Taking advantage of the untrodden paths, the Northern Circuits (sometimes called “Kili 360”) route is one of the latest offerings on Kilimanjaro. This route takes you through some spectacular scenery, through largely-untouched parts of the mountain.
Being a longer trek, the acclimatization schedule is good, giving you an excellent chance of reaching the summit. Taking in the best of Kilimanjaro and avoiding the crowds, this route is worthy of consideration.
It’s more expensive than the more popular routes, owing to less competition from budget operators, but worth it if a more tranquil and ‘wilderness’ trek is what you are looking for.
All accommodation is in tents, there is no Hut accommodation on this route.
Beginning on the same path as the Lemosho route, the forests to the west side of the mountain are undoubtedly the most beautiful and pristine, it’s possible to see evidence of game here. Although you are unlikely to spot any animals, only a few years ago, trekkers were accompanied by armed rangers in case of close encounters!
The terrain is much less well-trodden than the Machame/Marangu routes, and the days can be long. The huge bonus is that the length of the trek allows very comprehensive acclimatization. And really, acclimatization is the difference between making it to the summit or not. If you are fit enough to attempt Kilimanjaro at all, then acclimatization is the main barrier between success and failure.
I Opine: If budget is not the primary concern for you, then your choice of routes up the mountain should really be between the Northern Circuit and the Lemosho route. These two routes are wonderfully scenic, and much less well-trodden than the more popular routes. I also advise a day time summit attempt and if you can handle it, a night at Crater Camp.
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Overview of Northern Circuits route:
Day 1: Londorossi Gate (2100m, 6900ft) to Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree Camp) (2820m, 9250ft)
- Distance: 5-6 kilometres, 3 miles
- Length of hike: 3-4 hours
Londorossi Gate is located on the far-west side of Kilimanjaro, entailing a 2-3 hour drive. On arrival, you will complete the necessary formalities at the gate. Accompanied by the usual waiting around to get going. Another lengthy and bumpy road takes you to the trail head at Lemosho Glades. You will probably eat your packed lunch before hitting the trail.
The hike leads you through some of the most beautiful montane forest. Wild orchids, and a large variety of flowers are in evidence, thanks to the vegetation being mostly untouched. Today’s hike can be steep in places and quite muddy. Being in the rainforest, it will be warm and humid. You may see Blue and Colobus Monkeys, and evidence of larger game. Look out for birdlife, as it is plentiful.
After around 3 hours you will arrive in camp. Mti Mkubwa means “Big Tree” in Swahili, and the camp is set up under an enormous tree. After tea, coffee and snacks you can prepare for dinner and your first night on the mountain.
After dinner, and a briefing of what to expect the next day, you will retire to your tent, hopefully for a good night’s sleep!
Day 2: Mti Mkubwa (2820m, 9250ft) to Shira Camp (3505m, 11,500ft)
- Distance: 9 kilometres, 5.5 miles
- Length of hike: 4-5 hours
Awake to the sounds of birds, eat a hearty breakfast and start the hike upwards and out of the forest zone into the heath and moorland zone. You will notice the vegetation change, from the lush rainforest, to the more ‘scrubby’ moorland species. Look out for the lobellias, the “red hot poker” flowers and the groundsels.
Today’s hike is tough. You are climbing up the Shira Ridge, and there will be plenty of rest stops to enjoy the environment and catch your breath. Stunning views of Kibo can be enjoyed from the ridges, and vast panoramic views of the moorland zone.
Once on top of Shira Ridge, you should be able to see your camp, down in the Caldera, and after a stop for lunch, you head downhill.
Shira Camp can be bitterly cold. Once the sun sets, you will be thankful for your warm sleeping bag. After dinner and a briefing, you will head to your bed. On a clear night with a moon, the view of Kibo from the campsite is nothing short of breathtaking.
Day 3 : Shira Camp (3505m, 11,500ft) to Moir Camp (4160m, 13,650ft)
- Distance: 10 kilometres, 6.5 miles
- Length of hike: 7-8 hours
You start by crossing the Shira Plateau, past the Shira Cathedral. A more gentle upward slope, giving a break from the steep sections of yesterday. You will pass by the Simba Cave campsite next to the Simba River, to Fischer Camp where many operators will stop for a hot lunch. (Some operators may have you stop for lunch at Lava Tower, which is spectacular – you can see the Arrow Glacier and the side of the Western Breach from here).
After lunch, you continue onto Moir camp which is 1-2 hours further.
Spectacular views can be had on today’s hike, weather permitting, and you will see beautiful lobellias and senecios, especially around the river. As the day progresses, the landscape will become a lot more bleak and inhospitable. Being on the border of the moorland zone and high desert zone, there is still vegetation. Moir camp can seem quite rugged, with huge rocks as a backdrop and a sneaky peek of Kibo towering overhead.
You may start to feel some of the effects of altitude at Moir camp. It’s important to tell your guide if you feel unwell. Hopefully your operator is doing daily health checks and monitoring your acclimatization progress.
A cold night ahead, so be sure to bundle up and stay warm.
Day 4 : Moir Camp (4160m, 13,650ft) to Pofu Camp/Buffalo Camp (4020m, 13,180ft)
- Distance: 9 kilometres, 5.5 miles
- Length of hike: 6-7 hours
Today involves a fairly steep hike out of the Moir Valley towards the Lent Hills on the Northern Slope of the mountain. The air is getting noticeably thinner and you may find yourself short of breath during the steep parts of the hike.
