Mount Kilimanjaro: 6 routes to the summit

Climbing Kilimanjaro – the highest mountain in Africa - is tough. You don’t have to be a mountainologist, a mountainitist or even a mountaineer to work that one out. But one area that can pose some unexpected problems for potential trekkers is deciding which route to take. There are six official trails: Marangu, Machame, Rongai, Lemosho, Shira and Umbwe - and picking the wrong one could result in an unnecessarily difficult – or completely failed – ascent. Altitude sickness and injuries on the mountain side aren’t fun.

To make sure you are as educated as possible before you set off, here’s a breakdown of Kili’s main routes, de-bunked and de-mystified for your reading (and hiking) pleasure.

  • Marangu (5-6 days)
    Track difficulty: Easy
    Foot traffic: Heavy
    Accommodation: Sleeping huts
    Acclimatisation profile: Poor

The most popular tourist route, largely because it’s the easiest of the bunch. This one’s also known as the “tourist route” or the “Coca-Cola route”, which should indicate the kind of experience you’ll get. It ascends steadily from the south-east of the mountain, which means those joints and bones will enjoy a relatively smooth ride. What Marangu boasts in accessibility, however, it lacks in scenery and is probably the least attractive of all the routes. Despite its ease compared to other routes, it’s a little more than a walk down the shops – something people regularly underestimate. Unprepared hikers contribute to an average summit success rate of just 35%.

  • Machame (6-7 days)
  • Track difficulty: Moderately easy
  • Foot traffic: Heavy
  • Accommodation: None
  • Acclimatisation profile: Poor

The second most popular track, Machame is known as the “whiskey route”. It’s a bit harder than the “Coca-Cola route” and doesn’t have any sleeping huts along the way. What it does have, however, is spectacular panoramas of Kilimanjaro itself. It also passes through Shira Plateau, Barranco and Lava Tower, which is a good thing if you're the type that enjoys great views. If the Marangu route seems a bit tame, Machame could offer a good alternative: it's harder, but all that elbow grease pays dividends in the way of incredible scenery.

  • Rongai (6-7 days)
  • Track difficulty: Easy
  • Foot traffic: Low
  • Accommodation: None
  • Acclimatisation profile: Poor

The Rongai route ascends from the north, starting near the Kenyan border. Again, it’s one of Kili’s easier options. Unlike Marangu and Machame, however, it’s far less crowded and travels through some wild and remote landscapes. The scenery isn’t as varied as other routes – but travelling through emerald-green rainforests more than makes up for that. The Rongai joins the Marangu route about three-quarters of the way through and descends along it too. This means you can enjoy the isolation of Rongai on the way up, and take in the some different scenery on the way down.

  • Lemosho (7-8 days)
  • Track difficulty: Hard
  • Foot traffic: Low
  • Accommodation: None
  • Acclimatisation profile: Very good

Taxing and lengthy, a solid level of fitness is a requisite for the Lemosho route. And though this one’s going to be a slog of the highest order, it makes up for it with gradual acclimatisation (due to a slow start to the ascent), fantastic scenery, small crowds and very high success rates. The first two days of the trek will be spent in the rainforest – a beautiful way to begin – before crossing the magnificent Shira Plateau and joining up with the Machame route. For more confident climbers and physical types, Lemosho offers a great variety of pros in exchange for a concerted effort on your part.

Note: the Shira route is very similar to Lemosho, but misses out on the rainforest on the first two days. Lemosho is the improved version of the original Shira.

  • Umbwe (6-7 days)
  • Track difficulty: Extremely hard
  • Foot traffic: Very low
  • Accommodation: None
  • Acclimatisation profile: Poor

The steepest, most grueling and most direct climb to the summit, Umbwe is – for obvious reasons – the least busy track up Kilimanjaro. This one is no joke and because it ascends so quickly, climbers have little time to adjust to the altitude. Success here is really something to be proud of, and chances are that if you’re seriously considering tackling Umbwe, you'll already know more about it than this blog post could tell you. If all this is news to you, you’re not ready for Umbwe.

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