That’s the only time we’ve ever bailed on a hike. We weren’t accustomed to hiking at high elevations, didn’t give ourselves adequate time to acclimate, and were pushing too hard. I’m happy to say that we’re now not only older, but wiser—we’ve since completed many hikes at 9,000 feet and above with no problems, other than a bit of huffing and puffing on the uphill stretches. (In the spirit of full disclosure, we’ve not yet hiked above 12,000 feet, so we’ll see how that goes when the opportunity arises.)
The Effects Of High-Altitude Hiking
Prior to our first Sierra hike, I had never given much thought to the effects of altitude on hiking. I thought that altitude concerns applied only to someone undertaking serious high elevation treks—the Himalayas, for example. I was surprised to discover that anything above 8,000 feet is considered high altitude. Everyone is different, and while some people feel little effects up to 10,000 feet, others suffer at 6,500 feet with symptoms including shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, and insomnia.
You’ve probably heard that the air is thinner at higher altitudes, or that there’s less oxygen. That’s not exactly true. At all altitudes, air contains about 21 percent oxygen, but lower air pressure at higher altitudes makes it feel like there’s less oxygen. That’s what makes high altitude hiking more challenging. For example, at 10,000 feet, your body has only about 14 percent oxygen available—a 25 percent decrease. That’s significant.
A Few Things That Make Hiking At Elevation Easier
Here, for what it’s worth, are the things we’ve found helpful for adjusting to high altitude hikes—and having a good time while we’re at it:
Acclimate! Spend a couple of days at altitude to allow your body to adapt before embarking on a strenuous hike; if possible, begin with shorter hikes at lower elevations. This is probably the most important suggestion of all.
Don’t overexert. I know this sounds simplistic, but if you push too hard, you’ll be miserable on the trail (and afterward). Slow down as you gain elevation, and maintain an even walking and breathing rhythm. On steeper sections, take deeper breaths and smaller steps.
Stay hydrated. Because humidity is lower at higher elevations, you might not feel thirsty—but you’re losing more fluids through increased respiration. Drink 8 to 32 ounces of water every hour depending on the ambient temperature, how hard you’re breathing, and how much you’re perspiring. You’ll feel better in general, and staying hydrated helps prevent headaches.
Snack along the way. High altitude tends to blunt appetite, but your body needs fuel for the journey. In addition to a healthy lunch, we pack plenty of snacks for the trail. Healthy carbs are the quickest-acting fuel source—we’re partial to almonds, pecans, apples, tangerines, and chocolate. Which brings us to the next point:
Indulge in dark chocolate. Dark chocolate not only provides energy, it contains antioxidants called flavanols that improve blood flow (among many other benefits). Make sure that your chocolate of choice contains at least 70% cocoa—the first ingredient on your chocolate bar should be cocoa or bittersweet chocolate, not sugar. Avoid chocolate processed with alkali (a process that removes the flavanols).
Drink black tea. Studies show that caffeine has multiple positive effects at high altitude, including improvement in athletic performance and increased energy. We carry a thermos of black tea (hot or iced, depending on the temperature) to enjoy with lunch. It’s amazing what a little caffeine can do to perk up the afternoon.
Try herbal tonics. One of our daily herbal supplements is a combination of herbal adaptogens (including American ginseng, ashwagandha, cordyceps, eleuthero, and rhodiola). Among many other benefits, these herbs improve endurance. (Our favorite herbal adaptogen tonic is Vital Adapt, made by Natura Health Products.)
Dress in layers. The air temperature drops about 3.5 to 5 degrees for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. It’s astonishing how quickly and dramatically weather can change at higher elevations—more than once we’ve experienced a 20-degree drop in temperature in the course of a hike. Long pants, fleece, windbreaker, hat, gloves—wear or pack whatever you need to protect yourself from the sun, wind, cold, and rain.
Use sunscreen. Even if it’s cloudy, wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a broad-brimmed hat. The sun is stronger at high elevations, snow or light-colored rock intensifies the rays, and there’s no shade above treeline.
Any more tips? We’d love to hear them!
Great post, Laurel:) You mean we shouldn’t have arrived at Great Basin NP and then headed out to Wheeler Peak starting at 10,000 ft and heading to 12,365 ft on the first day!? Haha! It is amazing how you forget about the elevation once you are settled at a higher elevation. Adjusting does make it much easier:)
Pam, I’m amazed that you guys could complete that hike on the first day. That’s impressive! I definitely do better at 9,000 feet and above if I have a day or two to acclimate before attempting a hike with significant elevation gain. If I’m not happy, nobody’s happy, haha!
