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Before You Set Out on Your Next Hike, Read This!

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 01/31/2012
Last Updated: 08/02/2012

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I'm off to southwest Utah next week, to visit and feast my eyes on the land of red rocks and picturesque awesomeness.
But before I go, I want to be well prepared. I'm thinking about the trip I made to Beaver Creek, Colorado, a few years ago with my older son. We were excited about it all, especially the hiking … so excited that we neglected to consider the fact that we were more than 8,000 feet above sea level. We chose not to think about the fact that you do not set out on a big hike the very first day you arrive. And you have to climb a little at a time—not conquer the whole mountain in one fell swoop.

It took me just a few seconds to realize that I probably was not suffering from a sudden, rare lung disease that rendered me breathless and exhausted before I did much more than start out; instead, what I was suffering from was a little altitude sickness. Needless to say, the hike was a bit of a challenge (and that's a bit of an understatement!). There's nothing that can ruin a much-anticipated exercise-induced endorphin rush faster than being unprepared for the upcoming challenge.

So this doesn't happen again—to me or anyone else out there who is planning on either traveling to a place above sea level, taking a long challenging walk or hike or just exercising outdoors—I've gathered some fabulous tips from the folks at Red Mountain. Now that I have them, I'm hoping to hike to my heart's content. Of course, I'll report in about my experiences when I return, but in the meantime, if you're curious and don't want to wait, you can look for periodic updates on Twitter at @sherylkraft.
Q. What is the rule of thumb for preparing to hike above sea level? What's the best way to break yourself in?

A. High altitude sickness occurs at high altitude places, such as the Colorado mountains, when people from low-level or sea-level locations don't allow time to acclimate to the higher altitude. Acclimation can take days or even weeks, depending on the fitness level of the individual. At our elevation—3,000 to 4,000 feet—guests can experience some shortness of breath, but it is not debilitating and usually takes a day to acclimate.
—John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation
Q. If there is no place to hike, how can one prepare for a hiking experience—at their gym, perhaps? Are there other activities one can do to get in shape for a hike?

A. The best way to prepare for a long hike is to do a short hike and work your way up to longer hikes. If you can't get to the mountains, try to find a park that has hills and unstable surfaces, like sand and gravel. Do the things you would do on a hike, like pull yourself up onto monkey bars, mimicking climbing onto rocks, or hop and jump over obstacles mimicking rocks, brush or streams. If you climb up onto rocks, you will have to climb down. Try climbing backward off of the stairs from a playground slide or scooting down hills of grass.
The gym workout would be similar to any full-body workout you may already do. To prepare your hiking muscles, you will want to strengthen your major muscles, improve your cardiovascular endurance, increase your stability and agility.
—Kim Watters, fitness manager
Q. What is the best way to dress for hiking? Layers? If so, can you be specific: sweat-wicking materials, how many layers, hats, scarves, socks, pants, footwear?

A. On our coldest mornings, the temperatures are from the low 20s to the mid 30s Fahrenheit. We would suggest three upper layers: one shirt that can wick sweat away from the skin; the second layer is a thermal layer to keep you warm; the third layer is a wind-resistant shell that helps hold heat in. On cold days, I want my ears, forehead and hands covered. Footwear: Our guests show up with all kinds of footwear for hiking, many of them wear running shoes, and while they are OK, a good hiking boot with Vibram sole is much better for the varied terrain Red Mountain hikes on.
 —John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation

Q. What about protecting your skin when you hike? Is there a danger of sunburn or windburn and, if so, what's the best protection?

A. Wear SPF 45 or higher, remembering to reapply every three to four hours. Wear sunglasses and a hat; the more coverage the better. Use a soothing mask afterward that has lots of antioxidants to repair any free-radical damage that may have occurred from the sun exposure. Windburn would simply need rehydration with either a facial cream or mask.
 —Kristin Kidder, aesthetician
Q. What should you eat before a hike and how far in advance should you eat? Should you bring snacks on a hike, and if so, what kinds? What are the best ways to stay hydrated?

A. We suggest avoiding sugary/sweet foods, which lead to an energy crash during an activity and foods that you know affect your bowels. For mornings before hiking, a light breakfast (oatmeal, non-sugary cereals and eggs) work best. Ideally you should eat at least an hour before activity. We stress the importance of carrying energy snacks and plenty of water on our two- and four-hour hikes, especially as we move into hotter weather.

Water remains the best choice for hydration, but we use a product called Emergen-C; it mixes with water for a quick energy boost. The best advice is to hydrate before the hike and drink before you are thirsty. In hot weather, this is a huge problem for our guests.
  —John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation

Q. What's the best way to replenish after a lengthy hike?

A. Proteins and complex sugars are good after-hike choices. Energy bars provide this. Sugary drinks (sodas) are the worst unless you're drinking lots of water after sweating a lot; then the soda acts to replace sugars/salts. And of course alcohol is a no-no for before, during and immediately after an activity. Save it until after you're done and have had something to eat and drink.
  —John Ibach, director of outdoor recreation

Q. Can you suggest some before and after stretches or warm-ups?

A. You should warm up before hiking (or any exercise) and stretch after the cooldown. The warm-up should be similar to the activity you will be doing, so just start off at a slower pace and then add speed and hills after you have been walking for 5 to 10 minutes. You work all of your major muscles during a hike, so you should stretch all the major muscles after a hike. We have stretch classes scheduled after our hikes so everyone can stretch their major muscles in class. It is a nice way to relax after a long hike.
—Kim Watters, fitness manager

Thank you for your great advice, Kim, John and Kristin. Now I feel ready to conquer those red rocks!


