How to Hike at Elevation
To learn more about how to hike at elevation, we reached out to Linda Black Regnier, avid hiker, climber, and author of “Best Easy Day Hikes Santa Fe.” Regnier boasts extensive experience hiking at high elevations, including Nepal’s Kala Patthar above Everest Base Camp (18,519 feet) and several peaks in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains (above 12,500 feet).
What is considered high elevation for hiking?
- High altitude: 7,000 to 11,500 feet
- Very high altitude: 11,500 to 18,000 feet
- Extremely high altitude: above 18,000 feet
What’s the difference between elevation and altitude?
Is hiking at high elevations harder?
What should you pack for high elevation hikes?
“You always want to have a hat with a wide brim,” says Regnier. She also recommends a good backpack, sunglasses with UV protection, and good lip balm. Hiking shirts and pants with UPF-rated fabric work great and can be even more effective than sunscreen because you don’t have to keep reapplying it. Just make sure that you still use sunscreen on your face, ears, neck, hands, and other uncovered areas.
Choose hiking gear with sweat-wicking fabrics instead of cotton to provide moisture management. Regnier prefers leggings to hiking pants, but notes that it’s a matter of personal preference. She also recommends hiking poles for anyone with knee issues to lessen the pressure on them.
“It's typically steeper, and at a lot of really high elevations you're above the tree line, so you might have to ditch your poles if you have to scramble,” says Regnier. “But until you get to that point, they're very handy. You can always stash them somewhere and get them on the way back down.”
Rainwear is critical and needs to be not only fully waterproof at high elevations, but lightweight, breathable, and packable. This is especially important if you’re hiking somewhere that has a monsoon season, when heavy rain can come on rapidly. Choose something with advanced waterproofing features such as OutDry™ Extreme.
“In New Mexico, I've been caught in horrific rainstorms, where I’ve gone out in the morning and it was beautiful and sunny, and then suddenly a monsoon rolls in,” says Regnier.
Lastly, it is imperative to have proper footwear. “Above the tree line, it’s really important to keep in mind that you usually don't have very good trails. So you really need rugged, high-quality shoes,” she says. Look for options with sturdy ankle support and exceptional traction such as the Facet™ 75 Alpha or anything with Adapt Trax™ technology. Higher tops are important too, so you may want to opt for hiking boots over hiking shoes at higher elevations.
Here’s a checklist of some basic high elevation hiking gear to consider:
Things to consider when hiking at high elevation
3. Weather conditions
4. Trail conditions
5. Lack of oxygen
Breathing at high altitude can impact your physical performance and stamina—hiking becomes more challenging, and even simple tasks can feel exhausting. Hikers may find themselves taking more frequent breaks to catch their breath. This can lead to altitude sickness, which can be very serious.
Signs of altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness can strike anyone regardless of age or physical fitness, so it's essential for hikers and mountaineers to acclimatize gradually, allowing the body time to adjust to the changing conditions.
Failing to acclimate properly or ascending too rapidly significantly increases the risk of altitude sickness, making it crucial to monitor symptoms and descend immediately if severe signs of AMS appear. Proper planning and awareness of altitude-related risks are essential to mitigate the potentially serious consequences of altitude sickness during high altitude adventures.
Signs of sickness
- Mild Mild side effects of high altitude include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, trouble sleeping, and fatigue. “If you experience any of those symptoms, you should take it easy,” Regnier says. “If you're camping, don’t go up any higher. If it starts to get more serious, you may have to descend to a lower elevation.”
- Moderate Moderate high elevation effects include more severe headache, ataxia (poor coordination), disorientation, increased weakness, and more severe nausea and vomiting. With these symptoms, it’s important to descend and not just stay where you are. “If you have symptoms of moderate high altitude sickness, you need to sleep lower than where you were hiking,” she says. “In those cases, you have to go down. I saw this happen when I was hiking toward Everest Base Camp. A fellow in our group got sick. The guide made him go down 500 feet and sleep there for two nights.”
- Severe Severe symptoms of high altitude sickness include difficulty breathing, confusion, and fluid buildup in the lungs or brain (pulmonary or cerebral edema), which can be life-threatening.
At what elevation do you need oxygen?
How to breathe at high altitudes
It's crucial to listen to your body, pay attention to any signs of altitude sickness, and descend immediately if symptoms become severe. Proper acclimatization, hydration, and gradual ascent are essential elements to support your body's adaptation to higher elevations.
How to prepare for high altitude hiking
“If you live at sea level, you can’t fly into Santa Fe where it’s 7,000 feet and decide you're going to go hiking that day. That's a bad idea. You need to prepare yourself. You should acclimate for two or three days, drink lots of water, avoid alcohol, and be sure you eat,” says Regnier.
Prior to your trip, train for your high elevation hike by getting regular cardiovascular exercise—this will improve your lung capacity and physical fitness. Stay well hydrated throughout your preparation and the hike itself, as dehydration can worsen altitude-related symptoms.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with the signs of altitude sickness and be ready to descend if necessary. Adequate rest and sleep are also vital for the body to adapt effectively to the new altitude.
“It doesn't matter if you've spent time in high altitudes before. Even if you have, you can still get sick. You just don’t know,” says Regnier.
She notes that, generally speaking, you should be in good physical condition to attempt higher elevation hikes. When planning your high altitude hike, you should always consult with your doctor, who can prescribe treatment options for altitude sickness in the event over-the-counter medications may not be sufficient.
Regnier also notes that you should never hike alone above 7,000 feet, and should always tell somebody where you're going.
“You can hurt yourself so much more easily at higher elevations. Even if you're in great shape, you can twist your leg when you're crossing a creek, or break an ankle. Plus, you need someone to be there if you start experiencing any high altitude issues. Symptoms can be disorienting so you may not be aware of them,” she states.
What are the three stages of acclimatization to high altitude?
- Preparation: During this stage, individuals gradually expose themselves to higher altitudes, allowing their bodies to initiate physiological changes to cope with reduced oxygen levels.
- Ascent: The second stage involves a gradual climb to higher elevations, allowing the body to adapt further through increased red blood cell production and improved oxygen utilization.
- Descent: Equally crucial to the first two, this stage gives the body time to recover and readjust to lower altitudes after spending time at higher elevations.