Home » Everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas

Everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas

written by James Shackell October 30, 2018
A gorilla in Uganda

UPDATED: This blog was originally published in August 2016. 

A mountain gorilla trek often comes second on travel Bucket Lists to a classic Big 5 game drive in Kruger or Serengeti National Park.

Which is understandable – getting to the gorillas takes more effort, more time and more expense than a traditional safari. But you know what they say: you get what you pay for.

Here’s everything you need to know about trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda:

Where do the mountain gorillas live?

Three travellers watch a gorilla

The ultimate wildlife experience.

There are only two populations of mountain gorillas left in the world. The first lives in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, with groups scattered between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The second population lives deep in Bwindi. (Our tours visit Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest).

According to results released in May 2018, the mountain gorilla population living in the Virunga mountains has grown— from 480 in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Combined with a separate mountain gorilla population living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, this brings the number of mountain gorillas to more than 1,000 individuals. The rise in numbers follows the introduction of park guards, veterinary care, community support projects and regulated tourism.

Despite the good news, that still puts them on the Critically Endangered list (two classifications away from completely Extinct).

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What options do I have to have to see the mountain gorillas?

A mother and baby gorilla

A mother and baby – incredible!

The first thing to appreciate is that visiting mountain gorillas on a group tour can be quite expensive (going solo is often even more so). These animals exist in extremely remote locations, in countries not known for their tourist infrastructure, which means the logistics of a gorillas visit are a challenge in themselves. Tour groups must also pay permits for expert guides to lead them through Virunga, Bwindi or Volcanoes National Park.

Like most wildlife encounters in Africa, the experience is completely worth it, and we’re yet to hear anyone come back from a gorilla visit underwhelmed, but it’s just something to keep in mind. It’s also worth noting that the cost of a permit to trek in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park doubled in early 2017, which makes a trekking permit in Uganda around a third of the price, and a far more economical option.

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Uganda Gorilla Shortbreak: Basix – A compact 4-day itinerary from Kampala to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. You’ll be staying in basic, pre-erected tents, and basic hotels which makes this is an economic option if you’re passing through Uganda on your own.

Uganda Gorilla Shortbreak: Original – A compact 4-day itinerary from Kampala to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. You’ll be staying in original style lodges and hotels. This is a fantastic trek add-on to a larger itinerary.

Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda: Comfort – An equivalent 4-day shortbreak, this time in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. This one comes with an optional ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ trek to visit the grave of Dianne Fossey, as well as her old research station, deep in the jungle.

Gorillas & Game Parks – A more comprehensive 16-day itinerary, with an overland truck and a dedicated Intrepid leader. It combines gorilla trekking in Uganda with safaris in the Masai Mara and Queen Elizabeth National Park. This one is for the serious wildlife buffs!

UPDATE ON GORILLA TREKKING IN RWANDA: Maximum 96 gorilla tracking permits are available each day. As of May 2017, the Rwandan Development Board increased the costs of the gorilla permits from US$ 750 to US$ 1,500 per person, for a one-hour visit. The new prices aim to strengthen conservation efforts and support the development of local communities. More info here.

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What to expect on your trek

A man and a mountain gorilla in Rwanda

Intrepid’s CEO James Thornton and a new friend in Volcanoes National Park.

It’s important to know what you’re getting into before setting out on a gorilla trek. The good news is, this isn’t Basecamp. The hike through the forest is challenging and tough-going (your guides will often have to machete a path through the ferns that clog the undergrowth), but it’s within reach for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. You will get muddy though. And sweaty. Beneath the forest canopy the humidity is very high, and it’s a good idea to bring a canteen of fresh water to hydrate as you go.

If you are particularly concerned about the terrain, consider hiring a local porter. The porters will carry your bag, and help to you navigate some of the steeper, or trickier sections of the trek. In fact, hiring a porter on a gorilla trek is a common practice by travellers of all ages and abilities. Not only does it make the trek easier for you, but you’re also providing a valuable source of employment for locals. The minimum cost of hiring a porter on a gorilla trek in Bwindi is $20USD, or $10USD in Virunga. Of course you can choose to provide a tip in addition to that.

Eventually, after bush-bashing your way through the scrub, you’ll come across a gorilla family, peacefully playing in a forest clearing. Your trekking guides and rangers will have prepared you for what to expect. There’s no direct interaction with the gorillas (unless one moves past you), but you should get pretty close. You’ll have a good 45 minutes to an hour to just sit and observe these animals in their natural habitat. We promise it’s something you’ll never ever forget. For a really good account of a gorilla visit, check out this blog we published.

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Mountain gorilla habitat

A baby gorilla in a tree

A baby plays in the trees.

Mountain gorillas live way up in the cloud forests, ranging from an altitude of 2200 metres to 4300 metres (a not insignificant height – you may feel a little short of breath. Remember to let your guide know if you feel a headache coming on).

The vegetation on the lower slopes will be dense, often a mix of bamboo, ferns and galium vines. As you climb, the undergrowth should thin out a bit. The zone where the gorillas live is misty, damp and (depending on the time of year) can be a bit cold. Mountain gorillas move around depending on the season, spending time in the subalpine regions to feed on senecio trees during certain times of the year.

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What to pack for your gorilla trek

A gorilla eating leaves

Enjoying a snack.

Boots – Essential. A good quality pair of hiking boots from a store like Kathmandu will serve you well. They’re expensive, but so are your ankles when they break. Don’t risk it with a cheap pair of sneakers.

