Everything You Need to Know to Prepare for a Gorilla Trekking Bucket List Trip in Africa

Gorilla trekking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that allows you to observe and interact with endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. As an animal lover, who likes nothing more than seeing animals in the wild, this was an item on the bucket list I couldn't wait to experience. I had traveled to Africa twice before and in preparation for my third trip, I knew I wanted to add gorilla trekking to my experience. I was not disappointed! Travelers can take part in the unique adventure in three different African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. Each destination offers its own set of attractions and challenges, and I'll do my best to help educate you so that you can choose the one that works best with your preferences and travel goals. I'll also share a few things I wish I had known and some things that really worked well for us on our gorilla trekking experience. If you've got gorilla trekking on your bucket list too, or if you've never even considered it, keep reading!


Everything You Need to Know to Prepare for a Gorilla Trekking Bucket List Trip in Africa


Planning Your Gorilla Trekking Trip


This video was part of a series of videos I made showcasing our daily experiences from Seattle to Safari! This shows you what you can expect from a day gorilla trekking. Find the whole series on TikTok.

Which Country to Choose when Gorilla Trekking

Three different African countries offer gorilla trekking experiences: Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. 

If you want to see gorillas in the wild, you do need a permit. This allows countries to control the amount of people visiting the gorilla groups and allows for conservation to protect the endangered primates. The permit grants access to one trek with a ranger-led group and one hour with the gorillas. The permit does not include food, lodging, or travel to get to and from your experience. 

Each group consists of eight people, not including porters, rangers, or guides.

Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Uganda is known as the "pearl of Africa," and it has both Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Bwindi alone is home to nearly half of the world's mountain gorilla population. The gorilla families in Bwindi also cover a lot of territory and tracking time can vary wildly from thirty minutes to eight hours! It's not easy to access these parks, so additional days of travel are often needed especially if you are traveling from Entebbe, where the international airport is. You can fly into the small regional airport in Kihihi. From there, it's only about a one-hour drive to Bwindi. There are 160 permits available per day split between the two National Parks. A permit costs $700 per person. 

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. It's also home to Volcanoes National Park and offers a more accessible and comfortable gorilla trekking experience. Volcanoes National Park is only a two-hour drive from Kigali and the international airport so it doesn't require quite as much effort to get to the National Park location. The terrain in Rwanda is also more open and less difficult for trekking compared to the dense forest in Uganda. There are 96 gorilla trekking permits available daily and the cost of a permit is $1500 per person per trek, which is the most expensive of all of the permits.

Gorilla Trekking in Congo

In Congo, Virunga National Park is a haven for adventure seekers, providing a unique opportunity to trek through dense jungles and witness not only gorillas but also diverse wildlife. Every day there are 64 gorilla permits available. Congo has the least expensive gorilla trekking permits at only $400 per person per trek. They also reduce the rate in the low season to only $200 in mid-March to mid-May and then again in mid-October to mid-December. Congo is known for their political conflicts, and this often turns many people away from visiting.

You might also like: Preparing for a bucket list trip and what to know when you take it!

Getting Permits for Gorilla Trekking

As noted, there are limited permits offered daily. You have to have a permit to go gorilla trekking. It's best to book your permits well in advance through the respective national park. If you have a tour operator you are working with, they will often obtain the permits for you and plan your accommodations to be those closest to your trekking entrance. Don't wait until you get to the country to decide you want to try to go gorilla trekking. You likely won't be able to get a permit. Especially during high season. 

Gorilla permits are regulated by the government. If you were hoping to get a "scalped" gorilla permit or one at a reduced rate from a travel operator, don't! These are not valid. Only buy directly from the authorized bodies. You don't want to get in trouble in Africa friends!

There is an age limit for gorilla trekking. You must be 15 years or older to get a gorilla trekking permit. This age is set mostly because of infections. Humans and gorillas often share the same illnesses from flu to colds to chickenpox and more. After the COVID shutdown, mask-wearing became mandatory and it was noted that there was a HUGE decline in gorilla illness because of it. So masks continue to be mandatory on your gorilla trekking encounters.

