Climbing Mount Kinabalu was the highlight of my trip to Borneo. It was tough but it was worth each and every step towards the summit. I loved the way the scenery changed every few hundred meters and the sense of achievement when we reached the top was unbelievable. Watching the sunrise from above the clouds really does make you feel like you’re on top of the world.
I did a 2 day, 1 night hike as part of a G Adventures tour, Sabah Adventure.
We began the hike in the morning and reached our accommodation lodge by about 3pm. We had dinner and rested here for the evening before getting up at about 3am to continue the walk to the summit. The reason for the super early start is so you reach the summit in time for the sunrise when you have the best chance for clear skies and amazing views.
About Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is the largest mountain in the whole of Southeast Asia, standing at 4,095m on the jungle-clad island of Borneo. For many travellers to this region, climbing the mountain encompasses the great adventure of their trip.
There are countless tour operators found in the neighbouring city of Kota Kinabalu, providing transportation, guides and equipment for the climb. The majority of climbers tackle the mountain on a two-day hike, beginning in the morning, stopping at a bunk house in the afternoon and finally getting up in the early hours in order to reach the peak for an unforgettable sunrise.
For those tempted by the thought of tackling Borneo’s iconic mountain, here are 10 tips that will help prepare you for the climb.
1. Equipment for climbing Mount Kinabalu
If you’re fit and healthy, you only need the basic equipment for climbing Mount Kinabalu.
I did it in comfortable trainers, leggings, a t-shirt and two fleece jackets but here are a few other things you’ll need.
- A small rucksack – keep the total weight to about 6kg
- A waterproof jacket – Make sure it’s the small type that folds up into a little bag
- A head torch – You’ll need this for the morning when you hike in the dark
- Water bottles – You can refill these along the way
- High energy snacks
- A packed lunch
- Blister plasters – just in case
- A few pairs of thick hiking socks
- Clean underwear and t-shirt for the following day
- A small amount of money for food
- Basic toiletries and medicine – particularly pain killers – check out this prepackaged trekking first aid kit
- Warm hat
- Sunglasses – if you’re lucky
Don’t forget that Kota Kinabalu is home to loads of outdoor and hiking shops where you can pick up everything you need. I’m mostly saying this for anyone travelling to other destinations before they reach Borneo. I’d been travelling for 18 months by the time I got to Borneo and didn’t have any warm clothes, a day pack or even a torch. I found it all for a bargain price in Kota Kinabalu.
Some people will say a good set of hiking boots are necessary but I think it’s personal preference. It is possible to do it in comfortable trainers but hiking boots are obviously great for keeping your feet dry and the extra grip and support.
2. How do I book to climb Mount Kinabalu?
Check out the official Mountain Kinabalu climbing website (www.mountkinabalu.com) for up to date information about how to book.
It is compulsory to do the climb with a registered guide and also with a climbing permit, so there’s no solo, gung-ho option for the intrepid travellers among you. The website recommends booking 3 months in advance, particularly during busy seasons.
You can also book a porter to carry your bag up the mountain. I’d recommend this if you think you’re going to struggle with the climb. It will take a literal weight off your shoulders so you can enjoy the climb.
3. Nerves of steel
One thing I wasn’t expecting during the Mount Kinabalu climb was a scary climb close to the summit. You climb to the summit in the dark and this is one of the steepest parts. There’s a white rope to hold on to as you grapple across the rocks and fumble with your footing. What you can’t see is the sheer drop on the other side of the rope!
It’s not scary enough to stop you climbing and I saw a huge group of elderly tourists who all managed it – it just would have been nice to have a bit of warning.
4. Overcoming altitude sickness
Altitude sickness can impact any climber tackling Mount Kinabalu, whether you consider yourself a specimen of peak fitness or this hike is your first exercise in a decade!
There are certain measures you can take to try and ward off the effects of altitude sickness, from medicines to acclimatising techniques. Arguably the most successful way of avoiding the dizziness and nausea brought on by altitude sickness is to stay at high altitude overnight before your climb, such as in Kinabalu Park or the Kundasang Highlands. Those who feel the effects mid-climb are advised not to sit or lie down but to stand and see if the symptoms wear off, if not you may have to unfortunately abandon your climb.
