Five Essential Training Tips for a Successful Kilimanjaro Climb

September 3, 2014 Stephanie Lipton

I could say the best philosophy for enjoying a trek on Kilimanjaro is similar to enjoying life itself: “It’s about the journey not the destination.” If I did, I’d be lying. Once you’ve booked a trip to summit Kilimanjaro, you want nothing more than to achieve your goal, reach its zenith, Uhuru Peak. It is possible to summit this mountain without training, and unfortunately, people do it (bemoaning every minute) every day. However, leisure time is far too precious nowadays to casually strap a pack on and hope for the best. Kilimanjaro is a wondrous place; your time ought not to be squandered by pain and animated with complaints. To avoid a hike through the doldrums during your adventure, spend a few weeks preparing for the climb of a lifetime. You, your guides, and your group mates will be thankful. As someone who’s done it, here are my top-five tips to get to the top.

1. Slow and steady.

The Swahili saying pole pole (“slowly, slowly”) is the Kilimanjaro mantra. Each step towards the summit, your guide will encourage and remind you to walk pole pole. It is worth practicing the Tanzanian definition of walking slowly to avoid cramping and frustration during the early days of the climb. Slowly on the mountain equates to a step a second – one Mississippi, step, two Mississippi, step. On the streets or in the parks of a bustling city, you may appear a nutcase whose is trying to walk in slow-motion, but practice is essential and practice you must. Walking pole pole may seem simple in theory, but in reality, it takes a surprising amount of practiced physical and mental control to find peace at this pace. It is worth mentioning that pole pole connotes much more than merely a suggested speed. It speaks to mindfulness, control, and awareness. Ultimately, we walk to go slowly as it allows us to relish in the beauty of the landscape and the mental freedom found in repetitive and rhythmic movement.

Slowly, slowly. Hiking Kilimanjaro.

Slowly, slowly. Hiking Kilimanjaro.

2. Just breathe

Just breathing on Kilimanjaro is a task in itself. A deep, controlled breath is the foundation for success. Five- to six-second inhales through the nose accompanied by equally long exhales also through the nose are required during the summiting climb and encouraged for the preliminary days. Five minutes of practice a day – standing or lying down – leading up to the trek will make a world of difference. Shallow inhales that are deemed acceptable at low altitudes do not provide the cardiovascular system sufficient oxygen. The ever-pervasive mouth breathing demands insubstantial breaths which, in turn, lead to swallowing air instead of breathing it in. (It is remarkably unattractive, but we’ll have to table this point for another time.) Breathing deeply into the abdomen distributes plenty of oxygen to the body and also helps to calm the heart rate. On Kilimanjaro, the notion of pole pole guides steps and also breath. Those who regularly practice yoga will be familiar with such steadied and controlled breath and already enjoy ample practice.

The trail long ahead of us as we work hard to breathe deeply.

The trail long ahead of us as we work hard to breathe deeply.

3. Cardio, cardio, cardio

Yes, this is yet another cardio endorsement. Run, cycle, swim, or do whatever activity you enjoy that gets the heart rate up. Due to reduced oxygen levels, the ascent of Kilimanjaro is akin to a multiday cardio exam. The answer being happy heart equals happy climbing. Just being there is a cardio workout; the more you strengthen your cardiovascular system beforehand, the less strained you will feel. Fear not, cardio integrity is closely monitored. Each night the guides will measure each trekker’s pulse and oxygen level. If a heart rate is dangerously high or low, that person will immediately descend to lower altitudes.

poler walking on the path

Make sure to expose yourself to a cardio workout before arriving.

4. At the core of the issue

Start working your core via planks, mountain pose, sit-ups, everything that hurts but is essential for abdominal strength. Why? Good posture encourages the chest to open for breath, increases muscle control for slow and steadied steps, and reduces the chance of back and shoulder strain. Stand erect and hike with pride.

5. Suit up.

Simulations lead to success. Practicing slow ascents with all your gear may seem like a no-brainer, but alas, seemingly common knowledge is seldom common practice. Review your suggested packing list a few months in advance of your trek to allow for sufficient time for any necessary purchases. An adventure such as Kilimanjaro is an excellent excuse to procure some new gear, but try to get used to your new equipment before Day 1 of the hike. Have all your gear? Great. Assemble a daypack as you would for a day on Kili and start pole pole-ing up some hills. If you are someone who hikes with poles (I commend you, for I am an unabashed pole enthusiast), play around with different techniques to find your preferred uphill style. When adjusting to a difficult climb in a new climate and culture, the last thing you want to be doing is fidgeting with new or rarely used gear to get comfortable.

Steph stading looking at the clouds below from the summit

Made it to the top!

Getting There

Stephanie did the Mt Kilimanjaro Trek – Machame 8-Day Route tour with G Adventures. Are you curious to have a likewise experience? G Adventures runs a number of trips to Kilimanjaro and to Tanzania. Check out our small group trips here, and get active, today!

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