A few ways to cope with Altitude

If your goal is to hike above 7,000’ elevation, you may be wondering how your body will handle the reduced atmospheric pressure and hence the feeling of less oxygen when you are at altitude. Below are some tips that you arm yourself with to try to prevent altitude sickness or cope with it once you start experiencing the onset of symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness.)

  1. Hydration – Always stay hydrated on any hike, but particularly those involving travel above 7,000’ elevation. Drink before you get thirsty, as thirst usually occurs only after you are already dehydrated. This means try to drink at least 6-8 ounces every 30-45 minutes on hot summer days when you are going uphill carrying a heavy pack. Camelback hydration systems can be helpful in always having a water source nearby. I use the Platypus Big Zip from MEC. At elevations above 10,000’ be sure to have an insulating tube to protect the Camelback from freezing.
  2. Thermoregulation – keep watch on your body’s core temperature as extreme perspiration can sap your energy faster than you realize. Dress in layers so you can discard or add clothing to stay comfortable as you hike.
  3. Eat regularly – Whether you feel like it or not, you must keep eating. Your body works hard to go uphill and carry extra weight; if you are traveling at altitude the stresses on your body are even greater and you probably will feel less interested in food. Include carbohydrate drinks beverages such as Gatorade. Have some trail mix handy so you have ready access to your main fuel source: carbohydrates.
  4. Pressure Breathing – Learn how you can use and benefit from this technique any time you start to feel a bit nauseous above about 7,500 feet. Since the atmospheric pressure changes the higher you go, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the oxygen you need into your lungs. By pursing your lips and exhaling forcefully and fully, you let the carbon dioxide in your lungs escape, allowing for a more ready exchange with oxygen in the “thinner air.” At the first sign of nausea, take some water, switch to pressure breathing for a few paces, and incorporate the Rest Step and you will in all likelihood start to feel a lot better.
  5. Rest Step – Anytime you start to feel a bit nauseous, you may want to transition into the “rest step,” a method of hiking that allows the skeleton to take the brunt of the weight rather than the muscles. Lock out the bottom leg as you shift one leg up hill, pause in a full rest position, then transfer the weight to the other leg, lock out the new bottom leg and pause. In this way you avoid the “hurry and wait” gait of inexperienced climbers and find a comfortable rhythm that you can sustain indefinitely.
  6. Slow your pace – In order to enable you to continue steadily, listen carefully to your body and be sure to start out a little slower than you normally go to warm up well and hit your stride. If you try to push it to keep up with the fastest member of your party you may not make it to your goal. In the case of altitude climbing, the tortoise usually outpaces the hare in the long run, but the key is to go at a slow and steady pace that enables you to go continuously with very few rest stops.
  7. Acclimatize – The best way is to ascend slowly. Your body needs time to acclimatize to a higher altitude.
  8. Aspirin or Tylenol –Many climbers have found that at the onset of their high-altitude climbs, taking some aspirin or other pain-relief medication as a preventative measure against headaches can be beneficial.
  9. Proper Conditioning – Be sure to include interval training, appropriate over-weight pack hiking, and strength training in your conditioning program .
  10. Altitude medicines – As a last resort, if you have had trouble at altitude in the past or you wish to be prepared for any scenario, talk to your physician about a prescription for appropriate high-altitude medications (such as Diamox). Gingko biloba is a supplement that some people have found to be effective as well.

Also see

Altitude Symptoms