Climbing Kilimanjaro is not just about conquering Africa's highest mountain -- it's a trek through five distinct eco-zones (enjoy it, but be aware of the potential for exhaustion).

You are likely to drive through the predominantly populated and farmed lower slopes (900-1,800m/2,952-5,904 ft.), the zone below the entrance gate closest to your chosen route. Most routes start their ascent beyond this, in the lush and fertile montane forest zone (1,800-2,800m/5,904-9,184 ft.). The forest that rings the mountain is the recipient of the mountain's highest rainfall (1,000-2,000mm/40-80 in. a year) and, in turn, provides 90% of the water that streams down Kilimanjaro's slopes, with a girdle of cloud cover ensuring year-round damp conditions. This is also the most likely place to see the mountain's fauna -- look out for duiker, bushbuck, black-and-white colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, and troops of baboons. Above the 2,700m (8,856-ft.) contour line, the mountain is protected from human habitation or interference by Kilimanjaro National Park.

At around 2,800m (9,184 ft.), you enter the heath and moorland zone, rising to 4,000m (13,120 ft.). During the latter part of this ascent, you will start to feel the effects of altitude and will need to protect yourself from both frost and sunshine. But any discomfort is more than made up for by the alpine meadows and stunning vistas that now unfurl above the clouds that encircle the forest zone (though this is not, of course, guaranteed) and the flora (which is). The flora is rich in variety, including red-hot pokers, the pink-flowered iris, pale wild protea, and, beyond, in the moorlands, the endemic lobelia deckenii, its specially adapted rosettes closing at night to protect the delicate inner bud from frost. There are also a number of interesting geological features in this zone, such as the Maundi Crater, the glassy, crystal-like rock visible below Horombo Hut and Zebra Rock, its stripes created by water flowing over the dark lava rock.

The grueling 4,000 to 5,000m (13,120-16,400 ft.) highland desert zone follows. Nights here are below freezing, but daytime temperatures rise to 40°C (104°F); water is scarce, and only the hardiest flora thrive in this lunarlike landscape. Lichens, which need no soil, add splashes of color to lava rocks in the Saddle area and around Kibo and Mawenzi Huts; hardy tussock grasses feed off their own dead matter, while free-moving moss balls are sustained by a few granules of soil. From here you are now in full view of the Kibo glaciers and Mawenzi "dykes" -- prominent pinnacles and carved "walls" leading up to the peak. Having traversed the inhospitable and bleak boulder-strewn Saddle (literally straddling the two peaks), you head into the summit zone. Arctic conditions prevail above 5,000m (16,400 ft.): Subzero temperatures at night are followed by blistering solar radiation. Oxygen levels are half what they are at sea level. Very little can survive for long here, though there have been reports of wildlife sightings -- mostly famously in 1926, when ex-officer Richard Reusch, a Lutheran missionary who had recently dropped out of the Cossack Army of Imperial Russia, is said to have discovered a frozen leopard near the summit. Reusch apparently tried unsuccessfully to behead it, then cut off an ear as a souvenir, an inglorious end for the intrepid big cat, later to be immortalized in Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

The number of people wanting to climb Kilimanjaro has doubled in the past decade, and while the environmental impact is of concern, the mountain earns more in income than all of the other national parks combined, thereby subsidizing parks that are less popular but no less worthy of protection. As a compromise, the park tries to control numbers. Currently, a maximum of around 65 hikers per day are allowed to use the Marangu Route because accommodation must be juggled among the huts, but there is less control on the other routes, with Machame, in particular, very busy; if you'd prefer to climb and camp in solitude, Mount Meru is a much better bet. You can arrange your climb through the park headquarters at the Marangu entrance gate, but most visitors utilize a reputable operator. It is compulsory to hire an authorized guide (he should have a small walletlike document proving that he is registered), and no one intent on actually enjoying at least part of the climb would attempt to do so without porters. Bringing your own equipment and purchasing food in Moshi does, however, significantly reduce the cost.

