How to Manage Altitude Sickness in the Mile High State

Colorado boasts the nation's highest ski slopes and highest towns

Altitude sickness in Colorado
Patrick Orton

The very thing that makes Colorado so beautiful and an outdoor wonderland is the same thing that can seriously ruin your trip: the altitude.

Colorado has the highest average elevation out of all states in the nation.

Denver alone is a mile above sea level, and if you’re headed to the mountains, it only goes up from there. 

Two of the United State’s highest incorporated municipalities with residents are in Colorado: Leadville, at 10,430 feet, and Alma, at 10,578 feet.

And the ski towns, some of the most popular destinations for tourists, are even higher. The Loveland Ski Area peaks are at 13,010 feet.

Surpassing even that, Arapahoe Basin boasts the highest skiable terrain in the country, starting around 11,000 feet with a top elevation of 13,050 feet. Add that to a dramatic vertical drop of 2,270 feet, and you’ve got the recipe for an incredible day on the powder — and the potential for an incredible case of altitude sickness.

That can mean headaches, dizziness, exhaustion, lightheadedness, sleep problems, shortness of breath and even nausea and vomiting.

Altitude sickness is common among Colorado visitors, especially those coming from sea level who are visiting regions above 8,000 feet. The cause: thinner air with lower air pressure and less oxygen.

But altitude sickness can be treated, and travelers can take steps to try to prevent it, too.

Here are some ways to combat altitude sickness while visiting Colorado.

1. Climb slowly and descend quickly if you feel symptoms.

If you have a high-altitude road trip planned, pick a city, explore it for a few days and then head up higher. Doing the full 10,000-feet climb in a single day can leave you feeling wrecked.

And whether you’re trying your first fourteener or on a bike ride through the hills, if you start to feel foggy, carefully head back down or get help.  

2. Keep hydrated.

Dehydration makes you more susceptible to altitude sickness, so make sure you drink more water than usual. Especially while doing physical activity, like hiking or skiing, take extra care to drink plenty of water. Cold-weather sports can be deceptive and hide how much you’re actually sweating.

Traveling, in general, combined with the effects of caffeine and alcohol can dry out your body. It may be tempting to indulge in a great local beer to celebrate your arrival, but let your body acclimate first. Wait a day or two before visiting the distillery. (And beware, your body is likely not going to be able to handle your alcohol as well way up here.)

3. Get plenty of sleep.

This one’s a catch-22 because one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is insomnia. But if you are careful to get a lot of rest up front, you may be able to stave that off. When you arrive, take it slow and easy for a day before you jump on the board. 

4. Eat healthily.

How you care for your body plays into how your body can adjust to the altitude. Too much salt can add to dehydration. 

5. Be patient and informed.

It can take up to 12 hours for your symptoms to improve. If you have done everything you can and you’re still not feeling better, talk to a healthcare professional to ask about medication, and make sure it’s not something else. There are several types of altitude sickness, and some are more dangerous than the typical cases. 

6. Visit an oxygen bar.

An oxygen bar can help improve altitude sickness and jet lag by helping stabilize blood-oxygen levels, which is why The O2 Lounge in Breckenridge is located right on Main Street. Breck’s highest elevation hits 12,998 feet. 

At the O2 Lounge Oxygen Bar, visitors can breathe high-oxygen air in stations, and even combine them with aromatherapy. The lounge recommends an oxygen treatment one to two days after getting to town. 

At the lounge, you can also order a coffee, tea or smoothie with your air.

Aspen also has an oxygen bar, One Love, an oxygen part that is also a smoke shop. Here, you can also score high-end glass pipes, hookahs, vaporizers and other smoking accessories. The shop claims to feature some of the most talented glassblowers in the nation, with a special emphasis on locally made products. While marijuana and tobacco may not necessarily help with your altitude sickness (and you can even get more lightheaded and winded getting high this high), you can pick up some Colorado souvenirs while here; there is also tie-dye clothing, hats and more. 

You can also find unique oxygen bar internet kiosks in various cities throughout the state. At these stand-alone stations, you can go online while getting a dose of moisturized oxygen in four different flavors. Find stations in Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Vail and Snowmass.

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