Introduction: How to Adjust to High Altitudes
My partner Tyler and I moved from the Bay Area to northern Colorado in 2015. Now we're living in the Rocky Mountains about 8,000 ft up!
It's beautiful here, but dang has it been a tricky transition. Neither of us have lived at high elevations before - I'm from Kentucky and he's from Missouri - so we weren't entirely sure what to expect. We did a little (not enough at all hahah) research before we moved, but I thought I would share some of the things we learned on the trip out here and while living here.
The most important thing to know about with high altitudes is AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness. I'm going to cover that in depth first, and then give some general tips and tricks for living at or visiting high altitudes. Adjusting to high altitudes can be tricky, but there are lots of things you can do to make the process better.
And even though living at a high altitude has involved a lot of adjustment and dealing with issues I'd never face in Kentucky or California, it's so worth it. I'm never leaving for sure. :D
Step 1: Watch Out for Altitude Sickness
This is obviously the greatest risk of being at a higher altitude. In this case, we're taking about altitudes 8,000 feet (2500 meters) and above.
Altitude sickness is actually an umbrella term for a few different illnesses:
- Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): The most common. Symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and nausea. This is something I dealt with, but it only lasted a few days. You can typically stay at altitude and treat this with medication and oxygen if needed.
- High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): A more serious version of AMS brought on by brain swelling. With this you'll have a lot of the same symptoms as AMS, but you'll also find yourself extra disoriented, confused and off-balance. You may also experience hallucinations. Treatment for this involves heading to a lower altitude - there's really no other way to fix it. Oxygen and medication can help, but won't resolve it.
- High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): This illness can come on with or without symptoms of AMS. Tyler had to deal with this after and pneumonia after we moved for a few weeks. Symptoms include chest congestion, problems breathing even while at rest, weakness, low oxygen levels, and wheezing heard while breathing. If you're visiting a high altitude, it's a good idea to head to a lower altitude to recover. If you're living in a high altitude like we are, it can be treated with oxygen and medication.
For more information on these illnesses and their symptoms and treatments, please check out the Institute for Altitude Medicine page.
Step 2: Prevention + Treatment for Altitude Sickness
- Ascend to high altitudes as slowly as you are able. (See the next step for a story about what happens if you don't. :P) Exact guidelines vary from source to source, so I recommend searching online and finding what will work best for you and where you're traveling. One of the main things most experts recommend is to stay a night at a slightly lower altitude before moving on.
- Try taking Gingko Biloba extract before and during your stay. Studies have shown that Gingko Biloba can help increase blood oxygenation and therefore may help you avoid AMS or greatly reduce symptoms, though research is still being done. Can't hurt to try, however! See the Basecamp MD page for dosage recommendations.
- Stay well hydrated while climbing AND at altitude - avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine and salt until acclimated. Dehydration will make you feel terrible quickly.
- Take it easy for the first couple days at altitude: over exerting yourself can lead to AMS.
- Keep in mind that just because you've never had AMS before, it doesn't mean you'll never get it.
- If you find that you begin to feel worse instead of better, I highly recommend going to see a doctor to get your oxygen and blood levels checked so that you can access prescription drugs or oxygen to get better.
- Diamox (a prescription only medication) can help your body recover and acclimate a little quicker if you find that you have slight Acute Mountain Sickness.
- Decadron (a prescription only medication) is a steroid that can help with more severe AMS.
- Portable oxygen tanks and canisters (for when you're out and about) and oxygen concentrators (for home use- shown in the above photo) can really help improve your symptoms and quality of life while fighting AMS.
- Head down to a lower altitude if nothing else works - do not go any higher while experiencing symptoms of AMS.
- Headaches can be treated with Ibuprofen or Tylenol - whichever works best for you.
- If you experience lots of nausea, I recommend ginger tea. That helped me a lot!
- Rest, rest and more rest.
P.S. I recently got a PM from MatthewI1 of https://milehightraining.com telling me about equipment they offer that allow for altitude training and acclimation at lower altitudes, such as sea level. If you're looking to train for a high altitude event or just get yourself acclimated to a higher altitude before you visit, check them out!
Step 3: Go Up in Altitude Slowly If Possible
Ideally the slower you travel to a high altitude, the less your chances of getting sick. This doesn't always apply, of course, but it can't hurt to be safe.
We didn't really have that luxury, though. We drove for two days to get from Oakland, CA to Grand County, CO because we needed to meet our new landlord at a certain time in Colorado. It was a very rushed move! We also had two cats and a human-sized dog crammed into the front of a moving truck with us, so we wanted to make sure we spent as little time in that cramped situation (and in hotels) as possible. :P
We drove 11 hours on our second day to get to our new house - starting at about 5,000 feet in Elko, NV and eventually reaching a little over 8,000 feet in Grand County.
Climbing that fast with no preparations HURT. Near the end of the drive, Tyler got disoriented, short of breath and dehydrated. I got dehydrated and got a killer migraine. I spent the first few minutes at our new house puking. :P
But we made it! Though I would not recommend rushing through it like we did.
It's best to try to stay a night at a lower elevation before continuing. We really should have made another stop in Colorado before we reached 8,000 feet. Along with that, I've included lots of tips throughout the rest of the instructable to help prevent and deal with any sickness that comes on.
