High and Dry: Tips for Brits in High Altitude

Be sure to pack water even if just going for a short hike like these guys in Yellowstone. (Backroads)

Be sure to pack water even if just going for a short hike. (Backroads)

Chances are, while you’re in the U.S., you’ll visit somewhere that’s higher than you’ve ever been if you’re not a skier or a serious climber. For reference, the highest point in the U.K. is Ben Nevis, at 4,409 feet (1,344 meters) Mont Blanc is 15,782 feet (4,810 meters), Chamonix is 12,598 feet (3,840 meters) and Les Arcs is 10,662 feet (3,250 meters).

There are 67 “fourteeners” in the U.S. (mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet high), and many more ranges above 10,000 feet. You don’t even have to ski to experience these heights; the highest point in the Sierra Nevada range is over 14,000 feet; Alpine, in Arizona, is 8,050 feet high and both the Adirondack and Catskill mountain ranges boast peaks of over 4,000 feet.

With these high altitudes can come health challenges, usually in the form of altitude sickness or AMS (acute mountain sickness). This can vary from a mild, hangover-like headache to more serious conditions requiring medical attention. AMS is more common once you’re over 8,000 feet but I witnessed it for the first time at around 6,000 feet and, with a hospital visit and a rented oxygen tank in the bedroom, it wasn’t pretty.

If you’re going to a high altitude destination, I strongly advise you to read up on what you can do to prepare yourself and what to watch out for when you’re there. It’s hard to predict just who will get AMS but, as a perennial sufferer, I have resorted to prescription Diamox which, for me, works wonders.

In most cases, the main cause of the general unwell feeling is simple dehydration, so drinking as much water as you can stomach both before and during your visit and avoiding alcohol (yes, really) help a lot. You will also find yourself absolutely pooped at the slightest physical exertion until you get used to things. The first time I visited Colorado I could barely get up two flights of stairs and wondered what on earth was wrong with me.

If you’re a typical Brit used to a temperate climate, your skin may take a dive at high altitudes too. I swear I age about ten years in the mountains so I advise lathering on the thickest cream you can find to stop your face and hands turning into crepe.

High altitudes also mean dry air, which in turn can lead to annoying nosebleeds. (Yes it’s true, your nose really does bleed at great heights.) One trick to help prevent this is to shove saline gel up each nostril to protect the nasal membranes. Running a humidifier as much as possible also alleviates symptoms of extreme dryness.

If you’re skiing it’s going to be cold as well as high, and this can present more challenges. As with all cold weather in the U.S., your nostril hair freezes, but that’ll be the least of your worries. The extreme cold and high elevation combo can produce asthma or bronchitis even if you’ve never had it before. Again, don’t ignore these symptoms if they appear severe or worsen; local doctors can prescribe inhalers and advise on the best treatment options.

At such heights, temps can dip dangerously so frostbite is another danger; learn to recognize the symptoms and don’t ignore numb fingers and toes. Also, don’t be cheap. Spend the money (on gloves, socks, good ski attire) to keep yourself warm and dry.

In many high altitude places, even in the summer, it can get a lot colder in the evening and first thing in the morning. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to run out and buy a tourist sweatshirt because the denim jacket just wasn’t cutting it after about 7 pm.  In Arizona, for example, while daily summer temps in the mountains can be in the 80’s, the evenings will dip to the 40 degrees and below.

Cooking at high altitude also demands some adjustment, particularly when baking. Cooking/baking times may need to be longer and ingredients tinkered with. Here’s a great web site giving adjustments at different altitudes.

Probably one of the best tips for high altitude living is to open creams, yogurts and other runny stuff away from your person as they tend to explode a little on opening.

Do you have any other tips for traveling to high altitudes? Tell us below:

See more:
10 Must-Have Items for an Extreme U.S. Winter
Winter is Coming: How to Cope With the Cold, American Style

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Nycole Echeverria

    Awesome advice, especially with the water. If you have the time, take a few days to get used to the altitude before you take any trips to higher up, it should give your body a chance to acclimate a bit more.

