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Climbing Mt Kinabalu in Borneo

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2020: Climbing Mt Kinabalu will mean you have climbed the highest mountain in South East Asia. Pretty cool! It’s a beautiful mountain, and you don’t need ANY mountaineering skills to tackle it. It is quite steep though. And you do a bit of scrambling, and use some ropes to hang on, but any novice can do it, I promise. In my blog post, I’ll explain how to climb Mount Kinabalu, how much it costs to go climbing Mt Kinabalu, whether or not you need a guide or a pre-booked Kinabalu package, and everything else from packing lists to the best time to climb Mt Kinabalu!

I climbed it a few years ago, and it was the first mountain I ever climbed. Be warned though, it gets addictive! Since then I’ve gone on to:

Climbing Mt Kinabalu
Me at the summit after Climbing Mt Kinabalu

What is Mt Kinabalu?

Mt Kinabalu is a mountain in Borneo, Malaysia. At 4,095 (13, 435ft) Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Borneo, the highest mountain in Malaysia AND the highest mountain in South East Asia. For normal backpackers and travellers alike, climbing Mt Kinabalu takes 2 days to summit and descend. It is possible to do it one day if you’re super fit though,

Mt Kinabalu
Mt Kinabalu views

Where is Mt Kinabalu? And how do you get there?!

Kinabalu is in Malaysia. It’s on an island called Borneo. Borneo is not a country, by the way, it’s an island that is split in 2, the northern half is Malaysian, the southern half belongs to Indonesia. There is also a tiny country within the island of Borneo called Brunei. You can see where Mount Kinabalu and (where Borneo is) on the google map below.

To get to Mt Kinabalu, first, you have to get to the Malaysian part of Borneo island. The nearest major city with an airport is called Kota Kinabalu. You can fly there from anywhere in Malaysia, with AirAsia, for super cheap. From Kota Kinabalu to the park entrance (Timpohon gate) is about 90 minutes. You can take a taxi for about $40, or take a bus for about $3. Remember, you have to get to Timpohon gate before 10.30am. Entrance is closed after that.

How Much Does it Cost to go Climbing Mt Kinabalu?

When I climbed, you could do it independently. Sadly, now that is no longer possible. You must take a guide now. No exceptions. If you do as much as possible independently (get to the park entrance, book the accommodation in the mountain hut and organise the guide) in one day, in a group of 3 or 4, you can do it for about $65. If it’s 2D/1N, you can get away with about $250USD. And if you book a package online, they’re normally around $350+. 

So now you have 2 choices for your Mt Kinabalu climb:

1) Mt Kinabalu 1 Day Climb:

If you’re super fit, you can do the 1-day option. It’s actually a little tricky to organise and they try to dissuade people from doing it. To do this, arrive at the park headquarters the day before, and organise the permits and guide. Stay nearby in a guest house, and start as soon as the park opens the next morning at 7 am.

2) Mt Kinabalu 2D/1N climb:

This is what 99% of people do. Prices, as I mentioned above, start at $250 as a base-line if organised everything independently. Or 2D/1N packages starting around $350+. If you’re Malaysian, it’s half that price.

Climb Mt Kinabalu
Climb Mt Kinabalu; Not cheap, but worth the effort!

HOW DIFFICULT IS CLIMBING MOUNT KINABALU?

It’s not easy! But, tt’s not too difficult if you have some level of fitness. Mt Kinabalu’s Summit (known as Low’s Peak) sits at 4,095m, and it’s a steep climb from start to finish. 

Climbing Mt Kinabalu failure rate is around 10%

So make sure you don’t fall into that category. If you’re a young, active backpacker you won’t need any real preparation as such but make sure you get a good nights sleep and eat well as you get ready to go. This will be one of the most gruelling things you do on your travels in Malaysia. It’s eminently doable but it’s by no means easy. If you’re out of shape, I’d recommend cracking out the walking shoes and do some brisk hiking a month or so before you ascend.

Total climb distance 9km

The total climb is only about 9km. On the first day you climb from Timpohon Gate (1600m altitude) to Laban Rata (3272m), where the mountain huts are. That hike is only 6km ‘distance’ but it takes between 4-8 hours depending on your fitness (I took about 5 hours, average fitness). You set off from Timphon between 8am-11 am and arrive at Laban Rata anytime between lunchtime and dinner time.

