8 Tips for High Altitude Hiking
High altitude hiking presents a few challenges such as lower atmospheric pressure and thin air, colder nights, wind and snow at any time of the year, and so intense sun that you need sunscreen and sunglasses or goggles for better protection from the UV radiation. Seasoned hikers know that harder treks require not only enthusiasm but also training and experience. However, these days, many less experienced backpackers take the risk of hiking hard and challenging trails. It’s not a coincidence that so many tourists and inexperienced hikers have fallen from trails or have become incapacitated by severe problems that could have been prevented by adequate training. Moreover, only real preparation for altitude is altitude and sadly for those coming from sea level, they are in an awkward position because there are no shortcuts to acclimatizing for them. Anyway, high altitude hiking poses a challenge to everyone even for those who have experience hiking up in the mountains. However, if you learn some tips and tricks on high altitude hiking and try to apply them, you’ll be much better prepared to face most of the challenges and obstacles that await you at high elevations.
Best tips for high altitude hiking
Let’s start with tip #1:
Be physically prepared
Certainly, to handle altitude, you need to be acclimated and fitness isn’t a huge part of the process of acclimatization. However, you need to be in a good physical shape in order to hike or climb at high elevations, especially if you want to be able to endure strenuous treks.
Now, you probably won’t be surprised hearing that you get good at what you repeatedly do. It’s true of walking in mountainous terrains, just like it is true of running marathons or lifting heavy weights because for endurance in a particular activity the best thing to do is to train a lot in that activity. Sure, running or jogging or lifting weights will be good for your overall fitness, however, actual hiking and more specifically hiking up steep hills over rough terrain carrying a backpack is the best preparation for high altitude trekking.
You can start your preparation by hiking uphill with an increasingly heavier pack. Many experienced hikers prepare by carrying bags full of water that can be dumped on the summit. Start hiking uphill a few months prior to your hiking trip and what’s equally important - do it regularly, say 2-3 times a week. Hiking uphill with 6-10 liters of water (dump it on the summit) and wearing hiking boots or shoes is a good way to get used to the peculiarities of mountainous terrain. For better results, try to do this in all weathers, i.e. don’t skip workouts in bad weather. Hiking in the rain (the terrain softens, reducing stress on knees, joints, and muscles) or snow uphill is a good way to 1) put variety into the regimen; 2) get used to the actual mountain weather conditions, and 3) get used to variable trail conditions. If you can hike a nearby peak or hills, do it without hesitation. Since you’re supposed to do it regularly, measure your times to track your progress. This kind of training will prepare you for most challenges of high altitude trekking. If you don’t have mountains in your area, simulating elevation loss and gain will be more difficult. However, you can substitute running hills for mountain hiking. It won’t be the same but running hills are preferred to running on a flat trail or using an incline treadmill. Keep in mind also that you may experience a noticeable decline in endurance at altitude, especially until your body manages to adapt to the changes in elevation. This is another reason why you should work on improving your endurance.
You may be physically ready, but are you mentally ready for the challenges of hiking up a strenuous trail? This leads to our tip #2:
Be mentally prepared
Consider trekking as an expedition: you’re often hiking alone far from any form of outside help and if something gets wrong, you may have to rely on your self-sufficiency skills. At altitude you’ll have to cope not only with being hungry, thirsty, cold, wet etc. things typical for most long trails but also with:
- Increased breathing rate (hyperventilation)
The rate of breathing is among the adaptations to high altitude. The body increases the breathing rate in order to survive. Ascending to high altitude increases the breathing rate of a hiker. This increases the flow of fresh air past the blood which helps his organism to get rid of some dissolved carbon dioxide.
This is another typical feature of being at high altitude. Kidneys send more water on the bladder as urine, which reduces water retention making blood slightly thicker. Eventually, the body produces a greater number of red blood cells in an effort to increase oxygen-carrying capacity.
High elevations affect sleep as the ability to sleep soundly deteriorates. Apparently, the low carbon dioxide content of the blood causes something strange to breathing during sleep. The result is periods of apnea interspersed with periods of hyperventilation. A small dose of acetazolamide at bedtime may aid your sleep. Prescription sleeping pills may also help with insomnia at altitude.
These physiological changes may not be welcomed, however, you have to get used to them. No doubt, they will affect your psychology too.
