Mount Kinabalu, Borneo: to Climb or not to Climb?

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Whether you are a nomad who prefers to move with a step-by-step itinerary or a traveller who goes with the flow, your trip to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo would most likely include a wish to climb Mount Kinabalu.

This majestic mountain in the National Park of Sabah welcomes both beginners and advanced hikers and climbers, and the only things that determine which route to climb are your physical conditioning, mental stamina and your travel budget.

Speaking of the latter, as we calculated in our post about seeing orangutans in Borneo independently, the eco-adventures in Malaysia can reach astronomical prices and climbing Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is not an exception.

Yet, Mount Kinabalu is one of the natural wonders you won’t want to miss in Malaysian Borneo, especially if you are into trekking and you don’t mind pushing the boundaries of your physical fitness.

Climb Mount Kinabalu
A view on Mount Kinabalu.

The Kinabalu Park covers 754 square kilometers with Mount Kinabalu in the middle. You can either take it easy in the well-marked paths or opt for a challenge to climb to the summit (Low’s Peak) of Mount Kinabalu. Not enough adrenaline? Then you can choose the via ferrata route, which requires at least some basic climbing skills.

We do love challenges and we are big nature and adventures lovers, but to climb Mount Kinabalu up to the peak was out of the question for three reasons: our budget, our limited wardrobe and our fitness condition.

If you are interested to know where to stay in Mount Kinabalu, we recommend some of the best hotels for different budgets.

When we travel, we book our hotels through TripAdvisor, one of the best websites to compare prices.

We also use a lot AirBnB to book local apartments. If you have never used AirBnB before, you can have a $40 discount for your first booking through this link.

Always make sure you travel with travel insurance! Be adventurous, but not careless.
Check out some of the most reliable insurance companies out there: True Traveller if you’re European and World Nomads if you’re from elsewhere.

If you love animals and you prefer going local during your travels, try housesitting, which is an amazing way to travel the world while taking care of the pets whose owners are on vacation. If you use TrustedHousesitters with this link you’ll get $20 discount on annual membership.

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Climb Mount Kinabalu


Climb Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu seen from the Kinabalu Park.

Officially, it is recommended that you climb Mount Kinabalu in two days so you can acclimatize yourself and rest before reaching the peak, which you will climb in time for the sunrise.

That was all fine by us, until the point when we were told the price for this adventure.

A 2D1N package of climbing to the summit costs 900 MYR/$283 per person. What does that include, you ask?

The package for one person:
15 MYR/ $4.66 – entrance fee
100 MYR/ $31 – climbing permit
7 MYR/ $2.17 – climbing insurance
33 MYR/ $10.27 – return transport Park HQ – Timpohon Gate
128 MYR/ $39.83 – guide for 1-3 people (for climbing the summit from the Timpohon Gate)
400 MYR/ $124.50 – 1 night (actually, just a few hours of sleep on a bunk bed in a dormitory, since you start the climb to the summit shortly after midnight)
The rest of the price covers meals: a packed lunch for the first day, dinner, early supper, breakfast and lunch back at the Park HQ.

Climb Mount Kinabalu
Up up up.

However, we read a post from fellow travellers who got a cheaper option from a tour operator in Kota Kinabalu and it cost them 672.50 MYR/ $209.30 per person.

Well, we guess the fact that we arrived to Kota Kinabalu during the high season played a role in the pricing.

If you’re wondering whether there was a cheaper option, we are happy to say yes, there is! A one-day climb adventure is also available. Although the price is much affordable (202.50 MYR/ $63), as you don’t pay the night and the food, you need to be in excellent physical condition.

What to wear

Climb Mount Kinabalu
Wandering around the Kinabalu National Park.

The temperature at Low’s Peak can drop to 6°C/42°F, so apart from a sturdy pair of shoes, you’ll need to get your warm and windproof outfit ready as the weather on the mountain can change unexpectedly.

We travel light and the warmest top we carry is a fleece jumper and no long-sleeve t-shirt or wind-proof anorak, so we couldn’t risk climbing the summit with the clothes we had.

We asked at the Park HQ whether there was a chance we could rent any proper hiking shoes and warm clothes, but no luck.

