Choosing a climb operator

There are several hundred registered Kilimanjaro operators, and which of these you choose to travel with will have a real bearing on the quality of your climb and on your chances of reaching the summit.

This page is intended to help you in that choice. We outline the relative advantages of booking with a local or international operator, and provide a list of questions that you should be asking any climb operator before you commit to book your climb through them.

Local vs international operators

We referred to the several hundred registered Kilimanjaro climb operators, but this doesn’t include the many more overseas operators who subcontract to local operators in Tanzania. Search for Kilimanjaro climbs on google, and most of the results you turn up will be for overseas tour operators.

Choosing whether to book with a local or international operator will be among the first decisions you make when planning your climb, so it’s important to have a good idea of the relative pros and cons.

Booking your Kilimanjaro climb with a local operator has one primary advantage: it will usually be cheaper. And while most local operators are of the budget, low-cost variety, a number of mid-budget climb companies based in Tanzania offer an excellent service relative to what they charge.

The difficulty is in finding these companies. A good international operator, assuming they specialise in Kilimanjaro, should have already done this work for you.

If you know exactly what you want from your climb – in terms of route, level of service, group size and time on the mountain – choosing a local operator may be sensible, particularly if you have good recommendations to go on. If not, a good international operator should be able to offer you the guidance you need when planning your climb, by helping you to find a group and route that matches your preferences. (As an aside, unusual or specialist climbs, such as the North Face route, will often require that you book with an international operator).

It’s important to remember that price can be a very misleading gauge of quality. Many operators, local and international, charge a premium for what is in fact a budget service. A good international operator should not be charging you a significant premium on what you would pay locally for a comparable climb. Similarly, the difference in price between local operators often has little bearing on quality; it can be very hard to get a firm idea of the kind of service provided before you climb. Some cost-increasing components that international climb operators are more likely to include – a Western tour leader, for instance – you may feel are not worth the added expense; whereas others – a higher staff to climber ratio or lower group sizes on the mountain – are.

Finally, it’s worth noting that some of the best local climb operators, including our partner in Tanzania, work exclusively with international operators and do not take direct bookings.

Important points to check with Kilimanjaro climb operators

Whether you book with a local or international operator, it’s important to get a good idea of the level of service they offer relative to what they charge. Below you’ll find a list of the questions that we recommend you raise with any operator before you choose to book with them.

Cost – There are plenty of cheap climbs on Kili but they are not necessarily safe or successful, and local staff may be poorly treated and remunerated. Moreover, many operators hide costs or exclude essential items.

Always check that prices include: transfers to and from the mountain, accommodation before and after the climb, all park and rescue fees, full-board on the climb, a high ratio of support staff to climbers and quality camping equipment.

Transport – Can transfers be organised safely and efficiently from your point of arrival in Tanzania/Kenya to the pre-climb hotel, and then on to the mountain the next day? Ask your operator what vehicles they use, and if they are insured for tour operation.

Altitude acclimatisation – Always ask your chosen tour operator how the itinerary they recommend will help you acclimatise to altitude. Be wary of rapid ascent routes, such as the 5-day Marangu, which are cheaper but crowded and reduce your chances of summiting.

Staff welfare and the environment – Staff welfare/remuneration is where most operators will try to save costs.

Always ask: Is there a policy for staff welfare, payment and tipping? Is your climb company a member or partner of an ethical tourism association such as the IMEC Partnership for Responsible Travel and their Porter Assistance Project? Are clothes, food and tents provided for staff on the mountain? Remember, a well looked-after crew will look after you well.

How does the climb company protect the environment? Ask about the removal of rubbish, latrines, etc.

On budget climbs, trekkers are invariably expected to subsidise staff salaries with exceptionally high tips. Tipping is universal on Kilimanjaro, and even operators paying their staff well will still provide recommended tipping guidelines, but the amounts requested can vary greatly. We have seen time and time again – not just on Kilimanjaro but in the Himalayas and the Andes – how the expectation of high tips can add an unpleasant dynamic to the relationship between the climb team and group. Well-paid staff will always perform better.

Qualifications and experience – Always ask about staff qualifications, training and experience. Tanzanian Kilimanjaro guides must have Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA) qualifications. Further training is available in areas like wildlife, first aid and languages.

You can ask to see your chief guide’s CV, though keep in mind that guides will often be changed before the climb.

It is not essential to have an overseas guide, for which you will often pay a significant premium. The Tanzanian guides employed by good operators will be far more experienced on Kilimanjaro, and while an international guide serving as a social leader may be helpful in large groups, it is the qualifications and experience of the local Tanzanian guides that are most important.

In an emergency – Ask your climb operator how they handle emergencies, including evacuation from the mountain, and facilitate communication. Do they offer flying doctor cover?

Reassure yourself that you will be rescued safely and your family informed if you are injured or taken ill.

Choosing a local operator

Kilimanjaro outfitters are largely unregulated in Tanzania and have acquired a reputation for sharp practices – against clients but more particularly against staff and porters. This is not universally true, but it is the case with many, if not most budget operators.

If booking with a local operator, it’s therefore best to do so based on recommendations or your own thorough research. Try to find a climb operator locally on arrival in Arusha and you’ll be swamped with options and more likely than not end up with a budget operator on a 6-day climb via Marangu Route.

It’s important to ensure that any operator you book with has a physical address. Many of those who will approach you locally offering to organise your Kilimanjaro climb will be touts or so-called “fly-catchers” who earn a commission and may not have actually set foot on the mountain themselves. If you have a chance to visit the operator and inspect their kit before your climb, even better, though this may not always be practical.

Henry Stedman offers a comprehensive guide to all things Kilimanjaro, which includes, among other things, a list of local Kilimanjaro outfitters. We are unsure how up to date the operator listings are, but that’s perhaps a good thing in this case – you don’t want to book your climb with an operator that hasn’t been around for 10 years or more!