HOW TO PREVENT ALTITUDE SICKNESS WHILE HIKING
So many of us have experienced it before: the dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, and headaches that hit you like a wave when you’re way up there. This nagging feeling can ruin ski trips, derail hikes and for some people altitude sickness can be risky. Despite the fact that we know what it is, the real question is, how do we avoid altitude sickness altogether?
This was a question I asked myself as I was preparing for my Everest Basecamp Trek a couple of years back that would take me to heights above 18,500 feet.
A little planning and some good preparation can go a long way in helping you have a fun and successful outdoor adventure that doesn’t involve the spins. Although, we can’t promise it’s a remedy for the “altitooties” (it’s a real thing, trust us). Our goal is to help you get out there with knowledge on how to avoid altitude sickness. In case you’re needing some inspiration, check out these 20 inspirational Everest Basecamp hike images from my trip.
If you’re planning on high altitude adventures, like Everest Basecamp, Machu Picchu, or summiting Mount Whitney, read on to find out the best tips and tricks for how to prevent altitude sickness.
What is Altitude Sickness?
In his article, the ABC of Altitude, Dr. Andrew J. Peacock explains that altitude or mountain sickness is your body’s physical response to lower air pressure while in an area of higher altitude (elevation) more quickly than your body can adjust. This makes it difficult to intake oxygen and may cause sickness for some. Dr. Peacock also does a little myth busting saying, while most people assume that high altitudes = less oxygen, that is not entirely true. High altitudes have the same amount of oxygen but lower air pressure—AND it’s the low air pressure that makes it difficult for us to take in the oxygen, thus spurring on those annoying symptoms.
The higher you go above sea level the worse the physical and mental symptoms can become, which is why it does vary depending on the location.
There are three categories of elevated altitude in which adventurers can experience altitude sickness symptoms & difficulties:
- High Altitude: 8,000 – 12,000 feet
- Very High Altitude: 12,000 – 18,000 feet (To give some context the summit of Mt. Whitney is 14,505 ft. & Everest Basecamp is 17,600 ft.)
- Extremely High Altitude: 18,000+ feet (Kilimanjaro is at 19,341 ft. & Denali is at 20,310 ft.)
Heading to Everest Basecamp? Don’t miss my packing list!
What are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?
In response to the atmospheric changes, your heart rate increases to try and pump more oxygen throughout your entire body. Think about how much more difficult it is on hikes in higher elevations or ski trips where it feels like you’ve never skied a day in your life!
Common Symptoms of Altitude Sickness Are:
- shortness of breath
- mental fog
Don’t feel self-conscious if you experience any of the following. These are the most commonly experienced symptoms of altitude sickness as your body works hard to acclimatize itself to the new elevation.
Not everyone experiences altitude sickness in the same way, so while others may adjust quickly or only get some of the symptoms, it’s not par for course. Take it easy, monitor how you feel and take your time before going up any higher. Make sure you let your hiking or travel partners know that you are showing signs of altitude sickness, so they can help monitor your condition. It is cause for concern when symptoms persist or get more severe after 24 hours and can lead to serious illness.
If you have lung or heart conditions or are pregnant it’s much safer to avoid thin air. Make sure you talk to a doctor beforehand.
Ways to Prevent Altitude Sickness
There’s only one way to truly prevent altitude sickness and that is, time. The more quickly you climb to a higher elevation the less time your body has to adjust, so the symptoms will be worse if you don’t have a day or two to get used to these conditions. After about 12-24 hours your body can acclimatize itself to the effects of the high elevation. Again, it’s important to give yourself a day or two to adjust before doing any intense physical activity like hiking, skiing or snowboarding. For example, that’s why most people take nine days or more to hike to Everest Basecamp even though the entire trek is less than 50 miles. In these situations, you are already breathing heavier, speeding up your heart rate and pumping more blood through your body. Combine that with a high elevation and you will most definitely be feeling something.
Here are a few more ways to avoid altitude sickness:
- Try walking instead of driving or flying to higher altitudes, the slower pace will give you more time
- There’s a saying, “climb high and sleep low” if you are going up more than 1,000 feet in a day
- When planning your trip, build in rest days in the beginning so that your body can catch up
- Avoid drinking alcohol
- HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE! AKA Drink plenty of water
Read more tips on how to train for long-distance hikes
Ways to Relieve Altitude Sickness When You’re Skiing or Hiking
If you are planning a ski, backpacking or hiking trip in mountains with significantly high elevations planning ahead of time and building in rest periods are the best ways to get back up to speed quickly. Dr. Peacock says it’s better to prevent altitude sickness than treat it. But when you’re dealing with it in real time, there are still plenty of ways to manage symptoms and acclimatize more quickly.
Here are some steps for relieving altitude sickness:
- Take deep and slow breaths
- Drink a lot of water to stay hydrated
- Take a rest and return to lower elevation when you can
- Eat plenty of carbohydrates for more energy, professionals recommend a diet of 70% carbs while you are acclimatizing
- Remedies and Medicine to Help Altitude Sickness
The reality is that your body might not be able to cope with the effects of being so high up without a little extra help.
Here are a few natural remedies and medications to consider bringing with you to prevent altitude sickness:
- Advil, Tylenol, and aspirin are recommended for headaches
- Fill a large reusable water bottle and hydrate often but not excessively and add electrolytes to keep your energy levels up. We are big fans of SaltStick tablets or Nuun tablets for strenuous hikes to assist with electrolyte levels.
- The Altitude Research Center suggest taking the herbal supplement Gingko Biloba to help decrease symptoms
- If you are really concerned, talk to your doctor about getting prescribed Diamox, which helps prevent severe altitude sickness
And of course, if symptoms worsen or persist more than 2 days, see a doctor for professional help. In some cases, the only way to relieve symptoms will be descending to lower elevations.
*Disclaimer: And while I shouldn’t have to say it, I’m not a doctor and none of this should be taken as medical advice.