What is the Safest Route on Kilimanjaro?

Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters), is a coveted destination for adventurers and trekkers worldwide. Located in Tanzania, this majestic mountain offers several routes to its summit, each with its unique challenges, scenic views, and popularity among climbers. For those prioritizing safety, understanding which route on Kilimanjaro is the safest is crucial. This article delves into the various routes available, assessing them based on safety criteria to determine the safest path to the roof of Africa.

safest Kilimanjaro route
Photo by Balazs Simon

Understanding the Routes

Kilimanjaro has several established routes to its summit, each varying in difficulty, length, acclimatization profile, and scenic beauty. The main routes are:

  1. Marangu Route (Coca-Cola Route)
  2. Machame Route (Whiskey Route)
  3. Lemosho Route
  4. Rongai Route
  5. Shira Route
  6. Umbwe Route
  7. Northern Circuit Route

Marangu Route

The Marangu Route, also known as the Coca-Cola Route, is one of the oldest and most established paths on Kilimanjaro. It is unique because it offers hut accommodations rather than camping, which many find more comfortable. The route is considered to be more straightforward, with gradual ascents and well-defined paths. However, it has a lower success rate compared to other routes due to its rapid ascent profile, which can hinder proper acclimatization.

Machame Route

The Machame Route, often referred to as the Whiskey Route due to its challenging nature, is popular among those seeking a more varied and scenic trek. This route involves steeper climbs and longer distances than the Marangu Route, but it allows for better acclimatization due to its “climb high, sleep low” approach, which enhances the chances of reaching the summit.

Lemosho Route

The Lemosho Route is known for its breathtaking scenery and high success rate. It approaches Kilimanjaro from the west, traversing lush rainforests and the dramatic Shira Plateau. The route offers a longer duration on the mountain, which aids in acclimatization, making it one of the safer options for climbers.

Rongai Route

The Rongai Route is the only path that approaches Kilimanjaro from the north, near the Kenyan border. It is less crowded, provides a more remote trekking experience, and offers a steady, gradual climb. The route is drier and less steep, which some find advantageous for acclimatization and safety.

Shira Route

The Shira Route shares a similar path to the Lemosho Route but starts higher up on the mountain. It begins at the Shira Ridge, leading to the Shira Plateau. This route can be demanding due to the initial high altitude, but it merges with the Lemosho Route, providing beautiful vistas and decent acclimatization opportunities.

Umbwe Route

The Umbwe Route is the shortest and steepest route on Kilimanjaro, known for its direct ascent. This route is considered one of the most challenging and is generally recommended for experienced climbers. The rapid gain in altitude increases the risk of altitude sickness, making it a less safe option for those prioritizing safety.

Northern Circuit Route

The Northern Circuit Route is the newest and longest route on Kilimanjaro. It offers an extended trek around the northern slopes of the mountain, providing ample time for acclimatization. This route combines elements of the Lemosho Route and adds an extra day or two on the mountain, significantly improving the chances of a safe and successful ascent.

Criteria for Safety

When evaluating the safety of each route, several factors must be considered:

  1. Acclimatization Profile: Proper acclimatization is critical to avoid altitude sickness. Routes that allow for gradual ascent and include “climb high, sleep low” opportunities are generally safer.
  2. Route Popularity and Crowds: Heavily trafficked routes may pose risks such as trail erosion, overcrowded campsites, and reduced availability of medical assistance.
  3. Weather Conditions: Some routes may experience harsher weather conditions due to their exposure and altitude gain patterns.
  4. Technical Difficulty: Routes with steep ascents, rocky paths, or scrambling sections can increase the risk of falls and injuries.
  5. Medical and Rescue Facilities: The availability of rescue services, guides, and porters trained in first aid can significantly impact safety.

Assessing the Safest Route

Acclimatization Profile

The Northern Circuit, Lemosho, and Machame routes provide the best acclimatization profiles due to their longer durations on the mountain and gradual ascents. The Northern Circuit Route, in particular, allows climbers to spend extended periods at intermediate altitudes, promoting better acclimatization.

Route Popularity and Crowds

The Marangu and Machame routes are the most popular, often leading to crowded trails and campsites. While this means better infrastructure, it can also result in trail erosion and reduced serenity. In contrast, the Lemosho, Northern Circuit, and Rongai routes offer more solitude, reducing the risks associated with crowded trails.

Weather Conditions

weather on Kilimanjaro

Weather conditions on Kilimanjaro can be unpredictable, but certain routes are more exposed to harsh conditions. The Rongai Route, being on the northern side, is generally drier and less affected by the southeast trade winds. The Lemosho and Northern Circuit routes also offer varied weather conditions but provide adequate shelter due to their more extended itineraries.

Technical Difficulty

Routes like the Umbwe and Shira are technically more challenging, with steep ascents and rough terrain. These routes require climbers to be more experienced and physically fit. The Marangu Route, with its well-defined paths and gradual climbs, is technically less demanding, making it safer for beginners.

Medical and Rescue Procedures

Guides and porters are a vital part of any Kilimanjaro expedition, providing assistance and first aid. The popularity of the Marangu and Machame routes means more established rescue and medical services. However, professional and well-equipped guiding companies can provide excellent safety measures on less popular routes like the Northern Circuit and Lemosho.

Conclusion: The Safest Route

Considering the factors discussed, the Northern Circuit Route emerges as the safest route on Kilimanjaro. Here’s why:
The Northern Circuit Map

  1. Excellent Acclimatization: The Northern Circuit offers the longest duration on the mountain, allowing for gradual altitude gain and better acclimatization. This significantly reduces the risk of altitude sickness, the most common and dangerous issue climbers face on Kilimanjaro.
  2. Less Crowded: The Northern Circuit is less trafficked compared to routes like Marangu and Machame. This means less trail erosion, more serene campsites, and a more personalized experience with guides and porters.
  3. Scenic and Varied Terrain: The route traverses diverse landscapes, from lush rainforests to arid deserts, and offers stunning views without the crowding of more popular routes.
  4. Weather and Exposure: The Northern Circuit experiences varied but generally favorable weather conditions due to its longer, circumnavigating path around the mountain. This allows climbers to acclimate to different weather patterns gradually.
  5. Professional Guidance: Given its length and the comprehensive experience it offers, professional guiding companies often lead Northern Circuit treks, ensuring well-prepared and equipped staff for any emergencies.

Additional Considerations

While the Northern Circuit is deemed the safest, it’s essential for climbers to:

Choose Reputable Tour Operators: Opt for companies with experienced guides, good reviews, and a solid safety record.

Train Adequately: Physical fitness and proper preparation can significantly enhance safety on the mountain.

train for Kilimanjaro

Pack Appropriately: Proper gear, including clothing for varying temperatures and a well-stocked first aid kit, is crucial.

Stay Hydrated and Nourished: Altitude can diminish appetite and thirst; staying well-hydrated and nourished is essential for maintaining strength and acclimatization.

stay hydrated while climbing Kilimanjaro

Final Thoughts

Mount Kilimanjaro is a formidable but achievable challenge for many adventurers. By choosing the safest route, climbers can maximize their chances of a successful and enjoyable summit experience. The Northern Circuit, with its excellent acclimatization profile, lower crowd levels, varied terrain, and favorable weather conditions, stands out as the optimal choice for those prioritizing safety on their journey to the highest point in Africa. Whether you’re an experienced mountaineer or a first-time trekker, thorough preparation and informed decision-making are key to a safe and memorable Kilimanjaro adventure.

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