Kilimanjaro Tours: How to Choose a Tour Operator

So you woke up one morning, stretched, and had the mad idea of climbing Kilimanjaro. Yep, that happened to me too.

Actually, I was in a tent in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and I had my morning tea overlooking Kilimanjaro when I thought “I’d like to climb that”.

Showing my age, back then I couldn’t jump on to Google to find out everything I needed to know about Kilimanjaro tour operators.

Nowadays we have information overload and far too many choices. With so many companies offering Kilimanjaro tours, it can be hard to select the right one.

Once you’ve established the basics:

  • Does it require technical skill that I don’t have? No. No technical skill required.
  • Am I fit enough, or can I get fit enough to do this? Yes, if you have no medical problems or injuries that might prevent it.
  • Who do I book with? Well. This is the question I will not be answering. Why not? Because choosing a tour operator requires due diligence on the part of the potential climber.

What I will do however, is give you some insight into the questions you need to ask and the questions you need to answer in order to make up your mind which operator would be the right fit for you.

“Can’t you just tell me who to climb with?” No. Because if I did, you can be quite sure that the company in question is paying me to do so. I prefer to stay impartial.

Who I choose may not be who you choose.

Unless you are a frequent climber of high-altitude peaks, climbing Kilimanjaro will possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

How Do I Choose a Tour Operator?

A safe and successful Summit!
A safe and successful Summit!

To climb Kilimanjaro, you are required to go with a KINAPA-registered company – you cannot climb alone.

There are numerous to choose from, ranging from high-end to budget operators. From cowboy outfitters to climbing veterans.

You can choose to join a group, get your own group together or go on your own.

You need to decide which operator is best for your experience level, your budget and your safety. Adequate research before signing up is important so that you know you are in safe hands.

Unlike booking a restaurant, you cannot simply read a few reviews and then hand over your cash.

You are undertaking a big and potentially dangerous adventure in a far off land, and you want to be sure of your safety.

You might also like: Beyond the Summit: 19 Kilimanjaro Facts

Every year, new cowboy outfitters spring up in the Tanzanian towns of Arusha and Moshi offering Kilimanjaro tours, probably quite cheaply.

Cheap operators can be expensive when it comes to your comfort and safety.

If you habitually spend your weekends bungee jumping in remote locations, then your concept of “safety” may be different from an office manager with a wife and two children at private school.

Safety

Kilimanjaro tours - safety briefing
Pre-Climb safety briefing

Probably the most important consideration when climbing Kilimanjaro is the safety protocols the operator employs.

  • Are the guides trained in first aid – at the very least – or preferably Mountain Responders?
  • Do they conduct regular health checks for the climbers (lung sounds, oxygen saturation in the blood, questions about how you are feeling)?
  • And more importantly, do they know how to interpret the results? Daily health checks of each client – in my opinion – are an important way to catch Altitude Sickness before it becomes a problem.

Guide training is very important. Have the guides had any training over and above what the National Park requires for registration?

The training that is required by the Kilimanjaro National Park to license a guide is fairly basic. Most reputable operators will provide more comprehensive training in safety and first aid protocols.

Here, Eddie Frank of Tusker Trail discusses the importance of daily medical checks:

What are their Evacuation Protocols?

  • Do they carry supplementary oxygen and a Portable Altitude chamber? These are not mandatory, but can provide peace of mind to climbers.
  • What happens if you get injured and cannot continue the climb? Will you go down the mountain with a guide or a porter, who is responsible for getting you to the hospital?

Having a robust set of protocols for dealing with emergencies is essential. There are no helicopters at the top of the mountain.

Does the operator ask you questions about your health before taking your money? Or do you just sign a disclaimer and hit the trail?

Any tour operator worth their salt will have you fill out a comprehensive medical form so that they are aware of any prior medical issues that could affect your climb.

You might also like: Altitude

Questions to ask any company offering Kilimanjaro tours:

  1. What medical training have the guides had?
  2. What day-to-day medical checks (if any) are performed?
  3. Do they carry supplemental Oxygen or Portable Altitude Chamber? (Non-essential, but worth knowing the answer, to help your decision making process).
  4. What is the evacuation protocol in the event of illness or injury?
  5. Do they carry a comprehensive first aid kit – and more importantly, know how to use it?

Your Budget

The first thing you will notice when researching operators is the huge variance in price.

Why is this?
The tour operator has numerous expenses involved in taking a client up the mountain:

  • Park fees per climber
  • Equipment
  • Safety equipment
  • Guide’s salaries & equipment
  • Porter’s salaries & equipment
  • Food and drink
  • Length of the climb

It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that to go with a cheap operator will mean they necessarily have to make savings in one or other of these areas.

