4 Steps to Plan and Train for Kilimanjaro

“Kilimanjaro? You must have been planning for a long time.”

“How did you train?”

“What should I do four months out?”

Lots of meaty topics to chew through. Let me walk you through 4 steps to help you plan and train for your Kilimanjaro adventure.

  1. Find a good guide.
  2. Medical checkup, vaccines, travel medicine, and insurance.
  3. Exercise and training.
  4. Training for altitude: body and mind.

1. Find a good guide.

We inherited Everlasting Tanzania’s contact details from multiple 20+ person groups who had summited before us – boy, were we lucky to work with this crew. Thanks to our head guide Saidi (summited with us) and his business partner Sam (back-office lead), there was not a thing I would have done differently.

Full crew: 19 trekkers and 79 porters from Everlasting Tanzania. Saidi on far left probably relieved to have gotten us all down intact.
Why start your morning quiet when you warm up for the day with a hearty shake and sing-a-along? Ignore the Confederate flag: former trekkers gift these amazing men souvenirs of all (questionable) sorts

We got in touch with Sam 4 months before departure. The registration and prep processes were smooth: Sam was responsive and sent us resources on how to pack, train, and ready our insurance & medical needs. 

There are many solid travel agents out there, but Everlasting is an outstanding small business which I wholeheartedly recommend (without earning any personal commission). I have thus far referred 3+ personal friends – located in London, San Francisco, and Hong Kong – who are each scheming summit bids.

Feel free to reach out to Saidi at info@everlasting.tz and mention “Melissa Jan 2020 group” as reference or read their TripAdvisor page here.

“Good morning! What would you like to drink?” – Our amazing camp managers. Friends to remember.
Breakfast is served! Vegetarian options available.
We finished our daily breakfast porridge with smiles and only smiles for Saidi.

Since 1991, it has not been possible to climb Kilimanjaro without a registered and licensed guide by government mandate. The average ratio of trekker to porter is 1:4, which matches our experience. More details on the government policy here.

The average 7-day trek costs $2000-3000 depending on your group size. Note that roughly $1000 of this goes to National Park entrance fees. We also chose Everlasting because they are known for paying their crew a fair wage.

2. Medical checkup, vaccines, travel medicine, and insurance.

Pre-departure checkup: I went to my primary doctor for a pre-travel checkup 6 weeks before departure. Inform your doctor and guide of any pre-existing medical conditions, e.g. former ankle sprain, light asthma.

Vaccines: Depending on your shot history, you may be prescribed for: Hepatitis A/B, rabies, tetanus, polio, typhoid, yellow fever, diphtheria. While risk of malaria declines over an altitude of 2000m (6562 ft), travelers with layovers in Kenya should consult their doctor for malaria pills. See Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggestions here.

Above the clouds: Basecamp 5 hours before summit began. From night 2 onward, we slept in freezing or below freezing temperatures every night.

Altitude sickness medicine: The primary drug climbers use to minimize the effects of altitude sickness is Diamox (WebMD page here). My doctor prescribed me 7 days’ worth for pickup from my local pharmacy. My recommended dosage was 250mg (1 tablet) 2x a day, beginning 1 day before ascent. I misunderstood verbal directions from my guide and took half a tablet 2x a day for the first 4 days, before correcting back to 1 tablet 2x a day starting the day before summit. As a result, I felt pretty good by the time we spent consistent hours above 15,000 ft thanks to this “double” dose (oops).

Medical on the mountain: our guides bear 20+ years of summit experience, hand in hand with possible medical issues on the mountain. We had our vitals taken twice a day, before breakfast and before dinner, during our 7-day trek, including systolic, diastolic heart rates and blood oxygen levels. Feelings of nausea or loss of appetite during your first day breaching 4,200-4,500m (roughly 14,000 ft, usually by day 4) is normal. Take it easy and always over-communicate with your guide on how you feel.

Travel Insurance: Make sure your policy covers travel up to or exceeding 6,000m in altitude. My group bought one-off individual policies covering the full dates of travel from a range of reliable providers: Berkshire Hathaway, Global Rescue, etc. Call their hotline to get a quote and get this checked off within 10 minutes.

3. Exercise and training.
1 way to do it out of 100 if you asked 100 climbers.  

Yes, Kilimanjaro is a serious undertaking, but trust me, anyone with average fitness can summit.

