Adapted, with permission, from The Mountains of Kenya, by Paul Clarke. Also see our summary of walking trips and treks in Kenya.
– This information was updated in April 2017 –
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The Weather and When to Go
When considering Kenya’s climate, it is useful to divide the country along the line of the Rift Valley.
West of the Rift, the highland areas experience a rainy season from late March to September or October with March, April and August the worst months. In the northern lowland areas the rainy season is restricted to April and May.
East of the Rift the rainy season is late March to June (the long rains) and late October to mid-December (the short rains). July to September is often cloudy and cool; January to March sunny and warm. Generally the higher the ground, the greater the rainfall and on the high mountains – the Cheranganis, the Aberdares, Mount Elgon and Mount Kenya – rain can fall at any time of year, although it will be concentrated in the pattern described above. Walking on all the mountains is possible at all times of year. However during the rainy seasons access may be difficult, as approach roads can become very muddy or washed out altogether, providing good sport for drivers.
On the high mountains walking in the rainy season can be unpleasant, and the best months are January and February, together with December for the Cheranganis and Mount Elgon.
On the lower hotter mountains, walking during the rainy season can help ensure some cloud cover to keep temperatures down, and the rain can help clear the air and provide better views. It can increase the humidity however. Possibly the best months for these mountains are July to September when temperatures are relatively low.
The Effect of Altitude
Kenya is a country with a great variation in altitude. A walk on Tiati where the roadhead is at 3,000 feet and the summit at 7,700 feet is a very different experience to a walk on Mount Elgon with the roadhead over 11,000 feet and the summit at 14,200 feet.
Generally the lower mountains stand alone. Their lower slopes are covered in bush, which can be thick and thorny. This can be be difficult to penetrate unless there are cattle trails or footpaths. In some cases a footpath exists to the edge of the forest zone, following a pipeline to a spring there. In either case a local guide is generally useful. Above 5,000 feet there is often forest which offers easier walking and again, to avoid getting lost, a guide is useful. The hills often have no water and it can be very hot. It is possible to drink over 5 litres of water on a day’s walk. For this reason it is generally unpleasant to camp out over night because of the weight of water that must be carried. You would also find negotiating thick bush with a large rucksack very trying. In general then it is far more pleasant to make the ascent on a day trip, even if this means a very long day. I find the best way to avoid the temptation of seeing a sunrise or sunset from the top, is to choose a campsite which allows me to see it from the bottom – which is nearly as good. This completely removes all temptation to backpack. On such hills a very early start (6 am) is essential, both so that the ascent can be made in the cool of the morning, and to allow time for a return before dark. In Kenya nightfall is around 7 pm.
On the higher hills temperatures are much lower and such an early start is not needed. Nevertheless it often clouds over in the afternoon, so it is worth getting away between 7 and 8 am. Guides are not usually necessary, but if the walk involves an ascent through bamboo or forest it is worth marking the trail with bright pink toilet paper as it can be very difficult to retrace steps otherwise. In addition careful note should be made of your route across moorland as route finding, while simple when it is clear, can be very difficult in mist. On Mount Elgon water is widely available; it is in the Cheranganis, but should be boiled. In the Aberdares the routes stick mainly to waterless ridges, so water can be a problem.
Altitude sickness is only likely to be a serious cause of concern on Mt Kenya and full details are given on the Mount Kenya page.
Nevertheless, visitors to Mount Elgon and the Aberdares will sometimes suffer altitude sickness in one of its milder forms and should be prepared for it. Altitude sickness is caused by too rapid ascent to high altitude. Generally the symptoms are an overall weakness with the sufferer finding it difficult to walk uphill. More specifically the symptoms include headache unrelieved by aspirin, coupled with slight nausea, lightheadedness and loss of appetite. The only sure cure is descent, but rest can help. All those ascending to altitude should drink a lot of water. This is made more palatable if citrus fruit powders are added to the water. These are available in Nairobi supermarkets under the curious brand names of Realorange and Realemon. Usually a day’s rest is all that is needed before the sufferer can go on.
Altitude sickness can be avoided by slow ascent. For visitors to the country, a day or two spent in Nairobi (5,500 feet) can help with the acclimatisation process. There is no correlation between fitness and susceptibility. Indeed fitter people often suffer worse, because they are able to push on when they get the first sign of symptoms until they receive a serious dose.
Almost without exception, the mountains of Kenya are most conveniently approached in your own 4WD transport. However, 2WD is often satisfactory. If you wish to use public transport, the mountains to go for are Mount Elgon, Longonot, Orok, the Cherangani Hills, Marop, Kibimjor, Mount Kenya and possibly Warges and Sekerr.
