Kilimanjaro Routes

Choosing what route to climb is an important decision - here we have a detailed look at each of the routes, their pros and cons, to help you make up your mind.

There are six main routes to Kilimanjaro's summit (7 if you count the Shira route, which I don't). These routes will get you to one of two "base camps" - from where you will make your summit attempt.

There are two "base camps": one at the bottom of the Western Breach (Arrow Glacier camp) and Barafu camp which is the more usual way to summit Kilimanjaro. 

You can also read about the Western Breach and what it's like to camp in the crater - the very top of the mountain - at over 18,000ft!

Marangu Route

I Opine: Only choose the Marangu route if you are on a tight budget, and if so, do the 6 day route which includes an acclimatization day. Or if you are on a budget and are confident in your ability to acclimatize and/or you have done a pre-acclimatization trek up Mt Meru or similar.

The Marangu route is the cheapest route on Kilimanjaro. It is oldest route to the Summit, and the only one where you sleep in huts instead of tents. Marangu uses the same route on the descent, so during busy periods it can get quite crowded.

If you are on a budget, then the Marangu route can be an option. Many people are sold the idea that it’s an “easy” route, being only 5 days (you can opt to do it in 6 days and have an extra acclimatization day). The idea of a 5 day hike seems a lot easier than an 8-10 day hike. But that doesn't take into account the effects of altitude.

One of the reasons why the summit success rate on the Marangu route is only around 45% is because there is not enough time for acclimatization. For climbers confident in their ability to acclimatize and wanting a shorter hike to the summit, this is worth considering.

For those who are less experienced at altitude and want a less crowded, more scenic adventure, and who are not on a tight budget, should opt for one of the longer routes. The longer routes have a much better acclimatization schedule and as such a better chance of achieving summit success.

Since Marangu uses huts for accommodation, less porters are required per climber, as there is not the need for a full camp to be carried up the mountain. This also brings the cost down.

The Summit attempt is always made at night from Kibo Hut (the “basecamp”), there is no option for a daytime ascent. Personally I prefer to leave camp in the morning for the summit attempt and not be trying to hike above 15,000ft in the middle of the night!

That the Marangu route provides accommodation in huts, might sound preferable to sleeping in a tent. Do bear in mind that the huts sleep 6-10 people in dormitory-style bunk beds. It’s not a luxury safari camp with crisp linen and hot running water!

Machame Route

I Opine: The Machame route is a far better option than the Marangu route in terms of scenery and acclimatization protocol. It’s a busy route, but that doesn’t take away from it’s beauty.

If you cannot afford the high-priced Lemosho route, then this is a very good option. Some say it’s more “difficult” than the Marangu route, simply because the hiking days are longer. But the summit success is much higher, owing to the extra acclimatization.

In recent years, the Machame route has gained in popularity, and more climbers use this route than the Marangu route. The Machame route has a much better acclimatization schedule, and has a much higher success rate than the Marangu. As it has become more competitive, it has also become cheaper.

The scenery is spectacular. The vistas and views will take your breath away. The hiking can be tough with the relatively long days, but you will gain a lot in terms of acclimatization. Lack of good acclimatization is the main reason most trekkers do not make the summit. On the Machame route, you can take a 6 or 7 day option, the extra day can be valuable for your acclimatization.

You will sleep in tents, there is no hut accommodation on this route which means you will need to choose your operator carefully. The last thing you want at the end of a day’s hiking is an old and leaky tent!

This route usually involves leaving at midnight to make your summit attempt from Barafu Camp. Those who do not like the idea of walking after dark might want to consider the Lemosho Route. Many of the operators who use Lemosho, provide an option for leaving for the summit first thing in the morning. If this is an important factor, it’s worth asking your chosen operator if you can use the Machame route in conjunction with a daytime summit push.

It’s also possible to scale the Western Breach to the summit from Arrow Glacier Camp.

Merging with the Lemosho and Shira routes near the Lava Tower, Machame takes you up the Barranco Wall, which contrary to many scaremongering articles, is a tough, but not at all technical scramble.

The Machame route uses a different route on the descent, which keeps the trails less busy than the Marangu which uses the same route to descend as to ascend.

Lemosho Route

I Opine: Use this route (or the Northern Circuits) if you are not on a tight budget and want a real mountain adventure as opposed to a “get to the summit (if you can) as fast as possible”. You will have an amazing experience. I also recommend doing a morning summit push, rather than leaving at midnight from Barafu Camp.

There are a few different variations to the Lemosho Route, so check with your chosen operator which one they are using. Some spend two nights in the Shira Caldera at Shira Camp 1 and Shira Camp 2. Others go directly from Shira 1 to Barranco Camp. Some go from Shira 1 to Moir Camp and then onto Barranco Camp.

In my opinion, the Lemosho Route is the best route on Kilimanjaro. Two of my climbs have been on this route, for good reason! It’s a longer route, allowing for better acclimatization and giving a higher probability of summit success(1). It takes you through the most beautiful and scenic parts of the mountain, and is not as busy as some of the other – cheaper – routes.