If you are not in peak health, or you simply don't wish to experience the effects of altitude, 3,000m (9,840 ft.) -- roughly the upper limit of the forest -- should define the limit of your ascent. Needless to say, picking flowers or destroying any vegetation is forbidden, as is littering. Great care must be taken where fires are lit.

Tips to Help You Get to the Top

Choose a reputable operator -- Don't fall for the cheapest option -- at best, you may have a horrific and stressful experience; at worst, you're gambling with your life. Climbing the mountain is expensive, but this is because the mandatory fixed costs (daily park fees, hut fee, guide entrance fee, rescue fee) are already very high. Like most things, you get what you pay for. Squeezing any profit from your tour is bound to end in tears. Check that your package includes transport to and from the gate, equipment, food, all park fees, a guide, and two porters per person; hotel packages will usually include 2 nights (first and last) at the lodging.

Pack the right gear -- Although you don't need mountaineering equipment, the following gear is essential: sturdy, well-worn walking boots; layers of warm clothing (thermal underwear, three pairs of warm trousers, two sweaters, six pairs of warm socks, a wind-proof jacket, gloves, scarf, balaclava); adequate sun protection (ski sunglasses/goggles, sun hat, sunscreen); headlamp (with spare battery); daypack; and 2-liter water bottle. Even if it's included in the package, consider bringing your own well-insulated sleeping bag and, if you're camping, an insulation mat. Adjustable climbing poles are useful.

Sweet treats -- Pack a good supply of high-energy treats -- chocolate, cookies/biscuits, boiled sweets, energy bars, and so on. This is not so much a reward for completing each day's hike -- though, heaven knows, you deserve one -- but an appreciated boost for your body. Snacks will also come in handy as you may struggle to eat what's prepared for you on the mountain -- some visitors find the food thoroughly unappetizing, a situation exacerbated by a real loss in appetite due to the altitude.

Get the pace right -- Climbing Kili is an endurance test, and as any endurance athlete knows, pace is everything. A super-fit person in his or her 20s stands a higher chance of altitude-related illness than an averagely fit person twice his or her age. This is simply because younger, fitter contenders tend to approach the climb with more gusto, relishing their ability to "power walk" -- until they get above 3,000m (9,840 ft.), when the debilitating effects of altitude sickness set in. The trick is to walk at a slow, steady pace and rest frequently to acclimatize.

If at first you don't succeed -- If you feel a strong bout of altitude sickness setting in (fatigue, nausea, swelling, headaches) or, worse still, pulmonary or cerebral edema, caused by ascending too rapidly (symptoms include labored breathing even at rest, poor coordination, disorientation, hallucination, coughing up frothy spit or blood), descend immediately -- even a 100m (328-foot) drop can make a huge difference. If you feel better after a brief rest, start up again slowly; if not, descend and seek immediate medical attention.

Hydration -- You should drink 2 to 3 liters of water every day; make sure your porters are carrying adequate supplies, and take your own water bottle, which you should replenish regularly. If you're sweating, remove a layer to retain water.

Pills and thrills -- A decent operator will ensure that your guide is equipped with a well-stocked medical kit, but it's worth packing your own supply of good quality plasters, nausea and diarrhea medication, rehydration sachets, and headache tablets. Glucose powders will give your body a much-needed energy lift.

Give yourself an extra day -- It's not just the altitude that exhausts; during the final 24-hour approach and descent from the summit, you are -- regardless of route -- walking for a cumulative 14 hours, quite possibly with no sleep (sleeplessness being a common symptom at these altitudes). Speak to regular climbers of Kilimanjaro, and they all emphasize the importance of taking an extra day to acclimatize, and that the benefits outweigh the increase in cost (a hefty $165-$230, depending on your operator). Some say it will increase your chances of getting to the top; even if this is supposition, the reality is that a longer-duration climb will, without a doubt, be that much more enjoyable. Like life, this is ideally what conquering Kilimanjaro should be.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.