There are six key areas you need to focus on in order to look after yourself properly on your trek. The first, avoiding malaria and diarrhoea are covered here and the second, avoiding altitude sickness is covered in depth here. The other 4 key areas: avoiding dehydration, maintaining your temperature correctly, avoiding sunburn and eating well are covered below.
It is critical to keep well hydrated and drink plenty of fluids when trekking at altitude to avoid suffering from dehydration which can lead to serious health problems and also the end of your climb or trek. As you climb to a higher altitude the body is having to work overtime just to breathe the thinner air. This means that you will be breathing more rapidly and heavily which will result in a greater fluid loss both from your breath but also from sweating caused by increased physical activity.
There are a couple of easy tests you can do to check whether you are drinking or worry you may be dehydrated:
- The colour of your urine: if it is dark orange or yellow then this means your pee is concentrated and you are dehydrated and need to drink more even if you do not feel thirsty. Your aim should be that your pee is either clear or a very pale straw-coloured which shows that you are drinking plenty and keeping well hydrated.
- The pinch test!: find a soft area on the back of your hand and pinch the skin, if it quickly returns to its normal position then you are OK, if not then this is a sign that you are dehydrated and you need to drink more.
Drinking a minimum of 3 litres of fluid throughout the day will help you to avoid dehydration. You need to drink plenty even if you do not feel thirsty. Many people underestimate the seriousness of the effects of dehydration and end up spoiling their trip – pay close attention to what you are drinking and do not be one of them!
Keeping well hydrated during the whole duration of the trek is important, but it is critically important on any summit day. All summit days are the toughest day on a climb and your body will be pushed to its limits over a long period of time. It is both tough, mentally and physically to keep thinking about drinking particularly when it is cold and you do not feel thirsty, but also when you find it hard work putting one foot in front of the other. Firstly, make sure you are well hydrated before you start – drink 1/2 to 1 litre of fluid before you start climbing. Secondly, you will be given 2 litres to carry with you, make sure it is kept somewhere insulated or warm. If you are using a platypus then make sure the tube and the end of the tube are kept inside your jacket to prevent them from freezing, also take a 1 litre wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle as an emergency back up just in case your tube freezes. This generally happens at around 5000m so be prepared. Make sure you keep your water bottle well insulated within your daysack to prevent them from freezing (wrapping them in fleece or putting them inside thick socks usually helps, even packing them upside down helps as water freezes from the top!). Finally, you will be trekking for between 5-7 hours on the summit ascent so you will need to be drinking steadily all the way to ensure you remain fully hydrated. Down forget that you need to drink on the way down as well as the way up!
You will have expended a huge amount of energy and excreted a massive amount of vapour/fluid during your climb and descent so as soon as you get back to camp we highly recommend that you drink a further 1 litre of fluid, even if you do not feel thirsty.
Regulating your temperature
Mountain creates their very own weather zone and as such you need to be prepared for a broad daily variation in conditions. One day it could be beautifully sunny and warm, the next it could be snowing, raining or very windy. The best way to handle this variation is by using a “layering” system for your clothing to make sure that you always have the right equipment to wear whatever the weather throws at you.
If your trek includes a summit ascent then it is vital that you have high quality warm, wind-proof, waterproof, and breathable clothing. Temperatures get well below freezing at 5000 metres and it is not uncommon to experience snowstorms or high winds. For further information on the right equipment take a look here.
At altitude the sun’s harmful UV rays are intensified and at their strongest between 10.00 – 14.00 hours each day, even when cloudy. Many mountain equipment manufacturers now produce base layers with UV protection built in and these can be useful to cover the main parts of the body, however, to avoid sunburn for the other parts you still need to apply a high factor sunscreen, and don’t forget your sunglasses too!
To avoid sunburn:
- throughout the day regularly apply a high SPF factor sun cream (we recommend SPF 30+), particularly to the face
- apply a high SPF factor lip balm to protect lips.
- Sunscreen should be applied at least half an hour before you go out in the sun.
- Wear a protective hat to shade shade your face, nose and ears. Ones with a wide brim are particularly good.
- Wear sunglasses with a UV protection Category 2 – 4.
Trekking and physical exertion usually makes you feel hungry, but unfortunately at high altitude this is not the case. Most people tend to suffer a loss of appetite which can be a real problem when you are burning in excess of 3000 calories per day.
There are not many times in your life when you tell yourself to eat when you are not hungry, but it is critical that you do just this to ensure you stay healthy and full of energy every day.
Research has shown that heavy carbohydrates digest more easily than protein at high altitude so eat plenty of these at every meal time to give you a sustained energy flow.
If you are climbing a peak you will only have time for a quick light snack (normally just a biscuit) and hot drink. Make sure you’ve eaten really well a dinner the night before so that you are properly fuelled up, and then take plenty of small snacks close at hand so that you can get instant fuel as you climb. Remember to keep them somewhere warm so that they don’t freeze and where you can grab them quickly without stopping if necessary to take a few calories on board. (Inside fleece pockets underneath your jacket so that they are closer to your body warmth or wrapped up inside your daypack.)
Lastly, make sure you snacks are something you like to eat! Beware syrup or chewy bars tend to freeze above 5000m making them inedible, whereas nuts and seeds, boiled sweets, chocolate, biscuits or savoury snacks fair much better.