Step 4: Drink More Water
This is so very important, especially if you're prone to migraines like I am!
Higher altitudes are often drier and they have lower air pressure, meaning the moisture in your body evaporates at a much higher rate.
Something that Tyler and I noticed right away is that if we became slightly dehydrated, the symptoms were much faster to come on and also more severe. We carry water bottles with us everywhere to make sure we avoid feeling the hangover-like symptoms of dehydration.
Also: try to reduce or cut out your caffeine and alcohol intake if you're finding you're having issues staying hydrated. They may come in a liquid form, but they're only going to dehydrate you further. Stick to water!
Step 5: Use Sunscreen Liberally and Always Carry Sunglasses
At higher altitudes, the sun's rays have to travel through less atmosphere to get to you, meaning they are more concentrated.
You will get sunburned if you're not careful. I guarantee it! I normally don't burn, but found out very quickly how easy it is to get sunburned at high altitudes. I even burned so badly last summer that my arms peeled: something that hasn't happened since I was a child!
Even if it's cloudy or snowing, wear sunscreen!
I use moisturizers with sunscreen on my face and lips and apply heavier sunscreen to my body if I know I'm going to be outside for 20 minutes or more.
Sunglasses are also VERY important. Otherwise, expect to squint constantly, expel many tears and end up with strained eyes. My neighbor has even told me that he's left work to go home and get his forgotten sunglasses many times - it can get pretty bright up here! (Especially on a snowy day with the light reflecting everywhere.)
Step 6: Fight Nosebleeds With Vaseline
Nosebleeds often occur at high altitudes just because the air is so much drier. I fought with them for the first couple months here in Colorado. They still occur if the humidity in our house gets too low, if the temperatures outside drop into or near the negatives, or when I'm sick.
I tried a lot of things (coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba oil, alcohol-free lotion) to help heal my nose, but the only thing that truly worked was Vaseline.
Vaseline stays in place and doesn't melt or run with heat, so it will stay up in your nostrils where it is needed.
To apply it, dip a clean q-tip in Vaseline and then swab that around in your nostrils. It will relieve the dryness and cracked skin, allowing your nose to get back to normal.
Step 7: Moisturizing Is Very Important
Chances are you are going to dry out like you would not believe. My hands and face have been the worst!
I now use double the amount of moisturizers to keep my skin healthy and itch-free and also constantly run humidifiers in our house.
As previously stated, if you can find body lotion, lip balm and face moisturizers with sunscreen that will kill two birds with one stone and I highly recommend it!
I personally use jojoba oil after every shower, and then goat's milk lotion and lip balm when I need it. I also use a heavy moisturizing cream on my face before applying moisturizers with sunscreen.
How much you'll need to use will depend entirely on your body's chemistry, but always try to keep moisturizing in mind. Cracked lips and broken skin is no fun!
(Also, cuts and injuries heal much worse in low humidity, so take special care or you'll probably be left with a gnarly scar. Trust me, I know. :D)
Step 8: Pace Yourself Physically
This has been the absolute hardest part for me considering I had never experienced high altitudes before. I didn't know just how bad it could get. It will take your body a little while to get acclimated to your new environment!
It doesn't really matter how fit you are: you're still going to have a bit of issue at the start. I consider myself a fairly fit person - I've always been quite active and enjoy exercising.
However, for the first few months, I'd get winded just walking up and down the stairs in the house. A long walk with my dog would leave me feeling absolutely breathless and worn out. It was weird and uncomfortable, but normal according to everyone I talked to.
Family members who have come to visit have reported the same problems, as well as getting intense head rushes from bending over or squatting and standing up too fast.
So in other words: take it slow. Don't commit to doing something really exhaustive right away. Take breaks as needed.
I would say this took the longest to get used to. After about a year my breathing went back to normal during exercise, but dang did it suck for a while.
Step 9: Look Out for Changes in Eating and Sleeping Patterns
One of the biggest problems I had after the move was that my insomnia got out of control and I lost my appetite.
This will vary from person to person, but it's something you should keep in mind. I realized I wasn't sleeping well, but did not realize I was losing weight until I had lost quite a bit. (Went from about 130 to 105 - now back near 115.)
If you're just visiting a high altitude, this isn't as big of a deal. You can take over the counter sleep aids to help, and hopefully you'll be eating with other folks so you'll remember to eat.
I've currently got a prescription for sleeping pills when things get bad, but eating has been more of a struggle. Try to keep your favorite healthy snacks on hand at all times to make sure you keep eating. I know I'm much more likely to snack than cook a meal most times during the day!
Step 10: Last But Not Least: Always Be Prepared!
High altitudes can be quite taxing, no matter the season. Always plan ahead for car trips, hikes, and other excursions - especially in winter! Keep in mind that your cell service will probably be a bit of a mess whenever you're moving around in the mountains.
Temperatures and weather conditions can change very quickly, so it's always a good idea to dress in layers and invest in some wind and water resistant outerwear and shoes. For example: our daily temperature ranges here in the valley can vary 40-50 degrees throughout the day at times, so you never really know what it's going to be like later!
Also, it never hurts to carry extra food and water, a gas can, wiper fluid, motor oil, a snow shovel, jumper cables, blankets and essentials in your car. Many high altitudes locations tend to be more remote, so it's better to be safe than sorry. :)