2 am wakeup

The next ‘day’ begins at 2 am, an early wake-up and you make the ascent in the dark. It gets tougher, steeper and the air is thinner so take it slowly. You should arrive at the Low’s Peak, the summit, around 5-7 am to watch one of the most amazing sunrises you’ll ever see. It’s freezing up there, so see the sunrise and make a beeline back to Laban Rata for breakfast around 8 or 9am. Finish brekky and head back down the mountain, you should arrive around lunchtime.

After conquering the mountain, prepare to have your ego dented as you leave, with the world record times for ascent and descent proudly displayed at the exit. The current men’s WR is 2 hours 30 mins. Honestly, when you’re sweating at 10, 000ft, on your second day, you will quite simply not believe that!

Mt Kinabalu sunrise
Mt Kinabalu sunrise

Can You Climb Kinabalu Independently?

Can you climb Mt Kinabalu without a guide? No. 100% not. Can you organise each part of the climb yourself, and get a guide at the park entrance? Yes. That’s the cheapest way to climb Mt Kinabalu. If you want to do this,  you need to book a bed at Laban Rata mountain hut. You need to go to the park entrance the day before and book a guide. You also need to get a permit organised. This need to be done in advance. It’s super hard to do it solo, you can try here

The best way to climb Kinabalu is to search online and book a 2D/1N. It’s less than $100 more expensive. And you can choose any dates you want. 

Mt Kinabalu hike
Just before sunrise

When is best to climb Mt Kinabalu?

The best time to climb Mount Kinabalu is February, March and April (the dry season1). The worst time is October, November, December and January (Monsoon season). It is possible all year round BUT during heavy rains, the summit attempt can be cancelled.

Mt Kinabalu
Mt Kinabalu

What equipment to bring when climbing Mt Kinabalu? Mt Kinabalu Packing List:

Personally, I’m not a planner so I freestyled it in shorts, t-shirt and Adidas trainers. Not advised. I was FREEZING at the summit. You can also rent walking poles for RM5 and it’s worth it. 

In terms of an Mt Kinabalu packing list, bring these:

  • Hiking shoes
  • Hiking pants
  • Shorts
  • Warm socks
  • T-Shirt X 2
  • Hoody/Warm sweater
  • Warm hat
  • Gloves
  • Quality snacks – nuts, berries, energy bars etc.
  • Power Bank
  • Headtorch
Sunrise at the top of Mount Kinabalu
Me, completely unprepared in shorts and a free hoody. Freezing at the summit, but what a sunrise!

Food and accommodation options on Mount Kinabalu?

Not too bad at all. There are 3 sets of accommodation on Kinabalu.

  • Laban Rata hut (77 beds) – this is probably where you’ll stay (and where I stayed).
  • Pendant Hut (33 beds, for people going the ‘Via Ferrata route)
  • Lemaing Hostel (only for Malaysians)

You sleep 85% of the way up the mountain. At a mountain hut in Laban Rata. The food is delicious, the ‘restaurant’ is cosy and has a great atmosphere. With your room booked the food is included, but if you want to have a beer ($10!) or anything similar be ready to pay a premium for it.

The beds are in a dormitory-style, single, warm enough and besides, you wake up at 2 am so it’s not like you’re there long anyway.

Hiking Mount Kinabalu
Hiking Mount Kinabalu; Laban Rata dorms

Climbing Mt Kinabalu; My Personal Experience

I wasn’t in any condition to attempt the 1-day climb. I had been travelling around South East Asia for over a year, which meant a horrific diet and plenty of booze. So 2D/1N was my choice. The day broke down like this:

Mt Kinabalu Day 1 

  • You must reach the Timpohon gate before 10.30am. The gate closes after that, to allow people enough time to reach the mountain huts at Laban Rata.
  • At the gate, first, you go through registration, and you pick up vouchers for your ‘all-inclusive food package’ for the dormitory. You also get a packed lunch for later today. 
  • The guide meets you, and you start the 6km hike to Laban Rata.
  • The first day is mostly steps/stairs. It’s not too bad. If you’re fit, you could get back in 3 or 4 hours. If you’ve had a tough few months (like me!) more like 6 or 7 hours. 
  • You reach Laban Rata, check-in. You find your dormitory bed (all the bedding is provided). Sort out your gear for the nighttime hike tomorrow morning
  • Buffet dinner, and early to bed (normally around 8pm)

Mt Kinabalu Day 2

  • 2am wake up call!
  • Warm weather gear and head-torch on, quick snack for brekkie and off you go by 2.30am
  • 3-4 hour STEEP hike to make the summit before sunrise. 
  • Once you’re at the summit, you probably will wait a bit for sunrise. It gets super cold now.
  • Sunrise, photo, and then breakfast with your guide.
  • Start the descent all the way to park gates again. Normally around 6 hours or so (can be 3 if you’re super fast).
Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu; It gets steep near the summit!

