If you’re planning a western hunt and traveling from lower elevations, it’s worth making a plan for dealing with the altitude. Popular species like elk and mule deer are commonly found at high altitudes. Even many antelope hunts can take you anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level. Not to mention bighorn sheep and mountain goats, which can thrive at elevations pushing 14,000 feet here in Colorado.
Hunting at altitude comes with a unique set of physical challenges that will test your body and mental strength in the field. Even hunters in great physical shape can experience altitude sickness, especially when hiking above 7,000 feet. Many of our hunts here in Colorado exceed 9,000-10,000 feet and hunters should really prepare for the challenge when the air thins out.
When it comes to altitude, the old saying, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ rings true. Don’t wait until you feel the effects of altitude to react. Here are a few tips to help you prepare in advance:
Show Up Ready
Preparing for altitude is all about cardio. When you’re training for a high altitude hunt, strength is useful but cardio abilities will drive you forward. Cardio encourages a more efficient use of oxygen and that really comes in handy on the mountain.
Run, hike, bike and do sprints in your cardio workouts to intentionally deprive the body of oxygen. Stadium stairs can make an excellent training ground. Focus on breathing in through your nose, out through your mouth and manage your air intake to keep oxygen flowing through your body.
Jumping from sea level to high altitudes will shock your system. Whenever possible, show up a few days early to acclimate your body. If you can spare the time, spend a day visiting a nearby mountain town, relaxing and taking in the sights.
Don’t hike too hard the first couple of days either. Take short day hikes, rest often and let your body adjust to the change. Short hikes followed by glassing sessions are a great way to acclimate ahead of opening day. Spend time driving roads, glassing and getting to know the area. This type of scouting will allow you to make a hunt plan while slowly adjusting to higher altitudes.
Hydration is Critical
Water plays a key role in managing your body at altitude. Hit the water hard and stay hydrated throughout the entire trip. In the days before you leave home, pre-hydrate by drinking plenty of water. Then during the trip, start each day with a big glass of water. This will get the day started right.
In your hunting pack or daypack, carry a water bladder with a hose that attaches to your shoulder harness. Quick access to your water at all times will prompt you to drink more. If you have to take off your backpack to reach your water bottle, you may not drink as often.
Don’t wait until you’re thirsty. Drink water constantly throughout the day. If you feel the least bit headachy, dehydrated or low on energy, take a big slug of water. Hydration fights altitude sickness and helps to keep your energy levels high and mind sharp.
Feed Your Body
You may notice that your body is sensitive at higher altitudes and basic processes like digestion will slow down. Your body is essentially activating survival mechanisms and your breathing and heart rate will be more labored, especially without an acclimation period.
Eat healthy and load up on carbs ahead of the hunt. Your diet and exercise in the days and weeks leading up to the hunt is just as important as what you eat on the mountain.
During the day while you’re out hunting, avoid heavy meals on the mountain. Instead, snack often throughout the day. Focus on high yield snacks like honey sticks, peanut butter, nuts and granola bars. They won’t make you feel heavy and will give your body a shot of glucose to keep energy levels high.
In the evenings, eat high-protein meals to help your body recover. Most freeze-dried meals are also high in sodium, which is great for replenishing your body after a day of hard work. But this needs to be balanced with lots of water.
We know that a beer or a glass of whiskey around the campfire can be a welcome treat - but be careful. Altitude and alcohol can be a bad combination. If you're feeling headaches or any symptoms of altitude, avoid alcohol altogether.
Likewise in the mornings, enjoy that cup of coffee but don’t overdo it. Coffee is a diuretic and will flush your system. Eat a healthy breakfast and keep the caffeine in moderation.
Ease the Pace
The “push harder” mindset can backfire at altitude. Oxygen deprivation is not something you can ignore and power past. This means an easier pace is often necessary on elevated hunts. If you start feeling sluggish, short of breath or headachy, slow the pace. Take a hydration break and spend more time glassing. Manage your energy and glass harder than you hike when hunting up high.
Even for those of us who live here year-round and are accustomed to altitude, hunting at high elevations is hard work. Sometimes it hurts. When packing out an elk at 10,000 feet, expect your lungs to burn and your leg muscles to scream for oxygen. It comes with the territory.
In addition to all the physical aspects mentioned above, hunting at high altitude requires a positive mental attitude. Embrace the pain. Fight through it with a smile. And remember that it’s all a part of the adventure!
Gear for the Adventure
If you have questions about gear for a mountain hunt, please let us know. We’d be happy to help you find the right solutions for your next trip. The gear we carry in our shop is gear that we’ve tested and personally use in the field.
By Zach Lazzari & Ryan McSparran