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If you're reading this, you are probably getting ready to go on a trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. If you're like me, this may be also be your first high-altitude climb and first of the Seven Summits. I have done a lot of hiking in New England and out West, so I used my experience and comprehensive online research to compile the best (and most affordable) gear for my trip. In regards to price, there are some things you need to be willing to pay money for. Climbing at high altitude is no joke, and a few hundred dollars for some nice gear is nothing compared to frostbitten fingers, injury, or worse.
If you’d like to read my Tanzania trip blog (Kilimanjaro, safaris, and Zanzibar), click here.
The warm days:
The climb up Mount Kilimanjaro starts in the hot jungle and ends on a chilly summit with glaciers, so you need to have a little bit of everything to get you through all weather conditions. Our first day hiking in the jungle was about 80°F, and I was happy in a moisture-wicking t-shirt and lightweight hiking pants. The next day I was happy in the same outfit, but at times I needed a soft shell jacket to add a little warmth. Once the days got colder, I started using my winter layering system which I will elaborate on more below.
The cool days:
My base layer is a synthetic shirt like the Under Armour Cold Gear long sleeve shirt. Over my long sleeve shirt I wear a fleece, followed by an insulated jacket, and then a waterproof shell if needed. For my bottoms I wear a pair of fleece tights with my hiking pants over them. If it's snowing or raining I'll switch to a Gore Tex bottom to keep me dry. This year I started using Smart Wool as a base layer, and I would highly recommend using their products for both your top and bottom. They can get itchy depending on the brand, so try all your clothes out before your trip.
I have a gear guide for colder alpine climbing for my trip up Mount Elbrus, but Kilimanjaro doesn’t require the level of gear that Elbrus did. Nonetheless, you should be prepared for snow and cool nights.
Here are some more specific recommendations I have for gear for your climb:
When I looked at my tour guide’s packing list, they recommended wearing hiking boots with good ankle support. While there is nothing wrong with doing this, I personally prefer hiking shoes WITHOUT the ankle support because I like the freedom of movement. It’s a personal preference, and I would go with whatever method has worked well for you in the past. I actually brought my Timberland Chocorua hiking boots with me because I thought I’d need the higher cut boot for walking in the snow. I never used my boots once on the trip and ended up using my favorite Salomon shoes (also comes in men’s) the whole time. Salomon’s shoes fit my feet well, and they’re one of the few shoes that my toes don’t jam into when I’m going downhill. They also have a cool rubber “bumper” on the front for when you kick big rocks by accident. No matter what shoe you choose, I recommend two things:
Get a shoe with Gore Tex. Gore Tex is waterproof, and I’ve had mixed luck with other brands who claim their material is waterproof. Gore Tex has never failed me (except when the shoes get old and the seams rip), so I will always stick with them until I find something more reliable.
Get some miles in your shoes before your trip. This will allow you to break them in and avoid blisters, and also to make sure they are a good fit for you.
There are two important things you need in a trekking pole for your hike up Mount Kilimanjaro:
They need to be lightweight. You will be taking hundreds of thousands of steps over the course of a few days which also means you will be lifting your trekking poles hundreds of thousands of times. Just a few ounces can make a huge difference in arm fatigue.
They need to fit in your suitcase!
I did not get my Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Trekking Poles until after my Kilimanjaro climb, and I wish I had them for this trip. There’s a few things I like about them, and if you decide to buy them, make sure they have all these specs since there’s different types of poles made by Black Diamond that look very similar.
Carbon - This is what makes them so light. Each pole weighs a little over 6 ounces.
Packs up small - These poles have two joints that allow you to collapse your poles to fit in nearly any suitcase (or your backpack).
Adjustable - The “FLZ” part of this pole refers to an adjustable segment at the top of the pole that allows you to fine-tune your pole’s length to your size. Ideally, you want your poles to be shorter going uphill and longer going downhill, and this pole allows you to do that.
Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Storm King 0
I am always cold, and if I’m camping I’d rather be too hot than too cold. So naturally, I’m going to recommend a very warm sleeping bag! I used my Big Agnes Edna -5 degree sleeping bag on my Kilimanjaro climb, and I was toasty warm every night. I like Big Agnes sleeping bags for a few reasons. For one, they are reasonably priced. Second, they save weight by removing the insulation from the bottom of the sleeping bag in the torso area because your body weight is going to compress the insulation anyway, rendering it useless. Instead, you get your bottom insulation by sliding your sleeping pad in a pocket on the bottom of the bag (which also prevents you from rolling off your sleeping pad at night). Big Agnes also has the cute option of choosing whether you want your zipper on the left or right so that you can zip together two sleeping bags. Big Agnes doesn’t make the Edna sleeping bag anymore, but it is super light, super compact, super warm, and not too constricting, and I imagine their newer bags are very similar. If I were to buy one now, I’d get the Storm King 0 (women’s version is the Ethel 0). These bags were designed with comfort in mind and have water-repellent down so you never lose your loft in wet conditions.
Sleeping Pad: Nemo Astro Insulated Sleeping Pad
If you use a Big Agnes sleeping bag, you need a sleeping pad to give you bottom insulation. The Nemo Astro Insulated sleeping pad is lightweight and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle, so it really doesn’t taking up too much space or weight. I have been in love with this sleeping pad since the day I got it. It is 3 inches thick and feels like I am sleeping on a cloud. The horizontal baffles make it easier for the pad to curve with your body and prevent you from rolling off the pad like vertical baffles would. This pad has won several awards from places like Backpacker Magazine and Outdoor Gear Lab. The only downside of this sleeping pad is that it’s not self-inflating, and it takes a lot of air to get it blown up. At high altitude, I wouldn’t be surprised if I passed out trying to blow it up. To fix that, I bought a nifty bag called the Thermarest NeoAir Pump Sack. This functions as a large stuff sack, pack liner, and most importantly a vessel to blow up your sleeping pad. Not only does it save your lungs, but it also prevents moist air from your body from entering your sleeping pad. The way it works is there’s a hole at the bottom of the bag that seals over the valve of the sleeping pad. You open up the stuff sack and roll down the opening to trap air which you then push into the sleeping pad. It is a simple device that works surprisingly well.
Alternative Sleeping Bag/Pad for the Couples: Big Agnes King Solomon 15° and Q-Core SLX Double-Wide Pad
The Big Agnes King Solomon is my new favorite sleeping bag, particularly because I’m a cuddle bug! This is a great sleeping bag to use if you’re climbing with your husband, wife, or lover because you get to share the same sleeping bag at night. It is filled with 600 fill DownTek™ water repellent down, and it packs down to nearly the size of a regular single sleeping bag. This sleeping bag uses the same system as the one above: There is no bottom insulation in the torso area, and you slide a sleeping pad in the sleeve underneath the bag to give you insulation from the cold ground. I prefer the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Double Wide Pad because it’s designed to fit with the Big Agnes sleeping bag, and it fits in the sleeve perfectly so neither of you slide off the pad. The pad is 3.5 inches thick and is unbelievably comfortable. Both the pad and bag are rated to 15 degrees which should be fine on Kilimanjaro, but if you get cold easily, you may want to bring a sleeping bag liner for some extra warmth. I would also recommend getting the Big Agnes Pumphouse Ultra. This is part of the sleeping bag/pad system and gives you an easy way to blow up your sleeping pad without having to use your lungs. This also doubles as a stuff sack. It is similar to the Thermarest NeoAir Pump Sack mentioned above, but this one fits specifically to the Nemo pad’s valve. This system works great, and the sleeping pad has a one-way valve that makes inflating a breeze.
