How to Prepare for High Altitude

altitude and oxygen levels

Altitude sickness is a real hazard for anyone making the climb up Kilimanjaro.  Contrary to what you might think, it’s not the actual height of the mountain that’s the problem.  The real issue lies in the fact that you’ll be going from a very low altitude to a very high one rather quickly, and as you progress, your body will constantly be having to adjust to different pressures and oxygen levels. 

Different people respond to altitude adjustment in different ways, so unfortunately, there’s absolutely no way to tell how the altitude will affect you.

How Do You Deal With Altitude on the Mountain?

We’ve all heard the adage ‘slow and steady wins the race,’ and never has there been a better time to take it to heart than while climbing Kilimanjaro.

Our best advice for dealing with high altitude is to walk slowly.

Your guides will constantly say, “Pole, pole,” which translates into English as “Slowly, slowly.”  The speed or lack thereof may even get on your nerves at times, especially in the first few days; you’ll just know that you can go faster than the snail’s pace the guides are setting, but there is a very good reason for this.  Wait a few days, and you’ll notice the fatigue setting in in little ways:  Catching up to the group after stopping to tie your shoe leaves you out of breath.  It won’t take long for that steady pace to make perfect sense, and you’ll be grateful for it by the time you reach the peak.

A word of caution: Physical fitness is great, because you’ll feel better on the mountain. But the better you feel, the harder you’ll want to push, and the harder you push the more likely you are to fail.  TAKE IT SLOW!

Choosing a Route

Before you do anything else, you should be choosing your route and a quality guide company.  There are several ways up the mountain and they all take different amounts of time.  This is a test of endurance, and it will take you 7 to 9 days to complete.  Any more is generally unnecessary, and any shorter is considered unsafe for the average visitor.  Of course, the longer the trip, the more it will cost, but keep in mind that this isn’t a race – the key is to finish, and you’re more likely to make it on a longer, steadier route than a quick short one.

I recommend the 7 day Machame Route or the 8 day Lemosho Route.

There are tons of tour operators that go up Kilimanjaro, and they range from excellent to unsafe.  As a general rule, you get what you pay for.  Mistakes on the mountain have cost people there lives, so you want reputable guides who know what they’re doing and don’t cut corners.  Remember, you’ll be spending the better part of a week with these people, and you’re spoiled for choice, so if you don’t like the feel of one operator, cross them off the list and keep looking. 

My recommended operator is Peak Planet for the best guides, high quality equipment, and a safety focused team at an affordable price.

High Altitude Exposure

The best possible way to prepare for high altitude on Kilimanjaro is to do some hiking at high altitudes before your trip to Tanzania.  Not only will it help your body adjust to altitude change, but it will also help you prepare for the trip mentally. Every night you are able to spend at a high altitude immediately preceding your trip will help you adjust on the mountain. For instance, taking a trip to Denver (more than 5,000 feet high) or Mammoth Lakes (almost 8,000 feet high) will jump start your acclimatization.

If going somewhere high is not an option for you, there are altitude training systems that you can use at home. These systems simulate high altitude by putting you in an environment of low oxygenated air. Hypoxico’s home altitude systems allow you to sleep or exercise at altitude. The recommended time period for using these systems is six to eight weeks and can be pretty costly. However, the benefits are well proven and may make sense for you if you have the money for it.

Otherwise, all you can do is keep an eye on your health while you climb, and if you start to feel strange, even if it’s just a small thing, let your guides know.  A good guide will be able to spot symptoms of altitude sickness and know how best to handle it, so keep them informed.  Above all, keep to that slow and steady pace.  More than exercise and good equipment, pole, pole is what will get you to the top without any major issues.

Getting in the Right Head Space

Your mental game is just as important as your physical.  This is a long, strenuous journey, even for experienced hikers and backpackers.  Don’t go in assuming you know what to expect because you’ve climbed the mountain just outside of town.  Yes, that will help, but Kilimanjaro isn’t like that.  Kili’s not like anything, really – a lone mountain comprised of three volcanoes standing at nearly 20,000 feet is pretty unique, as is the experience of climbing it.  Keep an open mind.

You’re in this for the long haul, and you don’t want to wake up every morning wondering how you’ll possibly find the motivation to press on.  Don’t get yourself down; Kilimanjaro is a challenge, and the whole point of challenges is that they’re not easy.  Persevere, and you’ll be able to tell your friends and family all about how you climbed the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, and you’ll know that you earned those bragging rights.  If you do find yourself losing it, talk to the guides and your fellow climbers.  You’re all in it together, and the guides may even have some little tricks for you to keep your eye off the difficulties and on the prize.