Facing dangers can be more daunting at high altitude than at sea level. In case of an emergency, fear and self-doubt can be potentially deadly at high altitude. Though the mountain environment is dangerous, mountain hazards are not your worst enemy but your own poor decision making. That’s why you must learn to stay alert to the possibilities of disaster, heed warnings, and reexamine your decisions in order to manage risk as best you can. In addition, develop determination never to give up. Moreover, in life-threatening situations, your motivation beyond self-preservation can be the key to survival. All these are very important for developing a strong mental resolve necessary to overcome whatever life throws your way.
Know the hazards
As you go higher, you’ll inevitably encounter problems that can vary from annoying but not so dangerous ones to life-threatening situations. For this reason, you must be prepared both physically and mentally for the challenges that await you at altitude. Though this list can be quite long, here are some of the most dangerous hazards in the mountains:
High altitude itself
Altitude sickness poses a health hazard to every hiker. There are three forms of altitude illness - acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) as the last two can be fatal. To minimize the chances of altitude sickness, acclimatize slowly by gaining altitude gradually. If something goes wrong, your best (and sometimes only) remedy is to descend. For more information on the topic, see our post about altitude illness and acclimatization.
Hypothermia, frostbite, and immersion foot are cold-related illnesses that can pose a huge health threat up in the mountains. Hypothermia can be deadly and it actually kills many hikers, climbers, and travelers, while the other two conditions are localized in their effects. Learn more about these conditions to be able to prevent the development of any of them. See our in-depth article on cold, heat, and UV radiation-related conditions.
Heat and UV radiation-related conditions
Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and sunburn are common problems in high elevations. When packing for your hiking trip in the mountains, don’t forget to take sunscreen and sunglasses because you’ll be exposed to more UV radiation than at sea level. Proper hydration through drinking plenty of water, tea, and other drinks (drinking alcohol at high altitude is not recommended) and electrolytes is as important as in summer hiking.
Thunderstorms kill thousands of people in the mountains each year mainly through lightning strikes (many more people suffer burns, nerve damages, eye, and ear injuries). Sure, the chances to be killed by a lightning strike only 10% but by taking some safety precautions, you can reduce this number significantly. The first thing you need to do is to seek shelter. Remember to get away from water, stay away from lone and isolated tall trees, and avoid open valleys and meadows. For a complete list of safety measures necessary to avoid being struck by lightning, see our post about hiking in the rain.
Insect bites or stings
Being high up in the mountains amplifies health risks, in general. Avoid insect bites and stings that can cause an allergic reaction or a disease such as a tick-introduced illness. Some bites and stings can cause a life-threatening reaction.
Did you know that the highest living snake in the world lives in the Himalayas up to almost 5000m? Well, the Himalayan pit viper is venomous and the good news is that bites from this species won’t kill you. However, they aren’t exactly innocuous either. Various effects from swelling, local pain, and blistering to vomiting, nausea, and convulsions can be expected.
As stupid as it may sound, but falls are the most frequent cause of injuries in the mountains as they account for roughly 50% of all hiking accidents. Remarkably, for the period 2006-2014, between 5 and 7.5% of all who have been injured as a result of a fall during mountain hiking trips in the Austrian Alps have died. People between 40 and 70 years of age are often among the most common candidates for a fall.
Table 1: Environmentally related conditions and injuries associated with hiking at altitude
Source: Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills*
Learning from your mistakes and experience in the mountains can be invaluable and would certainly help you improve your decision-making skills. Though mistakes happen, the mountains are often unforgiving of even small mistakes. So your best option is to learn from the mistakes and mishaps of others. Read about accidents in the mountains to learn what can go wrong. Identify the risk factors associated with high altitude hiking and gain an understanding of the mechanisms involved in accidents.
In short, know the hazards and apply the lessons others have learned.
Stay focused and don’t be distracted
After learning the basic risks that await you at high altitude, the most logical tip is to avoid complacency, casualness, and overconfidence. Try to stay focused on the trail as this will help you avoid distractions with potentially serious consequences. Distractions divert your attention from hiking and can come from both internal sources and external sources such as anxiety, sore feet, and fatigue; beautiful mountain views, thinking about a good bivy, being in a hurry or darkness.
