Pros and cons of the various Kilimanjaro trekking routes

Marangu route

The most straightforward and direct of all the routes, the Marangu Route ascends and descends along the same path and can be completed in just five days, although six is recommended. It is best known as being the only route to offer mountain hut accommodation along the train, in place of the usual campsites. From the southeastern side of Kilimanjaro, the route passes through leafy forest, heather-filled moors and lunar landscapes, gradually sloping upwards with no difficult or steep sections to cross. Marangu comes with its highlights, although other routes are arguably more scenic, but the promise of a Coke or a cold beer at the end of a hard day’s trek is understandably very appealing.

The pros and cons of Marangu

The ‘Coca Cola’, or ‘Tourist’ route, Marangu is commonly known as the easiest route, mostly because of its mountain hut accommodation. Ironically, it is estimated to be the route with the lowest success rate. This is partly because it attracts the most unprepared, inexperienced climbers expecting a walk in the park and comfy beds. In reality, it is the shortest Kilimanjaro route, only five days long, with relatively little time to acclimatise. It’s also the only route that descends back along the same path, meaning you don’t get to see the mountain from a different angle.

A six day version of the route does allow an additional day to acclimatise, climb high and sleep low, greatly increasing the chances of success and a more enjoyable trek. Being so short means it’s usually the cheapest option, and if you’re dead set against camping then the Marangu huts will be a welcome alternative, even if they are more rough-and-ready than relaxing and comfortable. Huts are supplied with mattress and other basic amenities, ideal if you don’t have all the equipment required for the other routes, and the shared mealtimes in the dining halls adds to the atmosphere. If you choose to do this trek in the rainy season, you can also benefit from the quieter trails while enjoying a warm, dry bed at night. But while cost and a cosy bed are important, this is ideally a trail for trekkers who know they can cope with the altitude.

Machame route

The ‘Whisky Route’, as the Machame route has come to be known, has a reputation for being trickier than the best known route, the Marangu route – aka the ‘Coca Cola Route’. In fact, while it’s true that there are some steeper and more challenging sections, Machame actually has a higher success rate than Marangu. Beginning to the southwest of Kilimanjaro, it takes a minimum of six days to complete; although a seven trek is available that better prepares you for the altitude ahead. Heading north, the scenery quickly changes from rich forests to open moors, mountainous desert landscapes and the barren Shira Plateau. The infamous Barranco Wall, a formidable looking obstacle from a distance, only involves a fairly easy scramble where you may need to use your hands a bit. After a midnight start and a challenging push for the summit, you descend Kilimanjaro to the south east, following the Mweka Route down the mountain.

The pros and cons of Machame

This is the second most popular route due its eclectic landscapes and beauty Ė the path crosses through four diverse climate zones. It also has some good challenges for hikers, as well as allowing good opportunities for sleeping at lower altitudes at night, which helps combat altitude sickness. For this reason it also has a good success rate, especially if you choose a longer, itinerary with seven days of walking. For this reason it has excellent success rates. It is also quick to access the Machame Gate from Kilimanjaro International Airport, with one nightís stay in Moshi at each end of the trip.
What a great mountain and the Machame is the best scenic route with good time to acclimatize.
Ė Robert Barta on trekking the Machame Route
This is one of the more popular routes so it can get a bit busy on the trail, especially where the route joins Lemosho, Shira and Umbwe at the Barranco Wall. The wall comes as an additional challenge for some and, while there is no need to be an experienced trekker and the scramble is fairly easy going, there is one section which could leave you with sweaty palms if youíre not a fan of heights.

Lemosho Route

The Lemosho Route starts to the west of Kilimanjaro, to the south of the Shira Route with which it runs parallel for the first few days. This trail passes through a wide variety of scenery, with two days walking and camping in the forest, followed by wide open heath lands and views of Mount Meru. The trek across Shira Plateau, taking in views of Shira Cathedral, is a wonderful part of this route, followed up by more dramatic rock formations. There’s a scramble, where you may need to use your hands, up Barranco Wall, but this will be taken at a gentle pace and requires no skill or experience. Then over the scree to Barafu Camp, where there are good views on every side, before the early morning start and a challenging day of trekking to Uhuru Peak. The descent also follows the Mweka Route down to the south of Kilimanjaro.

Pros and cons of the Lemosho Route

The Lemosho Route is currently said to be the route with the highest success rate, taking between six and eight days to complete, with many tour operators reporting more than 90% of people reaching Uhuru Peak. Itís also one of, if not the, most scenic route, with the two-day trek through lush rainforest being a highlight for many people. Itís a versatile route which can be done with a group or as a tailor made tour, with the option to choose a more days on the mountain for even better acclimatisation.

Being a longer trek makes this route more expensive and, although this does deter some people, it doesnít prevent this popular choice from being one of the more populated routes up Kilimanjaro, especially when it merges with the Machame Route. The route also includes a scramble up the Barranco Wall which, although easy enough, may be more of a challenge for anyone uncomfortable with heights. Rough roads mean it can be a bumpy ride to get to the start of the trail, but realistically the pros of this route greatly outweigh any cons.
The Lemosoho route offers far more spectacular scenery than the other route I tried last year.
Ė Michael Axe on trekking the Lemosho Route

Rongai Route

The only route that approaches Kilimanjaro from the north, Rongai takes a minimum of six days to complete, although the longer seven day trek offers a greater chance to get used to the higher altitude. Heading south from Rongai Gate to Rongai Cave, your first camp, you walk first through fields of crops before spending your only day of walking in the forest – you may even spot a colobus monkey or two. Woodlands open up into heathlands that offer views of Kibo cone and the eastern icefields. By your third day of hiking, all vegetation is left behind and the lunar desert of the ‘Saddle’ awaits. The final ascent starts around midnight – you can expect a full day of trekking with as many as 11 to 15 hours on your feet. The descent then follows the Marangu Route, to the southeast of Kilimanjaro, and may take up to two days to complete.

