Yay, I finally climbed Mount Elgon. Climbing a mountain was on my bucket list and when the opportunity of climbing Mount Elgon presented itself, I grabbed it with both hands.
It’s not a challenge many would welcome with excitement (I have friends who would not even hike 20km of it lol) but I was very exhilarated to take it on.
When I told my friends that I was going to hike Mt Elgon that has an elevation of 4,321 m, some were excited, some were wondering if I could manage it (tbh I asked myself this question countless times) and others were like “you’re taking this adventurous thing to the next level..” laughs!! But hey, I was ready for the hike and I wasn’t gonna let anyone or anything stop me.
So if you’re planning to climb Mt.Elgon, I hope that this ultimate beginner’s guide to climbing Mount Elgon will give you all the information to help you plan your hike.
Related post: Things to know before traveling to Uganda
Overview of Mount Elgon in Uganda
Located in Eastern Uganda at the border of Uganda and Kenya, Mount Elgon in Mount Elgon National park is the second-highest mountain in Uganda after Mt Rwenzori sitting at 4,321 m (14,177 ft) above sea level and the fourth highest in East Africa. The highest peak on mt Elgon is called Wagagai named after Masaba’s wife – who was the King of the region at the time.
Mt. Elgon is also an extinct volcano that first erupted more than 24 million years ago making it the oldest and largest extinct volcano in the world with a surface area of 50km x 80km. The National park also has the largest caldera in the world which is about 60km long and 40km wide.
Climbing Mount Elgon in Uganda
A few things to know about climbing Mount Elgon
- It’s not technical to hike. You do not need any previous experience of climbing a mountain. In fact, hiking mountain Elgon was my very first time to climb a mountain and I succeeded.
- There are 3 main trails to hike to the Mountain summit. The Sasa trailhead at Budadiri, Sipi trailhead at Forest Exploration center-Kapkwai and Piswa trailhead at Kapkwata.
- Do not worry about carrying your heavy luggage while hiking, there are porters you can hire to help you throughout the hike while you just carry your day pack with everything you’ll personally need on the day’s hike.
- You can only climb the mountain with the company of a UWA ranger(s). Self hiking is not permitted. In cases where you booked your trip with a tour guide, worry not as you’ll also be assigned a UWA ranger on top of your private tour guide.
- Be ready not to shower every day, but if you do, it will always be a bucket shower in a makeshift or non-existent “bathroom”.
- It gets cold on the mountain. (I am sure you’ve heard of the saying that goes; the higher you go, the cooler it becomes). So carry proper gear for that.
- It will be camping throughout your hike. Do not expect anything like lodges or so within the park. However, some campsites are what you’d call “close to a proper campsite” but others are meh.
What is the best time to climb Mountain Elgon
Though you can hike the mountain almost all year round, the best time to climb Mt Elgon is during the drier months of June to August and from December to February.
And since some parts of Eastern Uganda experience heavy rains and mudslides which can be really dangerous, I advise you to stay away from climbing Mount Elgon during the rainy season.
How to prepare for your Mountain Elgon hike
Before hiking Mt. Elgon, make sure that you’re at a great place physically but if not, try to workout lightly to prepare your body for the hike. Personally I didn’t do any kind of workout because I walk a lot normally so that was enough.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to be an athlete or gym instructor. If you’re physically fit, you’ll be able to tackle Mt Elgon – after all, it’s not a hard mountain to hike.
General health conditions
If you have any health condition, first check with your doctor to see if it’s ok for you to go mountain hiking.
In the same way, be prepared for altitude sickness. Yes, altitude sickness is a thing. It doesn’t happen to everyone but it definitely affects some.
But what is Altitude sickness you might ask! Altitude sickness is the physical distress that results from difficulty to adjust to lower oxygen pressure at high altitude.
Some of the sicknesses that can arise include but not limited to headache, stomachache, nausea and sometimes vomiting. It can be mild sometimes but can get severe in rare cases.
I personally did not experience any altitude sickness and when I asked the tour guide whether they get many cases of hikers experiencing it, he said that they get really very few people that get it and it is always manageable.
Choosing a hiking trail
As I mentioned earlier, there are 3 trailheads to reach the highest peak of Wagagai; Sasa trailhead, Sipi trailhead, and Piswa trailhead.
