A high altitude meadow in the Colorado Rockies

Hunting at Altitude and Dealing with Altitude Sickness

Before I talk about today’s subject, I want to relay a story that makes me very happy and is an example of the essence of this website and the mission of Bear Miller Outdoors.  My dear friend Nyles, who has been a huge supporter of me personally and my mission since I began this website, told me today that she got a new bow.  Nyles is not a hunter, just an adventurous person who likes to try new things.  While I can’t say that I influenced her to buy a bow or not, it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we now have another woman joining our ranks, whether she shoots recreationally or chooses to hunt some day.  That is exactly what my goal is; get more people into the outdoors and the outdoor sports, and today we have a new archer joining us!  Good luck with your new bow Nyles, and I look forward to shooting with you someday soon!

pink-camo compound bow

Nyles’ new bow, I love the pink camo!

Now, on to the subject of altitude sickness when hunting high in the mountains.  First let me remind everyone that this is merely one aspect of the total survival knowledge that you need before heading into the wilderness.  I have written so many different articles on survival skills that it doesn’t make sense to try to reference them all here, but on my Blog page there is a search box where you can type in the word “Survival” to see all related articles.

Along with all of the other challenges you face when hunting in high altitude wilderness, altitude sickness is one that can easily sneak up on you, especially if you are coming to the mountains from significantly lower altitudes.  I live at about 5,400 feet above sea level, and I spend a lot of time in altitudes around 7,000 feet.  So for me to go on a ten day hunt camping at 8,900 feet and hiking up to elevations of 10,000 feet or higher is not a problem at all.  But I have seen firsthand the effects on people going to those elevations coming from places such as Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and other lower elevation states.  At the very least altitude sickness can ruin a hunting trip; at the worst it can be fatal.

Symptoms of altitude sickness include: shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, headache, swelling of extremities, loss of appetite, and social withdrawal.   People with acute altitude sickness often attribute their symptoms to other causes such as an uncomfortable bed, bad food, or a hangover. However, it is important to recognize that these symptoms may indicate a high altitude illness.

This sickness can progress to more dangerous stages, such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which causes the following progression of symptoms: shortness of breath at rest, gurgling respirations, a wet cough with phlegm, possible fever, and respiratory failure.  The onset of HAPE can be gradual or sudden, and it typically occurs after more than one day spent at high altitude.  If these symptoms develop, descend immediately.

The highest level of altitude sickness is High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and can begin with general mental confusion.  A person developing HACE begins having trouble keeping up with the group.  Next, walking and coordination become impaired.  As the brain continues to swell, lethargy and then coma will develop.  If left untreated, HACE will ultimately result in death.

To avoid altitude sickness get in shape, limit alcohol consumption, acclimate for a few days before the start of the season and drink lots of water. Staying hydrated is a key factor in reducing your chances of getting altitude sickness.  But if you see the symptoms of HAPE or HACE developing, it is time to get medical attention, which can be a real challenge of its own in the backcountry.

Hunters with any heart problems should be extra careful in the high country.  If you have a heart condition you should keep any prescribed medication with you at all times, and inform your hunting partners of your condition.


Kyle and Grannie with her first trout on a fly rod

I know that’s some scary information, and I have witnessed varying degrees of it in other people when I have been on trips high into the mountains.  The scariest was when my two sons and I took my mom to Marvine Camp in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in 2008 for a summer fishing trip on horseback.  Mom didn’t exhibit the symptoms on the way up because she was riding a horse, but after being at the camp (8,900 feet) for two days, she really went downhill fast.  It was a pretty helpless feeling being 6 miles into the wilderness in that situation, the outfitters had taken the horses back with them and wouldn’t come to pick us up for another three days, and there was no phone service.  That’s a time I really would have liked to have had Nyles with me; she’s not only an archer now, she is also an amazing nurse and would have known what to do.

It all turned OK in the end, and my son Kyle helped my mom (Grannie) catch her first trout on a fly rod.  That was a very special trip for all four of us, and after my mom passed away four years later, Kyle and I returned for our summer trip to Marvine Camp and spread some of her ashes on a mountain side over looking that valley.