Ready to climb Mount Kinabalu?

Climb Mount Kinabalu
Awesome views on the Kinabalu Park.

Well, not really! We are not lazy bums and we can wake up early easily, but the schedule of the one-day climb was far too tough for us. Morning call at 6 am, a shuttle to the Timpohon Gate (1866.4 m) from the Park HQ (1563.8 m) at 7 am, arrival at Laban Rata (3272.7 m) around 10 am, and at Low’s Peak (4095.2 m) by 1 pm. All hikers must be back at the HQ by 5 pm.

The whole climb takes around 8-8.5 hours, which requires coping with the altitude change much more quickly than if you would climb the mountain in two days.

What we did

Instead of climbing up to the peak in one day, (or 2 days like most of the people do) we decided to climb only halfway up to to the Layang Layang shelter. We took it all very easy and started our climb without a guide at 8 am. We knew we were going to hike at our own pace, have breaks when we felt like it, and go back whenever we wanted.

We walked up through a lush, humid rainforest for eight hours and saw how the climate zones changed with the nature around us, which transitioned from a tropical to a coniferous forest.

Climb Mount Kinabalu
Amazing lush rainforest in the Kinabalu Park.

The steps made from stone and wood were quite steep, but all the way up we could hold onto a rail, which helped!

It took us about five and a half hours to hike from the Timpohon Gate to the Layang Layang shelter (2612 m), where the weather started to change rapidly. After a short break to wipe our sweaty faces and catch our breath, we started to descend.

We loved what we saw and enjoyed every single step up and down in the lush park, and were glad that our trembling, stiff legs forced us to stop and enjoy the absolutely stunning views and beautiful butterflies.

Climb Mount Kinabalu
Beautiful new species of flora.

We were extremely lucky to encounter a few red leaf monkeys and a very special species of a mouse that was discovered just a few years ago.

We did not pay for the one-day package, which was tempting but not doable for us at that time, and we do not regret what we decided to do instead. For the two of us we paid only 63 MYR$19.60 to hike in Kinabalu National Park: 30 MYR/ $9.33 for the entrance fee and 33 MYR/ $10.26 for return transport from the Park HQ to the Timpohon Gate.

We climbed a lot, we sweated more than enough, got some mist and a light shower at the higher altitude, and were able to admire many new species of flowers, plants, and bonsais, too.

Climb Mount Kinabalu
Posing red leaf monkey.

We saw animals in the wild and observed different birds chirping and butterflies flying around. We suffered from knee pain while porters ran briskly up the hills, even while carrying 40 kg of beers and coke cans for the tourists, and with dozens of cartons filled with fresh eggs.

We reached the Layang Layang shelter with a tiring yet rewarding feeling that you can only experience when you cope with the physical pain that proves that it’s your mindset that pushes you forward or breaks you down in a tough situation like climbing (or not climbing) a mountain.

Even if we didn’t climb Mount Kinabalu up to its peak we had an incredible experience that we recommend that everyone try.

Insider tips on how to climb Mount Kinabalu:

Climb Mount Kinabalu
A well-marked path in the Kinabalu Park.

Don’t overestimate your fitness, but don’t be discouraged from a walk in one of the oldest rainforests in the world, either.

Bring enough water with you as there are no refreshment stalls on the way up to Laban Rata and you don’t want to pay a fortune for half a liter of bottled water once you arrive.

Energy bars and chocolate are very helpful during and after the climb.

• There are shelters every half-kilometer on the way up to the peak where you catch your breath or use a bathroom.

• You can have breakfast at the small restaurant located near the parking lot before entering the National Park. They serve hot meals for reasonable prices and you can supply yourself with some energy bars and water.

Where to stay near the Kinabalu National Park

We suggest staying in a guesthouse outside the Kinabalu National Park to save lots of money. We stayed two nights at the Bayu Kinabalu Lodge in a dormitory room with two other friends for 25 MYR/ $7.77 per night per person. The room was clean and beds were comfortable.

To arrive there you’ll need to walk from the parking lot where the restaurant is down the road (back towards Kota Kinabalu) for about five minutes until you see the sign of the lodge on your left.