I personally opted for Sasa trailhead on ascending and Sipi trailhead on descending to be able to experience different landscapes and features within the National park.
This is the shortest trails of the 3 and it normally takes 4 days and 3 nights to make a round trip. Since its the shortest route to the peak and the most easily accessible from Mbale town, it’s also the most used by hikers. However, it has the roughest and most rugged ascend on day one. Needless to say, it was the very first trail to be used by hikers.
The beginning of the trail also goes through communities where you’ll be able to learn about the local’s livelihood and see hectares of Uganda’s famous Arabica coffee.
If you choose the Sasa trail, you’ll be able to go through the largest bamboo forest within the park, climb the “Wali Death ladders” and also through Jackson’s pool.
At 56km, Sipi trail is considered the longest and the hardest of the three – taking 4-7 days to make a round trip.
This hike starts from Kapkwai at an elevation of 2050 m above sea level giving an opportunity to see the Tutum cave which is shrouded in the forest.
If you opt for this trail, I recommend descending via the Sasa trail since is quite easier, shorter and you’ll able to enjoy a different kind of vegetation.
Piswa trail is considered to be the easiest of all trails but also a bit longer considering that it is 49 km long. The trail starts from Kapkwata through the Podocarpus forest and offers a chance to see some wildlife species and birds.
The Piswa trail also gives the opportunity to have a peek at some of Kenyan hills like Kapeguria and Nandi. On top of that, you’ll be able to see the Hot springs while on this trail. However, the springs are normally dry during the dry season.
So which trail should you opt for?
In my opinion, I recommend going for the Sasa trail on ascending and the Sipi trail on descending. This is because the Sasa trail is the shortest and can easily be accessed from Mbale where most hikers come from.
Also descending via the Sipi trail means that you’ll have an easy access to the Sipi falls which is one of the must-visit places in Uganda.
How to get to Mt. Elgon National park from Kampala
You can hire a car and go for a self-drive up to Mt. Elgon – well up to Budadiri where the hike starts from if you choose the trail I took – the Sasa trail.
But you also have to keep in mind, that if you choose to descend using a different trail, you’ll have to arrange for your vehicle to be transferred. You can talk to the staff at the wildlife office and they will help you find someone to bring it.
The other option will be to return back to the same point. This means that when you reach the summit, you take the same route to come back.
I don’t advise this as you’ll see the same things you saw while ascending which can be boring. It’s also not practical if you plan to visit the Sipi falls because that would mean driving for some more hours just to get there yet you would have landed close to them if you took the alternative descending route.
So my advice is that if you choose to drive yourself, arrange for your vehicle to be transferred to where your hike ends.
Transfer by a tour company
If you booked a tour company for this hike, then the car of that tour company will transfer you from wherever you agree upon to the mountain. All you have to do is to show up and everything will be ready for you.
By public transport
If you’re a backpacker like me, using public transport is the cheapest way to get there. So here is exactly how to get to Mt. Elgon from Kampala using public transport – this is actually how I got to Mt. Elgon myself.
Take a bus from Kampala to Mbale which is about 230 Km. There are a number of Buses that operate this route but the most prominent ones are YY coaches and Post bus.
I used YY coaches and it was pretty comfortable. They have a bus that leaves every hour, so you shouldn’t be worried about missing it. You can book the bus ticket in advance or pay for one at the time of departure.
The buses can be found in Namayiba Bus park and the trip costs around 20,000Ugx which is approximately $5.
When you reach Mbale, you can either visit the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to find out some of the details of the trek, the available trails, the fees, etc or board directly to Budadiri.
I went to the UWA office in Mbale first because I didn’t know much about the hike and I didn’t know that there was another UWA office at Budadiri but you can skip it since you have got most of the info from this guide. But if you’re not convinced, you can still get more info at the Budadiri UWA office.
While in Mbale, take some time to buy somethings you’ll need on the mountain. This is because the Budadiri town is quite small, so you might not get everything you need.
So I advise you to buy somethings from Mbale supermarkets. For the vegetables, you can be sure to find them in Budadiri. I will discuss more of the things and the food you’ll need to buy for the hike later on.
