10 things we wish we knew before climbing Mt Kinabalu
Practical tips for climbing the mountain – everything from the toilet stops to how many layers to bring!
Mt Kinabalu is one of the most beautiful climbs we’ve been on, because it takes you through various drastically different landscapes within a day. From dense Borneo rainforest, to enchanted forest, to zen-like rock garden and then finally to the moonscape at the summit, where it feels like you’re an early explorer on the moon.
It was definitely worth the effort, but our group were definitely not the most prepared for the climb! Here’s some information that we wished we had before we climbed the mountain.
1. It gets very cold (and may get wet!)
It rained for 5 out of the 6 hours on the first day of our climb, so even with ponchos, we were cold to the bone at the end of our hike. It’s approx. 10 degrees at Pendant Hut/Laban Rata, excluding wind-chill, so when we got to the hut, we were basically huddled up in every single layer that we brought with us. The water at the top is heated through solar heating, so if it isn't sunny on the way up, the water can also get pretty cold. I basically slept in 6 layers, including a flannel and a ski jacket!
The summit climb starts at 2:30am, which means that it’s just as cold if not colder the next morning. You’re also climbing in the wide-open moonscape, and entirely exposed to the wind for about two hours on the climb to the summit. So be prepared for wind, lots of wind! Bring a poncho, a THICK beanie, lots of layers, including thermal base layers.
2. Bring enough water to get you through 6km of hiking
There is drinking water at the overnight rest stop (at the 6km mark), but until you get there, there’s nowhere to re-fill your bottle on the way up. So, bring enough water to get you through 6km of hiking! In our case, this was 1.5-2 litres each.
3. The more food, the merrier!
On the 2-day hike, you’ll get (i) 1 lunch and 1 dinner on the 1st day; and (ii) 2 breakfasts on the 2nd day. Our take? Bring more food!
On the first day, we brought lots of energy bars and nuts on the way up, which really kept us going especially as the packed lunch was very basic.
When we got to the top, some in our group didn’t want to go for dinner as they were exhausted, but those of us who trudged through the rain to dinner were so glad we did. The dinner at the top was a proper buffet feast with hot soup, spaghetti, lamb, chicken, rice etc! We gorged ourselves silly as a reward for the climb!
The 2nd day was a bit more disappointing on the food front. There’s a light breakfast at 2am before the summit climb, and there’s a second breakfast when you get back from the summit or via ferrata – which is about 11am if you do the Walk the Torq, and later if you do Low’s Peak. The 2nd breakfast is fairly substantial as it comprises sausages, eggs, mashed potatoes, toast etc. However, there is no lunch, so if you get down late like us, you will want to pack some food from the 2nd breakfast for the hike back down! We didn’t do that, so when we finally got back to Kota Kinabalu at about 7pm, we were famished!
There is also a shop at the overnight rest stop for you to stock up on snacks if you don't want to carry too much food up the mountain!
4. If you forget to bring any gear, don’t worry!
We have tried to keep our recommended packing list to only the essentials. If you don’t have any item, not to worry - you can rent or buy them in Kinabalu!
If you’re looking to buy your gear, there are a couple of great outdoor gear shops (Tong’s and Montanic Adventure Store), and Uniqlo in Kota Kinabalu. These shops are all in Suria Sabah mall, which closes at 10pm each day. We would recommend going to Tong’s and Uniqlo first to get your gear, as they’re affordable and of good quality.
If you can’t find something at Tong's or Uniqlo, then head to Montanic as a last resort! Last resort only because the items here tend to be pricier as they stock top international brands. Montanic is generally a very well equipped shop and will have everything that you need for the climb if you forget anything or just need to stock up!
You can also rent a lot of gear at Kinabalu Park HQ, and at the overnight rest stop. At Kinabalu Park HQ, you can rent hiking poles for RM10 per pole; a head torch at RM25 per head torch, and also request porters to carry your load at a rate of RM13 per kg (includes both up and down). You can also buy ponchos at Kinabalu Park HQ, rent jackets and get socks at the overnight rest stop.
On an aside, you may have heard of Kampung Adidas which is what many locals wear for trekking (see pictures below!). They’re awesome as they’re incredibly cheap (under RM10), can be easily purchased at a local market, and are very breathable. But we would caution novice hikers against using them for Kinabalu as it can get very slippery during the summit climb (especially if it’s raining or rained the night before) and the ankle support and the grip of these Kampung Adidas may not be sufficient.
