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!