How To Deal With High Altitude Sickness?

Most of our adventurous trips in the past involved hiking, ranging from recreational to strenuous hike at different altitude, such as 11,372′ Eagle peak in Yellowstone, 12,171′ hike to Muktinath in Nepal, the 14-ers in Colorado and the highest one we attempted was trekking to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, at the elevation of 19,341′ (5,895 m). 

The challenges we faced during hiking/trekking at high altitude mountains were high altitude sickness symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, drowsiness and headache.  Our bodies and brains reacted slower as we hiked higher to the altitude due to the lack of oxygen.  One unpleasant condition I came across over and over again was indigestion, bloated stomach, shortness of breath, and headache.

As an individual who enjoys outdoor activities, my body was in a fit condition.  In the preparation for the strenuous trekking trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, I trained on step master 3 times a week for an hour.  I had weight training 2-3 times a week, focusing on different muscle groups each session.  I also trained for long hikes (apprx. 4+ hours) during weekend on uneven terrains within and sometimes outside the city.  The fact is even though my body was fit, a fit body is not the key solution to prevent high altitude sickness.

The secret to avoid high altitude sickness is to learn how to pace yourself during hiking/trekking on high altitude mountains.  One common mistake most fit athletes do is they tend to hike fast because their physical body allow them to do so.  However, when you hike fast, your body will burn more oxygen quicker.  Thus, your body will receive less oxygen not only from climbing higher to the altitude, but also from burning more oxygen to keep up with your activity.  Once your body is deprived of oxygen,  you will experience the symptoms of high altitude sickness, such as shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, nausea, or drowsiness.  Thus, rule number one, learn to set your pace and allow enough time for your body to acclimatize.  Click here to learn about the golden rule of thumb for acclimatization.

Second, learn to hydrate your body properly.  Your body will lose more moisture faster at higher altitude.  When your body lose too much moisture without replenishment, you will get a headache.  It is unpleasant to get a mild/severe headache when hiking/trekking.  Rule number two: Hydrate yourself frequently and avoid consuming fluid that tends to dehydrate your body. For examples, coffee and alcohol.

Third, bring the right supplement during your trip.  Research shows Gingko Biloba is a supplement that can help human to acclimatize better at high altitude. 

In addition to that, it is wise to visit a travel clinic if you are planning to trek or hike overseas, such as Nepal, Africa, etc.  The travel clinic will require you to take necessary shots, bring malaria and altitude sickness pills with you on the trip depending on the nature of your trip and which country you are visiting.  Seeing a health expert is not a bad idea so you will learn how to take good care of yourself before, during and after the trip. 

Prepare over the counter medicines and supplements in your medication pack, such as advil, flu pills, cough drops, diarrhea pills, tums, glucosamine, etc.  Sometimes, regardless of how much you try, you still can’t avoid high altitude sickness, headache and other common health problems can occur.  Preparing those kind of medicines in your travel pack is a wise decision.  

Fourth, it is easy to experience indigestion at higher altitude due to the pressure changes.  Based on my experience, my stomach tends to have a hard time to digest solid food at higher altitude.  You can solve the indigestion issue by avoid eating solid food or food that is hard for your body to digest, such as big piece of steak. In addition, do not eat one big meal all at once, pace your food and water intake on the trail as it will help your digestive system to work better at high altitude.  You can also purchase gas relief pills that will take care of bloating, pressure, fullness and gas problems on your digestive system.  The drug worked well for me when I traveled at the 14-ers in Colorado for one week.  Keep in mind to hydrate frequently and moderately; eat smaller portion and feed more frequently.

Fifth, make sure you have quick access to good nutrition during hiking.  One trick I learned was you can bring fiber, electrolytes, vitamin C, and energy drink in a form of powder or tablet.  They are small, convenient, easy to carry and fit the purpose.  Prepare good amount of trail mix and energy bars that will last for the length of your hike or trek.  

Powdered or tablet drinks are light weight & easy to carry.  It is a convenient way for hikers/trekkers to get fiber, vitamin and energy source; you can just add water to it.   Energy bars and trail mix are high in nutrition and protein, quick and easy to consume as an alternative food sources (in case if the meals prepared by your porter/cook are not fresh during trekking).  The main reason why you need to prepare an alternative food source is to avoid food poisoning.   Those emergency food are your back up plan.  Without reliable food sources and proper food intake, you will not have enough energy to continue hiking and enjoy the trip.  To learn about how to avoid food poisoning during trekking, click here!

I hope this article will bring more awareness to hikers/trekkers/travelers who are planning to travel to high altitude regions.  Hopefully, they’ll come home with lots of good memories and pictures to share.

On the next topic, I will cover details about gears and technical wears for hiking and camping at different altitude.  For those of you who love hiking and camping, please pay attention to my next blog.  =) 

Cheers and Bon Voyage!