6 Ways to Prevent Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro
People’s main concern when climbing Kilimanjaro is how their bodies will react to the high altitude.
Although some hiking trails on Kilimanjaro are more difficult by nature than others, the majority of them would be considered standard hiking trails if they were at sea level. The fact that the route profiles are not extreme is one of the reasons why many hikers, even those with little trekking experience, can climb the world’s tallest mountain. Daily walking distances and height changes are generally moderate. High altitude, on the other hand, changes everything. The ability to deal with high altitude can be a critical success factor in a Kilimanjaro climb.
KILIMANJARO HAS SEVERAL DIFFERENT ALTITUDE ZONES
You will pass through three different altitude zones as you climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They are as follows:
High Elevation: 8,200 ft – 11,400 ft altitude (2,500 – 3,500m)
Very High Elevation: 11,400 ft – 18,000 ft (3,500 – 5,500m)
Extremely High Elevation: Height above 18,000 feet is considered extreme altitude (5,500m)
Most people can climb to a height of 7,800 feet (2,400 meters) without experiencing the effects of high altitude. However, as a person ascends in altitude, the changes in air volume mean that less oxygen is available with each breath, affecting people to varying degrees.
Individual reactions to changes in oxygen supply are unpredictable. The effects of high altitude are not determined by the trekker’s level of fitness, although having good cardio-respiratory fitness is a plus. Altitude symptoms can vary from day to day and by elevation. What affects a person one day may have no effect on him the following day, week, or month. Furthermore, there is no relationship between age and gender when it comes to altitude.
WHAT IS THE BODY’S REACTION TO HIGH ALTITUDES?
To understand why height is so important, you must first understand what is going on in your body. The short answer is that as you ascend, you get less oxygen.
At sea level, oxygen absorbs approximately 21% of the air, and barometric pressure can be as high as 760 mmHg (milliliters of mercury) or 1 atm (atmosphere). As you ascend the mountain, air pressure decreases. As air pressure falls, so does the pressure that holds the oxygen cells together. In short, molecules are getting farther apart. With a small amount of oxygen, the oxygen molecules disperse heavily into any given amount of air, which is why each breath provides so little oxygen.
When your body discovers that it is receiving less oxygen than usual, it causes you to breathe deeper and faster to compensate. The heart begins to beat faster once more in order to bring more oxygen into your body. More red blood cells are produced in order to increase their capacity to carry oxygen. Other fluctuations occur in blood acidity, lung pressure, electrolyte levels, and fluid and salt balance. Despite these circumstances, your body continues to function even when it is depleted of oxygen.
Acclimatization occurs when the body becomes accustomed to low pressure and low oxygen levels. This is a slow process that can take hours or days. Everyone’s level of adaptation is different, and it appears to be genetic. As acclimatization decreases, so does altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS).
WHAT ARE THE ALTITUDE SICKNESS SYMPTOMS?
The majority of people will have a minor reaction to the increase. Some of the most common symptoms of altitude sickness are as follows:
- Headache: especially headaches that worsen while lying down or upon waking
- Appetite loss
- Extreme Fatigue: feeling lethargic, weak, and/or overly tired
- Insomnia: not being able to sleep well
- Dizziness and disorientation.
The term “acclimatization line” refers to the point at which symptoms of a person’s illness appear. Assume your acclimatization line on the first day is 13,000 feet. After traveling to this altitude and spending a night or two there, the body would acclimate to the altitude, and your acclimatization line could increase to 15,000 feet. If the next day you remain below 15,000 feet, you will remain asymptomatic; however, if you rise above 15,500 feet, you may begin to develop minor altitude sickness symptoms.
By spending more time at a height above your normal range, your body can adapt. However, if you continue to climb points above your acclimatization line, the symptoms are likely to worsen, and additional adaptation to the elevation is unlikely. Simply put, you have risen faster than your body can adapt. At Roam Wild Adventure, we prefer to take the long mountain trails and use the “climb high, sleep low” trekking method, which is the best way to adapt to high altitude and reduce the risks of succumbing to altitude sickness.
You’ll hear the phrase, “pole-pole”, quite frequently on the mountain. This is the Swahili term for “go slowly” or “take it easy”. The first and foremost method to reduce the symptoms of high altitude is to spend more time on the mountain, taking the ascent slowly.
Altitude sickness can affect even the fittest people, including marathon runners and strong, athletic people in their prime. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was unable to reach the summit. Ray Lewis, the NFL MVP, shared this sentiment. Don’t be fooled by the size of the mountain.
It’s impossible to know if you’ll be prone to AMS until you’re exposed to altitude. As a result, it’s always better to go slowly and steadily to give your body time to adjust to the low oxygen environment. People who do not spend enough time acclimating to a new altitude before climbing higher are more likely to get altitude sickness.
Our guides can lead treks on all of Kilimanjaro’s routes, but the longer ones have the highest statistical success rates. Among our favorites are the 9-day Northern Circuit, the 8-day Lemosho, and the 7-day Machame. We recommend taking one of these routes unless you’ve previously traveled to high elevations and acclimatized quickly. It will reduce your chances of becoming ill due to the altitude.
