There are few things more rewarding than reaching the summit of a hike or climb. The views and sense of accomplishment create memories that will stay with you the rest of your life. But this achievement occurs only because you’ve done the hard work, chosen the right climbing equipment, trained for months, and executed the hike or climb successfully.
When it comes to hiking at higher altitudes, where there’s less oxygen and very little moisture in the air, all of this preparation becomes even more important. You could be scaling a small face at 9000 feet or summiting Long Peak in Colorado at 14,000 feet; either way, you’ll need to be prepared to deal with the higher altitude.
Understanding High-Altitude Hikes
If you’ve never pushed yourself at heights greater than 6000 feet, then you need to be prepared for what hiking at altitude can bring. As you travel higher than a mile above the surface of the ocean, the air becomes less saturated with oxygen. This has a significant effect on your aerobic performance, which is most commonly measured by the amount of oxygen the body consumes while performing exercise.
Because these two factors go hand in hand, lower oxygen can wreak havoc on your activity performance. You may be able to walk up an incline with a weighted hiking backpack just fine at 1000 feet, but if you walk the exact incline with the exact weight at the same speed at 10,000 feet, you’ll notice it from your lungs down to your calves.
It may sound silly, but if you’re preparing for a high-altitude hike or climb, grab a road bike and swim goggles. The best way to prepare your body for lower levels of oxygen is to improve your VO2 max—the top level of oxygen your body can consume—which will allow you to absorb more oxygen, and in turn, keep physical output high.
To do this, focus on your aerobic fitness by running, cycling, and swimming. If it’s possible to train above 5000 feet for a climb, for instance, that would be ideal. But if this isn’t an option, there are a few ways to increase the effectiveness of your workout.
1. Find steep hills and hike and bike up them regularly. Your training routine should include doing these activities 3-5 times per week. If the closest hill is still miles away, use the stairs of a tall building or stadium to train.
2. Train with your backpack on and loaded. Even if you don’t expect to be carrying more than a day’s worth of items, do your runs with a hiking backpack carrying more than 20 pounds of hiking gear.
3. Maintain a strong pace when hiking, running, cycling, or swimming, and try keeping your rest breaks to a minimum; this will help get your cardiopulmonary system in shape.
Keep Hydration in Mind
You’ll certainly need to take in more water once you’re at altitude, so it doesn’t hurt to get into the habit early. Once you get above 6000 feet, you’ll notice that you’ll need to urinate more often—a natural response to being that high. With the air much drier at these levels, moisture will get sucked right out of you much more quickly.
When training, get used to drinking large amounts of water before, during, and after. One of the best ways to do this is to invest in hiking gear made strictly to help with hydration, such as water bladders and hoses. These help you sip (better to sip than gulp) and keep track of the water you’ve drunk. With the exertion, dry air, and altitude, you’ll need to drink more than twice the amount you usually do.
The Right Supplies
You’ll need to take a few specific pieces of outdoor gear if you’re hiking at altitude. Sunscreen is essential, as the sun’s rays pack more of a punch as the air gets thinner. Any time you’re above tree line, winds can get much fiercer, so the right outer shell can keep you comfortable.
If you plan to do any cooking on a stove, be sure to use a liquid-fuel model. As you go up in elevation, the pressure inside a regular gas canister can drop, leaving you without any fuel.
Beware of Altitude Sickness
Any time you climb above 8000 feet, you run the risk of suffering from altitude sickness. While the ultimate goal is to keep this illness away entirely, it’s good to know the signs. The most common symptoms include headache, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and sleep problems. More serious effects include fever, dry cough, brain swelling, and other complications.
All this said, if you train correctly, drink enough water, ascend at a pace your body can handle, and have all the right hiking equipment, you can lower the chances of these symptoms setting in, ultimately making your climb or hike safer and more enjoyable.
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