View Full Version : AT as conditioning for higher altitude hikes?

10-29-2004, 22:00
Would hiking in places such as the crest of the Smokies help acclimate my body for higher elevations such as the John Muir Trail or the Rim trail at Tahoe? I am interested in doing some western hiking but don't want to start super slow, feel miserable, or burn days better spent in the backcountry at some town waiting for my body to adjust. I am asking about altitude sickness concerns, not the general feet, ankle, got to loose the beer gut fitness issues. If hiking at mile to 6000 foot elevations would help, how many days? How long before heading west? Would one week or several weekends over an extended period be more beneficial? Or, is the idea just an excuse to get out to some of my favorite places? My thought is that I could focus short trips in the spring at the highest possible altitudes in the southern mountains then fly out west for 2-4 weeks if I can manage to break away from work that long.

10-29-2004, 22:57
Based upon my previous experience with altitude sickness on hikes in the Rocky Mountains, I suspect that the only way to get acclimated to higher elevations is to actually be there for some length of time.

If I start hiking too quickly after arriving at the trail, I tend to feel terrible early on in the hike---fatigue, rapid heart beat, nausea, headache. Not fun stuff. But after about two or three days, I feel great. Now, I usually plan to relax and see the sights in the area before heading out on the hike. That way, my body slowly becomes acclimated before the hiking begins.

A ranger once told me that drinking lots of water also helps alleviate the elevation sickness to a degree. But, it's tough to drink a lot when you are feeling sick as it is!

One of the benefits of hiking portions of the AT was that the acclimation issue never came into play. I don't start to feel it myself until about 9,000 feet of elevation. I begin to feel sick if I camp above 10,000 feet before I've become acclimated.

10-30-2004, 04:15
I started my AT hiking in the Smokys, and I couldn't tell any difference from that
elevation than any where else I've hiked from Kansas City to Virginia. I don't think it would help you any in getting ready for a high altitude hike. Showme

10-30-2004, 06:19
I took a ski/bakcpacking trip severals years back to Colorado thinking that I would be able to easily acclimate to 10000+ since I lived in the 2000-3000 range. I was in for an awakening. The first night I experienced all of what illininagel previously mentioned. The nausea, headaches, fatigue, rapid heart rate...and even the occasional nose bleed. And like illininagel this kicked in right before 10000. For some reason I accimitized quickly though with this only lasting for a couple days. Again the only way to acclimate to higher elevations like that is to actually be in it. However, I hear there are some good meds out there these days to take some of the edge off. I sure wish I had them....

10-30-2004, 08:21
The more time you spend at altitude (in this case your 5-6000 ft option) the better you will be able to handle higher elevations. You need to spend as much time as you can and the nearer to the time when you hit your higher altitude the better. If you can spend several weekends at 5000 and then the next weekend hit your hike in the Sierras you will lessen the chance of having altitude problems.

I grew up at 5-6000 ft and would notice virtually no effects from going to 10,000 ft. However if I headed for 12-13000 I would notice it. I spent a summer in the Sierra at a base of 9000 ft and at that time I felt virtually no effects at 12-13000.

Everything you can do along the lines you mention will help you as long as it is near the time you want to gohigher. to go from sea level to 10,000 is very hard on your body and some, but not all, will suffer ill effects. And everyone will have prblems with being short of breath.

Not to get into medical stuff, but the basic issue is the number of oxegen carrying red blood cells iin your system. Your body reacts to high altitude by growing extra red blood cells. This takes time (thus the need to keep your self at altitude to trigger the biological response). The extra cells will be maintained for a period of time at lower altitude but the number will constantly decrease. Thsu the need to have your contditioniing very near the time you need to go higher.

The 10,000 altitude is not excessive and with a little effort it should work out fine. If you wanted to go real high then extensive altitude conditioning is mandatory or you are taking a real risk.


10-30-2004, 09:44
Yahoo or Google "Diamox" a medicine (pill) for glaucoma but also helps your body acclimatize to altitude-used by high-altitude rescuers. This works fairly well. The Smokies are not high enough to acclimatize you to the altitude of places in the Rockys more than twice their height.

I usually take a half-tablet of diamox daily a few days before the trip and a few days into the trip and have not experienced problems since I started taking them. Doing a slow start "at altitude", of 8000' or better, helps before jumping off at 13,000' as some passes in Colorado are.

