Umbwe Route: Kilimanjaro's Toughest Route

By Sierd van der Bij

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Umbwe Route: Kilimanjaro's Toughest Route
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Are you Umbwe enough? Karibu! Yep, it's been said before. The Umbe Route is the toughest route for climbing Kilimanjaro. But is it though? Comparing the different routes for climbing Kilimanjaro, opinions tend to differ. Discussions about which route is more beautiful, which one is toughest, and which one is easiest. If you've come here to read more about the Umbwe Route, you've come to the right place. Poa kichizi kama ndizi kwenye friji!

Wait, what? That means "Crazy cool like a banana in the fridge", a saying Rintsje and I got to learn inside out during our turn on Kilimanjaro. You need to be a bit "crazy cool" if you're interested in the Umbwe Route. We've done the Machame Route ourselves, but if we would do it again, I am sure we would meet at the Umbwe Gate. Let’s go!

The Umbwe Route on Kilimanjaro: Numbers First

From gate to gate the Umbwe Route is 47.5 kilometres / 29 miles long. This makes it the shortest and toughest route on Kilimanjaro. Routes like the Machame Route and the Lemosho Route offer better acclimatization but those who are interested in the Umbwe Route do it for a good reason: The challenge. The Umwbe Route can be done in 6 or 7 days. 7 days allow for an acclimatization day at Barrano Camp. The hard numbers:

Days: 6 or 7 days

Total Distance: 47,5 kilometres (29 miles)

Ascent: 4,580 metres (15026 feet)

Day-to-day distance on a 7-day climb

Day 1: 9.2 kilometres (5.72 miles)

Day 2: 4.9 kilometres (3.04 miles)

Day 3: 4.3 kilometres (2.67 miles)

Day 4: Acclimatization day

Day 5: 3.8 kilometres (2.36 miles)

Day 6: 16.6 kilometres (10.32 miles)

Day 7: 8.7 kilometres (5.4 miles)

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What Makes the Umbwe Route So Special?

By now we don't have to tell you anymore that the Umbwe Route is the most challenging route on Kilimanjaro. You know it and that is exactly why are you are interested in the Umbwe in the first place. The Umbwe Route starts at the back of the small village of Umbwe, from where it rapidly climbs to the Western Breach and Barranco Camp. On the first day, you tackle 1,270 meters over a mere 9.2 kilometers. The first two stages that go through the dense rainforest make Umbwe's reputation what it is. In that sense, it is a bit comparable to the Machame Route. The Machame Route does take more time to get to Barranco Camp and allows for better acclimatization with a stop at Lava Tower.

The Umbwe Route is tough, but after Barranco Camp it takes the same paths as those who do the Lemosho Route or the Machame Route. And for those on the 7-day version, there is a rest day at Barranco. This is much needed because the 6-day version of the Umbwe Route is too much for pretty much half of the climbers who try it. The success rate for the 7-day Umbwe sits at a decent 70%. Now you can see why it is tough. It is not because it is technical or because of the survival of the fittest. No, it is a survival of the best acclimatized. If you know that you adapt to altitudes well, then the Umbwe Route could be a very good match.

What Makes the Umbwe Route So Special?

Umbwe Route Map: From Start to Finish

Wondering what it more or less looks like and what side of the mountain you get to start and end? In the below interactive Komoot map, you can see what you're in for when you hike the Umbwe Route.

How Hard is the Umbwe Route? 

What sets the Umbwe Route apart in terms of difficulty are its steep and relentless ascents, coupled with demanding descents, presenting trekkers with a physically taxing ascent. The rapid elevation gain on the Umbwe Route poses a significant acclimatization challenge, increasing the risk of altitude-related issues. Furthermore, the route's shorter duration compared to other trails means trekkers must adapt quickly to the changing altitudes, adding an extra layer of difficulty.

The challenging nature of the Umbwe Route, however, attracts climbers looking for a more demanding and less crowded experience on Kilimanjaro. If you make it past Karanga Camp without any acclimatization issues, you will have a very fair chance of making it to Uhuru Peak.

The Barranco Wall on the Umbwe Route

The formidable Barranco Wall presents a steep and imposing obstacle for trekkers following the Umbwe Route during their ascent of Kilimanjaro. Characterized by challenging terrain, including sections of scrambling, climbing, and exposed ridges, the Barranco Wall is more accurately described as a steep incline adorned with boulders rather than a vertical wall. Despite its reputation, our experience climbing Kilimanjaro in August 2022 revealed that the Barranco Wall, while not to be underestimated, proved more manageable than anticipated. While it may not induce sleepless nights, it's essential to note that for individuals with a fear of heights, the Barranco Wall can be triggering. The elevation gain on the Barranco Wall amounts to 257 meters (843 feet), and ascending it typically takes no more than an hour. However, due to obstacles like the distinctive Kissing Rock, trekkers might encounter a brief queue, adding a unique challenge to the scramble. The popularity of the Barranco Wall, often referred to as the Breakfast Wall, is heightened by the fact that it is the initial challenge faced by those who overnight at Barranco Camp, leading to a busy start as groups embark on this iconic ascent simultaneously.