This route is not offered by the budget operators, so it keeps foot traffic lower but there is less competitiveness in the pricing. If you are not strapped for cash and want an amazing experience on the mountain, the Lemosho route should definitely be strong contender.

The forests to the west side of the mountain – where the Lemosho route begins – are undoubtedly the most beautiful and pristine, it’s possible to see evidence of game here. Although you are unlikely to spot any animals, only a few years ago, trekkers were accompanied by armed rangers in case of close encounters!

The terrain is much less well-trodden than the Machame/Marangu routes, and the days can be long. The huge bonus is that the length of the trek allows very comprehensive acclimatization. And really, acclimatization is the difference between making it to the summit or not. If you are fit enough to attempt Kilimanjaro at all, then acclimatization is the main barrier between success and failure.

The Lemosho route gives you the opportunity to acclimatize properly before your final push to the Summit. There are two possible summit routes to take: the usual one, via Barafu Camp, or the more dangerous and seldom-offered Western Breach. For the purposes of this, I will assume you are taking the Barafu route. Some operators will offer a morning hike to the summit, with others, you start at midnight and arrive at the crater rim at dawn.

If you are interested in the Western Breach, find out more here: Western Breach, along with my experience climbing it in 2005.

Northern Circuits Route

I Opine: if budget is not the primary concern for you, then your choice of routes up the mountain should really be between the Northern Circuit and the Lemosho route. These two routes are wonderfully scenic, and much less well-trodden than the more popular routes. I also advise a day time summit attempt and if you can handle it, a night at Crater Camp.

Taking advantage of the untrodden paths, the Northern Circuits (sometimes called "Kili 360") route is one of the latest offerings on Kilimanjaro. This route takes you through some spectacular scenery, through largely-untouched parts of the mountain.

Being a longer trek, the acclimatization schedule is good, giving you an excellent chance of reaching the summit. Taking in the best of Kilimanjaro and avoiding the crowds, this route is worthy of consideration.

It’s more expensive than the more popular routes, owing to less competition from budget operators, but worth it if a more tranquil and ‘wilderness’ trek is what you are looking for.

All accommodation is in tents, there is no Hut accommodation on this route.

Beginning on the same path as the Lemosho route, the forests to the west side of the mountain are undoubtedly the most beautiful and pristine, it’s possible to see evidence of game here. Although you are unlikely to spot any animals, only a few years ago, trekkers were accompanied by armed rangers in case of close encounters!

 The terrain is much less well-trodden than the Machame/Marangu routes, and the days can be long. The huge bonus is that the length of the trek allows very comprehensive acclimatization. And really, acclimatization is the difference between making it to the summit or not. If you are fit enough to attempt Kilimanjaro at all, then acclimatization is the main barrier between success and failure.

Rongai Route

I Opine: Rongai is an excellent route, provided you opt for the 7 or 8 day trek. 6 days at a push, but don’t bother trying to do it in 5 days, unless you are very confident of your acclimatization. Or if you have already climbed Mt Meru so have a certain amount of “pre-acclimatization”. In my opinion, it’s not as picturesque as the Lemosho route, but that’s only a matter of opinion. Many people feel it’s the “best” route!

The Rongai route used to the be the route to take if you wanted a quieter experience than the longer-standing and popular Marangu and Machame routes. These days, it is used by more and more operators so it’s getting busier, and the price is coming down. But don’t let that put you off.

Starting on the Northern side of the mountain, the Rongai route is often said to be a fairly “easy” route to the summit. There are less steep hiking days, which for some can be seen as an advantage, but then the last day’s summit push can seem even worse! In this area there is generally less rainfall, so it’s possible to avoid the muddy trails through the rainforest on some of the other routes.

This route starts in open, part-cultivated countryside, rather than the Montagne forest of the southern and western slopes. Most operators offer 5-8 day hikes on this route. The temptation to do a short trek should be avoided, as the extra days are crucial for acclimatization. Unlike some of the longer routes, the more gentle slopes give little opportunity for going to a higher altitude and then descending to camp.

That said, Rongai route has excellent summit success rates, and is an interesting and picturesque way to the summit. Although you do not get to hike through the rainforest on the way up, you will be descending via the Marangu route, so at least you will see it on the way down.

The vegetation is somewhat different on this route, though most of the usual heath and moorland species abound, particularly if you do take the longer route and camp at Mawenzi Tarn. The lobellias, senecios and red hot poker are all there.

Depending on your operator, there may be some differences in where you camp. Some stop at Simba Camp for the first night, others go to Rongai First Cave. Either way, there is little difference in terms of difficulty or the length of hiking each day.

The hike to the summit is done at night - starting at midnight from either Kibo Hut (which follows the same as the Marangu route) or School Hut which is located slightly higher up the mountain.

