How to Acclimate Yourself for a High Altitude Vacation

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Learn how to acclimate yourself for high altitudes so you can enjoy that skiing or hiking vacation in the high country.

It’s that time of year to plan your ski trip to the mountains or maybe it’s summer and you’re planning on going to the Mountains for hiking and golfing.

Many people don’t consider that higher elevations are different on their body then at lower elevations, and when they first get to the higher altitudes, they start to feel lightheaded and realize they have to take it easy and let their bodies acclimate to the new elevations. Others take acclimation seriously. Many times a professional sports team will get to Denver a couple of days early to become acclimated to the altitude before a game, and the elevation of Denver averages only about 5,300 feet above sea level, much lower then the mountain resorts of the Rocky Mountains. Many of the mountain resorts have elevations above 9,000 feet and you can go as high as 11,000 feet or higher.

The symptoms from altitude sickness also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS) can show up in a person from six to 72 hours after arriving at high altitude and should go away by the fourth day at most.

These are the usual symptoms of not being used to high altitude:

  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Hyperventilation
  • Trouble sleeping at night or frequent waking
  • Weakness
  • Upset stomach

If you get any these symptoms, don’t go any higher in elevation and or go lower until these symptoms go away. These could be normal physiological changes until your body becomes used to the higher elevations or they could be the start of altitude sickness.

More severe symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing even when resting
  • Coughing
  • Confusion
  • Trouble walking in a straight line
  • Vomiting

If you get these more severe symptoms you need to get to a lower elevation and get to a doctor.

How to acclimate yourself to high altitudes:

Following these simple precautions should help you avoid or minimize the effects of high altitude.

  • Stay a day at a lower elevation. I know that when you’re on vacation time is limited and you want to get right at it. If possible stay at a lower elevation for a day or two to get your body used to higher altitudes. For example, staying in Denver or Salt Lake City for a day and a night would be very helpful. If that isn’t possible, stay at the main resort for a day and a night before heading up higher.
  • Even when you get up to higher elevations to start the skiing or hiking, take it easy the first couple of days, don’t over do it and you can enjoy the entire trip.
  • Stay away from alcohol. Having just one drink at higher altitudes is the equivalent of several drinks at sea level. The air is much drier at higher altitudes and alcohol is dehydrating making the mildest of symptoms worse.
  • Drink a lot of water. More then 1 gallon per day. This helps your kidneys flush out the bicarbonates that accumulate due to a higher respiratory rate. You need to stay hydrated at higher altitudes.
  • Eating lighter, increase the carbohydrates and eat less protein and fats.
  • Avoid any medication that interferes with your normal sleeping habits such as sleeping pills.

Since it is much drier at higher elevations, this can dry out the mucus membranes of your nose and you could get a mild bloody nose. Using some sort of gel that will keep your nose moist is a good idea. One of the best gels for this is a product called Ayr (pronounced air). You should be able to find it at any pharmacy (it is non-prescription, but you might have to ask for it). Products that are petroleum based such as Vaseline can actually inhibit airflow in the nose and should only be used if that’s all you have. Also bring and use lip balm for the same reasons.

Altitude sickness can hit you one trip and not the next and it varies from person to person, also depending on age and fitness level. Taking the simple precautions listed you should have no problems and enjoy your high country vacations.

 Sam Montana © 28 December 2008

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