At 19,341ft, Kilimanjaro isn’t just one of the world’s highest freestanding mountains, it’s also the highest peak you can ascend without technical climbing gear. This hasn’t, of course, stopped me boring my wife with endless details of the ‘hydrophobic down content’ of my cold weather kit. With just four weeks to go until I climb Kili, I realise what had started out as a fun idea has morphed into a full-blown obsession.
In the months I’ve been training and prepping for this trip, I’ve learnt many things, but the headline facts remain: temperatures on the mountain are extreme, ranging from a chilly -20C at the summit to over 30C in the foothills and rainforest regions; altitude sickness is a real threat; and the camping is rough — hardly surprising, seeing that climbers pass through farmland, rainforest, moorlands, Alpine desert and finally into an Arctic climate zone, at an altitude where oxygen levels are half that of those at the base.
People die attempting to climb Kilimanjaro every year. I could have volunteered for one of the other big charity challenges, including walking the Great Wall of China, cycling from London to Paris and hiking the Inca Trail. So why have I cobbled together 20 pals to trek the eight days up (and hopefully down) this beast? Ultimately it’s about satisfying that inner desire to do something challenging — and very different from the day job.
My preparations have been thorough, to say the least. Not only have I fastidiously studied what kit to take and reassessed my dietary requirements on a daily basis, I’ve hit the gym three times a week and pulled on the walking boots at every opportunity, from mowing the grass to an epic 12-hour jaunt up and down Snowdon, twice.
There are lots of different ways you can prepare for a challenge of a lifetime like mine. Getting into good physical shape is important. I’ve read of people walking for up to three hours a day six months before a Kili ascent. We had some great fun in Snowdon but for practical reasons you’ll obviously need to find a more local walking route.
One of the most important considerations is kit. There are lots of things you won’t be able to control on the mountain — altitude sickness, unpredictable weather, getting ill. That said, life will be much easier if you can stay warm and dry. Get that right and you will be much happier and healthier. Here are a few lists of essentials, plus some non-essentials I think you’ll still need nonetheless.
Top five day-packs
Choosing a comfy pack that you can get all your wet gear, lunch, water and other bits into is really important. Everyone has differently shaped bodies and with prices for all these items more or less the same, you need to find what works for you.
1. Osprey Stratos 34
The trampoline mesh system keeps your back cool, plus there’s an internal hydration sleeve, a handy raincover and plenty of pockets on the waistband. RRP: £90. ospreyeurope.com
2. The North Face Litus 32-RC
The stuff-pocket on the back is great for chucking rain gear into when it’s an on-off-on-off type day. Handy top pockets and very light at 936grams. RRP: £95. thenorthface.co.uk
3. Jack Wolfskin ACS Hike 34
This has a handy large bottom compartment that makes separating and organising your kit much easier, plus a comfy mesh back. RRP: £90. jack-wolfskin.co.uk
4. Berghaus Freeflow 30
The highly regarded airflow system keeps that back sweat-free and the BioFIT technology helps you get a comfortable, adjustable fit. RRP: £85. berghaus.com
5. Lowe Alpine Eclipse 35
A good value, versatile all-round bag that can also be used post-trek, day-to-day. RRP: £85. lowealpine.com
Top four waterproof jackets
Most challenging treks will involve the need for protection from rain, wind and cold, so pick one that works for all three.
1. Montane Fast Alpine Stretch Neo Jacket
A fantastic piece of kit. Hyper breathable, so can be used for high-energy pursuits while keeping you really dry. Has reinforced arms and shoulder to prevent damage from scrambling or climbing. Its expensive but you get what you pay for. RRP: £350. montane.co.uk
2. Berghaus Light Speed Hydroshell
Highly waterproof and breathable, also exceptionally lightweight. The raised Argentium print on the inside ensures a comfortable, dry-to-the-hand feel and offers odour resistance to keep it fresh for longer — never a bad thing! RRP: £160. cotswoldoutdoor.com
3. Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell
Although better known for its great walking poles and other gear, Black Diamond’s clothing is of the same high standard. This jacket is the lightest I tried, stuffs away brilliantly into a day pack and will keep you dry in an alpine squall. Good value as well. RRP: £199.99. ellis-brigham.com
4. Adidas Terrex GTX Active Shell
Its new range of outdoor clothing is pretty good, as you’d expect. This Goretex active shell is highly breathable, lightweight and packable. It includes a fully adjustable, helmet-compatible hood. RRP: £300. adidas.co.uk
Don’t forget a decent pair of breathable trousers to go with that jacket. Helly Hansen’s Packable Pant is a great option that fits into its own pocket. RRP: £75. hellyhansen.com
Top three sleeping bags
To climb Kili you need a four-season sleeping bag. These are expensive but some retailers hire them out for a fraction of the cost.
