Colorado’s high-altitude hikes are among our mountain’s most challenging yet rewarding experiences. Hiking at a high altitude above tree line gives you an unforgettable look at the alpine tundra, alpine lakes, and views few get to see.
Acclimate, hydrate, and know the signs of altitude sickness before your day hike or backpacking adventure.
Acclimatization – What is that?
Acclimatization is when your body adapts to a change in your environment at high altitudes. Adapting is necessary for you to perform and stay healthy. Give yourself multiple days to adjust if you are new to high elevations.
It is essential to acclimatize when you’re hiking at high elevations over 8,000 feet. This is because you will be receiving less oxygen the higher you go.
Not taking the time to acclimate before hiking, you will be at higher risk for altitude sickness. Often, this happens when a hiker goes too high and too fast. However, by slowing down and allowing yourself to adjust, your chances of getting altitude sickness are less.
Altitude sickness happens when your body is not getting enough oxygen. It can hit anyone, any fitness level, age, or previous hiking experience. Even if you have had no problems before at high altitudes, there is no guarantee you won’t experience symptoms of altitude sickness on another hike.
Three types of altitude sickness have their level of severe causes.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).
Knowing the symptoms of altitude sickness is essential to prevent becoming severe. Below are signs to watch for in yourself or fellow hikers. AMS is the most common, and knowing the symptoms will keep you safe.
NOTE: Even those who live and hike at high elevations need to be aware of symptoms and take action when they occur. Even if you have wandered for years in Colorado’s mountains, you are susceptible to getting altitude sickness.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Acute Mountain Sickness is the most common type of altitude sickness that occurs at around 8000 feet. Mild symptoms include a throbbing headache, nausea/vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Make everyone around you aware you are not feeling well. Personally, I would head back down now.
If you experience shortness of breath when resting or have trouble walking, your acute mountain sickness has worsened. Get to lower elevations. Not until your symptoms improve should you attempt hiking high again.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a life-threatening form of altitude sickness that results from a buildup of fluid in the lungs.
Usually occurs spending multiple days (2+) at high elevations. Symptoms include shortness of breath at rest, disorientation and confusion, memory loss, irritability, a dry cough, chest tightness, and a feeling of suffocation during the night, plus other AMS symptoms.
Prevention is best — HAPE requires medical treatment and immediate rapid evacuation.
High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is brain swelling from fluid leakage into your brain. This is very rare and found in most cases above 13,000′ elevation for multiple days.
Tips for Colorado High Altitude
1. New to Colorado, start at lower elevations for day hikes and slowly work your way up.
2. Eat & Drink more than you feel like at high altitudes. Your muscles are burning energy faster, and your body needs more calories, water, and electrolytes to function right. Not the time to diet.
3. Watch for Sunburn, wear proper clothing and bring a good first aid kit. Mountain terrain and weather are unpredictable and can take you by surprise! It can be cold, windy, and brutal when least expected.
4. Go slowly as the air gets thinner, and enjoy the trail.
EXCEPTIONAL COLORADO HIKES WE LOVED
Extras to Consider When Hiking in Colorado’s Mountains
HotHands Hand Warmers – I have these in my backpack year-round, especially when I hike at high elevations.
SKRATCH LABS Energy Bars – Easy way to keep up your calories and energy while hiking at higher altitudes. They also have excellent Sport Energy Chews.
Six Moon Design Hiking Umbrella – Super lightweight and my newest addition that I have used often!! It keeps the sun off you and keeps me dry in rain and sleet.
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