Despite our love of the mountains, many of us live in coastal cities. Whether it’s a job, family, or the lifestyle that keeps us entrenched in the hustle and bustle of city life, living in a major city can make it difficult to get out and explore wild places.
Although many of us city dwellers get away to the mountains every weekend, when it comes to training for a longer trip at high altitudes, living in a coastal city can be a major disadvantage. Indeed, if you live in a city but want to get out and explore the world’s highest mountain ranges, you might be wondering how you can train for high elevations in a concrete jungle.
So, how do you train for high altitude hiking at sea level? Ideally, one trains for high altitude hiking by spending a lot of time exercising at high elevations. If this isn’t possible, training for peak physical fitness is critical. Additionally, if you have the time and resources, an altitude adjusted room for training or tent for sleeping can help you prepare for your trip to higher altitude.
We understand that the thought of training for a high altitude hike while living at sea level can be a bit daunting. So we’ve put together the ultimate guide to training for high elevation expeditions, complete with top tips for flatlanders and advice for avoiding altitude sickness. Here we go!
What is considered a high altitude for hiking?
Okay, first things first, what is considered a high altitude for hiking? Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give just a single answer to this question as “high” is a relative concept.
For those of us who live at (or below) sea level, we may well start to see the effects of altitude sickness when we get above 6,000 feet (1,828 meters). However, others who live in the mountains may find that they feel as strong and confident as ever until around 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).
Top climbers and mountaineers that live at high elevations and spend a lot of time in the mountains, however, may not feel the effects of the elevation until even higher, perhaps around 14,000 feet (4,267 meters).
Really, it’s all relative to the individual. While we can all agree that Mount Everest (29,029 feet / 8,848 meters) is tall, everyone will have a different opinion on what is considered “high elevation”.
In general, novice climbers from sea level may have difficulty above 6,000 feet (1,828 meters) while most climbers will start to feel the effects of elevation above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Pretty much everyone will feel the elevation above 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) and above 20,000 feet (6,096 meters), no amount of training will fully eliminate the effects of altitude on your body.
Finally, above 26,000 feet (7,9240 meters) – also known as the death zone – there is not enough atmospheric pressure to sustain human life for extended periods of time.
Training tips for high altitude hiking
Since some of the effects of high elevation can be reduced with proper training, many climbers spend a lot of time training before heading out on a high altitude expedition.
If you’re new to high altitude hiking, you may be wondering where to start with your training. Since everyone is different, we won’t give you a day-by-day workout plan to get ready for your next adventure. Instead, here are some of our top tips for high altitude hiking training:
Focus on the cardio
When you’re hiking at higher elevations, your cardiovascular system is going to be working at its maximum. As we increase our elevation, the atmospheric pressure in the air around us decreases. This means there is proportionally less available oxygen in the air when compared to the air at sea level.
When you hike at high elevations, your body will struggle to get enough oxygen into your bloodstream to sustain itself. Thus, a stronger cardiovascular base can better set you up for success when you’re at higher elevations.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to get your cardio fitness to a point where you can comfortably hike all day at a fast pace in lower elevation mountains (up to 6,000 meters). If you’re struggling too much down low, things generally don’t get any better when you venture up high.
If you live near hills and smaller mountains, you’ll want to get out as often as you can for longer hikes (6-10 hours) during your training. If getting out of the city isn’t feasible, any type of cardiovascular exercise will be beneficial and it can help to have a mix of different activities, such as running (especially uphill!), biking, and swimming, to avoid over-use injuries.
Hike with a heavy pack
When you’re hiking at higher elevations, even a light pack can feel like a ton of bricks. So, when you’re training for high altitude hiking, you’ll want to get comfortable with a pack that’s quite a bit heavier than what you expect to carry during your trip.
However, carrying a heavy pack can take a toll on the human body. The answer? You can carry jugs of water or MSR Dromedary bags full of water on the uphill section of a hike and dump the water out when you reach the top. This gives you the training benefits of hiking with a heavy pack while minimizing the damage to your knees, hips, and body on the downhill.
Alternatively, if you can’t get out of the city, you can always do some stair training. While running up and down staircases isn’t nearly as fun as going on a hike, it is some of the best training you can get in an otherwise flat environment.
You can generally find staircases in tall apartment buildings, high school football stadiums, and ice rinks (great during the middle of the summer!). If you’re struggling to find a staircase to run up, you can always look for a hill to do hill sprints on for training.