    Also, there is almost always a huge temperature difference between different altitudes so layering is your friend. I’ve once went from 80 degree weather in Denver (5280 feet) to playing in the snow on top of Mount Evans (over 14,000 feet) in the same day in June. It’s a great way to escape the heat but if you’re not prepared, it can ruin your day.

    • Toni Hargis

      Agree about taking the time to adjust if you can. Unfortunately, if you’re skiing for a week or less, it’s a waste of precious days to hang out say in Denver before heading up the mountain.

      • MontanaRed

        Takes six weeks to two months for your body to fully adjust to an altitude change.(LMJ: we lived in Denver, too, which is when we found this out.) Just be aware of the fatigue factor and don’t try to “push” through it.

    • LMJ

      Yep. Drove from Colorado Springs (~85) to the Eisenhower Tunnel (white-out) on July 4th, just a little over a month after I moved there. Never forgot to layer again – at least, when I ‘planned’ to go into the mountains.

  • LMJ

    SunBLOCK, not sunscreen, if you burn easily; nothing wrong with carrying an umbrella. In high altitudes, the sun is stronger.

    Water – Not some little 8 oz bottle, either. If you can carry at least a liter, you’ll be okay for short hikes.

    Watch caffeine and sugar – both can dehydrate.

    Alcohol can be more potent – drink carefully. It also dehydrates, so a glass of water now and again is probably a good idea.

    Layers – dress for a range from 85 to 35; there can be a significant temperature difference in just 3,000 feet, and in some areas, it doesn’t take long to go that high up.

    Altitude sickness is no joke – people *do* die from it.

    Pay attention to your breathing, and be aware if you get a sudden headache. Water, pacing yourself, these help.

    Spend as much time as possible at a lower altitude, maybe a few hours at least. A few days is better, but it’s not always possible.

    I lived in Colorado for a decade, up until 2011. Few other things I learned while I was there:

    Lions and bears do show up in residential areas.

    Bighorn are neat to watch – they can be aggressive; well, any wild animal can.

    Elk around Estes Park are not afraid of you, and they’re huge.

    Prairie dogs on the Front Range carry bubonic plague – watch your pets. VERY few human cases.

    Water ‘boils’ at about 196 F at 6,500 feet above sea level – I checked. Gotta go a little longer to get the same result.

    Things like rice need more water when cooking. Good luck figuring out just how much.

    DRINK PLENTY OF WATER – it does not take long to dehydrate, even when it’s raining. If it’s been warm and dry enough, rain evaporates before it reaches the ground. I’ve actually had it hit my head but not reach my feet – not often, but kinda cool).

    That clear mountain stream could have mining runoff. Unless there’s something telling you it’s safe to drink, try not to unless you have a way to purify it.

    Colorado and other southwestern states have a fire season – it takes almost no time at all for a little spark to become a wildfire; next thing you know, people don’t have homes. Do not contribute to the fire danger – red flag warning means put your cigarette out in an ashtray – not doing so is littering anyway, and really rude. Drown your campfire, make sure it’s really out. Fires have been started by lawnmowers (no, not urban legend).

    Enjoy the view – some of the most beautiful places in this country are out there. They will take your breath away. Sit, stare, enjoy. Sunrise, sunset, amazing.

    • MontanaRed

      Especially the sunblock! AND a hat. An umbrella is fine, too, except sometimes it’s a bit cumbersome. And watch out for summer thunderstorms — Lightning strikes in the mountains are normal and unpredictable.

    • Andrew

      Sunglasses, too. I use reactive lenses in my prescription glasses, as
      recommended by my UK optician before I moved here (Colorado Springs) –
      if it’s hard on your skin, it’s equally bad for your eyes!

      Wear a peaked hat. A rimmed hat is even better. I’ve no hair, so my head burns easily. It also helps with eye protection.

      Have some paracetamol available – it helps with the inevitable headaches.

      Go slow. I considered myself pretty fit, so tried to go for a run a few days after getting here. It wasn’t fun, nor pretty and it took me a couple of days to recover.

  • declan casey

    Did this person forget about Alaska? There’s an over 20,000 foot mountain up there.

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