As a quick background, I climbed Kili back in 2013 after an impulsive decision to find an exotic vacation experience. At the time, I was in fairly good physical condition and I exercised regularly on a daily basis. But I had only weeks to prepare my body for the physical challenges associated with long hikes, strenuous hill climbs and descents, and altitude changes. I decided to stick to a concept that I was familiar with: Training for race conditions. For this method, I broke down my training plan into two areas of concentration:
- Average daily elevation gain
- Gear conditioning
The first thing that MUST happen is that you choose your route and duration based off your personal physical assessment. For example, if I have doubts about my ability to rapidly ascend or keep up with the distance, I may choose to take the Rongai or Marangu route. Personally, I sided with the Machame route due to its popularity and moderate difficulty. Upon deciding your route, draw up a quick sketch of the elevation profile for that route. If you are starting at 6,000 feet and climbing over a 4-day period (Mt. Kilimanjaro stands at 19,300 feet), you will be averaging roughly 3,300 feet per day of climbing.
Calculating your average daily gain will help you create a specific training plan that will allow you to better adapt to the specific physical demands of the mountain. Additionally, this will be your training goal during each climb-specific workout. I recommend 3-4 climb-specific workouts per week(Mon-Wed-Fri-Sat) with a goal of reaching a MINIMUM equivalent distance of your specific climb. Aim to do these workouts on an incline treadmill that has the setting to calculate “Distance Climbed.” Attempt to walk at a slow, conversational pace between 3 to 3.5 miles per hour. Not a gym person? Find a local hill, walkable bridge, or mountain to simulate the elevation climbs. Just be sure to carry a watch or phone that can measure distance and time. The overall goal is to stress your body in the most similar and realistic manner possible to the mountain’s conditions. A consistent work ethic in this aspect will pay tremendous dividends down the road (or up the mountain!)
The next aspect to focus on will be gear conditioning, which is short for “Making sure your boots fit.” Essentially, you want to acclimate to the specific comforts (or discomforts) of your equipment, i.e.: Hiking boots, day pack, clothing, trekking poles, etc. For most people, the essential equipment—such as sleeping bag, clothing, food, water, toiletries— will be carried by the porters, who serve as mountain guides and assist in your climbing experience. While I won’t discuss the use of porters in this post, I will emphasize the importance of being accustomed to the specific equipment that you will be hiking with (most likely a daypack with some food, water, and clothing.) Aim to carry your equipment on at least HALF of your workouts. Be sure to pay attention to backpack settings and boot pronation/ankle support issues, as these can have the potential to ruin your trip. If you are carrying trekking poles, ensure you use them on a trail to discover any adjustments you would like to make. Additionally, be sure to bring the appropriate layers of clothing that fit you comfortably (Base, mid-layer, outer shell/Gore-Tex). There should be no surprises on the morning of your first climbing day.
While not technically difficult (Kili does not require the use of crampons, lines, axes, or any special equipment) Mt. Kilimanjaro maintains a number of challenges that will require preparation. While I did not discuss the issue of altitude sickness, I will insert one critical recommendation: LISTEN TO YOUR GUIDE. Many mountain guides have summitted multiple times, and will be able to spot the onset of any illness that may occur. They will often repeat the mantra “Pole Pole” which means to take it easy. Follow this mantra religiously, and refrain from any sudden accelerations, no matter how confident or strong you feel.
Lastly, take some time to absorb the scenery and environment that you will be hiking in. Take plenty of pictures, meet other travelers, and interact with the local mountain guides and porters. Now get training! Jambo!