Daypack: Osprey Tempest 30L
Although I used a different day pack on my Kilimanjaro trip (which I have since run into the ground), I would recommend the Osprey Tempest 30L backpack (the men’s version is the Osprey Talon). The nice thing about Kilimanjaro is that you have porters carrying most of your supplies, and you just need to carry a day pack with your essentials for hiking time. I like Osprey packs because they are well made and have many options for whatever type of pack you’re looking for. I personally like the Tempest because the back is flexible, and the pack is super light. I think 30 liters is an ideal size, but ultimately you should go to an outdoor store and try them on for yourself. When I first started researching day packs, I have a different one in mind based on my online research. However, my mind changed completely when I tried them on in person. Just like most of the things in this gear guide, everything should be tried out before your climb to make sure it fits your body and your needs.
Headlamp: Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp
I’ve always had good luck with Black Diamond headlamps, and the ReVolt is one of my favorites. The great thing about this is that it’s rechargeable, and if you have other devices that charge with a mini-USB cable (camera batteries, phone, etc.), you can use the same cord to charge your headlamp. I own the predecessor to Black Diamond’s current model, and I love it. Unfortunately, Amazon reviews say the new model isn’t as good as the old one, so take this review with caution.
To some, a camera may not be considered a necessity on any climb. For me, a camera is invaluable. I brought two cameras with me. The first was my nice DSLR camera, a Canon Rebel T4i (the newer model is the T7i). On the scale of cameras, this one is the cheapest camera in Canon’s DSLR line. It takes amazing photos, and I have captured some beautiful shots with it, from the Northern Lights to bald eagles to canoe-racing wipeouts. I brought two lenses: the standard 18-55mm lens that came with the camera and a 75-300mm telephoto lens. For our summit day, I wanted a camera that was light and little. I used a Canon Powershot, which took way better photos than I expected. It did a great job capturing the colors in my photos, and the battery didn’t die on me on the summit (I made sure to keep the camera and spare batteries in my jacket or sleeping bag the entire trip). I currently own a nicer DLSR, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. This is an amazing camera for the serious photographer, but this can be quite heavy, particularly when you start adding lenses to the mix. I would personally save this camera for your safari days, and add on the Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM Lens which takes great telephoto shots! Whatever camera you decide to use, I would recommend getting a battery charger that you can use with a solar charger or battery pack. I would also recommend keeping your batteries in your sleeping bag at night and in an inner pocket of your jacket during the day to keep them warmer and preserve the life of the battery.
GPS: Garmin Fenix
This is not a necessity for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but I like wearing a GPS watch to track my mileage, speed, and altitude. The Garmin Fenix won me over for two reasons: 1) It measures altitude, which most GPS watches don’t, and 2) The battery life is up to 50 hours, which is ridiculously long for a GPS watch. The watch is waterproof up to 50 meters and has more features than I know what to do with. The only downside is that it is a bit bulky, but that has never bothered me. I use this watch every time I hike, paddle, run, bike, and climb, and it does an excellent job on the trail and later on the computer as it plots your trail on a map. Garmin has come out with newer versions of the Fenix, but I can’t speak on those since I have not used them.
Hat - I wore a hat on summit day and at Crater Camp, and any fleece-lined hat should be sufficient. I wore my Marmot Spike hat because it is comfy, warm, and light. I did not bring a balaclava, but a buff may not be a bad idea because it can be used as a headband, hat, balaclava, neck warmer, etc.
Gloves - I also needed to get out my gloves on summit day and at crater camp, but my glove liners were all I needed for most of the trip. I had to get out my mittens when it started snowing near the summit, so definitely have these on hand when you’re at a higher altitude. I used my Mountain Hardwear Onza Mittens, but they are out of production. I like these mittens because there is no insulation in the palms where you are grabbing your hiking poles, but there is a nice layer of insulation on the back of your hand that is exposed. I prefer mittens over gloves because they keep you warmer and fit better when you’re wearing a liner underneath.
Gaiters – You do not need gaiters to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Our packing list said they were optional, and then when we got there, we were told we definitely needed them. We ended up renting them to be safe, but we never used them once. Gaiters are designed to be worn over your shoes and pants to prevent snow from getting inside the tops of your shoes. There is not enough snow on Kilimanjaro to need this, and like I said above, I did the whole climb in sneakers. Nonetheless, if you do choose to get a pair of gaiters, I would recommend the Outdoor Research Expedition Crocodile Gaiters. This is the heaviest-duty pair of gaiters made by Outdoor Research. It is designed for extreme conditions, and the large circumference will accommodate thick snow pants and mountaineering boots. This is a bit overkill for Kilimanjaro, but it would suit you well for future alpine expeditions.
