Here's how to deal with high altitude sickness while enjoying the great outdoors.
We love the mountains. There really is no better place to get out and enjoy the majesty of nature than when you're up at high altitude in the snowy peaks looking down at the world.
The only thing we don't like? The symptoms of altitude sickness.
Altitude illness can be quite jarring if you've never experienced it before. We'll tell you how to combat these symptoms and continue enjoying your outdoor adventures where there is less oxygen.
What is altitude sickness?
Many people get a rude wake-up call from altitude sickness when traveling to higher elevations for the first time. I've only experienced it once myself and that was on top of Pikes Peak (14,100-feet above sea level) in Colorado. I was fine on the drive up the mountain, but the second I stepped out of the vehicle, the symptoms hit me like a Mack truck.
I had shortness of breath, dizziness and I felt light-headed. I ended up going into the little restaurant they have at the summit and getting something to eat and some water. It helped tremendously, but I didn't truly feel better until I'd descended a few thousand feet.
The medical term for altitude sickness is acute mountain sickness or AMS. You want to exercise caution when talking about this because AMS can sometimes lead directly to an acclimation of fluid in the lungs (high-altitude pulmonary edema, aka: HAPE) or even high-altitude cerebral edema or HACE, which is a swelling of the brain. In many cases, those last two ailments can be life-threatening.
Basically, altitude sickness is what happens when someone acclimatized to lower elevations makes a rapid ascent to a higher one. Your body is dependent upon oxygen to function and at high elevations, the air is much thinner.
To put it more plainly, high altitude illness isn't really an illness in the traditional sense. It's your body struggling to compensate for low oxygen levels.
Symptoms of altitude sickness
The symptoms of acute mountain sickness are going to vary from person to person. But severe cases of AMS can affect anyone regardless of their health of physical condition. Some people liken altitude sickness to a hangover in that it can cause headaches. It can also cause a shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, nose bleeds, swelling of the face, hands or feet and an increased heart rate.
When I was on top of Pikes Peak, I experienced the fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath of breath symptoms. Those are relatively mild symptoms, but everyone is different. Some of my friends who were there with me experienced totally different symptoms. Loss of coordination and a feeling of breathlessness seem to be the more common ones you are likely to experience.
What you really need to watch for is the signs of severe altitude sickness. If you or someone in your camping or hunting party is experiencing a shortness of breath when resting, an increased breathing rate, wheezing or coughing, fever, severe nausea or vomiting, these could be signs of either HAPE or HACE. Drop what you're doing, descend immediately and seek medical attention. No outdoor adventure is worth ignoring these severe symptoms.
Prevention and preparation for altitude sickness
Fortunately, you can avoid (or at the very least tone down) the unpleasant symptoms of AMS with a little preparation. First off, do your research. Are you planning a backpacking trip into the Rocky Mountains? Research your route. Find out what elevations you'll be experiencing along the way.
If you're going on a backcountry hunting trip for elk or bighorn sheep, you'll want to train for months to get yourself in the best shape possible because these animals, especially the sheep, often climb high up to elevations of 7,000 feet or more!
However, I should note: physical condition isn't everything. In a previous job, I was a sports writer covering an NA3HL hockey junior team in a Wyoming town with an elevation of around 5,000 feet. Most of the players came in from out of state and were in peak physical condition at 18-21 years of age. Elevation acclimatization and build-up of stamina was a big focus for new players who had just arrived in town. Most of the players I talked to said it took some getting used to when their coaches made them run up a mountain!
Most people will experience at least a mild shortness of breath around that 5,000-foot mark when doing something strenuous like hiking. However, I interviewed many players who struggled their first few games until they finally got used to it. Keep in mind, these players were 16-20 year-olds in prime physical condition. Symptoms can affect anyone!
Most people really begin to experience symptoms around the 8,000-foot mark where the air pressure really starts to drop.
If you're going on a hunting or fishing trip with a guide (something we highly recommend), ask your guide about the elevation and altitude side effects. Chances are these men and women are totally acclimatized to the elevations themselves, but they've probably had clients in the past who have gotten sick. They will know what to do.
