Guide to hiking Mount Kinabalu

Ultimate Guide to Hiking Mount Kinabalu

It’s 4:15 am. The wind is blowing sideways, whipping us in the face. We can barely see our hands in front of us, let alone the person two meters ahead. It’s freezing cold. The kind of cold that makes you reconsider your decisions. As we reach the top of Mount Kinabalu at 5:15 am, there is no sunrise to be seen nor anything resembling a mountain view.

The thick clouds engulfed us, but we decided to stay until 7 am in the hopes that the weather would change. We are all huddling up like penguins in the Antarctic. It’s so damn cold, it would have been wise to bring warmer clothes. But it’s SE Asia, it’s supposed to be warm! We waited.

Magically, right at 7 am, the first glimpse of sunlight breaks through a cloud. Within minutes, Mount Kinabalu can be seen in all her glory. Only about 15 people stayed through the misery to witness these views. After hiking up 7,200 feet in the pouring rain, the struggle was finally worth it.

We thoroughly researched this hike but only found expensive tours online. As independent travelers who are always budget conscience, we opted to book everything on our own, and managed to save several hundred dollars. This Mount Kinabalu do-it-yourself hiking guide will help you save money and have an amazing trip!

Content and photographs provided by Yana Kogan and Timon.

Ultimate Guide to Hiking Mount Kinabalu

Do-It-Yourself Booking Process for Mount Kinabalu

Hiking Mount Kinabalu: Summit
Walking around the summit of Mount Kinabalu

To save money, book the trip directly with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. By booking directly, you can save hundreds of dollars. Mount Kinabalu offers 135 permits per day. To book a specific date, contact Sutera Sanctuary Lodges in advance to try to secure permits. Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance.

When booking accommodation directly with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, payment of the park entrance fee, permit, and guide fees are paid to the park based on their published rates, and not a dollar more. 

With flexible travel dates and the ability to stay in the area for a few days, it is possible to show up at the park office to book last-minute permits.

Note: We heard of travelers who were able to get Malaysian rates during the low season with some convincing. We have no experience in doing this but it could be worth a shot.

Via Ferrata

There are two via Ferrata routes when hiking Mount Kinabalu. What claims to be the highest via Ferrata in the world is now actually the second-highest behind Mount Kenya. It is still at an impressive altitude of 3,776 meters.

There is a beginner’s route – Walk the Torq, a 2-hour side trip down Mount Kinabalu, or the full Low’s Peak Circuit. The LPC is a 4-6 hour hike after summiting Mount Kinabalu, which includes .75-miles via Ferrata cables, ladders, and suspension bridges.

For booking via Ferrata, contact Mountain Torq. When booking direct, the 2D/1N Low’s Peak Circuit via Ferrata route starts at 2,400 RM ($600 USD). All of the offices (Park HQ, Sutera, and Mountain Torq) are located beside each other right at the park gate.

We decided against hiking the via Ferrata not only because we hiked the one in Kenya and several others in Italy, but because the cost was not worth it for us.

Best Time to Hike Mount Kinabalu

Climbing Mount Kinabalu: Carson Falls
Carson Falls at the beginning of the hike

February through April are the best months to climb Mount Kinabalu. These months have less rain than the SW Monsoon period between May and July or the NE Monsoon period between October and January.

The NE Monsoon period is the worst time to climb, as there are often heavy rains. At any time of the year, it is possible that the summit climb will be cancelled due to inclement weather.

How to Get to Mount Kinabalu

Mountain Kinabalu Trail: Summit Views
Views on the hike up to the summit

Buses leave daily from Kota Kinabalu city center (Padang Merdeka bus stop) to Mount Kinabalu. All buses going to Ranau, Sandakan, and Tawau go by Mount Kinabalu. When the bus fills up, it will leave Kota Kinabalu.

Tickets are priced per person to Ranau, which is roughly 30 minutes past Mount Kinabalu. Make sure to tell the bus driver that you will be getting off at the park. Buses depart more often early in the morning and tend to wind down after 3 pm.

With three or more people in one group, it’s more cost-effective to book a GrabCar from Kota Kinabalu.

Mount Kinabalu Accommodations

Kinabalu Hike: Laban Rata Mountain Hike
Laban Rata Mountain Hut

Because of the early morning start, it is best to stay the night before near Mt. Kinabalu. There are limited options for accommodation inside the park. It is better to stay outside the park gates, where there are several guesthouses and hotels to choose from.

Budget: Jungle Jacks is a budget backpackers hostel with dorm rooms. A dorm bed includes all meals and is very inexpensive. They offer a package that includes two nights of accommodation at Jungle Jacks, a climbing permit, one-night accommodation in a mountain hut, a hiking guide, transportation, and all meals for three days for a reasonable price.

Mid-RangeAyana Resort is a nice, but affordable hotel with private double and triple rooms.

The Mount Kinabalu Hike

Total Distance: 10.8 miles (17.4 km) return
Total Elevation Gain: 7,313 feet (2,229 meters)
Time Hiking: Day 1: 3.5 hours (to resthouse)/Day 2: 2.5 hours (to summit)/5.5 hours (from the summit to the start) = 11.5 hours total

Day 1: Base of Mount Kinabalu to Laban Rata

Hiking Mount Kinabalu: Through the Rain
Hiking up through the rain

The hike typically takes between four and six hours depending on your level of fitness. We are fast hikers, so it took us just over three hours. From the park headquarters (5,130 feet), it is a 15-minute shuttle ride to the beginning of the trail at the Timpohon Gate (6,120 feet).

