What to Know Before You Travel to the Mountains

Bristlecone Pine Tree in California's White Mountains
Chao Yen/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Some of the world's most beautiful scenery is found at high altitude or in the desert. In California, places you can go in the Sierra Nevada Mountains can be more than 10,000 feet high or travel to the hottest place on earth, a desert that feels like it's on fire in the summer. If you're planning a trip to high or dry places, this checklist will help you keep comfortable and safe.

Combat the Dryness When You Travel

The air is much drier in the mountains than at sea level, and the desert is drier than that. Take these along to stay comfortable:

Saline Nasal Spray: Dry nasal membranes are not only uncomfortable, but they can also cause nose bleeds. A few spritzes of this over-the-counter remedy can help a lot. Don't confuse saline spray with spray decongestants, which might make matters worse. You're looking for the stuff that's salty water and nothing else.

Extra-Strength Moisturizers: You can take lots of your regular moisturizer and lotion, but you may want something extra-strength instead. You'll also need moisturizer your lips. You may want to get both of them with high SPF sunscreen built in. 

Artificial Tears: Tuck a few packets of artificial tears in your bag or pocket to keep your eyes moist. Not only is the air dry, but the wind may be blowing, which makes it worse.

Water Bottle Carrier: If you plan to hike - or even if you don't - dry air will make you thirstier than usual. If you bring a water bottle carrier, it will be easier to take along. Reduce waste by bringing a bottle, too.

Protect Against the Sun

High SPF Sunscreen: The sun's rays are stronger at higher elevations, where there's less air to absorb them. Whatever you typically use, bring something stronger. And don't forget sun protection for the lips, too.

Hat with a Wide Brim: A baseball cap will shade your face, but not your neck. You'll be better off in a hat with a brim all around.

Sunglasses: Strong sunlight can affect your eyes as much as it does your skin. It's easy to forget the sunglasses, especially if you leave at night. Find a way to remember them or pack a spare pair.

Things to Know for the Desert

While some desert creatures are merely unpleasant, a few can be much more of a problem if they bit you. It won't hurt to find out how to give first aid for a snake bite. The most dangerous desert creatures to watch our for in California are the  Mojave Desert Sidewinder RattlesnakeGila Monster, and  Mojave Green Rattlesnake.

Pack a long-sleeved shirt: Despite what you might think, a light-colored, long-sleeved cotton shirt will keep you cooler than a tank top because it shades your skin.

Cooling neck bands help: Filled with water-absorbing gel, these bands cool by evaporation. You just soak them in water and tie around your neck. They're sold in many sporting goods stores or search online retailers for "gel neck band."

Bring tweezers with a sharp point: Cactus seem to sneak up and lodge spines in your skin when you aren't looking.

Watch your camera equipment: Sagebrush oils can ruin cameras and tripods. Bring something to wipe everything off after use.

Learn About Altitude Sickness

When your body can't adjust to abrupt changes in altitude, altitude sickness can set in. It causes breathing problems and fluid accumulation. The condition isn't just an issue for people climbing the tallest mountains. It can occur as low as 6,500 feet. Symptoms can start anytime within the first three days after an altitude change. Altitude sickness can be fatal, and you should know its symptoms and what to do if you feel affected.

Motion Sickness on the Way to the Mountains

If you're driving to high elevations, you'll probably be going on winding roads. If you're susceptible to motion sickness and have a driver's license, taking the wheel will likely solve the problem. Or at least that works for me.

Driving at High Elevation in Winter

Under some conditions, tire chains (also called "tire traction devices") are required in California. You're most likely to need them on I-80 between Sacramento and Reno and on US Hwy 50 between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento. They're also sometimes required on Hwy 58 between Bakersfield and Mojave, I-15 between Victorville and San Bernardino and I-5 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

California laws about when and where you need snow chains are complicated, and it's hard to find a practical answer, but I did all the research for you. Here's what you need to know about California Laws About Tire Chains

It's always a good idea to get the current road conditions before you go to the mountains in the winter. GPS and traffic apps can help, but you can also get valuable information from the Department of Transportation about  California Road Conditions.

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