If you're curious to witness the Barranco Wall and its challenges, feel free to check out our video below.

Best Season for the Umbwe Route

Kilimanjaro remains accessible for trekking and climbing throughout the year without specific seasonal restrictions. However, certain months are more favorable than others. The rainy season, spanning from April to May and November to December, brings less ideal conditions. In contrast, the dry season, encompassing January to March and June to October, is considered more suitable for expeditions. Consequently, the Umbwe Route is best experienced during the dry season, even though this period tends to be busier. For those seeking a quieter ascent of Kilimanjaro, an alternative is to consider tackling the Umbwe Route during the rainy season.

Best Season for the Umbwe Route

Umbwe Route Itinerary: From Day to Day

The Umbwe Route is best hiked in 7 days. This allows for an acclimatization day at Barranco Camp, making up for the lack of acclimatization on the first two days of the Umbwe Route. The 6-day route has a success rate of 50%, where as the 7-day option sees a decent 70% of climbers making it to Uhuru Peak.
Day
1

Umbwe Gate (1,800m/5,905ft) to Cave Bivouac Camp (2,850m/9,350ft)

Duration: 05:50 h
Distance: 9.1 km
Ascent: 1260 m
Descent: 100 m
At 8am leave Moshi for Umbwe Gate where you will meet our porters, guides, and cooks who will spend the next six days trekking with you to Uhuru Peak, the roof of Africa. After arriving, wait at the gate while we register your climb and the porters and guides make final preparations. Your first day’s destination is Cave Bivouac Camp, approximately 6 hours from the gate. The trail is steep and can be slippery in some places. Hike through the moss-covered trees of Kilimanjaro’s cloud forest. The forest will thin later in the hike and heathers, tall grasses and wildflowers will come into view. Porters and cooks will walk ahead to set up the camp in time for your arrival.

Cave Bivouac Camp

Info
Cave Bivouac Camp
Day
2

Cave Bivouac (2,850m/9,350ft) to Barranco Camp (3,950m/12,960ft)

Duration: 04:05 h
Distance: 4.92 km
Ascent: 1110 m
Descent: 10 m
The first section of the trail continues following the ridge. After leaving the forest, continue through open moorlands until reaching Barranco Camp. Barranco is generally regarded as the most scenic campsite on the Umbwe Trail as it’s surrounded by giant senecios and lobelias. As Barranco is in a valley, the sun rises later than at the other camps.

Barranco Camp

Info
Barranco Camp
Day
3

Barranco Camp (3,900 m/12,800 ft)

Extra Day for Acclimatization. Adding this day will ease your effort, and amplify your acclimatization.

Barranco Camp

Info
Barranco Camp
Day
4

Barranco Camp (3,950m) to Karanga Camp (3,930m)

Duration: 02:40 h
Distance: 4.45 km
Ascent: 350 m
Descent: 270 m

Today, you face the challenge of conquering the Barranco Wall. While certain sections may demand the use of your hands for improved grip, actual climbing is not required. Your guide will be right alongside you, offering assistance every step of the way. Our video demonstrates that the experience isn't as daunting as some blog posts might suggest.

The route's series of ascents and descents serve as a valuable acclimatization opportunity before reaching the mountain ridge. Walking along this ridge allows you to absorb the stunning landscape, characterized by captivating contrasts between desert and vegetation. Eventually, you'll arrive at the mist-shrouded Karanga Camp, positioned at 4,035 meters (13,240 ft). Even through the clouds, Kibo remains visible, while the call of Uhuru Peak beckons.

Karanga Camp

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Karanga Camp
Day
5

Karanga Camp (3,930m) to Barafu Camp (4,700m)

Duration: 02:25 h
Distance: 3.5 km
Ascent: 570 m

Another day unfolds on the captivating slopes of Kilimanjaro. The meticulous acclimatization efforts you've undertaken are paying off. By maintaining a steady "pole pole" pace, the summit will draw near sooner than you realize. Today's journey leads you through arid desert terrain, with the imposing presence of Kibo on your left side.

Although the distance covered is short, the altitude's effects will be noticeable, adding to the challenge. Embrace the gradual approach and heed the guidance of your knowledgeable guide(s). As this day concludes, anticipation builds for the significant day that lies ahead – an early night awaits for the journey that unfolds tomorrow.

