How to Handle Hiking in Higher Altitudes

One thousand feet away from the tallest point in the state of Colorado, I looked up and didn’t know if I was going to make it to the icy summit. It was so close, but with the effort that it took to get there, every step was a struggle.

After hiking nearly four and a half miles up Mount Elbert, a 14,439-foot monster in the Rocky Mountains, my lungs were grasping for oxygen that wasn’t there. My head was fuzzy. My legs were pushed to the brink because, again, I had little oxygen. And this was considered the easy route.

Hiking in higher altitudes is no walk in the park. It’s a test of wills, human versus nature, and there are no shortcuts or safety nets. But it’s a great experience for nature lovers and dedicated athletes. Being my first time attempting such a formidable task, I learned a lot about what it takes to survive the unforgiving elements.

If you plan on scaling a mountain with Global Discovery Vacations anytime soon, here are a couple of tips to keep you strong all the way to the top:

Drink A Lot of Water

The higher you go, so does the stock price of H2O. Water is the most precious commodity on a mountain and nobody wants to trade, so make sure you have more than enough. I brought 96 ounces of water and drank every drop over the course of nine hours. Even that wasn’t enough. The thin air does a great job of dehydrating your body so drink plenty and drink often. This holds true even when you aren’t doing much physical activity.


Altitude sickness occurs when you aren’t used to being thousands of feet above sea level. When you first travel to a mountainous location, you might get headaches and feel nauseous, among other symptoms. Keep drinking water and give your body several days to acclimate to the altitude. If it hurts, get to lower ground.

I flew in to Colorado Tuesday night and spent Wednesday doing a six-mile hike at 9,000 to 10,000 feet. I had no time for my body to adjust and my head was in agony almost the entire way. But this trial by fire was necessary as I was to climb Mt. Elbert on Friday. I recommend giving yourself at least a week in high elevation before attempting anything 12,000-feet and above. Even though I got in as much high-altitude exposure as I could in two-and-a-half days, my experience near the top of Mt. Elbert was less than pleasant.

Looking back on the cover of trees we were leaving behind.

Looking back on the cover of trees we were leaving behind.

Remember Sunscreen and To Reapply

I applied plenty of sunscreen before the hike, when my mind was clear. But as the hours passed and instant comfort became more important than rational thought, I ditched the hat and long sleeves. It didn’t occur to me to reapply sunscreen even though I had gone well past the two-hour threshold. At the bottom, I could finally assess the damage: singed scalp, cherry-red legs, charred neck and roasted arms.

You are closer to the sun’s rays while in high altitude. No matter how big your hiking group is, I would suggest each member carry their own bottle of sunscreen for convenience and because it decreases the chance of running out. Also, wear as much skin-covering clothing as possible. Hats should be a necessity.

Take it Step By Step

The mountain air does a funny thing: when ascending a mountain, you will tire out after a handful of steps depending on how high you are. But you will regain stamina after stopping for a minute or two. The key is to keep pushing through in these little bursts to establish a pace. If you sit for 10-15 minutes at a time, you’ll be on the mountain much longer than you need to be.

Going down is a completely different experience. You won’t need to stop for air much, if at all, because you’re getting it back. Also note that you will need more water going up than going down, so this is no time to be conservative.

You may be asking why someone would go through that struggle just for a view. I wondered the same thing until I reached the summit. When I finally plodded my way to the destination, the sense of accomplishment was overwhelming. There are some views that pictures just can’t do justice. This is one of them:

Standing above everything in sight on Mount Elbert.

Standing above everything in sight on Mount Elbert.

What’s the biggest or hardest mountain you’ve ever climbed? Let us know in the comments!

Corey is a writer from Overland Park, KS, and has been with Global Discovery Vacations since September 2013. Once a sportswriter, he traveled the country and became proficient in airport security line etiquette and leaving items in hotel rooms.