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How to Avoid Altitude Sickness


I recently got the following question about how to avoid altitude sickness in my email:

Q: I live in New Orleans which is about 6 feet below sea level. I'm a bit worried about altitude problems on my upcoming trip to the Rocky Mountains. Any advice?

My response:

Years ago I lived in Michigan, not much higher than you (600' above sea level). I traveled to Silverton, Colorado, and camped at 11,500 feet the first night. I woke up nauseous, with a headache and almost hallucinating. In the morning I descended to about 10,000 feet and soon felt just fine. After that I was above 10,000 for the next week and never had any other problems with the altitude. I even went to the tops of five 14,000-foot mountains along the way.

At least a day between 5,000 and 10,000 feet would be a good idea before going higher. But it isn't easy to say what it takes for an individual to acclimatize, since we all seem to handle it differently. Also, it's a matter of time up high before you get seriously ill. You could go to 12,000 feet today and though you might be breathing hard and have a headache, if you came back down later to 8,000 feet you would probably feel just fine.

My first trip up a 14,000-foot mountain was on Mount Shasta in California, and my head was pounding like someone was hitting it. But as soon as I got back down below 10,000 I felt good. Just get lower if you get sick. I copied part of a chapter on altitude from my ebook "Ultralight backpacking Secrets" and included it below. Hope that helps.


High Altitude Illnesses

Acute mountain sickness, or AMS, is common when going above 10,000 feet (3000 meters) without proper acclimatization (a couple days at an intermediate altitude is usually a good idea). The various symptoms include headache, nausea, weakness, shortness of breath, vomiting, and sleeping problems.

High altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE, is rare below 8,500 feet (2,500 meters). It's more common with younger (under 18) hikers and persons who have had the problem previously. Normally the symptoms develop 24 to 60 hours after arrival at high altitude. They include coughing, shortness of breath, weakness, headache, rapid heart rate, and progress to constant coughing, bloody sputum, chest congestion and fever. A resting pulse rate of 110 respirations per minute, respirations over 16 per minute, and a crackling sound in the chest are early signs. Within 12 hours after coma starts, the afflicted person is usually dead.

Cerebral edema, or CE, is less common than AMS or HAPE, but more dangerous as well. Fortunately it's rare below 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). Watch for an increasingly severe headache, instability, mental confusion, hallucinations, loss of vision, facial muscle paralysis, loss of dexterity, and restless sleep. These symptoms are followed by coma and death.

If you primarily pass through high areas for short periods of time (hiking over a pass and then descending), aspirin will help most headaches related to altitude. The primary treatment for all altitude problems is to go lower as quickly as possible. A descent of just 2,000 feet will sometimes resolve any problems. If not, just keep going lower until the symptoms clear up.

Fingers commonly swell at high altitude, but this requires no treatment. It will usually go away when you descend. Gas and flatulence is a problem due to the decrease in pressure. Avoid foods that cause gas if necessary. Also, the higher you go, the worse your ability to digest food gets, so stick to easy-to-digest foods like simple carbohydrates while you're above 10,000 feet.

Often dehydration causes headaches and other symptoms similar to high altitude illnesses. Water supplies can be rare or inconvenient at altitude. You won't necessarily feel dehydrated in the cooler air, so it's easy to forget to drink sufficient water. Start out fully hydrated and try to keep your water bottles full.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | How to Avoid Altitude Sickness