1. The North Face Superlight
Just over 1kg with 800g of The North Face’s ProDown fill, and a foot zip to let air in on mild nights. RRP: £290. thenorthface.co.uk
2. Rab Neutrino 600
Handmade, light and super warm. Just over 1kg, with over half of that goose down. RRP: £420. rab.equipment
3. Thermarest Altair
A 750 fill hydrophobic goose down that will keep you warm to -32C, and weighs under 1.2kg. RRP: £540. alloutdoor.co.uk
Other essential sleep items…
A sleeping bag liner
These can add up to 15C to your warmth, and can also be used on their own on milder nights. I recommend a synthetic one such as Thermolite Reactor Liner. From £40. seatosummit.com
Thermarest’s Luxurylite UltraLite Cot is expensive and a little fiddly but weights only 900g and is amazingly comfy. RRP: £145. cascadedesigns.com
Top three baselayers
A base layer is one of the cheapest items but also one of the most important, so it’s worth investing in a decent one.
1. Helly Hansen
Choose from a massive range with differing temperatures, neck styles and technology. HH Wool, with Merino, is my pick. RRP: £60. hellyhansen.com
2. Under Armour
Its compression gear, particularly UA ColdGear Compression Crew, is good value and great at keeping you warm. It feels different to Merino, giving a much tighter fit, so maybe order a bigger size. RRP: £50. underarmour.co.uk
Experienced mountain climbers love British brand Rab. Its MeCo 120 long-sleeve T-shirt combines Merino with its trademark 37.5 technology, which is quick drying and more comfortable than compression tops. RRP: £50. rab.equipment
Top three down jackets
When the sun goes down or you’re at the top of a mountain with the mercury hovering at -20C, you’re going to need more than your layers to keep you warm. A well-filled down jacket with baffle construction is essential.
1. The North Face
The Continuum is its classic jacket, with 800 fill down, a helmet-compatible hood, massive pockets and a two-way zip. It’s a little bulky but will keep you really warm. RRP: £300. thenorthface.co.uk
2. Adidas Terrex Climaheat Techrock
Looks as good as you’d expect from Adidas, with all the right technologies, including goose down. It packs away into its own bag, making it a great option for hikes where you need only need a jacket at the top. RRP: £320. adidas.co.uk
3. Montane Black Ice 2.0
This is a great-value jacket with mixed down and synthetic fill, and very water-resistant, lightweight and designed to give great freedom of movement. Plus it comes with microfleece hand-warming pockets and a dry-bag for storage. RRP: £190. montane.co.uk
Boots are the other obvious element. The key is making sure you get a pair that fit properly. For a full review, see the In Style page in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Once you have all the right clothing, there are so many other great items to fill your day bag with. Here are a few of my luxury essentials to keep you happy on the mountain.
1. Gloves and gaiters
Warm hands and dry ankles make all the difference. I like touchscreen gloves as I’m permanently attached to my phone. Try the PL 150 Sensor gloves. outdoorresearch.com
You can go for a Leatherman or the new Bear Grylls range from Gerber but I’m a traditionalist and love my Swiss Army Knives. If you visit the company’s London outlet, staff will also sharpen and clean old knives for a fiver (thanks to them, my 20-year-old knife from the Scouts looks like new). The new Rescue Tool comes with its own pouch, luminous paint and one-handed operation. swissarmy.com
3. Elliot Brown Watches (the Bloxworth)
‘Unbreakable’ timepieces are handy if you’re scrambling over rocks and getting soaked. They also come with a nylon strap, which can be changed for a fancy metal one when you return to the office. elliotbrownwatches.com
Matthew Jackson is climbing Kilimanjaro for Emunah, a charity supporting vulnerable Israeli children: emunah.org.uk
The team has already raised over £30,000 for a number of different charities.