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:
- First I climbed Kilimanjaro (Africa’s highest peak)
- then climbed Mount Elbrus (Europe’s highest mountain
- I tried, failed, and tried again to climb Aconcagua (South America’s highest peak),
- Last summer I had joined a group to climb Mont Blanc (Europe’s 2nd highest peak)
- For charity, I had my mum and i managed to climb Mount Fuji (with my mum for charity)
- An easy ‘walk’ when I climb Mount Kosciuszko (Australia’s Highest ‘Mountain’)
- The scariest climb was the climb Puncak Jaya/Carstensz Pyramid (Australasia’s highest peak)
- Now I with Denali (North America’s highest peak) already booked. Once you see the views, and photos, from climbing Mt Kinabalu, you’ll be hooked.
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,
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
- Warm socks
- T-Shirt X 2
- Hoody/Warm sweater
- Warm hat
- Quality snacks – nuts, berries, energy bars etc.
- Power Bank
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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