Do You Need Oxygen To Climb Kilimanjaro? (My Experience)

Tristan Balme Do you need oxygen to climb kilimanjaro my perspective

Climbing Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and attracts thousands of visitors every year.

The climb can take over a week and requires a lot of physical fitness and training.

An average of 20% of people who attempt Kili don’t make it to the top

In short, no, you should not need supplemental oxygen to climb Kilimanjaro. At 5895m tall, it is below the death zone where oxygen is required. That said, at this altitude, there is half as much oxygen in the air as at sea level and everyone will handle this differently. Guides will carry a small amount of supplemental oxygen in case of emergencies and to treat severe altitude sickness.

In this article, I’ll discuss how the lack of oxygen affects your body, and I’ll share my experience from when I climbed Kili. Keep reading!

Importance of preparing for the climb

Tristan Balme kilimanajro summit

Preparation is key to a successful Kilimanjaro climb.

Training for the climb should start several months in advance with regular gym work, hiking and running. Building a good cardio base, increasing your VO2 max, developing strong legs (glutes, quads, hammies and calves), and getting used to walking for 6+ hours each day.

However, even with the best possible preparation, you may be derailed buy something completely out of your control – How your body handles the altitude!

How Altitude Affects Oxygen Levels in the Body

As you climb higher in elevation, the air pressure decreases and the amount of oxygen in the air becomes less.

This means that as you climb Kilimanjaro, your body is getting less oxygen than it would at sea level.

Fact: At the summit, there is roughly half as much oxygen in the air than at sea level – so you’ll need to breathe twice as much to output the same amount of work (Or walk at half the speed that you would at sea level!)

This can lead to altitude sickness, as there is less oxygen getting to your brain.

Symptoms are much like the feeling of being drunk while walking up a flight of stairs (not very scientific sorry, but that’s how i felt!) and will include headaches, nausea, delaria, and shortness of breath. It’s important to be aware of these symptoms and take action if they occur.

Common Altitude Sickness Symptoms

Altitude sickness can cause a range of symptoms, including headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. These symptoms can occur at any altitude, but they are more common at higher elevations.

In particular, I noticed the effects of the altitude from 4000m onwards, but once we crossed the 5000m point things got exponentially harder. Every 100 or 200m higher from basecamp were harder than the last.

Unfortunatly there’s not much you can do.

  • For minor affects of altitude: It’s a good idea to rest frequently, drink plenty of water, remember to eat (lots), and take an acclimatisation day if you need. On Kili, choosing a route with a more gradual aclimation profile will pay dividends.
  • For Acute Mountain Sickeness: unfortunately there is no ‘cure’ and the only treatment is descending to a lower altitude rapidly. Supplemental oxygen will buy you time, and your guide may be carrying some in case of emergencies but I would recommend not continuing in this situation and working out a way back down right away. (Source)

How To Prepare For (And Combat) Altitude Sickness

There are 3 key tricks to fight altitude sickness; taking time to acclimatize, using medication like Diamox to speed up this process, and looking after your body by keeping well fed and hydrated.

1. Take time to acclimatize

The best way to prepare for altitude sickness is to acclimatize to the altitude by spending time at higher elevations before starting the climb. This allows your body to adjust to the lower oxygen levels.

There are 7 routes up Kili, each with a different duration and acclimation profile.

I’d recommend one of the longer routes, like the Lemosho 8-day trip or the new norther circuit as this gives you more time to acclimatize.

2. Use Medication Like Diamox

Tristan Balme Diamox tablets

Diamox is the brand name of the medication ‘Acetazolamide’. This helps you acclimatize to high altitudes quicker, which is important given on Kilimanjaro you’ll ascend around 5,000m in 5 days.

Diamox does not ‘treat’ altitude sickness. How your body handles high altitudes is largely decided by genetics so if you don’t know how your body fares it’s a good idea to consult a doctor before your trip and pack some diamox to take with you.

Read More: in this guide, I discuss whether or not you should take Diamox on your trip.

3. Stay Hydrated And Well Fed

It’s also important to stay well-hydrated, as dehydration can exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness.

As altitude sickness can induce nausea, it will often make you less inclined to drink water or eat food.

Being aware of this and fueling your body properly can help prevent the symptoms getting worse.

What About The Use Of Oxygen Tanks On The Climb

image

In some cases, oxygen tanks may be used to provide additional oxygen to climbers who are experiencing altitude sickness.

This can be a lifesaving measure, as altitude sickness can be very serious. However, using oxygen tanks is not without risks. Using oxygen tanks can give climbers a false sense of security, leading them to push themselves too hard and potentially exacerbate their altitude sickness.

Pulmonary and cerebral edema is liquid in the lungs and brain are potentially deadly side-effects of exposure to extreme altitude. There are numerous reports of people succumbing to these edemas after taking supplemental oxygen which masks the symptoms.

So Do You Need Oxygen To Climb Kilimanjaro?

