Special request: After reading the article, would you share with me via the comments what you found most helpful about it? Just trying to learn what helps the most for future writeups. Thanks!
Planning my hike of Kilimanjaro and the subsequent safari (check out my visit to Serengeti) was not an easy task. Good research was key. That research took many forms: talking to people who have hiked Kili, reading blogs or websites about hiking, talking to the great folks at REI, and the list and advice given to me by the trek organizer (Trekking for Kids). In the end, I still had many decisions to make on what felt could be important things.
So, this post is geared (sic) to those contemplating climbing Kilimanjaro to reach its peak: Uhuru Peak, an adventure that requires both cold and hot weather gear. I will attempt, as an amateur, to share over a couple of posts what made it to my packing list and how it helped. This post will focus on clothing. If you are reading this and planning a similar trek, please feel free to leave any questions as comments and I will reply and try to help. In addition, should you have other suggested items or even better suggestions than mine, please share!
Before I get on to that, a few key items:
- I did a safari after the hike so I include in the list things for that very different experience.
- Kili has multiple climate zones ranging from hot to extreme cold.
- I am not laying out all the options possible, especially in clothing, but will share what all the advice led me to.
- I did write about my 7 top items to take on this hike. It was a high-level view of the question but hopefully this will get more details!
Clothing – Lower Body
From the bottom up:
- Hiking boots – Get good ones and do your practice hikes with them so you break them in well. Otherwise you may suffer more during the hike, including dreadful blisters. Some folks went for shoes that were more like hiking shoes but I like the safety of the ankle support since I am bound to get sloppy and then twist my ankle when tired. The following are a couple of boots that read well from the product descriptions (mine were REI waterproof hiking boots from a long-time ago so no image at Amazon for them) – study these and keep in mind that waterproof and comfort reign supreme in terms of choosing one. Regardless of where you buy them, make sure you know whether you can try them out and return them if you, once you have tried them out, decide they are not for you. These two represent two different price points.
Sample 2 – Columbia Men’s North Plains Ii Waterproof Mid Hiking Boot
- Gaiters – These help keep mud and scree from doing a number on you. You will need them at summit for sure and probably on the first day if it has rained recently (it had not for us so I did not use them that day). You don’t really need knee-high things in my opinion; something to cover the possible gap between the bottom of your pants and the top of your boots is fine.
- Socks – Socks for the hike and the safari were very different types. For the latter, you may not need to be told what to get. But for the former, remember to use a liner to wick moisture from the feet and then woolen socks over them. For summiting or the colder days, you need very thick woolen socks. I was still a little cold in my feet even with the sturdiest of these.
- A rainproof outer shell was a must to avoid getting soaked. However, it does not need to keep you warm (I used under-layers to handle the cold). The outer shell is about rain and, also, wind. I got a hard shell (you can get a soft shell instead if you want). A key feature I would highly recommend are the side long zippers (ankle to hip) that enable you to very quickly put them on (as in, when rain starts all of a sudden…) – a breeze! Bottom line on these: windproof and waterproof.
- When I was not using the outer shell (which was most of the time), I just used my hiking pants as the exterior layer. I would highly recommend zip-off (convertible) hiking pants for quick adaptability: if it gets too hot during the day, you don’t have the “do-I-want-to-go-through-the-hassle-of-taking-off-my-boots-to-change-into-shorts?”-type of dilemma… But it also saved packing both long pants and shorts 🙂 Read through all the details of these and others you may find (all sorts of price points!). The convertible hiking pants shown don’t need to be anything fancy: comfortable and with the amount of pockets you feel you want in the right places (and with buttons, Velcro or zippers on them per your preferences). Basic worked fine for me!
- Base layer for the legs – Base layers (long leggings) made from merino wool (the best) will be important to keep me warm. This layer, given the material, will also keep odors from building up which makes them re-usable for more than one day (saving the load of what needs to be carried by the porters and taken in my luggage on the trip to/from Africa). You can use polypropylene for this layer but I hear merino wool just performs better. On summit day, you may need two layers of base layer. I wore two under the hiking pants and then the hard shell on the outside. I was consistently told before the trip that silk is about the best material to help retain warmth next to the skin. I was surprised when I heard that. I just happened to have this pair of silk leggings but, once on Tanzania, our lead guide told me to use the two merino layers I had instead of the silk pair and one merino pair. It worked well enough for me on summit night!
- Shorts for safari – I wore shorts during the safari (the zip-off hiking pants and an extra pair) but I also did wear my full hiking pants to better protect me from the sun (and bugs, I suppose). Of course, shorts will also be things you wear in the evening or when exploring towns.
Clothing – Upper Body
- Base layer– The upper body layering approach is much like the lower body’s. I used base layers for the colder days – again merino wool. (Usually one, but two on summit night!) For lower altitudes, a regular long sleeve CoolMax type of shirt. As I went up and things got colder, a wool “close-to-the-skin” layer under the CoolMax worked well. Wool is ideal for skin-contact as it wicks moisture from your skin preventing many things (one of them: smells!). I show one example below but there are tons from many brands that fit the needs – and varying budgets 😉 Bottom line: no cotton!
