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How to Prepare for High Altitude Destinations

We are by no means avid hikers, let alone actual trekkers or seekers of high-altitude adventures in general. However, there are certain destinations where we’ll find ourselves in a higher altitude situation than we’re used to. Our recent trip to Ecuador is the perfect example, and what led us to writing this article. Since we have less experience with functioning at high altitude destinations, we did some research to prepare and set ourselves up for a comfortable trip. In the end we did ok, and only experienced some mild discomfort on a few occasions, and we hope to help you do the same. So let’s get into it!

What is High Altitude?

By most accounts, anything over 4,900 feet (1,493 meters) above sea level is considered high altitude. 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) is considered very high altitude and anything over 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) is extreme. 

To give some context, New York City is 33 feet above sea level and “Mile High” Denver is at 5,280 feet. Quito, Ecuador is the second highest capital city in the world, at 9,350 feet. A couple of its nearby tourist attractions that we visited – TeleferiQo (12,950 feet) and Cotopaxi National Park (15,760 feet at its base) – easily qualify as very high altitude. Cotopaxi is the second-highest active volcano in Ecuador and one of the highest in the world, with its peak soaring at an extreme altitude of 19,347 feet.

We didn’t even climb Cotopaxi – on foot or horseback – and we were feeling the altitude ever so slightly. But it was nothing some coca candies didn’t keep in check.  Anyone in our group who was planning to hike was advised to test their stamina by first hiking to the nearby glacier. If they felt any affects of the altitude at that point they were advised to not go any farther up the mountain, as it only got more and more extreme. Fortunately for us, were were the only ones to choose horseback riding, so we had the entire vast area surrounding the base of the volcano all to ourselves – along with our tour guide, of course. Thunder, lightning, getting pelted by hail, bones and skulls, a wild horse sighting – that experience was one of the top highlights of our entire two-week trip. Check out our Cotopaxi National Park | Day Trip from Quito vlog and you’ll see why!

man and woman on horseback at Cotopaxi National Park, one of the high altitude destinations in Ecuador. snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano is in the backgrioud
©Stephen & Andie

What to Expect: What Are the Symptoms of High Altitude Sickness?

Oxygen. Our bodies rely on it. And not just our lungs, but our muscles, too. The higher the altitude, the more difficulty our body has absorbing it. The less oxygen, the harder our muscles have to work. That’s why some simple everyday acts, like taking on a simple flight of stairs, can feel so much more strenuous at higher altitudes. With less oxygen assisting you, you’ll feel an increased heart rate, restricted lung capacity and shortness of breath, for starters. And if you’re very active, your muscles will ache more than usual. Two more of the most common symptoms are headache and nausea, and others can include drowsiness, lassitude, confusion, and lack of coordination.

Remedies to Help With High Altitude Sickness

First, we recommend consulting with your doctor about which options are best for you, specifically, before traveling to high altitude destinations – especially with regard to any prescription medications. That said, there are several more basic things you can do to avoid or at least mitigate altitude sickness. 

Local Remedies

Most high altitude destinations have their own local remedies. A little advance research before making your trip will gIve you a sense of what to look for when you arrive. In places like Ecuador and Peru, the coca plant is a common source for a variety of remedies. Don’t worry – it’s not a narcotic, it’s a stimulant. Some of your options are coca candies, coca teas, and from what we’ve been told, even chewing the leaf itself. We can’t speak to how desirable that particular option is, but the candies and teas are quite nice and effective with high altitude adjustment. 

Hydrate, Hydrate, and Hydrate Some More

While drinking water may not seem like a remedy, its importance can’t be overstated. For starters, you should make sure to start hydrating a few days to a week before you travel, especially if you’ll be flying. And if you are flying, continue to hydrate throughout the flight. Being well-hydrated will severely decrease the risk of a headache when you arrive. You  should also continue to stay hydrated throughout the duration of your trip.

Medicate Upon Arrival at High Altitude Destinations

Once at your destination, it’s a wise move to take a dose of whatever your preferred headache medication is along with a generous amount of water. It’s a lot more difficult to get rid of that first headache at a high altitude than it is your average headache. Taking some preemptive measures is likely to minimize the severity of that potential headache, making it easier to manage if and when it does come on.

Be Kind to Your Stomach

Until you’ve acclimated to your new high altitude settings, it’s a good idea to not overindulge. Eating smaller, lighter, and more high-energy meals will go a long way in keeping you operating in top form at high altitude destinatons..

Listen to Your Body

If you or any of your travel buddies are feeling the effects of high altitude, and have plans to go even higher, don’t push it. Take the extra time you need to continue to adjust before going farther. And there’s no shame in going back down to a lower elevation if need be, either. As ominous as all of these warnings may seem, another reality is that many people don’t have any problems whatsoever. But none of us can predict who will or won’t be affected. So take precautions, prepare, and you’ll stand the best chance at having little to no problems. Listen to your body and do what’s best, even if you don’t reach that summit high in the sky. 

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