In 1979 I (R) crossed a 17,000′ pass in the Himalayas with no ill effects. Then in the 90’s, reached the summit of Mt. Adams at 12,280′, while struggling with a mild case of high altitude pulmonary edema. This year, we went to Cusco, Peru and visited Saksaywaman (12K’) with no ill effects. The difference? Himalayas were crossed with many days of acclimatization. Mt. Adams: 1 night at 9K before the ascent. Cusco: 3 days wandering the city and LOTS of coca tea…
What a great story, Riley! You’ve done some serious high elevation hiking — and your experience is a perfect example of how important acclimatization is. I would imagine that coca tea has similar effects to the caffeine in black tea — only stronger.
I just finished a podcast from 60-Second-Science, put out by Scientific American, called “Beet Juice Could Help Body Beat Altitude.” Beet juice contains nitrates which, in the body, turn into nitric oxide. Here’s a link to the podcast and the text of the discussion: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/beet-juice-could-help-body-beat-altitude/
JC, this is excellent information! I knew that beet juice acts as a vasodilator, and it makes perfect sense that it would be helpful for high altitude hiking — or any strenuous activity. Thanks!
Altitude can humble the most fit hiker if they don’t consider its impact in advance…good post!
You are so right, Lisa. I considered myself fit, and was surprised (and humbled) at my first experience hiking above 9,000 feet. It’s the elevation gain combined with altitude that really hits hard!
Spot on Laurel… great advice. During our visits to Rocky Mountain National Park, it never ceased to amaze me with the number of visitors that were totally unprepared or underestimated the altitude and ruggedness of the land.
Ingrid, I’m also continually surprised to meet up with people on the trail who are clearly unprepared — for example, hiking with no water and wearing flip-flops! I guess they haven’t ever been in a challenging situation!
We went to Colorado and I found out that I’m good to 9,000 feet. Above that, just driving through the higher mountain passes, I felt like I was going to die. An elephant was on my chest and not getting up. I couldn’t get out of those mountains fast enough. Morey on the other hand felt fine. Bizarre how that is. I think there is plenty to see below 9,000′. Ha!
Brenda, I think you’re right — there’s plenty to see and do below 9,000 feet! :-) Your experience in the mountains sounds scary, and is the perfect example of how people vary in their ability to acclimate. I’ll bet you were happy to get to a lower elevation.
Great advice Laurel. I agree that acclimation makes any hike above 9000 feet easier. Why push yourself and have less than a stellar time when you can just do some easier hikes first for a day or two to allow your body to get accustomed. If you only have one day to spend in a really high elevation then my suggestion would be rethink that plan.
That seems like a good suggestion, Sherry. It’s amazing how much difference a couple of days makes in acclimating to high elevations.
I was glad to see the reference to 6500 feet “effects” – I feel like less of a wimp now :-)))I’ve let myself get away from herbals and think trying your blend is probably a good place to start for getting back to that extra boost. Great post – thanks for sharing.
Jodee, I thought about you when I was reading about how many people are affected at relatively low elevations. You’re definitely not alone! We really feel a difference in general energy and well-being taking adaptogenic herbs — won’t leave home without them. :-)
cool to hear about tea and chocolate helping. perhaps that’s part of why tea is so central to many high-altitude cultures in asia!?
and tell me more about cordyceps! is it a mushroom? is it interchangeable with ophiocordyceps sinensis (that’s one I’ve been reading about)?
happy hiking! love you both!
Amanda, I had the same thought about tea and high-altitude cultures. And yes, cordyceps is a medicinal mushroom and the same as ophiocordyceps sinensis. (Good reminder for me to add the Latin names when I’m talking about herbs.) :-) Love you!
While we were in Colorado, I’ve read a lot about altitude hiking. Missing on those information are the three that you have mentioned; dark chocolate, tea and herbal tonics.
I have a stash of dark chocolate at home but never carried it when we hiked.
Thanks for this great info, I’ll make a note in case we go hiking above 6500 again.
Mona Liza, I’m sure you’ll be doing a lot more high altitude hiking in your travels. I hope you find dark chocolate, tea, and herbal tonics as helpful as we’ve found them to be. Hope we can do some hiking together before too much longer!
Excellent advice Laurel. I first discovered that I didn’t do well above 10,000 feet when we hiked Mt. Humphrey in Flagstaff. Perhaps I needed to get acclimated a bit more since we drove up from Sedona that morning. Thank you so much for introducing me to Vital Adapt…excellent supplement.
LuAnn, I don’t think too many people do well hiking above 10,000 feet without having time to acclimate first — well, at least I know I don’t. :-) I’m so glad you like Vital Adapt. It’s my favorite herbal tonic.