Heading to the white, snow-capped mountains is always an adventure, but some people find themselves turning green early in the trip (and not in the fun froggy way) due to the altitude. Knowing how to prepare for altitude is one of the most important things you need to cover in your ski vacation planning. Also called mountain sickness, altitude sickness refers to several symptoms that can affect you or your family members shortly after you arrive at elevation. Many people are not bothered by altitude, but it’s always smart to be prepared and take easy steps to prevent altitude sickness from being a problem so that you don't ruin your trip. There are several things you can do to prepare for altitude and prevent altitude sickness to keep your family hoppy, healthy and keep having fun. Here are some hopful answers to a few basic questions about altitude sickness and tips on how to prepare for altitude.
Answers to Basic Questions About Altitude Sickness
Why do people get altitude sickness?
At higher elevations, the air pressure drops and there is less oxygen available. If you are visiting an area of high elevation (above 8,000 feet), your body needs some time to acclimate to this change. People who live at high elevation are used to it, but visitors who climb too quickly may be affected. It does not matter how healthy you are or how in-shape you are in. Anyone can get altitude sickness — even athletes!
Your chance of getting it depends on where you live, how high you are going, at what elevation you are sleeping and how quickly you ascend. Young people are more likely to get it, as are people who have suffered from altitude sickness in the past. An athletic person might push harder on the mountain early in the journey and climb higher more quickly, putting them at a higher risk for altitude sickness than their slower, more cautious companions who are taking it easy. People who are at the most risk for developing altitude sickness include children under six, pre-menstrual women and people with even minor respiratory infections or other pre-existing medical conditions.
What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?
The most common type of altitude sickness is Acute Mountain Sickness. This is the mildest form. Symptoms usually appear anywhere within 2 to 24 hours of reaching high elevation and may include:
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Muscle aches
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble sleeping
- Low appetite
These symptoms toadally feel like a bad hangover and will usually improve in a day or two as the person adjusts to altitude.
More severe cases may get worse over time and require medical attention and moving to a lower elevation. These symptoms include trouble walking, loss of coordination, severe headache that does not improve with treatment or a tightening in the chest. A dangerous and life-threatening type of altitude sickness is High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). It involves fluid in the lungs. The most severe form is High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which occurs when there’s fluid on the brain. It requires immediate medical attention and is life-threatening. Symptoms of confusion, inability to walk, severe shortness of breath, a cough with a frothy substance or coma can indicate HAPE or HACE.
What do I do if a family member experiences symptoms?
Now that you know what symptoms to look for, keep an eye out for any indication of altitude sickness. The best thing to do is move to a lower elevation if you can. Certainly do not go higher. If you cannot drop down by 1,000 to 2,000 feet, a portable hyperbaric chamber can help simulate a lower altitude. You can also improve oxygen saturation with 2-4 liters per minute of oxygen. If nausea is a problem, there are antiemetic medications a doctor can prescribe. There is also a medication called Diamox (acetazolamide) that can help a person acclimatize faster. That’s good to know for people with a prior history of altitude sickness. Basically, use common sense. If symptoms worsen rather than improve, it is time to see a doctor.
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
If you take steps to prepare for altitude while on your trip, hopefully you can avoid dealing with this illness and maximize your fun. We always rely on some sanity-saving tips for a family ski trip, and one of our goals is to keep everyone healthy by avoiding altitude sickness.
Acclimatize by taking the journey to higher altitudes slowly
When we “sea-level” frogs hop over for a family ski trip in Colorado, we take our time getting there. We fly into Denver and spend the night at a hotel in the Denver area (which is just over 5,000 feet) before making the climb to any of the awesome Denver area ski resorts. Taking time to acclimate and rest gives us a chance to adjust to the altitude and change in barometric pressure before we get to the ski resort. We eat frequently and keep sipping on fluids and electrolyte drinks the whole way. Fluid is the best friend to amphibian and mammal alike here! We take it easy the first day of skiing to adjust before charging through the powder later in the trip. When we decide how many days we need for a ski trip, we factor acclimating time into the vacation.
Stay hydrated and well-rested
You’ll want to start out your journey well-hydrated and well-rested. Continue to drink 3-4 quarts of water per day during your journey. Talk to your tadpoles about the importance of drinking extra fluid, and take frequent water breaks while skiing. This may result in more potty breaks, but that’s good, too. Keep the fluids flowing.
Eat frequent meals
This is not the time to follow a low-carb diet. You'll want 70% of your calories coming from carbs when preventing altitude sickness. Avoid tobacco or alcohol, as well as salty foods.
Sleep as low as you can on the mountain
If you have lodging choices, try to choose a ski hotel that is at a lower elevation on the mountain. When you sleep, lower the thermostat to under 68 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are particularly concerned about it, you can order oxygen to be sent to your lodging and use it for about 20 minutes upon arriving and during sleep. Carry pain relievers with you just in case anyone comes down with a headache, but avoid using sleeping pills, which can suppress breathing.
Base Elevations of Popular Family Ski Resorts
How do the ski resorts measure up when it comes to base elevation? Breckenridge’s base is at 9,600 feet and Keystone’s base is just above 9,000 feet. It’s smart to approach these high resorts slowly and take it easy the first day. Vail, Beaver Creek, Steamboat and Aspen are at about 8,000 feet. The town of Avon, which is just below Beaver Creek and a short drive to Vail, is just over 7,400 feet, which can provide a lower alternative to staying on the mountain at Beaver Creek or Vail if you know you are particularly prone to altitude sickness. Park City and Lake Tahoe ski resorts such as Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows all have bases below 8,000 feet. You should still prepare for altitude when visiting these slightly lower resorts — especially since you’ll rise above 8,000 feet when skiing — but you may sleep more comfortably at a lower elevation.
Now that you are armed with information, you can help your family prepare for altitude. Chances are, you won’t have to worry about altitude sickness. Many families visit ski resorts without any issues at all. But taking steps to avoid altitude sickness will go a long way in terms of keeping your family healthy and having hoppy skiers the whole vacation.
Have a tip for preventing altitude sickness? Share it in the comments below! If you are looking for discount ski hotels, rental cars, lift tickets or equipment rentals, Undercover Tourist can help you save money and time by bundling these important components of your ski vacation. Click here to plan your next ski vacation!