High Altitude Tips For Backpackers
My first high altitude experience was going to the top of Mount Shasta (14,179 feet) in California. My head was pounding like someone was knocking on a door, and this continued for hours. After I made it to the summit and began to descend, the pain went away. This is a clue to the primary treatment for any altitude related problems: go lower.
High Altitude Illnesses
Here are the three most common illnesses caused by altitude:
AMS or acute mountain sickness: Common when going above 10,000 feet (3000 meters) without proper acclimatization. Symptoms include headache, nausea, weakness, shortness of breath, vomiting, and problems sleeping.
HAPE or high altitude pulmonary edema: Rare below 8,500 feet (2,500 meters) More common with younger (under 18) hikers and persons who have had the problem before. Symptoms develop 24 to 60 hours after arrival at high altitude, and include coughing, shortness of breath, weakness, headache, rapid heart rate, and progress to constant coughing, bloody sputum, fever and chest congestion. Crackling sound in chest, resting pulse rate of 110 respirations per minute, and respirations over 16 per minute are early signs of HAPE. Death is usually within 12 hours after coma starts.
CE or cerebral edema: Less common than AMS or HAPE, but more dangerous. Rare below 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). Symptoms include increasingly severe headache, instability, mental confusion, hallucinations, loss of vision, facial muscle paralysis, loss of dexterity, restless sleep followed by coma and death.
High Altitude Tips
Many people have reported better performance or less altitude sickness when using Ginkgo Biloba. In Ecuador we drank "mate de coca" (tea of coca leaves) before going to 20,600 feet on Chimborazo. Coca leaves are nothing like the cocaine they are processed into, and have been used for centuries to help people function better at high altitude.
The other thing you can do to feel better when you are high in the mountains, is to breath more. Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a survival mechanism that makes us breath more deeply at altitude. We tend to continue our shallow-breathing habits. So consciously try to breath more.
Climbers who intend to travel at high altitude should ask a doctor about the latest recommendations for medicines to take. For backpackers and others who primarily pass through high altitude for short periods of time, aspirin will help most headaches. The primary treatment for all altitude problems is to go lower. Often a descent of just 2,000 feet will resolve any problems, but in general, just keep going lower until the problem is resolved.
Swelling of the fingers is common at high altitude as well. This requires no treatment, and will usually go away when you descend. Increased gas and flatulence is a problem at altitude as well. Eat fewer foods that cause gas to avoid this problem.
Another thing to remember is that the higher you go, the worse your ability to digest food gets. Try to stick to easy-to-digest foods like simple carbohydrates while you are above 10,000 feet.
Dehydration can cause headaches and other symptoms similar to high altitude illnesses. Often water supplies are rare or inconvenient at altitude (setting up the stove to melt snow repeatedly). Add to that the fact that you won't feel as dehydrated in the cooler air, and it is easy to forget to drink enough. At least start fully hydrated before going high up, and have your water bottles full.
About the Author: Copyright Steve Gillman. There is more on dealing with altitude in the ebook "Ultralight Backpacking Secrets (And Wilderness Survival Tips)". get it FREE, as well as photos, gear recommendations, and a new wilderness survival section, at: http://www.The-Ultralight-Site.com