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Hiking at High Altitude

By touring - Posted on 19 August 2010

All hikers know that the higher you go, the better the view. But hiking at high altitude can be dangerous to some people. The thin air and reduced air-pressure can make some hikers experience altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness occurs when a person does not receive enough oxygen to satisfy the needs of the body. The respiratory and circulatory system does not work as efficiently when the body is not used to the lower oxygen concentration in the air. At higher elevations, muscles can get starved of nutrients and the waste products may take longer to be removed.

Symptoms include dizziness (not good when on a mountain top), nausea, vomiting, dizziness and in some serious cases, fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) and swelling of the brain (cerebral edema).

Hiking at High Altitudes in the mountains
Hiking at High Altitude in Kananaskis, Alberta

Any person travelling to a higher altitude is susceptible to altitude sickness, especially when going above 8000 feet. Even people in good physical shape can experience shortness of breath and longer recovery times when going through a 4000 foot change. For example, a traveler going from Montreal (elevation 187 feet) to Calgary (elevation 3740 feet) experiences a 3553 foot jump as soon as they step off the plane.

It takes the body a few days to acclimate to the lower concentrations of oxygen in the air. People of any fitness levels can suffer from altitude sickness, but hikers who smoke, have respiratory problems or are prone to dizziness should take extra precautions.

"Acclimatization is critical," agrees Rick McCharles, an avid Canadian hiker who's hiked to the base camps of Mount Everest and editor of . "I've never experienced any severe symptoms on my trips but have witnessed hikers who rushed the ascent in severe distress. The worst I've seen was a tourist from Quebec stranded at Everest Base Camp north (5000m). Fearing he would die, we tried to haul him down the mountain in a wagon. Happily, an emergency evacuation vehicle finally arrived."

Here are some tips to making safer and easier:

  1. Realize that bodies need to time to adjust. Take it easy, slow down and don’t charge up the mountain. It’s easy to become exhausted when you’re body isn’t efficiently processing oxygen. Don’t be embarrassed to take longer breaks to recover.
  2. Drink lots of water since you’ll be expelling more water vapor from deep breathing and perspiration. Dehydration can quickly creep up on hikers leading to muscle cramps, reduced energy and even mental confusion which only compounds the problems of hiking at altitude.
  3. Take the easy route up the mountain. Instead of charging up a steep incline, try taking the switchbacks. You will walk a longer distance but you’ll still conserve more energy. Remember, humans can not scale peaks like mountain goats.
  4. Listen to your body and don’t ignore what its saying. Watch for the signs of altitude sickness and dehydration and immediately stop for a break. Don’t over-exert yourself because you still need energy to safely make it down the mountain.
  5. Fit people may actually suffer from altitude sickness more than others. They may push harder and over-exert themselves quicker than someone who takes frequent breaks.
  6. Get a good night sleep at the higher altitude. Give your body some time to recover and adjust to the new elevation, especially when .

Breathing at High Altitude

Hikers who travel to new destinations don’t have the luxury to acclimate to the sudden change in altitude. When , the best way to avoid altitude sickness is to realize that your body does not work as efficiently in thin air, drink plenty of fluids and to take it easy.

Check out other .

Hiking Waterton National Park - Atop of the Bear's Hump

Get more insider tips on Canadian Adventures at Scenic Travel Canada.

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