First aid kit
Accidents and illnesses can strike you on the trail where you are far away from expert help, so you need to bring a first aid kit to be able to manage emergency situations when needed. The most skillful hikers try to minimize the exposure to risks when traveling in the mountains. Moreover, they know that prevention of injuries is far preferable to treating injuries after they occur. Anyway, serious and responsible backpackers should be trained in first aid. Actual training course should do what books can’t because you can read books on first aid but if you don’t practice and refresh your skills regularly, you cannot be truly competent in first aid.
You can use Table 2 as a guideline to help you in assembling your personal first aid kit.
Table 2: Basic personal first aid kit
Source: Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
High altitudes combined with cold weather make everyone eat and drink less than they should. However, adequate hydration is critical in avoiding altitude sickness as well as heat and cold-related illnesses. Everyone should drink at least four or five liters of water a day. Having said that, try to drink 5-7 liters a day and avoid alcohol and caffeine. You don’t need to get into trouble and that’s what’s going to happen if you drink alcohol at high altitude. There are three serious problems associated with drinking alcohol at high elevations:
- Alcohol has a dehydrating effect (so does coffee) and we’ve already highlighted the importance of hydration.
- Alcohol impairs your mental performance, and you need to stay focused to avoid potentially dangerous situations at high elevations.
- Drinking alcohol for the first 1-2 days at high altitude is not recommended because it could cause altitude illness. The reason for this is that alcohol depresses the breathing plus altitude sickness feels just like hangover so it’s difficult to tell the difference between these two.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to feel thirsty to drink since feeling thirsty means that the process of dehydration is well underway. Moreover, dry air sucks out moisture fast insensibly causing dehydration. Thus, always begin your hiking day well hydrated because this can improve significantly your overall physical performance. Then, on the trail, a balanced intake of fluids is preferable, so try to have drinks (of 200-300ml each) every 20 to 30 minutes.
Bring plenty of tea, hot chocolate, and other drinks to stay well hydrated. Drinking juices at altitude can cause diarrhea so before drinking dilute them by at least 50%.
Calories are important for daily bodily function and activity, however, at high altitude, you may lose appetite. That’s what happens to most people. Unfortunately, up in the mountains, your body needs even more fuel to recover than it needs at sea level. So, make sure you’re eating regularly. Let’s face it, you don’t have to be hungry to eat. However, you have to eat in order to have enough energy for the long and exhausting treks on rough terrain that await you in the mountainous regions.
Start the day by eating a balanced breakfast with carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat in order to properly nourish your body. Divide daily intake into three regular meals with snacks in-between every few hours. If you’re afraid that bland and/or healthy food won’t be attractive enough for you at high altitude, bring whatever you like. Some people bring their favorite high-carbohydrate foods such as dried fruits, chocolate, granola bars, snickers, energy bars, and gels etc., while others prefer eating fatty foods like nuts, jerky or chips. Eating healthy at high altitude is much less important than eating regularly so the choice of foods is really up to you.
Keep in mind that it’s best to carry some bland foods that won’t make you feel sick. Nausea is quite common for people who haven’t acclimatized to high altitude so eating bland foods initially will give your body time to adapt. Once your body adjusts, you’ll be able to eat spicy and fatty foods, if you wish. In addition, the water boiling temperature at 3000m is 90°C and it gets lower the higher you go. This means that cooking time is increased thus it’ll take longer for foods to cook or rehydrate. This will affect the range of meals you can cook.
Get good hiking boots, socks, and gaiters
Having a pair of comfortable hiking boots and good socks (preferably made of merino wool or synthetics) is critical for high altitude hiking. Make sure that the boots are broken in unless you want to risk suffering from horrible blisters and losing toenails. Moreover, the consequences of having new boots on the trail can put an end to your expedition.
When hiking in spring and early summer, you’ll probably encounter deep snow. Bring gaiters as they cover boots and provide water resistance. Good gaiters are perfect for keeping water and debris out of your footwear.
If you follow our eight tips for high altitude hiking, you will be much better prepared to meet the challenges of hiking at high elevations.
Above all, acclimatize well and make sure that you don’t rush the process of adaptation. Remember that this process takes time. Moreover, it varies from individual to individual. A reasonable level of physical and mental fitness combined with regular meals and adequate hydration can facilitate this process without risking altitude illness. The most frequent reason people get altitude sickness is that they ascend too high too fast.
There are many other hazards that await you at altitude. Know the most dangerous hazards at high elevations and be prepared for them. Stay focused on the trail and don’t let distractions divert your attention from hiking.
* In R. C. Eng. (Ed.), Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th ed., 2010, The Mountaineers