6 Tips to Avoid Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness isn't completely preventable, but follow these 6 tips so you can see the views from the top instead of the altitude keeping you down.
It's terrible. You finally have escaped the weekly grind and you are out in the wild, but you are stuck in your tent, exhausted, no appetite, you can't sleep, and you have the worst headache. Welcome to higher elevations! Altitude sickness isn't completely preventable but there are steps you can take to increase your chances of avoiding it. Follow the recommendations below and hopefully you are breathing in the crisp mountain air as you hike onward and upwards instead of cursing the altitude while you sit in your tent hoping you feel better tomorrow.
1. Hydrate and Re-hydrate
Our muscles are about 70-80% water so staying hydrated is crucial for any activity outside, and trekking at higher elevations makes staying hydrated even more important. The air at higher altitudes is dryer and has lower air pressure, this causes moisture from your skin to evaporate quicker than normal. This means when you are breathing hard and sweating you may have little to no signs of perspiration so it's hard to tell how much water you're actually losing. To compound the issue, since you dehydrate more easily at higher elevations you have an increased chance of having a higher heart rate because you have less water in your bloodstream. Even if the physiology doesn't interest you, your body needs water to function properly and the higher elevation makes staying hydrated even more important. Luckily it doesn't take long to hydrate our bodies, so make sure you are drinking plenty of water the days leading up to your trip and especially while on the trail. If you are feeling thirsty your body is already dehydrated. Some studies suggest that a fluid loss of 2% in body weight can reduce performance by 10-20%, that add ups when you are hiking for a couple of hours.
2. Carb up
Ditch the low carb diet and devour those complex carbohydrates before and during your trip. Complex carbs allow the body to use oxygen more efficiently and they help you maintain energy levels. Here is a great list of complex carbs you can throw in your pack for your next trip. Additionally, calorie expenditure can be as high as 5000-6000 calories/day depending on performance, altitude, and temperatures so ensure you are snacking while on the trail. Need help with snack options? Check out Sarah Sead's article on snacking idea's while on the trail to help give you some variety.
3. Acclimate and take it easy
If you have some time to spare it's recommended to arrive at a higher elevation and take it easy for 24-48 hours before hitting the trail. This may not be possible, but it makes a world of difference if you can do it. My home base is sitting at a whopping 1,200 feet above sea level, so if I am headed to Dream Lake (9,905'), I would try to spend a day or two in Colorado Springs (6,035') to help my body to acclimate. Sometimes itineraries won't allow time for this, so at least take it easy during the first 24-48 hours of your trip. Listen to your body as you make the ascent and if you start experiencing signs of altitude sickness either descend to lower elevation or set up camp and load up on water and more of those delicious carbohydrates.
4. Talk to your doctor
I'm not a big fan of just getting medication for something that can be healed or prevented naturally, but if you have a history of altitude sickness or you are legitimately worried the high altitude will put a damper on your plans you can talk to your doctor. They can prescribe a variety of medication which will probably include some form of Diamox, this Rx helps you to breathe faster so you are able to bring in more oxygen. If anything, you can use the medication as a backup plan if the altitude affects you more than you thought.
5. Get your Iron
Iron is the key nutrient for oxygen delivery so you want to ensure your levels are at least normal before you hit the trail. Iron deficiencies aren't abnormal, and some studies suggest 10% of women lack appropriate levels of this nutrient. If you have a healthy diet odds are that you consume the recommended daily intake.
6. Avoid alcohol and caffeine
Don't shoot the messenger on this one. I'm not saying I don't have a flask with me when I'm hiking up a mountain, I just make sure I've had a chance to acclimate before sipping on grandpa's cough medicine. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics so they can inhibit your body's ability to absorb water which can worsen the effects of altitude sickness. Focus on that beer after the hike to keep you motivated.
Altitude sickness is normally mild and temporary, but if you start to experience confusion, difficulty balancing, extreme shortness of breath, and/or severe coughing you might be experiencing cerebral or pulmonary edema and you need to get medical treatment for this. We all love to play in the clouds, but we don't want to be down for the count while we are up there. Prepare for the change in altitude and hopefully you have the trip of a lifetime.
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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.