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What Level of Fitness is Necessary to Climb Kilimanjaro?

Here’s the thing – you don’t actually have to be that fit to climb Kilimanjaro. Don’t believe me? That would be normal. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and shared that statement with many people. Most don’t believe it.

If you’re a bit dubious, it might be helpful to clarify what I’m not saying. I’m not saying:

  • It is easy to climb Kilimanjaro.
  • If you attempt climbing Kilimanjaro without training for it, there’s a good chance you will summit.
  • Attempting to climb Kilimanjaro without a certain baseline of fitness is a good idea.

Physical Fitness Required to Climb Kilimanjaro

Here’s what I am saying: Climbing Kilimanjaro isn’t as physically difficult as you might think (it’s easier than the Inca Trail). However, it does require a certain level of fitness if you want a reasonable attempt at reaching the summit.

Let’s break this down a bit further. The bare minimum level of physical fitness I would suggest is being able to do the following:

  1. Walk for 2 hours without stopping at 3.0 mph pace (6 miles total).
  2. Spend 1 hour on the stair stepper without stopping.
Dr. Sarah & husband, David, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
Please note that I said this is the bare minimum level of fitness. Combining my knowledge of fitness and having reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, I would say it is possible to summit with that physical fitness level. However, there are significant (and arguably more important) mental fitness and altitude demands of climbing Kilimanjaro as well.

Mental Fitness Required to Climb Kilimanjaro

When it comes to climbing Kilimanjaro, your mental fitness is more important than your physical fitness. On summit day, you will be required to climb for 5-6 hours in the pitch black. You’ll have a headlamp, but you’re in the middle of nowhere. This means there isn’t ambient light. It will only be possible to see a few steps in front of you.

You will have no idea how far up the mountain you’ve climbed and you’ll have no idea of how far you have to go. Despite having done the climb potentially over a hundred times, your guides also will have no idea (although they may tell you they do know).

The incline on summit day is the steepest part of the path. Depending on which route you take, you may be climbing on shale. This means for every two steps you take up the mountain, you’ll slide backwards one step. It will feel disheartening.

I didn’t take any photos during the night (mostly because I was a bit preoccupied with altitude sickness), but one photo my husband took on the descent is included below. You can see me, heading straight down the mountain. For every one step I took, I slid another 3-4 downhill. You can also see a large group ascending the mountain in a switchback pattern.

Dr. Sarah descends the MOUNTAIN
Side note: A large majority of groups ascend during the night. However, some do not. This would be a question to ask your tour group if climbing through the night is something that you don’t feel comfortable doing.

How Altitude Affects Your Climb

By far and away, this was the most difficult part of the climb. There are many routes via which you can climb Kilimanjaro and which route you take will play a significant role in how altitude affects you.

In regards to the altitude, the most difficult way to ascend (and the route with the lowest success rate – around 28%) is the 5-day version of Marangu Route. The longest route is the Lemosho route, which is often done in 8 Days and has a 90% success rate. This allows you the most amount of time for acclimatization and helps minimize symptoms of altitude sickness.

We took the Marangu Route and completed it in 6 days. (In retrospect, I don’t suggest this unless you’re familiar with how your body responds at altitude). Part of this route includes ascending 7,000 feet in under 24 hours on summit night. If you’re not familiar with altitude, that’s a LOT. To keep altitude sickness symptoms at bay, ascending only around 1,000-2,000 feet per day once you get over 10,000 feet is a good rule of thumb.

Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet tall. Going from 12,500 feet to 19,341 in under 24 hours is difficult.

Minimizing Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

There’s a couple different ways you can work around the difficulties associated with altitude. The first is through hydration. Drink more water than you think you need and use electrolytes.

On our climb, I used 1-2 packets of LMNT and my husband used 2-4 packets of Liquid IV per day. Instead of getting into the weeds of how much sodium and potassium you need, pick what you think tastes good, because it increases the odds of you actually using it.

Dr. Sarah hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro
Getting as much sleep as possible is another way to guard against altitude sickness. This is somewhat within your control. You’ll either be sleeping in tents or huts with shared walls. Regardless, it would be a good idea to assume your neighbors will be noisy. Bring earplugs and expect to wear them at night.

Lastly, you can get prescription medication from your doctor for altitude sickness. If your doc isn’t familiar with this, the name of the drug is acetazolamide. My doctor suggested taking a couple pills as prescribed before I was at altitude in case I didn’t tolerate the medication well.

Depending on what your doctor is comfortable prescribing, they may also give you dexamethasone. This can be used to curb emergency altitude sickness symptoms. I needed – and took – this medication on the last day. It allowed me to stop dry heaving so I could continue to climb.

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Returning to the Physical Fitness Required to Climb Kilimanjaro

By now, it should be clear that while a certain level of physical fitness to climb Kilimanjaro is needed, mental fitness and being prepared for altitude are more important. That being said, having a higher level of physical fitness will make the climb easier because it frees you to focus your energy on the mental and altitude aspects of the climb.

If you want to climb Kilimanjaro without physical fatigue (that isn’t associated with sleep deprivation on the final day), I’d suggest the following level of fitness:

  • Comfortably run 6-8 miles at a 10:00 pace or better
  • Squat (back squat or front squat) at least your body weight

At the time I climbed Kilimanjaro I was training for a marathon (regularly running 25 miles per week) and was able to back squat 175% of my body weight. Physically, I found the climb easy up until the final day, which I found slightly moderate.

Despite this, I’d say the experience was one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done because of the degree of altitude sickness I experienced. (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say it was very unpleasant.)

Do You Want to Climb Kilimanjaro?

If you’ve gotten this far through this article and you’re considering climbing Kilimanjaro, go for it! Know that it will be challenging – more mentally than physically – but also know that reaching the summit is more rewarding than I can put into words.

Sunrise over the MOUNTAIN

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