How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Colorado

Colorado is a paradise for outdoor adventure lovers, attracting over 80 million travelers every year. It’s one of the best US states for skiing and snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, and so much more. While any trip to Colorado is sure to be a blast, there’s one thing that just might get in the way of your fun (at least at first): altitude sickness in Colorado.

Keep reading to learn all about the different types of altitude sickness and what you can do to prevent it from putting a damper on your next visit to Colorado!

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Colorado

Stream along the Emerald Lake Trail

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What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, sometimes called “mountain sickness,” is a sort of illness that strikes at high altitudes. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get it because there’s less oxygen at high elevations. It’s actually because there’s less pressure at high altitudes, making it harder to get enough oxygen if you’re not accustomed to the lower atmospheric pressure.

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

The most common (and mildest!) form of altitude sickness in Colorado is known as AMS— “acute mountain sickness.” Here are the sort of symptoms you can expect to experience if you’ve got AMS:

  • Headache
  • Nausea (which can lead to loss of appetite or vomiting)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Altitude Sickness in Colorado

There are two other types of altitude sickness, but they’re both much less common than AMS. However, they’re also both very dangerous, so if you experience any of the following symptoms or you don’t get better after two days, you should definitely receive emergency care!

Symptoms of HACE (when the brain swells from high altitude) include AMS symptoms, plus:

  • Extreme weakness or loss of consciousness
  • Confusion, delirium 
  • Discoordination or inability to walk in a straight line

Symptoms of HAPE (when fluid enters the lungs at high altitude) include AMS symptoms, plus:

  • Coughing
  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Sense of fullness in chest

3 Tips for Preventing Altitude Sickness

The best way to treat any illness is to prevent it in the first place! The good news is that with enough time and planning, it’s actually a breeze to prevent altitude sickness in Colorado.

1. Acclimate slowly.

Altitude sickness can start to occur at around 7,500-8,000 ft of elevation. On your first day in Colorado, aim to stay below 7,000 feet to acclimate. These areas are all below 7,000 feet elevation, so feel free to explore as much as you want on your first couple of days in Colorado:

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2. Get plenty of rest.

Because your body is struggling to get enough oxygen to your lungs, the last thing you want to do is overwork your respiratory system. While you’re acclimating to higher elevations, take it easy on the exercise. Get plenty of sleep, and don’t try to crush a 14er on your first day! After a day or two at rest, you’ll be ready to go on an adventure, I promise.

3. Mind what you drink.

Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout your visit to Colorado. Not only will this help with altitude sickness, but the dry climate of Colorado as well. At the same time, try not to drink lots of alcohol. It binds oxygen to water cells, and your body needs as much water and oxygen as it can get!

Water for Altitude Sickness

THIS is my favorite water bottle for hiking!

How to Treat Altitude Sickness

First, always travel with others if your body’s not accustomed to high elevation. That way, you’ll always be safe in case of an emergency!

If you have AMS, it’s pretty easy to treat. The most important thing you can do is stop ascending in elevation and descend if you can. Rest as much as possible, and wait for symptoms to pass. 

If symptoms are mild, you can rest a little below your current elevation until your body acclimates more. But if symptoms persist beyond 48 hours, you’ll definitely need to descend and get emergency care. 

Gore Range Overlook

Unfortunately, I am usually very affected by altitude. I’ve felt it not only in Colorado but also in Zion National Park and Utah as a whole. I finally talked to my doctor about it, and he prescribed acetazolamide, and it really helped me, especially in Winter Park, CO.

Winter Park Colorado Altitude: 9,121 ft

Of course, everyone is different, but if you struggle with altitude sickness regularly, consider talking to your doctor about acetazolamide as well. It is said it can lower the chances of AMS symptoms by 90 percent.  I honestly wish I had known about it sooner.

How Long Does it Last?

Altitude sickness tends to last 24-48 hours, or even less. Focus on giving your body plenty of rest until the symptoms pass. 

If symptoms persist, remember that there’s a small chance you could have a much more serious form of altitude sickness like HAPE or HACE, and you should seek medical care.

What To Do Once You’re Acclimated

Once you’ve taken it easy your first couple of days at elevation and you feel comfortable exerting yourself at high altitude, the real fun begins! There’s just so much to do in Colorado, you’ll truly never be bored. Here are some of my favorite things to see and do in this gorgeous state:

    • Explore Estes Park, CO: Go for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, take a haunted tour of the infamous Stanley Hotel, and so much more! You don’t want to miss this cute mountain town next time you’re in Colorado.
    • If you’re in search of a thrill, go snowmobiling at Winter Park Resort. Enjoy magical snowy landscapes and exciting twists and turns. And don’t worry, it’s totally beginner-friendly!
    • Go Cross Country Skiing at the #1 Cross Country Skiing Resort in North America!
    • Hit the open road with an old school Colorado road trip! Check out my itinerary for tips on the most noteworthy stops and the best route for the road trip of a lifetime.

4 thoughts on “How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Colorado

  1. These are such fantastic and useful tips, especially about acclimatising slowly, it’s super important! The highest mountain in Ireland is just 3,407 feet tall, and we don’t need to worry about altitude at all. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😀 Aiva

  2. Thanks for explaining that altitude sickness usually happens as a result of less oxygen in the air. I’m planning a vacation in the mountains with my family at the start of next month. I’m glad I read your article so I can prepare to keep everyone comfortable by buying some canned oxygen before!

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