Training for Kilimanjaro: How to Hike in High Altitude
Wondering what kind of training you need for Kilimanjaro?
Standing at 19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro requires serious mental, physical, and emotional endurance from start to finish. The strenuous climb – combined with the high altitudes – causes nearly 60% of climbers to leave the trails without ever taking a selfie at the Kilimanjaro summit.
So, how can you get the right training that will increase your chances of seeing the view from the Roof of Africa?
Our Top 5 Ways to Train for Kilimanjaro Altitude
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Establishing a training regime well before you get to Africa is just as important as following the 10 commandments of climbing Kilimanjaro once you are there. You can use these five essentials as your Kilimanjaro Training Checklist:
1. Realize That Altitude Doesn’t Care How Awesome You Are
Since high altitude means there’s less oxygen available, your body may have a harder time adjusting to the strenuous activity of hiking and carrying your gear. This is already a hard enough feat in the best of circumstances – now imagine doing it with less air.
If you ascend the mountain too quickly, you may experience acute mountain sickness (AMS), or altitude sickness. You’ll feel exhausted, nauseous, experience shortness of breath, headaches, and may have trouble focusing.
These symptoms are typically the culprits behind why most hikers (even the very experienced ones) abandon their Kilimanjaro quest early. Though being fit and having some high-altitude hiking experience can reduce your chances of developing AMS, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be in the clear.
Altitude knows no body type: even the most in-shape hikers can run into trouble if they climb too quickly. The best way to combat AMS is to train properly and acclimatize slowly. A 10-12 day Kilimanjaro hike has a higher success rate than some of the shorter hikes because you spend more time letting your body adjust to high altitude instead of fighting it.
2. Know that Aerobic Exercise Will Prepare Your Heart and Lungs
Thanks to the low oxygen levels, just being at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro is like a low-impact cardio workout for your heart and lungs – and that’s before you even start ascending steep trails with a heavy pack!
Anyone can reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, but you’ll tire more quickly and have a harder time breathing if you didn’t get in some serious workouts before your trek.
We recommend that you start an aerobic (or cardio) exercise program at least six months before your climb.
When you’re performing aerobic exercises, your body will get accustomed to using oxygen when it’s in low supply (in order to meet the energy demands of your muscles). This exercise will mimic the experience your body will have while hiking Kilimanjaro. (Note that it won’t mimic the low oxygen pressure, just the low oxygen content.) Just like when you begin to feel maxed out after a few tough reps or sprints, high altitudes may make it feel like you won’t have enough oxygen to power through.
Cardio is particularly great because it gets your heart pumping and your blood flowing, strengthening your cardiovascular system and your lungs. Your lungs may hurt while working out, but they’ll thank you when you’re hiking Kilimanjaro.
We tell our hikers to train for Kilimanjaro with light-to-moderate intensity cardio for 30–60 minutes at least three times a week. Some great ways to get your heart pumping include:
- Hiking, walking, jogging, and running
One month before your trip, increase the duration (but not intensity) of your workouts to build your endurance.
3. Don’t Forget that Strength Training Will Build Much-Needed Muscle
In addition to cardio exercises, light strength and resistance training will turn the muscles in your legs, core, and upper body into powerhouses that will help you reach the Kilimanjaro summit.
Trust us, your legs will be working overtime while you are hiking up to 10+ hour days – and your upper body will be doing double-duty by carrying your pack and gear.
But going up isn’t the only hard part. Descending Mount Kilimanjaro can be hard on your hips, thighs, and knees. Without the proper training and form, you may develop sore legs and aching joints, what we call “rubber leg syndrome.”
The muscles in your stomach, upper shoulders, and lower back will help your posture during your entire trek. But another huge benefit of maintaining the correct posture is that, when you have good upper body form, your chest is able to open up and allow your lungs to take in more oxygen.
Try to commit to 2–3 days of strength training per week, starting at least six months before your Kilimanjaro climb, to build muscle strength for your hike.
