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Climbing to reach the top of a mountain can be a rewarding experience. Along with the thrills of climbing itself, mountain summits often offer sweeping views and uniquely solitary environments. However, it’s important to understand the health and physical challenges you may face when seeking adventure at high altitudes. Learn about some of the risks of mountain climbing and steps you can take to stay safe.
It’s essential to wear proper gear for hiking and mountain climbing. Wear clothing that allows you to move and maneuver comfortably. Choose well-fitting shoes that provide ankle support, stability, and grip. If you’re hiking on rocky trails, use one or two walking poles to help maintain your balance while navigating uneven terrain. A pole will also take some of the physical impact off your knees, hips, ankles, and lower back.
It’s a good idea to carry gear for all types of weather. The air is thinner at high altitudes. This can lead to extreme and rapid changes in temperatures. Pack layers of clothing that you can add or remove as needed. Don’t forget rain- and wind-proof outerwear made of lightweight material. You should also bring something to keep the sun out of your eyes, such as a baseball hat and sunglasses. Also, don’t forget the sunscreen. The sun’s rays tend to be more intense at higher altitudes, especially if reflecting off of snow.
When you’re high up in the mountains, you may be far from civilization and access to sustenance. Remember to carry food and water for your trip. Staying hydrated can be challenging because you perspire more at higher altitudes.
Carry all of your extra gear and food in a backpack with at least two straps. Make sure your backpack fits snugly and has padded straps and a waist belt.
Besides the hardship of hiking up a mountain, the high altitude itself can cause serious health concerns. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is the most common altitude-related disorder. It’s commonly known as "altitude sickness." Its primary symptom is a severe headache, but other symptoms may include:
Some other altitude-related disorders include:
Always take AMS seriously because it may put you at risk for HAPE or HACE. These are very serious conditions. HAPE happens when excess fluid collects in your lungs. It can cause shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and coughing up of frothy sputum. HACE happens when fluid collects in your brain. It can cause confusion, uncharacteristic behavior, drowsiness, and loss of consciousness.
There are several steps you can take to lower your risk of altitude-related illnesses.
Most altitude-related illnesses are caused by lack of oxygen. High altitudes have a lower concentration of oxygen in the air. You may be able to avoid altitude sickness by proper acclimatization. It’s important to take your time to travel to high altitudes. Rather than driving or flying to a high-altitude starting point, try to start low and gradually move your way up. Once you reach an altitude of 8,000 feet, don’t climb more than 1,000 feet per day, as advised by American Family Physician.
It’s also important to stay hydrated, avoid drinking alcohol, stay warm, and eat regularly. Some climbers and trek leaders also carry an oxygen supply when traveling to extremely high altitudes.
The drug acetazolamide may help you make ascents without acclimating first. Acetazolamide works by stimulating your breathing. This helps you take in more oxygen. It also mimics the physiological changes associated with acclimatization.
Sleeping at high altitudes can be difficult. Low oxygen intake during the night can interrupt your sleep or leave you feeling tired in the morning. Acetazolamide can help you breathe better throughout the night. "Climb high, sleep low" is a phrase that many climbers swear by. You should sleep at the lowest altitude possible that’s compatible with your trip.
If you’re prone to iron deficiency anemia, you may want to consider taking an iron supplement before and during travel to high altitudes. Oxygen is transported throughout your body in red blood cells. If you have anemia, you have fewer red blood to carry oxygen. As a result, you’re more likely to experience altitude sickness than some with normal red blood cell counts.
If you or a climbing partner has any symptoms of altitude-related illness, descend immediately. Try to descend by 3,000 feet or more. If descent is not immediately possible, take temporary measures to manage the illness. For example, the person should be placed in a pressurized (Gamow) bag, given oxygen, or given drugs such as dexamethasone (Decadron).
With proper preparation and careful attention to safety, high altitude hiking and mountain travel can be a fun, challenging, and truly inspiring experience. Always pack appropriate gear. Take time to acclimatize yourself to higher altitudes. And ask your doctor about the potential benefits of taking acetazolamide and iron supplements.
Written by: The Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: May 05, 2016: Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE
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