A short, four-mile hike this past weekend in the Flagstaff area reminded me of all those high altitude tips and warnings I often read about on hiking websites and blogs. I just wish I had been reminded before I started hiking. I basically did everything opposite of the recommended precautions. I didn’t become actually afflicted with acute mountain sickness (AMS), but I did feel over-exerted; I was short of breath, dizzy, flushed; plus I was becoming a bit disoriented. I started to write this week’s blog post about the hike itself, but I thought Arizona visitors (and some of my readers) might benefit from these tips I found:
Altitude acclimatization. It’s a good idea to stay at the higher base altitude for at least 24 hours before you start hiking. Health and outdoor recreation websites recommend one to three days. We drove up to Flagstaff on Friday afternoon and began hiking Saturday morning; I may not have given myself enough time to become accustomed to the higher altitudes. Take short walks on level ground at 7000 or 7500 feet (in my case: just walking around the campground would have been a good idea). Because I live in the Valley throughout the year at 1200 feet and I planned to start a hike at 7200 feet, my body needed to adjust to a change of 6000 feet. Naturally, if I lived in Payson or Prescott, at about 5000 feet, the process of altitude acclimatization would happen more quickly and easily.
Hydration. Drink plenty of water during the day or days before your outing to keep your body hydrated. Cooler Flagstaff temperatures and rainy Arizona monsoon evenings may cause you to not feel as thirsty, so you may have to ‘force’ yourself to drink water regularly on the day before your hike. (Something else I may have neglected.) Drinks with electrolytes such as Gatorade, Powerade or Propel Fitness Water may help too, according to outdoor recreation websites.
Eat well. As with any fitness activity, eating high carbohydrate meals before the hike will increase stamina and ward off high altitude problems. Oatmeal, whole grain breads, granola snacks, trail mixes and energy bars may be recommended for the day before and morning of the hike. (Chips, salsa, hot dogs and beer: probably not so much.)
On the hike:
Slow down. Okay, this was my first mistake. Because I immediately stopped to snap some wildflower photos and adjust my backpack; I fell behind others in my group. I thought I needed to catch up so I began walking faster. Although I was just starting out the trail; I already felt out of breath. So I listened to my body (it gave me little choice) and slowed my pace.
Walking pace. Walking uphill for someone who is ‘height challenged’ usually means taking smaller, quicker steps to keep up the pace. I remembered this so I tried to lengthen my gait – taking a bit longer, but slower and more rhythmic stride. By doing this simple task, I was able to keep a regular walking rhythm, and my breaths and heartbeat slowed to a more easy, relaxed pace. (At least, I remembered this tip.)
Take breaks. Climbing 1000 feet in two miles even in the lower elevations can be a challenge. In Arizona’s high country — as you can imagine – it’s more stressful. Short, five-minute breaks every 15-30 minutes to hydrate and rest when I first felt distress allowed me to continue hiking longer. Ideally, slowing down and walking at a regular pace initially would have prevented the need for too many stops along the way.
Wear sunscreen… (Some of these tips belong in the ‘no-brainer’ department but I include them anyway.) At higher altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are more intense. Because it’s so much cooler in Arizona’s high country than the Phoenix metro area, and those huge pine trees seem to provide a lot of shade, the tendency is to not feel you need sun protection. But remember: There’s less atmosphere at these higher elevations to absorb the harmful UV rays. Always wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat.
…and sunglasses. Wearing sunglasses will help minimize some of the headaches associated with high altitudes and the sun’s intensity. A wide-brimmed hat will add extra protection for both skin and eyes.