Five Distinct Climate Zones of Kilimanjaro
A key factor that makes climbing Kilimanjaro such a unique experience is the many different climate zones you pass through on your journey. There are 5 very distinct zones that you will travel through, from the farmlands of the lower countryside all the way to the arctic cap. Perhaps even more amazing is that you experience all of these climates while being located very close to the equator (just south of it). So it is like hiking from the tropics all the way to the arctic in just matter of a week.
Because the climate zones are primarily based on elevation, they each circle the mountain. So, regardless of which route you take, you will get to experience all of them. Equally remarkable is that you will experience the zones changing very quickly. In some cases, you may turn a corner and see a completely different landscape in front of you. The zones are made distinct by the plants and trees (or lack therof) as well as the temperature.
Although they sometimes go by different names, these are the 5 regions:
- Lower Countryside Slopes: 2,600 feet to 6,000 feet (800m – 1800m). Also known as the Cultivation Zone.
- Montane Forest: 6,000 feet to 9,000 feet (1,800m – 2,800m). Also called the Rainforest Zone.
- Moorland Region: 9,000 feet to 13,000 feet (2,800m – 4,000m). Also called the Heather and Moorland Zone
- Alpine Desert Zone: 13,000 feet to 16,000 feet (4,000m – 5,000m).
- Arctic Zone: 16,000 feet to 19,340 feet (5,000m – 5,895m).
The low hillside of Kilimanjaro is often overlooked, as it is mostly inhabited by villages and farms. But the richness and culture of the region is not to be overlooked! This zone runs from 800 meters to about 1800 meters. So, even the town of Moshi itself falls into this zone.
The farming region is fertile with the soil and water of the mountain towering above. Most of the native plants have long since been cleared for villages and farms to thrive by growing crops of yams, carrots, potatoes, beans, maize, bananas and other crops (did I mention hops for brewing beer?).
Visiting the larger market in Moshi is a must and will give you a good idea of the wonderful crops that are grown in the area.
Do not be alarmed when a vendor asks if they can take you near empty water bottle! They take those bottles and clean them, then use them to fill with cooking oil and sell to customers.
As you venture towards the trailhead on your bus, don’t forget to look out the window. You will see many smaller markets that are available for the locals that live in the area and demonstrate the harmony of society in these smaller areas.
As you go further on your journey you will see some of the protected areas outside the official Kilimanjaro National Park border. These areas are classified as Forest Reserves. Much like in the United States, where there are very restrictive National Parks and less restrictive – but still nationally maintained national forests), the Kilimanjaro forest reserves are available for activities like farming. The government will lease the land to farmers for a period of 20 years for farmers to grow crops. Then after the lease is up, they will grow trees for furniture and other resources.
The first portion of your climb will mostly comprise of the Montane Forest zone or "Rainforest" Zone. This area feels much like a bright green, lively jungle. It runs from about 1800 meters to 2800 meters and includes large trees with broad canopies. The diverse jungle is home to many different plant and animal species. While the northern side of the mountain is generally drier, the Montane forest circumvents the entire volcano.
Take the time to enjoy this section of the hike. You will see large trees with “grandfather’s beard” moss hanging from them and a diverse selection of flowers like albizia, orchids, lemon scented begonias and many different species of ferns. During the day you will see beautiful butterflies and various bird species.
Keep your eyes out for Colobus monkeys with their white capes and long luxurious tails as well as blue monkeys swinging through the trees.
You will likely spend at least one night in this region, so be sure to listen for the diverse nocturnal animals come out for their night life. There are civets (a type of cat), aardvarks, honey badgers and galagos. But you are much more likely to hear their activity than to see them.
You might even catch a friendly blue monkey in one of your camps within this region.
The next region is called the Moorland region and generally is between approximately 2800 meters and 4000 meters. This area is drier and cooler and the large jungle-like trees of the Montane forest give way to with more stunted and shorter vegetation. Amazingly, the transition between the Montane forest and the treeless Moorland region happens within just a few steps.
You will feel a sense of openness as you step out of the shaded jungle. This will leave you much more exposed to the sun, so be sure to add plenty of sunscreen even though you may not feel the heat of the sun because of the elevation. Many hikers will wear a face cover up starting at this point. In addition to the harsh sun, this area can get deceptively cold (below freezing at night) and is often suspect to mists, which bring a chill.
Your guide may also point out beehives in this area among the trees. Keep your eyes out for the beautiful Protea flower, which is the National Flower of Africa.
There are also many long pineapple-looking plants called Lobelia deckenii, which are specific to the Moorlands of East Africa.
From about 4000 m to 5000 m is considered the alpine desert. Here is where you begin to feel the sense of another world. Dry and rocky with gorgeous rock formations that have formed in the lava fields, you feel as if you’ve been deceived being so close to the equator. The air is dry and cold and the sun (and sometimes rain) can be unforgiving. There are no trees present, so climbers are very exposed to the elements.
But do not be deceived, there is much plant life. It is just small and less ostentatious than in other zones. For instance you will see a variety of lichen on the rocks of various colors like yellow, green and orange. You will also see small plants that have learned to adapt to the radical temperature changes that can occur as day turns to night.
While animals rarely take full time refuge here (save some small mice, spiders and insects), they have been known to venture into this area. Even buffalo have been known to roam here mostly to lick the salt and minerals they desperately need from the volcanic rocks.
Depending on your route you may spend multiple days in this region. Enjoy the solace it has to offer and wonder at the amazement of such a place in a tropical region of the world.
The Arctic summit zone makes up the top portion of Kilimanjaro from about 5000m to the peak at 5895m. Here you will feel like you are in the arctic area of the world despite being just south of the equator! Wildlife is almost non-existent and the sun shines down fiercely despite often being bitter cold. It is critical to wear sunglasses and cover your skin since the sun’s radiation is extreme due to the thin air. And remember that your oxygen level is about half of what it was when you started your journey. Winds can be fierce near the peak as well.
However, the extreme conditions do not take away from the experience of seeing the actual crater below you as you pass Stella Point (or Gilman’s Point depending on your route) heading towards Uluru peak. This will be your first look at the actual volcanic crater on Kilimanjaro. Take the time to look at the many glaciers around you.
Watch your footing next to the crater and congratulate yourself on a successful summit at Uhuru Peak!