The scenery is spectacular. With Kibo towering above, you have vistas across the plains of Tanzania. After a lunch stop, you will continue on a series of uphill and downhill tracks to your camp for the night.
Note: Pofu Camp is a little further along than Buffalo camp. If you camp at Buffalo, you will need to climb the ridge out of Buffalo and probably stop for lunch at Pofu on tomorrow’s trek.
Day 5: Pofu/Buffalo Camp (4020m, 13,180ft) to Third Cave (3960m, 13,000ft)
- Distance: 8 kilometres, 5 miles
If you have spent the night at Buffalo Camp, this morning heralds a hike up the ridge before descending to Pofu.
Continuing eastwards, today’s hike takes in more amazing vistas. Mawenzi will come into view as well as views of the Kibo saddle and the Eastern icefields.
If you’ve been paying attention, you will notice that the last two campsites have been at a lower elevation than Moir Camp. This gives you some valuable time for acclimatization, having already been higher up, and giving your body a chance to adapt.
Day 6: Third Cave (3960m, 13,000ft) to School Hut (4800m, 15,740ft) OR Kibo Hut (4730m, 15,515ft)
- Distance: 10-12 kilometres, 6-7 miles
Today is when you will be thankful that you have spent the last few days at around 14,000 feet, allowing a slow but steady acclimatization. Depending on your operator, you may spend tonight at School Hut or the slightly lower Kibo Hut.
Crossing the northwestern part of the Kibo saddle, a steep climb with loose rocks and scree can feel quite strenuous at this altitude. On a clear day you will have amazing views of both Kibo and Mawenzi.
The desert up here can feel very barren. A rocky, inhospitable wilderness, with cold winds and thin air.
Depending on your itinerary, you may have a daytime summit push, followed by a night in Crater Camp, or a midnight summit push (more usually from School Hut).
Either way, spend some time preparing your gear for what you’ll need for the summit. Your guides will brief you, and remember – it will be cold, you may end up wearing most of the clothing you brought if you are leaving at midnight!
Get an early night, as you’ll either have to wake up at 11.30pm for a dark push to the summit or an early morning as you’ll leave by daybreak.
Day 7: Summit – Crater – Mweka OR Summit – Mweka
Today (or tonight, if you are leaving at midnight) will be the toughest day of the hike.
If you are going at midnight, you will be woken at around 11.30pm for a quick refreshment before leaving camp with a headtorch to light your way. Hopefully you’ve managed to get some sleep, as you’ll need all your mental and physical stamina for what lies ahead.
If you are leaving during the day, you will be woken before daybreak for an early start.
Slowly picking your way upwards, the route is steep and tiring, using switchbacks. You will pass Hans Meyer Cave after about 2-2.5 hours. The most important part of this climb is just to keep moving forwards, slowly. Keep drinking water and eating snacks if you can stomach them. Stopping to rest will make you cold and make starting again more difficult. One foot in front of the other. At this altitude, even a few steps can feel exhausting, so find a rhythm that suits you and push forwards. Some parts of the trail are very exposed, and the wind can certainly makes these areas quite unpleasant!
Around daybreak, you should be nearing Gilman’s Point, after the last scramble over the rocks to the Crater Rim. At 5685m, you are very near your goal. And you are on the rim of the Kibo Crater!
After what you’ve been through the past few hours, congratulations are certainly in order. Whilst not the highest point of the Crater Rim (that’s Uhuru Peak), you are officially on the Roof of Africa. You’ve made it!
Another hour or two along the crater rim and you will arrive at Uhuru Peak. Passing the glaciers, stark in their icy-whiteness against the black volcanic rock. On a clear day the brilliant blue sky makes these pictures far more dramatic than any photos can capture. The thin air, the exhilaration of your achievement and the drama of the landscape makes for an unforgettable experience.
After a short time at Uhuru peak, you will either be staying in Crater Camp or heading downhill to Mweka (or Millenium) camp.
Read more: Crater Camp Kilimanjaro: The Highest Camp!
If you stay in the Crater, then tomorrow morning, you will hike across the crater floor to Stella Point and continue downwards as follows…
Retracing your steps as far as Stella Point, where you leave the crater rim for the scree slopes below. Some people like to “ski” down the scree – watching out for rocks that can cause a swifter than planned descent! Others will slowly make their way down to Barafu Camp, in time for some lunch.
After a break at Barafu Camp it’s time to head downwards for your last night on the mountain. You may be feeling exhausted by this point, but stick with it, this part of the trek gets better as the Oxygen in the air increases.
Depending on the condition of your knees, the downhill can be pretty tough. Take it carefully, use those walking poles and just keep going. The worst – or best! – is over. With the ever-increasing oxygen supply your breathing will become easier and your energy reserves increase.
Note: after the midnight summit push, some operators will have you go back to Gilman’s point and descend using the busy Marangu route to camp your last night at Horombo Huts.
Final Day: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
A short 3-4 hour hike will take you to the gate. At this point you will collect your certificate for either Uhuru Peak or Stella Point, and then bid farewell to your guides and porters. Now will be the time to give them their well-deserved tips.
From here you head back to your hotel. Hot showers and a celebratory dinner await.
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