10 Tips for Camping at High Altitude

Sometimes, camping out is an uphill climb. Here are 10 tips for camping safely and enjoyably at high altitude.
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Close your eyes and picture yourself at the top of the world. You're standing under endless, cloudless skies with the snow-capped immensity of creation spreading out below you. The wind gently riffles your hair. Now imagine the sound of a needle dragging across vinyl as imagination meets reality. It is freezing up here! You can barely stand against the onslaught of wind. Dirt and ice sting your eyes, your breath burns in your lungs, and your skin blisters with cold and sun. In the opening scene of the 1998 IMAX movie "Everest," the camera pans across unearthly, snow-swept vistas as the narrator intones, "The top of the world where the wind is fiercest is a deathly, desolate place ... " [source: IMDB].

Thankfully, most high altitude camping bears little resemblance to the summit of Mount Everest. From skiing and climbing opportunities to a birds' eye view, alpine enthusiasts agree that the rewards of camping at altitude outweigh the risks.

For those of you who are determined to take camping to a whole new level, we offer 10 tips for making your high-altitude experience safer and more enjoyable.

10

How High is "High Altitude"?

"High Altitude" seems to mean different things to different people. The Mount Everest base camp medical clinic defines high altitude as elevations between 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) and 11,483 feet (3,500 meters). Other organizations, including Princeton University's Outdoor Action program, have adopted what seems to be a more universal definition: 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) to 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). Elevations above 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) are considered "Very High" altitude, and elevations above 18,000 feet (5,500) meters are classified as "Extremely High."

To put that into perspective, the elevation of Denver, Colorado is one mile (5,280 feet, 1,609 meters) above sea level while Mount McKinley in Alaska claims the highest elevation in the United States at 20,320 feet (6,194) meters.

Our bodies undergo several common physiological changes at altitude. These include:

  • Deeper and/or faster breathing
  • Shortness of breath (especially during physical activity)
  • Changes in nighttime breathing
  • Increased urination

Symptoms of altitude stress include headaches, nausea, crabbiness and disrupted sleep. Though unpleasant, these are easily tolerated by most people at altitudes of up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). To avoid or ameliorate the effects of altitude, it's important to acclimatize yourself. We talk about that next.

9

Camper, Acclimatize Thyself!

Altitude sickness is no joke.
Altitude sickness is no joke.
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It's never a good idea to drive to high altitude, hop out of the car, unfurl your tent and head off for a day of vigorous hiking, skiing or mountaineering. No matter how young and fit you are, how much you've trained at sea level or whether you carb-loaded for breakfast, altitude sickness can strike suddenly, leaving you crippled by headaches, doubled over with nausea and staggering, disoriented by the slightest exertion. To avoid altitude sickness, allow an extra 1-3 days to acclimatize your body to the elevation. If you are planning to ascend above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), take the extra precaution of starting your trek below 10,000 feet and hiking up -- never ascending more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day.

The effects of acute mountain sickness (AMS) include headache, dizziness, fatigue, nauseas and shortness of breath. As AMS progresses, you may also develop mental confusion and a staggering gait. The only cure is to descend, or -- if symptoms are mild enough -- to remain at the same elevation until you acclimatize. "Push through the pain" is never a good mantra at altitude, as AMS can develop quickly into life-threatening conditions such as high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema. Better mantras are: "Take It Slow" and "Be Prepared."

8

Camper, Prepare Thyself!

Weather can be unpredictable at high altitude. Days may be balmy and bright, while nighttime temperatures dip below freezing. The wind can be punishing, especially when you get above the tree line where shelter is hard to find, and rain or snow squalls can strike unexpectedly.

So, in addition to all the usual things one must consider when choosing a sleeping bag or tent (weight, price, capacity, seasonal rating), you also need to take the unpredictable conditions at high altitude into consideration.