Also, make sure that you get enough money as there are no ATM machines in Budadiri town.
To reach Budadiri, there are some minivans in Mbale town you can take. For you to easily trace where they park (since its not an official taxi park), ask the locals and they direct you there.
It costs around 4000Ugx (appx. $1) but be prepared to be uncomfortable because the road is dusty, bumpy and the taxi can be quite squeezed inside – but brave up as this is part of experiencing an African safari.
When you reach Budadiri town, head up to the UWA office where you’ll make payments, get a guide/ranger for your hike. You will also be able to finally decide on the trail you’ll be taking if you hadn’t before – basically get all the information about climbing Mount Elgon.
Food to buy for before hiking Mountain Elgon
Before you pack anything, keep in mind that once you enter the park, there is nowhere you can buy anything.
Lots and lots of water. The amount of water you pack depends on the number of days you’ll be hiking for and your water consumption rate. But instead of packing less water, make sure that you pack more.
Just like water, pack more food than you’ll need should you decide to extend your hike by one more day or so.
My trick is to plan my meals daily taking into account what I will eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When that is done, I add food for one extra full day and I like to call this “emergency food”.
Also, since you’ll not be taking any freezer which is totally unnecessary btw, I advise you not to pack food which easily goes bad and ones that take hours to be cooked.
Some of the food you should buy before going to Mt. Elgon include; (you can use this checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything)
- Irish potatoes
- Vegetables like cabbages, Eggplants, Onions, and Tomatoes
- Cooking oil
- Tea leaves
Related post: Best Kampala restaurants
How much does it cost to hike Mountain Elgon
Hiking Mt Elgon is generally inexpensive compared to its counterparts of Mt. Rwenzori and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
However, how much you spend depends on how you decide to hike. Will you be going for a private hike or you’ll hire a tour guide to prepare everything for you, will you be hiring camping gear from UWA or you’ll carry your own.
So to give you an idea of what you can spend, I’ll tell you the prices of everything in case you choose to hire camping gear from UWA. I actually took this route because I didn’t want to pack so many things for the hike.
Park entry fee
The Park entry fee is $75 for non-Ugandans per day and 75,000Ugx for Ugandans and this fee includes 2 rangers that also double as tour guides. The total will depend on how many days your hike will be.
If you don’t plan on cooking for yourself, I suggest you hire a cook. I highly recommend hiring one because it can be extremely tiring to have to cook for yourself after a day’s hike or even during the hike when it comes to preparing for lunch – this is something you definitely have to spend on.
A cook will cost you 20,000Ugx per day. Please note that this fee is for a group not per person. This means that if you’re 2 people, you won’t be paying 40,000Ugx but rather 20,000 Ugx.
This is another necessary cost you have to spend on. I mean it’s already hard to hike as it is but imagine having to hike with your 15kgs luggage!!
So even when you’re low on budget, make sure that you pay for one. Each porter goes for 20,000Ugx per day.
However, the number of porters you need depends on the luggage you have. Each porter carries a maximum of 18Kg. This means that if you have luggage that weighs more than that, you might have to pay for a second one or carry some of your stuff while you hike.
If you didn’t carry your own camping gear, here are some stuff you can hire
- A Sleeping bag: Each sleeping bag costs 20,000Ugx per day
- A sleeping mat: It costs 7,500 Ux per day
- A camping tent: It goes for 20,000Ugx regardless of the number of people that occupy it.
What to pack for Mountain Elgon
Mountain climbing is hard and it can get even harder if you don’t carry the essential hiking gear. Just like Packing for any mountain, packing for Mt. Elgon requires a little bit of preparation and research.
So before you go for this incredible adventure of climbing Mount Elgon, here is everything you should pack.
A good backpack is everything when hiking a mountain. This osprey backpack is what I recommend as it is a perfect size, lightweight and strong enough to withstand the conditions on the mountain. You can buy it from here if you don’t have a backpack yet.
A day back is one of the essential items while packing for mountain Elgon simply because it will be on your back the entire time while you climb.
But before you decide on which day pack to buy just make has the following characteristics;
- Big enough to accommodate all the things you’ll need the entire day as you hike but small enough not to be heavy as the last thing you’ll want is adding any extra weight.
