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Climbing Mount Kinabalu on a budget

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a great experience but an expensive one. In this blog post we discuss all climbing package options, how to do the hike, accommodation, best season for hiking and what to expect.

At 4101m above sea level Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Borneo and one of the highest in South East Asia. Low’s Peak is the highest point and can be climbed without any special gear or training. It is a steep hike that involves the use of some guide ropes scrambling up and down the steepest parts. The hike is tough when done in one day and the views spectacular. Unfortunately like most other longer hikes in South East Asia it is not possible to do independent and thus basically impossible to do for cheap.

Climbing Mt Kinabalu, start of our climb, still a long way to go!
Climbing Mt Kinabalu, start of our climb, still a long way to go!

Hiking Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Sabah’s Crocker Range. The landscape is really beautiful and range from tropical rainforest to subalpine near the summit. Climbing the mountain is steep and quite tough with more than 20 000 people attempting to reach Low’s Peak per year. The route is easy to follow, but can be slippery and visibility bad when it rains and the fog gets very dense.

Rules for climbing Mount Kinabalu changed significantly in the last couple of years. I have climbed Mount Kinabalu in 1 day, splitting the compulsory guide with 4 other hikers in total the climb cost me about $50, since 2015 one day permits are not available any longer, you can only do the hike over 2 days costing $400 and up!

The Hike

The entire hike is 8.72km one way, so 17,4 km return over two days with an elevation gain of 2300m and off course 2300m to walk down. Climbers have two days to attempt the climb. On day one hikers start at Timpohon Gate ascending to Laban Rata where they overnight. Day two is a very early start with climbers starting at around 2 am climbing to Low’s Peak to make it for sunrise before turning around and descending along the same trail.

From Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata

The hike up Mount Kinabalu usually starts between 7.30-10.30 am. The hike takes between 3-5 hours to reach Laban Rata from Timpohon Gate. From Timpohon Gate the route is well marked with signs marking the trail every couple of hundred meters. The trail starts out going up, the incline for the first four kilometers is moderate to difficult on a rocky surface and a lot of stairs, mainly stone steps with a couple of wooden staircases, about half the trail is climbing up stairs! I did not count but heard there are 380 flights of stairs on the first day! The last two kilometers to Laban Rata is steep and very rocky. The vertical ascent is 1400 metres from Kinabalu Park.

Day two the summit

The total distance for day two is 11.4 km, from the summit it is still a long way down. From Laban Rata, the climb is very steep, it is only 2.7 km to the summit with a increase in elevation of 800m! mostly slow progress up steps and over smooth rock faces.

There are about 180 sets of steps on the second day almost all in the first 700m, from here the next 2 km is on smooth granite rock surfaces, there are guide ropes to assist and follow the summit. There is a lot of scrambling getting up this tough part, often using the ropes to get up over the smooth surface. Some section are really steep and holding on to the ropes when going down is sometimes necessary.

The hike was tough with an elevation gain of 2229m in total. I worked as a dive instructor for 3 months on Sipadan doing no walking for months before doing the Kinabalu climb! My muscles were sore afterwards!

 Mount Kinabalu via Ferrata

Mount Kinabalu has the highest via ferrata route in the world and is renowned for its spectacular views. A via ferrata, meaning ‘iron road’ in Italian, is a protected mountain pathway consisting of  rails, cables and bridges on the steep rock face. By using the via Ferrata, steep rock faces that can normally only be climbed by mountaineers and rock climbers with experience can be climbed by anyone of avg fitness, even without any experience.

This road starts at 3,200 meters and ends at 3,776 meters above sea level. This mountain pathway consists of a series of rails, cables, and bridges that lead you from the starting point to the end, walking next to the rock’s face.

The Mount Kinabalu Via Ferrata has 2 routes; Walk the Torq and Low’s Peak Circuit. Lows Peak Circuit is the more difficult route. No climbing experience is required to attempt either of the routes.

The route has a length of 1.2km and a increase in elevation of 365m. The Mount Kinabalu climb via Ferrata starts at about RM2000 ($510).

The via ferrata is done after reaching the summit. If you do the normal hike you will start going down after reaching the summit, but if you have opted for the via ferrata (Walk the Torq or Low’s Peak) you will do the additional activity after reaching the summit, before they head down the mountain.