Before entering Uganda, Rwanda, or Congo, visitors need to have had a yellow fever vaccine {and show evidence of it}. Foreign visitors also need visas to enter the borders of all three gorilla trekking countries.

Can You Go Gorilla Trekking on Your Own?

No! Gorillas are listed as an endangered species. Sadly, you can't just pick up your hiking stick and hit the trail! Nobody is allowed in the forest without a ranger. You need to go with a group and you need to have a trekking permit. Those permits are limited daily by the government and every country has a set number of permits allowed that has been decided depending on the size of the gorilla population in the country/area.

The Best Time for Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla trekking is possible year-round, but the dry seasons {June-September and December-February} are generally recommended. We went in November in Uganda, which is part of their rainy season, and the day before our trek, the rain came down hard, but we were delighted with good weather on our trek. The trails were a bit wet, but not overly muddy. There were a few wet areas in the forest that we sloshed through, but since they are rainforests, I'm not sure they are ever totally dry.  Overall, don't let visiting in the rainy season stop you from making plans to go gorilla trekking. 


Are you Guaranteed to see Gorillas when Gorilla Trekking?

Nothing having to do with wild animals is ever guaranteed, BUT, I haven't ever heard of a group being unlucky and not seeing any gorillas. This was good news for us because just a few days earlier, we had tried chimp trekking with no luck. 

Before your trek, the parks send a group of trackers out ahead. These trackers are in contact with your guide via radio and GPS. This means that the trackers have already gotten in contact with the gorillas before you even get there so you know which area to head to.

The trackers arrive early to the park and they stay late, so they can continue tracking the gorillas and have an idea of where they settle for the evening since gorillas make new nests every single night. Knowing the gorillas location in the evening makes it easier for the trackers to locate the group the following day.

Mountain Gorillas: Everything You Need to Know!

Mountain gorillas are the type of gorilla that is common in the mountainous regions of Central and Eastern Africa. Mountain gorillas are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Just over 1000 mountain gorillas are living in Africa today. Conservation efforts have been crucial in protecting and increasing their populations. 

Mountain gorillas are the largest primates. The adult males are known as silverbacks due to the silver hair on their backs. They can weigh up to 400 pounds and stand about 5.5 feet tall! Gorillas are herbivores with a mostly vegetarian diet. They mostly feed on leaves, shoots, roots, and fruits. They also eat eats and termites but that generally only makes up about 1% of their diet. Even though they are of massive size, they really are quite gentle and aren't known to be aggressive unless they feel threatened.

Mountain gorillas live in a family group led by a dominant silverback male. The group usually has several females and their offspring. The Silverback is responsible for protecting the group, making the decisions, and mediating any conflicts.

You'll hear the gorillas communicate using a variety of vocalizations, facial expressions, and body postures. Your guides will typically imitate some of these sighs and vocalizations so that the gorillas know that the trekkers are friends, not foes. 

Female gorillas give birth approximately every four years. The gestation period lasts about 8.5 months {sound familiar?} and the infants are dependent on their mothers for several years. Young gorillas often nurse for several years to help provide natural family planning. 

Mountain gorillas prefer thickly wooded places and thrive at elevations from 8,000 to 13,000 feet. Their main threats include habitat loss due to agriculture and human settlement, poaching, and disease, especially those transmitted by humans.

Preparing for Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla trekking does involve some hiking through challenging terrain, BUT multiple groups are assigned daily and they typically take into account people's physical abilities. My husband and I did some hiking at home in the mountains before our trip, and we are both in pretty good physical shape. We also met trekkers who had physical limitations, and they made accommodations for those too. 

If gorilla trekking is on your bucket list, and you are traveling with disabilities, there are options for accessibility. Some gorilla trekking safaris have brought back the sedan chair and you can hire porters to carry you through the forest!

