This post was originally published in August 2013 and updated in February 2020
For those looking to push their limits and experience an epic adventure in Malaysia, hiking Mount Kinabalu fits the bill. Located in pristine Mount Kinabalu National Park in Borneo, its thick foliage, steep trails and craggy summit are quite a contrast to the relaxed, golden beaches and tranquil turquoise bays Malaysia is famous for. The trek can prove challenging and takes most people a full two days to complete, but the hard work pays off when you finally make it above the clouds and soak in the epic views from thousands of feet up. Here’s everything you need to know about climbing Mount Kinabalu.
Where is Mount Kinabalu
Located in the province of Sabah, this Borneo mountain is near the city of Kota Kinabalu (KK) which will be your base if you attempt to summit the 4,095 metre peak. As the highest mountain in Borneo and all of southeast Asia, the Mount Kinabalu hike features breathtaking views of the rainforests below, tropical plants and flowers as you head up, as well as the odd bird.
Booking a Mount Kinabalu package
Most climbers book a Mount Kinabalu tour from KK which includes transportation, one night’s accommodation on the mountain, a guide and food. If you choose to get to the park on your own, the rest of the trip costs MYR 730 (about $225). There are also a number of other options available, including a one-day non-summit hike, a ‘hardcore’ climb where you do the whole trip up and down in just one day, or the daring via ferrata option where you scale to the peak of Mount Kinabalu with the help of ropes.
What to pack for the Mt Kinabalu hike
This is a full on trek my friends, and you can only bring what you can carry—so pack wisely.
First off, for the love of God, wear good hiking boots. Sadly, I had lost my shoes in Japan before arriving in KK and was thus subjected to wearing Crocs since they were the only shoes I could find that would fit my large feet. Let’s just say, I’d prefer not to do that again. Not only did I fall victim to the incredulous looks from more prepared hikers, but the shoes also led me to injure my knee and probably made the Mount Kinabalu climb five times harder.
You’ll also want to wear comfortable, warm clothes that can be easily layered, as the temperature can fluctuate from freezing to hot in the space of a day. Bring a weatherproof headlamp and waterproof gloves, which will come in handy near the summit. A water bottle is also a necessity for your Mount Kinabalu packing list, and make sure you throw it all into a backpack that you feel comfortable hauling around for two days.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
When you arrive at the base for your Mount Kinabalu trek you’ll check in at the registration area then meet your guide. The Malaysian government has clued in to what a cash-cow the mountain is, and thus requires that all climbers hire a guide to take them up even though the pathways are extremely well marked. Chances are you’ll frequently be passed on the trail by slim Malaysians burdened with massive bags full of supplies to take up and down the mountain—it’s truly incredible to see how hard they work every single day, for mere dollars.
You’ll also get a bagged lunch at the bottom of the hill (ours was two slices of white bread, a slice of cheese and an apple which left something to be desired), before taking a quick bus ride to the gate which signals the start of the Mount Kinabalu climb.
The first leg is a six kilometre trek to the Laban Rata guesthouse, which takes about five or six hours. The trails are made of dirt with carved out steps, so it’s nothing too arduous to start with. You’ll actually go downhill for the first little bit, so enjoy it while it lasts! There are also a number of rest stops and washrooms along the way. Continuing up, you’ll pass a few pretty waterfalls and the surrounding rainforest full of flora and fauna. The great thing about this trip is you can go at whatever pace you want, as long as you get up to the on-hill accommodations in time for dinner.
Mount Kinabalu accommodation
Once you’re at the five kilometre mark of the Mount Kinabalu trek, you’ll notice the trail gets dramatically harder as the rainforest clears and the mountain opens up. Expect to do more scramble-type climbing as you approach Laban Rata. This is where all of the meals are served, and where some lucky climbers get to stay. The rest end up in some of the surrounding guesthouses, which isn’t ideal as you have to navigate large boulders to get to them. Accommodations consist of rooms with two bunkbeds (so you might be sharing with a stranger) and there are also bathrooms and showers, although the water is COLD! I also found myself freezing at night, so it might be best to just wear a change of clothes to bed.
After dropping their bags off, most climbers head back to Laban Rata to fill up on the delicious grub. Remember how I didn’t like my bread and cheese lunch? Well, I was pleasantly surprised with the dinner offerings, which was a smorgasbord including chili, fresh buns, salad , some traditional Malaysian dishes and delicious Sabah tea. The guesthouse also has a place where you can buy souvenirs like the aforementioned tea and postcards, and there are also a number of board games which will help pass the time.
Summiting the Mount Kinabalu peak
The highlight of the trek is to get to the top just before sunrise, so you can watch the sun come up from nine kilometres above ground.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? In reality—it’s downright exhausting.
To get to the summit in time, you’ll have to wake up around 1:30 a.m., and after rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and bundling up (the Mount Kinabalu weather is surprisingly cold that early in the morning) you’ll shuffle out of the guesthouse and hit the trail, guided only by a flashlight.
Navigating the seemingly endless rocks is tough enough, but it gets worse when you hit a sheer rock face. A thin white rope has been pounded into the side, and you will use this to literally pull yourself up—so I suggest wearing those waterproof gloves. This is by far the most difficult part of the climb, and sadly people have been killed on this leg after tumbling off the extremely steep mountainside. Ironically, this is the only part of the climb where we lost our guide, so we were forced to navigate the treacherous trail on our own.
It takes about three hours of this sort of madness before you finally see the triangle of the summit, as dawn starts to break behind it. The peak is marked by a sign stating ‘Low’s Peak’—a name I’m not sure I agree with—and climbers clamour around it to snap a quick photo before settling down to watch the sunrise. My experience, however, was a bit different. Remember that whole part about being under-prepared? Well, we were so bitterly chilled that not only did we expect to lose fingers to frostbite, but we had no desire to sit there freezing just to watch the sun come up. So, we snapped an embarrassingly-awful photo of ourselves at the peak then got the heck back down. I’m sure the sunrise is phenomenal, but to this day I do not regret our decision to warm up instead!
The blissful walk back down Mount Kinabalu
It takes about two hours to get back to Laban Rata, where a huge breakfast awaits weary climbers when they arrive at the guesthouse, and you can also take a nap to regroup ahead of the descent. It may seem like the walk down would be the easy part, but it’s actually quite jarring as your legs are beyond exhausted, and take quite the impact with every step.
That said, the trek is quite enjoyable since you get to see all of Mount Kinabalu National Park spread out below you. Its mountain ranges are accented with fluffy white clouds and surrounded by bright green trees, making for beautiful photos. It’s surprising how long it takes to get down, and I had to resist the urge to try and sprint! Budget about three to four hours to reach the bottom, at which point you’ll get to do a happy dance as you finally touch down on level ground—and immediately book a much-needed massage.
More tips for climbing Mount Kinabalu
How to get to Mount Kinabalu: The easiest way is to book a packaged excursion from Kota Kinabalu, which costs about $650 USD and up for a the two day, one night trip which includes accommodation, food, transfers and a guide. Otherwise, you can catch a bus to the park or go by taxi, and base yourself at the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge.
Best time to climb Mount Kinabalu: The weather in Mount Kinabalu National Park means the best season for climbing is March to August, which is the dry season. However, it’s open year round.
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