Solar Charger – I carried the Bushnell Bear Grylls SolarWrap Mini USB Charger in my bag in the event I needed to charge my ReVolt headlamp, phone, camera batteries, or GPS watch. It is very tiny and doesn’t take up a lot of space. You can pre-charge the lithium ion battery pack in 4 hours using an outlet at home, but when you are out on the mountain it unrolls into a solar panel that can recharge it as well. There are way bigger and more powerful solar panels out there, but this little guy is enough to keep things going when you’re away from civilization.
Pulse oximeter – This is definitely not a necessity, but it sure is a fun toy to play with when you’re bored at base camp. This device measures your heart rate and percent oxygen in your blood. Normal O2 saturation is 98-100%, but when you’re at high altitude, it can dip down to the 70% range or lower (until your body acclimates). Don’t take these readings too seriously, though, because cold fingers can give you a falsely low reading.
Water purification tabs - Our tour guide filtered our water, but they also recommended using water purification tabs. It’s better to be safe than sorry! Be aware that different water purification tabs need to sit for various amounts of times before they are considered safe to drink. I prefer chlorine dioxide tabs over iodine because it doesn’t have a weird aftertaste, and it is effective against cryptosporidium (which iodine is NOT).
Cash - You are expected to tip every crew member on your trip. Our crew had a “ceremony” on the last day of our climb which was a bit awkward because they read all the tips out loud in front of everybody. You can read more about it here.
Journal – I bring a journal every time I travel. It gives me something to do in my down time, and it’s a good way to remember the little things that I may have otherwise forgotten. I have never regretted writing a journal on any of my trips.
Swahili book/CD - I bought this Swahili book/CD, and I did all the audio lessons while I was driving or working out in the gym. I learned quite a bit by using the audio lessons, and I was shocked by how much I understood during our travels. You don’t need to know Swahili to get around Tanzania because all the locals know English. However, I firmly believe in learning about the culture of the people you are visiting and immersing yourself as much as possible.
Luggage scale – You obviously don’t need to bring this up the mountain with you, but this was a lifesaver on our trip since we had weight limits on many of our flights (particularly to Zanzibar). I always struggle to keep my suitcase under 50 pounds, and this little thing works great.
Medications - There are several medications you should bring with you on your trip to Kilimanjaro.
Your malaria medication (prescription) - You need to take your malaria medication as prescribed, even when on the mountain. I took Malarone and tolerated it well. You only take it once a day, and you start it 1-2 days before your trip and continue it 7 days after you get home. Every malaria medication is different, so talk with doctor about which one is best for you.
Ciprofloxacin (prescription) - Ciprofloxacin is an antibiotic that you can take for traveler’s diarrhea. You only have to take it for 1-3 days, and it can be a lifesaver. This also works well for UTIs, for any ladies who are prone to those.
Imodium (over-the-counter) - You are bound to get traveler’s diarrhea while in Africa even if you follow all the rules, so bring Imodium with you to help with diarrhea and to help prevent dehydration.
Diamox (acetazolamide) (prescription) - Diamox is a medication you take for altitude sickness. You should definitely carry this with you, but be aware this has many side effects. I highly recommend taking 1-2 doses at home to see how it affects your body. Diamox is a diuretic, meaning it makes you have to urinate frequently. It also gives you paresthesias (tingly sensations). My paresthesias were so bad when I trialed the Diamox that it was borderline painful. I never used the Diamox on the trip, but if I did, at least I knew what symptoms were due to side effects vs. altitude sickness.
If you have any questions, feel free to comment below!
Also, please enjoy the video I made of my trip below. I hope this excites you about your upcoming adventure!