Preparing for the Challenges of Mountain Hiking

Hiker Mountain Hiking in the rocky mountains
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Many hikers aspiring for a mountain adventure just don’t have any mountain where they can train and get accustomed to high altitude and other challenges associated with mountain hiking. Hiking at high elevations requires more than what’s needed to deal with a regular hike. This does not mean that hikers that don’t have access to a mountain cannot train for mountain hiking.

Constant elevation, endless uphills and burning lungs are usually some of the most common things that come into the minds of hikers who barely hike, especially if they are not anywhere near a mountain. However, there are a lot of ways to prepare and train for the challenge both physically and mentally.

All that’s needed is some hard work, understanding of the science behind mountain hiking and a little bit thought. There are two aspects of getting ready for climbing mountains i.e. preparation and training. Let’s start with some important things you should know before moving on to how you can train your body and mind to deal with the challenges that might come your way.

Things to Know

Less Oxygen

High altitude and elevation means less air pressure and oxygen, which can have a significant impact on our mind and body. Humans are designed to function optimally at sea level at 1 atm (atmospheric pressure). The amount of oxygen and atmospheric pressure starts to decrease rapidly as you start going above 7,000 feet (2133 m), making it harder to breath. 4,900 to 11,500 feet is considered as high altitude, between 11,500 to 18,000 feet is very high and 18,000+ (above 5500 m) is extreme altitude which requires supplemental oxygen for most people.

Mountain Trail in Switzerland

Challenging Environment

Although most hikers are likely to only deal with high altitudes (rather than very high and extreme) which are more likely to be experienced by mountaineers and alpine climbers. However, other environmental factors can compound the situation and make the environment more intense. Less air pressure means thin air, which lacks moisture. Hikers need to keep extra water to keep themselves hydrated and drink up to six liters of water per day. In addition to that, wear some extra sunscreen, cover yourself as much as possible and use lip balm. Breath deeply, take breaks whenever you can and move at a slow but steady pace.

Weather

While weather in winters can be extremely harsh, in summers it can be very unpredictable high up in the mountains. You might go hiking in the mountains hoping for some warm days, but at high altitude you should always be prepared for rain and snow, especially at 8,000+ feet elevation. Hikers need to plan their trip around the weather forecast and hit the trail as early as possible in months when lightning storms and afternoon thunder are common (usually August and September).

The terrain starts becoming more rugged as you climb up, so you need appropriate clothing and shoes. We are strong advocates of lightweight shoes over heavy-duty boots in most situations, but here you might want to consider solid boots over anything else. Lack of trees at high altitude means you are totally at the mercy of the weather, so you better be prepared well and never hesitate to go down when hit by a lightning storm.

Weight

Carrying 40 pounds at sea level will feel like almost double above 10,000 feet, so you need to practice by stuffing your backpack up. Add as much elevation to your workouts as possible as try doing sprints up staircases or steep roads. Ultralight backpacking enables you to carry less load while still being able to carry all the necessary stuff. Ultralight gear does not come cheap, but the extra cost is worth it when going high up in the mountains.

Eating Habits

You’ll need more food and drinks at high altitude because your muscles are burning more calories than usual. You need to pick the right food items that you like to eat such as carb-rich snacks and other treats. Give beer and other alcoholic beverages a break as well as caffeinated drinks. Not only these beverages don’t hydrate you, it also affects the brain’s ability to adjust to high altitude.

Keep First-aid Backups

Although most of the items of a first aid kit intended for regular hiking and mountain hiking are the same, there are a few items that you need in addition to these. This includes medicine such as Diamox, indigestion pills and cough drops to deal with altitude sickness (covered below). You can learn more about the basics of wilderness first aid here.

Know Your Own Limits (and take it slow)

Let’s face it. Mountain hiking is not for everyone. You should not have any undiscovered ailments or lingering illnesses, so make sure to pay a visit to the doctor before embarking on the challenge. There is no point in pushing yourself too hard when you start feeling unwell. A minor headache or chest pain can turn into something a lot worse pretty quickly in a challenging environment, so don’t be shy to turn back to safety and try some other time. Avoid rushing to the top because your body is already being pushed to its limits at high altitude.

Preparing for Mountain Hiking

Most of the things that you need to prepare for mountain hiking are similar to what we have already covered for backpacking here, so we won’t go into detail about them again in this post. If you plan on mountain hiking in winter, you might want to have a look at our guide to winter hiking.

