As a traveler, it is important to know how to prepare for high altitude. In the last 15 years or so, I have been traveling in high altitude a number of times, particularly in the Andes Mountains in South America. Over the years, I got better at preparing for high altitude hiking and traveling and I wanted to share my best tips from my own experience and all the advice I have been given.
I have had varied experiences with high altitude. I have taken high altitude bus rides, done high altitude hikes, and climbed high mountains or volcanoes. I have sometimes climbed too fast. So I know how it feels to be properly acclimatized, but I also know how it’s like to not be acclimatized, and trust me it’s not fun at all!
In this guide, I will do my best to explain what is happening when you climb too high too fast, how to plan your travel itineraries taking altitude into consideration, how to prepare for hiking in high altitude, among other things.
Of course, I may be a seasoned traveler but I am not a doctor. If you have any doubts or medical questions please ask a doctor! I chose to write this page in a “frequently asked questions” style, so you can quickly find the answers you are looking for. Without further ado, let’s get started!
What Is Considered High Altitude?
When it comes to hiking, altitudes ranging from 8,000 to 13,000 feet (2500 to 4000 m) are generally considered high altitude. Above 13,000 feet / 4000 meters above sea level, it can be considered very high altitude.
And indeed, every time I climbed a high mountain or volcano, I did feel like an invisible limit at 13,000 feet, above which hiking gets markedly harder.
What Are The First Signs of Altitude Sickness?
First of all, let me tell you that according to my experience, every person reacts to altitude differently. Some people are much more sensitive than others and gets altitude sickness at much lower altitudes than others. And it seems to have nothing to do with age or gender or origins. The only way to know how you body reacts to altitude is to go at high altitudes.
Typically the first symptoms are a headache, sometimes with nausea. If your body reacts relatively well to altitude and don’t climb too high, these should be the only symptoms you will have.
What Does Altitude Sickness Feel Like?
If you go for a hike or a trek in high altitude without being properly acclimatized, you may feel things like:
- Nausea / vomiting
- Fatigue / low strength, low energy
- Heart beating fast and strong
- Feeling breathless
- Loss of appetite
My very first high altitude experience was during a trek in Peru, and I wasn’t very familiar with altitude sickness and acclimatization issues. On the second day of the trek, I had to climb at high as 15,000 feet / 4600 m, and had many of the above symptoms. I had zero appetite, was constantly short of breath, had absolutely no energy, and my headache would not go away. It was really awful. Luckily, on the next day of the trek, the altitude was significantly lower and the symptoms vanished.
Of course, the higher you go, the more severe these symptoms can get, sometimes forcing you to go back down before it turns into something very nasty such as a Pulmonary Edema.
All these symptoms are caused by the lack of oxygen. At higher altitudes, the barometric pressure (the presure of the air around you) is lighter, and the oxygen is less available. This is what “thinner air” means. The concentration of oxygen is lower, and as a result you take less oxygen when you breathe in.
How Long Does It Take To Adjust To Altitude?
It usually takes 1 to 3 days. Your body needs to react to the lack of oxygen. In your blood, it’s the red cells that carry oxygen to your organs. In order to adapt to a lesser amount of oxygen, your body needs to increase the amount of red blood cells to carry more oxygen.
That’s also why your heart typically beats faster at high altitude, pumping more blood (and red cells) than usual, trying to make up for the lack of oxygen. Besides, people living in high altitudes like in the Andes, typically have a higher amount of red blood cells.
How To Practice and Prepare For High Altitude Trekking?
There are a few things to take in consideration. The general and more important thing though, is to climb slowly and gradually.
If you are training at sea level or at a low altitude, your training should focus on aerobic exercices, such as running, cycling or swimming. If there are hills and slopes you can climb, it’s even better. The goal is to improve your body’s effectiveness of consuming oxygen. I personally do a lot of speed walking and a some swimming, in order to remain in shape for my next trek.
