When hiking at a high altitude, the air contains less oxygen, making it more difficult to breathe. This is why some hikers will say the air is “thin.” Because of this added strain on the body when exercising at altitude, there is specific training needed in order to achieve optimal performance and safety on the trail.
The higher you ascend, the more serious the risks become. The main risk many people worry about when considering a trek to high altitude is developing mountain sickness, or altitude sickness. The signs and symptoms of acute altitude sickness can sometimes develop at elevations as low as 2,000m, or6,560 ft. While there is no way to totally prevent the possibility of developing altitude sickness, there are several measures to take to better prepare yourself for a low oxygen environment.
In order to train appropriately, it's important to understand where "high altitude" begins. While the effects of high altitude can be felt as low as 5,000 feet, most hikers don't experience symptoms until they reach 10,000 feet. With each stride, many hikers will notice their body working harder to supply oxygen to muscles, and may develop a minor headache. These early signs are crucial to keep an eye on, but are not critical in most cases. Your body requires time to acclimate to the lower pressure and less oxygen as you ascend. However, when the body is not given enough time to acclimate and early signs of altitude sickness are ignored, this is when hikers can get in trouble.
When the body is not given enough time to adjust to the environment, the shift in air pressure, and the lack of oxygen, altitude sickness can arise. This is what happens when you rise to high elevations too quickly. Even if you allow yourself time to acclimate, altitude sickness can occur. Everyone is different, and anyone can fall victim to altitude sickness, even if you've previously spent a lot of time at high elevations without incident. Nausea, headaches, lack of hunger or thirst,loss of coordination, difficulty breathing, confusion, and vomiting are all symptoms of altitude sickness. You can avoid altitude sickness if you recognize these warning signals early on.
Three types of altitude sickness can strike hikers and climbers of all fitness levels. These include:
AMS AMS is the mildest form of altitude sickness, and it might feel a lot like a hangover. You can get a headache, feel nauseated, or be fatigued. If you experience any of these symptoms, be aware that they may indicate a higher risk of developing HAPE or HACE.
HAPE When liquid seeps into your lungs, you may experience HAPE, which feels like you've lost your breath. It's also likely that you'll cough up a frothy foam, indicating that it's time to turn around and descend as swiftly as possible.
HACE HACE produces incoordination and disorientation. If your speech is slurring and you are stumbling, you may be on the verge of passing out and must descend immediately.
Increase your cardio and endurance training - It's a good idea to increase your cardiovascular training for at least a few weeks or months before attempting to hike at high altitudes, particularly if you are traveling from sea level. Although a high level of fitness does not guarantee you will not develop altitude sickness, a stronger cardiovascular system at the start will help to be able to handle the added strain of thinner air.
Increase your water intake - At altitude, staying hydrated is critically important, and will require higher volumes of fluid than at lower elevations. Drinking water before, during, and after are all important for staying hydrated. It’s a good idea to gradually increase your daily water intake in the days leading up to your climb to allow your body to adjust to the additional volume.
Fuel your body - Your muscles are burning more energy, and your body will require more calories and water to perform effectively at high altitudes. This is not a conducive situation for dieting. Fill your backpack with high-calorie snacks like jerky, chocolate, hard candies, and other high-carbohydrate foods.
Practice breathing exercises - Deep breaths are more efficient than shallow breaths because they provide your body more time to efficiently exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, which slows your heartbeat and stabilizes your blood pressure, which is particularly beneficial at high altitude. It can also help you relax on the trail if you become anxious, which is a common side effect of shortness of breath. Deep breathing can be done alone or in a guided setting such as a yoga class. Practice deep breathing by lying down on your back and taking long, slow breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Try making your exhales feel deeper than your inhales, and picture yourself breathing all the way down into your abdomen and base of the spine.
Slowly increase elevation during training - Start with lower peaks and easier hikes. Your base elevation will depend on the are you live and what your body is already acclimated to. Slowly increase peak elevations, giving your body plenty of time to adjust as you train. Scrambling trails should be avoided unless you're certain you're not dizzy. It's tempting to want to climb the highest mountain on the first day, but keep the best for last!
Find and maintain a steady pace on the trail- When you're ready to hit the trail, expect something different than your typical hike. Even if you're a frequent hiker, you won't know how your body will react to high altitude until you're there. Pace yourself, and be willing to stop and rest.
Those who have a history of acute mountain illness or are planning a journey with a quicker than recommended ascent rate should consult a physician about taking a preventive medication such as acetazolamide. These medications can lower the likelihood of developing acute mountain illness or lessen the intensity of symptoms. If this is something you want to consider, arrange an appointment with your doctor to go over the risks and benefits.
Never travel at high altitude alone, as hikers will need to look out for each other to spot the signs of altitude sickness. Look out for the following symptoms which could suggest that someone is struggling:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
Once the symptoms are identified, it is advised to rest and avoid further travel. The body may acclimate to altitude, and if the symptoms go away, the person can resume their trek. Keep things simple by following this four-step plan:
Stop, relax, and allow the individual to fully recuperate.
Continue to climb but descend immediately if the symptoms return.
If problems persist for 24 hours, descend to a safe area where medical help is available.
Seek medical attention immediately if your breathing becomes difficult, your response levels drop, or you cough up any unusual fluid from your lungs.
Trekking and climbing at high altitudes can be an incredible experience. You not only get to be in the mountains, but you also get to see the wonderful cultures of some of the most remote towns on the planet. If you're looking for a nice place to go on your next high altitude hiking excursion, consider these options:Mt Kilimanjaro Machame Route - 6 day trek,Mt Kilimanjaro Machame Route - 7 day trek,Everest Base Camp Trek, or9-Day Inca Trail and Rainbow Mountain!
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