The dangers of altitude cannot be overstated. Hiking over 2438 meters puts your body in an atmosphere much different than what you have evolved for near sea level. At this elevation, the air holds less oxygen and your lungs, heart, and blood, struggle to transport enough to the brain. This is a dangerous situation and one that all hikers must prepare for when attempting high altitude hiking.
The Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness can vary from mild to extreme. The symptoms can be measured in degrees of severity. It is important to be in tune with your body and know how to respond to the warning signs. Whenever you are hiking in high altitude areas, it is important to take precautions.
Mild Altitude Sickness
Shortness of breath is the first symptom people will experience. Because it is so mild, many attribute this symptom to their physical exertion climbing the mountain. As you climb higher, you will discover that it becomes harder to move at a pace you are used to. Slow it down, and let your lungs work overtime to absorb oxygen from the thin air. Slight headaches may also be a sign of altitude sickness.
What you can do
- Drink water. Drinking plenty of water will keep your body hydrated which is important, even more so while experiencing altitude sickness. With less oxygen in the air, it is essential to compensate and keep the rest of your body operating at full speed.
- Take a break. By stopping your hike at frequent intervals, it gives your body more time to catch up and disperse enough oxygen through your bloodstream. No need to strain yourself and cause more problems.
- Slow down. Your motor functions will be impaired and it is important to slow your hiking. While suffering symptoms, there is a higher probability of slipping off rock faces and falling.
Breathing will be difficult and the need to stop and take breaks will increase dramatically. When suffering from altitude sickness, take your time climbing up the mountain. More severe symptoms will begin to manifest and lightheadedness is a cause for concern. Your vision may also be compromised and flashes of light could cloud your periphery. Headaches are another symptom, it is the physical pain of your brain being starved for oxygen. Nausea becomes a real cause of concern and some hikers will vomit.
A loss of appetite can be dangerous, especially on strenuous hikes. Being in a calorie deficit will make physical exercise harder, making a hiker more prone to injury.
When suffering from altitude sickness, it will be harder to sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night and experiencing intense waves of nausea can prevent a good night’s rest. Being tired will exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness and make hiking that much more dangerous. Listen to your body and get rest when you can.
What you can do
- Stay hydrated. When your body is struggling this much, it is important to maintain your liquid intake. If you are experiencing nausea and vomiting, your chances of dehydration become greater.
- Hike slow. For every 3 steps taken, take a 30-second rest. This will keep you moving forward while at the same time giving your hiking a uniform pattern. Creating rhythms and small goals to work towards will help keep you keep one foot in front of the other. It is a good idea to create routine for your oxygen-starved brain to focus on.
- Sleep if you can. Hike fewer miles in a day and spend the night in a town or a campsite. By allowing for more time in the altitude zone, your body will have time to acclimate and prepare for more hiking the next day.
Severe Altitude Sickness
Partial blindness and excruciating headaches will cause hiking to be nearly impossible. People suffering from severe altitude sickness can lose control of motor functions and mental controls.
The skin will turn a pale shade of white and the body will begin to shut down. Nausea will be extreme and any food in the stomach will most likely be expelled. When suffering from severe altitude sickness it is imperative to retreat to lower altitudes, death is a very real concern at this stage.
What you can do
- Get down fast. The only way to mitigate severe altitude sickness is to drop down to lower elevations. Help those suffering to turn around and go back down. Death can occur from these symptoms and no hike is worth dying.
- Oxygen tanks. Breathing pure oxygen can work wonders for severe altitude sickness. It pumps the blood full of O2 and will help someone suffering regain motor functions. There is a reason mountaineers use oxygen, the human body is not evolved for low oxygen situations.
Other Ways of Dealing with Altitude Sickness
Because altitude sickness has been around as long as humans have, there are quite a few non-traditional methods to combat altitude sickness. Some of these may work, others may only be a placebo effect. The following list is based on first hand observations but in no way am I making claims that should hold the same weight as doctor recommendations.
