Recently my family and I took an unforgettable summer vacation to the Rocky Mountains! After months of planning, we hitched up our travel trailer and headed over 1,000 miles west to the land of snowy peaks and swanky ski resorts—Colorado! Our itinerary included hitting every amazing hiking trail in Rocky Mountain National Park (at least twice!), finding kid-friendly biking trails, and trying to get a glimpse of the amazing wildlife that calls this beautiful land home, like bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and maybe even a bear (if we're lucky, or not—depending on how you look at it!). Every year we take a week or two to visit one our country's stunning national parks, which I highly recommend doing. But unlike our trips to Yellowstone and Acadia, this trip to RMNP presented a new challenge—a wrench thrown into our packing routine, if you will. Knowing that we would be hiking at elevations well over 10,000 feet throughout the park, we had to be prepared for fluctuating temperatures and altitude sickness. Throwing T-shirts and shorts into a suitcase wouldn't cut it for this adventure. In order to enjoy every minute of this amazing Colorado getaway without freezing our fingers off at 12,000 feet or suffering from dehydration took some research. Are you planning a trip to a destination that will make you shiver with excitement or take your breath away ... literally? Here are some of my travel tips for heading to higher altitudes.
Dress for Success
Higher elevations equal lower temperatures. In fact, you can plan on losing about 5° of warmth for every 1,000 feet you climb. So, for example, if you start your day at the base of the Rocky Mountain National Park, which has an elevation of roughly 8,000 feet, and make your way along the Trail Ridge Road, which offers the highest point in the park at 12,183 feet, you could notice a good 20° difference when you step out of the car at the top! You'll find yourself very underdressed (and very cold!) in just a T-shirt and shorts when you step out of the car. To ensure that you're ready for the cold and wind that accompanies higher elevations, pack these items:
- Light, packable jacket or windbreaker
- Fleece coat
- Gloves or mittens
- Warm hat
- Long pants
Into Thin Air
In addition to being attacked by a bear along a hiking trail, I was also worried that one of us would be stricken with altitude sickness. While not quite as life threatening as being mauled by a wild animal, altitude sickness isn't anything to mess around with. In its mildest form, the thin, skimpy-on-oxygen air can cause headaches, dehydration, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, and the inability to sleep. Sounds like how I feel after a night of partying too hard! In a more advanced state it messes with your ability to breathe and think. You might feel confused, faint, unable to walk straight, and your lips or fingernails might turn a shade of blue. At this point you need to stop ascending the mountain and seek medical attention ASAP! Since a trip to the ER isn't on your vacation itinerary, take these preventative steps to ward off altitude sickness:
- Drink water, and lots of it! Even if you normally guzzle water at home, up your intake since your body requires more water the higher up you go. And don't wait until you're winding along the scenic mountain roads to start drinking. It's a good idea to start drinking more water about a week before your trip, especially if your change in altitude will be significant.
- Take one ibuprofen every day once you're into higher elevations. A friend of mine gave me this advice. I took one every morning and didn't feel even the slightest tinge of sickness. Whether it's because of the ibuprofen or not, I can't say for sure. But my friend is pretty sharp, so I'd like to think she's on to something. But my 13-year-old, who adamantly said no to taking one (teenagers!), curiously got a nagging headache on our 2nd day in the Rockies. He reluctantly agreed to take one and felt better within no time. Maybe he'll listen to me next time?
- Eat more carbohydrates! This is the perfect reason to indulge in breads, pastas, and cereals! If you're on a low carb diet, see this as a great excuse to ditch your diet for a while! Any hiking and biking you do will work it all off anyway.
- If possible, drive to your high-altitude destination instead of flying in. This helps your body gradually adjust to the increasing altitude.
- Avoid alcohol. While adult beverages and campfires go hand-in-hand and the thought of enjoying a campfire with a cold beer or glass of red wine may not be very exciting, at least try to enjoy drinks in moderation.
Get that bucket list out and start crossing off amazing trips you want to take. If that list includes things like a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro or a holy trip to Tibet, plan ahead so that the breath-taking heights don't leave you chilled to the bone and gasping for air! Do you have any advice for traveling to high altitudes? Share it with us in our comments below!