Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a real adventure
Located in the northeast of Borneo, about 30 miles (50 kilometres) from Kota Kinabalu, Mount Kinabalu rises to a magnificent height of 4,095 metres. This makes it the highest mountain not only in Borneo or even Malaysia but in the whole of Southeast Asia. The mountain also gives its name to Kinabalu National Park, where it is located.
You can climb the summit of Kinabalu in two days. However, for safety reasons, you must be accompanied by an approved guide. You can hike to the top, so climbing skills are not required. Fortunately, the trails are almost entirely well-developed and in good condition. The steps you will find in many places also make the ascent easier. The flora around the mountain is extremely diverse.
On your way to the summit, you will cross several different vegetation zones that are well worth seeing and provide an essential habitat for the diverse wildlife of the area. Read our article about Kinabalu National Park to learn more about the flora and fauna around Gunung Kinabalu. Once you reach the top, the unbeatable view at sunrise will make it more than worth the effort.
The climb to Kinabalu: a special challenge
The adventure will usually begin in the park at Timpohon Gate. On the first day, a hike of about 4.5 miles (7 kilometres) to Panalaban Base Camp, located at an altitude of about 3,300 metres, awaits you. The first miles are relatively easy, but the final few are more challenging. The climb gets steeper, and the ever-thinning air makes the ascent more and more difficult.
You will be impressed by the flora and fauna you see on your way to the base camp. For nature lovers, therefore, we fully recommend taking a little more time to take in your surroundings. Tell your guide if you are interested in the flora and fauna. They will be happy to share all manner of information about the different plants and animals found at different altitudes on Mount Kinabalu.
Once you arrive at Panalaban Base Camp, you will find only basic accommodation, as you would expect at over 3,000 metres above sea level. Usually, you will sleep in shared rooms with bunk beds. However, there are also a few private twin rooms.
There is only cold water, so showering will also be an adventure. The toilets are functional, but the food is good and more than serves its purpose. It is not cheap, but perfectly reasonable in light of the fact that porters have to carry everything up on their backs. The view from the base camp will give you an idea of what will be awaiting at the summit the next morning…
Sunrise at the summit of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain
After only a few hours‘ sleep, the next day will start in the middle of the night. Depending on the time of year, the hike to the summit of Mount Kinabalu will start between 2 and 3 am – and the climb itself is tough too. Despite being only 2,000 metres in length, the hike will cover more than 800 metres in altitude. On the first part of the route, you will have to climb seemingly endless steep steps. Later the climb will take you over bare rocks. In several places, there are ropes for safety and orientation.
After about three hours, you will have made it to the summit. As it slowly gets lighter, you will discover the impressive rocky landscape which, in the darkness of the ascent, you could only really have guessed at. If the weather and visibility are good, you will be able to marvel at the beautiful sunrise shortly afterwards. It is at this point that the incredible panorama truly comes into its own.
During the descent, you will have the opportunity to enjoy the landscape and views in daylight. Again, you will notice that you are crossing different climatic zones during the hike. The vegetation varies greatly, and there is something different to discover around every corner.
On the way down, you will have a snack at Panalaban Base Camp before the final descent. You will be back at the headquarters by the afternoon, usually around 3 or 4 pm.
How to get to Mount Kinabalu
The park is about 53 miles (85 kilometres) from Kota Kinabalu. The roads leading there are well-developed and the trip takes about 1 ½ hours by car. Taking a cab will set you back about 250 MYR, but the advantage of a taxi is that you can ask the driver to stop if you want to take pictures. And there are some great viewpoints along the way with fantastic views of Mount Kinabalu. If you are interested, tell the cab driver right at the beginning of the trip that you would like to stop along the road. They will know where the best places are.
It is cheaper to take a public bus. The buses to Sandakan stop at the entrance to Kinabalu National Park; tell the driver that you want to get off at the park. The bus from Kota Kinabalu departs at the North Bus Terminal Inanam. A slightly more expensive but considerably faster option is a minibus. They leave from the centrally-located Padang Merdeka Bus Terminal and cost about 25 MYR. You can recognise the minibuses by the „Kota Kinabalu – Ranau“ sign. There is no timetable for these minibuses; they will simply leave when they are full.
The park is not the last stop for either the buses or the minibuses. Therefore, if you do plan on taking the bus back to KK, you need to wait on the other side of the road and indicate to the driver that you would like to get on. However, if the bus is already full, they will keep driving. Therefore, you should plan a little more time for the return trip just in case.
A transfer to and from Kota Kinabalu is included in the packages offered by many tour operators. The advantage of this is that you won’t have to worry about getting a bus back; the disadvantage, however, is that you will be picked up very early.
Accommodation at Mount Kinabalu
There are several accommodation options in the national park area for the nights before and after the climb, ranging from exclusive lodges to simple hostels with shared rooms. On the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges website, you can get more information about the accommodation offered including prices and availability.