Umbwe Route

I Opine: For most ‘normal’ trekkers, there is no real need to consider this route. It’s very tough, and if attempted too quickly, has a poor acclimatization protocol.

If you’ve got those legs of steel, are confident of your ability to acclimatize and want a route with dramatic scenery and a real physical challenge – go for it!

Hailed as the most difficult route up the mountain – and when coupled with the Western Breach summit attempt – Umbwe route is certainly the most “straight up”.

Nothing about this route is technical, but it’s very steep, in the first couple of days you will find yourself using tree roots to help haul yourself up the mountain! Strong legs and the love of a challenge are essential. Owing to it’s difficulty you will often have the mountainside to yourself for the first two days, as most normal people are making their way up less physically demanding routes.

Later on Day 2, however, it changes as you will be at Barranco Camp with other climbers from Lemosho route and Machame route.

From Barranco, you will either take the Southern Circuit to the Summit via Barafu Camp (with Lemosho and Machame climbers) or you will head north to Lava Tower and onto Arrow Glacier from which to tackle the Western Breach. The Umbwe route, coupled with the Western Breach is certainly the most challenging and direct way to the Summit.

For those who are experienced in the mountains, who are very fit and strong and want to make Kilimanjaro a more serious challenge, then this route certainly fits the bill!

If you are not going up the Western Breach, then I see no particular advantage to giving yourself the two unnecessarily tough days at the beginning, only to go onto the same route as the Lemosho and Machame.

However, it’s spectacular. As you haul out of the forest on Day 2, you will traverse a ridge with the most incredible views on Kilimanjaro. You are unlikely to see many – if any – other people on the first and second days hiking.

Operators offer this route as a 5, 6 or 7 day option. Unless you are well-acclimatized already (from Mt Meru) or extremely confident of your acclimatization and very experienced in the mountains, you should not consider the 5 or 6 day route. Go with the 7 day trek, you will still have the physical challenge but with a better chance of acclimatizing properly.

As I have said before, and will keep saying: if you are fit enough to even consider climbing Kilimanjaro then the main obstacle between you and the summit is acclimatization.

Shira Route

I Opine: Why bother? Just book the Lemosho route. Unless you are short of time, want to see the western side of the mountain without the forest, and - crucially - have had experience at altitude and are confident of your ability to begin trekking at 3600m - quite a gain in elevation from Moshi or Arusha.

Let me save you some time: The Shira Route is the same as the Lemosho route, but starts at a higher elevation. Consider it if you are already acclimatized after climbing Mt Meru or Mt Kenya. If not, then read about the Lemosho Route instead!

Is the “Shira Route” even available any more? If your operator is offering you this route, do read on before clicking the “buy now” button.

Shira was the original route on the western side of the mountain before the Lemosho route was available. Setting off from Shira Gate, before Londorossi Gate was opened. Starting at 3,600m, you are taken to your starting point by 4WD vehicle along what is now used as the “rescue road”.

Starting your trek on the Shira Plateau, you miss the wonderful hike through the montagne forest. Which on this side of the mountain is nothing short of spectacular. Starting at the Shira Gate, you essentially follow the emergency road across the plateau to your first campsite. This takes you through the scrubby heath and moorland zone.

Apart from the first day, this route is exactly the same as Lemosho.Your first campsite will effectively be the same as your second campsite if you had taken the Lemosho route. You simply miss the first day’s hike and start higher up. I can’t see much advantage in this.

See Lemosho here from Day 2 onwards for an in-depth look at the Shira Route.

A major problem with this route is that it’s start point is around 3,600m. This is too high an altitude for all but the most experienced altitude trekkers. If you are well acclimatized - perhaps by climbing Mt Meru first - then you could consider using this route as it’s shorter than Lemosho.

But for the rest of us who want to acclimatize and not feel sick on the first day, I don’t recommend it. Most operators now offer the Lemosho route in place of this one. Assuming you are fit enough to even attempt to climb Kilimanjaro, acclimatization is the biggest obstacle to a successful summit(1). Every year, fitter, stronger people fail to reach the summit due to poor acclimatization. On the other hand, less fit, less strong people who are well-acclimatized are often successful.

Essentially by cutting out the first day’s hiking through the rainforest, you lose valuable acclimatization time, reducing your likelihood of reaching the summit. But you also miss the experience of the rainforest. Part of the fascination of climbing Kilimanjaro is seeing the different climate zones and how they differ from one another.

Mostly this route is not offered any more, possibly some operators will offer it by request. Those that advertise the “Shira Route”, often actually start at Londorossi gate and follow the Lemosho route.

Shira Route? As they say in New Zealand: Yeah-nah, don't bother.

Western Breach, Crater Camp & the Ash Pit

What happens at the top of the mountain? Are you camping in the Crater, taking a hike to the Ash Pit? Check out these posts covering the Western Breach (an amazing experience!) and a night in the crater, visiting the ash pit:

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.