For millennia, mountains have enchanted, inspired, and challenged us. Whether it's the euphoria of accomplishment or the spectacular views at the top, a trip to the world's highest altitudes is always memorable.
Unfortunately, for those of us from lower elevation levels, those high summits can pose physical challenges. Next time you're headed upward, take these five tips into consideration to ensure your well-being and reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
Pack the Right Medication
Many symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headaches, can be managed by common pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. So, be sure to include them in your medical kit. Even if you don't expect to experience difficulties, it's best to be prepared: altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter how healthy or fit you may be.
That said, there are three main types of altitude sickness: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Both HACE and HAPE occur due to fluid in the brain and lungs respectively; they are life-threatening conditions.
If you know that you're particularly susceptible to altitude sickness, you may want to visit your doctor before your trip. There are a variety of prescriptions for AMS, in addition to ones that specifically target the nausea associated with altitude sickness. Medical researchers also advise carrying fever reducers, wound-care supplies, re-hydration packs, and anti-diarrheal medications on a climb.
Most importantly, be sure to ascertain the most effective way of taking your medication (whether over-the-counter or prescription-based), as some forms work as both preventive and corrective measures. For example, your doctor may write you a prescription for Acetazolamide (Diamox), Nifedipine, or Dexamethasone. Diamox accelerates acclimatization, while Dexamethasone reduces the symptoms of altitude sickness. Meanwhile, Nifedipine can reduce the incidence of HAPE from 60% to 10% in at-risk climbers.
Read the instructions carefully: you'll need to take the right dosages at the right times, before and during your climb.
Another potential aid? Additional oxygen, which ranges from a pocket-sized can you can purchase at a gas station to a medical-grade canister that weighs close to 20 pounds. For some climbers, oxygenation may offer immediate relief from acute symptoms and shortness of breath.
Have a Flexible Plan
We've already established that altitude sickness can strike without warning, so the best thing you can do to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip is to be flexible. Know the symptoms of altitude sickness — headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and fatigue — and be ready to adapt your plans if you begin experiencing them.
If you or someone with you has altitude sickness, refrain from proceeding until the symptoms have eased. Sometimes, all that's needed is a day or two of rest at the same elevation before ascending further.
If, however, your symptoms don't improve — or if they get worse — you'll need to descend to a lower altitude or risk developing more severe HACE or HAPE. Note that, if you experience HACE or HAPE symptoms, the optimum solution will be oxygenation and immediate descent, if possible. In all, knowing your limitations and having a contingency plan in place will help keep you safe, should difficulties arise.
Ideally, it's best to begin hydrating before and during your flight. However, the habit becomes doubly important when altitude is involved. Dehydration can increase your risk of AMS, and it can also make the symptoms worse. This means you'll want to make a conscious effort to drink water regularly in the days leading up to your trip, as well as in transit and during your high-altitude vacation.
Of course, if you'll be engaging in physical activities like climbing or skiing, hydration becomes even more crucial. Note that the temperatures are cooler at higher altitudes, so you may feel less thirsty than when you're exerting yourself in the heat.
Also, remember that even if you aren't sweating, your body is losing moisture that needs to be replenished. So, take extra care to stave off dehydration by packing a water bottle or reservoir in your backpack, and fill it up at every opportunity. Unfortunately, however, while water can help prevent altitude sickness, other beverages have the opposite effect — leading us to our next tip.
Avoid Coffee and Alcohol
Both caffeine and alcohol have dehydrating effects on the body, so you'll want to avoid them — or at least cut your intake — a day prior to and for the duration of your trip. Avoiding these two substances is especially important during your first couple of days at altitude, before your body has had a chance to adjust. Failure to do so can increase your risk of altitude sickness and exacerbate the symptoms of AMS, putting a serious kink in your vacation plans.
Many of the symptoms of altitude sickness also resemble those of a hangover, so you'll want to avoid this type of "double trouble" during your vacation. If you do decide to drink, be sure to do it at moderation; keep in mind that the effects of alcohol will be stronger at higher altitudes than at sea level.
Pause at an Intermediate Altitude
The single most important factor in reducing your risk of altitude sickness is ascending gradually and giving your body time to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen in the air. The best way to do this is to spend the night at an intermediate elevation en route to your higher-altitude destination. If you're driving somewhere, this is relatively easy to do.
However, if you're flying directly to a high-altitude airport, you may instead have to give yourself a rest day once you land, before getting out and exploring — or climbing any higher.
If you're headed to Aspen for a romantic winter getaway, for example, you may want to fly into Denver to spend a night there before tackling Aspen the following day. If you're headed to Peru and the infamous climbs of the Inca Trail, give yourself a day or two in Cuzco to acclimatize before embarking on the strenuous trek.
Finally, if your vacation plans involve scaling higher summits, whether the Rockies, Andes, or Everest, try to limit your ascent to no more than 1,600 feet per day. Remember, as well, that sleeping at higher altitudes can exert greater demands on your body than your daily activities. If possible, plan to sleep at a lower elevation level, as you'll benefit from the higher oxygen levels there.