-protecting lip balm. But on long days where you’ve been in the sun for many hours, it can be very nice to cover your face and block out the sun altogether. With a proper (very thin) face buff, you can easily cover your face and, because of the thin nature of the material, your face won’t get too hot. Yet, even though it is quite thin, it is surprising effective at blocking out cold wind on your summit day. Another big advantage is that you can easily decide how to pull it up on your face. So if your glasses start to get fogged, you can pull it down slightly. And some buffs can also be worn in the style of a balaclava.
So which do you choose? In generally we recommend going with a face buff. If you are concerned about the cold, go ahead and take a heavier material balaclava as well. You likely won’t need it until your final days, but it never hurts to have it.
These items are pretty easy to find online and certainly don’t require a lot of money. However, some of the higher end options include the Smartwool Balaclava and the Buff Cool net UV.
If you’ve ever been out in the sun for a long period of time, you probably already know the importance of wearing sunglasses. We’ll you’ll be out walking all day outside for about a week of more as you trek up the tallest mountain in Africa. So, don’t even think about stepping out on your journey without a good pair of sunglasses. The big question is whether you should purchase a special type of sunglasses called “glacier glasses”. Some guides will absolutely require you to, while other guides may not. So check with your guiding company if you aren’t sure.
It will help to understand what glacier glasses are. To the average person they just look like sunglasses. And indeed they are sunglasses! And just like almost all sunglasses, they block both UV-A and UV-B sunrays from damaging your eyes. However, glacier glasses have a few features that most sunglasses don’t have.
First, the lenses on glacier glasses are dark. Really dark. In fact glacier glasses, by definition, only allow about 6% of visible light through them (as opposed to regular glasses that let 20% or more light pass through them). In optical terms they are considered filter class 4, which make them perfect for traveling on glaciers but illegal to drive with in the USA. On the plus side, you will not have to squint at all on bright days in the snow.
Glacier glasses also have either side shields or large wrap-around frames that fully cover your vision and prevent any unfiltered light from hitting your eyes. Without this feature, very bright light (including harmful rays) will “leak” into your eyes through the space on the sides or under your eyes and can cause harmful damage to your eyes.
So – the big question – do you need glacier glasses on Kilimanjaro? Well, if you plan on doing any other climbing on snow or glaciers, yes you absolutely should. All of the other Seven Summits and just about any mountaineering trip will require it. However, most of your hiking on Kilimanjaro will not be on snow. In fact, with a few exceptions, you likely won’t encounter snow until summit day (or perhaps the day before). So if Kilimanjaro is your last ‘big mountain’ experience, you can just go with a good pair of sunglasses. Just be sure they block UV sunrays and opt for larger frames that cover your eyes fully. This will save you quite a bit of money on official glacier glasses.
If you do decide to go with glacier glasses, some high-end options include the many frame options from Julbo and the Revo Traverse.
Another optional item to bring is goggles. You would likely only use them in extreme wind or cold, which you are most likely to encounter on your summit day. If you bring them, opt for a darker lens and one that blocks out UV-A and UV-B rays. You most likely won’t need this item, but if you already have some (from snow skiing or other activities), it doesn’t hurt to pack them.
A headlamp is simply a small flashlight that is connected to a strap that goes around your head. It allows you to see in the dark while still having full use of both of your hands (unlike when you use a standard flashlight). This will be a critical item on summit day when you will undoubtedly leave camp to start hiking in the late evening or very early morning when it is still dark. Because the terrain is very rocky on that last day (and eventually turns to snow/ice), you will need both hands available to use your trekking poles.
The headlamp will also be useful each night while you are in camp. You won’t need it while you eat, since you will eat in a dining tent that has lights, but you will need it to get from your tent to the restroom or dining tent.
If you’ve already been camping or hiking, you may already have one of these items. If not, you will want to get one. How much you spend depends on whether you believe you will be mountaineering again in the future. Even if you aren’t, it is a handy gadget to have around the house. Some people use them in the attic or even while cooking/grilling outside in the dark!
The most factors to consider are to ensure the light is bright enough for hiking in pitch dark, is water resistant against rainstorms and uses replaceable batteries (vs. rechargeable).
Make sure you get a headlamp with LED bulbs, which are very bright and very efficient with batteries. Many will have different brightness settings, which can be handy since you don’t always need your light shining at 100%. This not only drains your batteries faster, but also tends to blind other people in your camp when you inadvertently shine it in their eyes. Look for a headlamp that has at least 200 lumens on its brightest setting, which you will want to use on summit day when you need the extra light. You should get a lamp that is at least weather resistant in case it rains while you are using it. However it doesn’t need to be water proof (which generally adds weight to headlamp as well as costing more money). Headlamps will have an “IPX Rating” which ranges from 1 (not water resistant) to 8 (completely waterproof). Anything rated at IPX 4 will work great on Kilimanjaro.
Most headlamps run on replaceable batteries such as AAA or AA batteries (we prefer models that use AAA batteries because they are considerably lighter). This offers much more flexibility in remote areas like Kilimanjaro. Many people are opting for a rechargeable headlamp and using a power brick ((LINK)) to recharge the headlamp after use. Given that most rechargeable headlamps will give 8 or more hours of use before needing to be recharged this may seem like a good option.
However, we still recommend a lamp with replaceable batteries (AAA). The reason is that headlamps often get accidently turned on while in your backpack or duffle bag. And given the rule of Murphy’s Law, this will inevitably happen on summit day! If your headlamp uses replaceable batteries, all you need to do is replace them with your spare batteries and you’re ready to hike! However, if you have the rechargeable kind you may need to wait hours for it to charge.
And don’t forget to take extra batteries! We recommend having a fully charged set in the headlamp and taking 2 extra sets with you.
There are hundreds of headlamp models available and most any model that has 200+ lumens will work just fine. Higher end options include those by Black Diamond or Petzl.