Climbing Kilimanjaro is the ultimate adventure and there are many routes to help you reach the summit.
In this article, our main focus will be on the more off-the-beaten-track options that offer an alternative to the six traditional Kilimanjaro routes.
The six traditional routes are: Machame, Marangu, Lemosho, Shira, Rongai and Umbwe.
You can read more about these on this blog.
However, if you are interested in taking some of the more adventurous or offbeat routes, then the main ones we focus on in this blog are the Northern Circuit, Grand Traverse and even some of the traditional routes that also include detours to Lava Tower or Crater Camp.
Some of the routes we discuss in this blog also include a pre-acclimatization climb to either Mount Kenya or Mount Meru. Mount Meru is the second highest mountain in Tanzania and is located in Arusha, an hour’s drive from Kilimanjaro. This mountain is often referred to as Kilimanjaro’s little brother.
On the other hand, Mount Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya and at 5,199 meters it is the second-highest in Africa after Kilimanjaro and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
A pre-acclimatization climb of either mountain provides you with a unique opportunity to warm up and pre-acclimatize to the high altitude before attempting to scale Africa’s highest mountain.
However, the routes which include these pre-acclimatization climbs are only recommended for very fit climbers who can handle long days of hiking on different mountains.
Regardless of which route you take, there are a number of other things you need to consider before you climb, such as the altitude profile, length and difficulty.
In this blog, we will discuss why altitude acclimatization is one of the most important considerations when selecting a route, and then we will look at some of the easiest Kilimanjaro routes, outside of the six traditional ones, followed by the most challenging.
Read on to discover everything you need to know when choosing an offbeat route to climb Kilimanjaro.
What to consider before selecting a Kilimanjaro route
No two routes are the same.
The routes on Kilimanjaro vary by length, duration, difficulty, scenery, altitude profile, accessibility, and (lack of) facilities. The better a route scores on all these criteria, the more popular it is.
Popularity is great if you like to share your experience with many other climbers and make lots of new friends. It's also great if you're looking for an affordable climbing package. If solitude and wilderness are what you're looking for, then the most popular routes may not be your best choice.
So it is important to be clear on what your expectations and abilities are before choosing a route.
The importance of choosing a Kilimanjaro route with a good altitude profile
As previously mentioned, altitude profile is one of the most important considerations when selecting a route. For example, some of the routes such as the Northern Circuit and the Grand Traverse give you more time to acclimatize. On the other hand, challenging 5 or 6 day routes such as the Umbwe route, are only recommended for people experienced mountaineers that are used to hiking at high altitude.
However, if you are not an experienced mountaineer, or you are not used to high altitude climbing, then we recommend you climb for at least 7-8 days.
So you may be wondering, what is altitude sickness and why is it such an important consideration when it comes to choosing a Kilimanjaro route?
A common question that many new climbers ask is 'what is altitude sickness?'
Altitude sickness is the side effect caused by exposure to high altitudes. As a person reaches higher altitudes, the air contains less oxygen which begins to negatively affect the human body.
Symptoms usually develop from around 2,500 meters of altitude.
Extreme cases can include fluid build up in the brain characterized by loss of coordination, confusion, inability to walk and even coma. If left untreated, AMS can be lethal.
Although most climbers will be affected by altitude sickness in some way, there are ways to reduce its impact.
The so-called 3 golden rules of altitude acclimatization will help you acclimatize naturally in order to reduce the discomforts and risks associated with altitude sickness. The golden rules are:
- Take your time: Choose a route that allows you to ascend slowly over multiple days, and walk slowly during the day.
- Stay hydrated: Drink at least 2-3 liters of water every day, or more if in combination with dehydrating substances such as diamox or caffeine.
- Walk high, sleep low: Sleep at a lower altitude at night than you've climbed during the day. Some routes offers such a beneficial altitude profile.
What are the best offbeat routes for an authentic wilderness experience?
If you are after a more challenging and true wilderness experience, then the Northern Circuit is one of the best routes you can take.
The Northern Circuit is the longest route on Kilimanjaro, so it gives you plenty of time to acclimatize.
Together with the Grand Traverse, the Northern Circuit is the only route that circumvents the peak on the northern slopes, providing the most authentic wilderness experience away from the crowds and offers 360° degree views of the peak and afar.
The route offers plenty of opportunities to acclimatize to the high altitude and therefore also has a very high summit success chance. Even though it is the longest route, it might as well be one of the easiest!
For an even more challenging twist to this climb, the Northern Circuit can be combined with a detour to Lava Tower or Crater Camp, which will also give you longer to acclimatize. For truly adventurous and physically fit climbers, the Northern Circuit can also be combined with Mount Meru and Mount Kenya.
The Grand Traverse is the most luxurious route to climb Kilimanjaro. It is ideal if you value privacy and authentic wilderness away from the crowds. It offers stunning 360° degree views of the peak. You'll also be able to peer across into Tanzania and Kenya.
Starting in the west along the Shira Route, the Grand Traverse then circumvents the peak on the northern slopes. It approaches the summit from the east and descends in the south. This provides you with an authentic wilderness experience.
The biggest difference with the Northern Circuit is that climbers on the Grand Traverse get driven up to a fairly high altitude of 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) on their first day, along with the old Shira evacuation route. This makes it a shorter and less challenging variation.
