Practical hints for hiking in East Africa

by Ben Crowell

This page gives some practical advice for people who want to hike on Mt. Kenya and Kilimanjaro.

Sources of information

Where to go

Consider going to Mt. Kenya instead of, or in addition to, Kilimanjaro. Advantages of Mt. Kenya over Kilimanjaro: It's much more scenic. You can get all around the mountain with minimal or no support, which allows you a free and self-directed experience. It's less popular than Kilimanjaro, so there's more solitude. It's much, much cheaper.

For a self-directed hike, don't underestimate the time it takes to hike places. You will be spending time hiking on trails that are as high as the summit of Mt. Whitney, so you may be slower than normal by a factor of two. The summit circuit on Mt. Kenya is often not a real trail, and sometimes involves traversing talus slopes. For this type of hike, try to get detailed information on huts and campsites before leaving. For example, on Mt. Kenya it turned out that tent camping was not practical at the Austrian hut, which was sited in an area consisting of jagged rocks half-covered with snow. The Austrian Hut was quite nice and comfy, but I very nearly didn't have enough money to pay for it. Some huts, such as Minto's Hut, may be fine to sleep in at some times (I did), but too crowded in high season.

On Kilimanjaro, focus on the number of days, not on the route (Machame, etc.). The common routes all feed together anyway, so they're not that different. Kilimanjaro is not that scenic in general, so don't worry about whether route A is more scenic than route B. The main issue is how many days you'll have to acclimatize. More days means a greater probability of success. To maximize that probability, you want a trip that involves a total of 6 to 8 days on the mountain.

On Kilimanjaro, most people sleep at Barafu Camp, wake up around 11 pm, and start up to the summit at midnight. It's one thing if the snow conditions warrant this (so that you can hike up on firm rather than soft snow), but the main purpose seems to be to allow you to see the sun rise from the summit. I would recommend trying to avoid doing it this way. I started up at midnight and summited at 5 am, which meant that if I had wanted to be on the summit during daylight, I would have had to wait there for a couple of hours -- not a great idea given the cold and windy conditions. Some other people who summited that day had guides who started them up at 2 am, which seems like a better idea to me.


The following is not meant to be a complete equipment list.

Equatorial Africa, unlike the Sierra in the summer, has only 12 hours of daylight. You will spend a lot of time sitting in your tent while it's dark outside. Bring lots and lots of extra batteries for your headlamp. CR2032 batteries are not easy to obtain in stores in East Africa. If you start up to the summit of Kilimanjaro at midnight, you will need 7 hours of headlamp life for that as well. Bring reading material.

Bring snow gaiters, which serve three purposes: keeping snow out of your boots, keeping mud off of your pants, and helping to keep your legs warm on summit day.

Bring both an umbrella and a gore-tex rain suit. The umbrella is a more comfortable way to deal with rain in equatorial heat at low elevations. The rain pants also function as an extra layer for warmth on summit day. The rain jacket helps in the low alpine zone, where you may be hiking in freezing rain.

Bring three layers of wool plus a down jacket, earplugs, sunglasses, a headlamp, extra soap and toilet paper, and a watch with an alarm. I found microspikes helpful on Kilimanjaro between Stella Point and Uhuru Peak, and inadequate when summiting Pt. Lenana on Mt. Kenya, where I would have felt much better with real crampons. An ice ax was necessary for safety (to cut steps) in my opinion in the conditions we encountered on the normal route on Pt. Lenana, and my guide didn't own one, so it was necessary that I had brought one from home.

It can be a challenge to attach your ice ax to your pack in such a way that it will go through airport baggage handling without destruction. Although LAX supplied me with a big plastic bag to put the whole thing in, the staff at the Geneva airport refused to do so because of environmental rules, and I doubt that bags are available in African airports. I ended up using packing tape to wrap up the ice ax and the straps of my pack so that they couldn't catch on anything or cut anything up. When returning home from Africa, I went to a store and bought my own packing tape. With hindsight, I wish I had just made a gift of the ax to my guide, since climbing equipment is not affordable at all for folks there.

For an organized, highly supported trip of the type that most people take on Kilimanjaro, don't bring your own tent, water sanitizing equipment, an ice ax, food, mosquito repellent, or mosquito netting. I brought my own tent on Kilimanjaro because Burns recommended it for privacy, but my guide rejected it as being too small to allow me to comfortably eat inside of.

There are zero mosquitoes at mountain elevations during the dry season. Almost all hotels provide beds with mosquito netting, so there is no need to bring your own. Close the door to the bathroom at night, since bathroom windows are not designed to close tightly.

It's advantageous to be able to carry all of your gear on your back while riding on the back of a motorbike, and to be able to sit with it in your lap for two hours or more on a minibus without excessive discomfort. If you're doing a supported hike with a porter carrying your pack, there will be a weight limit.

Styles of hikes

The default style for tourists doing Kilimanjaro is an extremely strictly organized trip with guides, porters, and cooks. The food is incredibly luxurious compared to anything you've ever experienced on a normal backpacking trip in the US. The pace is agonizingly slow for anyone who has any experience hiking or any decent level of physical conditioning. Legally, you are required to have at least a guide on Kilimanjaro. Without porters, I would have found it difficult to carry all my cold weather gear plus six days' food.

On Mt. Kenya, I had a lot of fun with a style of hiking where I only hired a guide, and each of us carried his own equipment and food. The only legal requirement is that for safety, a single person can't walk through the national park gate alone. (You can walk in through the national forest alone, and I did that.) Going unguided (with a hiking partner) on Mt. Kenya is an option, but you would need to be prepared to navigate through thick fog, and there are many places where the trails shown on the topo maps are not actually maintained trails but cross-country routes (e.g., across talus fields).