- Make sure that your daypack has a provision to put your water bottle. For my hike, the daypack I had had no water bottle holder and I surely suffered with it. So just a heads up, it is such a real pain when every time you need to drink water, you have to take the bag off your back. If you don’t have a proper daypack already, you can get yourself this osprey daypack before your hike.
Compressible water bottle
It’s paramount to carry a compressible water bottle like this one to keep refiling every time you run out while on the trail.
A water filter will be very important should you run out of clean water and find yourself in a situation where you have to drink unclean stream water. This water filter will help you kill germs and filter any kind of water before you drink it.
Since the mountain can get really cold, make sure that you carry gloves to keep your hands warm. You can opt for these touchscreen gloves to make sure you can use your phone while wearing them.
Other essentials to pack for Mt. Elgon
- Yoga pants: No hike is a success without taking these cool yoga pants.
- Good quality Hiking shoes: Hiking shoes determine whether you’ll be hiking for a number of hours nonstop or you’ll be slipping every other minute. These hiking shoes will be great on the trails of Mt. Elgon
- Merino wool Hiking sock: Pack these merino wool hiking socks to make sure that your feet stay dry and non-smelly when on the trail
- Fleece: For more warmth during the extremely cold nights
- Raincoat: You never know when it might rain, it’s always better to prepare yourself by buying this raincoat.
- A warm jacket: The mountain gets really cold especially during the night
- Flipflops: After a long hike, no one wants to stay in those heavy hiking shoes.
- Head flashlight: Thre is no electricity in the park so you’re better off carrying a head flashlight for some light.
- Insect repellant: This is a must-have before you hike Mt.Elgon
- Toilet paper: Campsites do not have toilet paper so make sure that you carry your own.
- First Aid kit: Anything can happen in the wild including tripping. So to make sure you have the very first medical attention, carry this first aid kit.
- Head cap: To get some more warmth around your head when it gets really cold.
- Trekking poles
- Micro Fiber tower
- Toiletries: Toothpaste, Shower gel, Razor, Lip Balm
- Baby wipes: For those days when you can’t have a proper bath.
- Extra Batteries: You won’t get anywhere to charge your camera batteries from, so carry a number of them.
These are some of the things you should add to your Mount Elgon Packing list.
Extra things to know about climbing Mount Elgon in Uganda
At the end of your hike, you’re expected to tip the people who helped you throughout your hike. From the rangers, cook, to porters. So before your hike, make sure that you have some cash on you for that.
They will not ask for it, but they will definitely be expecting a tip as that’s how the “tradition” is.
Showering while at the mountain
Taking a shower on a daily basis is not guaranteed. But if you get one, it will be a bucket shower otherwise, you’ll have to go with the “baby wipes shower”
On top of that, the water can be extremely cold to even shower. But if you ask nicely, your cook can be able to warm some water for you.
Taking a bush pee
This is absolutely normal and many hikers do it. If you feel like going for a pee or even number 2 while on the trail and you’re still far away from the next campsite, don’t be ashamed to take a bush pee.
However, let the ranger/guide know so that they advise you on where to go. But when you’re done, do not leave the paper behind and if it was a number 2, make sure that you cover it well with soil.
Move at your pace
The main reason why most hikers get extremely tired and sometimes even end up hating the experience is that they take on more than they can handle.
If your guide is way to fast, ask them to slow down and they definitely will. So whatever you do, make sure that you move at your pace while hiking.
Though climbing Mount Elgon is generally not hard, it can get tiring but try not to give up because when you reach the summit, all will make sense. The joy of success and accomplishment will fill your heart that you’ll forget all the difficulties of the hike.
The landscape of the Mountain is incredibly beautiful with vegetation changing at each altitude level – so take as many pictures as possible.
There you have it, folks, that was the complete beginner’s guide to climbing Mount Elgon. I hope that it answered all the questions you might have had. But if not, you can leave your questions in the comment section and I will do my best to answer all of them.
More posts to help you plan your trip to Uganda
- Things to know before traveling to Uganda
- Best places to visit in Uganda
- Best things to do in Kampala
- Best Travel Apps for Uganda
- Fun facts about Uganda
- Best restaurants in Kampala
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