It is possible to go gorilla trekking all year round, but you may face rain or more crowds during certain times of year. The high season is June-September and December-February when Uganda has its dry season and Europeans have their holidays. Even during this time you may experience rain in the forest.
Low season is considered March-May or October-November rainy seasons. When trekking during this time you may experience more rain in the forest, making most of the roads very muddier and totally slippery to climb. However, during this time gorillas may be more likely to hang out in the low lands since food is abundant during the rainy season and they don’t need to search long and wide for meals. This means that your treks into the forest to find them will be shorter often under two hours.
To go gorilla trekking in May, you must have lady luck on your side especially to do with the weather. It might rain the day before and the day after, but on the day of your trek it may be total sunshine the whole time you are in the forest and with the gorillas. For cost and crowds, we’d recommend trekking in either the off-season or shoulder season.
Obtaining a Gorilla Trekking Permit
Gorilla trekking permits are a hefty expense at $600 per person for most of the year, with April and May at $350 per person since it is a low season and the government of Uganda decided to give you that concession. The maximum number of visitors per day is 72 arising from the fact that there are 9 groups ready for trekking and each group takes only 8 visitors per day maximum. Each group visits a different habituated gorilla family. The permit assigns you to a gorilla family and allows you to spend one hour with the family once your group finds them.
Each gorilla family is in a different area of the park, so your accommodation should be coordinated with the park entry point for that particular family thus a very stress-free experience.
Even if you travel independently, it makes sense to find a local tour operator to help you secure your trekking permit and arrange transport, accommodation and other logistical support. The reality is that Ugandan tour operators purchase the majority of trekking permits so it’s very difficult for individuals to buy them directly from the National Park. If you want to go during the high season (June-September) you’ll need to organize everything months in advance to be sure you can get a permit.
And while there are no guarantees of mountain gorilla sightings when you set off, the tracking procedures in place at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park virtually ensure you an unforgettable encounter.
Everyone’s gorilla trekking experience will be different depending upon the weather, the depth of your forest hike, where the gorillas are hanging out, and other factors. It’s important to be prepared for anything so you can focus your time on enjoying your jungle walk and time spent with the gorillas, rather than being worried about your gear.
What to wear when gorilla trekking
It’s likely that you’ll be trekking through mud and covered in dirt by the end of your trek so consider bringing clothes that you won’t mind ruining.
Trekking pants. If you have waterproof pants with you, carry these in your backpack in case of rain. You will also be recommended to tuck your pant legs into your socks to prevent nasty creatures from crawling up your legs.
T-shirt and long-sleeved shirt. We recommend a t-shirt with a light long-sleeved shirt over top to protect you against sun exposure and bugs since there are a lot in the forest and jungle.
Waterproof jacket. Keep this handy, especially in the wet season.
Fleece or light jacket. The park is above 2,000 meters (6,000 feet). It’s unlikely that you will be cold when trekking in the humid forest, but you may become chilled waiting around for word of the gorillas’ location or when stopping for lunch.
Trekking shoes. For climbing hills, good traction on your shoes is essential. Even better if your trekking shoes are somewhat water-resistant.
Hat. Sun protection when trekking outside the forest.
Food and Water
Two liters of water per person. While this may sound like a lot, this amount is recommended in case it’s a long, hot hike. Better to have too much water than too little.
Lunch and snacks. Bring snacks that you can munch on along the way to keep your blood sugar and energy high before lunch, which will usually consist of a sandwich and fruit. Depending on how long it takes your group to find the gorilla family, it can sometimes be a while before you eat lunch.
Other useful gear for your gorilla trek
Small backpack. Be sure this is comfortable, as you’ll need to carry it for hours en route to and inside the jungle.
Walking stick. Do not worry about bringing your own. Wooden sticks are available at the park entrance.
Cameras and rain protection. It might be a bit overboard to carry a dry sack for your camera (although we did), but do carry a plastic bag or similar water resisting protection to keep your camera protected in case of rain.
Sunscreen and bug spray. Travel staples in this part of the world.
If you’d prefer to enjoy your trek unencumbered, you can hire a porter to carry your small bag and assist you up hills and through the challenging parts of the forest. Just tell your guide that you’re interested in hiring a porter and he’ll find one for you at the National Park entrance. The fee is $15 per day.
Don’t forget to bring your passport with you as officials at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park office will need to verify your trekking permit against your identification. After a quick briefing on safety measures and what to expect during the day, you will be assigned to a group of a maximum of 8 people for your gorilla family search and visit.
Each group consists of a main guide and two scouts who carry AK-47 guns and walk before and after the group. The reason for armed scouts is for protection in the forest against wild elephants or angry, unhabituated gorillas. The scouts are trained to fire shots into the air first in order to scare away the animals. We’ve never heard of anyone coming across these wild animals, but we understand that the policy of the National Park is to be safe rather than sorry.
Your group will also have a pair of trackers who will have been sent out in the early morning to find the location of your specific gorilla family and to assess where they may be headed. Trackers communicate the gorilla’s movements to the guide so that he can decide on the best approach to meet the gorilla family.