How Long Does It Take to Adjust to Altitude?

January 5, 2021

You typically begin to reach areas considered high altitude at around 8,000 feet. But, for some of us who reside closer to sea level, altitude sickness may rear its ugly head even lower, closer to 5,000 feet. While most people can adjust, the effects of high altitude — even lighter side effects — do take time.

So, exactly how long does it take to adjust to altitude? It depends on lots of factors. Your training and even the climate, for example. Let’s take a look at what happens to the body at high elevations and how to combat altitude sickness and prepare for your Machu Picchu trip, mountain marathon, or whatever it may be.

What Happens to Your Body at Altitude

What does high altitude do to the body? High-elevation areas and high-altitude regions have a reduced air pressure, which allows oxygen molecules to spread out. When you take a breath, you have less oxygen.

In turn, your body strives to produce more red blood cells through a kidney-to-bone-marrow communication signal. The reason for this is because red blood cells carry oxygen. Now that the body is producing more red blood cells, your plasma also increases, making sure the blood doesn’t thicken. Overall, in higher elevations, your body is working overtime to do basic things. And, in turn, this can trigger a snowball of side effects, including lightheadedness and dehydration.

With that being said, it’s critical to carry a first-aid kit with you at all times. So, don’t forget to pack one in your rooftop cargo carrier, along with any running gear, ski equipment and other travel items.

How to Combat Altitude Sickness

Everyone’s body will react slightly differently. So the answer to “How long does it take to adjust to altitude?” is: It varies. But the important thing is to learn how to help your body adjust to the altitude, making the effects less sudden and pronounced. Here is an easy plan to minimize symptoms you might experience during high altitudes.

Step One: Prepare and Train Your Body

how to combat altitude sickness

It’s essential to prepare and train your body to adjust to the altitude. For instance, you can train your body for high-altitude conditions by making sure you are fit and in shape. It also helps to make sure to eat correctly and nutritiously. In particular, the body’s iron levels can decrease significantly, so it’s good to have extra stores to combat the high altitude. Not to mention, you should simply be hydrated.

Cardio Exercises – When preparing and training your body, aim for cardio exercises. Interval and hill training can help you gain the strength you need, allowing your body to take on other side effects.

Train With High Tech – Advances in tech now provide us training devices such as high-altitude tents and portable altitude simulators. High-altitude tents decrease air pressure and the oxygen levels as you sleep, while the simulator can filter oxygen out of the air while you breathe. It won’t be an exact match to an altitude experience, but it’s close enough to prepare you for the real thing.

Sleep in High Places – Last, you can get in some altitude training by simply sleeping or flying as close as possible to the higher altitude. While you are not exercising, spending a few nights in or flying over the highest place possible can give your body a chance to acclimate. Alternatively, you can arrive early to your destination — say, two to three days — and allow your body to ease into the altitude gently.

You can choose to camp in the nearby region, breathing in the direct outdoor air. Just be sure to carry along your Ten Essentials, a first-aid kit and other gear you might need for emergencies. An LED flashlight, for example, can help you alert other party members or signal for help.

Step Two: Be Mentally Prepared

Sometimes when it comes to the effects of altitude, it’s mind over matter. Adjusting to altitude takes mental strength almost as equal as physical strength. Understand what your body is in for and mentally prepare yourself.

One of the best ways to mentally adjust to altitude is to force yourself to exercise in extreme heat. Heat makes your body sweat and creates a similar plasma-building process. The only difference is your blood won’t be adding any red blood cells. And the insufferable, sweltering heat, alone, will challenge you to practice mind over matter.

Step Three: Listen to Your Body

Last, once you are at a high altitude, remember to listen to your body. No matter how hard you train for this moment, your body will want to move at an entirely different pace.

As a rule of thumb, avoid training too hard too soon. Instead, allow your body to ease into it at first. It could take anywhere from five to seven days for your body to adjust to the altitude and adjust to the initial shock. In the beginning, train lightly.

If your body is tired, take a break. And if you need to return to base or seek help, learn how to read a topographic map to get back safely.

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