Choosing between the Northern Circuit and Lemosho
The biggest difference between the Lemosho and Northern Circuit routes on Mount Kilimanjaro is the way they circumvent the peak. Both start in the west of the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, at Lemosho Gate, and are identical for the first two to four days (depending on the variation).
On the Shira plateau, or latest at Lava Tower, they split: The Lemosho Route continues along the popular and most scenic southern slopes to join with the Machame Route, while the Northern Circuit branches off to avoid the busy southern circuit and circumvents the peak on the rarely visited northern slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, near Kenya.
In terms of difficulty, we consider both routes roughly equal. At 72km (44mi) of total length, Lemosho is a little shorter than the Northern Circuit, which is the longest route on Kilimanjaro.
Depending on its variation (8 or 9 days, including or excluding an acclimatization detour to Lava Tower), the Northern Circuit has a total length of 80km (49mi) to 94km (58mi).
Therefore, the Northern Circuit takes one more day to complete: While Lemosho can be completed in 7 or 8 days, the Northern Circuit takes 8 or 9 days.
The average distance covered per day, however, is 9-10km for both routes. Therefore, even though the Northern Circuit is longer overall, we do not consider it to be more difficult.
In terms of acclimatization and summit success chance, we don't see a major difference as both routes have a very high summit success chance (read the golden rules of altitude acclimatization).
Best route for the ultimate adventure
The recommendations below are not an exhaustive list but will give you an idea of what routes are available for the most adventurous and strongest climbers that are accustomed to high altitude climbing.
If you are looking for the ultimate adventure, the following routes and itinerary variations may offer you exactly the kind of unique experience that feels right to you:
- Combine your Kilimanjaro climb with an overnight stay at the Crater Camp, sleeping next to one of Kilimanjaro’s last remaining glaciers
- Combine your Kilimanjaro climb with a pre-acclimatization climb on Mount Kenya (or Mount Meru), scaling two of East Africa’s highest peaks in one go
- 8 - 14 days (depending on routes)
- Best for very fit climbers
- Attempt a 5-day speed-climb on the steep & challenging Umbwe Route
- Only for extremely fit climbers
- Very scenic route, but poor acclimatization
- Only recommendable if you have pre-acclimatized to the thin air, otherwise there is a fairly high risk of not reaching the summit due to AMS (independent of your level of fitness)
Challenging routes to avoid
We do not recommend the Western Breach route. Due to the unnecessary risks associated with the Western Breach, we highly recommend climbers to consider alternative routes. If you are not convinced yet, please make sure to read James Balog’s eyewitness account about the 2015 deadly rockfall incident on National Geographic: Tragedy on Kilimanjaro.
If after educating yourself thoroughly about the risks involved you still wish to ascend to the summit via the Western Breach, please make sure to only book with a responsible tour operator who can provide you with a well-trained and experienced guide.
Please request a referral from us, and we will recommend the best tour operators to you for a private climb. As it is important that all group members are of roughly equal physical abilities and mountain experience in order to minimize your risks when climbing the Western Breach, please also note that responsible tour operators will not operate open group climbs for the Western Breach, and we are unable to open such new group climb for you.
The suggestions above are not exhaustive and there are many other variations on the routes we have discussed so far. For many of these routes, the duration can either be extended or shortened and pre-acclimatization climbs can be added, depending on your preferences and physical abilities.
There are also many other options to customize your climb.
We can customize your Kilimanjaro climb to include:
- Any route or itinerary variations, including additional acclimatization days, overnight stays at Crater Camp, and more
- Accommodation before and after your climb, including upgrades to single rooms, premium lodges, and more
- Catering for your dietary requirements (vegetarian, vegan, etc.)
- Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certified mountain guide (included in all our Premium and Luxury/VIP offers)
- Private toilet tent (included in all our Premium and Luxury/VIP offers)
- High-quality sleeping bags, trekking poles and other gear rentals
- Luxury walk-in size sleeping tents with frame beds, soft mattresses and more
- Hot mountain shower (for campsites with nearby water sources)
- Transfer from and to Kilimanjaro or Nairobi international airports
- Combination with a pre-acclimatization climb on Mount Kenya or Mount Meru
- Combination with a wildlife safari or more experiences in the region
- Any other customizations that are available in the market – we can arrange them for you
With so many options available, how do you find your best Kilimanjaro route? Well, one of the most important considerations is your physical fitness and experience.
If you are looking for the ultimate adventure and you are used to high altitude climbing, then some of the most challenging routes may give you the kind of experience you are looking for.
Strong climbers who are particularly adventurous may also benefit from a pre-acclimatization climb to Mount Meru or Mount Kenya as part of their Kilimanjaro climb.
For more inexperienced climbers, we recommend the longer routes with a better altitude acclimatization profile.
There are plenty to choose from, so it’s important to know what your preferences are in terms of scenery, popularity, duration and difficulty.
We’ve covered some of the more challenging and offbeat routes in this blog, but we’ve also covered the six traditional routes in a separate blog, which you can read our guidance.
To learn more about some of our most recommended routes, visit our website.
Finally, for further information about the different routes, Kilimanjaro tours and itineraries, be sure to visit our Climb Kilimanjaro Experience page.