For the hard-core one-dayers, the Mount Kinabalu 1 Day Climb itinerary is like this:

Mount Kinabalu 1 Day Itinerary:

  • Park entrance at 7am, meet your guide and register. You must be out of the park again by 5.30pm, so if you’re too slow on the way up at certain points, your guide will turn you around. 
  • Hike for up to 9 hours to the summit. But if you’re fit enough to do the one day, you should aim to be at the summit by 1pm at the latest.
  • Start the descent, 4.5 hours to the bottom
  • It’s a non-stop day. Be ready!
Mt Kinabalu hike
Mt Kinabalu hike – Day 1 is mostly stairs

Final Tips for Hiking Kinabalu

  • Don’t book the 3D/2N tours. It’s unnecessary. 2D/1N is completely fine.
  • Bring warm clothes! I know you think ‘But Malaysia is warm’. The summit of Mt Kinabalu can go below zero. Be ready!
  • If you can find a tour for anything near $250 or so, book the tour rather than trying to organise it independently. It’s much more convenient, to be honest. 
  • If you are going to book a tour, do so in advance. There are only 165 permits granted per day (and only 4 one-day climbs permitted per day!) so book in advance so you’re not disappointed.
  • Book a nice hotel for when you’re finished. You’ll be filthy, tired, and ready for a bit of luxury!
  • You can use the ‘Via Ferrata’ route to summit Kinabalu if you wish. This is a steep section with a series of iron rods, cables and ropes that you clip in and clip out of. It’s fun, and it’s the highest one in the world. It’s about an extra $100. If you’re on a budget, skip this option. It’s cool, but not necessary.
  • Enjoy!
Mount Kinabalu summit
Reaching the summit of Mount Kinabalu!

If climbing mountains floats your boat check out my posts on the Mount Everest base camp trek and climbing Kilimanjaro. One of the seven summits.  Or if you’re in Borneo, check out the orangutans at Sepilok, amazing.

Remember, never travel without travel insurance! And never overpay for travel insurance!

I use SafetyWing at $9 a week, and it's amazing. Also, it has great digital nomad insurance for people who are constantly travelling too! You can read my review here, and you can sign-up here

Also, if you want to start a blog...I CAN HELP YOU!

Also, if you want to start a blog, and start to change your life, I'd love to help you! Email me on johnny@onestep4ward.com. In the meantime, check out my super easy blog post on how to start a travel blog in under 30 minutes, here! And if you just want to get cracking, use BlueHost at a discount, through me.

Also, (if you're like me, and awful with tech-stuff) email me and my team can get a blog up and running for you, designed and everything, for $300 - email johnny@onestep4ward.com to get started.

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35 thoughts on “Climbing Mt Kinabalu in Borneo; Everything You Need to Know

  1. I have fun with, result in I discovered just what I was
    taking a look for. You have ended my four day lengthy hunt!
    God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  2. Pingback: Trekking to Mount Everest Base Camp – Nepal | One Step 4Ward
  3. Good info. Did the same trip myself as a backpacker and just rocked up at the gate and managed to get a permit from a cancellation a few minutes earlier. We slept the night half way up and remember being freezing despite wearing most of my clothes and socks for gloves!

    1. Rob – you stand corrected and Johnny is correct here – it’s not a typo. As far as topographic prominince goes Mount Kinabalu is number 20 in the world. Dont tell me you count all those mountains in the Himalayas that are over 5,000 metres high yet start at 4,000! They’re only 1,000 metres high really. But I agree great hike – done it recently myself!

  4. Had a good laugh about shorts and adidas vs the tourists kitted out like they’re taking on Everest. Love this blog, safe travels!