Pros and cons of the Rongai Route

The Rongai Route is the preferred choice for anyone looking for a less crowded alternative to the Marangu trek. Considered to be less varied in scenery than some of the other routes, Rongai makes up for its shortcomings by taking trekkers through areas of true wilderness, and by being one of the few treks where wildlife can still be spotted. It’s also one of the better routes for trekking during the rainy season, as the northern side of Kilimanjaro receives less rainfall. It’s considered to be a moderately difficult route, offering a steady ascent without any steep climbs, but also without the good ‘climb high, sleep low’ path offered by other routes.

As mentioned, this is a less varied route, especially during the dry season. It doesn’t offer the best route for acclimatisation either, although choosing a longer, tailor made itinerary will improve your chances of making it to the top. The start of the route is also furthest from Kilimanjaro Airport and Arusha, so it involves more traveling before and after you have finished your trek, making it more expensive.

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Northern route

Almost a full circuit, this route takes at least nine days, and is the longest trail on the mountain, so it isnít offered by many companies. It is also a recent addition to the route map, and starts off using the Lemosho Trail, with a trail head on the west. Using this trail as far as the Lava Towers, it then leaves the Lemosho Trail and heads northwest to Moir Hut. From here you trek across the empty northern contours towards the northeast, walking at a height of around 4,000m for a couple of days. Itís pure mountain wilderness on this side of the mountain. You link up with the Rongai route on the northeast side of the mountain, glad to meet a few other trekkers again at the Third Cave campsite, summiting with them to the School Hut. This is the last stop before the final ascent to Gillmanís Point on the crater rim and then, finally, onto Uhuru Peak. The descent completes the near circuit, using the Mweka route, which feels like Grand Central Station in contrast with the trek on the northwest side of a few days before.

The pros and cons of the Northern route

It is the longest route and so, therefore, the most expensive Ė but think of it as three for the price of one, taking in the highlights of the Lemosha, Rongai and Mweka Routes, with a whole other northeast wilderness thrown in as the icing on this beautiful white cake. The newest route on the mountain also looks likely to be the successor to the Lemosho Route in terms of highest success rate, offering at least one additional day to acclimatise, depending on your itinerary.

The costs and amount of days needed to complete the trek (and therefore time taken off work) do, however, make it a less popular trip. This, combined with its relative newness, means it is also less frequently offered by trekking companies, so you might have to book it as a tailor made trip, or fit in with the few dates when they do offer it.

Shira route

Starting in the northwest at the Shira Gate, this is considered one of the most difficult treks due to steepness and, therefore, rapid altitude gain. Further north than the Lemosho Route, but following a very similar seven day route, it heads from west to east across the mountain, but avoids the two days of hiking through rainforest, if that isnít your thing. The gate is at 3,500m, so being acclimatised already is a good plan. Named the Shira route because of the amount of the Shira Plateau that it covers, it gives trekkers a vast expanse of open land to enjoy, as they trek from west to east. The route links up with the Lemosho Route at Shira 2 camp and continues to share the trail to Uhuru Peak from there.

The pros and cons of Shira

If you want to hit the mountain at a height, then this is a good one for you, although you need to be confident in your ability to acclimatise, as you start off at a high elevation very quickly. You can also choose to do a longer, tailor made version of the trek, which spends an additional day on the mountain to maximise your chances of acclimatisation and success. The northern plains of Shira are very empty, with only an approximate 5% of people taking this route, so it’s great for solitary trekking and discovering the more remote corners of the mountain. Even when you join the Lemosho Route, the number of other walkers is not that high.

If you want to experience that feeling of trekking through contrasting landscapes and climate zones, however, this one is not so exciting, as it leaves out the rainforest hike (complete with monkeys and other wildlife) that lovers of Lemosho fawn over. Due to the fact that it is pretty hardcore, and does not have a good success rate due to altitude sickness issues, it is also less frequently offered by trekking companies, so you will have to book it as a tailor made trip. We wouldn’t recommend this route to anyone who hasn’t previously done some high altitude trekking.

Umbwe route

If Bear Grylls was going to pick a route, it would probably be this one. The steepest, and the most remote, itís also the toughest when it comes to dealing with altitude sickness. Starting on the south side, it runs east of and almost parallel to the more popular Machame route. For the first two days you take on very steep, rapidly climbing ascents through rainforest, albeit devoid of other people. Following the Umbwe River, you eventually emerge onto the southern circuit of the mountain and join the Machame route at Barranco Camp, and enjoy the features of this trail all the way to Uhuru Peak. Itís usually completed in five to seven days, but the shorter version is not usually recommended due to limited time to acclimatise and poor success rates.

The pros and cons of Umbwe

You need to be very confident in your ability to trek at altitude otherwise this becomes almost impossible to complete. While not a technical climb, this is tough trek that is exposed to both the elements (with little cover) and greater risks of altitude sickness. The exposed ridges are also not for anyone uncomfortable with heights. In short, only the most experienced need apply.

In terms of pros, hard to find any really. Although meeting Bear Grylls on the way would be cool. Itís said to be one of the more scenic routes, and the shorter length may appeal to some, but the other routes offer so much more. You will need to organise a private, tailor made expedition for this trip, but most tour operators are able to supply this, especially if they have a strong team of local guides to lead you up.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: truebacarlos] [Marangu route: Stig Nygaard] [Machame route: Stig Nygaard] [Lemosho Route: mitchpa1984] [Rongai Route: Engyles] [Northern route: Stig Nygaard] [Shira route: Abir Anwar] [Umbwe route: Jorge LŠscar]
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