By Kristen Seymour on November 4, 2021 in Travel
Mountain getaways offer scenic drives, breathtaking vistas, and otherworldly hikes. However, something can throw a wrench in your high-elevation plans: altitude sickness.
Destinations located 8,000 feet or more above sea level put you at risk for altitude sickness, however some travelers experience it at even lower elevations. While it’s a huge bummer to miss out on an exciting itinerary because of altitude sickness, it’s more than just a nuisance: It can be dangerous. Keep reading to learn more about altitude sickness and discover tips to help you enjoy your high-elevation vacay.
What Is Altitude Sickness?
Less access to oxygen leads to altitude sickness, which is also known as acute mountain sickness or hypoxia, and it can affect anyone — yes, anyone — who’s not acclimated to the elevation. Young people are more likely to experience altitude sickness, but when older people get it, it’s usually much more severe. Have plenty of experience at elevation? Don’t get cocky. Although it’s less likely, altitude sickness can affect you even if you’ve bagged other peaks without a problem.
Even more irritating is the fact that your level of physical fitness doesn’t make a difference, so although you can do some workouts to improve your cardio in preparation for strenuous hikes, you can’t exercise your way out of hypoxia. It’s not about strength. The real issue is whether your body can adjust to a low-oxygen, low-pressure situation; if it can’t adapt and remains in a state of stress, your organs can begin to swell, including the brain and lungs.
So, what does all that feel like? Well, it can feel like a bad hangover. If you’re hit with altitude sickness, you may experience any (or all) of the following, in varying levels of severity ranging from mildly inconvenient to downright dangerous:
- Trouble sleeping
- Shortness of breath
- Reduced appetite
Factors That Contribute to Altitude Sickness
Don’t cancel your high-altitude vacation! You’re not doomed! You can control some factors that contribute to your likelihood of developing altitude sickness. Plus, once you understand these factors, we’ll offer tips to help you steer clear of altitude sickness.
The higher you go, the lower barometric pressure becomes, and the greater your likelihood of getting sick. However, the altitude that causes problems may vary depending on where you live. Someone who lives in a city a few feet above sea level, for instance along the Gulf Coast of Florida, is far more likely to feel the effects of high elevation than someone who lives at 5,280 feet in Denver.
Rate of ascent
We know, you only have so many days of vacation, and you want to get there already. However, acclimatization, or the process of acclimating to high elevation, takes three to five days. By taking an extra day for acclimatization every 3,300 feet, you’ll reduce your risk of altitude sickness, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Duration of exposure
Day-trippers are less likely to have an issue than those who ascend rapidly and stay there. Sleeping at elevation, in particular, increases your risk of getting sick.
Avoiding strenuous exercise for at least the first 24 hours at elevation is a wise choice. Remember, elite athletes swear by altitude training for a reason. It’s hard!
Tips for Traveling to High-Altitude Destinations
While it’s important to understand what causes altitude sickness and the factors that increase your risk of experiencing it, it may be even more important to have some tangible strategies to feel your best on your vacation. Keep the following in mind as you plan and embark on your next mountaintop adventure.
Plan your trip with your home elevation in mind.
You can’t control the elevation of your home or destination. However, you can take the elevations into account when you plan your trip. For instance, if you live at sea level, it’s a good idea to take maximum precautions and schedule some rest days to help you acclimatize.
Driving is easier on your body than flying, so if you can stop and rest overnight for every 3,000 feet you climb, even better. Keep in mind the “climb high, sleep low” philosophy if you camp or backpack. Even if you hit a high point during the day, it will help if you can descend to catch some Zs at a lower elevation to allow your body to better recover.
Of course, if you’re out on an epic hike or backpacking trip, sticking to a smart rate of ascension will be tricky unless you plan ahead. Ideally, avoid climbing more than around 1,000 to 1,600 feet in a day, and take a rest day for every 1,900 to 3,000 feet you climb.
Hold off on hard exercise.
Give your body time to acclimatize to the altitude before doing strenuous exercise. As mentioned, it’s best to take it easy for at least a day when you get to a high altitude. According to the CDC, it may take three to five days to adjust. Remember, exercising too much too soon at a high elevation won’t just affect your performance, but also your risk of altitude sickness. If you’re a flatlander, don’t expect to run your usual marathon pace at high elevation, even if you’ve had time to acclimate.
Sure, you may need to make a few more pit stops than you’d like but trust us: Hydration is your best friend. Sip extra water even before your trip. Consider hydrating with a drink with electrolytes (such as coconut water or a sports drink) to help you hydrate like a pro. If you prefer to stick to plain ol’ H2O, that’s fine; just don’t be shy. Between the drier air in high-altitude locations and your exertion, drink about twice as much as usual to keep yourself feeling good.
Eating carbs, in particular, can help stave off the sickness because you don’t use as much oxygen to digest carbs as you do fats. Your high-altitude trip isn’t the time to cut calories, so eat up!
Skip booze; drink coffee.
Avoid drinking alcohol or using tobacco and certain medications such as sleeping pills during your first 48 hours at altitude. Coffee and tea, however, are a different story; if you regularly enjoy a caffeine fix, continue doing so.
Talk to your doc.
A medication may help prevent severe altitude sickness. If you believe yourself to be at high risk — for instance, if you’ve had a previous experience with hypoxia, have a chronic medical problem such as heart or lung disease, or need to ascend more rapidly than is recommended — consider asking your doctor about a prescription for acetazolamide. It’s not guaranteed to prevent altitude sickness and can’t help you once you develop symptoms, but if you use it ahead of time, it may be helpful.
Know the symptoms and take action.
Most importantly, remember that if you or someone you travel with experiences symptoms, you need to act fast. For mild altitude sickness, staying put or moving to a lower altitude will likely do the trick, and the symptoms will lessen on their own.
However, if you experience severe symptoms, such as coughing that won’t stop, chest tightness or congestion, an inability to catch your breath, double vision, confusion and trouble walking, or a change in skin color to a blue, gray, or pale hue — get to a lower altitude as quickly as you can safely manage and seek medical attention. If left untreated, severe altitude sickness can cause fluid to build up in the lungs and brain, which can be fatal.
While it’s true that a gorgeous view from a summit you’ve worked hard to reach is hard to beat, no summit is worth your health. Plan as you prep for your high-altitude getaway, be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness, and take precautions. By following these tips, you can stay healthy and keep looking forward to more mountain adventures in your future!