Trekking at high altitude – Safety tips & guidelines

Trekking at high altitude can be intimidating. If you have been considering one of these adventures for a while, you have probably heard all the horror stories already… Headaches and vomiting. Helicopter rides and hyperbaric chambers. Failed dreams and crushed egos…

Unfortunately, in Australia, if you haven’t been to high altitude before, you have no way of experiencing this environment before your trek. And this can be a massive source of stress and anxiety for both you, and your family. So, to help relieve some of this stress, this article is all about the basics. And it will be discussing some of the most common mistakes first-time altitude trekkers make and what to do instead.

Mistakes to Avoid While High Altitude Trekking

Mistake #1: Climbing Too Fast

Rate of ascent is the #1 risk factor when it comes to altitude sickness. Your body needs time to adapt and acclimatise to the new environment. If you don’t give it enough time, you will get yourself into some serious trouble…

This the single most common mistake first-time trekkers will make at altitude. And it needs to be avoided!

An interesting statistic is that people who are generally more ‘fit’ have higher rates of altitude sickness. This is not because being fit puts you at a higher risk of getting sick (as some people would have you believe) but simply because people who have greater levels of fitness want to climb faster!

On the mountain, slow and steady will always win the race. You will need to be hiking at a much slower pace than you would at sea level. You will need to be taking more breaks then you might feel like you need. But this is incredibly important to stay safe!

Mistake #2: Not Eating Enough

When you are at high altitude your appetite gets suppressed. At the same time, you are burning A LOT of extra energy in this environment.

These two factors can make getting enough energy to power your body quite difficult. This is a problem. Because if you under eat, you under fuel. And if you under fuel, your physical and mental performance will be reduced, and you will be at risk of early exhaustion (which is a big risk factor in altitude sickness!)

So, what can you do to combat this?

Well first of all, you need to force yourself to eat at EVERY meal. It might be the last thing in the world you want to be doing… but you need to make it happen!

On top of this, here are a few other tips to help you get your fuel in:

  • Bring a range of energy dense, highly palatable (i.e. delicious) foods in your pack to snack on (good examples include chocolates, nut mixes, dried fruit and cheese)
  • Ensure you bring a mix of both sweet and savoury snacks (to avoid taste fatigue)
  • Take an electrolyte supplement which has added carbohydrates (for a super easy source of calories)

Mistake #3: Using Alcohol and Sleeping Pills A Night

Sometimes at the end of a long day of trekking, all you want to do is curl up and get a good night’s sleep. But when you are at altitude, this can be easier said than done…

High altitude insomnia is a very common condition. But please, no matter how bad it gets, don’t reach for the alcohol or sleeping pills! These are incredibly dangerous…

The single most important change your body goes through during acclimatisation is an increase in the speed and depth of your breathing. Sleeping pills and alcohol act as something called a ‘respiratory depressant’. This means they slow your breathing rate down. This will significantly affect your rates of acclimatisation and increase your risk of altitude sickness!

If you need a sleeping aid for altitude, much safer alternatives are either magnesium or melatonin.

Mistake #4: Becoming Dehydrated

Dehydration happens very quickly at altitude. This is for several reasons:

  • Your respiration rate in increased (making you lose more water through breathing)
  • Inhalation of dry air (your body uses a certain amount of water to humidify air before reaching the lungs)
  • Exertion and heavy clothing (increasing how much you sweat)
  • Increased urination (from acclimatisation as well as common altitude medications)

There are several issues with this. To start with dehydration significantly reduces your physical and mental capabilities. On top of that, the symptoms of dehydration are very similar to altitude sickness – which can cause some genuine issues on the mountain!

To combat this, you need to be regularly drinking throughout your trek.

The easiest way to judge of hydration is urine colour. Ensure that it is kept either clear or light yellow. And to do this you need to actively be drinking throughout the day and never let yourself get thirsty.

* Thirst isn’t the best judge of hydration as there is a delay between your thirst reflex and your hydration level. So, if you wait until you are thirsty before you drink water, chances are you are already dehydrated!

What Else Can Trekkers Do to Prepare For High Altitude?

Avoiding these mistakes is a great start for any altitude trekking adventure. But if you would like to learn more about how you can both prevent altitude sickness and perform at your best on the mountain, I highly recommend you get your hands on my online altitude education course: Altitude 101. Inside I teach all the strategies, tactics and tips which I use with my trekking clients, to ensure they have a safe, enjoyable and successful altitude adventure!

Article courtesy of Rowan Smith – the founder of Summit Strength; a personal training service which specialises in preparing amateur hikers, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures. 

5 thoughts on “Trekking at high altitude – Safety tips & guidelines”

  1. A comment I wrote in response to the idea of rapid Everest ascents…may help give some perspective for anyone condidering prepping alitude.

    The Alpenglow approach really concerns me and whilst it does appear to have some success it may in part be to luck in that those who have succeeded in rapid ascents happen to be more physiologically predisposed to altitude adaptation. Lets be clear now, hypoxic training will not and does not pre acclimatise you to the risks of HAPE or HACE. It does help increase the ability to carry and absorb precious oxygen making travel in a rarified environment a little easier. Almost all hypoxic training is done in a normobaric setting, ie pressure is at the alititude of the training facility…usually sea level. The only way to adjust the body to the pressure differential at altitude is to slowly over a period of time increase exposure to lower pressure. HAPE and HACE occur because fluids build up because of the increased cellular pressure in relation to atmospheric pressure. You simply cannot train for this in a normobaric setting. You cannot get HAPE or HACE at sea level. The idea with hypoxic training, esp sleeping, is that you maintain an O2 sat of below 90% during sleep to stimulate production of hormones that produce red blood cells. It works – Ive slept in one for 3 or so weeks and my ability to slog uphill with a heavy pack noticeably improved. I did on occasion rock up to work feeling like crap too…flu like symptoms from turning the machine up too high overnight….
    Sure its great for conditioning, I flew in to 3000m and didnt notice a thing but I ascended and slept too high at 4000+ too quickly and suffered as a result. It wasn’t lack of oxygen as I’d been used to sleeping at that simulated alitude. It was the pressure differential.
    I think its really important to undersand the relationship between oxygen and pressure. They have very different physiological effects which must considered.

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