  5. Hi Johnny, great photos and story – pretty much spot on. I just done the Mount Kinabalu hike last week and LOVED it. Highly recommend it. Yes the prices have gone up, but we did a 2 day 1 night trip booked in advance through the Sutera Lodges website. This ended up being cheaper than a lot of the people who booked it on arrival in Borneo. It was peak time for the hike so that’s maybe why. We stayed in the first hut rather than at Laban Rata. Will get round to writing about it too at some point! Safe travels. Jonny

      1. I’ll be writing a full report on it at some point soon, but I’m crap at converting currencies!! I’d estimate between 170 – 200 $US, we did one night in Laban Rata and had a car share from Kota Kinabalu so it was 2 days 1 night at the national park. We did it at Easter which was peak time so had to book within one month of advance to secure out place. Laban Rata was full so we stayed in the Waras Hut. Will send you the link to my post when its done. For a bonus point I treated myself to a Guinness at Laban Rata which probably added another $8 to the cost, but I wanted it! 😉

          1. Oops I was wrong with my estimation earlier Johnny – after finally writing my post on the current cost of hiking Mount Kinabalu, I can confirm the cheapest you can realistically get it for these days (without going up and down in one day!) is 672.5 Ringitts or $221 US Dollars. I also factored in my extra costs including a tip, return transport from KK and my luxuries (including that $8 beer) so I spent a total of $259 US. A lot dearer than in your day but still WORTH IT. Here’s the full post: http://dontstopliving.net/how-much-does-it-cost-to-climb-mount-kinabalu-in-borneo/ Safe travels, Jonny

  6. Sounds tough and expensive, but we’ll do it anyway. Are the prices you’ve quote for 2 people? Now, lets see what you’ve got on Orangutans ….

  7. This is a really helpful post. My partner have started working in Sabah recently and we plan to scale Kinabalu in November if the weather permits. We’re planning to do things on our own and we’re hoping we can do it for MYR500 (fingers crossed!)

      1. Thanks Johnny. My partner works for an oil and gas terminal in Papar somewhere near Kota Kinabalu. I’m based here in the Philippines so I might visit him there in 3months and maybe push through our plans of climbing Kinabalu. Wish us luck! 🙂

      1. Hello Johnny,

        I was able to travel to Borneo on the first week of December last year. We were not able to climb the mountain and just settled for a visit to Kinabalu Park. January came in with our determination to climb it on my next visit to Borneo so I (seriously) pestered Sutera booking staff for a 2day/1night climb package slot for 2 persons and she finally gave it to us after 5 weeks. So we are climbing on Mar 10-11. Package now costs 577 RM per person. We’re nervous we’d fall on the 10% fail rate, but you make it look so easy on this post. 😀

        Best wishes,
        Cotz

        1. Well done Cotz, I’m gonna try my luck for our grp of 9. We r only interested on 2D1N. Wish i cld get the same price as you. Buzz me if you any tips on tht. Thx.

          1. Hey! I think Sutera opens their 2d/1n climb packages approximately 1 month from your schedule. Do email their booking staff her name is Petronella and her email address is petronella.t@suteraharbour.com.my and try to be really persistent like I did. Good luck with your group Kseelan! 🙂

  8. good day sir, i am curious with ur statement that it is expensive to book online, and is cheaper if we book it there once we get to kota kinabalu city, would you have a suggestion on where we can book to climb mt. kota p\once we get to Kota Kinabalu city? thanks

    1. there are so many agents, but i think the offical centre is inside the small shopping mall there, if i remember rightly 🙂

      1. thanks for the info, because i thought u cant climb mt. kota if you dont book online, thats what we are afraid of.

  9. hi there johnny, is it still alright hiking up mount kinabalu alone? Should i have any concern on my safety? And which package and accomadation you book with?

  10. hey gemma, there are so many cancellations – i”d never book in advance and juswait the day or two for a cancellation. I hate my plans being fixed so i can’t help ya i’m afraid :S sorry!!

    1. Hi Johnny,
      Great info!! Exactly what I needed to hear…I’ll be coming to Borneo for 100k ultramarathon in November, so I’m actually not sure if I will be in condition to climb it at all!! So great to hear that’s better to leave it and see how things are when I’m there 🙂
      Cheers and good luck with your next travels
      JIRI!!!

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