Groups are generally split up based on ability level. We arrived with our safari driver, and I'm assuming he let the rangers know our physical abilities and they assigned us our family group. We were put with the group that trekked the furthest. It took us about two and a half hours to reach the family and about 1500 feet of elevation gain. 

Those trekkers we met with the physical limitations I mentioned earlier? They walked on a fairly flat trail for about 15-20 minutes to find their gorilla group. 

Where to Stay Gorilla Trekking

We stayed at Mahogany Springs in Uganda. It was about a two-minute drive from the entrance of Bwindi National Forest, making it super convenient if your permit is for that park. If you are booking a gorilla trekking safari through a tour operator {which I highly recommend!}, they will help you plan your accommodations accordingly. Helping to select a resort that is near your permitted trekking location. 

It's important to listen to the guide's advice on the location of your resort accommodations. Our guide told us stories about how sometimes visitors will select a lodge based on a recommendation from a friend, but they don't take into account the location and to make it to their early morning meeting location for trekking, they have to get up very very early for a bumpy several hours drive in the dark. 


What to Wear and Pack for Gorilla Trekking

We packed relatively light for our trip to Africa. We took several safari link flights on small aircraft and were limited to soft-sided luggage that was under 15 kilos. If you want to see my full packing list, check out this post. 

Stay away from dark clothes that are black or dark blue. They attract the tsetse fly. This is the perfect time to wear tans, khakis, grays, and greens to blend in. However, stay away from camouflage. Especially in Uganda. Camo is reserved for military personnel and it is illegal to wear it if you aren't. The rangers you'll be with are part of the military, so you want to respect them.

What you'll need specifically for gorilla trekking is comfortable and sturdy hiking boots. Hiking boots were our biggest bulkiest item that we packed but they are a necessity. One of our fellow trekkers had athletic shoes on. Because we were stepping in and out of muddy creek beds, the sole on his shoe actually got suctioned right off! Pack the boots. Most resorts expect that you will return with muddy boots and they will clean them for you for no charge!

Lightweight, long-sleeve top and hiking pants, both waterproof if possible. If you want to pack gaiters, that helps keep the fire ants out, but it works just as well to tuck your pants legs into your hiking socks. 

We had waterproof jackets, but it didn't take long before we started to get sweaty and removed those. You will warm up on your hike, so don't over layer!  A hat is helpful to protect your head while walking through dense forests, and it's also recommended to bring gardening gloves since you will be bushwacking. I had gloves, but I felt like I would have also been fine without gloves. 

Face masks are required and wearing them is enforced! There has been a decline in illness amongst the gorilla population {since we share many of the same germs!} since mask-wearing was required during COVID times. This continues to be a preventative measure. I'd recommend packing at least two per person. 

We were quite hot and sweaty, and we were glad we had plenty of water. We also had a packed lunch from the resort. 

You'll want to pack a backpack and store your water and lunch supplies inside. You can hire a porter {for around $20} who will help carry your bag and lend a hand when you go up or down steep hillsides. This is a way that you can support the local economy and provide jobs to the local people. We chose not to, but most chose this option. I'll share more on that later.

Don't forget a camera! We packed a zoom lens, but there is no need. You really are that close to the gorillas! Tripods are not allowed in the area when you find the gorillas because they are potentially seen as a threat. If you are ONLY gorilla trekking and not going on safari, this is the only time I'll tell you that your phone is going to be just fine. I know people go on safari with just an iPhone, but those animals are often so far away and harder to photograph. Gorilla trekking is the exception. Your phone will be just fine.

You'll also want to pack cash for tips. They are happy to accept your US dollars so don't worry about getting the local currency. You'll want to set aside a tip for the trackers, the rangers, and the porters. Even though we didn't hire a porter, we did tip the one someone else in our group hired because they held our backpack when we were in with the gorillas. We tipped the ranger $30 at the end of our trek. They split that amount between all the rangers, and it's best practice to hand the money to the head ranger in front of the others so they know something is coming for them! 

