'How will I cope with the altitude?' That's one of the most commonly-asked questions by anyone considering an overseas trek such as Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp or even Machu Picchu.
Altitude can affect individuals in many different ways, regardless of age, fitness levels and previous experience. Everyone’s response is unique, but there are steps you can take before and during your trek to minimise the effects.
Finding out how your body responds to altitude, building in more time where necessary, acclimatising for your trek during training and then following the altitude advice give to you throughout the trek will all significantly enhance the experience.
HOW YOUR BODY RESPONDS TO ALTITUDE
As you climb higher, especially over 2,400m, the air gets thinner, and the pressure drops, resulting in a lower percentage of oxygen available to the body.
Everything is harder
The body’s need for oxygen is the same as if you were at sea level. However, less is being delivered to the muscles. As altitude builds, the level of intensity you can sustain tends to be lower.
Elevated heart rate
Your heart rate is raised to maintain the flow of oxygen from your lungs into your tissues; breathing becomes faster and deeper and fatigue sets in much earlier.
Test your sensitivity
The opportunity to test your sensitivity to a low oxygen environment before you head off is readily available to you - at facilities like The Altitude Centre in London.
PICKING THE MOST SUITABLE TREK
It's not just about the height. Kilimanjaro (5,895m) and Everest Base Camp (5,500m) offer similar challenges in terms of altitude but present very different demands to one another.
Kilimanjaro tends to be a much shorter trek, usually five to six days, whereas Everest Base Camp is often much longer, and can be anything from 10 to 24 days.
And even trips to lower altitudes, such as Machu Picchu (2,430m), can pose similar difficulties caused by altitude sickness as you fly into the city of Cusco (3,399m). Most operators will ensure you spend at least three days before beginning that trek.
Give yourself time
If the results indicate you are more susceptible, it may be worth picking a longer trek, or one with added acclimatisation days.
Kilimanjaro treks Everest Base Camp treks
Steady build up
Be wary of starting your trek too early if flying into altitude, particularly if you haven’t completed some pre-acclimatisation before your trip.
Machu Picchu treks
TRAINING FOR ALTITUDE
Altitude can be daunting to some people, but with the correct preparation, it's possible to tackle the effects of altitude and reach your target.
Minimise the effects
Find out more
You can counteract the impact altitude can have on the body with a course of pre-acclimatisation, through exposure to simulated altitudes of up to 6,500m.
Maximise your training time
When it comes to training at simulated altitudes, the longer you can train, the greater the adaptations will be - just like the real thing. We recommend training two to three times a week, for four to six weeks prior to your trek.
You exercise as if at 2,700m (15% oxygen), either high-intensity (HIIT) or low-intensity, high-incline walking. Passive acclimatisation involves breathing low oxygen air (up to 6,500m) for short periods of time to train the body to cope better.
ADVICE FOR THE TREK ITSELF
Like most endeavours, preparation is key; so following the guidelines suggested above will help to ensure you arrive at the bottom of the mountain in the best possible shape, physically and physiologically.
And when the trek starts, there are some key ways in which you can continue to minimise the effects of altitude:
Walk at a slow pace
Setting off too fast can increase the risk of suffering from altitude sickness later on in the trek, so avoid over-exertion. Those who find it difficult to take it steady are often most susceptible to altitude sickness.
Regulate your breathing
Walking at a very slow pace can even leave you feeling breathless, so ascend slowly enough to keep the breathing controlled and through the nose.
Prevention is better than cure, so maintaining hydration is vital. Take on board plenty of fluids throughout the day and avoid alcohol, which dehydrates.
Eat little and often
Your guides will look after your nutritional needs - carbohydrates need less oxygen to burn and produce energy compared to fatty foods and are prominent in the diets of those who work at altitude.
Rest is doubly important
The structure of the trek is designed to ensure your body is constantly acclimatising, following a pattern of trekking to higher altitudes, before coming down a little to sleep. This means when you begin to trek again, the effects of altitude are reduced, as your body has experienced them previously.
Find your trek
Armed with the knowledge of what trekking at altitude involves, and how best to prepare, here are the most popular options on offer.
Kili Everest Machu Picchu More treks
Not for you?
If you're not sure about walking above 2,400m then that's not a problem - there are lots of other great treks around the world to choose from.
Great Wall of China All treks