When it comes to tents, mountaineering and expedition varieties are best-suited to the rigors of high-altitude camping. Look for a tent with stakes and guy lines sturdy enough to anchor it in punishing wind and bad weather conditions. The downside of these tents is that they are made of heavier fabrics and use more poles than other tents, making them heavier to carry in a pack, and stuffy if the weather is warm. However, adequate shelter and sleep can mean the difference between life and death at high altitude, so it's better to be safe than sorry. Choose a sleeping bag and tent rated to withstand the lowest temperatures you expect to face; you can always unzip a tent flap or shed a layer of clothing if you get too warm.

Once you've chosen your sleeping bag and tent, it's time to think about other gear you'll need to pack. Is the air really so thin at high altitude that matches won't light? Find out next.

7

Holy Smokes! Cooking at High Altitude

Cooking at high altitude has its own unique challenges.
Cooking at high altitude has its own unique challenges.
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No, the air isn't so thin above 10,000 feet that a match won't light. On the other hand, the butane in your lighter might not spark in freezing conditions. The same problem plagues the lightweight, quiet, efficient canister camp stoves beloved by sea level camping enthusiasts.

Liquid and multi-fuel stoves are a better choice for high altitude camping. However, they do have their drawbacks. They require priming, are heavier than canister stoves, and emit a loud "jet engine" sound that may interfere with the Zen of camping at high altitude.

You can sometimes eschew a camp stove and light an old-fashioned camp fire for cooking. However, because of the scarcity of wood above the tree line, fires are often banned in higher elevation camp sites, making a good high-elevation camp stove a necessity. Whether you cook over a stove or an open fire, you'll need to allow extra cooking time at altitude since decreased air pressure means that water takes longer to boil and food requires more time to heat through.

Also keep in mind that, once consumed, food will eventually pass through your system and out the other end. Is it really true that you have to pack your own privy when you're camping at high altitudes? Find out next.

6

Do You Really Have to Pack Your Own Privy?

Until about 2007, the highest outhouse in the United States sat 14,494 feet (4,417 meters) above sea level, perched on the summit of California's Mount Whitney [Source: Barringer]. It's a tricky business hauling waste down from such great heights, however, and in recent years, the park service has pared back by eliminating privies from a number of high-altitude destinations.

These days, hikers who pick up forest service permits to hike the Whitney Trail are issued sanitation kits for packing their human waste back out with them once they complete their trek. In lower elevations, campers can pack a small camp shovel and bury their waste. At high altitudes, however, the ground can be so rocky or frozen, and the ecology so fragile that burying your waste is out of the question.

If images of oozing Ziploc bags have your stomach roiling, you'll be pleased to know that new products like the Wag Bag (Waste Alleviation and Gelling Bags) offer an easy, biodegradable, odor neutralizing "toilet in a bag" solution.

5

Haute Height: Fashions for Higher Elevations

When camping at altitude, layers and warm socks are your best friends.
When camping at altitude, layers and warm socks are your best friends.
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The type of clothing you'll choose for your high-elevation excursion will depends on how high you plan to go. At elevations up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), your gear choices might not make or break the trip. At really high altitudes, however, wearing the right gear could literally save your life.

If you're planning to do any climbing, keep in mind that the temperatures between base camp and summits can vary wildly. Furthermore, the physical exertion of climbing may make you feel warm when you are exerting yourself, but as soon as you stop to rest, you'll feel the bite of the cold. In general, a layered approach to clothing is best.

A sturdy pair of insulated boots with wool socks is a must. If you will be climbing on ice, you'll want to consider boots with shanks. Wool base layers under lined trousers and jackets -- with supplemental Gore-Tex outer shells in your pack -- provide flexible protection. Consider consulting with the visitors' bureau or forest service at your destination for on-the-ground advice about the conditions you should expect to encounter.

No matter what the temperature happens to be at your destination, there are a couple of accessories your high-altitude camp pack shouldn't be without.

4

Shriveled and Blistered: Eyewear and Skin Care at High Elevation

When you head out to the beach, it's second nature to pack your sunglasses and sunscreen. When you're packing for a place with cold temperatures and thin air, however, the need for sun protection may not immediately spring to mind; yet studies show that UV-B levels in high elevations are approximately 60% greater than those at sea level. On a clear day, a person of average complexion in Vail, Colorado will begin to develop a sunburn after a mere six minutes of exposure [source: AAD].

