Altitude Advice

Dan Staton, MS, PES, CrossFit Level II Coach


This is a great time of year!  Summer is fast approaching and fall preparation begins. Hopefully you’ve drawn a great tag or are making plans to be an all-star OTC (over-the-counter) tag holder and hunt the backcountry. If you’re like me, you’re still waiting for that make-believe day where you get a “successful” draw letter in the mail, but until then, it’s public land, baby!  To me, bowhunting public land means more time scouting and more energy getting further away from other hunters to tip the odds in your favor.  

The mountains are full of greenery this time of year, the critters are migrating back up to their hidey-holes, and you need to prep for the physical demands of an archery hunt. If you live out West or plan on visiting this fall, you’ll need to make commissions for the change in altitude, among other considerations. We’ve all heard the air is “thin” in high mountain ranges, but have we really considered what that means – and how it impacts our hunts? Having experienced a high-mountain archery elk hunt in Montana last fall, I want to briefly cover the science of altitude and its effects on the human body. Furthermore, I will layout a few tips to make your trek into the wilderness a smooth transition. You still have time to complete your fitness due diligence prior to the season, which will have you leaving civilization in the fall leaner, stronger and, most importantly, confident that you worked hard all off-season to ensure your outdoor pursuits are maximized.

Many of the Rocky Mountain elk herds dwell above 8,000 ft. for most of the year. When you’re a lowlander who lives at a bleak 1,500 feet or less, you should definitely be concerned when planning a 10-day hunt at 10,000+ feet. If you’re going to hunt the West and didn’t allocate at least 10 days to hunt, you might recalculate, knowing that altitude adjustment may take more time then anticipated. I’ve personally felt the effects of the altitude change when hunting in New Mexico, Nevada and Montana. Staring at your watch altimeter reading 10,000 feet while setting up your base camp isn’t something to thumb your nose at. You better have made some reformations prior to your arrival or you could end up on a miserable camping trip stuck at base camp.

Fitness needs to be integrated into your outdoor lifestyle or the effects of altitude will be compounded. If you stay active and don’t think altitude sickness can interrupt your hunt, please rethink your approach. Show up to camp in the best shape possible. If you have a 10-day hunt, make sure you spend the first couple days close to base camp just to error on the side of caution. Cross training coupled with cardiovascular bouts at lower elevation throughout the summer help a great deal. The cardio needs to be an interval type of training, where you’re constantly manipulating the intensity as well as the work-to-rest ratios. Cross training basically means a wide variety of strength training, biking, swimming, sports and anything else you can dream up. Don’t specialize. The word “routine” is your enemy. Don’t allow your body to acclimate to any one mode of exercise. Be sure to change the duration and intensity often. For more ideas log on to: www.crossfit.com.

Sample Interval Cardio Workout:
Mode: Treadmill, 8% grade, 8 mph
Run 20 seconds
Rest 10 Seconds (Rest by straddling the sides of the treadmill while it remains in motion.)
Perform this combination for 8 sets in a row. Rest 5 minutes and attempt another 8 sets.

The Science of Altitude                                                                                        
Atmospheric pressure at any spot on earth is a measure of the weight of a column of air directly over that spot. At sea level, the weight of that column of air is greatest. As we climb higher and higher, the weight of that column is reduced. This means that atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing altitude; the effect is the air is less dense, and each liter of air contains fewer molecules of gas. Increasing altitude directly affects your body’s ability to take in and transport oxygen. This state of “hypoxia” is compounded with lower air temperature and humidity, making potential snags for aerobic performance like hiking or packing an elk out.

Simply put, altitude does not discriminate. It affects the young and old, fit or feeble. High altitude is defined as 5,000 - 11,500 feet in elevation. Acclimation is a slow process and could take as long as two weeks to become fully acclimatized, but normally the process of acclimation is 1-3 days. During this acclimation process, a number of changes take place to allow the body to operate with the decreased oxygen. Such changes include:

•    Depth of respiration increases.
•    Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased, "forcing" blood into portions of the lung that are normally not used during    sea-level breathing.
•    The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen, along with a particular enzyme that facilitates the release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues.

Special Precautions
•    Should you have a heart condition, such as angina, avoiding altitude is advisable. The longer you are at altitude, the more your arterial vessels will dilate, increasing the flow of blood to the cardiac muscle. Exerting yourself too much, and too quickly, could be dangerous.
•    Other medical conditions that call for avoiding altitude include chronic lung disease, pulmonary hypertension, previous stroke, pregnancy, anemia and sickle cell disease.
Symptoms of High Altitude Sickness
•    Shortness of breath, coughing, lack of appetite, nausea or vomiting, severe headache, staggering gait, and disturbed sleep. Additional symptoms may include: temporary vision abnormalities, eyelid drooping, facial swelling, swelling in lower extremities, and decreased consciousness.  

Treatment / Prevention
•    If the symptoms continue or do not improve within the first 48 hours, go to lower altitude.
•    Increase water intake prior to and during your visit to altitude.
•    Reduce salt intake.
•    Avoid smoking, alcohol, and sleeping pills.
•    Include complex carbohydrates in diet (at least 70%).
•    Ibuprofen (for relieving headaches)
•    breathing oxygen (for relieving symptoms)
•    antacids (many foods will cause indigestion)
•    prescribed medications (Diamox or Dexamethasone) by a physician

Things to Avoid
Respiratory depression (the slowing down of breathing) can be caused by various medications, and may be a problem at altitude. The following medications can do this, and should never be used by someone who has symptoms of altitude illness (These may be safe in persons who are not ill, although this remains controversial.):
•    alcohol
•    sleeping pills (acetazolamide is the sleeping tablet of choice at altitude)
•    narcotic pain medications in more-than-modest doses

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