Travel Tips: Traveling at High Elevations

Few things are more exhilarating than taking in the eagle’s-eye view of the world offered by some of our mountain rail destinations. Whether we're chugging up a logging line 4,482 feet to West Virginia’s Bald Knob, or braving the optional Cog Railway's 8,000-foot ascent to the top of majestic Pikes Peak, surveying nature's wonders from such mountain perches are experiences that last a lifetime.

Yes, traveling at high elevations can thrill, but it can also affect the body and require time for adjustment. According to Medical Expeditions, a UK-based “medical adventure” group that researches the effects of high elevations on health, altitude starts to have an effect around 1,500 meters or 4,900 feet. The body starts to behave slightly differently in attempting to make up for the change in oxygen levels, as each breath starts to provide less oxygen until the body has time to adapt to the new conditions. Given enough time to adapt, most people can adjust to much higher altitudes – up to about 5,000 m or 16,400 feet (Everest base camp).

Here are some tips to help prepare for a safe and satisfying excursion to the heights:

Stay hydrated! Being sure to drink plenty of water is one of the best ways to help your body adjust to very high elevations, where low humidity, winds, and sun exposure can keep the air very dry.

Eat high-potassium foods, such as bananas, avocados, broccoli, or granola mix with dates or other dried fruit to help balance salt intake and maintain good electrolyte levels.

Pace yourself! Remember that many activities you may be accustomed to nearer sea level – from vigorous physical exercise to drinking spirits – can be intensified at high mountain attitudes. While you may find it easy to walk or bicycle 10 miles a day at sea level, six miles may be a challenge at first high in the Rockies. The effects of alcohol can be similarly amplified, so take it a little easy during those mountaintop happy hours!

Plan for shifting climates. In the dry air above Colorado, the effects of the direct sun can be felt powerfully for most of the year, even in winter, and skin protection, lip balms, sunglasses, and other precautions against both sun and chill are highly recommended. Dressing in layers will allow you to adjust to changing microclimates and windy conditions as you ascend and descend steep elevations or burrow through long underground tunnels.

Know how altitude may impact any medical conditions. Travelers who have pre-existing health issues – for example, asthma or high blood pressure – are advised to seek medical advice about plans for travel to high elevations and what complications might arise. Always bring spare medications, inhalers, steroids, etc. with you when setting out on a high-altitude excursion. Be sure to tell your Discoveries Director, guide or traveling companions immediately and honestly if you find yourself feeling ill.


Other Readings About Travel at High Altitudes


This article originally appeared in Country Travel DISCOVERIES Newsletter, RAIL & SAIL 2012, highlighting rail and water-themed travel discovery opportunities.


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