Good reminders. I handle high altitudes poorly myself as I found out the first time I went to Denver for a conference, so I have to be careful!

Hmmm. I wonder if there's anyone who DOES handle high altitudes easily (other than the people who live there)!

Pack lots of water and keep reapplying sunblock. And with water, you want to make sure you have more than enough, especially if you are not sure if there will be places to obtain water along the trail.

Water...very important! Good point - thanks, Merr.

I will print out these suggestions for future reference. I was in the Alps the first time I realized I needed them.

Good to keep in mind for future reference, I agree, Alexandra. Hope it didn't ruin your trip to the Alps, though!

Great tips for getting ready for hiking before you leave on a trip. We've shared this link with the boomer readers at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook.

Thanks, Donna, for spreading the word.

I had taken altitude sickness for granted until I visited the west last summer. I went on long hike figuring I was in good shape but it didn't take long before I was winded--big time. I chugged water for the rest of the day but had one serious headache.

I think we all take it for granted...until it happens to us! That's exactly what happened to me. It was hard to believe that I could get so winded from doing practically nothing!

Great advice. Most important point, I think, is to ease into it gradually.

It's so important to prepare for high-altitude vacations! I got really sick once in Aspen, Colorado, and I wasn't even hiking.

I followed your tips for a hiking trip in Sante Fe, preparing way in advance and it really helped. The trip went great.

I hope you enjoy Red Mountain and I look forward to hearing about it!

You must be very sensitive to altitude. It's such an individual thing. Some people barely notice the difference. I sure did, even at 2,000 feet. It was manageable, but noticeable.

These are great suggestions. My fear is that the people who need them most are the dolts who don't pay any attention. As a westerner, I am always shocked to see people set out on trails not even carrying water. And I've seen women head down the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon wearing flip flops or slides. WAKE UP!!
When I go to a higher altitude, I always schedule a day at the beginning to just walk a little near the cabin or lodge and edge into getting used to the altitude change. Also the older you get, the longer it may take to acclimate.

Flip flops? Crazy. I've seen too many injuries to be able to think that's even close to a smart idea.

This is all great info!

Such timely advice: Heading off for a week of hiking myself. Since I hike regularly already I follow much of this advice but good reminder on the altitude front, which is hard on me.

Hope you had a great week of hiking, Sarah. I know I did!

Great tips! I would add that some people take awhile to acclimatize even to 3,000 to 4,000 feet. To avoid the shortness of breath especially while exercising at altitude, they could gradually ascend to that altitude by spending a day at say 2,000 feet. Regarding sunscreens, it's not just the higher the better but rather the amount of UVA/UVB protection the sunscreen offers. Anthelios is one of the few that contains a chemical, mexoryl xl, that protects against the broad UVA spectrum. Regarding energy bars, the consumer needs to be very choosy since some contain added ingredients such as ginseng and other botanicals that are unnecessary.

Thanks for all the great tips, Jeanine. You sound very knowledgeable and I'll bet you've taken a hike or two in your lifetime...

Great tips, especially the advice on how to dress for a long hike. We did a lot of hiking around Arches and Canyonlands in early March, and being able to protect yourself from the elements while working up a sweat is crucial!

(also, "I probably was not suffering from a sudden, rare lung disease that rendered me breathless and exhausted" - ha!)

It's amazing the difference the clothing makes. While it was freezing on the outside, I was nice and toasty as I climbed (even had to start removing layers pretty early on!)

Great tips. I don't live near the mountains, but do love to hike our Michigan trails and roads. I need to get myself some hiking duds with some of that fancy wicking material.

Trails and roads can be a nice experience, too, I think. In fact, when I was struggling climbing those steep rocks, I was looking for some of those!

When we visit relatives in Boulder, they always take us hiking. First, we don't own hiking boots because we don't live within 150 miles of a mountain. Second, there's no way to practice hill climbing where we live. The only hill around is "Mount Trashmore" (seriously ... it's a landfill turned into a park ... with a trash-made hill). I enjoy trying to hike with the relatives, but we're always lagging behind and panting. We do take plenty of water!

Mount Trashmore sounds awful. And scary. Lucky for you to have relatives in Boulder (love it there!). Maybe you can leave a pair of hiking boots with them so you're prepared for the next time :)

Most important thing to remember... WATER!

Absolutely. Having just returned from my trip, I realize how important that is. The exercise - combined with the dry air - really makes you thirsty and dehydrated!

My youngest son (19) and I are setting out this weekend for Colorado, and on Sunday and/or Monday we will hike Pike's Peak. We are both pretty fit (I am turning 70 on the 9th) and this is my adopted son. I am concerned about him underestimating this hike, and he is concerned about me being 70. I made this hike in 1988, with my 80 year old father. We have been reading and studying the trail maps, and noting what we need to have in our back packs. My biggest concern is carrying too heavy a load on my back. 1. Sleeping bag; 2. Lots of water; 3. Energy bars; 4. Bananas; 5. Almonds. Any suggestions on anything else light weight we should be taking?

Dee Murphy

Thanks for writing, Dee. That is pretty impressive! You sound like an experienced hiker and that you'll do just fine. Make sure you start out slowly so you don't get altitude sickness. I once made the mistake of taking on a full hike the day after I arrived in Colorado from New York, and it was a big mistake, as the air above sea level makes it difficult to breathe if you're not used to it! You have to work your way up to it. I'd also suggest a look at this list for some more essentials:
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
First-aid supplies
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools
Nutrition (extra food)

Safe travels to you and your son~
Hydration (extra water)
Emergency shelter


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