In late 2016 the tarmacking of the Isiolo – Marsabit road was completed opening up a host of unspoilt climbing and trekking areas that were previously inaccessible. However, public transport is irregular and one is advised to make their own individual arrangements. Pockets of insecurity remain a key concern in some of these regions in northern Kenya and its critically important to ascertain the state of affairs before setting out.
Visitors to Kenya may wish to hire a vehicle. Vehicle hire in Kenya can be expensive, although in recent times a number of companies and individuals have begun offering these services and it is usually possible to negotiate a discount of up to 20 % on quoted prices. A 2WD car will get you to most places but if your trip requires some off-road driving its recommended that one opts for an SUV. If the trip requires extensive off-road driving in hard to reach areas, and rough terrain, (or in the rainy season) a 4WD is a must
Car hire firms find their customers roll their 4WD vehicles regularly. For this reason, it is important to keep your speed down and possibly engage 4WD on loose dirt roads as this can give more control in an emergency.
On a trip to northern Kenya or Lengai in Tanzania, sources of mechanical assistance can be rather far away and a degree of self-sufficiency is important. In any event, make sure you have a serviceable spare tyre, (many people carry two), and an adequate jack. A high lift jack, although expensive, is the most versatile and can be used in a variety of ways to recover bogged-in vehicles. Some vehicles need special jacking points welding on before a high lift jack can be used.
Punctures are very common in rough off-road terrain. You must carry with you a puncture repair kit. This includes a pressure gauge, valve key, two tyre levers, patches with glue and a pump. A foot pump is adequate, but it can take an hour to inflate a Land Rover/Land Cruiser tyre in this manner, so a pump of the sort you screw into a spark plug socket is useful. In this case you will need a spark plug spanner as well. You must know how to repair a puncture yourself. Get someone to show you before you need them. You are also advised to carry a supply of spares. At a minimum you should have a fan belt, distributor cap, radiator hoses, contact points, condenser (old distributor type vehicles but these are now very rare), spark plugs, oil and an inner tube. Even if you don’t know what to do with these items, you may well be able to find someone who does. A workshop manual can help! On a really long trip to remote parts it is wise to consider taking additional spares. It can be useful to take advice from a mechanic familiar with your make of vehicle as to which parts are vulnerable. The following list is a suggestion: gear oil, distilled water, coil, clutch cable (manual cars), accelerator cable, brake master cylinder overhaul kit, water pump overhaul kit (or water pump), petrol pump, one front and one rear main leaf spring, shock absorbers, HT leads, oil pump, wheel studs, half shafts and bearings.
Fuel can be hard to find in parts of northern Kenya, or distances in between towns quite far and on trips here you will need to take supplies with you or fuel whenever you can.
On a large number of the hills in Kenya guides with local knowledge are essential. They may usually be obtained from the local Chief or mission, sometimes from the local game or forest post. Often the route of ascent may seem obvious, but in practice it is easy to get lost in a maze of game or cattle trails. Guides can also be useful in the event of one of the party suffering from heat stroke or some accident.
You are normally obliged to engage at least one guide, and for a bigger group its advisable that you take two guides. Kshs 1,500 – 2,500per per person per day is reasonable for the work involved, but as in many situations in Kenya, it’s a negotiation process that will start with a high pitch – don’t get offended… that’s normal – have the end goal price in mind. Be sure this does not lead to a misunderstanding. In recent times a number of companies have come up and are offering these services as package day tours/weekend hikes – the reputation and credibility of these firms varies greatly, and its strongly recommended that one consultants widely before settling on one.
Make it clear the guide is expected to bring his own food and water. A knowledge of Swahili can be useful when dealing with guides, but it is usually possible to find someone who speaks English to help with the negotiating process.
The Kenya and Northern Tanzania route Map (sheet SK81) published by the Survey of Kenya, is the best map of the whole of Kenya for topographical detail and information on roads and tracks in remote parts. Other maps are available at a similar scale which are more up to date on the major roads of the country.
Some other maps published by the Survey of Kenya relating to areas of tourist interest are available from Nairobi bookshops, (but likely to be out of print from time to time). In the past sheets at 1:250,000 and 1:50,000 have been available but they are now restricted and in practice difficult to obtain. For the majority of hills in Kenya this is not a handicap. Generally, the 1:1,000,000 sheet is adequate as an approach map and ascents can be made using guides, route descriptions and line of sight. The lack of maps is inconvenient in respect of the Cheranganis, the Aberdares and Mount Elgon. However, walks in these areas are still possible. Google Maps/GPSs are a great resource for you, but this does not replace the need for a local guide especially in the mountain ranges that are covered in forest or scrub. Getting lost is easy and can be traumatic.
