How do I keep warm while climbing Kilimanjaro?

At higher elevations, Mount Kilimanjaro can be brutally cold. A down jacket is a heavy mid layer used for chilly to extremely cold weather. They are usually worn at camp in the evenings, during the night time summit assault, or for short periods of time while taking a break on the trail.

The Ultimate Kilimanjaro® gear list shows the down jacket in the following way:

Insulated Jacket, synthetic or down, warm

You will need a quality down jacket, also known as an insulated jacket, a puffer jacket and puffy jacket, to keep you warm. In this article, we’ll tell you what things to look for in a down jacket.

Down Insulation

When it comes to serious insulation, the top choice to battle the extreme cold is down. 

Down is a cluster of fine feathers found on a bird under the more robust exterior feathers, usually from a goose or duck. Down clusters lie beneath, on a bird’s belly, and is light and fluffy. With a superb warmth to weight ratio, there is no better insulator.

How it works is that down clusters trap pockets of air, which in turn trap warmth from your body, providing insulation.

Both the fill power and fill weight are necessary to properly evaluate a down jacket.

The term fill power is a measurement of the loft of the down (ie., how fluffy is each down cluster in the jacket). The more loft the clusters have, the more air that is trapped and the more insulation that is achieved.

So the higher the fill power number, the warmer the wearer can be, all things being equal. We recommend a fill power of 650 or more for very cold weather conditions.

The term fill weight refers to number of grams of down in a jacket. While most brands tell you the fill power, they don’t always tell you the fill weight, which is why fill weight is often overlooked. However, fill weight is very important when it comes to the performance of the jacket.

The more down there is, the warmer the jacket. For Kilimanjaro, a down jacket with 200-300 grams of down is appropriate.

Note that down “sweaters” which are made to be ultralight are not warm enough. Anything that weighs under 16 oz. is probably too light for Kilimanjaro.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic down is a material that mimics the qualities of down by also trapping air in pockets. There are many trademarked names for synthetic insulation such as PrimaLoft, Coreloft, Polartec Alpha, Turbodown, Thermoball, Thermal Q Elite, and PlumaFill. Each has their own technology and of course they all claim to be the best artificial down.

Synthetic down is generally bulkier and heavier than natural down because its polyester fibers have a lower warmth-weight ratio. In other words, to achieve the same warmth as natural down, synthetic down needs to be slightly heavier. And because it’s bulkier, it’s not as compressible, so it does not pack down as well. These are the main disadvantages of synthetic down.

The main advantage of synthetic down is that it is much more moisture resistant. If it gets wet it will dry faster and retain its loft, staying warm when wet. On the other hand, if real down gets wet, the down clusters lose their loft and it no longer works. And it takes forever to dry out down.

Finally, synthetic down is more budget friendly. The cost to manufacture synthetic insulation is less expensive than the cost of collecting goose down. This difference is reflected in the price.

Unlike natural down, synthetic down does not have any parameters for gauging its warmth such as fill power or fill weight. Therefore, it is much more difficult to determine how warm a synthetic down jacket will be. Most manufacturers do not disclose temperature ratings for their jackets.

Jacket Features

Here are some features that are recommended for your jacket:

  • Get a jacket with a hood. Being able to shield your head from wind will keep you significantly warmer than one without. Any serious down jacket will have a insulated hood.
  • Look for a jacket that has not only hand pockets, but a chest pocket and an inside pocket. These pockets come in handy to carry gloves, phones, batteries, snacks, lip balm, etc.
  • Find a jacket that can be stuffed and packed into its own zippered pocket for convenience and portability.

When it comes to storing your jacket, do not leave your insulated jackets compressed for a long time (weeks) as this will eventually hurt the integrity of the jacket. Store them on a hanger or laid flat so it retains its loft. Of course, it’s OK to have them compressed when packed in your duffel bag or day pack while climbing Kilimanjaro. Just don’t leave them like that when you return from your trip.

Both natural down and synthetic down jackets can be used effectively on Kilimanjaro. However, there are many more choices on the market for natural down jackets that can provide the level of warmth we seek. Therefore, all of our recommendations below are real down jackets.

Marmot Guides Down Hoody

The Marmot Guides Down Hoody is a 700-fill-power down treated with a water-resistant coating. It is made of a ripstop polyester exterior and features a chest pocket, interior pocket and elastic drawcord hem. It weighs about 1 lb. 9 ounces and retails for $250.

The North Face Sierra Peak Pro Hoodie

The North Face Sierra Peak Pro Hoodie is an excellent, lightweight, standard fit down jacket. Its 800-fill provides exceptional mid layer warmth while the outer overlay is made of a water repellent finish. It weighs 19 ounces and retails for $350.

Eddie Bauer First Ascent Peak XV Jacket

The Eddie Bauer First Ascent Peak XV Jacket is a robust down jacket will 800 fill water-resistant down. The fabric is 100% nylon with DWR finish. Classic fit. The jacket weights 2.2 lbs. and retails for $500.

You can find all your outdoor gear at these preferred retailers:

REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw