How to Beat Altitude Sickness

Summit season is upon us. Follow these tips from altitude expert Dr. Pete Clark to stay healthy on your next high-elevation trip.

Eat smart

The high-altitude diet: more carbs, less fat. Why? It takes more oxygen to burn fat (for the energy produced) compared to carbs. There’s no magic ratio, as the most important thing is to get calories on board even if you lose your appetite.

Get out of your bag

In high, cold conditions, campers tend to spend a lot of time horizontal in a tent, but that works against acclimatization. When you’re lying down, your body increases blood flow to the heart, which in turn increases fluid loss through the kidneys—basically, you pee more. This can make you dehydrated. If weather forces you inside, make hot drinks, play cards, write in your journal—and get a normal amount of sleep.

Add garlic to everything

Sherpas think garlic helps with altitude acclimation, and who’s going to argue with the world’s best high-elevation mountaineers? There’s no proof it works, but science seems to side with the Sherpas: Exposure to high altitude increases red blood cells, which makes the blood thicker. Studies suggest that garlic acts as a blood thinner.

Drink beet juice

A recent study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that nitrates in beetroot juice relax blood vessels, helping to prevent altitude illness. Add a packet of powdered Beet Boost ($30 for 10) to your water for a concentrated dose.

Stay hydrated

Dehydration worsens altitude illness; it impairs your body’s ability to regulate internal temperature and acidity. Establish a drinking routine (like every hour) and monitor your intake so you stay hydrated even if you’re not thirsty.

Skip happy hour

Avoid anything that is a respiratory suppressant, namely alcohol. Plus, it exacerbates dehydration.

Hike high, sleep low

When feasible, ascend a little higher than your camp. Consider climbing a few hundred feet on a pre-dinner walk.

Ascend slowly

Increase campsite altitude no more than 2,000 feet per day.

Moderate exercise

Exercising contributes to altitude illness (stress hormones are suspected), according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. On your first day up high, plan for easy hiking, climbing, or rest. If you’re coming from sea level, spend a day or more near 5,000 feet.

The expert: Dr. Pete Clark is a physician for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and California’s Mammoth Track Club. He has done altitude sickness research on a grant from the Wilderness Medical Society and is also the medical director for Mono County Search and Rescue, in California.