How to choose the best Kilimanjaro route | Fair Voyage

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How to choose the best Kilimanjaro route

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to climbing Kilimanjaro. There are six main routes, as well as a few less popular ones to help us reach the summit.

The traditional routes in order of popularity are: Machame, Marangu, Lemosho, Shira, Rongai and Umbwe. Selecting which route to take is not easy, partly because it is so subjective and it depends upon your abilities and preferences.

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.

In this article, we tell you what to keep in mind when selecting your best Kilimanjaro route.

What to consider when selecting the best route

To choose the best Kilimanjaro route for your climb, it is important to assess your personal preferences and priorities:

  • Do you prefer the most stunning scenery or authentic wilderness away from the crowds?
  • Do you prefer a climb with the least amount of walking and easy slopes, or are you looking for a bigger physical challenge?
  • Do you have time constraints, or are you OK to take a longer route of 8 days (or more) in order to maximize your summit success chance?
  • Do you have budget constraints, or do you prefer to pay a premium for a longer climb, a private tailor-made arrangement (as opposed to an open group climb), and/or a luxurious climb off-the-beaten track?

Another consideration is your fitness and experience. If you are used to high altitude hiking and you are an experienced mountaineer, then you may choose to opt for a tougher route such as the Umbwe route, whereas if you are not used to high altitude climbing then an easier route would be the better option.

Some routes are more scenic, while others offer a more authentic wilderness experience, so this is definitely worth taking into consideration before you climb.

What are the main route options?

Below we give a brief description of the six traditional Kilimanjaro routes. For more information about some of the different routes, visit our Climb Kilimanjaro Experience page.

Machame Route

Barranco Camp On Machame Route

The Machame Route (also known as the “Whiskey Route”) is a very scenic hiking route. It leads hikers through the montane rainforest, past the eerie forest and up the vertiginous  Barranco Wall. Furthermore, it has a good altitude profile.

Its starting point is also easily accessible within a short drive from Moshi and Kilimanjaro airport. With all these advantages, the Machame Route is also the most popular and busiest route on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Marangu Route

The Marangu Route is sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘Coca Cola route’ and ‘tourist route’. This is because it is perceived as being easy and the fact that Coca Cola, candy and other confectionery is sometimes sold at the huts based on the route. 

This is the only route which offers shared hut accommodation with dormitory-style bunk beds. This means you'll have a firm roof, but it also reduces your level of privacy.

It is the only route where climbers ascend and descend the same way.

Rongai Route

The Rongai Route on Kilimanjaro that ascends from the north, near the border to Kenya. This makes it much less visited than other routes, providing for a true wilderness experience.

The Rongai Route descends along the Marangu Route in the south-east, providing for a cross-over experience with views of the north, east and south of Mount Kilimanjaro and its surroundings.

Lemosho Route


The Lemosho Route is a very scenic hiking route, starting on the western slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro before merging with the Machame Route halfway through at the famous Lava Tower landmark.

The Lemosho Route circumvents the peak and therefore offers unique views and panoramas of the Kilimanjaro landscape.

It leads you through a lush rainforest, past the eerie  forest and up the vertiginous Barranco Wall.

 

Shira Route

The Shira route is the only route that starts at a relatively high altitude and approaches Kilimanjaro from the west. Although it is a varied and beautiful route, its starting point at a high elevation means it is not as good for altitude acclimatization.

The route starts on the Shira Ridge and covers the entire Shira Plateau, which is a relatively pleasant and flat hike. The route then continues on the Southern Circuit and approaches the summit via Barafu.

It also overlaps a lot with the Lemosho Route, but the altitude profile of the Lemosho Route is much better for acclimatization.

Umbwe Route

A view of the forest and mountain as seen from the Umbwe Route during a Kilimanjaro climb

The Umbwe route is a short and challenging route, which is steep and goes pretty much straight uphill. It offers the most direct path to Uhuru Peak.

However, don't mistake short for easy as the opposite is true. You need to conquer almost the same altitude difference on any route. Therefore, it leaves less time for altitude acclimatization. Hence it has the lowest success rate.

This route is not as popular as the other routes and is really only recommended for strong hikers who are used to hiking at high altitude.

Northern Circuit

Quite School Hut camp with Mawenzi view on the on the northern slopes of Kilimanjaro when climbing on the Grand Traverse, Northern Circuit or Rongai routes

The Northern Circuit is the longest route on Kilimanjaro. It starts in the west along the Lemosho Route, then circumvents the peak on the northern slopes, approaches the summit from the east and descends in the south. As such, it offers 360° degree views of the peak and afar.

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.

The route offers plenty of opportunity 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!

How many days do I need to climb Kilimanjaro?

Budget and time permitting, we recommend that you take 8 days or more to climb Kilimanjaro. This is in the interest of your safety and summit success chance.

Taking your time helps you to acclimatize naturally to the high altitude and therefore reduces discomforts and the risks of altitude sickness. The better you acclimatize, the more likely you will reach the summit (and safely so).

There is statistical evidence that 7 or 8 days lead to a higher summit success rate than 5 or 6 days. The local helicopter evacuation service also sees a significantly higher need for evacuations on routes of 7 days or less compared to 8 days or more.