- Mid layer – I got a merino wool mid-layer to have for the evenings at camps lower than base camp. On summit night, this layer would separate the skin-hugging base layers and the outer layers I will mention next. Tasc‘s Elevation line (of which I show a base layer item above) also has a 1/4 zip hoodie jacket that also combines merino wool with their signature bamboo fiber which may be a great item. I didn’t have one with a hoodie so I had to wear the regular ski hat if I was cold enough at camp at night. (By the way, I am a fan of Tasc‘s regular bamboo fabric t-shirts so I am curious how this one would work). The Icebreaker item I show below, has the power of one of the best-known and valued brands in terms of quality of merino wool. Normally that means a higher price point but this one seems quite reasonable; search around when you click through below as they have other versions of the same type of item with some range in price point… The SmartWool brand, in my short years of serious hiking, has proven to be a good and reliable one; so theirs is worth reading more about when selecting a mid layer top Be wary of items that will themselves as having wool; a few years ago I clicked on one and it was mostly polyester and only 11% wool – always read the product details!! Note: An alternative could be a fleece jacket – there are pros and cons to wool vs. fleece with one of the main ones being how each performs in keeping you warm when wet (wool is better) and how quickly they dry (fleece is better). Since I knew I would have the right layers to keep rain off me, then wool was a no-brainer for me.
- Outer layers – On the trek, I had an outer hard shell for rain and wind. I also carried a synthetic down jacket which was great because it was very compact when packed. I used the latter in the evenings while at camp on cold nights and, of course, on summit night. My outer shell was an Arcteryx jacket very much like the one below. Arcteryx is not a cheap brand (I hunted the jacket until I found it on a great sale!) but reading through the item I show below will give you an idea of the features to look for; best I can tell, this one is pretty similar from top to bottom to the one I had (except mine was orange). To keep in mind for summit night: I used two merino wool base layers, the merino wool light jacket, the hard shell (for wind, not rain), and the synthetic down jacket – which I was not wearing at the beginning of the ascent but which I wore during breaks and once it got too cold even while moving. It important to plan these well because summit night will be COLD.
- Shirts for safari – I had quick-dry short sleeve shirts that also had side vents – very comfortable in warm weather and preventing odors from building up…
- Head- and neck- gear – I used different items to cover my head from the cold and from the sun – both very important. A typical sun hat to protect against the sun (with a rim) was a very good idea. A skull cap was one of the items I used in cold weather. In very windy or in rainy conditions, the hood from the hard shell helped a good deal. I also had a buff which I used when the skull cap seemed like a little much. In fact, the buff served many purposes, like loosely hanging around my neck to avoid burning up when in the sun. I also used it to cover my mouth and nose when it got dusty on the trail or in the safari. Finally, I brought a balaclava for summit night. It would offer lots of protection with only a small space open to look out. I could also just use it around my neck (would keep it warmer than the buff would). So quite a few options!
- Outer gloves – You are going to want some extreme gloves! The gloves should be waterproof because you don’t want gloves getting wet where it is cold! And some good heavy duty insulation (e.g., PrimaLoft). You will still need liners underneath (you would think an extreme glove would be enough…). My fingertips were still a little cold on summit night even with the liners! But that eventually passed as I entered “the zone” (read how summit night unfolded!) You also need to decide on the type: mitt or separate-fingers. For that outer layer of gloves, I chose mitt. Plus: less “surface” exposed to the outside, so keeps more warmth around your fingers. Minus: Lower usability of your fingers since they cannot move independently. However, my rationale for mitts was that most of the time, I would be holding hiking poles in my hands during the ascent and for that, the mitt grip worked. Once I wanted to reach for tissues or take a photo, yes, I would have to take the mitts off but that was not a big deal. Even fingered style gloves may have been too thick for some of these motions.
- Liners – I only used the extreme gloves summit night but the liners I used a lot on the days and evenings prior to summit night. Maybe bring two pairs of liners of different thicknesses, or one pair of liners and one pair of lighter gloves. The Grabber hand warmer thingies that generate some heat can be helpful though they do not always seem to generate the same level of heat at high altitude. Nevertheless, any heat helps so you may want to bring some.
Clothing – sleep time
OK, do I really think you need help with this? No and yes. No, because sleep wear is such a personal comfort thing. But yes because part of it is slightly counter-intuitive. When you are sleeping in the super-cold weather sleeping bag at night at the higher altitudes and on colder nights, the less you wear, THE BETTER. No, no, nothing kinky about that statement. Simply the interior of the super-cold weather sleeping bag will make you feel your own body heat warming you as it leaves your body. So the more clothing you wear, the less your body heat will work with the sleeping bag to keep you warm. Other than that, keep the jackets, pants, etc. close to the sleeping bag because when you wake up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself (and, trust me, you WILL if you are taking Diamox), you will need to put those on because you will not be able to go outside in your “sleepwear”!
Can I help you any more?
So, this is the run-down of the clothing for a hike of Mt. Kilimanjaro. These are the things I got and used on the hike (and on the subsequent safari) and they served me very well. Others may have different opinions or additional suggestions and I hope they will share those here. Finally, I hope if you were not considering hiking Kili or were uncertain, check out my other posts on the topic (which I list below) and know that it is fairly attainable with good training and preparation!
Disclosure: I am not being paid or in any way compensated by the brands whose wares I discuss in this post. While I would love to sample their products and review them, that is not the case in this post – just want to show good samples of the types of items I’d consider.