Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo ⛰️

Mount Kinabalu Kota Kinabalu

Jagged rock formations, jutting peaks, deep crevices – it’s how I imagine other-worldly planets might look. But this isn’t another planet. I’m climbing Mount Kinabalu and the summit is within my grasp. 

Getting to this point took some (read: a lot of) planning. I spent countless hours trawling through blogs, climb reports and tour company websites before finally reserving my spot and getting my permit to climb.

This guide to hiking Kinabalu Mountain breaks down everything you need to know to conquer the massif. So, whether you’re attempting the traditional route or fancy getting technical on one of the Kinabalu via Ferrata descents, I’ve detailed what you need to ensure your summit attempt is as successful as possible! 


Climbing Mt. Kinabalu Map and Resources 

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Hiking Mt. Kinabalu – What You Need to Know 🥾

Located in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo, Mt. Kinabalu (often also referred to as Mt. KK, Kota Kinabalu Mountain and Mount Kota Kinabalu) is the highest peak in Malaysia. The massif is visible for miles in every direction and for as long as humans have lived in the area, they’ve been drawn towards the impressive granite ridge. 

The Legend of Kinabalu 👰🪦

There are several legends and theories surrounding the name Mount Kinabalu. The most popular is the tale of a Chinese Widow (aka Kina Balu). The legend tells of a woman waiting for the doubtful return of her husband – a Chinese prince. Hoping to see his ship crossing the South China Sea, the woman climbs Mt Kinabalu and waits. Eventually, she dies on the mountain and is turned to stone by the mountain spirit who is impressed by her devotion to her truant husband. 

Another popular theory is that the mountain was originally named ‘Aki Nabalu’ by the local Dusun and Kadazaan tribes. Aki Nabalu sometimes translates to ‘revered place of the dead,’ suggesting the mountain has a spiritual significance for those who live in its shadow. 

The mountain is the centrepiece of Kinabalu National Park and draws excited climbers from all over the world. The route from the park entrance to the mountain peak takes you up an epic staircase, through multiple ecosystems from dense rainforest to barren granite nothingness – you’ll need to prepare for all manner of weather and temperature swings during your climb. It’s amazing the difference I felt between Park HQ and the base camp at Laban Rata, and the less said about conditions on the summit the better! 🥶 

Highest Mountain in Southeast Asia?! 🤯

While there are plenty of people in and around Sabah proclaiming Mt. Kinabalu is the highest peak in Southeast Asia, it’s not. It doesn’t even come close. Wikipedia lists it just inside the top 30 highest mountains in the region. But it’s still a challenging climb and a beautiful peak!

To climb Kinabalu, you need to ensure you have all the correct paperwork and reservations in place. You cannot attempt the climb on your own and you must have accommodation at base camp booked to get a permit. There are less than 200 permits given out each day, so even at its busiest, the mountain rarely feels full or crowded. 

Let’s not beat around the bush, hiking Kinabalu Mountain is hard. I trained before my attempt on the summit but rest assured, I wish I’d trained more. You won’t regret those extra few squats when you’re three hours into your six-hour climb! But it’s amazing. The squats are worth it! 

“Climbing Mt Kinabalu was a truly brilliant experience, and one I will never forget – the achievement is just an incredible feeling. If you do one thing today, add this climb to your bucket list!”

Donna Jackson, Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker

How to Climb Mount Kinabalu 🧗‍♂️

To climb Mount Kinabalu, you’ll need to get a few mandatory things in order.

The Mount Kinabalu Summit Trail.
Mount Kinabalu summit trail map!

Climbing Permit for Kinabalu Mountain 📑

The most important thing you need to arrange is your climbing permit. Without it, you won’t be going anywhere. Only around 160 permits are issued each day and are limited by the number of beds available at Panabalan base camp. To get a permit, you must first book a bed through Sabah Parks (see below) or a local guide or tour agency. You’ll pay for your permit at the same time. 

“Climbing permits must be arranged in advance and there is often a long waiting list. For groups, you’ll need to plan eight to twelve months ahead to secure your spot. For couples or solo climbers, four to eight months out is usually enough but planning ahead never goes amiss. You may get lucky and be able to secure a permit closer to the time but don’t bank on it. At the time of writing, there are only three permits available in the next six months!” 

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

How to Reserve the Kinabalu Climbing Permit Directly With Sabah Parks

Booking directly with Sabah Parks is the cheapest way to arrange your accommodation and climbing permit. By arranging your bed and permit this way, you cut out the middle man, reducing your overall costs. 

To book direct, visit the Sabah Parks website

How to Reserve the Kinabalu Climbing Permit With a Tour Agency

There are several excellent tour agencies in Kota Kinabalu and Kundasang offering climbing packages for Mt. Kinabalu. While more expensive than arranging everything yourself, a climbing package takes the stress out of planning your summit attempt. 