10-30-2004, 10:08
Would hiking in places such as the crest of the Smokies help acclimate my body for higher elevations such as the John Muir Trail or the Rim trail at Tahoe?.........................etcetcetc.......... ...

Yo bobgessner57

Illininagel is right...the only way to get acclaimated to the higher elevations is to get in the higher elevations!

i had hiked 2 section hikes on the A.T. (Roan Mtn section & Smoky Mtn section) when my wife & i took a trip to Wyoming & hiked a couple hikes in the Tetons range....(10,000-12,000+ ft)...

i have to be honest...we waited to the last two days of our trip to hike the peaks & i still was a bit "winded" hiking @ the higher elevations...

(Jackson Hole, WY is @ 9,000+ ft elevation)

gotta remember: the highest peak on the A.T. is 6,643ft Clingmans Dome...which is high...but nothing to work out the lungs when you're talking above 10,000+ft. elevations & most in the 12,000+ft range.

i'd take it easy...spenda day or two in the valley & then head up...with a hike partner! good luck on your hike! :D

10-30-2004, 11:37
well I would say its got to help!I was out on the pct for a couple of months this summer and boy its different but My AT experience helped:D kentucky

10-30-2004, 12:14
Basically it boils down to who you are. Some people get it and some don't. I forgot to mention the person who went with me on the Colorado trip was from Texas and had no probs at all. Wyoming is right about the oxygenation of RBC's, but bare in mind there are variations in inter/intracellular chemistry and processes in all of us. So it can depend on person, how fast the person elevates and how high the person elevates. Here's a good site if your worried and what to do http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html

10-30-2004, 13:07
I live in the coastal plain so the 5-6000 foot excursions might help speed the adjustment process and certainly would be a good excuse to be in some pretty places. I would pick a western trip where I could start relatively low. I have never had any problems at 6000 feet but have heard of a few people who have, maybe it was aggravated by dehydration. Others I have talked to just felt weary and beat, sluggish but not sick at 6-8,000 feet. They also weren't in prime hiking condition to start with so it has been hard for me to gauge the relevance of their reports to my own situation.

Thanks for the responses. This is good info I can use to help plan a trip(s).
Since I've never hiked in the west any destination will be new and interesting and I can tailor plans to work around the altitude issues.

10-30-2004, 18:57
I don't think it would help you very much. In order to acclimatize, you need to spend extended periods of time at elevation. A few days or a week won't do it, particularly if you are then going to spend 2-4 weeks down low before starting hiking again. However, if you spend a week hiking across the Smokys to Hot Springs, you will help with your physical conditioning.

If you are thinking of hiking the John Muir trail, start in the north and hike south. The trail is a little easier this way, and you don't have to start by going up to the highest point in CA. I am generally good below about 13000 ft, but once I get above that, I need to take my time. Each person is different and there is no scientific way to predict when a certain person will get hit with altitude sickness. Basically, just go. If you feel strange, slow down and intentionally sleep low (climb high, sleep low). There are places on the JMT that drop down to 8000 ft and at that level you shouldn't have problems (although bears might be irritating).

Enjoy the West. It is a whole different world than the South. Who knows, you might never go back.

10-31-2004, 11:22
acclimate my body for higher elevations such as the John Muir Trail or the Rim trail at Tahoe

Well if you start these trails at the low end, it is unlikely you'll have a problem. Tahoe Rim Trail's low elevation is about 6000' where it crosses the Truckee river. Of course it goes uphill from there, but I don't thing it will be a big problem. Likewise John Muir Trail's low elevation is about 4000 in Yosemite Valley, so you shouldn't have a problem starting there either.

On the airplane the lowered pressure will have some effect (anyone use a altimeter watch on an airplane?). You could fly into Reno at 4000 feet so you maintain some altitude immediately before hitting the trail.

Generally altitude sickness isn't a big deal, you feel like you have a hang over for a day or two. In a few cases it can develop into something more dangerous where you need to descend immediately, but that isn't common in the continental US.

Budster the Great
10-31-2004, 12:02
My experience is that spending time at 5-6k ft does help.

In 1997, I went to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which was the first time I'd ever been above 7,000 ft. I didn't spend any time in the local (NC) mountains in the weeks before my trip. I felt mild dizziness, nausea and headache at 8,000 ft the first night. A week later, despite a careful acclimatization routine of "climb high, sleep low," I felt the altitude very strongly when I climbed Longs Peak (14k+ ft).