The best way to build up the muscles in your legs is to start off with exercises like:
- Inclined Leg Presses
- Leg Extensions
- Walking Lunges
- Rear Lunges
- Standing Calf Raises
And the best exercises to build up your upper body and core include:
- Push Ups
- Back and Shoulder Flies
- Reverse Grip Pulldowns
- Shoulder Presses
- Kettlebell Rows/Swings
Don’t ignore your weak spots — these will only be painfully magnified on the trail!
4. Start Hiking in Your New Boots
The biggest mistake you can make when climbing Kilimanjaro is hiking in brand new boots. You need time to break in boots before you trust them for a major expedition like a Mount Kilimanjaro trek.
Aside from making sure you choose the right high-quality hiking boots, wearing properly worn-in footwear that has had time to conform to your footbed will provide comfort and protection against blisters and sore feet.
Although it is best to practice hiking hills and mountains, it’s sometimes more convenient to find a treadmill where you can program a consistent walking pace and vary the incline to mimic ascending and descending sloping trails. It may feel strange, but it’s a good idea to practice hiking with your gear on so you know exactly how it will feel come game day. This gives your body a chance to adjust to the weight and points-of-contact of your daypack. Your shoulders, back, and hips will learn how to shift the weight so your posture stays straight and you can predict where soreness and chafing may occur.
We always tell our customers to hike at least three long distance hikes (over 4+ hours) in new boots before wearing them on the Kilimanjaro trail. Start walking long distance hikes (between 3–10 miles) at least once a week in your hiking boots and with your daypack. Weekend day hikes where you hike more than 6 hours are even better.
Just remember to skip the long hikes 2–4 weeks before your climb so your body has time to rest and recuperate before your big adventure.
5. Use Yoga and Meditation to Mentally Prepare Yourself
Despite your body being in good shape, climbing Kilimanjaro takes a lot of mental determination, too. There will be times you’ll want to abandon your hike and find the nearest hotel and a warm, comfy bed. For moments like this, it takes a calm, focused mind to remember why you started, and concentrate on your goal and the challenge.
To train your mental and physical endurance, you could start running long distances and practice drawing on your mental reserves when the finish line is nowhere in sight. But a more realistic approach is to use mindfulness techniques found in yoga and meditation.
Plus, there’s another major perk to incorporating yoga into your training for Kilimanjaro: yoga gets your body to stretch in ways aerobic and strength training exercises don’t. And, when your body gets used to stretching, it becomes less prone to injuries and pulled muscles. You’ll also be less stiff and sore after a few months of yoga — both of which will help on Kilimanjaro.
Since these muscles will be working the hardest on your climb, add a yoga practice that specifically stretches and strengthens your:
- Upper body (shoulders, arms, back, and chest)
- Lower body (hamstrings, quads, calves, hips, and glutes)
In addition to stretching, yoga teaches you how to control your breathing and take deeper breaths, which is critical to fighting off AMS. Shallow breathing (i.e., quick, rapid inhales/exhales) doesn’t give your body all the oxygen it needs when you’re at high altitude.
Before Training for Kilimanjaro, Book with Tusker and Let us Help You Prepare
The key to training for Kilimanjaro is making sure you’re well-rounded to handle both the physical and mental aspects of completing the journey.
In addition to preparing for your first Kilimanjaro hike, remember:
- Stronger legs will make it easier for you to hike up and downhill for extended periods of time — multiple days in a row.
- A well-conditioned upper body will make carrying your daypack a cake walk.
- When your body’s used to cardio, it may not react so harshly when you’re hiking at high altitude.
- Yoga and meditation are crucial for preventing injuries, teaching you how to breathe, and giving you the mental focus to reach the top.
The biggest factor in whether you make it to the Kilimanjaro summit is how well you acclimate to the altitude.
That’s why Tusker’s guides are trained to monitor your health as the altitude increases and why we only offer 10–12 day Kilimanjaro treks, allowing your body to slowly get used to the elevation changes. We know that each additional day you spend on the mountain increases your chances of reaching the Kilimanjaro summit.
Check out our climbing dates and routes now to know when you should start your training!