Hikers need to prepare themselves for the rigors of hiking in the mountains both physically and mentally. Strong muscles are very important to deal with elevation, which makes strength training a must to prevent pain and injury. Strong legs make it easier to climb steep patches, which also means that you’d have to spend less energy while doing so.

However, strength training for mountain hiking is different from high-repetition, low-load strength exercises we usually do. Instead of only focusing on such exercises, hikers need to focus more on high load, low-repetition workouts (some of them are covered below). Make sure to warm-up before these routines and keep doing each workout at least once a week for four weeks. You need to take these workouts to the next level after four weeks to give your body and muscles new stimulus. Also, add mobility work, stretching exercises and some hiking on the weekends to the equation.

  1. Bulgarian split squat (8 X each side)
  2. Single leg deadlift (8 X each side)
  3. Deadbugs for 45 seconds
  4. Single-leg calf raises (15 X each side)

Repeat the sequence three times and take rest for 20 seconds between each

Move on to the next workout and repeat the sequence three times without taking any break between the following exercises. Add one extra round of each after every week. Depending on your current physical ability, you might have to prepare 3 to 12 months in advance. If you are not sure how to do these exercises, a quick YouTube search is all you need to sort things out.

  1. 20X Bodyweight squats
  2. 20X bodyweight hip thrusts
  3. 20-second (each side) side plank

Climbing Stairs

Climbing stairs is an aerobic exercise that helps you prepare for steep trail sections. But you need to find stairs that take at least three minutes to climb. Try climbing them as fast as you can and catch your breath after you have returned to the bottom. Repeat the workout for at least 5 times and take 90-120 seconds rest between each round.

You can also use the fire escape in your apartment building or office if you are unable to find stairs good enough to reach the 3-minute mark. Another option is a gym stairmaster, which you can also buy yourself if you don’t already have a gym membership. You might want to use a stopwatch to keep track of your workout as it’s important to stick with the timings as mentioned before. Add an extra round each week to take the routine to the next level.

Climbing stairs is a very good preparation for steep mountain sections, however it can’t simulate other conditions like lower oxygen levels you will experience on the actual mountain.

Stairs in Huangshan Mountains

Training on Hill Intervals

Hikers who cannot find any mountains nearby might be able to find a steep section or steep street locally on which they can improve their muscular endurance. Muscular endurance is muscles’ ability to keep producing a fair amount of force over longer time periods, which prevents your legs from fatiguing quickly when climbing a mountain.

The workout is pretty simple. Find a steep slope that takes at least 8 minutes to climb and climb at a steady pace at which you are able to keep talking without huffing and puffing. Return to where you started and repeat the workout 3 to 6 times and increase the count as your muscles develop. You can also add more weight to increase the difficulty level and start with 5 percent of your own bodyweight. Use trekking poles if you are suffering from knee pain.

When performed consistently, these exercises can help you build the endurance and stamina you need on tough trails and make it easier for you to tackle elevation gain. There are a ton of other workouts too that you can perform to prepare for mountain hiking (the one covered above are just a few of them).

Optimize Sleep

You also need to optimize your sleep during the preparation phase. Failing to do so might result in difficulty sleeping at high altitude, which is not something any hiker would want. Diminished sleep makes mountain hiking even more difficult and challenging. Make sure to try out the sleeping setup for a few nights before the expedition. This allows you to get a fair idea of how comfortable it is because when you are up there, there is no chance of replacing your gear. It’s recommended to put earplugs on before sleeping for some nights, so you get used to them before the hike. Earplugs can be very useful on windy nights and help you sleep better.

Altitude Sickness

With air being thinner and the environment more extreme, hikers have to deal with mental and physical challenges of hiking up in the mountains. Although some hikers might start experiencing effects of high altitude at just 5,000 feet, that’s usually not the case. There is no definitive definition of high altitude, but usually it refers to 10,000 feet or above. Human body starts to work harder at such altitudes and as we ascend further to 15,000 feet, the symptoms start becoming more pronounced.

Thin air and less oxygen means your body needs some time to adjust to low pressure. Climbing too fast at high altitude significantly increases the risk of altitude sickness, which can be categorized into three types as follows.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

This is the most common and also the mildest type of altitude sickness with symptoms including shortness of breath, mild nausea, headache and difficulty sleeping. Hikers who experience any of these symptoms should not ascend any further and should either stay where they are or descend back to seek medical help. Medicine such as ibuprofen and acetazolamide (Diamox) can help ease these symptoms. However, make sure that you are not allergic to any of these.