Our lodge had walking sticks we could borrow and we were grateful for them. If possible, get a walking stick! I didn't realize how helpful they would be!

what to expect gorilla trekking in east africa

What to Expect Gorilla Trekking

When you arrive at the park, there will be a mandatory briefing. Before your briefing, there is often cultural music and dancing by local community members. There are bathrooms to use and most people arrive early because they tell you to arrive early! Your guide will likely do the check-in for you, so you will just head over to enjoy the cultural activities. If they have planned ahead, they will also have copies of your passport. This is a requirement. If they haven't asked for them the night before you leave, mention it to them, so you are prepared.

Once everyone is checked in, the rangers will explain what you do when you arrive at your assigned gorilla family group. They will address the bathroom situation {there isn't one!}, and what to expect on your trek. Then they will call your name {based on the drivers name that brought you there} and you'll be assigned a family group. 

You'll line up with that family group and the ranger will have a photo and a short briefing about the family group you'll be going to see. They will highlight the silverbacks and the infants and their ages. When you are in your family group, this is when you will decide if you want to hire a porter for the trip. If you choose to have a porter, one will be assigned to you. 

To Hire a Porter or Not

We really wrestled with the decision to hire a porter or not. We do a lot of hiking, so carrying our own backpack wasn't an issue for us. We also don't tend to overpack, so we only had one small backpack for the two of us. Many people in the local areas are dependent on tourism income. 

Most people will tell you that you should hire a porter because it is supporting the economy. Porters report daily to the parks in hopes that it will be their turn. The ones we met in Uganda were on a rotation. The porter I spoke with said he can usually expect to be chosen to work two times a month. 

Most porters rely on tips and most people I've known or talked to over-tip their porters, often paying them $50-100. The fee to hire a porter is generally $15-20. 

I have worked a lot with NGOs and see how overtipping can offset the balance of an economy. I'm all for supporting the local community members, but I'm not sure that the well-meaning efforts of tourists overpaying for an animal encounter are the best way to do that. After all, you are still supporting the local area by staying locally in a lodge or resort, visiting the area, and making food, drink, and souvenir purchases. This is definitely an unpopular opinion! 

I'm a pretty independent lady and porters are generally overly helpful because they want that big tip at the end and of course, because they want to do a good job. That said, my husband and I talked about it and we'd also both be kind of annoyed that we'd always have a hand reaching back for us to grab as we were hiking. I think it would have changed our experience. 

Most people hire a porter. They use them to help them up and down slippery surfaces and all of them carry bags or packs for the trekkers. If you want to do this, by golly, take advantage of it. For us, I did a TON of research about this and not once did I read anything about NOT hiring a porter, so I want you to be released from guilt if it's just not your thing either. 

Spending Time with the Gorillas

The anticipation of the trekking is real. I felt like a kid thinking "Are we there yet" at every turn. There was a point when our rangers told us we were close and then we started to see their nests and poo from the night before. It was exciting!

Once you are close, the rangers will pull you aside and tell you that you are currently in the staging area. The porters are not allowed to go in with you to visit the gorillas. Any backpacks you have with you are required to stay in the staging area. This is when we handed our bag off to a fellow trekker's porter {and then tipped accordingly afterward}. You are not allowed to bring in tripods, snacks, or even water when you are having your gorilla encounter. 

This is also the time when your rangers will tell you to put your face mask on. Tuck a second mask in your pocket on the off chance that the straps break on your mask because if you don't have one, you can't be near the gorillas. The rangers will enforce this and it will cut your time short.

When we stepped out of our staging area, I expected to be hiking for a bit longer than we did, so imagine my surprise when I literally stepped about five feet into the bush and there was a silverback snacking not even five feet from me!

