Avoid High Altitude Sickness on Your Ski/Snowboard Vacation

You’ve planned the winter vacation that you’ve always dreamed of. You’re heading west to the Rockies for a week of powder skiing. Bags are packed, gear is stowed and you can’t wait to hit the slopes.

You fly into Salt Lake International airport (5000) feet from your sea-level home. Pretty cool that you can leave home, arrive here and get in a few runs the afternoon you arrive. What could be better? You get your rental car and drive up the canyon to the resort with a base level of 8000 feet, hop on the lift and ride up to 10,000 feet. Get in a few runs, have a few cocktails and a nice dinner when you’re done skiing, after all you’re on vacation

Next morning you don’t feel so good. You’re sluggish, nauseous with a headache and maybe a little short of breath. What a lousy time to get the flu! It feels a lot like the flu or a hangover, but what you probably are suffering from is high altitude sickness.

High altitude sickness can affect anyone, adults or children, when you travel from a lower elevation to a higher one. Not everyone suffers from it and its relatively easy to avoid and take care of so it doesn’t ruin your vacation.

Here are a few tips to follow to help you feel your best:

  • Hydrate. Drink twice as much water as you think you need, especially if you’re coming from sea level. Start hydrating before you arrive, flying will dehydrate you as well. Carry water with you on the mountain, either a water bottle or a hydration system like a “camelback”. Use bottled water if you absolutely must, but the water from the taps on the mountain will probably taste better!
  • Avoid Dehydration. Yes, take in all those fluids as mentioned above but avoid dehydrators such as caffeine, salt and alcohol. Doesn’t mean you can’t have an apres ski cocktail, just go easy especially the first night at elevation.
  • Eat Carbs. Carbs actually take less oxygen to metabolize and digest. Don’t worry about the calories, you’ll burn them off on the mountain and the carbs will help give you the energy to do it.
  • Take It Slow. If at all possible plan to spend your first night at a lower elevation in town and not at 10,000 feet. Taking a night to acclimate will go a long way in helping your body to adjust. Have a nice dinner, take in a concert, explore the city. Make plans ahead of time for things to do that first night in town. Odds are everyone will be tired from traveling anyway.

If spending a night at lower elevation isn’t possible, at least take it easy the first day on the mountain. Take the time to get your snow legs back and explore the mountain in easy stagers. Save the black diamonds for later.

There are also some drugs and energy drinks on the market that claim to prepare you for higher elevations and do away with any adjustment period. I have never heard that they work, but I haven’t spoken to a lot of people who’ve used them either.

Other suggestions to help prepare for a trip to altitude that I’ve seen are to take iron supplements or to take Ginkgo. None of these have science behind them, but there is some logic. Iron helps your body produce more hemoglobin which is generally seen in people at higher altitudes. Gingko enhances circulation which means more blood carrying more oxygen is circulating through your body.

Altitude sickness is generally harmless and short lasting. Once your body adapts to the altitude you’ll feel better. That takes time and you don’t want to spend your ski vacation feeling lousy and not being able to ski. The best way to prevent and fend off that sick feeling is hydration. Keep your fluids up before your trip and especially while on the mountain. It may be cold out but your engaging in lots of activity that uses up those fluids.

If hydration and rest don’t take care of the situation you’ll need to get some medical care. Many ski resorts have clinics on hand or ski patrol who are experienced in dealing with high altitude sickness. You might actually have caught the flu!