Hiking at high altitude isn’t any big deal if you are used to it, but if you are unaccustomed to either hiking, or high altitude, you need to make some extra preparations.
If you live up here all the time, then you’ll be used to the available oxygen levels. If you don’t, then you’ll have to remember to slow down and take it easy, along with the other precautions.
The rules for hiking up high take into account several factors that you might not consider if you live down low:
This is perhaps your most important element! Take twice as much water as you think you need, because dehydration is more of an issue at higher altitudes. People exhale and perspire twice the amount of moisture at 6000 ft that they do at sea level. Higher up, the difference is even more extreme. Dehydration is more common than altitude sickness at moderate altitudes, so if you feel funky, sit down and sip water.
It gets colder at night at high altitude. Temperatures tend to be more extreme, with huge differences between day and night temperatures. If you intend to be out all day, bring layers of clothing because the temperatures can fluctuate radically. If there is a chance that you could get caught out, bring emergency matches and a compact shelter.
Higher altitudes normally mean more wind. And there are fewer trees, or none at all, so shelter is not going to be easy to find if you need to get out of the wind for a while. Wind, combined with sun, or lowered temperatures, can be brutal. 60 MPH winds are commonplace. The wind chill factor is nothing to joke about. A high wind on a sunny day in midsummer can bring on hypothermia very quickly, and in winter, you can get frostbite between the car and the rest stop.
The sun’s rays are not filtered as much, so even when they feel less intense, they are, in fact, more intense. Cool days, cloudy days, and even stormy days can have a high risk of sunburn. Bring lip moisturizer, and sunscreen for exposed areas of skin if you are not used to high sun exposure. Bring along sunglasses also, especially if you are going to be around snow. Cloudy days at high altitude can actually be harder on your eyes than sunny days, because there is often more glare. Be especially careful of babies and children – a sun hat is not enough! Reflected light alone up here can sunburn fair skin even when it is in the shade!
Exertion can cause shortness of breath very rapidly even at moderately high altitudes. It can be aggravated by high winds, cold air, and rapid changes in elevation.
People tend to minimize the risk of hiking, especially if they are on vacation and are not really aware that they traveled as high as they did. At Martin’s Cove (a Mormon Trail Historical Site), there is a small emergency cabin halfway up the trail – and the entire trail is only 2.25 miles long one way! This tells you though, that even on a short trail, if people are unprepared, they do get into trouble.
So take it seriously. Usually when trouble starts, it goes from bad to worse very rapidly, so pay attention to the first warning signs, and slow down, warm up, cover up, or drink up. Acting quickly at the first sign of trouble can avert a disaster, and keep your trip fun, and just as awesome as it ought to be.