Altitude and Acclimatizing To It

Most people can over time acclimate to the higher elevations of The Colorado Trail, which range from 5,500 feet to 13,300 feet and average 10,300 feet. A few people cannot, however, including those who may have an underlying medical condition that may or may not have been diagnosed. But that is not common.

Fully acclimatizing can take days, even weeks, but there are a number of steps that Trail users, especially those planning multiday excursions, can take to ease their transition to the elevation change:

  • Stay high. No, we’re not referring to Colorado’s availability of recreational marijuana. We are suggesting that after arriving in the state, and before striking out on the Trail, that you spend a couple of days in a mountain town at 8,000-9,000 feet. Do some easy day hikes or rides to gauge how your body is adjusting to the change. Even spending time in Denver at 5,000 feet can be helpful.
  • Take it easy. Plan to hike fewer miles a day than you might otherwise at lower elevations.
  • Ascend slowly. Ascend no more than 1,000-1,500 feet per day as you get going.
  • Even before arriving, drink more water than you ordinarily might. Because of Colorado’s relatively low humidity, you’ll lose more-than-normal moisture with every breath. Drinking more helps counteract the effects of that, including headaches and lethargy, and enables to body to create more blood cells needed at higher elevations.
  • Carb up. Eating foods high in carbohydrates is recommended.
  • Get adequate rest. At altitude, your body may need more sleep than normal.
  • Consider medication. Drugs are available that can help the body acclimatize. Talk to your doctor about whether these might be right for you. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen can offer headache relief.

It is normal to experience a faster pulse rate, headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and difficulty sleeping for a few days as you acclimatize. If, however, you develop lung congestion, become confused, or lose coordination, you should return to a lower elevation as quickly as possible. Those symptoms can indicate more serious, and possibly fatal, forms of altitude sickness known as HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema).

Other symptoms of HAPE are shortness of breath, a cough (particularly if accompanied by a frothy sputum tinged with blood), difficulty walking, and fever. HACE is often accompanied by confusion, loss of consciousness, fever, and a rapid heartbeat.

Most thru- and multiday hikers and bikers elect to go south from Denver, not only as a matter of convenience but because the elevation gain is much more gradual. From Durango, the CT ascends abruptly to more than 12,000 feet in 23 miles, which is not only more challenging physically but shortens the time for acclimatizing.

For additional information we recommend a closed group on Facebook entitled Altitude Acclimatization. There’s no fee but one needs to ask to become a member and gain access.