Gloves – During the trek you might be grabbing trees, branches and vines, and your hands can get a bit scratched and generally beaten up if you’re not careful. Pack a tough old pair of gardening gloves. They might look a bit lame, but you’ll be glad you brought them.

A light rain jacket – Bwindi and Virunga are both tropical rainforests, and there’s a good chance of rain almost year-round. Pack a light-weight poncho or rain jacket that you can roll up in your bag and bring out if necessary.

Energy snacks – The trek to the mountain gorillas isn’t impossible, but it is tough. Energy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, chocolate or power bars are a great idea. Just remember to take any rubbish with you as you go.

Water – Avoid buying plastic water bottles while you’re in Uganda or Rwanda. They’re terrible for the environment. Bring a reusable canteen (preferably with a purifying filter built in) or a pack of filtration tablets. You’ll need to drink a lot during the trek.

Long pants and shirts – It’s best not to expose too much skin during the jungle trek, and remember to tuck your trousers into your socks – you really don’t want safari ants crawling up there.

Want to come face-to-face with Africa’s mountain gorillas? Check out our gorilla small group treks

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15 comments

Ivan Taremwa July 28, 2021 - 6:36 pm

Reading this article makes me nostalgic. I have trekked the gorillas 4 times in Bwindi national park but reading this article makes me want to go and trek these guys again. Thanks for such an amazing article.

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Burt Baguma June 30, 2021 - 8:52 pm

Excellent writing James; pretty informative and factual. If you’ve read it and still doubting whether to book the trip, stop now and talk to your travel manager. My trek to these magnificent creatures was painful, tiring, and odious. However, my experience was priceless. I did the habituation trek recently during Covid (yes, Uganda is open), where we spent at least four hours with them: incredible! A permit in Uganda is now $700, and habituation experience $1500. JUST GO!

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Rishabh Pathania June 10, 2021 - 9:51 pm

Incredible Post Brother! I Really enjoyed every moment over there

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Afritrek Holidays March 1, 2021 - 10:04 pm

Wow, very interesting article, outstanding photos and the author is very talented. The mountain gorillas themselves are very wonderful creatures every adventure loving individual should encounter.

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karanja Njiiri February 13, 2021 - 11:05 pm

Seeing the gorillas face to face is an exhilarating experience i would want to have soon after the pandemic is over.

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Kolo Pius August 26, 2020 - 5:55 pm

Hey James, Mountain Gorilla Trekking is an awesome activity. Definitely worth the money! I recently published an infographic about gorilla trekking in Africa. It summarize most of the basic information that travelers need. Please check it out here: https://www.africangorilla.com/travel-blog/gorilla-trekking-cheat-code/

I have trekked in all sectors of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Virunga. Rwanda seems so expensive for me 🙂

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Jan N May 21, 2020 - 2:18 am

Interesting read, love the article and the time you put into it. I was there myself in February and enjoyed every moment of it.

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ssemusu khamis March 18, 2020 - 11:30 pm

So informative for any traveler wishing to undertake a mountain gorilla trek safari – a reason Uganda featured on the BBC top travel destinations for 2020, as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ is home too half of these endangered species!

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David Watson January 29, 2020 - 6:13 am

Hi. Can you recommend any gorilla treks where you get more time with the gorillas in their natural habitat? Keen to find a physical challenge that will lead to some days in the jungle searching for and watching gorillas and other wildlife.

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Gava Hussein October 18, 2019 - 12:08 am

Thanks a lot James for sharing your experience and helping other travelers make the right choices. Am from Uganda and writing to you just to inform you that the gorilla trekking permit price for Uganda has recently been increased from $600 to $700. This will be effective 1st July 2020 and i thought it could be relevant for your followers.

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Krisan Sablaon April 23, 2019 - 9:20 pm

OMG both countries are so beautiful! It’s so great to find posts like this as these two destinations can be super similar. Loved the pictures, and that you provided everything we need to know including costs and the ease of travel in Rwanda and Uganda before choosing to experience it. I learned a lot reading this article. Looking forward to reading like these! Keep it up!

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James Hughes February 15, 2019 - 2:47 pm

One of the memorable experience,started with the thrilling caves in Ruhengeri..3KM under ground caves known as Musanze caves.
We spent a night there at the small but beutifull lodge and we were transported early morning to the gorilla trekkers meeting point.
Hotels around Kinigi are extremly expensinve i would advise spending a night in Musanze then arrange a shuttle to the park..it is around 40$

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Owino John Philip August 7, 2018 - 5:00 pm

Great post James. By the way, the government of Rwanda decreased the price for gorilla permits for every May and August to $1050. Not a big reduction but still a good starting point and good news to travelers who wish to track gorillas in Rwanda. A lot of visitors had been flocking to Uganda because of the cheaper permit.

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private safaris Kenya  March 31, 2017 - 4:36 pm

Fantastic post! We just got back from a 2 week trip around Uganda and LOVED it. It is an incredible country that is doing its best to recover from some horrific times. The people are kind and generous and I do feel they understand the bonus that tourism gives their communities.

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B Cole August 3, 2016 - 4:34 am

Visited the gorillas in Rwanda last summer-a truly memorable and wonderful experience. Rwanda is well with visiting-make sure you spend some time at the genocide museum, whilst horrific it’s also superbly done and insightful. We spent about an hour with a family after a longer-than-normal trek (they kept running away from us!) The prickly plants and stinging nettles had little difficulty attacking my legs through my thin trousers (would suggest football socks or thicker trousers!) And you do get tired of avoiding, or not, the various animals turds. But it’s all so worth while. Make sure you’ve got a decent camera, but don’t spend the whole time looking through the lens. You will probably be astonished at how close you get.

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