In 2001, I went back to CO, but this time I'd spent the last 3 weekends before my trip hiking and camping at elevations over 5500 ft. This time, I felt no altitude effects until about 10,000 ft, I seemed to acclimatize faster, and after just 4 days I made a very comfortable ascent of Quandary Peak (slightly higher than Longs, and in all fairness a much easier mountain).

I still would have liked more time to adjust, but my experience is that you have a good excuse for getting outdoors as much as possible!

10-31-2004, 23:52
These replies are interesting. It seems that many people have the experience of being able to " bounce" up say 2-3 thousand feet from the mountain altitude that they are acclimated to. The trick is finding suitable starting points to help buy time to boost the red blood count if the hiker is going to exceed that window of 2-3 thousand feet from their acclimation baseline. If the hiker is from the lowgrounds he/she would be well advised to at least try and spend some time at altitudes in the 5-6000 foot range to ease the transition. Hangovers aren't fun, that time at the top of the AT is.

That Princeton web site linked in Bloodroot's post is some good basic reading.
I'm going to check on the meds too. Lots to think about. The JMT profile sure looks more appealing N to S like Chris says and allows some time to acclimate.
None of this is absolute but it sure would be nice to minimize the odds of spending several queasy days in the backcountry.

11-01-2004, 16:51
I hiked the JMT this summer, you will have a blast! You do need to work on acclimating yourself to higher elevations if at all possible. I reccomend starting from the Yosemite Valley to give yourself time to acclimate for Whitney. You may want to spend a couple days messing around in the park to help acclimate for those first few days.

I live at 4500', and spent the spring and early summer climbing 9000'+ peaks around town. I had no problem with the elevation, by the time I got to the higher passes down south it was just another hill to climb. The JMT is an amazing hike that I will do again!

Pencil Pusher
11-03-2004, 00:06
Take up smoking while exercising. Smoking is high altitude training. Also, I think there's some tent you can buy that simulates high elevations... basically you set it up encapsulating your bed and sleep at these higher elevations. Which means you could enjoy some intense exercise at higher elevations each night, depending on your stamina (and her mood).

11-03-2004, 00:12
Take up smoking while exercising. Smoking is high attitude training.

I am of course in agreement with you

Which means you could enjoy some intense exercise at higher elevations each night, depending on your stamina (and her mood).

EVERY NIGHT???? what about the afternoon delight?

11-03-2004, 01:25
if you have a night or two to spare, there are some places in CA where you can drive up to 10,000 feet and camp a night or two in order to get better acclimatized - Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain immediately come to mind. you'll know right off the bat if you're going to react severely to the altitude. if your reaction is minor, sleeping one or two nights at high elevation will help you acclimatize.

it's a total crapshoot as to whether you're going to get AS or not - i got a minor case of it once after i had been out at high altitudes for 8 days. when i got to 13,000 feet i got incredibly dizzy. another time i had only been out for 2 nights, went to 13k again and had zero problems.

an alternative to Diamox (which is a diuretic and thus will work against you even as it's supposed to be helping you) is to start taking ginkgo biloba a week or two before your trip. it won't work for everybody (neither will Diamox), but look here to see its effectiveness in one study:


that said, of course any physical conditioning is a great way to prepare yourself for the JMT. good luck!

11-03-2004, 12:07
"it's a total crapshoot as to whether you're going to get AS or not"

Yes, exactly. When I went hiking for a week in Central Colorado in spring 1989, I went from less than 1500' above sea level to between 6000' - 8300' with little apparent effect. OTOH, I've read that even 2000' can be a real hassle for some people (coming from living years near sea level, natch).

Pencil Pusher
11-03-2004, 13:57
Whether one gets AS or not may be a crap shoot in some instances, but there are certainly steps one can take to minimize (or maximize) those chances. The sucky thing about AS is it makes you not feel like drinking or eating, which only further aggravates the problem. So drink lots of water, more than you're used to and even if you don't feel like it. I forget the technical medical stuff, but drinking lots of water helps one acclimate... something to do with thinning the blood I think...
But on the flip side, if you're a runner, time yourself on your favorite run before your trip and then right after you get back from spending a few weeks at altitude. Quite the difference! Just as well, with your body needing more water you can get knickered pretty easily at altitude, though be ready for one helluva hangover if you don't drink any water before zonking out.

11-06-2004, 18:03
I am living in a town in Guatemala at 8000 feet. I have been here for a week, and I felt quite worn down. I had been in Florida for a few weeks, so the rapid jump in altitude has really hit me. The AT does not prepare you for living up high.