Training for Mount Kilimanjaro
Am I physically fit enough to climb Kilimanjaro?
This is possibly the most common question people ask about climbing Kilimanjaro. And, unfortunately, many that dream of climbing one of the world’s Seven Summits decide not to do so because they don’t think they are in shape enough. However, believe us in saying that you do NOT need to be a honed endurance athlete to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro! But you do need to prepare yourself both physically and mentally. And – the better shape you are in, the more fun you will have on the climb.
It is important to know that Kilimanjaro requires no special equipment or climbing skills. In fact, you do not “climb” Mount Kilimanjaro…you simply hike it! If you can walk, you can do it! However, it is A LOT of walking – likely more than you typically do. More importantly, you are generally walking uphill so you must factor that in. Finally, as you go further and further up the mountain, it gets harder and harder to breathe due to the higher elevation. So the more physically fit you are, the easier it will be and the more fun you will have.
Depending on your route, you should be prepared to hike uphill each day for 5-7 hours ascending somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 feet (500-1000 m). The last day is likely to be more elevation gain and is by far your longest and hardest day, but you will be better acclimatized to the elevation.
Do I need to hit the gym?
I am happy to tell you that you do NOT need to go to the gym (unless of course you want to!). You also do not need to jog, run or do other cardio-intense activities that make you huff and puff. Again, if you love doing that, great! It will certainly help you on Kilimanjaro. But it is not a requirement. That is not to say you don’t need to put in some big effort to properly prepare yourself physically.
Walk as much as possible
By far the best way to prepare for your Kilimanjaro climb is to get out there and hike! I know, it sounds almost too simple. But walking is really the best way to get yourself ready for a Kilimanjaro trip. But you need to walk A LOT. And UPHILL. And WITH WEIGHT. Your body needs to get used to walking for many hours a day for many days in a row.
We recommend you start training a few months before your trip by steadily increasing your daily walking routine. Work your way up until you can walk for 5-7 hours at a time and still feel good the next morning so that you can do it again. If possible, go on a trail hike where the ground is uneven to get your body used to it. If you can do 7+ hours on a Saturday, then 7+ hours the next day and not be limping at work on Monday morning, you’ve made great strides towards a successful Kilimanjaro summit.
Hike with your gear
We STRONGLY recommend getting a good sturdy pair of hiking shoes/boots several months before your trip. If you don’t have a trusty pair of hiking shoes, here are some tips on what to buy. As you work your way towards walking 7+ hours a day, be sure to wear the shoes you plan to take to Kilimanjaro.
You will also need a good backpack. The type you need is typically called a “daypack” because it only needs to carry the things you need during your daily walk. You should do your training walks with this backpack and about 15-20 pounds (7-9 kg) of stuff inside (water bottles, food, sunblock, etc.). This will get you used to carrying that extra weight on your back.
The uphill battle
Once you feel comfortable doing several hours of walking in your hiking shoes and with your weighted daypack, you need to start training your body to go uphill. This is where the huffing and puffing begins. If you live in an area with mountains (or even hilly terrain), go out there and hike it! Ultimately you need to simulate walking about 3000-4000 feet (1000+ m) in elevation gain per day of walking. Since not everyone is blessed with living next to large mountains of this size, you may need to get creative.
If you live in any kind of hilly terrain, use it! For instance if you live near a mountain that has an elevation gain of 500 feet (150 m), just go up and down it about 6 times. That will get your body ready for the job it must do on Kilimanjaro.
If you live in a flat area, we highly recommend incorporating stair climbing into your workouts. Any stairs will do: stairwells in buildings, outdoor bleachers, outdoor buildings with stairs, etc. You should walk the stairs with your selected hiking boots and weighted daypack as well. While you do not need to climb stairs for 7 hours in the day (unless that’s something you really enjoy!), you need to get some stair climbing in. And yes, you will be huffing and puffing for air at first. But you will eventually get to the point where you can continuously climb the stairs at a steady pace for a long period of time.
Slow versus Fast
While every Kilimanjaro trip is unique, there is one thing we can guarantee you will hear from your guide: “Pole, Pole!” Pole means “Slowly” in Swahili. Yes, unlike the guides of the other Seven Summits who demand you to move as quickly as possible, your Kilimanjaro guide will be constantly reminding you to go slow! Part of this is to help prevent you from getting altitude sickness. Another reason is to ensure you don’t exert your energy too soon and “burn out”. Another very worthy reason is that they want you to enjoy the experience and take in the beautiful scenery!
That being said, for your preparatory training, it is always a great idea to workout harder/faster than you will need on the mountain. So when you do your walking and stair climbing, we recommend you do it at as fast of a pace as you can for a sustained amount of time. For you hardcore workout types, doing some High Intensity Interval Training will do wonders. However, for us normal people, you just need to get yourself used to going a quick steady pace for a long time. A good way to know how fast you should go is to try talking while you are walking. If you can easily talk without losing your breath, you should be going a little faster. If you can barely speak a few words because you can’t catch your breath, you are probably going faster than you need.
Prepare for your hardest day on Kilimanjaro
While we don’t want to frighten you about your Kilimanjaro trek, we also want to let you know about “Summit Day” and all the wonderment and agony it entails!
As far as physical exertion, the day you make the attempt to reach the very top of Kilimanjaro will be like no other. Depending on your route, most days will consist of a nice, slow uphill walk after a good hearty breakfast during the morning hours when the sun is shining, the birds are singing and everyone is chatting and singing together. Please note: your summit day is not like this!
Your summit day will likely consist of you waking up in the middle of the night. Depending on your route and the weather forecast, this could be as early as 11p. It will be cold and dark and you will begin your journey at a high elevation (perhaps near 16,000 feet (4,800 m). So you start off with very little oxygen. And the air just continues to get thinner and colder as you climb.
The day will likely include the most elevation gain of your trip and the air will certainly have less oxygen then you’ve had on your previous days. However, you will be moving “Pole” (Swahili for “slowly”) every step of the way. And, fortunately, there is no rush to get to the top. Steady and slow wins the race!
Once you’ve summited, taken some photos and congratulated each other on the achievement of a lifetime, you then start hiking down. And down. And down some more! Depending on your route you may even descend as much as 7,000 feet (2,100 m). And that’s after you just went up 3,500 feet (1050 m)! No matter how you cut it, it’s a LONG day.
This is why it is so critical to do those long, multi day workouts. Don’t skimp on those. Your body will thank you.