By the same token, water-loving contact lens wearers would never forget to pack their swim goggles on a beach trip, but it may never occur to them that parched area might wreck as much havoc on their contacts as salt water. This is not to say that you can't wear contacts at elevation, but you will need to take special precautions. You should carry eye drops and take extra care when changing your lenses since the risk for developing microbial keratitis (corneal ulcers) is greater at altitude [source; BaseCampMD]. You'll also want to carry backup eyewear in case your contacts fail.

Now that you're all packed and ready to hit the trail, it's time to go over what to eat and drink once you get there. Find out what to munch on the mountain next.

3

What to Munch on the Mountain

Sorry, no carb-free diets on the mountaintop.
Sorry, no carb-free diets on the mountaintop.
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If you've properly acclimatized yourself to altitude, you are no longer feeling the dizziness, headache and loss of appetite that altitude sickness can bring. However, the physiological changes themselves continue: You're breathing more rapidly. Lower air pressure means that moisture is evaporating more quickly from your skin. Your kidneys are working harder, so you're urinating more frequently; also, your body is depleting your glucose stores faster than at sea level [source: Askew].

To avoid dehydration, you'll need to take in more fluids than normal. This doesn't mean you should load up your pack with soda and beer, however. In fact, you should avoid alcohol and caffeine altogether since they can be dehydrating. Symptoms of dehydration mimic symptoms of altitude sickness. If you start feeling lightheaded or headachy, increase your water intake and take a break before continuing to a higher elevation.

You'll also want to stick to a high-carbohydrate diet to refuel glucose stores. Gorp, a carb-loaded blend of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate) is a great snack to pack and can be found at most camping stores. Once you've decided what to munch on the mountain, it's time to select a camp site and get cooking. In the next section, we'll tell you how to keep your tent from blowing away.

2

Selecting the Best Camp Site at High Altitude

The cardinal rule in camping is "leave no trace." This is especially important in areas like high-altitude campsites, where the ecology can be particularly fragile. Use established campsites whenever possible and be sure to anchor all of your gear. If the ground is too rocky or frozen to permit staking, tie guy wires to nearby rocks and bushes to secure your tent.

Above the tree line, winds can be relentless. Try to choose a site on the lee side of a snow bank or rock outcropping where you'll be sheltered from the wind. Remember to camp away from mountain passes because they tend to be wind tunnels. You'll also want to avoid ridges or patches of exposed ground, as these could leave you vulnerable to lightning strikes.

Once you've selected the perfect spot, spread your arms and take in the spectacular vistas. This is what high-altitude camping is all about: Well, that and the thrill of ascending to a place where few people have ever ventured.

Another thing that may give aspiring mountaineers a thrill are the various gadgets that help them train for their trip and track of how their bodies are measuring up to the mountain. Our final tip's up next.

1

Gadgets for High Altitude Camping

Mountaineers love their gadgets.
Mountaineers love their gadgets.
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Every adventurer loves good gear. So it's no surprise that the sport of mountaineering has mountains (pun intended) of specialized equipment designed to make your uphill trek safer and more enjoyable. From multifunction watches with built in altimeters to personal locater beacons that may just save your life in an avalanche or accident situation, there's no shortage of mountaineering gadgets to explore.

Of them all, the altitude tent might just be the holy grail of mountaineer training gear. Also known as the hypoxic tent, an altitude tent simulates conditions at high elevations by depleting the air of oxygen inside the enclosure. An athlete who sleeps inside an altitude tent at sea level can theoretically acclimatize herself to high altitude without ever leaving her home. The price tag on altitude tents makes them cost-prohibitive for most weekend warriors; however, acclimatizing training has become popular enough that outdoor gear specialist Ellis Brigham recently installed pre-acclimatize equipment in its Manchester Deansgate store. Perhaps other sporting goods stores will soon follow suit!

By now, you've planned, prepared, packed and pitched your tent. But wait, there's more! Find related articles and more great links on the next page.

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Sources

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