Any trek above 8000 feet is considered high altitude trekking, because it is at this level that the air pressure begins to drop and there’s less oxygen available in the air. When you’re taking in less oxygen, especially while exerting yourself, your body works less efficiently. It’s important for you to understand what happens to your body during high altitude trekking, and to plan to avoid any major adjustment problems.

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What is high altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the effect on the body of reduced oxygen intake due to high altitude. It usually starts at 8000 feet, but some trekkers may experience it at slightly lower altitudes.

The common symptoms of high altitude sickness are mild headaches, loss of appetite, or nosebleeds. These usually pass as the body acclimatises to the altitude, but if someone experiences coughing, persistent severe headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, or disorientation, they will have to be administered oxygen or descend to a lower altitude until they adjust. In severe cases of AMS, if ignored, the patient is at risk for pulmonary or cerebral oedema.

If you know the symptoms, you can recognize them when they crop up. Almost everyone will experience the usual effects of high altitude trekking, but if the symptoms don’t improve over a day, or are severe, you should alert the guide immediately. The guide may take a decision to administer oxygen or to descend to a lower altitude so you can adjust faster.

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Before you go high altitude trekking

Get fit!

The best way to reduce your chances of experiencing any serious issues during high altitude trekking is to get fit. Before you go, you should train your body so that it’s working efficiently. Do remember that you’ll tire easily during high altitude trekking, so you should build your stamina too. Begin at least 2 months in advance and focus on cardio exercises such as running, biking or swimming. Make sure you gradually increase the distance and time you train.

Practise your breathing

Many trekkers alternate their physical training with yoga and breathing exercises to get into the best shape possible. While high altitude trekking, you’ll need to breathe deeper and slower in order to take in more oxygen. Learning how to control your breath and use it more effectively will help you both before and during the trek.

Get a check-up

Before you go high altitude trekking, take stock of your fitness to make sure you have no medical issues that might complicate your trek. A medical check-up is always a good idea, but if you have any pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, knee or spinal injuries, or cardiac or respiratory problems, you should consult your doctor about the possible problems that may crop up. When you talk to your doctor, make sure you explain the weather conditions of the trek, how many days it will entail and the distance you plan to trek each day.

Get the right paperwork

Do take a closer look at your travel insurance before you go high altitude trekking. You should be covered at the highest altitude you’ll be walking at, and this is not always included in your policy. Some adventure travel policies include the costs of evacuation or medical emergencies, so you might want to look into that.

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During high altitude trekking

Give yourself time to acclimatize

If you are flying or driving to a starting point that is at a considerable altitude, you must allocate some time to acclimatize before the trek begins. This means making sure you eat light, frequent meals even if you aren’t hungry, staying hydrated, keeping warm, and resting. A common misconception is that you spend the whole day sleeping, but that’s not the right way to do it. Instead, go for short, easy walks at a slow pace. Your body needs to get used to functioning at this level, and some deep breathing and light exercise is the balanced way to do this.

Don’t underestimate the importance of acclimatizing. If you do it right, you’ll be fine the next day. If you don’t, you may experience some uncomfortable symptoms, or even fall seriously ill.

Don’t rush the trek

Be like the tortoise, not the hare. Adopt a comfortable pace, slow down when the ascent gets steep, and breathe deeply and steadily while high altitude trekking. Make sure to rest when you need to, even if it’s just to enjoy the view. On multi-day hikes, your guide may plan to increase altitude gradually by trekking at higher reaches, but then sleeping lower at night.

Increase water intake and eat well

Perspiration evaporates during high altitude trekking, and you’ll tend to need to pee more. If you’re trekking in cold weather, you might not feel thirsty, but your body needs the water. Dehydration can seriously impact the effects of altitude sickness, so make sure you’re sipping water often. Avoid coffee, nicotine, alcohol and anything else that will dehydrate you or reduce your breathing capacity.

Protect yourself from the cold

As you go higher, the temperatures usually get extreme. You might have very warm days and very cold nights. The best way to deal with this is to dress in layers, so you preserve your body warmth more effectively, and so that it’s easy to add or remove clothing. Do remember however, it is vital to stay warm and protected from the elements.

Always begin with a layer of thermal clothing, both top and bottom. This should be dry-fit and breathable, and of good quality. Layer fleece clothing on top of that, and top it off with insulated items that are wind- and water-proof.

Protect yourself from the sun

Even if the days are sunny and warm, you should be protected from the heat. The effects of overexposure to the sun can be just as harmful as exposure to the cold. With high altitude trekking, there’s less tree cover and the skies are usually clear of clouds, so it’s harder to find shelter. As the land bakes under a mid-day sun at this elevation, you don’t want to be roasting too.

During high altitude trekking, wear long-sleeved clothing to stave off sunburn and protect vulnerable parts like your head, the tops of your ears, and the back of your neck. Use sunscreen with a high SPF, and reapply frequently. Don’t forget sunglasses with a good UV protection number as well.

None of this is meant to scare you. High altitude trekking takes you through spectacularly beautiful landscapes and views, and there’s usually far less people than on the lower altitude treks. The key to managing well while high altitude trekking is to take care of yourself, to go easy, to watch yourself and your teammates for symptoms, and most importantly, to have a good time.

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