A Fat Girl’s Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro
That’s how much I weighed the morning I set out to climb Africa’s tallest peak. I was by far the heaviest woman in our group and, I’d soon discover, the heaviest woman on the trail. I knew I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life but what I lacked in strength and agility I made up for in pluck and determination.
It was tough climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, both physically and emotionally. By the end of the first day I felt that I had made a terrible mistake in trying to go from an obese couch potato to a mountain climber. Luckily my stubbornness prevailed and I managed to reach Stella Point, just 300 feet shy of Uhuru Peak. I came home clutching my summit certificate, swearing I would never try it again while secretly promising to come back one day and reach the top.
But how did I even manage to make it as far as I did? I hadn’t set foot on a hiking trail in almost 6 years and my gym workouts were few and far between. Getting in shape to climb Mount Kilimanjaro was no small task. Here are some lessons I learned from my 7-day hike as well as a rundown of my personal exercise routine.
1. Use the Stair Climber
CLIMB THOSE STAIRS. This is the biggest mistake I made when training to climb Kilimanjaro. Much of my exercise routine involved the treadmill, weightlifting and cardio. I avoided that wretched stair climber as much as possible. I hated slogging along at a snail’s pace while the skinny woman next to me hauled ass without even breaking a sweat.
But when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, at least on the Machame Route, you’re going to encounter plenty of stairs. Rock stairs, wooden stairs, stone and dirt stairs, all kinds of stairs. And the trail is such that you’ll be going up and down hills all day long, giving your thighs a major workout. CLIMB THOSE STAIRS!
2. Increase Your Lung Capacity
The air gets thinner the higher you climb so it’s important to work out your lungs just as much as your legs. Improve your lung capacity by doing cardio for a good 30-60 minutes in each workout. I preferred the elliptical trainer but would try to use different cardio machines each time I visited the gym. Pilates and yoga can also help when combined with deep breathing exercises.
3. Don’t Forget Your Arms
If you’re overweight or obese then you’ll probably be relying on your walking poles more than the average hiker. I was using mine within the first hour of the first day! All that upper body movement can easily tire out your shoulders and arms. You may not feel it in the first couple days but by the middle of the hike you’ll definitely feel some tension. Be sure to include some exercises to prepare those arm muscles for a long day’s work!
4. Get Used to Walking Outside
If you’re a novice hiker then rest assured that you don’t NEED to practice on the trails in order to climb Kilimanjaro. However your boots will definitely need to be broken in before getting to Tanzania and your pace will be much faster if you’re used to walking along rugged trails.
Connecticut was a perfect place to practice cold weather hiking and a steep hill in my neighborhood was an adequate walking route for me. Everyone’s walk will be different but my hill gradient ranged from 5% in the beginning (shown below) to roughly 30-35% in a few sections. The average gradient for the majority of my hill was about 15%. Each loop was .75 miles which I would complete in 20 minutes, giving me a pace of about 2.3 mph.
I would walk up and down my hill for a couple hours at a time, breaking in my new boots with each step. These walks helped me get used to the feel of wearing 3 layers of clothes, a backpack and a Camelbak. I figured out where to stick my iPod, where I could stash snacks or my Kleenex, and how long it would take before I’d heat up and need to strip off my outer layers. Walking uphill also trained my calf muscles far better than a treadmill did, especially with all those clothes on!
Although walking up and down my hill improved my stamina it did nothing for my agility. That was a major factor in my slow pace on the mountain. Knowing where to place your feet on a rocky trail takes practice and if you have the opportunity to get out and hike before climbing Kilimanjaro you should do it.
5. Start Early
People who stay fit and active can likely get away with booking a last minute climb on Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact my tentmate decided to join our group just 2 days before we hit the trail! Overweight ladies like me, though, need more time to prepare our bodies. 6 months is a reasonable amount of time to go from a complete couch potato to being ready for Kilimanjaro. Any more than that and you risk losing your motivation and stride, unless you’re good at sticking with a long-term exercise plan (I wasn’t!).
6. Focus on Duration vs. Intensity
While it’s a great idea to have some intense cardio workouts to improve your lung capacity your biggest focus should be endurance. Try to prepare yourself for a 6-hour walking day with breaks at one-hour intervals. 10 minutes on the stair climber just isn’t going to cut it. Of course you can always take a rest on the trail when you need it but as a rule of thumb the guides give a short group rest every hour. If you need more than that on the trail then they’ll probably have you leave earlier in the morning to ensure you get to the next camp at a decent hour.
Now everyone has their own workout routine but here’s what mine looked like when prepping for Kili.
- Worked out 1-3 times per week beginning 6 months before the climb (my goal was 3 a week but life happens)
- Alternated days at the gym and walking The Hill in my neighborhood
- Gym Days: Started out with 1 hour workouts, working up to 2 hours.
- 30-45 minutes brisk walking on the treadmill at an incline
- 15-30 minutes of weightlifting (alternating weight machines each workout)
- 15-45 minutes of intense cardio, usually the elliptical trainer or ARC trainer
- Hill Walking Days: Started out with 1 hour walks, working up to 1.5 hours in various weather conditions. Practiced wearing a full Camelbak and daypack filled with my camera and additional weights. No walking poles.
If you’ve ever given thought to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro but were hesitant to do so because you don’t think you’re fit enough I’m here to tell you that YOU CAN DO IT! Take that leap of faith, start exercising and get yourself on that mountain!