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Adjusting to High Altitude: 7 Ways to Avoid Altitude Sickness

We are all aware of that John Muir quote that has now become a cliché and has been repinned a million times —“The mountains are calling and I must go.” Unfortunately, what it leaves out is a nasty little something referred to as altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness is an illness caused by high altitude and the resulting shortage of oxygen, characterized chiefly by hyperventilation, nausea, exhaustion, and cerebral edema.

Altitude sickness is something that should be taken seriously. And, while you probably won’t die from it, you can certainly expect a ruined trip to the mountains. Trust us, nobody and we mean nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars on a ski trip only to be stuck in the cabin hugging the toilet bowl.

Not only is altitude sickness a risk for those planning a vacation to the mountains, it’s also a risk for those moving to or visiting cities with higher elevation, such as Denver, CO. Those first few weeks in your new, highly elevated city can be especially difficult if you are prone to altitude sickness and unprepared.

This is exactly why we put together this post on adjusting to the high altitude. Here we’ll share with you 7 easy ways to avoid the horrible icy claws of altitude sickness. Let’s dive in.

7 easy ways to avoid altitude sickness.

Thankfully, avoiding altitude sickness is extremely easy. And, while we can’t make the high elevation lower, we do have some preventative measures you can take to stay happy and healthy. Like anything in life, altitude sickness is extremely difficult to get rid of once it has arrived… so prevention is essential. Let’s dive right in.

1. Don’t overdo it on the alcoholic beverages.

Many people find themselves hammering back more alcohol than usual on ski trips. In part because they are living it up with their friends in the mountains and letting the good times roll… but also to stay warm and perhaps take the edge off the days filled with endless falls and crashes.

With that said, heavy drinking can enhance the effects of altitude sickness on the body in two ways. One, a key to avoiding altitude sickness is staying hydrated (which we will be covering in the next section) –– alcohol actually dehydrates the body.

And, two, when you drink you won’t just be hit with the dizziness of intoxication but also the dizziness of altitude sickness… so a double whammy of dizzy. Some studies suggest that you may get drunk faster at higher altitudes, although it’s difficult to understand whether or not the alcohol potentiates the effects of alcohol or if it’s just the combination of dizziness from drinking with the (potential) dizziness from the high altitude.

2. Stay extra hydrated.

Believe it or not, you actually lose more water and sodium when you’re up in the mountains. This combined with physical activity (hiking and skiing), along with much drier and cooler air means it is easy to get dehydrated if you’re not throwing back the H2O. Also, along with chugging water, it might be a good idea to run a humidifier of sorts while you are inside your hotel or cabin. Dehydration can enhance the effects of altitude sickness and it is much easier to get dehydrated when you in the mountains.

3. Get plenty of rest.

Generally speaking, when people head to high elevation, they aren’t looking to just relax. Their trips are normally packed full of mountain biking, camping, exploring, hiking and skiing. While we would never tell you to not take advantage of nature’s playground… we do recommend that you make an effort to get plenty of rest. Higher altitudes can have some crazy effects on your sleep patterns… the biggest of which is sleep apnea or frequent pauses in breath. When you are in the mountains and experiencing sleep apnea, you aren’t getting as full of rest as you are when you are cuddled up in your warm bed at home… which means you need to rest more. Keep this in mind if you are looking to avoid altitude sickness.

4. Be smart about your physical activity.

Like we mentioned in the previous section, anytime you head to the mountains, you probably have some pretty ambitious activities planned. With that said, we recommend that you be smart about this physical activity that you partake in. Due to the fact that there is less oxygen the higher you go, the heart has to work much harder… this means you are more likely to get tired quicker, suffer from altitude sickness and have a tougher time adjusting to high elevation. So, we recommend that you be smart about your physical activity. After stepping off the plane, give your body plenty of time to adjust before going for a ten mile run through the mountains.

5. Eat a high carb diet.

A vacation in a high elevation is not the time nor the place to start a low carb diet. Nor is the time right after moving! In fact, you should do the complete opposite… you should be loading up on carbs. No, this isn’t an excuse to drown yourself in french fries and pizza. We are talking good high carbs like… whole grains, potatoes, fruits, and whole wheat bread. We suppose pizza can fall into the bread category. In all seriousness, it’s important to remember that your body burns more calories when functioning at a high elevation, so you are going to need to increase your carb load if you are interested in adjusting to the high altitude.

6. Come prepared with medication just to be safe.

Before venturing off into the mountains, we recommend you schedule an appointment with your doctor… especially if you are prone to altitude sickness. Fortunately, there are plenty of medications out there that can help you in avoiding altitude sickness. Medications like prophylaxis and dexamethasone (and in severe cases drugs like Cialis and Viagra can work). There is a misconception that you have to be tough and take on altitude sickness on your own… but this is far from true. If you experience altitude sickness often, we highly recommend that you take some sort of prescription medication to avoid it.

7. Ascend the mountain slowly rather than quickly.

When your adrenaline is pumping and you’re ready to get from the bottom to the top of the mountain you might be inclined to climb as quickly as possible –– this is a bad idea. It is important to remember that your body typically needs 4-5 days to adjust to high elevation (8,000+) feet. So, with that said, don’t expect to just climb the mountain in one day. Climb slower rather than faster to avoid altitude sickness… plus this gives you more time to take in the beautiful scenery. Denver, for example, has several beautiful hikes that don’t require much (additional) elevation change.

Bonus Tip: this one doesn’t necessarily relate to altitude sickness, but we like to recommend it because it is often overlooked. If you are in the mountains you are closer to the sun, which means you are more likely to burn. So, whether it is cloudy or cold outside, you still want to wear sunscreen.

Final thoughts on adjusting to high altitude

We think everyone should enjoy the experience that only mountains can offer, be that in a vacation or a permanent move. With that said, we would hate to see this experience ruined by a bad bout of altitude sickness. As we mentioned earlier, the best line of defense against altitude sickness is taking a preventative approach versus a reactive one. As long as you apply what we outlined in this article, you’ll be good to go.

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