High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

HACE refers to swelling of the brain with fluid and is the most severe form of Acute Mountain Sickness. The affected person acts weird and you might think he/she is drunk, but they are not and might be going through a life-threatening condition. Serious damage can be avoided by descending immediately and taking dexamethasone.

High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)

HAPE can happen even in the absence of HACE or AMS and is a life-threatening condition. It refers to fluid buildup in the lungs with symptoms ranging from shortness of breath and effects similar to pneumonia (crackling lung sounds) to coughing blood-tinged sputum. People experiencing these symptoms should take nifedipine, descend immediately and seek medical help. What makes this even more serious than HACE is the fact that the condition of the person does not improve as he/she descends.

Preventing Altitude Sickness

Slow acclimatization is the most important preventive measure hikers can take at high altitude. Slow ascend gives their body a chance to adjust to less oxygen and makes the body more efficient in processing it. A rest-day after every 3,000 feet gain in elevation and 1,000 feet/day are the recommended numbers. The expectations should be built around the altitude at which you’ll be sleeping.

If you feel any symptom related to high altitude, it’s better to head back as symptoms can compound and result in a vicious cycle. Hikers need to be in great shape and strong enough to climb at high altitude. You also need to make sure to take Diamox, dexamethasone and nifedipine to deal with AMS, HACE and HAPE respectively.

Climbers that go up to extremely high altitudes take several days to acclimate to the conditions, climbing up, then descending again and slowly expose themselves to higher altitudes over time. This is the best way to get used to the low oxygen levels. If you want to hike in mountainous regions, it’s helpful to spend some time even before you head out on the same altitude levels in a city or town up in the mountains.

Hikers in High Altitude Region in the Mountains

Pack Easy-to-Eat Food

Hikers can lose their appetite at high altitude as their bodies try to adjust to a different environment. That’s why you need to pack easy-to-eat, appetizing food that you really like. However, make sure to consider its consistency according to the temperature and whether it can freeze. Freeze-dried meals require less energy and to prepare, which matters a lot in the wilderness. Around 200 calories per hour of climbing is the recommended intake. Hikers should also try to lie and eat in their tent whenever they can.

You might not feel like drinking a lot of water in extremely cold temperatures. But you need to stay hydrated because our bodies waste water during the acclimation process, while extremely dry air can make the matter even worse. Six liters water/day keeps you hydrated and aids in proper functioning of the body.

Frostbite, Hypothermia and Snow Blindness

Harsh winds, cold temperature and intense solar rays are among the other challenges related to high altitude and mountain hiking and make the environment even more extreme. Maintaining warmth and covering up yourself properly is of paramount importance in such situations in order to avoid common hazards. We have already covered winter hiking in detail in a dedicated post, but here is a quick summary of the common afflictions.

Frostbite

Frostbite can vary in severity, but in general it refers to freezing of the skin and underlying tissue. Fingers, nose, cheek and toes are its most common victims. Frostbite is further exacerbated by altitude when the body is already struggling to come in terms with low oxygen levels. What makes things even more difficult is that the symptoms of frostbite are easy to miss. That’s why it’s better to stay on the side of caution and keep yourself warm and protect exposed body parts at all times. If calamity strikes, hikers need to be careful not to warm the affected parts until they can keep them warm for long enough.

Hypothermia

Proper clothing and insulation are the best prevention for hypothermia, which is a lot easier than treating it high up in the mountains. Severe hypothermia can cause dizziness and make it very difficult for hikers to focus and do almost anything properly.

Snow Blindness

Intense sun rays reflecting from the snow can cause some serious damage to our eyes. Quality glacier glasses can help prevent the ferocious sun from burning your retina, and as a result causing snow blindness.

Mountain Hiking Gear

Most of the gear we covered in this post also applies to mountain hiking, but there are a few things you need to be extra careful about. This includes picking the right stove. At high altitude canister stoves can fail because of the cold temperature that can reduce the fuel pressure. Depending on the altitude, the output of a stove can drop significantly or the stove might even stop working altogether.

Canister stoves such as the SOTO WindMaster and Reactor feature pressure regulators that help you deal with the issues related to common canister stoves. Liquid fuel stoves such as the XGK EX Stove is a more sensible choice for extreme conditions where you cannot afford to take a risk. The fuel bottle enables you to maintain pressure manually for consistent output.

Hiker Standing on Mountain Peak

Best Hiking Destinations in the US

If you live in Colorado or near Denver, we have a list of some of the best hiking destinations there including some mountain adventures. The US is full of amazing summit hikes and it’s not even possible to name them all here. Here are our top picks for some great mountain hiking destinations in the US.

