High Altitude Tips
Base Camp Everest - Kathmandu, Nepal
You may be on a trip at high altitude, like Everest Base Camp, Kilimanjaro or Dead Woman’s Pass (Inca Trail) to name a few I have done, and you struggle for a breath. Your body increases your respiration rate in an effect to bring in more oxygen. Altitude sickness is known to set in at heights as little as 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) above sea level. You can overcome this by slowly inducing your body to higher altitude environments to let your body adjust to the decreased air pressure and decreased oxygen intake.
There are serious risks involved with high-altitude trekking including altitude sickness, acute mountain syndrome and pulmonary edema, which I got when doing Everest Base Camp on the way back down, all of which can result in death. The drop in barometric pressure decreases the amount of oxygen intake in each breath you take. To compensate for the decrease in oxygen, your body’s natural response is to breathe more rapidly in an attempted to take in more oxygen.
Here are a few tips and breathing techniques to work with your lungs rather than against them:
One way to compensate for a decreased intake of oxygen is to slow down your breathing rate. Increase the depth of your breaths. Breathe slow, deep and inhale until your stomach expands.
This technique is to increases the amount of carbon dioxide as you exhale. It may allow for easier oxygen exchange in your lungs. Purse your lips together and forcefully exhale.
Because evaporation occurs more quickly at higher altitudes, you may not notice the amount of fluid leaving your body. Be sure to keep up your fluids and start every day with a minimum of 2-3 litres of water.
Eat more carbohydrates when trekking at high altitudes. Carbohydrates requires less oxygen than protein to metabolise in your system.
Before going on a high-altitude adventure, you need to train your body to work efficiently and effectively in environments with less oxygen. This may seem hard since you may not live in a country, like myself, that offers less oxygen environments.
Begin training at least two months in advance. This could be as simple as walking around the block on a daily basis or starting at the gym.
See your doctor for a medical check in the early training stages to ensure that high-altitude trekking is safe for you. At this stage you may need to ask about any travel injections required for the destination you’re travelling to.
Go on long hikes as often as you can. Start gradually increasing the distance and altitude, if you can, of your hikes with each week or month of training so that your body and lungs can become accustomed to functioning at increased levels of altitude.
Participate in intense training. On the odd occasion do an intense training session. This will help your cardiovascular system by elevating the heart rate significantly and then allowing it to recover for a period before elevating it again. This prepares the cardiovascular system to deal with the stress of limited oxygen levels. The training may consist of running sprints, running hills or using the treadmill or exercise bike. Each week slowly increase the intensity and the distance.
Work on developing a breathing rhythm and deep breathing. Your ability to control your breathing and expand your breathing capacity will come in handy when the oxygen supply is reduced. For myself, I focus on my breath and my stepping rhythm. Whenever you begin to feel breathless, stop and concentrate on taking deep breaths and then begin to take smaller steps until your normal breathing pattern returns.
Altitude sickness can start at any stage no matter how fit or unfit you are, or how young or old you are. Some tell tale signs of the onset of altitude are symptoms of dizziness, headaches, nausea, tiredness, nosebleeds, insomnia and shortness of breath. These can proportionally worsen if you continue to increase in altitude.
Here are a few simple precautions you can take to ensure you fully enjoy your treks.
Rest. If you are have just arrived in a city where you have travel from a lower elevation. Allow time to acclimatise to the higher altitude. Your body will adapt to the high altitude over time.
Avoid exercise or exertion on the first day you arrive at your high altitude destination. You can gradually increase your activity levels after that.
Pay attention to how you are breathing. Less oxygen is in the air so you might experience shortness of breath, wheezing or coughing. If you do, move to a lower altitude as quickly as possible, rest and seek medical attention.
Drink lots of water. Drinking water is the best way to acclimatise your body to the altitude. Before travelling I usually get into the habit of drinking 2 litres a day of water and while trekking insuring I have a minimum of 2-3 litres in my water bladder each day.
Drink little to no achohol or coffee while at high altitude. Alcohol and coffee dehydrate your body even more in dry conditions and make you more prone to altitude sickness. Alcohol also has stronger effect at high altitude. Two months before I leave for a trek, I wean myself off all alcohol, coffee and soft drink in preparation.
Apply sunscreen, wear sunglasses and a wide brim hat. I may look dorky when I’m dressed on my treks with my floppy wide brim hat but it protects me from the suns rays. These sun-related precautions are necessary in high altitude because the thin atmosphere filters less of the sun’s rays.
Apply lip balm and skin lotion. At high altitudes your skin will dry. I always carry a lip balm in my pocket and apply when my lips start to feel dry. Getting a lip balm with SPF is ideal, even though it usually turns your lips white.
Dress in layers. The temperature can fluctuate dramatically and quickly in high altitude locations. Do your research ahead of time to ensure you’re aware of what weather you may expect while your travelling. While on treks I always wear long zip off pants, a long sleeve light weight shirt and a under shirt that soaks up any sweat that may be produced.
Monitor your body’s response to any medications you are taking. Some drug effects can change at altitude. Before leaving, discuss drug side effects with your doctor.
Travel with someone else you trust, especially at high altitudes, so you can monitor each other for any signs of altitude sickness.
In conclusion, if your looking for adventure in high altitude locations there isn’t much you can do to prevent the likelihood of getting altitude sickness but you now know the signs and some steps to assist you or someone you're travelling with if it does happen.
For all trekking trips be sure to have Travel Insurance that covers you for high altitude or helicopter rescue. From experience it is worth the extra few dollars.