Altitude Sickness Kilimanjaro: What You Need To Know

With its breathtaking vistas and impressive height, climbing Kili is a definite bucket list trip. However, you might have to deal with altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro - an adversary in the quest for the summit.
In this article, we'll delve into the intricacies of altitude sickness and the considerations before and during your Kilimanjaro trek.

What is Altitude Sickness, Exactly?

Altitude sickness is a condition that can occur when you ascend to high altitudes, such as the towering heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. Also known as mountain sickness, your body struggles to adapt to the reduced oxygen levels and lower air pressure prevalent at these elevated locations.
The higher you go, the more pronounced this effect becomes.
Mount Kilimanjaro stands at an impressive 5,895 metres above sea level, making it the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Reaching Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak means that you'll be operating at an altitude where the air is notably thinner and the oxygen supply considerably lower than at sea level.
At these heights, you risk feeling the effects of altitude sickness. In fact, you can experience this condition at any point above 2,500m of elevation.
Typical symptoms include:
  • Headaches

  • Loss of appetite

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Feeling consistently tired and drained

  • Dizziness

Types of Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

Catching a break
Hikers catching a break.
Altitude sickness comes in various forms, each with its symptoms and severity levels. While the Kilimanjaro trekking difficulty is relatively low in terms of mountaineering skills (it's a non-technical climb), you could still suffer the following symptoms:
  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): This is the mildest form of altitude sickness. You might experience persistent headaches, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. It's your body's way of saying, "Slow down. I need time to adapt."

  • High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): A more severe condition, HAPE involves fluid accumulation in the lungs. It can lead to extreme shortness of breath, a persistent cough, and potentially life-threatening consequences.

  • High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): HACE is a severe form of altitude sickness whose symptoms include confusion, impaired coordination, and, in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.

Predisposing Factors of Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

Rapid Ascent

One of the common causes of altitude sickness is ascending to higher altitudes too quickly.
When you climb Kilimanjaro, you typically cover a significant elevation gain in a relatively short period. Your body needs time to acclimatise to the changes in oxygen levels, and ascending too rapidly doesn't allow for this adjustment.

Good to know: Skyhook’s Kilimanjaro trips are designed with rest days and extra acclimatisation opportunities to maximise the acclimatisation process.

Dehydration

Dehydration can exacerbate altitude sickness symptoms. You may not feel as thirsty at higher altitudes as you do at lower elevations, but it's crucial to maintain proper hydration.
Taking a water break
A much-needed water break on the trail.
Dehydration can make you more vulnerable to altitude sickness, so make a conscious effort to drink adequate water throughout your climb.

Physical Exertion

Climbing a mountain like Kilimanjaro is physically demanding. The strenuous activity, combined with the reduced oxygen levels, can put additional stress on your body. In addition, overexertion can contribute to the onset and severity of altitude sickness symptoms.

Individual Susceptibility

Altitude sickness affects individuals differently, and there is no guaranteed way to predict who will experience it or not.
Some people may be more susceptible due to genetic factors, while others may adapt more readily. Therefore, it's important to be aware of the symptoms and to monitor your physical condition, as it can vary from person to person.

Individual Health Factors

Your general health and physical condition can influence your Kilimanjaro altitude sickness symptoms. Certain medical conditions and medications like Diamox may interact with high-altitude environments.
Consult with a healthcare professional about your health status before embarking on your Kilimanjaro adventure.

How to Lower Your Chances of Experiencing Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

There's no way of guaranteeing that you will not suffer altitude sickness when climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. However, here are some measures you can take at a personal level to minimise the risks of this deliberating condition as you ascend:

Choose a Route or Itinerary That Allows for Acclimatisation

view on the mountain
View on the mountain.
Acclimatisation is a remarkable adaptation of your physiology to the decreasing oxygen levels in the atmosphere. Your body increases the production of red blood cells and dilates your blood vessels to improve oxygen delivery to vital organs.
As a general rule of thumb, longer trekking itineraries provide more opportunities for acclimatisation. At Skyhook, we usually recommend trekking on the 8-day Lemosho or 7-day Machame routes for a comfortable trekking experience.
The extra time on the mountain gives you a chance to trek high and sleep low, take a slower ascent, and have additional overnight stops, all of which help with proper acclimatisation.

Avoid Rushing While Trekking

Always move at a pace that allows your body to adapt to the decreasing oxygen levels. You want to maintain a more regular breathing pattern without over-exerting yourself.
Erratic or shallow breathing, often associated with rushing, can hinder oxygen absorption and increase the risk of altitude sickness. A rushed pace is one of the main factors that can affect the Kilimanjaro success rate. This is because overexertion at high altitudes can contribute to the severity of altitude sickness symptoms.
Slowing down helps you maintain your strength and stamina for a better chance of reaching the summit.
Energetic crew
An energetic Kilimanjaro hiking crew.

Train for the Climb

Prepare your body physically with a well-rounded Kilimanjaro training program. Your program should include cardiovascular exercises, strength training, and endurance workouts. Building a strong fitness base will help you endure the physical demands of the climb and reduce the risk of altitude sickness.

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration can exacerbate altitude sickness symptoms. Make sure you drink adequate water throughout the trek, even if you don't feel particularly thirsty. Proper hydration helps your body acclimatise and function optimally at high altitudes.

Listen to Your Body

Look out for any symptoms of altitude sickness, no matter how mild. Typical early signs include headaches, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. If you experience these symptoms, communicate with your guide, just in case you need to take action, such as descending to a lower altitude.

In Conclusion

The journey to the "Roof of Africa" is a remarkable undertaking. It can be an unforgettable and awe-inspiring achievement as long as you prepare properly for the risks of altitude sickness.
Climb Kilimanjaro with patience, respect for the altitude, and appreciation for the natural beauty and unique culture it offers. Do so, and you will undoubtedly create cherished memories that will last a lifetime.
Your guides and trekking team play a huge part in the experience. We recommend working with experienced local operators who take your safety and enjoyment seriously. That’s why we’ve handpicked an awesome local operator to work with. We’ve personally vetted them for safety and sustainability.
In short, you’re in great hands trekking through Skyhook.

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