The agency will take care of your accommodation, climbing permits, transport, guides and other fees. 

Read Reviews 💻

When booking a Mount Kinabalu climb package, make sure you understand exactly what is included and read reviews online before you book. There have been instances of dodgy companies taking wannabe climber’s money and failing to secure permits and slots, offering no refunds or alternative dates. If someone is offering a deal much cheaper than everyone else, be suspicious. 

Mountain Guide for Mt. Kinabalu ⛰️

Climbing Kinabalu without a guide is not possible. You are not allowed to self-guide. All guides working on the mountain are licensed and appointed by the state. It doesn’t matter whether you book your hike through an expensive agency or arrange as much as possible in a DIY fashion, the guide you’re appointed will be an expert who knows the mountain like the back of their hand! 

Each guide is responsible for up to five people, assuming everyone is over 16 (for climbers below 16, the ratio is one guide to two climbers) and costs around 350MYR (approx. $75USD) for the whole climb. If you book through an agency, this cost is likely already taken into account. 

Guides will stay with you for the entire climb, usually sticking with the slowest member of your group. 

Porters for Mount Kinabalu 🎒

Porters are available for Mt. Kinabalu but aren’t strictly necessary. You can leave most of your luggage at Park HQ, so you only need to carry your essentials anyway. But if you want a porter, they cost around 150MYR (approx. $30USD) for up to 10 kg of gear and can be arranged at Park HQ. 

Accommodation on Mount Kinabalu 🛏️

To climb Mount KK, you’re going to need to book one night’s accommodation at Panalaban Base Camp. There are four main hostels at base camp:

  • Panalaban Hostel – Bookable through the Sabah Parks website. 
  • Lemaing Hostel – For Malaysian citizens and residents only
  • Laban Rata – You’ll stay here if you book a climbing package through an agency
  • Pendant Hut – Used only by those doing the via Ferrata routes

Each of the hostels is basic, to say the least. Almost every room is an unheated dorm. Sleeping bags and meals are provided. There is no hot water – prepare for a chilly shower! 

If you’re desperate for privacy, you may be able to upgrade to a private room depending on availability. 

“Being so high up, no hot water is available and this determined the length of my shower at 14 seconds! I will never forget how cold that water felt!”

Donna Jackson – Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker 

Kinabalu National Park Entry Fee 💵

There is a mandatory entry fee – also called a conservation fee – of 50MYR (approx. $10USD) to enter Kinabalu National Park. You’ll be required to pay this at the front gate on the day you arrive. 

Mount Kinabalu from the ground!
Mount Kinabalu from the ground!

Food on Mt. Kinabalu 🍛

One lunch, one dinner and two breakfasts are provided to all climbers funded by the national park. The food is the same for everyone but dietary requirements can be catered for. Ensure you let your guide, Park HQ and your tour agency know. A climbing package may include extra snacks but the bulk of the meals are the same for everyone. If you want extra, bring your own snacks! 

How Much Does It Cost to Climb Mount Kinabalu? 💰

– Kinabalu Park entrance fee (also referred to as a conservation fee) – 50MYR (approx. $10USD)
– Climbing permit – 400MYR (approx. $85USD)
– Climbing insurance – 10MYR (approx. $2USD)
– Mountain guide – RM350 (approx. $75USD)
– Shuttle bus transfer to Timpohon Gate (optional but recommended) – 17MYR each way for groups of 1-4 people (approx. $3.50USD)
– Accommodation – 465MYR (approx. $100USD) 
– Service Charge – 61MYR (approx. $12USD)
– Approx Total – 1353MYR (approx. $285USD)

Remember, most of these costs will be included if you book a climbing package but you’ll pay more in total which will include booking fees, etc. 


Mount Kinabalu Climbing Routes 🧗‍♂️

When arranging your Mount Kinabalu climb, you’ll likely come across three separate options:

  • Regular Descent
  • Walk The Torq (via Ferrata)
  • Low’s Peak Circuit (via Ferrata)

All three take the same route to the summit, it’s the descent that differs. 

For the ‘regular descent’ you’ll walk back down the mountain the way you came. ‘Walk The Torq’ and the ‘Low’s Peak Circuit’ both involve coming down along one of the via Ferrata routes. These routes are more challenging. Via Ferrata means ‘iron route’ and is a method of traversing mountains developed in the Italian Dolomites. Essentially, ladders, cables and metal hooks are embedded into the rock face, meaning you can climb more technical routes without the need for full-on climbing equipment. 

‘Walk The Torq’ is the shorter via Ferrata route, taking 2-3 hours to complete. The ‘Low’s Peak Circuit’ is more challenging, taking 4-6 hours. At 3,776m, it’s the highest via Ferrata route in the world! 