If you look at the route itinerary, you’ll notice that the daily distance hiked is small. The main reason it takes so long to climb Kilimanjaro is that we intentionally slow down. During the first few days, your group may move so slowly that you begin to mentally chastise the guides for holding the group back. When you get to the top, you realize that the tempo they set is the result of years of experience and an acute understanding of what is best for the group’s performance.
You’ll be grateful for the baby steps your guides forced you to take when you reach the summit of Uhuru Peak, which stands at 19,341 feet above sea level, and you’ll be living proof that altitude is a force to be reckoned with.
- DRINK A LOT OF WATER AND EAT A LOT OF FOOD
You’ll need to drink more water and eat more calories when you’re at a high altitude. Hiking not only burns calories, but simply being in a hypoxic environment demands more energy. People, on the other hand, prefer to consume fewer calories rather than more.
Why? A variety of factors have contributed to this. One effect of low air pressure is that gasses in the intestines expand, resulting in bloating. Second, the body produces more leptin, an appetite-controlling hormone, at higher altitudes. This increase in leptin causes a feeling of fullness (full). Finally, altitude sickness causes a loss of appetite or nausea.
Even if you are not hungry, you must make a conscious effort to eat. We provide generous portions of food to our customers at each meal and encourage them to eat, eat, eat. High-carbohydrate, slow-burning energy foods are designed to keep you energized while also providing your body with the resources it needs to adjust. According to research, at high elevations, the body switches from fat to carbs as an energy source. According to theory, this shift makes it easier for oxygen to dissolve in the blood. As a result, a higher than usual carbohydrate intake is required.
It is also critical to drink plenty of water. When you exercise in a dry environment, you may dehydrate faster than usual without realizing it because moisture is lost through breathing and evaporates from the skin. Make sure you drink plenty of water! A daily intake of 4-5 liters is advised. Urine should be light yellow or clear, and it should be urinated six to ten times per day.
- GET ENOUGH SLEEP
When your body works hard all day, it is critical to allow it to rest overnight so that it can prepare for the next day’s activities. It not only replenishes your muscles but is also required for proper acclimatization to your current altitude.
Sleeping at a high altitude can be difficult. The body instinctively breathes faster to maintain adequate oxygenation. Simultaneously, it eliminates carbon dioxide from the body. The body, however, pauses breathing to avoid exhaling too much carbon dioxide. Regulated breathing disrupts normal sleep patterns, resulting in less sleep overall, difficulty falling asleep, and frequent awakenings during the night. Even the fittest people are affected by the difficulties of sleeping at altitude: studies have shown that professional athletes get less sleep and have poorer quality sleep at higher elevations.
If you’re tired when you arrive at camp, rest up. It’s better to take advantage of your tiredness than to try to stay awake until the evening, when you never know if you’ll feel drowsy. Earplugs can be used to block out noise from those in and around the campsite and tent. A sleep mask is also useful. Pack melatonin, a dietary supplement that has been shown in studies to cut the time it takes to fall asleep at high altitude in half. Finally, because not everyone is used to camping, particularly for several days at a time, you might want to start with short overnight outings at home.
- CONSIDER TAKING DIAMOX
Acetazolamide (Diamox) can alleviate AMS symptoms by hastening the body’s acclimatization process. This is the most thoroughly studied medication for preventing and treating altitude sickness. It works by increasing the amount of alkali (bicarbonate) excreted in the urine, causing the blood to become more acidic.
In studies, a dose of 250mg every eight to twelve hours before and during a rapid ascent to altitude resulted in fewer and/or less severe symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). The recommended therapeutic dosage is 250 mg twice a day for three days. For prevention, begin taking 125mg twice daily one day before your climb.
- PREPARE FOR YOUR CLIMB
Above are some things you can do on the mountain to avoid altitude sickness. However, there are some things you can do before you arrive in Tanzania.
The first step is to train properly at home and get in the best shape possible. We recommend a minimum of eight weeks of training that includes trekking, weightlifting, and cardiovascular exercises.
Some people also choose to train for climbing at high altitudes with an altitude training mask, such as this one. There are varying opinions as to its effectiveness, but for the low cost of buying one, we think it’s worth giving it a try. An altitude training mask can simulate what it is like to exert the lungs and breathe lower levels of oxygen. In theory, this method enables you to acclimate before climbing Kilimanjaro, which can significantly improve the success and safety of your climb by reducing the risk of altitude sickness.
- CHOOSE A REPUTABLE KILIMANJARO OPERATOR
Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, you must climb with a reputable Kilimanjaro company. The answer is straightforward: the best companies hire the best guides, who have received extensive training in preventing and treating altitude sickness. Our guides have the knowledge and equipment necessary to keep you safe on the mountain.
We go through a series of safety protocols before a client even sets foot on the mountain. These precautions were put in place to both prevent and treat altitude sickness.
On the mountain, our guides conduct health checks twice a day, using thermometers and pulse oximeters to measure temperature, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels. These health checks are performed to determine a client’s level of acclimatization and to detect any signs of altitude sickness to prevent AMS. Our safety protocols include regular health checks. We take all necessary precautions to increase your chances of reaching the summit while decreasing your risk of altitude sickness.
Let us help you achieve your dream of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Contact us today to get started!