If the equipment is old and falling apart, you may find yourself sleeping in a leaky tent. If the sleeping bags are from circa 1978 and have not been washed since 1991 then it’s going to be a bit smelly.

Staff Welfare

Kilimanjaro tours porters
Happy porters at camp

A porter’s life on the mountain is a tough one. He carries your gear and his own. Others carry the cooking facilities and the tents and everything else that the camp requires.

Some operators have their porters horribly ill-equipped to deal with the cold and the terrain. Others pay them as little as $1 a day, and they hope for tips at the end of the climb.

Porter welfare is a big issue on Kilimanjaro and I would urge anyone who climbs to make sure their operator is registered with Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP).

Every year, porters die on Kilimanjaro, although the western press mostly only reports the death of tourists.

Food and drink

Another place where budget operators can make savings is by skimping on their food purchases. You should expect to get three hot meals a day on most days, depending on your itinerary.

There is no reason to subsist on sandwiches and the odd boiled egg.

Is your water being filtered every day for your tea, coffee, hot chocolate and refilling your bottle? A nasty case of gastric trouble can cut a climb short.

Your operator should be providing you with clean boiled and filtered water daily.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not a cheap endeavor and you should have an idea of your budget, and if it’s too small to hire a reputable operator, then perhaps try a different adventure this time.

Local or Overseas operators

That’s not to say that the most expensive is necessarily the best.

Always enquire whether the agent in the US or UK/Europe run their own climbs or outsource them. If they outsource the climb, then find out who they are outsourcing it to.

Then do your research on that local operator and consider cutting out the middle man.

Some overseas operators run their own climbs on the mountain. Sometimes they will send an overseas guide which drives the price up.

Some clients feel more secure having someone from their own country running the climb.

The length of the climb will also determine the price. If you want a short climb, with a low success rate (due to not enough time to acclimatize), then it will be cheaper.

However, you should be very sure of your ability to acclimatize if you choose a short route. Obviously the more time spent on the mountain will drive the price up.

Overall, if it’s too cheap, you’ve got to ask yourself why.

What compromises are being made? Are they compromises you can live with in terms of your own safety or compromises your conscience is happy to accept?

Figure out your budget, and go from there. Even if money is no object, you still need to do your research!

Other Considerations

Client Success

Any operator claiming to have 100% success rate with all their clients is most probably lying. There will inevitably be situations where a climber is unable to make the summit, perhaps from asthma, fatigue, mountain sickness or injury.

If any operator claims 100% success rate, they are either very new on the mountain or being economical with the truth.

Notably, the routes with the highest success rates are the longer ones, Lemosho, Machame and Northern Circuits.

Many of the higher-end operators will not use the shortest, Marangu route, as it is not particularly scenic, it’s very busy with budget operators and has a very poor acclimatization protocol.

See Kilimanjaro Facts for more information about Success Rates.

Equipment

Kilimanjaro tours equipment
Good quality tents at camp

Although we touched on this above, it is worth elaborating on. The equipment used for your climb is very important to your comfort and safety.

You won’t be very happy in an ancient tent that leaks. Equipment takes quite a battering on the mountain, and it isn’t just used for your climb.

You want an operator who regularly checks and updates their equipment. Complaints about tiny, leaking tents from budget operators is commonplace. Is the tent going to be big enough for the two of you and your kit?

You don’t want to be storing your bags outside in the rain and cold. Most reputable operators use high quality 4-season three-man tents for each two-person sharing.

Do they provide a mess-tent for meal times? It may seem unimportant that you eat your meals as an outdoor picnic, but as you climb higher and it gets colder, this gets less appealing.

And what if it is raining? Sitting in your tent trying not to spill soup all over your sleeping bag is not a pleasant way to dine on the mountain.

If you are renting gear – is this good quality gear or simply stuff that’s been donated by previous climbers?

You may feel like saving money and not buying that expensive down jacket, and you can rent one. If it’s some old cheap thing that hasn’t been cleaned in ten years, you’ll soon regret that decision.

Public or Private toilets

Some operators give their clients private toilet tents with a chemical toilet.

This is a matter of personal preference. The public toilets at the camps are not a pretty place to be. They are the “long drop” variety, do not flush and the smell can turn the strongest of stomachs.

However, the provision of a private toilet will incur another expense. Most of the high-end operators provide this as a matter of course. It’s up to you to decide how important it is for you.

Financial Protection

Don’t assume that you will be protected if the operator goes out of business.

One of the reasons why many people like to book with an overseas operator is that they will most likely be ABTA and ATOL protected.

The last thing you want to do is send off your money by Western Union transfer only to find the operator goes bust and your money is lost.

Too many stories abound of operators who take money, then suddenly at the last minute there are a lot of “extras” to pay.