Our advice? Start with interval training on stairs and work your way up slowly to training with a backpack on. Generally speaking, training with a weighted backpack is better than training with a weight vest as the backpack better simulates the conditions you’ll face during your adventure.
Don’t forget weight training
Oftentimes, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts focus so much on their cardiovascular endurance that they neglect to do any weight training. Although spending time lifting weights in a gym isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, weight lifting can help strengthen your muscles and provide stability and support for your body in harsh environments.
Plus, weight training can help prevent injuries and improve the anaerobic capacity of your muscles, which is helpful at higher elevations. As a trekker, you’re not going to want to become a bulky bodybuilder, but a well-rounded training plan that includes weight lifting can make a huge difference in the mountains.
A qualified personal trainer or fitness expert at your local gym can help you create a personalized weight lifting plan that best meets your needs.
High-end altitude training tools
If you’re looking to further your high altitude trekking training beyond just physical exercise, there are a few other training tools you might want to consider:
Altitude adjusted training rooms
These days, some top-of-the-line fitness facilities offer specialized rooms within their gyms that are oxygen-controlled to mimic the conditions at certain elevations. These training rooms allow you to lift weights, run on a treadmill, bike, or even use an indoor climbing wall all at a specified simulated altitude.
Many gyms, such as Fusion Physical Therapy and Sports Performance in New York City, Evolution Health Care and Fitness Center in Portland, and True North Cryo in Los Angeles offer altitude adjusted training rooms. Of course, these facilities come with a premium price tag, but it may be worth the added cost, based on your objectives.
These days, you can get your own high altitude chamber for high elevation climbing and training purposes. The company Hypoxico offers a variety of different altitude simulation products, including masks, tents, and chambers for training and sleeping to help your body prepare for a trip to a higher elevation.
Due to their cost, these products are targeted to people who frequently venture into high altitude environments and are training for difficult objectives.
Tips for avoiding altitude sickness
At the end of the day, one of the main reasons we train for a hiking trip to high elevations is to avoid altitude sickness. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) – both life-threatening illnesses – are the two main fears of any high altitude hiker or climber, so avoiding altitude sickness is imperative during your adventures.
However, more often than not altitude sickness presents as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), which can have a range of different signs and symptoms, including:
- Sleep disturbance
- Swelling of hands, face, and feet
- Nose bleeds
- Shortness of breath
- General malaise
Of course, the ideal situation would be to avoid all forms of altitude sickness on your travels. While training and exercise can, indeed, help one perform better when exerting themselves at high elevations, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, any high altitude hiker should take a number of steps to prevent altitude sickness on their adventures.
Here are our top tips for avoiding altitude sickness:
1. Ascend slowly
The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to acclimatize properly to higher elevations. In general, once you’re above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), you want to avoid gaining more than 1,000 feet (304 meters) of elevation per day from campsite to campsite, especially if you’re toward the beginning of your trip.
As you grow more accustomed to altitude and have more experience at higher elevations, you can make your own decisions about how much elevation gain you’re comfortable with each day. Many hiking and trekking guides will be conservative in their daily elevation gain plans, ensuring that no one campsite is more than 1,000 feet (304 meters) higher than the previous.
2. Hike high, sleep low
A good way to acclimatize during the first few days at a high elevation is to hike up to a high point (perhaps a peak ascent) during the day while sleeping at a lower elevation that night. This allows your body to get used to the effects of higher elevations while also providing it with ample time to rest and recover at night.
3. Drink lots of fluids
At higher elevations, the air can be incredibly dry and you will be breathing more frequently to accommodate your body’s cravings for oxygen. Every time you take a breath, you exhale water vapor, which, over time, can dehydrate you.
Thus, it’s incredibly important that trekkers at high altitudes drink plenty of fluids (preferably water) throughout their hike. Often, the cold temperatures and nausea from the altitude make people avoid fluids, but it’s important that you drink as much water as possible during your trip.
Keep in mind, however, that a common side effect of Diamox (an altitude sickness medication) is a metallic taste when drinking carbonated beverages, so perhaps just stick to water and tea!
4. Avoid alcohol
Although we all love a celebratory beer at the end of the day, alcohol is a respiratory depressant, which means it can slow down your acclimatization process. Plus, alcohol is a diuretic, so it stimulates urination and causes dehydration – not something you want at high elevations when you’re already dehydrated.
Our advice? Avoid alcohol during the first few days of your trip. Depending on how you’re feeling, you can have a drink or two during the day later in your trip, but be very mindful of your intake and drink responsibly.