5. There are no creepy crawlies
For those who are worried about mosquitos or leeches, there really aren’t any (that we encountered!) up the mountain. Even after the rain when mosquitos or leeches usually like coming out, there weren’t any in sight during our climb.
6. There are loos on the way up!
There are rest stops and WCs every 1km (or less) on the trail up to the overnight rest stop.
7. Whether you do the via ferrata or the regular descent, you’re taking the same route up and down the mountain
How it works is that everyone does the regular summit, and after the summit, those who have opted for the regular descent will head down the mountain, whereas those who have opted for the via ferrata (either Walk the Torq or Low’s Peak) will do the additional activity, before they head down the mountain. So, if anyone in the group decides not to do the via ferrata after the summit climb (even if they have booked a via ferrata activity), they have the option to just head to Pendant Hut (the overnight rest stop) to rest up whilst others do the via ferrata activity.
Those who do Walk the Torq activity will hike 380m (2-3 hours) more than those who do the regular descent. Those who do the Low’s Peak activity will hike 1.19km (4-6 hours) more than those who do the regular descent. Everyone takes the same route up and down regardless of whether they do the regular descent or the via ferrata.
However, in order to do the via ferrata activity, there are strict timings to hit (e.g. getting to Pendant hut by 4pm on the first day, and getting back from the summit by 8am on the second day). When we did the climb, our group hit all the timings comfortably, even though most of us didn’t train for the hike so it shouldn’t be an issue even for novice hikers.
8. For the photography buffs, don’t bring your drones
All of Mt Kinabalu is a no-drone zone, so don’t bring your drones! I was pretty disappointed as I brought my drone! But this also means all the other hikers get to hike in peace, which isn’t a bad thing.
9. Let’s talk about pills
Some pills may be useful. A couple of people in my group had altitude sickness so strong painkillers were very useful for them. Cold meds also turned out to be very useful, as some of us caught a cold hiking in the rain on the way up. The other items we found super useful were Ibuprofen gel, deep heat and of course, altitude sickness pills (ideally start taking a few days before to ensure no allergic reaction).
10. It’s not a difficult hike, but there are a LOT of steps..
The hike is 8.72km each way, which doesn’t sound too bad, but if you add that to the (possible) rain, the cold, and the altitude, it can be fairly punishing. Many in our group didn’t train for the hike and managed to do it, so it’s definitely doable for a novice hiker. However, training probably just means that you enjoy it more!
The trail is basically comprised of approx. 50% steps and 50% rocky terrain, including:
- 380 flights of steps the first day (climbing a total of 6km in one day)
- 180 flights of steps the second day (early morning)
- 380 + 180 = 560 flights of steps down on second day to reach the base of the hike
If you choose to do the via ferrata, you will need to be a little fitter – even though the absolute distances for the via ferrata activities aren’t long, they do take some time which means that you may be more tired on the way down.
The hike is beautiful – really, really beautiful. If we had done a bit more training, perhaps we would have been less concerned about catching our breath, and would have been more able to appreciate our surroundings.
Our lovely guide Christopher made it a point to show us all the species of the fascinating carnivorous pitcher plants en route.
I suspect if we had been bouncing down the mountain, he would have had the chance to take more of a detour and show us more of the unique plants that make the mountain so incredibly special. So, to fully appreciate the hike, it’s worth doing some training!
11. We know we said 10, but here are some additional tips on our packing list - just in case!
You can find our full packing list here under 'What should I bring?'. That list is complete but we just wanted to elaborate a little on it:
- Headtorch: Do make sure your headtorches are fully charged, or if you're not sure, it is worth bringing extra headtorch batteries as it does get very dark on the summit climb - you don't want your headtorch going out midway!
- Gloves: We have put gloves on the packing list but we just wanted to stress how important they are! The climb to the summit comprises a lot of rope-holding - it does get very cold and it does get very uncomfortable gripping the rope without gloves.
- Ear plugs (optional): The dorms are quite large and could get noisy so if you are sensitive to sound, you may want to bring ear plugs to ensure a better night's rest.
- Battery pack: There are plugs in the lodge so there's no need to bring a battery pack (so long as your electronic items are sufficiently charged for the trip on the way up).
Afterword: These tips are provided by Jacinta, Co-founder of Seek Sophie. She was in pain for a few days after hiking up Mt Kinabalu but still raves about it as one of the most beautiful hikes she's ever done.