Adjusting to Altitude Changes When Visiting Colorado

Written by Ben Sack, 02.17.2020

Mount Evans Scenic BywayDenver is well-known as the Mile High City thanks to it reaching 5,280 feet in elevation. And many who visit Colorado aren’t coming just for the capital city. They’re here to explore the endless adventures that the state has to offer, from hiking and rafting during the summer to skiing and ice climbing once the snow arrives.

For those who live at sea level, it can take some time to adjust to a higher altitude. It’s not unheard of for those visiting Denver to experience mild signs of altitude sickness, like headaches. But once you head to the slopes or hike up a high mountain, the chances of trouble increase.

What is Altitude Sickenss?

When you breathe, your lungs extract oxygen from the air. Blood picks up oxygen from your lungs and delivers it to the rest of your body. As your heart beats, it delivers oxygen-rich blood to your brain and body, giving you the fuel you need to think and move. 

Summit of Pikes Peak ColoradoDifferent locations around the world contain varying levels of oxygen in the air. The rule is this: the higher you go, the less oxygen is in the air. 

The human body is an amazing thing. Over tens of thousands of years, it’s evolved to deal with varying levels of oxygen in the air. This is why you can survive at sea level and on the top of a mountain. 

But there is one caveat—it takes time for your body to adjust to lower levels of oxygen in the air. And when you fly or drive somewhere new, your body doesn’t always have the time it needs to get accustomed to lower oxygen levels. 

When you travel somewhere at a much higher altitude, low oxygen levels can cause trouble. Early signs of insufficient oxygen include sleepiness, physical fatigue, headaches, nausea, dizziness, a fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, and vomiting. 

In Colorado, these early symptoms of altitude sickness are usually all that occurs. More serious symptoms, such as mental confusion, trouble walking, and chronic shortness of breath, tend to occur only at even higher elevations. 

Yet, these early symptoms can quickly ruin a vacation. Headaches, fatigue, and general unease are no way to enjoy the best that Colorado has to offer.

Where Are You at Risk of Altitude Sickness?

Any time that you quickly travel from a lower altitude, such as sea level, to a higher altitude, such as the mountains, you can experience altitude sickness. 

Arkansas River rafting in Bighorn Sheep CanyonTypically, people from sea level start to feel symptoms of altitude sickness around 8,000 feet. This is why most people will feel fine in Denver or Colorado Springs, but some begin to feel poorly once they travel to the mountains. 

At Raft Echo, most of our rafting trips are led below 8,000 feet in elevation. Because of this, few of our visitors experience altitude sickness on our trips, but they can if they venture to nearby Pikes Peak before or after. 

Fortunately, altitude sickness is not inevitable for most people. All you need to do to protect yourself is take certain steps ahead of time.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Colorado

The best thing you can do to prevent altitude sickness is to give your body time to adapt before moving to a higher elevation. For instance, most people will not experience troubling symptoms of altitude sickness when they come from sea level to Denver or Colorado Springs. 

Manitou Sorings Incline TrailOnce you arrive in Colorado, spend a few days at these lower elevations before venturing to higher elevations in the mountains. Similarly, when you get to the mountains, try to spend a day or more relaxing and exploring town before you go hiking or skiing. Physical activity increases the amount of oxygen that you need, and with less oxygen in the air at higher elevations, this can cause feelings of unease. 

Here are some other tips that you can use to reduce your risk of struggling with altitude sickness:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Don’t push yourself too hard physically

If you believe you’re experiencing the early signs of altitude sickness, don’t ignore it. First, find somewhere that you can sit down and relax. Next, have some water and an over-the-counter painkiller to help with the headache. 

You may need to return to a lower elevation if your symptoms do not get better. And if you feel particularly bad, see a doctor for help.

Final Thoughts

Altitude sickness can happen in Colorado, but it is rare below 8,000 feet (Denver is at 5,280 feet). The best way to avoid acute mountain sickness is to give your body time to adjust. Spend a few days in the city before heading into the mountains. And be sure to stay hydrated and take it slow. This way, you can enjoy your trip to Colorado to its fullest.

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About the Author

Ben Sack is the General Manager of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Colorado's largest white water rafting outfitter. He's also a raft guide, a photographer, and he loves exploring Colorado and beyond with his wife and two boys.
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