“The mountains are calling and I must go…” – John Muir
Humans have been drawn to mountains for centuries. Perhaps out of curiosity of the unknown, or pure fascination with something so much larger than ourselves, mountains have long inspired humankind to get out and explore.
Whether you find yourself hiking, climbing, skiing, or driving in the mountains, if you don’t take time to prepare your body, you may find yourself experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness.
If you are preparing for a hiking trip, backpacking, or skiing trip and will be spending time in higher altitudes, read this article to learn how to prevent and treat altitude sickness.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, is a group of general symptoms that range from mild to very severe and is brought on by quickly ascending in altitude. This can be by hiking or walking, driving up a mountain or flying to a ski resort. It happens because the body doesn’t have enough time to adapt to the change in barometric pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes.
Altitude Sickness Symptoms
Altitude sickness can range from mild to severe. Altitude sickness will generally set in within 12 to 24 hours of arriving at high altitude and will gradually lessen as the person gets used to the altitude. The symptoms of mild altitude sickness are headache, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and a general loss of energy.
Who is at Risk for Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness can happen to anyone who travels between low and high altitudes without giving the body time to adjust, or acclimate. Any altitude over 8000 feet above sea level has the potential of causing altitude sickness symptoms in an individual.
- High Altitude: 8,000-12,000 feet above sea level
- Very High Altitude: 12,000-18,000 feet above sea level – Pike’s Peak in Colorado is 14,115’, Mt. Everest Basecamp is 17,600
- Extremely High Altitude: 18,000 and above
Denver, Colorado sits at 5,000 feet above sea level, while the Grand Canyon in Arizona is 6,600 feet above sea level. Coastal cities are very near sea level (or below).
The more rapid a climb to higher elevations means more of a risk of developing altitude sickness symptoms. If you are hiking into high altitude for an extended time or are taking a skiing trip, there are precautions you can take and ways to relieve altitude sickness symptoms.
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
Acclimatization is a process that involves slowly helping the body adapt to the changes that come with being at higher altitudes. You can help your body prepare for these changes by taking it slowly and allowing yourself to gradually get used to the difference in air pressure and oxygen levels.
- If possible, starting below 10,000 feet and walking or hiking into higher altitudes helps your body adapt because of the slower pace.
- When hiking in altitudes above 10,000 feet, do not gain more than 1,000 feet in elevation per day.
- “Climb High, Sleep Low” – if you go over 1,000 feet per day above 10k feet, go back down for sleeping at the 1,000 feet mark. Allow rest days every 3-4 days.
- If symptoms develop, move to a lower altitude
- Drink a lot of water – 3 – 4 quarts per day
- Increase carbohydrate intake
- If you have flown in to a higher altitude, allow your body to acclimate over the first couple of days. Take it slowly, drink plenty of water, and eat more carbs. Do not over-exert yourself.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco and barbiturates
Knowing the symptoms of altitude sickness is essential in treating them and preventing them from getting worse. If you notice signs of altitude sickness that are not improving, return to a lower altitude.
How to Relieve Altitude Sickness
Mild altitude sickness is uncomfortable and the main treatment for this type of altitude sickness is going to a lower altitude.
Other treatments for mild altitude sickness include over-the-counter medicines for headache, rest and supplemental oxygen. If you have ever been in an area popular for mountain tourism, you may have even seen oxygen bars or oxygen canisters sold in convenience stores. Supplemental oxygen can be “flavored” and may help relieve mild symptoms of altitude sickness.
Natural Remedies and Medications for Altitude Sickness
- Stay Hydrated. Humidity is lower at higher altitudes. You will also be breathing faster due to the lower oxygen content and being at high altitudes can have a diuretic effect. All of this causes you to lose much more water than normal, so staying hydrated is absolutely essential in preventing and managing symptoms of altitude sickness.
- Eat More Carbs. Carbs require less oxygen for the body to digest than fats and protein. Even if you have a lessened appetite due to altitude sickness, make yourself eat. Your body needs the energy at high altitudes.
- Deep Breathing. Breathing slowly and deeply at high altitudes can help the body boost cellular oxygen levels.
- Drink Ginger or Peppermint Tea. If you find yourself feeling nauseous from altitude sickness, drink warm ginger or peppermint tea. Ginger has long been used to help with nausea, and peppermint helps with digestive systems.
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness While Traveling
While there are many ways to prevent and treat symptoms of mild altitude sickness, the overall best strategy is to take it slow. Allow your body to acclimatize and don’t overexert yourself. If you are preparing to summit a mountain, spend many days at high altitude or a similar trip – you need to be as prepared as possible!
- Take it Slow
- Drink More Water
- Climb High, Sleep Low
- Eat a diet heavy in carbohydrates
Unexpected altitude sickness can really take the fun out of an adventure. Take these tips and plan accordingly!