How to Get Physically Fit Before a High-Altitude Trek

a man and a woman climbing a cliff

Mountaineers and sports physiologists have different definitions of “high altitude.” Some set limits as low as 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), while others don’t acknowledge altitude until 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).

However, everyone agrees that as you go higher into the atmosphere, oxygen becomes less dense. The concentration of oxygen is the same, but the gas is spread out over a larger area.

Lower levels of oxygen can have different effects on your body. One of the first effects that people notice is accelerated respiration and heart rate.

Sometimes, people experience shortness of breath and coughing.

Others notice poor sleep, including vivid dreams, feelings of suffocation and sleep apnea.

High altitude conditions expose the body to more ultraviolet radiation, which can cause sunburn and dehydration.

You may remember every piece of equipment that you need for a high-altitude trek. You’ve considered satellite phone rentals, you’ve packed plenty of water and you’ve layered clothing for different temperatures.

If you don’t prepare your body, however, then none of your equipment will make the trip enjoyable. Instead of enjoying splendid views from high altitudes, you’ll be calling for medical attention.

Physical Training

You should never embark on a trek if you aren’t in decent physical shape. In high-altitude conditions, treks often ascend to great heights before descending to lower levels within short spans of time.

Start a fitness regimen including aerobic exercises like running, swimming, cycling or stair climbing at least two to three months before your trek.

Many scientists recommend a regimen of “live high, train low.” In addition to building your fitness before you leave for your trek, try arriving a week or two early if you can.

Practice living and sleeping at higher elevations while training at a lower elevation. Living up high will increase your red blood cell count, which will help your cells to process oxygen more efficiently.

If you can’t “live high,” you can invest in a high-altitude sleeping chamber, although these tools are costly.

If “live high, train low” isn’t practical for you, then do just some of your training at a higher altitude. Doctors at Rice University recommend that you keep a journal while working out.

Rate your fatigue both at rest and during your workout, take your morning resting heart rate and write down your weight and mood.

See if you notice any parallels between these indicators and the intensity of your workout so that you can find the ideal balance while on your trek.

On the Trail

The key to managing high-altitude conditions on a trek is to ascend slowly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you don’t ascend more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) per day.

An additional key is to drink plenty of treated water. Cool, dry mountain air causes your body to lose a lot of fluids.

Skip alcohol while you’re on a trek because it can make altitude sickness worse. Also, eat a diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in salt.

An iron supplement may help trekkers, especially women and vegetarians, to make more haemoglobin for better oxygen processing. Just don’t overload your body with mega-doses of vitamins.

Some drugs can help to prevent altitude sickness. Taking 125 milligrams of acetazolamide every 12 hours before ascending and continuing taking the drug for the first two days at high altitude will help to prevent or treat mild altitude sickness.

Also, sleep aids like zaleplon and zolpidem can increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and make sleeping at high altitudes easier.

How to Know When You’re In Trouble

If you experience a headache, fatigue and decreased appetite as you climb, then rest, hydrate and take some analgesics before going any further.

About 50 per cent of people experience mild altitude sickness, but physical fitness and slow ascent will make the symptoms manageable.

Never ignore the signs of severe illness. If you start to experience certain symptoms, then you need immediate medical attention. These include:

  • Severe shortness of breath, even at rest
  • Persistent cough
  • Severe headache
  • Hallucinations or confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Blind spots in one or both eyes
  • Pink, frothy phlegm

Obviously, if you have chronic health conditions, talk to a doctor before setting off on your trek. Finally, don’t forget to bring all of your medications with you.

About the Author: Steve Manley is the president of Globalcom Satellite Communications, a leading distributor of satellite phones for both purchase and rental. Visit to learn more about their satellite phone service.


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