As soon as you step into the area the gorillas are, your one-hour clock starts ticking down. Literally. The ranger sets a timer.


What to Expect From a Gorilla Encounter

There are eight trekkers with you. There are also rangers and trackers in your group. The gorillas stay relatively close to one another, but you will be very close to your fellow trekkers. Be respectful of your space! I found that our group did a great job taking turns in an area and would often step back to share the space closest to a gorilla or group. 

Rangers and trackers will also pull individuals aside and guide you to areas where more gorillas are. They will also use their machetes to clear an area for a better view.

Remember that briefing by the ranger at the beginning? They will give you a guideline for how far away you should be from the gorillas. We found that this was nearly impossible and it didn't seem to matter! You are often only an arm's length away from the gorillas. If you were to actually reach out, I do think you'd get a stern talking to. You're rarely far from a ranger or tracker who is not only observing the gorillas but also observing you and your behavior. But they are also open to fielding any questions you have as well. We found them to be very knowledgeable.

We were observing a mom feeding in a small clearing and then turned around and heard some rustling. There was a baby that was about two who came out of the woods behind us and literally started walking right towards us! The guides will generally tell you that it's the babies and younger gorillas that are really curious and often will approach the trekkers. When we looked to the rangers for guidance, they basically just told us to stay still. The baby gorilla literally crawled over us {yep, I know what it feels like to have a baby gorilla step ON my foot!} to get to her mom for a little nursing session. 

The gorilla family we spent time with was spread out a bit. It allowed us to easily walk around to a few different clearings that had been created and to observe the gorillas without the whole trekking group. This isn't to say that the space you are in will be totally open. You're literally standing in the middle of a thick forest observing wild animals!

One of the things you'll appreciate doing is putting down your camera or phone and just sitting in the same space as the gorillas. There is something special about just connecting with them in that way. The time goes by really fast, so you'll need to make a conscious effort to do this. 

The thing we also learned is that there are exceptions to the one-hour rule. As we were leaving, the silverback in charge had put himself in the position to be front and center in a prime viewing area. Our rangers allowed us extra time {about 15 minutes} to sit and observe the silverback as he was eating since it was rare that he would come that close. 

Other groups we talked with after our encounter had said the same thing. Most got at least 15 or more minutes extra with their gorilla family. Don't worry about keeping time, just do your best to stay in the moment.

After Your Time With the Gorillas

Once your time is up, you'll go back to the staging area, and get your bags back. This is when we said goodbye to the gorilla trackers. They stay behind to continue to observe the gorillas behavior and track where they nest so they can easily find them the next day. This is also when you'll want to tip those trackers as a thank you for locating the gorillas and clearing the area for you. 

I've been to Africa a few times and on this third trip, I realized that tipping culture has changed a LOT since my first two trips. They aren't expected, but they are often requested. We had read up and planned on what to tip on our trip, and I didn't read anything about tipping the trackers. We ended up giving them $5 US. I still haven't seen a good guide that gives information on this, but since we also tipped our rangers, I thought it was a fair amount. 

The rangers will take you back down the mountain and will likely stop for lunch if you are on one of the longer trekking trips. There were actually some picnic tables. If you need a bathroom stop, while there aren't any, they also mentioned making accommodations if you needed to. They did mention making sure the ranger knows your needs so they can help you be discreet. And also watch out for other wild animals in the hillside.

It took us about an hour to trek back down and it was a bit more strenuous on the knees. There were a lot of large steps and our group was a bit slower on the way down. I was glad I had my walking stick on the way down and my husband said it was nice having the gloves because of the friction from the walking stick.

Once we returned to the check-in area, we used the restrooms. They had printed gorilla trekking completion awards for us that they presented. Our driver was waiting for our return and we chatted with him about our experience. We then headed out on our next adventure!



Gorilla trekking did not disappoint! If you are traveling to Africa, I'd highly advise adding it to your list of activities. You'll never do anything else like it! 

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