Barafu Camp

Info
Barafu  Camp
Day
6

Barafu Camp (4,700m) to Summit (5,895m) (midnight start) descent to Mweka Camp (3,100m)

Duration: 10:50 h
Distance: 16.6 km
Ascent: 1220 m
Descent: 2790 m

Your guide will wake you up in the middle of the night. There will be a light breakfast and a warm beverage ready for you. How do you feel? Chances are, you are not feeling that great. The altitude does funny things but food and water will help you get ready. The moon and your headlamps will be your only source of light as you make your way up to Stella Point, reaching the crater rim in about 5 – 7 hours. From Stella Point, it’s another deceiving 1 to 2 hours to Uhuru Peak. Depending on how you feel, this is not easy. But you’ve made it. You are at the highest point. on one of the Seven Summits. Enjoy the sun rising over Africa.

After capturing this incredible view and achievement on film, you will start your descent along the same route back to Barafu Camp, where your team awaits you with some snacks and refreshments. Rested and relaxed you will make your way to Mweka Camp for your last night on the highest mountain in Africa. A massive day, but it all went so quickly. From camp you look up to Kibo and you start to realize that you were up there that same morning. Incredible. One more wishy washy, one last dinner on the mountain.

And, most likely, the tipping ceremony. This is the moment to thank your guides and porters for their share in successfully summiting Kilimanjaro. There’s no need to give cash now, but it is a good moment to let your guide know how much the staff can expect. Get in touch with our Kilimanjaro expert to learn more about tipping and receive a guideline for fair tipping.

Mweka Camp

Info
Mweka Camp
Day
7

Mweka Camp (3,100m) to Mweka Gate (1,800m) to Moshi

Duration: 03:40 h
Distance: 8.7 km
Descent: 1420 m

The more you descend, the better your oxygen intake. The better your oxygen intake, the better your body and mind work. It’s all sinking now. You’ve ascended Kilimanjaro. You will once more trek through the rainforest, giving you another opportunity to spot the cheeky colobus monkeys, finally reaching the Mweka gate in about 2 – 3 hours. In Mweka, after some paperwork, another meal awaits you. You may as well add a Kilimanjaro beer to that. While you’re at it, your guide will present you with your climbing certificate. Well done!

After some good food and a celebration, you will be taken back to your hotel. It’s time to rest those legs. Jump in the pool, eat, drink and sleep.

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Packing List for the Umbwe Route

Trekking in the Kilimanjaro requires decent gear. Especially the basics like an 80-90 L backpack and quality trekking socks. We highly recommend that you read our suggestted packing list to hike the Umbwe Route.

  • Technical clothing

  • Headwear

  • Handwear

  • Footwear

  • Accessories

  • Equipment

  • Other

Gear Checklist for the Umbwe Route

So, above you find a guideline of what you need for your Kilimanjaro ascent, and below we've thrown in a handy checklist for you. Remember, pole pole!
Gear Checklist for the Umbwe Route

Not sure yet or want to discuss your plans for the Umbwe Route with one of our trekking experts? Get in touch today and turn your dreams into memories!

How To Get Fit for the Umbwe Route

It bears repeating – Kilimanjaro is a trekking mountain, not a climbing one. Trekking equals hiking, so the most effective training for Kilimanjaro is hiking. Ignore the misleading advice about cross-training with biking, swimming, weight training, or extreme diets. No. Remember, pole pole. Strive to become the best version of yourself, starting this process approximately two months before your climb. You can follow a structured training plan or keep these guidelines in mind.

We recommend a minimum of three hiking or walking sessions per week, each lasting at least one hour. The specifics, like distance, duration, and elevation gain, depend on the trails in your area. Ideally, choose trails that are a few miles long, including a challenging uphill section lasting about an hour. Find a convenient location for regular sessions and easy progress tracking.

Incorporate longer day hikes for excellent training – lasting four to six hours with moderate elevation changes of around 1,000 feet (305 meters), carrying a 20 lb. (9 kg) pack. If up for a challenge, tackle harder trails for even more effective preparation. If outdoor trails aren't accessible, stair training is a great alternative to simulate Kilimanjaro's climbing experience. Utilize a stair master machine for productive sessions.

To replicate the mountain climb challenge, wear your backpack and maintain a slow, steady pace during 1-2 hours of stair climbing or StairMaster use. Remember, descending Kilimanjaro is tougher than climbing, so train for downhill walking.

Feeling confident with your hiking skills? Consider diversifying your routine with runs, stretching exercises, yoga, or even weight training. Anything that enhances overall fitness is beneficial, but always prioritize hiking.

Where Can I Book the Umbwe Route?

At Bookatrekking.com you can book this trek and many others. Our guided options come with experts on the ground, and offer you a convenient, stress-free, safe, and educational way to explore the outdoors. Find our offers here. Our easy-to-use platform allows you to browse and compare different trekking options and find the perfect fit for your interests, abilities, and budget.

If you have any questions about a specific trek or need help choosing the right one for you, our team of trekking experts is here to assist you. Simply reach out to us and we will be happy to provide you with personalized recommendations and advice to help you plan the trekking adventure of a lifetime.

Is this not your cup of tea and are you looking for other epic adventures? Check out one of our blog posts:

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