Compared to a hike through the woods or a trek through the countryside, hiking at higher altitudes may present some totally new challenges and risks.
It is not for the faint hearted or those who don’t know what they are doing so we’re here to help you with some of the basic ins and outs as well as familiarise you with some of the risks you may face whilst hiking at higher altitudes. It is also important to keep in mind that you will officially be hiking at a higher altitude when you are approximately 2,500m and high than sea level.
Risks That Come With Hiking at Higher Altitudes
Some people may experience some sickness when climbing and hiking at high altitudes due to the dramatic change in air pressure and its effects on our body. Of course, like most sicknesses, there are various degrees to look out for – some more serious than others and require immediate assistance.
AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)
Otherwise known as Altitude Sickness, can be quite scary when you aren’t expecting it as it can happen within hours of your arrival at the peak of your high altitude hike. It is very common among hikers or travellers that aren’t used to the air pressure changes and can be spotted by the following symptoms:
- Trouble sleeping for a few days after hiking
- Increase in heart rate
- Loss of Appetite
Unfortunately there is no medical treatment for this type of sickness but it is important to remember that ascending back down from your hike is another change in air pressure so taking it slow is the key to getting better. It is also best to avoid any physical over-exertion to prevent your heart rate from going even higher than it already is, prevent the risk of heart attacks.
HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)
HAPE is a life threatening condition that can happen to anyone, no matter their size, health or age. It is a dangerous accumulation of fluid in the lungs that can make all the blood vessels in the lungs constrict. There are only three symptoms that will strongly indicate HAPE. When these occur, it is time to get to a hospital or seek help.
Shortness of breath after the smallest amount of exertion.
- Severe coughing.
- Coughing up of frothy type foam.
- The best way to treat HAPE is with frequent administration of oxygen and rest.
HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema)
It is because of conditions like this that is very dangerous to go hiking in high altitudes alone. When high altitude cerebral edema occurs it is very difficult to keep yourself together as it directly affects your brain, causing incapacitating symptoms like:
- Slurred speech
- Loss of footing/Stumbling
When this is happening it is because your brain is deprived of oxygen and not functioning properly at that altitude. These symptoms are a sign of you being nearly dead and it is important to get to lower altitudes immediately.
5 Important Things To Remember Before the Hike
Expect the unexpected when it comes to weather. Depending on where you are planning your hike, you may be expecting scorching sunlight at the peak of your trail or climb but due to the nature of higher altitudes and the air pressure, you can sometimes expect cold chills and fast winds. It is best to prepare yourself for both hot and cold weather, despite the climate and the start of your hike.
Packing extra when going on high altitudes is never a bad idea. More specifically, first aid kits and supplies. When going on hikes and climbs where you will be reaching higher altitudes, you are facing way more than just your trail and the broken bones you can sustain in a forest or nature trail. You will need to prepare for any injuries that may be caused by bad weather or simply you just moving up too fast.
Getting fit and staying fit could be the difference between your body withstanding the extreme conditions and it failing. Keeping your fitness levels high and constant can help you with the most important things about hiking and climbing like keeping your heart rate low and supplying your brain and muscles with enough oxygen to move forward. Stopping too often during a hike or climb can also be bad for your body as it gets used to cooling down and warming up too consecutively – another benefit of being fit is that your endurance is better you don’t have to stop as often.
Probably one of the most important things to remember when going on extreme hikes is that is not a race and due to the conditions, can absolutely not be treated like one. Taking it slow when hiking up into higher altitudes is imperative, failing to do that can result in serious injury and more serious, medical problems caused by the pressure. Moving too fast will also raise your heart rate, something that can be very dangerous when at such a high altitude level as your heart rate naturally increases as you ascend.
Do some serious eating before braving higher altitudes. Our bodies will end up using double the amount of oxygen, sugar and carbs to fuel our muscles for the hike. To prevent muscle spasms and dizziness, loading yourself with sugar, carbs and healthy fats will help you through your trek. If you are worried about putting on extra weight, remember that in those conditions your body is burning all of it faster than you can put it back.
Things You will Need to Pack
Like every sport, it has its own set of clothing needed to protect and help you best through the tough conditions. Some of the clothing you will need to pack can be found only at specialist shops that cater for high altitude sports. Compromising on these might not always be the best option.
- Liner Gloves which are light and warm but do not restrict your range of motion in your hands.
- Leggings to protect you from light rain and snow, also to insulate your body heat under your clothes.
- Merino-wool layers will keep you warmer than most other materials as it soaks up your body heat.
- A Buff. This is a piece of material tubing that can be very useful to those with long or wild hair to keep it out of your face. It can also be used to pull over your nose and mouth or to keep around your neck.
- Gore-Tex jackets will provide you with decent body heat insulation and isn’t as dense as a laminate jacket would be. This allows more air flow and prevents you from overheating.
- Wool socks to keep your feet warm and dry.
- Hiking boots are a must as they can go through and over almost anything that might dare stand in your way.
- Waterproof gaiters are a must when your trail is going to be taking you into the snow or through the mud. They will protect your shoes from getting damaged and also prevent most water and mud from getting into your shoes and socks.
- Sunglasses. Not being able to see where you are going at any point can be life threatening on a high altitude hike.
- Waterproof back pack cover will help you keep your clothes and equipment clean and dry.
- GPS communicators can save your life when you have an emergency and you are out of cell phone range. If you have one of these little guys, it is best to remember to always take it with you.
- A 5L water bottle or flask. Running out of clean water on high altitude hikes can be detrimental as finding water sources will become harder the higher you go.
- A headlamp or headlight is one of your most important pieces of equipment as without it, you have absolutely no way of knowing where you are going or what your terrain looks like, putting you at a higher risk of injury.
- Trekking poles can be very useful if you want to go easier on your knees and not walk around looking for something to use as a walking stick.
- First aid kit that has enough in it for the amount of people you are hiking with.
Follow these simple guidelines and your hiking experience will end up being totally stress free, leaving you with enough peace of mind to enjoy the view. Although high altitude sports can be a great persona challenge, it is good that you remember the difference between challenging yourself as an athlete and pushing your body too far. Knowing your limits with sports like these is part of the training and when you don’t push your body too far is when you will enjoy it to its fullest.