There is also accommodation in Kundasang and Ranau, which, are both located outside the park but still close by. Again, the accommodation ranges from basic to upscale. It will mostly be cheaper than the accommodation within the park; on the other hand, you will have to pay for the ride to the park entrance from Ranau onwards (about 5-10 MYR).
More information on the different accommodation options at Panalaban Base Camp, where you will spend the night on the two-day tour, can be found in our FAQs below.
What to wear and what to bring on the hike
The weather is usually quite warm on the first day, but cold and windy on the second. The minimum temperature is around -4 °C (25 °F). The coldest months are December and January, while June to September is slightly warmer. It can rain very heavily at any time, so it is advisable to be prepared for a range of weather conditions.
For the first day, we recommend light clothes such as T-shirts and shorts. Hiking boots are not necessarily needed for the hike to Panalaban Base Camp. However, to minimise the weight you will be carrying, we advise you not to bring more than one pair of shoes, and these should of course be suitable for hiking.
On the second day, decent hiking boots and warm, windproof clothing are a must. This should not only include a fleece, windbreaker and warm trousers, but also headgear (e.g. a balaclava) and gloves. The gloves will not only keep your hands warm but also protect them from friction burns on the rope.
Due to the high probability of rain, you should also bring a waterproof jacket or rain poncho. Since the second day’s climb takes place in complete darkness, a headlamp will also be needed for safety reasons.
Frequently asked questions about Kinabalu
Where is Mount Kinabalu located?
Mount Kinabalu is located about 53 miles (85 kilometres) away from Kota Kinabalu in Kinabalu National Park in northern Borneo. The drive takes about 1 ½ – 2 hours.
Is the mountain a volcano?
No, Kinabalu is not a volcano. It is primarily made of granite and is probably the world’s youngest non-volcanic mountain.
When is the best time to climb Kinabalu?
The best time to climb is during the drier months from March to September. However, like everywhere else in Borneo, the weather on Kinabalu is unpredictable, and rain showers are to be expected throughout the year.
What are the temperatures like at the summit?
The temperature at the summit can drop as low as -4 °C (25 °F) and does not vary to any great extent throughout the year. Furthermore, the wind can sometimes be strong.
What is Panalaban and where is it located?
Panalaban Base Camp is the accommodation where you will spend the first night before proceeding with the climb to the summit the next morning. It is located at an altitude of about 3,300 metres and offers three accommodation options: Laban Rata Resthouse, Pendant Hut and Lemaing Hut.
There are a handful of private rooms, but most people stay in dormitories with shared bathrooms. Only two rooms at Laban Rata Resthouse have private bathrooms. Hot meals are also only available at the Laban Rata Resthouse. Hot water is not available at Panalaban Base Camp.
How much does it cost to climb Mount Kinabalu?
Different operators offer a range of tours up Kinabalu. The cheapest packages usually cost around 350 USD (280 GBP / 500 AUD) per person, including the transfer from and to Kota Kinabalu. Three-day tours and room upgrades are, of course, more expensive.
How high is Mount Kinabalu?
The mountain’s highest point is Low’s Peak, 4,095 metres above sea level. This makes Mount Kinabalu not only the highest mountain in Malaysia but in the whole of Southeast Asia.
How long does it take to climb Mount Kinabalu?
The climb usually takes two days. The hike starts on the first morning at Timpohon Gate. You will then hike for about 5-7 hours to get to Panalaban Base Camp. You will spend the night here before setting off early the next morning, at around 2 am, to reach the summit of Low’s Peak in time for sunrise. Afterwards, the descent begins, leading you back past Panalaban to Timpohon Gate. You will arrive back by the afternoon.
Is it safe to climb Mount Kinabalu?
Yes. You are only allowed to climb when accompanied by an approved guide. As long as you follow the guide’s instructions and do not leave the trails, the risk of accidents is low. Further safety measures have been implemented in recent years, starting in 2015.
Who can climb Mount Kinabalu?
Climbing Mount Kinabalu is relatively easy. No special equipment or skills are required, but the climb is not to be underestimated either. The steep rise in altitude and the unpredictable weather both pose significant challenges. Therefore, even if you are in good shape, you should not attempt the climb without physical preparation.
There are no age restrictions; under-18s and seniors are all welcome to tackle the climb. However, it would not be in your own interest to do so without a good general state of health and sufficient fitness.
Our recommendation for the hike to the summit
Ascending Mount Kinabalu is a great experience that should not be missed. Since only about 130 permits are issued for one day, we encourage you to organize your trip as early as possible.
We do not recommend travelling from KK to the park on the day of the hike, as you will risk not being at Timpohon Gate on time. Instead, travel to the park the day before and spend the night there or in the immediate vicinity. The following two days will be challenging, and you will hardly get any sleep. Therefore, make sure you get at least one good night’s sleep the night before. If you have a free afternoon the day before the hike, you can go for a short walk through Kinabalu National Park.
Check this out
Besides Mount Kinabalu, there are plenty of other highlights in Borneo. Have a look at these: