Mt Kenya vs Kilimanjaro – what’s the difference?
Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro? It’s one of the most-asked questions in African travel and a tricky one. Both mountains can be built into a safari itinerary and both are hiked rather than climbed. Each summit is accessible without technical work, and they are both extremely tall. Mount Kilimanjaro is of course Africa’s highest peak at 5,895 meters (19,340 feet) but Mount Kenya is the continent’s second highest at 5,199 metres or 17,057 feet. There are several hiking routes on each mountain, all of them big, multi-day treks which require guides, permits and porters. This is an experience for the active traveller looking for more than just a wildlife safari.
Generally the hiking experience on Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro is similar: lots of slow uphill walking through ever-changing habitats. The views are sensational on both mountains but temperatures get colder and the air thins as the hikes gain altitude. You’ll be camping – sleeping in a tent – though both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro have a trail option that offers hut accommodation. Tents and mattresses are provided along with all your food, drinks and camp amenities which usually includes a portable toilet.
You’ll need to be reasonably fit for both mountains, and equipped with the right hiking clothing, camping gear (head torch, first aid kit and so on) and the best sleeping bag you can afford. As for the best time to hike Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, well, it’s the same: December/January to March, and June to October – the two dry seasons – which coincides nicely with the best time to go on safari in East Africa as well as a good time for an Indian Ocean holiday – choose between Zanzibar or the Kenyan coast.
But Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are – naturally – different in other ways. For a start, Mount Kenya is in Kenya but Kilimanjaro lies in Tanzania (with the best views of it from Kenya’s Amboseli Park!). You’ll fly to Kenya’s capital Nairobi and drive north for a couple of hours for Mount Kenya (though you can also fly there from Nairobi) but it’ll be Tanzania’s Arusha International Airport that you’ll be landing at for Mount Kilimanjaro. Road transfers to both mountains and your first camp are usually included in the hiking package.
Now the differences between Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro become more pronounced but can be summed up in three questions.
“How long is each hike to the top?”
Both mountains have a number of routes of varying degrees of difficulty but for a full Kilimanjaro hike you can set aside between six and eight days – even nine. Mount Kenya’s summit for hikers is somewhat lower than its very tallest peaks (accessible only by technical climbing) and a full circuit takes from four to six days. By hiking Mount Kenya you lose little in terms of grand views but you can gain several days to add to a safari or beach holiday.
“What’s the cost difference?”
The pricing for these mountain treks is determined by several factors including season, route choice and operator. But the difference between what you’ll pay for Mount Kenya compared to Kilimanjaro is considerable (and often a reason why many hikers go for Mount Kenya). Kilimanjaro has the magical name and the allure of the superlative but you’ll be paying a premium for that, especially during the peak dry seasons. Mount Kenya is a little more down-to-earth and priced accordingly, often half as much as for a Kilimanjaro hike, whether it’s entry level or top of the range.
“What are the differences in experience?”
Mount Kilimanjaro is much more popular than Mount Kenya and that means – generally – more people in your group and – definitely – more people on the mountain. An average of 35 000 people attempt the Kilimanjaro summit every year (accompanied by some 80 000 guides and porters) whereas Mount Kenya sees less than half of that. Out of the main trekking seasons, you may see no-one else all day on a Mount Kenya hike, and the landscapes are more unspoiled. During peak season, there’s no rush for the top and rarely a crowd at Point Lenana (the summit of Mount Kenya) unlike Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro which at times can be described as ‘busy’.
That said, it is also worth noting that the trekking on Mount Kenya is somewhat tougher than that on Mount Kilimanjaro, despite its lower altitude. Mount Kenya’s terrain is more rugged and its landscapes more challenging, making a summit bid more difficult; the success rate for hikers to summit Mount Kilimanjaro is around 70 – 80% compared to about 60% for Mount Kenya.
Whichever mountain you choose, it’ll be an adventure.