This surprises people, but Kili is one of the least technical routes given its enormous height – I estimate 95% walking and 5% scrambling. However, proper training and physical fitness will increase how enjoyable you will feel in one of the most breathtaking (literally) places in the world!

The best form of training is hiking. If your baseline lifestyle is fairly sedentary (i.e. 1 or fewer workouts a week), I suggest starting your training at least 3-4 months out. Hiking is different from running on flat ground because it targets different muscle groups, so aim for ample stair time or trail walking. Progressively amp up your distance and elevation gain by roughly 20% per week. Invest in good hiking shoes and a 25-30L daypack. Break those in at least 3 weeks in advance.

I’d re-emphasize practicing long, slow time on feet while carrying a 5-8 kg daypack (I like to pack light; your porters will carry your 60-90L night pack). My water bladder accounted for 2L of weight daily. To optimize for trekking-specific conditioning, I focused on core, glutes, hips and quads in the gym.  

Roughly 1 month out, if you can hike 5-7 hours over 500-800m (1,600-2,500 ft) comfortably with 15-20 minute breaks mixed in, you are ready to rock and roll!

Remember that the summit bid will be done at night, so invest in a good headlamp (mine died as soon as I began my summit trek – brilliant) and practice one night hike if you can.

Your quads hurting? Look at our porters, the real MVPs who out-climbed us carrying more than double our load. Their fitness and balance blow me away.

4. Training for altitude: the body and mind.

Readying myself for the low-oxygen, high-altitude conditions and building mental discipline for Africa’s highest mountain was key. Living in San Francisco (think sea level), there wasn’t a whole lot of acclimatization I could seriously practice.

1 hour on the way down from summit on Day 6. Conditions changed rapidly on the route but our spirits stayed high, with funny stories to tell after we removed all the ice from our clothes, cheeks and eyebrows.

Air at the top of Uhuru Peak contains half the percentage of oxygen in density as air at sea level. I was training for a half ironman which I competed in 3 weeks prior to my Kili ascent, so my general fitness was in good form. You absolutely do NOT need to replicate this for Kilimanjaro.

In fact, pure cardiovascular fitness is simply not enough. The human body does not function well above 5,000m (15,000 ft), indiscriminate to whether you’re a runner, swimmer, or couched potato.

The key to climbing at altitude involves understanding the science of red blood cells and oxygen transport in our bodies.  Once exposed to high altitude (i.e. 50% oxygen), the watery part of blood plasma decreases to increase the density of red blood cells, making blood thicker (think more viscous caramel vs water) and thus harder for the heart to pump. The heart pumps faster, we breathe harder, and more red blood cells are circulated to compensate.

By this mechanism, Diamox acts to “thin out” blood to counteract the thickening effect without diminishing red blood cell production. This explains why the drug is a diuretic, making everyone take 2-3X pee breaks on medication. Force yourself to go before bedtime, otherwise face the brutal 0-20F midnight repercussions when you de-layer out of your sleeping bag.

In moments when everyone feels tested, take a break. It could be every 200m or every 20 steps. Either is fine.

Enter the time-tested “climb high, sleep low” philosophy. By climbing higher than the previous day and then returning to a lower altitude to sleep, your body creates these additional red blood cells. We repeated this acclimatization ritual between 3,700m to 4,600m (basecamp) for 3 days prior to summit night. It truly, truly helped.

Mental prep: visualize, visualize, visualize. Focus and surround yourself with positive people. These will be lifetime friendships that you form in the mess tent, during your pee breaks, over pain, hot chocolate, and possibly ice and tears. Don’t lose your sense of humor and believe you will summit. I came out of this trek with memories for life.

Comment or message me for additional tips on training your mind, which I’ve accumulated through distance running.

“Climb high sleep low” and hanging out. Each day consisted of 4-10 hours of moving time, which meant we spent a decent chunk of time chilling and getting to know each other.

To conclude

I give credit to my friends, Everlasting Tanzania guides, and numerous excellent travel bloggers for informing my research for this long post.

Please do not consider health-related on this post as medical advice or professional medical treatment. Talk to your doctor for their final say on your case.

How to pack? I will add a bonus post on packing at the end of this Kili series. There are certainly things I would’ve done differently and I’d like to reflect on the full hike through my upcoming posts before I summarize my takeaways.

Day 1 begins in my next post.

Each day’s morning warm-up was no joke.

Thanks for reading,

Melissa

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