The following anecdotes are from personal experience and how each method affected my own hiking. The methods listed have all worked to some degree and I encourage you to keep an open mind about altitude sickness while traveling. From my own experience, I never suffered a permanent negative side effect from any of the following methods.
Altitude Sickness in the Andes Mountains
The second tallest mountain range in the world, the Andes are home to some of the tallest mountains on the planet.
The Altiplano is the world’s second-highest plateau, only Tibet has a greater elevation. In Bolivia, the city of La Paz sits at over 3600 meters in elevation. Lago Titicaca is located in high altitude as are many cities in Peru, including Machu Picchu.
What I’m getting at is that this part of the world has been dealing with altitude sickness for thousands of years and their methods should be highly examined.
The Coca Leaf
Illegal in the United States because of its ability to be turned into Cocaine, in South America, it is quite common. In countries like Bolivia and Peru, local people carry large bags of the leaf on them and chew it throughout the day. It is so common that I was able to buy large quantities from every market I visited.
It is part of the culture and should be embraced if you are traveling to this area of the world. The coca leaf is also turned into candies and teas, allowing for easy consumption in any situation.
You chew the leaves by the handful. Keep the leaf material balled up in the corner of your mouth and let your saliva slowly break down the fibers. This allows for the active chemicals to enter your bloodstream and affect your brain like a stimulant.
Helping with Altitude Sickness
While driving across the Altiplano in a jeep, I was overcome with altitude sickness. It was hard for me to breathe, my vision was clouded, and I felt extreme nausea, coupled with a pounding headache. The Chileno people I was sharing the jeep with noticed the signs of altitude sickness and immediately offered me some coca leaf candy.
Within minutes, I was able to stare out the window again and breathe normally. The effects were fast and immediate, it was incredible. Whenever I felt the onslaught of symptoms, I would simply pop another candy. I would not have made it through the drive without vomiting if it wasn’t for the coca leaf.
Another anecdote about the benefits of coca leaf is based on my experience of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. The Salkantay pass was 4638 meters and the effects of altitude sickness were extremely apparent. Having learned about the coca while crossing the Altiplano, I brought along a large bag of the leaf for the trek. Chewing it the entire time, I never stopped while climbing the pass. It was incredible, I was a superhuman hiker.
I continued to use the coca leaf for the hike into Machu Picchu as well. Once I started chewing the coca leaf, I experienced no negative effects of the altitude. I credit the coca leaf for allowing me to climb so quickly in the high elevations of Peru and I highly recommend using it on your travels.
Effects of Coca Leaf
Once the leaf hits the tongue, almost immediately, the inside of your mouth will go numb. You will feel a rush of energy, similar to a large coffee. The numbness is not unpleasant and you quickly become accustomed to it. The more you chew, the greater the stimulant effect is. If you want to feel more of an effect, chew a larger amount of leaves. Old-timers will pop in humongous handfuls of the leaf, more than I ever did.
I never experienced any kind of come down because of the leaf nor any addictive temptations. I did stop chewing it after leaving the high altitude cities of Peru and had no withdrawal symptoms.
The only negative I can point to is extreme gas and the increased need to poop. Because it is a leaf, the human digestive system cannot process the fiber and it ends up causing bloating and unpleasant diarrhea. After a couple weeks of surprise bathroom emergencies, I stopped chewing it.
Altitude Sickness in the Himalayas
The highest mountain range in the world, the local inhabitants of the Himalayas are very adept at dealing with altitude sickness. Mt. Everest, standing at over 8848 meters is the world’s tallest mountain. Its corresponding base camp, 5364 meters, is a higher elevation than most mountains on the planet.
With high altitude towns and a culture dating back thousands of years, the people in this part of the world are truly altitude experts.
A common hiking mecca, the Himalayas offers incredible hiking. Do not let the fears of altitude prevent you from journeying to this amazing place. The locals have an ingenious method for dealing with altitude sickness.
