What are the Effects of High Altitude and How to Stay Safe Walking in the Mountains

In this top-tips article we take a look at the effects of walking in the high mountains such as the Alps in Europe and the High Atlas in Morocco

A number of our guided and independent walking holidays include walking at high altitudes where the lack of oxygen can be felt. As you gain altitude, your body immediately reacts to the relative lack of oxygen by increasing breathing levels and heart beats. Over the course of several days the body will adapt by increasing the number of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the blood.

But what are the other more negative effects of altitude?

Altitude sickness affects a reasonably large proportion of people at altitude. This is especially true when the journey is done very rapidly, for example by car or by cable car. Mountain sickness becomes much more common as you cross the 3000m altitude barrier. The signs of altitude sickness include head aches, nausea, tiredness, insomnia, breathlessness.

If you are in doubt, consult the opinion of a doctor, tour leader or of the hut gardien if you are on an independent walk. The mild effects of altitude sickness are reasonably common and usually diminish after a couple of days acclimatisation, after which time it would be possible to walk higher gradually. If the symptoms become worse, there is no other solution but to descend in altitude. If you stay at altitude whilst suffering from more serious altitude sickness then you risk suffering from a cerebral or pulmonary edema. Such conditions are very serious and only a rapid descent is the only answer. Take a look at our article on what to do in an emergency.

How do we know if we risk getting altitude sickness?

The intolerance to a lack of oxygen at altitude in the mountains is vary variable. It is not possible to know whether you will react or not before your first visit. However, those with cardiological or pulmonary problems are at higher risk. It is also very important to acclimatise gradually.

How to acclimatise?

Acclimatisation is essential during the first four days of your walking holiday or walking trip, which is why tours that go to the summit of mountains such as Jbel Toubkal in Morocco or the Mount Blanc in France, at over 4000m after only 3 days run a higher risk. No medicines can replace proper acclimitisation. Ideally height gain should be in the order of 500m between overnight stops. Once the trekking or walking passes the 3000m altitude, it is advisable to descend at the end of the day if possible (the old adage: climb high, sleep low). Avoid drinking alcohol, drink plenty of fluids and eat enough slow burning energy-giving foods at regular intervals.

Take a look at our guided walking holidays and self-guided walking holidays in the Alps, France and elsewhere.

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