Outfitting For Mount Kilimanjaro, Or, Does This Balaclava Make Me Look Fat?

Okay, you made that decision to climb the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; now what? Why, you have to know what to bring. This isn’t a pair of trunks and a tee shirt for the beach. Mount Kilimanjaro peaks at 19340′, rising 14000′ out of the 5000′ altitude Great Rift Valley in Eastern Africa. It is actually a 41 mile wide volcanic mountain with three volcanic cones: Shira, Mawenzie and the highest, Kibo. Uhuru peak on Kibo is the highest pint in Africa, and when you summit clad in all the gear you brought with, there is an iconic sign welcoming you and a book to sign to prove you were there.

Although you are about 200 miles south of the equator the temperature is never hot as the altitude and prevailing winds keep it cool to downright frigid on the summit. The winds bring moisture form the Indian Ocean and soak the Eastern flank of the mountain creating tropical/temperate rainforest that averages 100 inches of rain a year. Elephants and lions can both be found at this altitude and higher. Clothing here would be shorts and light shirts, a hat and a rain parka in your daypack. What makes packing for Kilimanjaro so difficult is that you will be passing through four climate zones with specific clothing requirements for each.

After trekking through muddy animal trails in the forest you begin to ascend into a temperate-looking scrub forest not unlike what you might see in a 100 year old clear cut forest in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri. As you get to 10,000′ the clouds begin to impair your vision and the temperature drops. Here you need the rain gear and stocking cap. The next climate zone is subarctic as you pass the tree line and the temp drops below freezing at night but is in the 30’s to 40’s during the day; finally as you pass 16,000′ mark it becomes an arctic zone with temps in the teens, no vegetation and blowing ice crystals and snow making visibility difficult.

The gear to be properly out fitted is designed to cover the wide range of weather conditions you world encounter on your trek. If you are serious about going, first get those boots. Make sure they are comfortable (sort of obvious), look for a GORE-TEX (or similar) lining. You can waterproof/snow proof the outer portions with beeswax preparation commercially available to anyone. Walk around in them, like a couple of hundred miles, and break them in.

Next you need to begin buy clothing to layer against the elements. Usually polypropylene (or silk if you can afford it) next to the skin to wick the sweat off, then cotton, then a wind/moisture barrier such as GORE-TEX or its equivalent.

You will have maybe three types of polypro, light medium and heavy which you will switch to as you ascend and the temperature drops. Same with socks, and they should get thicker, warmer the higher you go.

A good pair of snow pants/rain pants with articulated knees for the actually climbing is much more comfortable that maybe the GORE-TEX running pants you have.

A good hooded wind/rain jacket with lots of pockets is helpful. Snacks, extra gloves and water can be stored there. Zippered vents are a must as you work your way up and the sun comes out, you don’t want to be sweating when the clouds return and the temperature drops 20-25 degrees.

A neck Gator to keep the cold wind off is a great idea, as are “rock gators” to keep some of the ten million rocks you will encounter out of your boots. Few things worse than taking your boot off in 20 degrees in a snowfield to get a rock out.

Gloves! A must have for every adventure traveler. Polypro glove liners and water proof outers usually do the trick. Your day pack should have enough room to carry clothing for a sudden weather change, such as rain or bitter cold sweeping down from the summit. You should be able to store 2-3 liters of water either in a camelback or in bottles; most guides recommend fours liters a day to stave off dehydration due to high altitude induced dry air and the difficult walking conditions.

Ah yes, the balaclava, usually a polypro hooded mask to protect face, ears and nose from bitter cold and wind chill. It also helps heat the air you are breathing. On top of that goes the hat. Old mountain climber’s saying,” When your feet get cold put your hat on!” Fifty percent of your body heat can escape out of your scalp and head.

Hey, you’re looking pretty good now, but what do you need to look great! Sunglasses! Good polarized sunglasses are a must at this altitude or you cold burn your retinas and suffer partial blindness. Not a good thing to have trying to get to the top o a mountain.

Where do you go to get “the stuff”? The internet is great place if you already know sizes. A huge array of clothing and gear can be found at outdoor travel sights. But if you want to go to a brick and mortar store then you have those available to you. Read reviews of the clothing and deal with reputable retailers. You do not want things falling apart at 18,000 in altitude and 10,000 miles from home.

It is all about planning. Plan carefully and you will enjoy the risky adventure you are taking.

Johnetta Bernard

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