Travel Insurance & Safety

How to Travel Safely in High Altitudes

Machu Picchu in Peru, 2430 above sea level

Photo by Barbara Zandoval

It’s a pretty special feeling when you reach the summit of a mountain you’ve set out to climb and reward yourself with a gobsmacking view – especially if you’ve had the discipline to make it for sunrise! What can really interfere with those plans is the gnawing nausea, dizziness and headaches that accompany altitude sickness. You actually don’t even need to be climbing to experience this incredibly annoying phenomena. In towns like Cusco, Peru (which is 3399m above sea level), you can get altitude sickness browsing for groceries, waltzing down the main street or even napping in your hotel room! Nepal, too, is another popular destination, and has 1,310 peaks over 6000m in height.

The symptoms of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, can take you down within hours of your arrival at a place with an altitude of 2000m or more above sea level. It’s a very common disorder that often feels somewhat like a hangover, and it has everything to do with air pressure. As altitude increases, air pressure decreases, resulting in a reduction in oxygen intake with each breath you gulp in. This is even though the percentage of oxygen in the air remains the same regardless of altitude.

Altitude sickness, then, is a result of a lack of oxygen reaching the organs in your body. Symptoms include dizziness, headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and – in very serious cases – more life-threatening consequences like cerebral oedema (fluid on the brain) or pulmonary oedema (fluid on the lungs). It can take days for your body to adjust to such a huge variation in oxygen, and sometimes you actually need to descend in order to recover.

Factors that can determine whether or not you develop altitude sickness include how high you are and the speed at which you ascend, plus any past experiences of altitude illness. However, your physical fitness, alcohol consumption and whether or not you smoke ciggies doesn't actually have any correlation with the illness.

We’ve collated a bunch of tips about travelling to high-altitude places to better equip you for your next trip to greater heights.

La Paz, Bolivia – 3625m above sea level!
Photo by Snowscat

Have a chat with your doctor

See your doctor six-to-eight weeks before heading off on your trip to discuss what they think is best for you personally. If you have a chronic condition, be sure to have a very good discussion about what your risks are in travelling to high altitudes. People with severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), unstable asthma, severe ischaemic heart disease, severe uncontrolled heart failure and complicated pregnancies are discouraged from high-altitude travel, and you should also exercise caution if you’ve got angina, poorly controlled diabetes or a heart rhythm disorder – or if you’ve previously had a stroke. Even birthing parents with uncomplicated pregnancies should refrain from ascending above 2500m, especially after 36 weeks.

Take it slow

Where possible, take your time reaching your destination, and give yourself a few days to acclimatise – like at least 48 hours. Do not ascend more than 500m per day when you're at an altitude greater than 3000m, and have a rest day from climbing every three to four days.

Consider medication or, if you’re super serious, supplementary oxygen

Several types of medication can help with preventing acute altitude illness, such as acetazolamide and dexamethosone. Talk to your doctor to see what would be an appropriate remedy for you! Experienced mountaineers often take supplementary oxygen with them to treat acute altitude illness, and portable hyperbaric chambers are also an option for serious climbers.

Explore natural remedies 

It has been suggested that gingko biloba and coca tea can help with the prevention ofaltitude sickness, but solid research is lacking, and these claims cannot be supported with the current amount of evidence.

Atop a snowy peak in Chamonix, France
Photo by Martin Jernberg

Be mindful of the risk of DVT

As you probably know from flying, when you're at high altitude, the risk of developing DVT (deep vein thrombosis) increases. DVT is a blood clot that forms in the deep veins of your legs, and they can lead to blood clots in the lungs. Avoid tea, coffee and alcohol; drink plenty of water; exercise your legs regularly and wear clothes that are loose on your body. If you have a pre-existing condition, speak to your doctor about the possibility of using compression stockings too.

If in doubt, descend

Altitude sickness is a wildly common affliction, and there is no shame in going down! In terms of treating acute altitude illness, descent is the single best option. 

Watch your hydration

Avoid booze and drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Do be careful not to overhydrate, though! In terms of food, eat things that are carbohydrate rich, as they are the body’s preferred fuel at high altitude (what better excuse?!), and continue to do moderate exercise.

It takes time and patience to acclimatise properly. Follow these strategies will help to reduce the likelihood of developing acute altitude sickness so that you can get to the top of that mountain and snap a selfie at the peak! Good luck up there, Freelies.

Hikers climbing Besseggen in Norway
Photo by Mathias Jensen

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