Accommodation on Mount Kinabalu

  • Laban Rata Hut – Hosts 77 standard summit climbers both international and Malaysian.
  • Pendant Hut Hosts 33 Via Ferrata climbers, both international or Malaysian
  • Lemaing Hostel 25 standard summit climbers, only Malaysian 
Early morning, the start of the hike was not to tough.
Early morning, the start of the hike was not too tough.

How to Climb Mount Kinabalu with or without a Tour.

Mount Kinabalu can not be climbed independent, it is compulsory to use a guide. Up to 5 people are allowed to share one guide so this is not a big expense. It is however not compulsory to do an organised tour. You can book everything on your own, or use an agency, which is obviously easier, but more costly.

Climbing Kinabalu without an agency – It is possible to organize the hike on your own, the most important thing that is usually fully booked ahead of time is the accommodation on the mountain. Do all your own booking the following way:

  • Book a bed at Laban Rata accommodation on the mountain by contacting Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (SSL) the management of accommodation in Kinabalu Park and Laban Rata or visiting their office in Kota Kinabalu
  • Go to Park Headquarters the day before in the morning and book a guide.
  • Arrive at the Park Head quaters, pay for permit, insurance, mountain guide, shuttle bus and park entrance fee. Receive a packed lunch, identification tag (must be worn during the hike)
  • Meet your guide
  • Get on the shuttle bus
  • Start trekking

Since there are limited spaces available people book as far ahead as possible. It is always possible to get a last minute booking, people often cancel, if you are alone your chances of getting a last minute booking is much better. I know solo travelers that got last minute bookings in 2019.

Trying to get hold of SSL by email can be frustrating.

Booking through an agency – booking through an agency is more expensive, but they usually make it hassle free, with many packages starting and ending in Kota Kinabalu and including several services. We list a couple here, I will recommend you read reviews on the various tours. Please read the terms and conditions careful when booking, most bookings is not refunded upon cancellation of the climb for any reason.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu Packages

There are several options for climbing mt Kinabalu; the two day one night option (2D1N), the three day 2 night option (3d2N) and hiking Mount Kinabalu via Ferrata. There are many companies offering packages to climb the mountain.

  • Sutera Sanctuary lodges are the cheapest, they own the accommodation on the mountain and all companies will organize accommodation through them, adding to the price.
    • Booking confirmation and what is included in the package is clear which is nice.
    • Sutera Sanctuary website not great (website down January 2019), booking online is difficult.
    • Sometimes slow to respond to emails.
    • Packages do not include transport.

Due to competition the price difference between packages offered by  different companies is shrinking and companies don’t only compete on price, but offer all inclusive packages and try to give you a better experience.

Mt Kinabalu – the two day one night option (2D1N) – without a tour

The two-day one-night option is the shortest and most popular way of currently climbing Mt Kinabalu.   When you book your hiking package through SSL you reserve a spot for climbing and your dormitory bed on the mountain. The package includes food and accommodation, you still need to pay a couple of other fees:

  • Sabah Parks entrance fee Malaysian R3/foreigner R15 – $3.68
  • Climbing permit Malaysian RM50/foreigner RM200 – $49.02
  • Climbing insurance, compulsory RM7 – $1.72
  • Compulsory Guide RM230 can split one guide with up to 6 hikers =RM38 – $9.31
  • Transport to and from the head of the trail from Park HQ. RM68 return per group of 4 = RM17 per person – $4.17
  • Sutera Sanctuary hiking package Malaysian RM875/foreigner RM1309 staying in dormitory accommodation – $320.68
  • TOTAL $388.58 price for solo international climber staying in dormitory accommodation*

* Private Rooms are available at the following price per room (sleeps 2) – International: RM3,147.00 ($771.40), Malaysian: RM2,279.00

For an international climber sharing a room will work out $64.80 per person more expensive than staying in the dormitory.

Optional fees

  • Souvenir certificate: RM10
  • Left-luggage storage: RM12
  • Hiking pole rental : RM15
  • Hire porters: The rate is RM8 for each kg of luggage. – don’t know why you would need a porter to carry your stuff for one night.