The beginning of the hike is through dense forest, passing Carson Falls. The climb begins right after that with manmade steps or rocks. There are huts for breaks nearly every mile.

From the Tompohon Gate to Laban Rata Resthouse, it is a total of 3.4 miles with an elevation gain of 4,600 feet. The last mile is the steepest section of the first day. Don’t let the short distance fool you. Between the elevation and the hundreds of steps, it can be quite tough.

Day 2: Summit Mount Kinabalu & Descend the Mountain

Mountain Kinabalu Trail
Waiting for the clouds to dissipate

Most groups leave for the summit around 1:30 am. Supper is served from 1 am until 2:30 am. If you are a fast hiker, wait to leave until 3 am. It’s better to wait in the warm resthouse than in the freezing temperatures at the summit.

The first hour of the summit climb was pretty straightforward. The second hour was on exposed rock. Some sections are very steep with ropes to aid in climbing. It took us two hours to reach the summit. We couldn’t see a single thing due to the weather, and nearly all groups left the summit immediately.

Luckily for Yana’s persistence, we waited and were lucky to do so. The rain stopped and clouds parted between 7 am and 7:30 am. While there was no sunrise, we had the entire summit nearly to ourselves. It definitely made the entire hike worth it.

Overall Feedback and Impressions

Climbing Mount Kinabalu: Scenery
Beautiful scenery near the summit

As avid hikers, we felt the hike was quite challenging considering how short it is. Most of the trail up to the resthouse is through a lush jungle where it commonly rains. Don’t be discouraged if it rains for most of the first day because there is less chance of rain at the summit.

If granted clear views, the summit is stunning. The peaks are unique and stand at nearly 13,451 feet normally reaching above the clouds, making it truly surreal. Our guide was very friendly and did not push us to leave too early in the morning.

The food was pretty good and it was way more than we could eat. They cater to vegetarians. The rooms were pretty small, and it was tough to move around in the 6-bed dorm when everyone was awake. Overall, this was an excellent hike with epic views and surprised us by being challenging.

Important Things to Know & Tips for Hiking Mount Kinabalu

Kinabalu Hike: Fauna
Fauna at Mount Kinabalu

Start Time: All hikers must begin the hike before 10:30 am. Do not show up late. Guides leave and they likely will not let you start the hike. With that being said, in true Yana and Timon fashion, we were late. With lots of effort, we convinced the rangers to let us start. They had to call a guide to return to the mountain. We were lucky they let us go. Do not be like us.

Difficulty: Even for advanced hikers, this is a steep hike. The total elevation gain is no joke. At an altitude above 10,000 feet, it is possible to experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness. While it is not high enough for serious symptoms, you can definitely get headaches and feel nausea. Several people on our trip didn’t feel so well the first day.

Rain gear: Sections of the trail are through a rainforest and it can rain at the summit. Make sure to bring proper rain gear which should include a jacket, dry bags for valuables, and a rain cover for your bag. In addition to rain jackets, we purchased a poncho before the hike, which came in handy when the rain was heavy.

Food: Five meals are included with the stay at Laban Rata Resthouse. The buffet-style food is pretty good. I would only bring snacks for the trail. The meals provided are a packed lunch before departure, which consists of a sandwich, apple, and bottled water. Dinner is served between 5 pm and 7 pm. Before the early morning ascent to the summit, supper is served from 1 am to 3 am. After the summit climb, breakfast is served from 8 am to 10 am. A buffet lunch is waiting at the end of the hike at the restaurant located by the park gate.

Water: Water is not provided, but a 1.5 L bottle of water is available for purchase at the hut. Hot drinks are available at Laban Rata for all meals except dinner. A pitcher of hot water is available for purchase as well and is nice for chilly nights.

Bedroom Situation: Thick blankets are provided, so there is no need to bring any bedding or sleeping bags. It actually got pretty hot in our room at night. There are plenty of charging ports to charge cells phones and camera batteries. The rooms are very small, so expect to feel a little cramped.

Stretch: Maybe we weren’t in our best hiking shape, but we were seriously sore for about five days after the hike. I strongly suggest stretching before the hike and after each day to help alleviate this. Trust us, your calves with thank you.

What to Bring For Hiking Mount Kinabalu

  • A hiking backpack sack with a waterproof pack cover
  • Hiking boots and sandals and/or flip-flops
  • Hiking shorts and hiking pants
  • Quick-dry hiking shirts, long sleeve thermal shirt, down jacket, and waterproof jacket
  • Quick-dry underwear, sports bra, and hiking socks
  • Sun hat and a beanie/buff
  • Gloves
  • Torchlight
  • Water bottle or bladder
  • Sunblock, bug spray, soap, toothbrush/toothpaste, deodorant
  • Camera, chargers, spare batteries for the camera, and a dry bag to keep them in
  • Snacks

That’s it – we hope you have a wonderful time hiking Mount Kinabalu!

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  • Yana and Timon

    Yana & Timon met at college in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating, they started their professional careers. They moved to San Francisco in 2010, a city they loved living in for nearly six years.

    After working and saving up money for several years, they quit their jobs and set off on an adventure of a lifetime. They started living a nomadic lifestyle in December 2015 and have not looked back since.

    View all posts

1 thought on “Ultimate Guide to Hiking Mount Kinabalu”

  1. Hi Yana and Timon! This is a lovely guide and I found it really useful for my plan to Mount Kinabalu! Did you go to the Kinabalu Park HQ to book a mountain guide one day before the hike? I saw this on some blogs but not others, and I wonder if I need to arrange this in advance except booking the accommodation, or just pay and get everything ready at the Park HQ in the morning of my hike?

    Thanks a lot!!

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