A Beginner’s Guide to High Altitude Camping
Have you ever sat on top of the world? That image may be something you envision in your dreams — but with high-altitude camping, that dream can come closer to reality. High-altitude camping takes regular camping to the next level. It carries you closer to the clouds, providing breathtaking views of the snow-peaked mountains and valleys below.
Does that sound intriguing to you? Read this beginner’s guide to high-altitude camping to see where you can do it and how to make the best of it.
What Is High-Altitude Camping?
High-altitude camping involves trekking thousands of feet in the air. Believe it or not, some people go up 12,000 to 18,000 feet. The most daring campers partake in extremely high altitudes of 18,000 feet and higher. Consider this — Denali is the United States’ highest peak, at 20,310 feet.
Where Can You Go High-altitude Camping?
The United States is a large country with numerous mountain ranges, such as the Appalachian, Rocky and Sierra Nevada. Then there are others like the Alaska Range, Wrangell Mountains and Saint Elias Mountains, all located in Alaska. These ranges offer numerous opportunities for you to go high-altitude camping.
Some of the most popular high-altitude camping sites are in Colorado. The Centennial State is notorious for locations like Twin Peaks and Denver, the capital known as the “Mile High City.” In Colorado, you can find campgrounds like Jellystone Park and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) sites. KOA has a high-altitude campground at Cripple Creek, around 9,500 feet high. Cripple Creek is a terrific campground if you’re looking to trek Pike’s Peak.
Go farther west to California if you want to experience more high-altitude camping. The highest peak in the continental U.S. is Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range. Mt. Whitney’s peak is around 14,500 feet and the Whitney Portal Campground sits at an elevation of 8,300 feet. It usually takes hikers about eight hours to make the 22-mile trek up the mountain.
What Are the Benefits of High-Altitude Camping?
High-altitude camping may be difficult for beginners, but there are reasons people do it. The adventure pushes your body to new limits and makes you a more well-rounded outdoors enthusiast. These four benefits show why high-altitude camping is worth the time.
Many people who go altitude camping do it for the challenge. Your average camping trip takes you into the great outdoors and lets you bond with nature, but high-altitude camping takes it to the next level. First-timers may experience struggles, but it’s all about building your body up with endurance. High-altitude camping is a tool some people use to improve their body training.
Physical activity is noticeably more arduous in high altitudes. Because of the elevation, professional sports teams like the Denver Nuggets and Denver Broncos have an even greater home-field advantage. Visiting players experience fatigue much faster, giving the Denver players the edge because they’re used to it.
Altitude training has become more common because it increases blood flow. Your body gets less oxygen at high altitudes and compensates by producing more red blood cells for your muscles. Performing at lower levels is much easier compared to the high altitude.
Do you get the urge to go outside and get some fresh air? Fresh air is precisely why many people trek thousands of feet above sea level. The mountain air is different because it’s some of the cleanest you’ll encounter. Higher elevation means the air has fewer toxins — pollution is less prevalent in higher elevations, resulting in a true breath of fresh air.
The views Mother Nature provides are why people get out of their houses and go camping — but, again, high-altitude camping takes it to the next level. Imagine camping at the Whitney Portal Campground. You see the beautiful forests and the snow-peaked mountains thousands of feet higher.
How Is High-Altitude Camping Dangerous?
High-altitude camping presents challenges and opportunities for campers to experience a new type of fun. However, it doesn’t come without dangers. Campers should take the risks of high-altitude camping seriously and research thoroughly before planning a trip.
Health issues can be burdensome when you’re at 8,000 feet or higher. Altitude sickness is common and can significantly hinder your trip. Symptoms of altitude sickness can include nausea, headaches and hyperventilation. It’s typical to feel pressure in your ears because of the elevation drop. For some, ear popping can cause motion sickness and leave them unwell.
One factor some people must remember about high-altitude camping is the weather. High elevations mean you’ll pass the tree line, making for rough terrain with rocky ground. No trees mean you’ll have less protection if there’s a storm. Research shows lightning strikes are more prevalent when you enter higher elevations because of your proximity to the atmosphere.
How Can You Prepare for High-Altitude Camping?
With proper training and preparation, you can join the club of high-altitude campers and reap the rewards they enjoy. Use these five tips in preparing for a high-altitude camping trip.
The first tip is to bring multiple layers of clothing because the temperature will get cold quickly. The atmosphere becomes much chillier the higher you go because the air is thinner. Some may go high-altitude camping in the summertime to mitigate the cold temperatures. Still, the temperatures can dip below freezing, so bring your winter clothing even in the middle of July.
Next, you’ll want trustworthy partners on a high-altitude camping trip. Camping by yourself can bring peace, solitude and the feeling of a true escape from the outside world. However, having company is better in this daring pursuit — you’ll want at least one other person with you in case an accident happens. Places like Mt. Whitney have bears and other animals that can ruin your day if you come across them.
If you go solo camping, take precautions like sharing your location with a trusted person, whether a spouse, parent, friend or neighbor. Your phone can share where you are with a contact on your phone. iPhone users can share their location with the Find My app and Android users can use Google Maps.
If you’ve never been high-altitude camping, it might not be wise to try extremely high altitudes of 18,000 feet on your first try. Start easy with 8,00 feet and build your way up gradually. It may be tempting to go all out, but your body needs time to acclimate.
In fact, if your campsite takes you over 8,000 feet, you’ll need an acclimation plan to help your body. For example, you could start your trek at 8,000 feet and ascend gradually, about 1,000 feet every few days. Elevating too fast can have you feeling ill quickly. If the altitude sickness becomes too much, you may need to lower your elevation to stay safe.
Emphasizing the Basics
Campers know the basic supplies they need when going on trips. You need plenty of water, food, a first-aid kid, sunscreen, fire-making supplies and more. But these supplies become more critical as you elevate into higher altitudes.
For example, you’ll need to pack plenty of sunscreen. That may sound odd, considering you’re in a cold-weather environment — but it’s just as necessary at 10,000 feet as on the beach. You’re closer to the sun when you’re high in the air, so you’re at increased risk for sunburn. The thinner air is colder and cleaner but won’t protect you from the sun’s rays. Bring sunscreen to avoid getting painful burns.
Drinking water is a normal part of daily life. You likely bring plenty of bottles with you when you’re out camping. However, it’s even more critical when you’re out in high altitudes. The high elevation will drain you quicker, straining your kidneys and causing more urination. Drink water and refrain from dehydrating beverages like beer and other alcoholic drinks.
You’ll also need to remember to bring plenty of food. Your best bet for food is high-carb and high-protein foods like fruit and nuts. There’s a reason why trail mix is popular camping food. Non-perishable and ready-to-eat food will be essential because cooking might not be an option.
Building a campfire is integral to the camping experience — it’s where you cook hot dogs, roast marshmallows and tell the best stories. Unfortunately, starting the fire becomes much more challenging when high-altitude camping. The lack of trees means a lack of firewood. Also, many national parks ban campfires at 5,000 feet and higher. Any fire you make won’t last long, so you’ll need to find other options.
Your best bet may be a battery-powered or liquid-fueled stove. Nowadays, there are solar-powered stoves, which would be apt if your camping trip expects a lot of sun. Regardless of your mechanism, expect the cooking process to take longer. For example, water won’t boil as quickly because of the decreased air pressure.
A Guide for High-Altitude Camping
Does listening to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” make you want to visit the mountains? If it does, you may have fun on a high-altitude camping trip. Before you go, know the risks, prepare your body beforehand and have fun.