How to prepare for high altitude hiking

gear used in hiking

Introduction

To prepare for high altitude hiking there are 6 things that you need to know.

  1. Know the risks involved.
  2. know how to prepare your body.
  3. know how to choose and use the right equipment.
  4. Know your environment.
  5. know what’s the best time to hike.
  6. Know how to read an altimeter.
  7. know what foods are best to eat (before, during and after your hike).

Who doesn’t love the sensation of breathing in crisp mountain air and the soothing sound of mountain streams? From the Alps to the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Trail, hiking at high altitudes can be a great experience for those who enjoy the outdoors. The experience you get from being on top of the world, overlooking everything, can be priceless. Besides that, hiking is one of the cheapest and best ways to exercise and it helps to improve your overall mental and physical health.

But without the right preparation, high altitude hikes are like driving a car with a blindfold on.

In the next sections, I will explain everything I know about high altitude hiking, including the steps that you need to take to make your next high altitude hike a success. Knowing these things will keep you healthy and safe.

So let’s get started!

Section 1: The risks

The health risks associated with high altitude hiking are seriously underestimated by hikers themselves and the travel organizations that organize the trips.

They include:

  • Altitude sickness: also called acute mountain sickness (AMS). Altitude sickness is caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. Your body is perfectly able to adapt to an environment with less oxygen, but if you rise too quickly, the body has too little time to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Altitude sickness can already occur above 2500 meters. Above 5,500 meters, almost everyone is confronted with at least a mild form of altitude sickness. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. You can avoid altitude sickness by ascending gradually and take time for your body to acclimatize.
  • Dehydration (a lack of water in the body). Sun, wind and heavy physical exertion together can cause you to dry out, even if you are not thirsty. You can avoid dehydration by drinking fresh water at regular intervals and during breaks. Avoid drinking glacial water as this can contain harmful microorganisms that make you sick.

The health risks associated with high altitude hiking are seriously underestimated by hikers themselves and the travel organizations that organize the trips.

  • Low Temperatures. Hypothermia and frostbite are real risks when hiking in the mountains. Hypothermia occurs when the body is exposed to cold temperatures over a prolonged period, causing your body’s temperature to drop below its normal temperature of 98,6 F or 37 C. Frostbite occurs when your blood circulation is interrupted because of extremely cold weather. Because of this, your blood is unable to reach body parts like your fingers, nose, ears, toes, etc., causing them to die. You can avoid this by dressing in layers, wearing water and windproof clothing (outerwear) and woolen underwear. Never wear “normal” clothes when going on a hike as they will get cold and wet in no time.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation. At high altitudes, the sun’s UV radiation is especially dangerous. Therefore you should ALWAYS wear sunglasses. Also, remember that the sun’s reflection on the snow can be very intense and cause snow blindness. To protect your eyes, wear sunglasses with a rating of UV400 or higher.
  • Slips, trips, and falls. Of all accidents that happen in high altitude hiking, slips, trips, and falls are the most common. Watch out for slippery rocks and uneven trails and wear good quality hiking boots to maintain stability and avoid injuries.
  • Wandering off the trail (especially in remote mountainous areas), is another major risk when hiking at high altitudes. It can take a long time before somebody finds you. Therefore you should always follow the marked paths on the map and pay attention to signposts and information signs en route. If you are lost, look out for a cairn that you can normally find along commonly used paths. When lost, stay in one place. This increases your chances of being found. Carrying a compass or GPS equipment can help you to determine your position.

Section 2: How to prepare your body?

To prepare your body for high altitude hiking you should consider going to the gym or doing other sports-related activities that increase your overall fitness. You don’t have to be an athlete, but start working on your endurance, muscle strength and coordination at least 2 months in advance.

Serious hiking requires great stamina and endurance. If needed, lose some extra weight. The lighter you are, the less body weight you have to carry.

Or you can consider joining a local hiking club and do several small hikes around your neighborhood to prepare for the real thing. Just like with any other sport, start slowly. Your body needs time to adapt especially when you’ve never hiked before.

What foods should you eat and when?

To avoid a hunger knock while hiking, don’t wait until you get hungry!

Eat small quantities regularly. You want to keep your energy levels as steady as possible. A large amount of food in one go can cause stomach problems.

You don’t have to be an athlete, but start working on your endurance, muscle strength and coordination at least 2 months in advance.

Best foods

So what are the best foods to eat before and during a hike in the mountains?

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the most important energy supplier when you’re engaged in physical exercise over a longer period of time. They consist of long-chain or complex sugars like glucose, galactose, and fructose which they release into your blood.

This combats fatigue and gives you more energy longer.

Remember that not all carbohydrates are suitable. Carbohydrates found in fast food, candy, and sweets contain refined sugars that are consumed by your body very quickly.

For high altitude hiking, choose easily digestible, not too fat-rich products.

Suitable carbohydrate-rich foods are:

  • Banana
  • Gingerbread
  • Currant Bun
  • Muesli bar
  • Bread with sweet toppings (jam or apple syrup)
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Floor
  • Corn
  • Quinoa
  • Potatoes

Of course, there are many other carbohydrate-rich foods that you can choose.

