Altitude sickness is commonly written about as though it is the only negative thing that can happen to you at high altitude. It isn’t, though at extreme altitudes, it can be life threatening.

Altitude sickness is usually not an issue at heights of less than 12,000 ft. There are exceptions to that though, often involving pre-existing health conditions, or lack of caution in increasing elevation.

Altitude sickness can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, breathlessness, and can be severe enough to flatten you. If you have symptoms, it is likely that they will get worse if you continue to climb, and they should not be ignored. Traveling alone can be extremely risky, because if you become disoriented, you may not be able to take action to help yourself.

At lower levels, 6-8000 ft, people sometimes mistake dehydration for altitude sickness. Since you exhale and perspire so much more moisture even at those levels, many people neglect to drink enough water, and find themselves seriously ill because of dehydration. At the first signs of symptoms, increase your fluid intake. Sip water (not other drinks), don’t chug it. Just keep getting water into you. If the problem is dehydration, it should improve. If it does not, then you need to move back down to a lower altitude.

When ascending to a higher altitude, doing so slowly can help your body to adjust better. There is a point beyond which the human body can no longer adjust, but it has amazing power to compensate, if you give it the time to do so. It can take 2 months or so to fully adjust to a higher altitude though, so any adjustment you make on the way up a mountain is done by increased heartrate and breathing, and temporary vascular changes, and not in the same way that long term adaptation occurs.

The rules are:

  • Go slowly. Make changes from one altitude to another slowly so your body can compensate as successfully as possible.
  • Bring plenty of fluids, and drink frequently.
  • Don’t move so fast that you overtire yourself.
  • Eat frequent carbohydrates to provide easily accessible energy.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other substances that can interfere with good delivery of oxygen in your body.
  • Make sure that if you take medication for breathing issues, or for circulatory issues, that you maintain regular dosages as recommended by your doctor. This is not the time to forget to take your meds!
  • Pack layers of clothing so you can help to regulate your temperature. Maintaining a comfortable layer of clothing can reduce the amount of work your body has to do to heat or cool.