Wildrose Peak (Death Valley National Park – California)

Many hikers prefer heading straight for the Telescope Peak, which is the highest point in the Death Valley and situated 11,049 feet above the sea level. However, it’s a comparatively hard 14-mile trip that includes over 3,000-feet elevation gain. At 9,064-feet, the Wildrose Peak is an easier alternative, which is an 8.4-miles trail with 2,200 feet elevation gain. The vistas and views are equally good, but it requires less effort and time to reach the top.

Lookout Peak (Kings Canyon National Park – California)

If you are looking for a wonderful vista without having to deal with strenuous backpacking trips, then Lookout Peak is a great option. The relatively short hike guides you way to an elevation of 8,531 feet. The trail gains 4,000-feet elevation in seven miles. What you get in the end is a stunning panorama, which is considered to be among the best Kings Canyon National Parks have to offer.

Lassen Peak (Lassen Volcanic National Park)

An elevation gain of 2,000 over 2.5 miles makes the hike a great option for hikers trying to get ready for bigger adventures. It’s also among northern California’s snowiest places and usually closed until July. The trail leading to the top is snow-free for only two or three months, so you need to plan your trip around that short window of time.

Avalanche Peak (Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming)

The 10,568-feet peak is reachable after gaining 2,100 feet elevation over a distance of 2.5 miles, making it another easy trail for those who want something to practice on before venturing out for bigger adventures. The peak remains covered in snow until July, which is what makes the Avalanche Peak only suitable as a summer hike.

Mount Olympus – Utah

The 9,030 feet Mount Olympus is among the favorite hiking destinations in the region, especially for the locals because of its location and unusual form. However, the steep hike stretches over 3.1 miles with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet. The trail is accessible in the winter, but it remains covered in snow until May. It’s close proximity to the city makes it very accessible, so getting to the top does not require hikers to backpack for days in the wilderness to reach the top.

Wheeler Peak (Great Basin National Park – Nevada)

Reaching the top of the Wheeler Peak requires some effort and endurance. With an elevation gain of around 2,900-feet over a distance of 4.3 miles, reaching the top is more difficult than other peaks covered above. But it gives you an opportunity to climb a thirteener without being too difficult for most hikers. The trail starts at an elevation of 10,160 feet and ends at the peak that rises 13,063 feet above the sea level.

Hallett Peak (Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado)

Although it rises 12,713 feet above the sea level, Hallett Peak requires minimal climbing skills and is a great practice ground. You might have to scramble some boulders in the last patch, but that too is not that difficult. That’s as close you can get to a thirteener without having to go through a lot of difficulty.

Guadalupe Peak (Texas)

The highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak rises 8,747 feet above the sea level and gains elevation of 3,000 feet over 4.2 miles. Steepness and difficulty decreases after 1.5 miles, but there isn’t much shade on the trail, so make sure to bring plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated.

Pikes Peak

Pikes Peak stands tall as one of Colorado’s toughest fourteeners and has an elevation gain of over 8,000 feet in 13 miles (one way). Most mountain hikers stay overnight at the base-camp and leave early for the summit. Afternoon storms are common in the summer, so hikers need to be prepared and pack appropriately.

Humphreys Peak (Arizona)

The 16.7 miles trail leading to the peak is recommended for experienced hikers as the peak rises 12,633 feet above sea level. Dogs are also allowed on the trail, but they must be leashed (more on Hiking with Dogs here). Snowshoes, microspikes or at least trekking poles are recommended for the hike. The trail is fully covered in snow in the winters, but you will still need crampons or snowshoes in the summers to cover the last section of the trail toward the top.

Mount Elbert (San Isabel National Forest – Colorado)

The highest in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Albert rises 14,440 feet above sea level and is second only to Mount Whitney in the contiguous US. Also known as the ‘gentle giant’ the mountain is categorized as A+ and remains snow covered even in summer.

Conclusion

We have covered hiking etiquettes in detail here, but in a nutshell, make sure to leave no trace, especially when you are far away from the nearest civilization and no one is watching you. Mountain hiking has its unique challenges and hikers should avoid going up before developing physical and mental strength.

Mountain Hiking

Everything becomes harder with elevation gain, so hikers need to prepare in less challenging environments to build endurance and develop muscular strength and cardiovascular ability. Preparing for mountain hiking needs more brains than brawns and although physical workouts help you make your way up, your brain must also be ready to cope with high-altitude.

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Preparing for the Challenges of Mountain Hiking

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