I recently spent a lovely autumn weekend in Keystone, Colorado, with a gaggle of girlfriends. At 9,280 feet in elevation, the sky was bright blue, the air quite crisp. Aspens were turning a glorious shade of gold and craggy mountain peaks taunted us their first dustings of snow. (Keystone ski resort opens in just 23 days!)
Our group of eight enjoyed some great meals (the prix fixe menu at the historic and charming Ski Tip Lodge is highly recommended), a fabulous mountain hike (Lower Cataract Lake was ablaze in fiery leaves), and convivial camaraderie. What wasn’t so fun? A few of the ladies suffered some symptoms of altitude sickness — dizziness, nausea, headaches. Even I felt a bit parched all weekend in the thin air — and I live at 7,000 feet above sea level! (Of course, my slight dehydration might have had more to do with copious amounts of wine and late nights gabbing with gal pals.)
Altitude sickness (also called acute mountain sickness) occurs because less oxygen and less humidity is available to your body at mountain ski resorts that sit above 8,000 feet, according to the medical experts at Aspen Valley Hospital. On ski vacations, you might also reach heights of 11,000 feet or more once you ascend that chairlift — that’s thin-air land, for sure! While symptoms might be more common among lowlanders — people who live at sea level — symptoms can effect anyone, as witnessed by my dry mouth (I couldn’t get enough water) and insomnia when I overnighted at 9,000+ feet.
While you and your family may experience high-altitude symptoms during your ski vacation this year — or your next trip to Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, or a trek up Kilamanjaro — by no means should the fear of feeling a bit woozy stop you from traveling to mountain destinations! In fact, once you’re armed with the below tips and antidotes, you’ll be much better prepared to combat any altitude sickness you might encounter. Truly, I believe the beauty of vacationing in the mountains (skiing! hiking! biking! scenery!) far outweighs any discomfort you might feel.
Here’s how to best avoid altitude sickness when traveling in the mountains:
Acclimate at a midway elevation first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests not going from low altitude to a sleeping altitude of 9,000 feet in one day. If you’re flying into Colorado for a ski vacation, I highly recommend spending the night at a Denver hotel first. Get used to the thinner air for 12 to 18 hours, then ascend to a higher elevation.
Drink copious amounts of water three days before you start your trip. Get your body well hydrated before you even set foot on a plane.
Take it easy for the first 24 to 48 hours you are at altitude. I know this is much easier said than done. You’ve spent all this money on a ski vacation, you want to hit the slopes! But if you plan quieter activities for at least your first full day in the mountains, you may be able to avoid headaches (literally) later.
Huffington Post Social News Editor and freelance writer AnneMarie Dooling, was on a Contiki group tour in Peru when she battled the affects of the altitude at the base of Machu Picchu, spending about 36 hours with excruciating stomach pain and heavy nausea. “I’ll be more cautious next time I travel to the mountains by taking it slower,” says Dooling, who noted that her symptoms fully went away when the group descended to Lima, at sea level. “Participating in a long hike on my first day probably wasn’t a great idea.”
Drink copious amounts of water when you arrive at altitude. You are not only prone to dehydration, but also constipation, in the mountains, so get your eight glasses a day (or more) to keep things moving. Ironically, diarrhea is another symptom of altitude sickness. So is “gas.” (Lovely, right?)
Eat light meals. See previous note about constipation. Plus, less food in your belly means less food that’ll come up if you did get hit with waves of nausea.
Avoid alcohol. I know this one might be difficult for my party-hearty TBEX blogging friends who will be descending upon Keystone in June, but as everyone knows, alcohol is dehydrating, and you want to be adding water to your body at altitude, not drinking things that will suck all the moisture out of you.
Get a good nights’ sleep. Insomnia is one symptom of altitude sickness, so you might not be able to avoid a fitful night or two at the beginning of your thin-air mountain vacation. But if you can try to go to bed early, and allow the whole family to sleep in the first couple days, it could make for a more pleasant stay in the long run.
Pack Advil. At the first sign of headache, pop some ibuprofen. Be sure to bring pain relievers for your children, too.
Bring ginger chews, ginger capsules or ginger tea. One of my friends on my recent Keystone getaway said even the comforting, slightly spicy scent of ginger tea helped quell her stomach nausea on the last day of our visit. Which brings me to…
Recognize that altitude sickness could hit any time. The doctors at MedicineNet.com note that the onset of altitude sickness symptoms can occur any time between eight and 96 hours after arrival at altitudes of 8,000 feet or more. One travel buddy at Keystone had to skip dinner the first night because she felt dizzy and exhausted; the other didn’t feel symptoms until our last morning.
Peru traveler AnneMarie Dooling says she learned, from a very knowledgeable Cusco-based Contiki tour director and her own observations, that altitude sickness can affect different people in a variety of ways: “I became ill very quickly, but we still had tour group members getting
sick after we arrived down in Lima. It can take the body a few days to recover, so you might also want to take it easy after you first arrive back in the lowlands.”
Seek medical attention if you feel extremely uncomfortable or are in undue amounts of pain. I’m certainly no medical expert, but I would advise high-altitude vacationers to get to a doctor or hospital if headaches are unbearable, if breathing is extremely difficult or heart palpitations occur.
Most altitude sickness symptoms are mild, and can be avoided (or dealt with) via the tips above — and again, fear of altitude sickness shouldn’t stop anyone from vacationing in Colorado or Cusco. Just take it slow, drink your water, avoid alcohol and you’ll surely have a great time playing in the mountains.
Do you have tips for avoiding altitude sickness when vacationing in mountain climes? Please let us know in the comments below!