The most popular option is the regular descent. If you’re trying to book a last-minute spot, you may have more luck with one of the via Ferrata routes, as accommodation for these is separate from the regular hostel options. 

Checkpoint Time Constraints ⏰

It’s worth noting that all climbers need to be at certain checkpoints by the cutoff times. 

Via Ferrata climbers must reach the Pendant Hut by 15:00 the day before they summit. This is for a safety briefing. 
All climbers must reach the summit checkpoint by 05:00 on the morning of their summit attempt. Any later and you’ll be turned around. 
Low’s Peak Circuit climbers must arrive at the starting point of the via Ferrata by 06:30 after summiting the mountain. 
Walk The Torq climbers must arrive at the starting point of the via Ferrata by 07:15 after summiting the mountain.


Best Time to Climb Mount Kinabalu 🌤️

March to September is considered the best time to climb Mt. KK. This is when the weather is most predictable. This makes it the busiest time of year too. You need to book way in advance if you want to climb during this time. 

Although March to September is the dry season, it can rain anytime in the mountains and the weather changes fast. Most summit trail closures due to poor weather conditions take place from October to February but they can happen at any time. 

Climbers on Mount Kinabalu in the early morning.
A cold, wet morning climb on Mt. Kinabalu!

How Long Does It Take to Climb Mount Kinabalu ⌚️

Climbing Mt Kinabalu takes a mandated two days or three days, depending on the package you book. It used to be possible to do the climb in one day but the government stopped issuing one-day permits after the earthquake and subsequent trail closures in 2015. 

It takes around eighteen hours to climb Mount Kinabalu. Six hours of climbing on day one and ten to twelve hours of ascent and descent on day two. This estimate does not include rest stops or time spent at base camp. 

If you choose to descend by one of the via Ferrata routes, you’ll need to add another 1-4 hours depending on the route. 


How to Get to Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia 🚌

Buses and minivans leave from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) regularly. Any bus going to Sepilok or Sandakan goes right past Kinabalu National Park and Kundasang (the closest town to Park HQ). They cost around 30-50MYR (approx. $6-10USD) and can drop you off right at the park entrance or in town. 

If you book a climb package, transport from KK is likely included. 


What to Bring to Climb Mt. KK 🎒

  • Warm clothing (lots of layers)
  • Waterproofs – raincoat, bag cover, etc. 
  • Head torch
  • Snacks 
  • Extra dry clothes
  • Water, reusable bottle, filter 
  • Hiking poles (available to rent)
  • Head torch

You can leave the rest of your luggage at Kinabalu National Park HQ. 


My Experience Climbing Mount KK ⛰️

After weeks of preparation and excitement, today is the today I will climb Mount Kinabalu!

While taking a few shots for the photo album, I’m introduced to two fellow climbers – Japanese couple Maya and Ton, and our guide. 

Fearing we’ll be matched with an athletic type, I’m relieved to meet aptly named Eater, a friendly, rotund, middle-aged Malaysian woman. She tells me she completes the climb two to three times per week, which increases my confidence – if Eater can nail this mountain so frequently, I should be able to!

At the start of the Mount Kinabalu Trail
At the start of the Mount Kinabalu Trail!

We start the six-kilometre walk up to Laban Rata, where we’ll stay overnight before tackling the summit. The steps aren’t particularly user-friendly for the vertically challenged, and my thighs are given a thorough workout. I thank myself for the hours I’ve spent on the step machine. At 35 degrees, I am literally sweating enough to fill a small bucket, and like most others, we stop at each kilometre mark for a breather.

“Climbing [Mount Kinabalu] felt like an endless staircase, only the last two kilometres provided some variation (a rope and lots of rocks). If you’re generally fit you can do it but will be broken afterwards haha.”

Mike – South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

As my muscles become sore, I marvel at the numerous Malay men almost dancing up the mountain in their sandals carrying all manner of things – one man with calves of steel has three 65ltr backpacks tied to him while another carries gas canisters on his back!

The increasingly amazing views provide a good distraction from the tiredness, as do the beautiful plants, flowers, and cheeky squirrels after our food.

I’m provided with a much-needed packed lunch of fruit, boiled eggs and cheese spread sandwiches. Spurred on by my injection of calories, Eater allows me to go on ahead while she stays with Maya and Ton.

This initial section takes between three and seven hours, and I’m pleased as punch to arrive at Laban Rata in just over four hours. Being above the clouds, the view is already awe-inspiring, as pinks and reds begin to move in to mark the diminishing day. Sadly, the sharp drop in temperature prevents any lengthy amateur photography on my part.

Laban Rata is a welcoming, homely place with great staff, good food, brilliant photos and inspiring quotes – the perfect place to get you ready for the summit. All the rooms are shared dorms and I’m sharing with a lovely Malay man, who tells me that while he knows he is significantly overweight, he is fiercely determined to succeed. I love his positive spirit.