Which route should you take?

Climbing Kilimanjaro is the adventure of a lifetime and so you should definitely make sure that you take the route that matches your abilities and gives you the kind of experience you are looking for.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a few of our own suggestions below to help you decide which route is going to be best for your circumstances.

Best route for altitude acclimatization

The best Kilimanjaro hiking routes for altitude acclimatization allow you to climb high during the day and sleep low at night. Climbing high during the daytime gets your body used to the high altitude. By sleeping at a lower elevation during the night, your body has enough time to take a break from the lack of oxygen associated with higher elevations. You should also ascend slowly over multiple days so that your body can acclimatize better.

7-day Machame, 8-day Lemosho, 8-day Grand Traverse and 9-day Northern Circuit (including acclimatization hike to Lava Tower) are all excellent routes for altitude acclimatization that allow you to hike high, sleep low and ascend slowly over multiple days.

Which routes give you the ultimate challenge and adventure?

If you are looking for a challenging Kilimanjaro route and thrilling adventure away from the crowds, the following routes and itinerary variations options may offer you exactly the kind of unique experience that feels right to you:

  1. Combine your Kilimanjaro climb with an overnight stay at the Crater Camp, sleeping next to one of Kilimanjaro’s last remaining glaciers
  2. 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
  3. Attempt a 5-day speed-climb on the steep & challenging Umbwe Route or the 5-day Rongai Route

Please note we don't recommend the so-called Western Breach shortcut to the summit due to the risk of rockfall and increased risk of altitude sickness.

Best route to take during rainy season

For the vast majority of climbers, we would highly recommend that you climb during dry season and avoid the rains as much as possible. However, if you are used to harsh climates and the outdoors, you may have your reasons why you still prefer to climb during rainy season – avoiding the crowds just being one of them.

When climbing during rainy season, you will want to try to reduce your exposure to the rain as much as possible, and make sure to stay dry at least at camp. If you want to know what the best Kilimanjaro routes during rainy season are here are the back-up routes and options that we recommend:

  • Climb on the Marangu Route, the only route offering accommodation in huts, and rest in the dry comfort of a firm roof at camp; or
  • Follow the Rongai Route on the northern slopes which tend to attract less rain than the southern slopes; or
  • Upgrade your climb on any route to a luxurious walk-in size sleeping tent. This will not only keep you dry but also offers plenty of space to keep your gear clean and tidy.

Are there any routes I should avoid?

Western Breach, climbing kilimanjaro

We do not recommend ascending via the Western Breach, due to its unnecessary and avoidable risks without giving any benefits other than the thrill of its risks. 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 and porters.

Please send us an inquiry and we will advice your safest options 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 in no case will a responsible climb company operate open group climbs for the Western Breach, and we will not operate any open group climbs for you.

What routes does Fair Voyage recommend?

For most climbers who prefer to scale the mountain when the weather is sunny and dry, and to maximize your summit success chance without having had prior high altitude experience, our most recommended Kilimanjaro routes are:

  • 8-day Lemosho Route: Best scenery and easy to join an open group climb, as long as you don't mind the crowds
  • 8-day Machame Route: Easiest route with the best scenery, as long as you don't mind the crowds
  • 8-day Grand Traverse: Easiest route in authentic wilderness, as long as you don't mind missing some scenic highlights
  • 9-day Northern Circuit: A somewhat more difficult alternative to the Grand Traverse (similar to Lemosho), yet with more opportunity to acclimatize and more scenic variety compared to the Grand Traverse

Arguably, 8 or 9 days on the mountain may sound just a bit too long. If you prefer a group climb, you will also be somewhat limited in your choice of affordable options for the above routes. So if either time or budget is a constraint, then we recommend:

  • 7-day Machame Route: Most popular route with great scenery and ideal profile for altitude acclimatization (similar to Lemosho, just shorter)
  • 7-day Rongai Route: Authentic wilderness away from the crowds. However, the scenery and profile are not as good as the Machame Route.

Conclusion

Finding the best route can take hours of painstaking research and reading, when you don’t have all of the information about the differences between each route.

The route you take can also affect your summit success, because some are more challenging than others, which is why it is so important to choose the right one for your circumstances.

Although it might be tempting to go for the shorter routes if you are not accustomed to camping or climbing for long periods of time, this is unlikely to give you the best experience if you are not used to high altitude climbing.

This is why we recommend that most climbers should opt for a 7-9 day route that allows them to hike high during the day and sleep low at night to help them acclimatize to the high altitude.

There are many routes that allow you to do just that, so then it is just a question of deciding what kind of scenery, surroundings and facilities you prefer.

We’ve covered the six traditional routes in this article, but there are several others which are more off the beaten track and will give you a more unique experience. We’ll be covering these ultimate Kilimanjaro itineraries in a separate article about.

For more guidance, feel free to contact one of our local Kilimanjaro experts.

About the author

Janine is a travel content writer and blogger, with a background in marketing and journalism. She loves travelling and uses her writing to share her passion for responsible travel with others.