Clothing and Equipment
Walking on all the mountains in this book can be very hot during the day. On the other hand it can get surprisingly cold at night. Camping at 7,000 feet in the Loitas can get perishingly cold. Consequently, you need to bring a range of warm and cool clothing. The bushier mountains can be very hard on your clothes and it is advisable to wear a pair of hard wearing shorts (some people prefer long trousers to prevent their legs being scratched and picking up ticks) and a very old short sleeved shirt – this is better than a T-shirt as it keeps the sun off your neck. On a day trip I usually carry a light sweatshirt and a light waterproof, mainly to keep the wind off whilst sitting on the summit. This is usually adequate for the higher mountains as well, although I might wear long trousers and carry a more substantial waterproof. I usually carry 2 to 5 litres of water depending on the length of the walk and the temperature. It is much better to carry too much water than run out and one always ends up giving some to the guides who never bring any, no matter what you tell them.
Footwear is a matter of personal choice and in practice some people will prefer training shoes for all the mountains in this book, on the grounds of lightness and coolness, while others will prefer boots as most of the hills can be steep and stony. If you choose boots, remember to allow a lot of room for your feet to swell in the heat. The best compromise available locally is the Bata Safari Boot (‘brothel creeper’) available everywhere.
A compass, whistle, torch and batteries (in case of benightment), plaster, rehydration salts, scissors (better for cutting plaster than a pen-knife), sun tan lotion, aspirin and toilet roll (for route marking, among other uses) are useful additions to the rucksack. Nature lovers will find a pair of lightweight binoculars handy (but note that the ultra-lightweight ones have a restricted field of view).
When camping by cars on an extended excursion into the bush it is worth taking a few creature comforts along. Foam mattresses are easy to obtain in Kenya, camping chairs, tables, cool boxes, car battery lanterns and a spare stove are things worth bringing in as personal effects if you can. If you have a lightweight tent, a special set of steel pegs for the hard ground saves bending your aluminum ones out of recognition.
Game on Mountains
There is no longer much game on Kenya’s mountains (outside the national park/game reserves). Small antelopes, giraffes and zebras are frequently seen, but larger game such as lions, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos are now rare, although sightings do occasionally occur. Even when about, game is not normally a hazard as it will tend to move off when it hears humans approaching. If you do see big game do not attempt to approach it. Wait until it becomes aware of your presence and moves off.
You should avoid moving on mountains at night at all costs. If you have to, make sure your descent is loud and noisy to warn off game, before you get too close.
An important exception to this general summary is the Aberdares where lions, are abound and very dangerous. Bees can sometimes be a serious hazard. If you find yourself in danger of attack by bees you have two choices. Either freeze, or run very fast in a zig-zag through bush.
Generally, in Kenya security – the danger of theft or mugging on hikes/treks– is not a cause for concern. However, on some of the hills near Nairobi, there is a much poorer situation extending to violent, armed attacks. Dangers are described under the individual hills, but warnings must be taken very seriously. For instance, it would be most unwise to contemplate an ascent of Ol Doinyo Sapuk without an armed escort or to stroll along the Ngong Hills alone. Often the people living in hill country are particularly honest and pleasant. In the bush it is usually sensible to leave an askari with your car if it is to be otherwise unattended – this can usually be arranged cheaply and conveniently through the local chief or mission. If a break-in does occur it is likely to be a rogue individual, so hiding the car is not always a useful precaution.
In an emergency on the mountain you will have to rely on your party, your guide and local people for help – you may have to offer money for this.
In an emergency on the road, you may have to wait for a passing vehicle for assistance. Almost all the areas in the book do have traffic even if it’s one vehicle every other day. This means being adequately prepared with supplies, especially of water. Missions can usually provide medical and mechanical assistance, although do remember their purpose in life is not to provide support to hapless travellers. Missions in the area of this book that may be useful are at Loyangalani, Lodwar, South Horr, North Horr, Baragoi, Ngurunit and Arsim. Mechanical assistance is available at Lodwar, Marsabit, Archers Post and Maralal. In the event of an accident, the local mission, police post or tourist lodge can summon the Flying Doctor by radio. You do not have to be a member of the Flying Doctors’ Society (part of the AMREF organisation) to make use of their services (though charges are involved if you are not). You can join direct, through a travel agent, or through corporate membership of your employer, club or car hire company.
Most of the climbing areas in Kenya are covered by the leading Mobile Phone Network Operators (Safaricom, Airtel, Equitel) – its advised to carry along sim cards from at least two network operators as a fall back option in the event that one does not have optimal coverage, or the signal is weak.