Air is thinner at altitude, which can affect your body if you aren’t used to it.
Altitude sickness can make you feel nauseous, exhausted, and lightheaded, among other side effects.
Proper hydration and skin protection are keys for good health.
Take it easy for the first few days to avoid overdoing it or worsening symptoms.
Some of the most beautiful cities and towns across the country are at higher altitudes, where the air is thinner. But the natural scenery—especially during winter—is worth the trek. If you’re one of the many Americans considering a move out west (or a vacation to the mountains), though, there’s one thing to consider: altitude.
Altitude sickness is no joke, so prospective home buyers and vacationers should take precautions to ensure the journey goes as planned. If you start experiencing severe symptoms of altitude sickness, seek out medical advice. Here are seven tips for acclimating to higher altitudes.
1. Understand the Basics of Altitude Sickness
If you’re coming from somewhere flat like Florida, Louisiana, parts of California, or pretty much anywhere in the northeast, your body is used to living at (or even below) sea level, where oxygen concentration is 20.9%. In a city like Denver, which is one mile above sea level, there’s a 17% reduction in oxygen.
Some people adjust to this change well, but others may experience altitude sickness. Signs of altitude sickness include:
Shortness of breath
Age, current acclimatization level, and your fitness level could impact your body’s response to altitude. Of course, if you have concerns about moving across the country or traveling to a high-altitude place, you should speak to your primary physician about making the transition.
2. Drink Plenty of Water
When your body isn’t acclimated to thinner air at altitude, it must work much harder to get fresh oxygen into red blood cells and over to your body’s tissues and cells. This change will likely result in your body using much more water than usual, even if you aren’t exercising or sweating. That’s why dehydration is very common.
It’s recommended that men and women drink between 2.7 and 3.7 liters (between 11 and 15 cups) of water per day at sea level. Aim to drink about one and a half times this guideline during your high-altitude stay until your body adjusts, and make sure you know the location of the nearest bathroom.
3. Arrive a Few Days Early
Anecdotally, many locals will say it takes about one to three days to adjust to the air in cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Colorado Springs. However, everyone adjusts to higher altitudes differently—some people feel little to no difference, while others may take up to a week to feel normal.
If you’re going to the highest of the high places—perhaps to a Colorado ski town like Breckenridge, where the altitude is above 8,000 feet—schedule a buffer day or two in a city like Denver or Boulder first. This method is especially helpful if you have an event, such as an endurance race or work meeting, where you need to feel your best.
4. Avoid Strenuous Cardio During Your First Few Days
Between dehydration and your body working overtime to fuel itself, intense exercise might be too much when acclimating to higher altitudes. That’s why you should skip the cardio or high-intensity exercise during your first few days at new heights. Walking, light yoga or stretching, and unpacking boxes are a few ways you can get your activity fix without overdoing it.
5. Wear Sunscreen
The sun’s UV intensifies by about 4% for every thousand feet of altitude gained. This intense change is not just a health concern for those with fair skin.
If you’re planning to spend the day outdoors hiking, skiing, backpacking, or camping, make sure you regularly apply sunblock. Contrary to popular belief, you can get a gnarly sunburn in the winter. In fact, the sun has a nasty way of reflecting off of packed snow and burning skin in areas it normally can’t reach, such as under the chin.
6. Make Adjustments When Cooking
Many visitors to high-altitude places are surprised the first time they cook a meal. Fun fact: Water boils faster at altitude due to a lower atmospheric pressure, which drops the boiling point from the standard of 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level.
Oddly, at high altitudes, you may find it harder to start a fire. Certain fuel types, including wood, simply don’t burn as well above 10,000 feet of altitude.
7. Limit Alcohol Consumption
Finally, avoid drinking a lot of alcohol during your first few days at high altitude. Booze of any kind is likely to hit your system harder than it would at sea level. Caffeine can have a similar effect at altitude, too.
If you’re attending a social event with alcohol, ensure you're well hydrated before and try to limit your consumption to one or two drinks. But hey, if you’re traveling on a budget, you might be able to achieve a buzz with much less beer or wine than usual. That’s kind of a win, right?