5. Supplements and medications
Many high altitude trekkers look to supplements and medications to help them deal with the effects of high elevations. Many physicians will prescribe Diamox (acetazolamide) to people heading out on an extended high-elevation trek as it can help prevent and reduce the symptoms of AMS. However, Diamox alone is not the answer to altitude sickness and must be used in conjunction with responsible decision making and training.
Alternatively, supplements and natural remedies for altitude sickness include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Lipoic Acid
- High-Carb Diets
- Milk Thistle
- Rhodiola rosea
Read more: winchesterhospital.org
That being said, there is little conclusive information about the effects of these supplements and there have been few, if any, sufficiently randomized and controlled studies to determine the effectiveness of these treatments.
6. Go downhill
At the end of the day, if you’re experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness, the only cure is to move downhill – and to do so quickly. Moving to a lower elevation can completely alleviate the effects of AMS and may be the only way to stop AMS from developing into HAPE or HACE – both immediately life-threatening conditions.
When in doubt, hike down before things get worse.
Popular High Altitude Destinations for Hiking and Trekking
High altitude trekking and hiking can be an amazing experience. Not only do you get to be up in the mountains, you often get to experience the beautiful cultures of some of the most remote communities on Earth during your travels. If you’re not sure where to go on your next high altitude hiking trip, check out these great destinations:
The Himalaya (Nepal, Tibet, India)
If you want to experience high altitude trekking at its finest, there’s no better place than the top of the world. The Himalaya is the world’s highest mountain range and is home to almost all of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks (K2, Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak, and Gasherbrum II are located in the Karakoram range) and has a wide range of different trekking regions.
Northern and Eastern Nepal are probably the most popular trekking locations, with most visitors opting for Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Base Camp trips, though there are plenty of off-the-beaten-track treks for the more adventurous among us.
The Andes (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina)
The Andes are home to some amazing and diverse hiking opportunities, the most popular of which is Machu Picchu. While we wouldn’t call a Machu Picchu trip a “wilderness experience,” at an elevation of 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) it’s still pretty high up there, which means you can be at risk for altitude sickness.
Plus, most visitors to Machu Picchu start at Cusco, which is at an elevation of 11,200 feet (3,400 meters), making it a prime location for altitude illnesses.
The tallest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano that rises 19,341 feet (5,895m) above the Serengeti below. The mountain is incredibly popular among outdoor enthusiasts, thanks to its relative easy trekking route. However, its lofty summit is well within the range for altitude sickness, so any would-be Kilimanjaro climbers need to be prepared for their journey to a high elevation.
The North American Rockies
The 1,900 mile (3,000 km) long Rocky Mountains stretch from the northernmost parts of British Columbia all the way to Northern New Mexico and are home to a significant number of peaks above 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) in elevation. The Rockies are, as the name suggests, rocky, but also feature beautiful glaciers and alpine meadows, making them the perfect place for a backpacking trip.
If you’re looking to do some peak ascents in the Rockies, however, keep in mind that you’re likely headed to a high elevation, which warrants extra care and attention to prevention and training, especially if you’re headed out on a long backpacking trip in the mountains.
Here are our answers to your most frequently asked questions:
At what altitude do you need oxygen while hiking? Whether or not one needs supplemental oxygen while in the mountains is a purely individual decision – however, there are no true “hiking” trails or routes on Earth that are high enough to truly warrant bottled oxygen as a standard precaution.
Instead, the only times you’ll see people using bottled oxygen in the outdoors is when they are attempting to climb a substantial peak, generally above 7,000 meters. Anyone attempting a peak of this size is on a mountaineering expedition that requires technical gear to complete and wouldn’t be something you’d encounter on a typical trekking trip.
How much water should I drink at high altitude? On average, humans should consume at least 2 liters of water a day, though this figure varies based on individual differences, climate, and physical activity. In the mountains, you will likely have to drink more than this, due to exertion and the dryness of the air.
However, over-hydration is also a problem, so one should aim to drink enough water only to the point at which they are sufficiently hydrated, which is the point when one’s urine is clear and copious.
How long does it take to adjust to high altitudes? The acclimatization period to high altitudes varies greatly from individual to individual. For a trip between 11,000 and 18,000 feet (3,352 to 5,486 meters), most humans can acclimatize in about 1-3 days, however, any given individual may acclimatize more quickly or more slowly than this average.
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