Layering – Upper Body
Your first and last days are less critical in terms of what you wear. You can likely just wear a synthetic (non-cotton) T-shirt and hiking pants/shorts. However, most of the other days on the mountain will require much more thought.
As you plan for what clothing you will take on Kilimanjaro, you should think of your clothing as more of a “system”. Your clothing system should include at least the following layers:
- Sports Bra – For women, your sports bra should be made of synthetic, wicking material (not cotton)
- Base Layer – Sometimes called “long underwear”. This is a thin moisture-wicking shirt that is typically long sleeve
- Light Insulation Layer – This is a slightly thicker material that could be in the form of a jacket (aka “Soft shell”) or pullover-style fleece/polyester sweatshirt.
- Medium Insulation Layer – This is generally a jacket with isolative material like down or some other synthetic such as a “puffy” jacket.
- Hard Shell – This is a thin jacket that is worn for the sole purpose of keeping rain or snow off of you. Often simply referred to as a “rain jacket”.
- Parka – This is a thick jacket with lots of insulation. It is rarely worn when hiking, but rather used when you are on break or in camp.
Women can opt for any type of bra they choose as long as it is not cotton. Many women prefer a sports bra style that is thin and made of wicking fabric. This is important as you will likely be wearing may layers on top of it.
This is a very lightweight highly moisture wicking top layer that will sit directly on your skin. If you are on a lower budget, you might opt to use the top part of a “long underwear” set. We recommend choosing a light color (not dark or black) as you will likely end up hiking in only this layer at some point and you want it to reflect the sun.
On days where you do a lot of vertical gain and end up sweating more, this will likely be the only top layer you wear while hiking. The base layer should be long sleeve to protect your skin from the sun and also to provide a small layer of protection against cold wind. It is quite versatile in that you can roll up the sleeves if you get too hot or pull them down when it gets cold. Some base layer tops have a zipper that comes down about a quarter of the top’s length, which can be useful to unzip if you start to get hot or sweaty. It can also be handy to find a base layer with a hood, which will help block out the sun from your head and neck.
Above all the layer should be comfortable – not too tight and not too loose. It should be made of light, moisture wicking material, fast drying, light colored and not cotton.
A few high-end options are the Patagonia Capilene and the Bight Solstice Graphene.
This layer adds warmth to your clothing system, while still being breathable and wearable during high exertion while you are working hard. It could take the form of a pull-over style sweatshirt or could also be a light “soft shell” jacket. Materials will vary, but often come in the form of fleece, merino wool or similar style material. Look for something with a zipper to help regulate your heat without constantly having to put on or take off the layer. You will wear this layer frequently while you are hiking especially after the first couple of days. Be sure to try this layer on with your base layer to ensure it is comfortable and not too tight.
A few high end options are the Patagonia R1 and the Mountain Hardwear Microchill.
This layer is typically worn above the light insulation layer and is always in the form of a fully zippered jacket. The layer’s purpose is warmth and insulation. It could be in the form of a think fleece-type material, but more often is made from a light synthetic material that is packed with insulation material like feathered down or a synthetic version of down. People often refer to this layer as ‘puffy jackets’. We like the insulated (puffy) jacket option better than fleece primarily because they pack down to a very small size and are very easy to carry in your day pack and retrieve when needed.
Having this jacket with a full zipper allows you to regulate the temperature and more easily remove it if you start getting sweaty. We recommend having a hood on the jacket, but it is not critical. Be sure to try on this jacket with the other layers since some people need to purchase a larger size in order for it to comfortably fit.
Some high-end options are the Patagonia Nano Puff and Mountain Hardwear Super Chockstone.
This layer is purely to protect you from the rain (or rain/snow mix). It can also be useful on very windy days where the cold wind cuts through your lower layers. There are a lot of rain jackets out there – many of which have layers of warmth combined with the ability to repel rain. While these jackets work very well on their own, they don’t tend to work well with your overall system. For this reason we highly recommend you find a “shell”. It will usually be very thin and serves the sole purpose of keeping rain and snow off you.
The jacket should be fully zippered an include a hood. The hood should have the ability to tighten around your face (usually by pulling some strings or straps on either side). This will aid in keeping the rain from dripping down the front of your jacket onto your other layers.
The jacket should be made of a nylon material that is waterproof but still lets your skin breath so that you don’t overheat. They are usually made from materials such as Gore-Tex, eVent, Dry Q or WetherEdge. The name brand of this layer is probably less important than the material it is made of. Gore-Tex is one of the top options for the budget minded who still want a great jacket.
Definitely try on your jacket with all of your other layers to ensure it fits properly (you may need a size higher than your typical size).
Some high-end options include Oregon Research Interstellar and the Mammut Norwand Advanced.
Some guides do not require guests to carry this layer, but we strongly recommend it for the upper portions of the mountain (especially summit day). Unlike your other layers, you will rarely wear your parka while you are hiking. Instead, you use it immediately when you take breaks during colder days. Here is the scenario.
You are on the upper portion of the mountain (above 15,000 feet) and the temperature is cold (perhaps near freezing). However, you are working hard and hiking up steep hills, so you may only be wearing your base layer of clothing to avoid over heating. However, you will inevitably need to take a break at some point and sit down for a snack and to drink some water. During that time, your body rapidly starts to cool down as your breathing returns to normal and you stop sweating. It is likely you will start getting cold within just a minute or two of sitting down.
One option for you is to start putting on all of your other layers including your 2 insulation layers and maybe even your hardshell layer to keep you cold while you sit. You have now spent several minutes of your break putting on clothing instead of resting. Furthermore, when it is time to get up and start hiking again, you will need to shed all three of those layers again.
The other option? Carry a thick, down parka and throw it on immediately when you take a break. It will help you retain all of that heat you’ve built up and immediately keep you warm. Climbers in the know even put snacks in their parka pockets knowing they will be putting on the parka immediately during breaks. The convenience factor alone is worth having a parka. It is also great insurance to have just in case it gets very unusually cold (which is not uncommon on big mountains like Kilimanjaro).
The only downside to a parka is that they can be quite expensive. You might look into renting one either in Tanzania or from a local outlet.
The parka should be an expedition-style parka that has an insulated hood and generally extends down below the waist. They are usually quite thick but can be stuffed easily into a pack (or even folded up into its own hood for a great pillow at night!). We do recommend natural down as opposed to synthetic primarily because down is very light. The jacket does not need to be waterproof, as it is generally worn at higher elevations where it would likely be snowing as opposed to raining (and your hard shell can be used over it if absolutely necessary).
Finding the right parka can be a complex journey. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, you will see two numbers associated with a down jacket. The first number is refereed to as the “fill” and could be something like “300 fill” on the lower end side and “850 fill” on the higher end side. This number represents the quality of the down itself. While it is important, the more critical number to look for is the “fill weight”. This represents how much actual insulated down is put inside the jacket. Companies do often not tout this number but it is critical to know.
You should look for a mountaineering parka with about 200-300g of high quality down (600+ fill) that has an insulated hood that can pull to tighten and long enough to go past your waist. Large pockets are a plus as well.
Some high-end options include Mountain Hardwear Nilas and Bight Caldera Parka.