Disreputable operators have been known to charge clients for an 8 day trip only for them to discover that it’s 7 days, and the extra money somehow disappears.

Conclusion

Choosing an operator is not as simple as who is the “best”. It is who is the best for you.

Everyone has different standards and expectations. However, keep in mind that getting to the summit is the goal, but getting down alive is non-negotiable.

Look for an agent whose ethos matches your own. Whom you feel comfortable with.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not cheap. Expecting luxury on a budget-price is not going to happen. Do your research and ask lots of questions!

You may also like:

Kilimanjaro kit list
Questions? Comments? Leave them below:

9 thoughts on “Kilimanjaro Tours: How to Choose a Tour Operator

  1. At the moment I am writing a bucket list and one of the items was climb Mt. Kilamanjaro. Now I am here to find out how to make that experience the best possible ever. Planning on going in the next year so this information has been invaluable. Definitely going to grab the gear list so I can be ready for my hike up the mountain!

    • Hi Jerry
      Great to hear that you are planning a trip to Kilimanjaro! It’s an experience not to be missed. If you need any further information or help, don’t hesitate to be in touch.
      Best of luck with your climb and enjoy every minute of it!
      Clare

  2. Clare,
    What an incredibly thorough and comprehensive article that you obviously took a lot of time to compose in providing info to the reader who might be interested in attempting to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro!

    As you so clearly stated one cannot just wake up one day believing that he/she could attempt this very dangerous climb NOT without a lot of research as well as physical training to get him/herself into great shape physically. A couch potato who sits in front of a television daily without exercise, instead stuffing him/herself with junk food is obviously in no condition to even think about attempting this climb.

    It makes perfect sense that a person would not be permitted to attempt this climb by him/herself, or even with a friend(s); that is not without a professional guide that not only knows the route but would be highly cognizant of the individual’s safety and furthermore trained to be able to monitor the condition of the individual.

    You brought a higher level of credibility to this article when you stated that you have completed this difficult climb yourself. Much kudos to you as it seems as if you completed the entire trek to the mountain’s summit.

    Your article immediately brought to mind a European vacation I took back in the summer of 1994. It being a 16 day bus tour through mainly Germany, Switzerland and Austria, (skirting quickly through parts of France and Italy while on route) for several days we stayed in a simply gorgeous town called Zermatt in Switzerland.
    I mention this because the town is located right below the Matterhorn.

    The town, which does not allow motorized vehicles whatsoever, has a cemetery in its center dedicated to those unfortunate souls who attempted to climb the Matterhorn but did not make it perishing while on route.
    Perhaps those individuals should have thought it out beforehand more clearly by hiring a tour guide who knew the best route to the top, and in the event of a minor accident/injury would have if necessary called off the rest of the climb and instead bring the individual safely back down to the mountain’s base.

    Excellent info presented in this article, Clare!

    Jeff

  3. I loved this post. Read every word… drank it in as Kilimanjaro has been on my To-Do List for a long time now. Likely won’t happen any time soon as I’m the WIFE of an office manager with 2 kids (who will soon enough be) in private school LOL… life gets expensive.
    But before marriage and kids I hiked the Inca Trail and yes, the altitude is no joke!!
    You make some excellent points here about how the porters are treated, how the food is, the quality of the gear, etc. And the long drop toilets… NASTY. Just… bad.
    Keep up the great work… I may some day again need to revisit your site for some dream inspiration! 🙂

    • Hi Marlaine, thank you for your kind words!
      When choosing a tour operator it’s very important to do your due diligence before clicking the Book Now button. I look forward to seeing you back when you have some plans to climb. If you have any queries, don’t hesitate to contact us.
      Clare

  4. WOW! The amount of detail you hit in this provides everyone the opportunity for success! I’m all about hiking, adventure, and trying new things. Kilimanjaro has been on my bucket list for years. It seems a bit of a minefield trying to choose a good tour operator, without it being super-expensive. I guess climbing Kilimanjaro is not a cheap adventure. Safety is obviously the first priority. Thank you for this article.

  5. Great read for anyone considering climbing Kilimanjaro. Its so important to go with the right tour operator as I’ve heard stories about people getting really sick and even dying when their guides don’t know what to do and don’t have proper training. Particularly for a beginner who has no experience on such a big mountain. Safety being the biggest concern for them all. Great post!

  6. Great article, should mention that climbing ethics and porters welfare are highly important and luckily there’s an NGO dedicated to promote these best practices on Kili treks.
    KPAP and IMEC are huge success and I highly recommend people to book with companies endorsed by KPAP. On the website there is a list of both local and international outfitters who are partner for responsible travels.

Leave a Comment