How to Adjust to Higher Elevations

November 18, 2014

For peak baggers and summit seekers, not much can rival the thrill of a little high altitude hiking, but acute mountain sickness (AMS) can quickly turn the high of adventure into a serious downer. Headaches, loss of appetite, nausea and even vomiting are common symptoms of people who head upward too quickly, and sometimes AMS can turn into a real medical emergency. If you’re a flatlander new to high elevations or even a mountain resident ready to take your hike a little higher, follow these tips for proper acclimation and discover why life really is better at the top.

Arrive early

If you’re flying or driving into an area with a higher elevation than the one you live at, plan a few buffer days before your hike to give your body time to adjust. Try starting out at a lower region and gradually making your way higher if possible.

Drink up

Dehydration is a very real danger even on regular hikes, so it’s especially important to stay well watered at higher elevations where the drier climate means your body requires more water than usual. Sip continuously during your buffer days, and stop often during your hike to rehydrate.

Slow your row

Just like you wouldn’t start a marathon out by running at full speed, a high-elevation hike requires some pacing. During your buffer days, try going for a light jog around town and take note if it feels more challenging than normal, then adjust your speed accordingly.

Protect yourself

When you hike at higher elevations, make sure to slather on sunscreen with at least a 35 SPF rating. Keep in mind that the glare from ice and snow can injure your eyes, so sunglasses are a must. Since you’ll be less protected from the elements above the tree line, plan on packing windproof layers and warm clothing, even in the middle of summer.

Ditch the buzz

Caffeine and alcohol can have a greater effect on your body when you’re at a higher elevation, so limit your consumption of both before your hike. If you do indulge, make sure to drink plenty of water to counteract the effects.

Don’t snooze and lose

Try to make base camp below 10,000 feet before summit attempts to promote restfulness and take it easy on your body. A good night’s sleep is essential to your success.

Ascend gradually and know when to turn around

Once you hit 8,000 feet above sea level, climb slowly and stay alert for AMS symptoms like headaches and nausea, taking note if they start to worsen. At 14,000 feet, less than half of the oxygen available at sea level is present. If you start feeling sick, begin your descent immediately. Sometimes a few thousand feet can make the difference.

What are you tips for adjusting to a higher elevation?

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