But you have to do your part too. Avoid sleeping pills or any other medications that can make you drowsy. And we know you're on vacation, but experts recommend avoiding alcohol consumption immediately upon arrival at a higher elevation. This is because it tends to dehydrate faster. Save the celebratory drinks for after you've got an animal on the ground, or you've descended the hike!
Speaking of dehydration, this brings us to our next point. Drink water. Lots of it. A loss of oxygen means your body must work harder and it will burn through the fluids it needs to function faster.
One big way to avoid symptoms is to book extra days before your outdoor adventure begins. If you're visiting the Colorado Rockies to hunt elk, it's not a bad idea to spend one night in Denver (around 5,000 feet) before you start climbing to higher altitudes. When you do start hunting or hiking go slow and ascend slowly at first. Remember, you don't need to conquer the mountain on day one!
Symptoms are often exacerbated by trying to do too much at once. We know it's hard to not push yourself on day one when you hear that bull elk bugling over the next ridge, but sometimes you have to pace yourself, especially high up in the mountains!
Checking with a doctor and using certain medications
We know it's inconvenient, but if you're going to be dropping thousands of dollars on the hunting or fishing trip of a lifetime, it's worth covering all your bases. A visit to your health care provider is never a bad idea, especially if you have other medical conditions that may be worsened by thinner air. There's nothing worse than losing a day or more to debilitating altitude symptoms. Or worse, to have to cut your trip short to visit a hospital because you didn't consider all your risk factors. Especially if you've always lived at a lower altitude and have never ventured into the mountains before.
In some cases, you can get a prescription for drugs typically used to treat high blood pressure. Some often-prescribed medicines include Nifedipine, Acetazolamide (aka: Diamox) or Paracetamol to treat symptoms. There are also over-the-counter options. You'll get varying opinions on the effectiveness of the store-bought options, but there are now some being offered by outdoor retailers like Cabela's. Look for these medications in the camping section.
Some people like to use simple pain killers like Advil (aka: Ibuprofen). It may take some experimentation to find what works for you, thus why we again recommend a day or two of rest at a higher elevation before your real adventure begins. Trust the medical advice of a professional and you should be good to go.
No matter what medication you choose, taking along some is a good idea. These won't take up a ton of room in your pack or tackle box and you'll be glad you have them when the symptoms strike.
Tips specific to camping days at elevation
If you are planning to camp at higher elevations, there are some specific things to do that will help keep your trip as pleasant as possible. For one keep your rate of ascent reasonable. You don't need to conquer the mountain on day one! Ever wonder why Mount Everest has a base camp? It's for the climbers to acclimatize to the extreme elevation BEFORE they go up.
Here in the continental United States, most hiking and camping trips at elevation aren't going to be that extreme and no, you don't need a bunch of supplemental oxygen tanks to go. Although, we did discover supplemental oxygen is for sale on big commerce sites like Amazon. You probably don't need to go that extreme route. Bringing along oxygen is something usually reserved for only the most extreme elevations.
Old-school mountain climbers have an interesting saying to keep in mind when spending multiple days at elevation. It's "climb high, sleep low." What they mean by that is that is to increase your sleeping height no more than 1,000 feet in a day. If you ascend that far, make sure you descend to a lower altitude to set up camp. Again, this just helps with acclimatizing your body to the changes.
Speaking of trips lasting several days, hydration becomes extremely important. Bring along quality water purification tools. Water purification tablets and something small like a lifestraw isn't a bad idea either. Rationing water at elevation just isn't a good idea. You may get too sick to get off the mountain in an emergency.
A little preparation and a little common sense.
As I can attest to personally, altitude sickness is quite unpleasant. But by taking some of the precautions we've outlined here, prevention of acute mountain sickness is possible. Remember to use common sense and always err on the side of caution if you're uncertain. Don't try to over-exert yourself and if the symptoms look life-threatening, make an immediate descent.
Properly preparing will make sure your high elevation camping, hunting or fishing trip is as pleasant as possible.