Every guide and sherpa agrees garlic soup is the ultimate remedy for altitude sickness. Whether it is because of a specific type of garlic, or garlic in general, I do not know. Whatever the reason, I am acutely aware that it does indeed work. Simple and tasty, this amazing remedy offers a truly radical way of healing the afflicted.
On my own hike to Everest Base Camp, I became severely affected by the altitude. I was having problems walking, my vision was blurred, terrible nausea and headaches became overwhelming.
Stopping at an inn for the night, I ordered a large bowl of garlic soup. After eating it, I slept for a solid 12 hours and woke up feeling refreshed. I practically ran the trails in the following days.I attribute my success health to the garlic soup.
I wish I could tell you more about why it worked or the reasons behind it but I don’t have that information. All I can say is that it worked for me and I never suffered any consequences from it. On a side note, garlic soup tastes pretty damn good after a long day of hiking.
Altitude Sickness in North America
North America has its fair share of high-altitude locations. The city of Denver is nicknamed the “Mile High City” because of its elevation of 1609 meters. Even at this height, elevation sickness is a real cause for concern and many people’s vacations are ruined because of it.
It’s not only Colorado that is home to high elevations, California, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, even Alaska and Canada all have high altitude hiking. Unlike South America or Nepal, the local remedy for altitude is very different.
Hiking into the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas can exasperate altitude problems and it is important to take the necessary precautions. These are some gorgeous terrains and it would be a shame to suffer instead of enjoying the scenery. Here are some tips if you plan on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Marijuana is a proven method of combating altitude sickness. Legal in most Western States, getting your hands on some will be extremely easy, even if you are a foreigner. Originally from the Himalayan mountains, marijuana contains a myriad of psychoactive chemicals that leaves the user feeling happy and “high”.
With the help of selective breeding and public acceptance, the Western United States has become the epicenter of marijuana ingenuity.
There are a few different methods of ingesting pot.
The most common way of ingestion is to smoke the herb after it is dried. This makes packing it for a hike easy to do. Simply roll a joint and bring your altitude solution with you.
It can eve be made into candies and oils, allowing for hikers of all types to find an easy way to ingest it. Marijuana’s ability to help with altitude sickness makes it a hiker’s best friend.
Helping With Altitude Sickness
The major chemical, THC, is given most of the credit for negating altitude sickness. Smoking the plant will overload the cannabinoid receptors of the brain and help in preventing headaches, nausea, and even fatigue. It is so good at preventing these symptoms that medical marijuana is prescribed to patients who suffer chronic migraines, nausea, and pain.
From my own experience, I can attest to marijuana’s medical abilities while hiking in the high altitudes of Colorado. After climbing a peak and experiencing lightheadedness and fatigue, I sat down and smoked some weed I had picked up in Denver. After a few minutes of toking and enjoying the views, I completely forgot about any altitude effects. The rest of my hike was extremely blissful and relaxing.
I wish we had the data as to why it helps but the restrictive Federal Government bans all scientific research on Marijuana. If you are nervous about using marijuana on a hike, feel free to do your own independent research.
The negative effects of marijuana include laziness, hunger, and temporary short-term memory loss. Compared to altitude sickness or even the negative effects of alcohol, Marijuana is a relatively safe way of self-medicating while hiking. I highly recommend it and if you are visiting the United States, feel free to indulge.
Hiking Tips in High Altitude Terrain
The solitude and breathtaking(pun intended) views of extreme elevation hiking make dancing with altitude sickness worth the risks. There are other dangers associated with this style of hiking. Mitigating as many as possible will make dealing with altitude sickness easier and safer.
- Sun exposure. Being so high means the atmosphere is thinner and tree cover is non-existent. The thinner air makes the sun’s rays even more powerful and it is important to cover yourself from UV exposure.
- At high altitudes, not only is the sun more powerful but water supplies are few and far between. Carrying enough water and staying hydrated needs to be a priority on any high altitude hike.
Enjoy the spectacular scenery and the once in a lifetime hikes high in the mountains. Take precautions and deal with altitude sickness in a way that is healthy. Remember to take it easy and as always, have fun.
Hope to see you out there!