Klook Budget 2D1N Inclusive Climb

Great prices, solo non-Malaysian climbers $410, great discounts couple from $330 pp – more info prices booking – Climb Kinabalu

  • Single night accommodation at Panalaban Hostel (unisex shared dormitory)
  • Shared round-trip transfers
  • Entrance fees and climbing permit
  • Professional mountaineering guide
  • English-speaking coordinator
  • Certificate of Participation
  • Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late supper for 2D1N
  • Insurance

Not Inclusive Of:

  • Porter fees
  • Tips and gratuities (optional)
  • Mountaineering guide for children and teens aged 5-15 (MYR230 per guide)
  • Overtime charges upon descent (MYR15 per hour)
  • Overtime charges for transportation during descent (MYR80 per van, one-way)
  • Malaysian Tourism Tax (MYR10 per participant)

Popular Klook 2D1N Kinabalu Climb

Most popular Kinabalu climb with Klook, solo non-Malaysian climbers $557, Malaysian RM 1880, great discounts couple from $493 pp non-Malaysian, RM 2020 Malaysian – more info prices booking – Climb Kinabalu

Explore Borneo and Climb Kinabalu

Want to explore more of Borne and see all of Sabah? Check out this awesome 17 day adventure in this tropical paradise. Summit Kinabalu, explore the perfect island of Pulau Tiga (where they shot a season of Survivor), visit Mulu National Park and Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, I had a great time in Sepilok. Highly Rated, small group tour. Check it out and book here Borneo adventure including climbing Mount Kinabalu

Scrambling up some steep parts with the help of the guide ropes.
Scrambling up some steep parts with the help of the guide ropes.

The hike

Day 1 

  • Cut-off time for starting the hike is 10:30, try to get to Kinabalu Park Headquarters early.
  • Register, receive tags and meal vouchers, pick up packed lunch from restaurant. Meet your guide go to starting gate together. Hike 6km to Laban Rata Resthouse (3300m above sealevel), check in.
  • Hike is mainly stairs and rocky terrain with the last km the toughest.
  • Avg hiking time 4 to 6 hours
  • Stay in dormitory, bedding provided, bring clothes for cold weather thermals, beanie etc.
  • Apparently buffet food is good, can refill water bottles at dinner

Day 2

  • Get up 2:30 for ascent, bring headlamp
  • Hike 3-4 hours to summit for sunrise
  • Descent takes avg 5-6 hours
hiking mount kinabalu
After 4 hours of hiking I was above the clouds!

The three day two night option (3D2N)

These packages don’t take any longer to summit, you get an extra night around Kinabalu park, combined with extra activities. The advantage is that these packages can be booked more than 30 days in advance.

hike mt kinabalu
Beautiful scenery climbing mt Kinabalu!

The Best season to climb Mt Kinabalu

The best months to climb mt Kinabalu are February, March and April the dry season.  The worst time is October to January during monsoon season due to heavy rains. Summit climb is sometimes cancelled during heavy rain, climbers have to go down after spending the night in the resthouse.

Mt Kinabalu accommodation

Kinabalu Park is located about 2 hours from the capital, Kota Kinabalu. There are many public buses of different budgets doing this trip. If you need to book accommodation close to the park there is a variety available for every budget we recommend the following:

Backpacker Budget Kinabalu Valley Homestay – For $10 per night, room is a very good deal. Good location near Kinabalu park, friendly owners, shared bathroom, use of kitchen great for budget travelers.

Want a bit more luxury after the hike? Ren – Hana Kampungstay Kundasang – awesome location near the park, good view of Mount Kinabalu, private bathroom- $27 for room

Gear for climbing Kinabalu

Gear that is essential for this hike:

Low's Peak mount kinabalu
Making it to Low’s Peak, the top of Mount Kinabalu in one day!

About Author – Campbell

The strong half of Stingy Nomads, a nomadic aquaman that would be happy to spend all his life in the water diving, surfing and spearfishing but often has to compromise with Alya and go hiking instead. Campbell is responsible for all our marine adventures and following them with write-ups. He loves traveling, braai (BBQ in South Africa), red wine and spending the day in a wetsuit.


Climbing Mt.Kinabalu Malaysia

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