10 Tips for Successfully Hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro

As one of the Seven Summits, Mt. Kilimanjaro is a very popular destination for mountain enthusiasts worldwide. It is the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,340 feet and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. I was fortunate enough to be able to reach the summit recently. If you are preparing for the mountain, here are some tips, perhaps a few that are beyond those typically mentioned in guidebooks.

1. Know yourself. More specifically, know your weaknesses and prepare accordingly. Are your hands prone to getting cold? Then go ahead and invest in the warmest gloves available. Does the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other daily for 6-7 hours straight drive you mad? Then splurge on that solar charger so you can listen to music or audiobooks every day you're on the mountain. You'll be glad you did. This hike is tough enough without experiencing avoidable problems.

2. Flex those psychological muscles. You've probably been preparing your body physically for months, but it is nearly as important to prepare your mind. One think I would recommend is doing a six-hour hike starting at midnight. When Mr. Petite Peaker and I did this last year with Yosemite's Half Dome, I was shocked at how much more difficult it was. Obviously, the physical demands didn't change (aside from how the cooler temperatures impacted our bodies), but the mental challenge of just walking steadily up without seeing any of the scenery was enormous. Summit day on Kilimanjaro is torturous partially because of the darkness, but well worth it. Just be prepared.

3. Do your squats. There are no proper toilets on the mountain, and regardless of what route you take, you'll be on it a minimum of five days. If you take the Marangu route, you'll be using outhouses and holes in the ground and you'll be stepping through human feces in order to reach the place where you assume the squatting position. It is not a nice feeling to be stepping in feces and then feel your legs start to quiver in protest and threaten to give out on you. Be comfortable with the position and with using the great outdoors. (And my goodness, do try to aim!)

4. Water is oxygen. Well, not exactly. But drinking a lot of it can help prevent acute mountain sickness, or AMS. At the same time, you will most likely tire of it (and the flavor might be a bit strange). Bring drink mix packets to break up the monotony.

5. Don't hide your symptoms from your guides. They have done this trip dozens of times or more and they are truly experts. Many have been educated at a mountaineering school and all of them know the dangers of AMS, which can be life-threatening. Don't worry; they aren't going to force you to turn around if you have a small headache. It is in their best interest for you to make it. But let's be honest. People die on Kilimanjaro. Fortunately, it isn't often, but the day I summitted, a man died of heart failure trying to make the climb. Porters tried desperately to resuscitate him, to no avail. We saw another man being carried down on a stretcher and another one being carried by piggyback by a porter who was running as fast as he could down the mountain. These three events happened within a span of two days. This mountain is no joke. Take your symptoms seriously, tell your guides about them, and let the experts determine the degree of seriousness.

6. Define your own success. Reaching Uhuru may be your goal, but it isn't the only way to succeed. Reaching Horombo or Kibo is a fantastic accomplishment. Making it to Gilman's Point or Stella is a tremendous feat. And let me tell you something: As someone who is terrified of flying, my success story was written when I boarded a plane to Tanzania.

7. Know that the weather is unpredictable. Like most people who do the climb, I went during the dry season. Because the first vegetation zone you'll hike through is rainforest, I did have wet weather gear - but not enough. I wasn't expecting to get rained on in the moorland or trudge through mud in the alpine desert. I wasn't expecting a blizzard at the summit or a meter of snow to be dumped on Kibo. I got by fine without gaiters but could have used some additional socks and another pair of waterproof (not water resistant!) rain pants. My Ahnu snow boots worked well for the entire hike, and because they are taller than traditional hiking boots, my legs were better protected.

8. Protect your body's largest organ: your skin. The equatorial sun can burn you badly, and though it probably goes without saying, it doesn't matter whether it's cloudy or not. And as you ascend and the atmosphere thins, there's nothing to protect you from the worst sunburn of your life if you didn't self-protect by slathering on the SPFs. Likewise, if it is windy and cold at the summit, you will get a nasty windburn. (Ask me how I know.) A balaclava to protect your face while traveling through the snow is a must.

9. Pole, pole: Never hurry on Kilimanjaro. You'll probably hear the command "pole, pole" ("slowly, slowly") from your guide incessantly. It will probably be an easy command to follow at high elevations (when I heard this said to me during the final summit push I merely gasped, "Oh, don't worry!"), but you need to apply this mantra at lower elevations and on flatter areas as well. If you tire yourself out before the hard stuff, you'll lessen your chances of making it to the top.

10. Don't go from airport to trailhead. Most packages allow you the option of adding a safari either before or after your climb. I highly recommend doing this, and doing it upon arrival and before your climb. While you could be adventurous and do a camping safari (sleeping near ravenous lions! go you!), the rest and relaxation that a driving safari offers is a good way to recuperate from a long flight (24 hours in my case) and see more of Tanzania. Remember: Tanzania is more than a mountain. It is a beautiful country with many tribes and languages and cultures. Re-train your Western eyes to avoid judging "pastoral" as "impoverished." A French priest who sat next to me on the plane to Amsterdam (yes, God has a sense of humor) told me that loneliness is the greatest poverty of all. The Tanzanian people are (at least the ones I encountered) warm, welcoming, and persistently in the company of others. Don't insult the culture by seeing the mountain and not the people. Take time to enjoy the people before trekking up a pile of earth.