More accommodation options:

Luxury > Sabah Tea Garden

Perfect choice if you’re travelling with kids. Sabah Tea House features a picturesque view of Kinabalu Mountain. Their cottages are air-conditioned, with a seating sofa area, satellite TV, kettle and fan. Each cottage also includes a hot/cold shower facility and free Wi-Fi. Check the latest price.

Mid-range > Celyn Resort Kinabalu

The resort offers rooms with a private balcony. Their ensuite bathroom has hot shower and free toiletries. The property has an inhouse restaurant that serves local and international dishes. They also have a bar that offers refreshing cocktails and light snacks. Check the latest price.

Budget > Mile 36 Lodge

Offers a peaceful and serene atmosphere as it is surrounded by greenery. Perfect choice if you’re a travelling with family. Their rooms are comfortable with a balcony, work desk, and an ensuite bathroom. Their front desk is available 24-hours for storage or other facilities you need to request. The property has an inhouse restaurant that serves local, Asian, and Western choices. Check the latest price.

To arrive to Kinabalu National Park from Kota Kinabalu, take a small shuttle from Pedang Merdeka Terminal in the direction of Ranau (costs 25 MYR/ $7.77/pax) or any bus heading to Sandakan. The journey takes about 2-3 hours, depending on traffic.

Have you ever conquered Mount Kinabalu in Borneo or any other mountain in the world that made you proud of yourself? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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14 thoughts on “Mount Kinabalu, Borneo: to Climb or not to Climb?”

  1. Sounds like you saw a lot of awesome things during your climb! As you know (since you linked me) I did the one-day hike and definitely liked the pricing, but I’ve heard seeing the peak for sunrise is quite surreal.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Kristin, yes, we enjoyed our trekking a lot there and when I just remember of your photos from the summit, I guess you experienced a ‘wow’ moment too 🙂 Happy travels and more adventures ahead!

  2. Kudos to you guys for doing as much as you did! When we were in KK, we considered attempting the climb for about, oh, 10 seconds before deciding it was very much not for us. We met other people who had attempted the hike but had to turn back due to poor weather up at the peak, which I imagine would be pretty heartbreaking (to make it so close, but so far!). I have made my peace with the fact I hate climbing up things so this very much would not be for me, but I did enjoy your photos!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thanks, Steph. Yes, this route is definitely for trekking adventure freaks, but I believe your trip to Sepilok made it all up 🙂
      Hugs to Canada!

  3. Great post! I had considered climbing Mt. Kinabalu when I visited last month. The cost was quite prohibitive, but what ultimately made my decision for me was the weather. It was raining and they had not allowed summits for the 3 days prior. I actually met two guys who paid to summit, got to the halfway point and spent the night, only to be told they would have to go back (with no refund). I did find that you can get a much better deal if you are able to wait and book once you arrive at the mountain. This was not during high season though. Great photos!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Amy, sorry to hear the weather was not on your side… After we saw the path, it would have been too dangerous to allow people to climb after days of rain. Oh, we heard similar stories of no refund which sounds really unfair considering how much you invest in this adventure anyway.
      Yes, I guess it all depends on the season you arrive there, but in any case, it’s better to book it on the spot and you can decide whether you feel for a one-day climb or not at the last moment, too. Happy travels!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thanks guys, the forest was indeed a very special experience for us. Cheers!

  4. What a fantastic hike guys!!!! I’d do it to see the monkeys in the wild alone, I’m in love with these creatures.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      I am sure you’d love it there, Franca.They are a bit unpredictable as they move deeper to the mountain for some period and you never know when they come to say ‘hi’, but to see them around is always a pleasure 🙂

  5. Well done guys!! I have to be honest and admit that when I was in KK, I skipped this out – didn’t quite manage to bring myself to brave doing it after my friend told me it was one of the hardest hikes she has done but always impressed by those who have done it! Great pics! 🙂

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Oh, we didn’t climb up, only to Layang Layang, which is mid way, but it was still an awesome experience and we do recommend everyone to have a walk in the park, which is actually a rainforest. Enjoy your travels, Shikha!

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