Before you go hiking, check with your doctor or dietitian.

Remember that not all carbohydrates are suitable.

Let’s move on to the next section.

Section 3: What gear is needed for high altitude hiking?

In order to set off safely in the mountains, good equipment is required.

Remember that the weather in the mountains can change very quickly.

One moment it can be sunny and the next you need to hide for a thunderstorm.

Therefore, always bring a rain jacket and rain pants or poncho.

But that’s not all.

Essential hiking gear

Here’s a list of hiking gear that you cannot go without when hiking in the mountains.

  • Good hiking shoes. They offer safety and stability.
  • A good hiking backpack.
  • Flashlight.
  • First aid kit.
  • A safety vest.
  • A map, compass, altimeter or GPS. (more on altimeters later).
  • Hat and gloves.
  • Pocket knife.
  • Charged telephone with spare battery.
  • Thermal clothing to keep you warm and dry.
  •  Insect repellent.
  • Spare change of clothes.
  • Walking pole.
  • Sunglasses and sun cream.
  • Tinder and/or stove, matches, lighter.
  • Gear repair kit.
  • Enough water and carbohydrate-rich foods.

Altimeter watches.

Since this blog is called “Small Watch Planet”, I obviously need to talk about watches :-). Let’s talk about altimeter watches for a bit.

An altimeter watch displays the height of a place above sea level and comes in very handy when hiking in the mountains.

It tells you exactly how many feet/ meters you ascended (or descended) which is essential for avoiding altitude sickness. As you know, altitude sickness can occur when you ascend too quickly.

Altimeter watches are relatively inexpensive and are an essential piece of your hiking gear kit.

I prefer altimeter watches made by Casio because they are exact and durable and don’t break the bank.

One of my favorite models is the Men’s Pro Trek PRW2500R Tough Solar Digital Sport Watch wich, at the time of this writing sells for $ 135 on Amazon.

Section 4: What are the best high altitude hiking spots in the USA, Europe, and Asia?

Now that you know everything about how to prepare for hiking in the mountains, you’ll want to know where you can find the best hiking trails.

Here I list 15 of the best hiking trails in the world, located in the USA, Europe and Asia.

Here they are!

USA

  1. Cadillac Mountain North Ridge Trail. Part of Acadia National Park. Located on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, this is the highest mountain on the North Atlantic, offering some fantastic hiking trails.
  2. Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California. Follow the Merced River and enjoy nature at its most beautiful.
  3. Death Valley National Park, California. Death Valley National park is great for beginners experienced mountain hikers alike. There are over 80 different trails.
  4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. If Dramatic wilderness and beautiful landscapes are your things, you’ll be a very happy hiker in the Rockies.
  5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Almost 5000 km² of mountain hiking possibilities for everyone.
Lake in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Europe

  1. Alta Via 1, Dolomite High Route, Italy. Stunning nature and almost 100 km of hiking trails for all levels.
  2. Pinzgauer Spaziergang, Austria. Close to the Grossglockner, (Austria’s highest mountain), this is one of Austria’s finest hiking routes in the Eastern Alps.
  3. Slovenian Mountain Trail, Slovenia. This is the oldest hiking track in Europe. Follow the Alps from Maribor to Ankaran.
  4. Dovrefjell, Norway. If you want to see musk oxen in the wild, this is the place to be. Dovrefjell is great for beginners and intermediate hikers.
  5. Laugavegurinn, Iceland. Laugavegurinn’s epic landscape is full of geysers and hot springs against the backdrop of an impressive mountain range. Well worth a visit and great for intermediate hikers.
The Dolomites, Italy.

Asia

  1. Annapurna Trek, Nepal. Located in the heart of the Himalayas, immerse yourself in Tibetan culture while hiking some of the most beautiful trails in Asia. Great for beginners but at high altitude.
  2. Chadar Trek, India. Beautiful but very dangerous. Not recommended for beginners!
  3. Mount Fuji, Japan. Climb Japan’s most famous mountain on foot and enjoy the stunning view from the top. Well suited for beginners.
  4. Druk Path Trek, Bhutan. Great for beginners but be aware of altitude sickness as you ascend almost 4000 meters. Epic views guaranteed.
  5. Everest Base Camp. I save the best for last here. The Everest Base Camp offers some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll ever see. Combine that with a full immersion in Sherpa culture and you’re in for an unforgettable journey. Recommended for intermediate to expert hikers.
The Everest Base Camp, at 5365 meters above sea level.

Conclusion

High altitude hiking can be a fantastic hobby but good preparation is crucial.

If I had to sum up this article in 3 short sentences, they would be:

  1. Always be well-prepared.
  2. Always know your equipment.
  3. Always know your limits.

Happy hiking!

Leon

I'm Leon. I write articles about small watches (usually 38 mm or less in diameter) because I like them. They look stylish and classy to me. Most of the watches on the market today are 40 mm or more, which I think is too big. This blog was born out of curiosity when I was shopping for a small watch myself and couldn't find the info that I needed.

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