Hiring support

As far as I can tell, there is very little point in booking a trip from the US. It's absurdly easy to book a trip. At the village of Chogoria, which is the gateway to the Chogoria route on Mt. Kenya, everybody is a farmer, but essentially every male is also a porter or guide in the high season when he can get work. In the town of Moshi, the main starting point for Kilimanjaro, you can't walk up and down the main street without constantly being subjected to persistent come-ons from safari touts. Some guides speak much better English than others, and this is impossible to judge if you book from home. My Kilimanjaro guide told me it was possible to book a trip in Moshi the day before, and Cameron Burns says in his guidebook that in high season you can usually book a day or two before. A few days of downtime in a nice town like Moshi are very restful after you've just wiped yourself out with several days of travel, and it gives you a chance to experience the culture, do laundry, get over jet lag, practice a few words of Swahili, etc.

Although I've heard horror stories about people coming to East Africa in the past and ending up with incompetent guides (the taxi driver who needs extra money and has never been on the mountain,...) as far as I can tell this is no longer an issue. On both Mt. Kenya and Kilimanjaro, guides are not allowed through the gate unless they have an ID card showing that they are certified as mountain guides. This certification seems to involve climbing the mountain some large number of times as a porter plus (at least on Kilimanjaro) significant formal education.

Guides know the mountain but are only human. They are likely to be ill-equipped, since, for example, a pair of crampons costs as much as many Africans make in six months or a year. My guide got altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro, so another guy had to lead me to the summit. My guide on Mt. Kenya didn't have gloves, sufficient warm clothes, or enough food.

The following Kilimanjaro guide services are recommended by Kilimanjaro National Park warden Matthew Mombo: ZARA, MJ Safaris, Shah Tours and Travel. People on Summitpost have recommended the following: Corto Safaris, Expeditions, Good Earth Tours, Climbing Kilimanjaro. I used ZARA, booked from the US, and paid $1450 plus $250 in tips and $80 for dinner and drinks for my guide, porters, and cook. ZARA was great in general, but they would only sell me a trip that included a night's stay in the Riverside Hotel, which they own. This hotel, despite the idyllic name, is a walled compound several miles outside of town, surrounded by dirt and dust. Most of the people on the trip flew in from Europe, were bused from the airport to the Riverside Hotel, and never set foot anywhere else in Africa besides the trails on Kilimanjaro.

On Mt. Kenya, I used Tony Mugambi's service for the Chogoria route. Tony's company was recommended to me by David K.N., the manager of the Transit Motel in Chogoria. My guide, Eliphas, did a great job. I paid $256 plus a $35 tip, for transport plus three days of guiding. The park fee was an additional $270, a night at the bandas at the Chogoria Gate was $15, and a night at the Austrian Hut was $14.


Money can be a huge hassle. I brought an ATM card, a Visa, and a Mastercard, and notified the issuers in advance that I would be traveling in Africa. All three cards failed at the first five ATMs I tried in the first town I hit in Kenya -- sometimes because the ATM was down, sometimes because that bank didn't support the network that that card was on, sometimes for unknown reasons. I never found any business in East Africa that accepted plastic of any kind, so the credit cards were only of use for getting cash advances from ATMs. The card issuers told me there would be foreign transaction charges, but I didn't find out until I got home that the charges had been $10 per transaction. One of my card issuers allowed me to use my card in Africa, as I had notified them I would, but set a $1 limit on withdrawals. Some tourist businesses want to be paid in dollars rather than local currency, which requires going to a forex shop.

Near the end of my trip, someone charged $1200 on my ATM card in Mombasa, a city I had never visited. Apparently I was a victim of a sophisticated type of scam called "skimming," in which crooks install card readers on ATMs and use pinhole cameras to record the victim's keystrokes as he types in his PIN. Skimming is common at gas stations in the US. One countermeasure is to cover your hand while typing in your PIN. Most banks give you 60 days to report debit card fraud if the card is still in your possession, but only 2 days if it was physically stolen.

Forex shops may give you US bills that businesses will reject because they were issued before a certain date, and they may also give you piles of $1 bills, which trade at a much lower rate if you have to change them back later. When crossing the border from Kenya to Tanzania, I found it impossible to change my Kenyan shillings to Tanzanian shillings in the town I was in; I had to change them to dollars and then change the dollars to Tanzanian money after getting to Tanzania.

Almost nobody accepts travelers' checks, although they may be useful in a big city as an emergency fallback.

Getting around East Africa

When crossing a border in Africa, tag along with someone who knows what they are doing. You will find yourself in a large, chaotic area, with big rigs pulling in and out and various scammers trying to take advantage of you. Your bus disappears, and you have to get through two customs houses (departure and entry) before finding the bus again. Fix in your mind what your bus and driver look like, and don't fall for other people who claim to be working for the bus company.

Avoid boarding a minibus (matatu, dalla-dalla) when it's empty, because it won't leave until it's full, which may be as much as two hours later. Make sure you know when you're supposed to get off. Don't get on a minibike without negotiating a price first.

There are four classes of buses: local minibus, express minibus, large bus (such as Kensilver), and long-distance shuttle (such as Marangu and Impala). The long-distance shuttles are the only ones that have storage space for luggage, and I think they're the only ones for which you can buy tickets in advance. The large buses and shuttles have scheduled departure times. A local minibus can be hailed from pretty much anywhere along its route, e.g., from the highway near Chogoria. On a minibus, you will have to carry your luggage in your lap (because they never go anywhere unless full of passengers, including people sitting on fold-down seats in the aisle). On a large bus, it may be possible to put your luggage in the aisle.

In Moshi, there is a very nice tourist map, which you can get in some gift shops.