When traveling, as I was saying, it is important to climb gradually if you can. If you are planning a high altitude hike, it is a good idea to go for smaller hikes at lower, medium altitudes. This way, you will encourage your body to gently adapt to higher altitudes and produce more red blood cells, without going high enough to trigger altitude sickness.
This is commonly done when you go for big, very high treks such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for example. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply the same principles even for more modest hikes.
What Should You Eat at High Altitude?
High altitude poses a nutrition challenge because you tend to burn more calories, but your appetite tends to decrease.
In high altitude, you should heavily rely on carbohydrate-rich food. This includes pasta, rice, potatoes, bread, quinoa, bananas, among others. Carbs should make up at least half of your food intake for any given meal in high altitude.
As your body is actively producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen around, it will need a lot of iron. Therefore, it can helps iron-rich food like meat, eggs, salmon…
Since your appetite might not be great, it is recommended to eat smaller portions, but more often.
Another big recommendation is to pay attention to drinking enough water. It is true for any hike, but even more true in high altitude. Up there, the air is much drier and leads to dehydration more easily.
What Should You Not Eat at High Altitude?
Let’s start with what not to drink. Avoid alcohol! Not only the effects of alcohol are stronger in high altitude, but it also messes with the transport of oxygen in your body, and leads to dehydration. So in high altitude, it is really working against your acclimatizing body.
As for food, you should focus on quality food and quality calories. Unlike energy bars, biscuits and chocolate bars are not really quality food.
Tips For Hiking In High Altitude
My best advice is really to listen to your body. When we are used to hiking at sea level or lower altitude, we are used to walking at a certain pace. When you start hiking at high altitude for the first time, you naturally go at your usual pace, quickly getting out of breath and exhausted!
It is important to remember to go slow. At very high altitude, you will go very, very slow. One step at a time. It’s perfectly normal. Hiking up there is a real physical challenge.
Another piece of advice is to have a good mental preparation, on top of the physical one. Trust me, when you are climbing a high mountain, your body just begs you to stop. Then it’s all in your mind. Going with a strong mindset and determination can really make the difference between finishing a high altitude hike or not.
You can read about my experience climbing the Rucu Pichincha volcano in Ecuador, not properly acclimatized. It really was a struggle and it is my determination that allowed me to reach the top.
That said, it is also really important to know yourself and not push yourself beyond your limits. If you feel you really can’t make it, don’t hesitate to go back down. Don’t take inconsiderate risks with your health.
How To Prevent Altitude Sickness When Traveling? How To Plan Itineraries in High Altitude?
You already have quite a few good tips on this page on how to prepare for high altitude hiking or high altitude travel in general. But let’s talk about the planning of the trip itself, the itinerary.
As much as you can, try to climb gradually. It is the best way to be perfectly acclimatized when you need it.
For example if you are going to Peru, avoid flying directly from Lima at sea level to Cuzco at 3400 m above sea level. I did that once and got a big headache the whole evening. Instead, go from Lima to Arequipa (2800 m), then Cuzco (3400 m), and finish at Lake Titicaca (3800 m). It is just an example but you get the idea.
At least, make sure to spend a couple days at a medium altitude before going for a high altitude hike.
High Altitude Hiking Gear
It is of course important to be well equipped when you go for a challenging hike.
- You should always wear good quality hiking boots and make sure you break them in perfectly before your hike. Hiking up there is already hard in itself, if your shoes are painful it’s just impossible.
- Take a good daypack to bring some food and water with you, a drinking bladder can be a useful addition to easily remain well hydrated.
→ You can read our complete guides to hiking daypacks and North Face backpacks.
- You can also bring hiking poles if you think it can help you.
- At higher altitudes, the sun is often strong and it can be a good idea to bring a cap or a hat, along with sun block.
- It is always a good idea to bring a warm fleece jacket, and a wind breaker.
That’s it for this list of 10 frequently ask questions about how to prepare for high altitude hiking and travel. I hope things are clearer for you after reading this, and I hope this advice was valuable to you as you are preparing your next trip.
High altitude hiking is often challenging but always highly rewarding! I know they are part of my most amazing travel experiences.
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