As someone who has climbed Kilimanjaro, I can tell you firsthand that preparing for the effects of altitude on the body is absolutely essential.. and not to be taken for granted. The higher you climb, the less oxygen there is in the air, which can lead to altitude sickness.

Fortunatley, you’re not in the ‘death zone’ and supplemental oxygen isn’t necessary for this climb

But, there is still is a real risk for climbers with only 80% of climbers making it to the summit. It’s important to take precautions to prevent and treat AMS as soon as it becomes evident. This can include acclimatizing to the altitude, staying well-hydrated, and taking medication if necessary.

Preparation is key.

You should start training for the climb several months in advance, with regular exercise and hiking.

Good luck and happy climbing!

Kilimanjaro Travel Planning Cheatsheet

 

🚑 Should I buy travel insurance for Tanzania?

100% YES! — Tanzania has now introduceed “free” healthcare but it’s only for citizens! Tourists need travel insurance in case anything happens on your visit. Also be aware many policies won't cover high altitude hiking as it's a high risk activity!

(that's right, check the t&c's on your complimentary credit card insurance

I highly recommend World Nomads as you can get specific add-ons for high altitude hiking UP TO 6000m (Which most travel insurance companies don't offer!)

🎫 Do I need a visa for Tanzania?

Probably not — Tanzania now provide a visa on arrival (VoA) for most western countires which allows you stay for up to 90 days. However, some other countries do need a pre-approved eVisa (check here!). VoAs cost $50 USD for a single entry - Note, US Citizens are required to get a Multi-Entry visa which costs $100 USD. (View visa prices here)

If transiting through Kenya (a lot of people fly via Nairobi), you'll need a Kenyan visa too. Visa's cost $20 for a 3 day transit visa and $50 for a toursit visa

(By the way, on both my interactions with the imigration officers in kenya they tried to scam me, so know what your obliged to pay and BRING THE EXACT CASH for the visa!)

💉Do I need any vaccinations for Tanzania?

YES! Make sure you are up-to-date with all your vaccines. Common travel vaccines include Hep A/B + Typhoid, and Diphtheria + Tetanus.

A yellow fever vaccination isn't a requirment to visit Kilimanjaro but is for neighbouring areas in East Africa. In reality, you will might not be allowed back into your home country on your return (I was asked for proof of vaccination upon returning to Australia) so getting this jab prior made for good peace of mind. 

Rabies is an issue in Tanzania but the vaccine is expensive and ineffective as a preventative measure (it only lasts a few years and you'll need to get them again if you require treatment). If bitten by a stray dog seek immediate medical attention!

As always, talk to your GP or specialised travel doctor a few weeks BEFORE you leave.

🏩 What’s the best Kilimanjaro Tour operators?

Your only realy two options here are Kumano Travel and Booking.com. Its a complicated process so I wrote this guide here on the best kumano kodo accomodation options

If you don't want to figure it all out (it's meant to be a holiday after all) you can book a package tour. Here are my recommendations for both guided and self-guided.

💸How do you pay for things in Tanzania?

Cash is king in Tanzania, so you'll want to get some folding tender out from an ATM when you land. Larger businesses and hotels will take Debit / Credit Card but most resturants, and street vendors want cash. I even had to pay for my Kili trip in cash!

I personally use a Wise debit card for all my international money needs as they only convert the funds when you make payment, plus they offer a much better spread (margin on the true exhange rate) than the banks do. They work in all the Tanzanian ATMs I tried. 

🚌 What's the public transport like in Tanzania?

There is a good basic network of local and inter-city busses in Tanzania and travel this way is very cheap. Domestic flight are also very affordable and a far more comfortable option. Checkout Busbora for booking bus tickets online.

📲 How do I get internet/data/wifi in Tanzania and on the mountain?

This one needs a whole nother article, but the short version is prepaid SIM cards are cheap and availible to tourists and locals alike (You don't need a pricey tourst SIM!)

Your cheapest option is buying a physical sim card on the street corner once landed and getting the shop assistant to help you set it up. I went with Vodacom and had generally good coverage, even up on Kili!

Another option if you're visiting other African countries is the Airalo eSIM. This is a little more expensive but gives you connectivity across 14 neighbouring African Countries and connectivity the moment you step off the plane!

✈️ What’s the best site to buy flights to Tanzania?

For finding cheap flights, I recommend Skyscanner. Once you find the flight you're looking for, I'd then suggest booking directly with the carrier (even if it costs a few $$ more than with one of the agreggators/agencies).

💧Can you drink the water in Tanzania?

Safest not to — tap water in Tanzania may be OK (the locals drink it) but is generally untreated and not reccommended for tourists. Purchase bottled water for drinking and teeth brushing.

🏔️💧Can you drink the water on Mount Kilimanjaro?

Yes — Your tour company with ensure the water provided to you is safe to drink by either carrying in bottled water, or by treating stream water with purification tablets or by boiling it. If you want to drink water from the rivers and streams you generally can but should do so at your own risk. ALWAYS follow best practice and drink from fast flowing water as far up stream as possible. I'd also recommend a Brita Water Bottle for rehydrating on the trail safely. 

 

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