There’s an air of excitement over our plentiful, dinner, and we are advised to retire early and set our alarms for 01:30. Not believing I’ll be able to go to bed at 18:30, I start to read, only to fall asleep within ten minutes!

Waking at 01:30 for the summit climb, I immediately feel a sense of excitement and anticipation at camp – everyone is smiling and wishing each other a good climb.

After the earliest breakfast, I’m ever likely to have, it’s time to don my many layers, affix my head torch, pull on my gloves and head out into the pitch dark with Eater. Our ascent begins fairly easily with stone and wooden steps paving the way and a pleasant temperature.

It’s fantastic to talk to other climbers along the way and discover their motivation for tackling the challenge. I spend most of the climb with a particularly inspiring Australian lady, Heather, who beat cancer two years previous but isn’t letting her chemo-damaged lungs stop her.

After around 90 minutes, the gradient increases and it’s time to start pulling myself up using ropes. The extra exertion, combined with the altitude and increasingly cold temperature, means digging deep.

Freezing but Happy!
Freezing but happy!

But then climbing a mountain isn’t supposed to be easy. Taking a few moments to lessen my heart hammering, I smile back at the beautiful snake of lights created by some 200 climbers. It may be tough but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment.

The last part of the climb is gruelling, mainly due to a wickedly icy headwind and zero shelter. I’m informed it’s minus two degrees but it feels arctic to me! Pulling my hoodie and waterproof so tight only my eyes are exposed, I grit my teeth and make the final push.

With extremely numb hands and sore legs, one relieved and happy climber arrives at the summit – as clichéd as it sounds, I feel on top of the world! The sunrise is incredible; a multitude of terracotta hues spill slowly over the horizon, bathing the mighty Kinabalu in a new dawn.

Huddling in a small hole and sitting on my hands, I try to ignore the cold and take in the moment. After a few minutes, the cutting wind becomes unbearable and I make a hasty retreat back down the rope line to a more civilised temperature, where I can marvel at the awesome terrain.

As I descend to Laban Rata digesting the awesome sights around me, I pinch myself. I’ve just climbed a mountain. A big one!

Jagged rock formations, jutting peaks of Kinabalu.
Jagged rock formations and jutting peaks of Mount Kinabalu!

Arriving back at Laban Rata at 07:30, it’s time for a totally guilt-free and delicious breakfast of French toast, pancakes, eggs, and a much-needed caffeine fix. All the people I talk to are tired but happy – for most, it’s the first time they’ve completed a summit climb, and the sense of achievement is awesome.

Most people choose to tackle the remaining 6 km descent straight away to avoid stiffening muscles. With the lure of a cosy bed just too much, I opt to crawl back under the covers which although pleasant at the time, is perhaps not advisable! It takes a mammoth effort to resurface at 10:00 for checkout, but there’s no avoiding the final part of my challenge back to ground level.

Each kilometre gets tougher and each step more painful than the last, but after four hours of focus and drive, we enter into the last stretch, exhausted yet still motivating other climbers to keep going despite barely being able to walk. The final 100 metres consists of a somewhat cruelly placed incline, but mercifully, the downhill steps have finished. Climbing the final steps to the finish feels like magic and torture in equal measures. I’ve done it! Feeling elated, I pose for my ‘I did it’ photo, walking sticks in the air, and cannot stop smiling. 

As I’d completed the climb for charity, I could now proudly hand over the £300 in donations I’d raised from kind-hearted friends and family to a wonderful charity called Hope for Children. They can be found on the Just Giving website should you wish to also fundraise for this worthy cause.


Mt. Kinabalu FAQs ⁉️

Do I need to be fit to climb Mount Kinabalu?

Yes, you need a reasonable level of fitness to climb Mt. Kinabalu. While it’s not the most challenging climb, it’s far from easy. You’ll tackle a lot of steps during the climb. Most of the ascent is on an uneven staircase! 

How do I train for climbing Mt. Kinabalu?

To train for climbing Mount Kinabalu, walk a lot. Preferably at altitude if possible, so you can get used to the thinner air. Any exercise that focuses on your legs is good to get ready for the climb. Also, make sure to spend a couple of days acclimatising to the higher altitude around Mt Kinabalu before tackling the climb.  

Do I need a porter to climb Mount Kinabalu?

You don’t strictly need a porter to climb Mount Kinabalu. But if you want one, they are available at the Park HQ. 


Contributors:

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Tim Ashdown | Writer at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Mike |
South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏 Shawn |
South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏 Ahmad
| South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Donna Jackson

I love adventure, jumping in headfirst and doing something new and exciting. Travelling has enabled me to do so much I still pinch myself. From swimming with turtles to rock climbing, from diving with whale sharks to climbing mountains and volcanos, and sleeping in the jungle, I never get tired of everything Southeast Asia has to offer.

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