I did suffer slightly from altitude sickness. I couldn’t sleep even though I was exhausted and I felt nauseous and had a headache. It wasn’t so bad that I was actually sick and I just tried to think of it like a slight hangover (something I’ve had to deal with many times!)
5. Take your time
Slow and steady certainly wins the race when it comes to ascending this mountain, especially given some of the slippery conditions you’re sure to encounter. Take it slow and watch your footing, the last thing you need is an injury to put you out of the game.
During your ascent try not to rest for long periods, keeping your breaks at around five minutes so your body doesn’t have time to cool down. Walking in zigzags is considered safer as you descend, helping to reduce joint pains and the chances of slipping.
Top tip: The hardest part for me was the descent as it was so painful on my knees. Stock up on Ibuprofen before the hike so you’ve got plenty for the way down.
6. Always respect the mountain
Make sure you always maintain your respect for the mountain, even if it’s contributing to your aching limbs and drenched hiking boots.
You are requested to never shout, scream or curse at the mountain at any point during your climb, firstly because it simply lacks class, and secondly because the mountain is considered a sacred site to many communities in the region – remember you are a guest in a foreign country, so always be dignified.
7. Torch and waterproofs
I know I’ve already mentioned it but these really are two things you don’t want to be without. The weather is unpredictable as you climb the mountain, and you can go from clear skies to heavy rain showers before you can say “Mount Kinabalu”.
A waterproof will ensure you keep your body temperature up as you go, as well as stopping your clothes from being damp when you wake in the early hours for day two of the climb. Speaking of which, it is pretty dark at that time in the morning so a head torch is vital.
8. Water, water, water
Keeping your fluids up is an essential factor of a successful ascent of Mount Kinabalu, maintaining your energy and ensuring you don’t get dehydrated as you climb. It is recommended that you try and drink at least four to five litres a day as you climb, so make sure you bring plenty of bottles with you and some water purification tablets for the filling stations you’ll pass throughout the climb.
9. Leave no trace
With an increase in visitors to the mountain, the risk of damaging the purity and beauty of Mount Kinabalu continues to grow, so it is essential to extend your respect for the area as far as humanly possible. Make sure you dispose of your waste properly, most notably with the ‘pack it in, pack it out’ philosophy. You should also leave behind what you find during the climb, so that means no souvenir rocks – they’ll only weigh you down as you climb anyway.
10. Post-climb recovery
It is highly likely that you’ll be feeling rather tired and achy after your successful climb and descent of Mount Kinabalu, and while the typical instinct is to instantly hit the hay, a post-climb trip to the wonderful Poring Hot Springs is the only antidote you’ll need. Soak yourself in the bubbling warmth enjoyed in the rock pools and relax your aching muscles and creaking joints. It’s the perfect way to end your climb.
Friday 22nd of February 2019
Hello! Great tips! Did you take diamox prior to the climb?
Friday 22nd of February 2019
Hi! No, I didn't take anything. I actually wasn't aware of it at the time.
Tuesday 28th of August 2018
I did my with this local tour operator! Pretty good experience. https://borneocalling.com/mount-kinabalu-climb/
One of the slightly cheapest agency with private transfers!
Hiking Kinabalu Mountain: Is It Difficult?
Sunday 27th of August 2017
[…] 10 Tips for Climbing Mount Kinabalu by The Travel Hack […]
Tuesday 9th of August 2016
I would also say 11 - to choose the cheapest way ;) It was an amazing time, we climbed Kinabalu last year and I still remember it as it was yesterday. Just awesome adventure and beautiful views.
Tuesday 24th of May 2016
Thanks for sharing the tips! We have just done mount Kinabalu climbing a few days ago, and this blog post helped us a lot with preparation! The sunrise we saw on the summit was rewarding indeed! By the way, we booked 2D/1N package with Borneo Trails eventually, not through "mountkinabalu.com". I was able to get the package at cheaper price from them! I heard from other travelers that "mountkinabalu.com" seemed to be under one of the local travel agencies. Perhaps it's their marketing strategy to attract customer...
Tuesday 24th of May 2016
Thanks for letting us know Ken -it's good to get feedback from someone who has done it recently! I usually try to support local travel agencies - especially as the guides are almost always local anyway. It's just often more difficult to book and plan with local agencies as their websites aren't always as good as the global agencies.