High-Altitude Hiking Tips for Rocky Mountain National Park

While hiking may prove to be little more than a walk in the park for locals here near Rocky Mountain National Park, it can leave others gasping for breath — if not because of the sights then because of the altitude. For those who live at lower altitudes, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) trails may prove more difficult than other hikes, simply because of the elevation. Hikers may find it more difficult to hit the trail, they may find that they have to hike more slowly, or they may not be able to hike at all due to altitude sickness. Fortunately, RMNP can be enjoyed by all from the comfort of your car, thanks to Trail Ridge Pass. And most folks can still strap on their hiking boots for a jaunt, even if it has to be brief or slow.

If you’re visiting the Park for the first time, then you may be nervous about the elevation, especially if you’ve never been higher than a few thousand feet. At around 7,000 feet above sea level, the body can have adverse reactions to the lack of oxygen in the thinner atmosphere. Fortunately, most individuals can adapt to the altitude in a matter of days, making Estes Park the perfect place to begin to acclimate (since it rests at just above 7,000 feet). Beyond that, there are a few things that you can do to reduce your risk of altitude sickness, so that you can enjoy the splendor of RMNP. Below, we’ve outlined a few tips to try out if you’re planning on a high-altitude hike, and we’ve collected signs of altitude sickness, so that you can recognize and properly react to this common ailment.

Tips to Enjoy a High-Altitude Hike

For those that are able, hiking is the way to go if you’re headed into the Park to enjoy its wonders. And with a little preparation, you’ll make the most of your journey while basking in the awe of your surroundings. We recommend that visitors who aren’t used to high-altitude hikes should take time to acclimate before hiking; they should take it slow on the trails; they should pack water, snacks, and pain relievers; they should wear the right clothes and pack proper gear; they should start with easier trails; and they should never hike alone.

Take Time to Acclimate

Acclimation is easy: Simply head up to Estes Park and relax for a day or two. Your body will naturally acclimate to the reduction in oxygen, and even overnight, you may notice that you feel normal. If you’re planning on heading to RMNP for a hike, plan on coming a day or two early, so that your body can get used to the altitude. Plus, you’ll get a bit of extra time to take in Estes Park!

Take It Slow

Once you’re on the trails, it’s best not to rush. Take it extra slow as you ease into your hike, and keep a gage on how you feel. If you’re warmed up and you feel great, great! Go ahead and hike at your leisure. If you’re experiencing any of the signs of altitude sickness, slow it down and take a break.

Bring Water, Snacks, and Pain Relievers

Hikers should always carry plenty of water and snacks, and it’s a good idea to pack pain relievers in case you feel under the weather instead of on top of the clouds. Pack at least a liter of water per person for every two hours of hiking. Gorp, trail mix, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, and bars tend to be common snacks for a hike (anything with lots of protein and carbs should do). And bring a few pain reliever pills (e.g. ibuprofen) if you’re concerned about altitude sickness.

Wear and Pack the Proper Gear

Rocky Mountain National Park’s trails can be rough (there’s a reason this mountain range is called the Rockies), and the weather can change rapidly at high altitude. Be sure to wear comfortable hiking boots that are broken-in, yet still have great tread along the souls. And wear comfortable, breathable hiking socks while you’re at it. You should also wear or pack several layers of clothing. Bring a poncho, a jacket, a sweater, and pants at the very least, even if the forecast appears glorious — things change quickly at altitude. Make sure you’ll be comfortable, even if a surprise storm rolls in.

Start With Easy Hikes

If you’ve never explored the trails in RMNP or around Estes Park, then it’s wise to start with an easy hike. Choose a hike that is flat and short first, and consider a hike at a lower altitude for the region (nearly all hikes will still be at 7,000 feet or above). Not sure where to start? Check out our article, 10 Easy Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park!

Never Hike Alone

As a rule of thumb, you should never hike alone. While it’s unlikely that you’ll run into danger or endure harm on the trail, accidents happen and mistakes can be hazardous. Always hike with a friend or a group, so that help is nearby. Don’t split up and wander off alone while you’re on the trail — you could get lost. And stay on the trail while you’re in the Park, they’re clearly marked to aid your navigation.

Recognize Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

It’s wise to be wary of the common symptoms of altitude sickness. You may experience any of the following at altitudes greater than 7,000 feet:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Malaise
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of appetite

Now, most individuals don’t have a major reaction to high altitudes, and your symptoms may disappear in 12 to 24 hours. If you do continue to experience altitude sickness, buy over-the-counter medication, or have someone drive you to a lower altitude. For extreme reactions, seek medical attention.

What to do if you experience moderate altitude sickness

If you’re out on the trail and you begin to experience altitude sickness, you can take a few steps to mitigate or overcome the symptoms. Try out the following tips if you experience altitude sickness while hiking.

Drink Water: While you’re hiking at higher elevations, you will breathe harder to fill your lungs with the oxygen you need. And, with extra respiration comes extra water loss. Each breath you exhale means that you will lose some water in the form of vapor, which means that you’ll need to drink more to stay hydrated. If you feel sick, dehydration may be the issue at hand. Drink a few gulps of H2O and take a break.

Take Frequent Rests: Even active athletes can struggle with altitude sickness. If you’re experiencing any symptoms, your body is telling you to slow down and catch your breath. Once you’ve recovered and if you feel comfortable, you can continue on at a slow pace while taking frequent breaks.

Take a Pain Reliever: Pain relievers may improve circulation throughout your body, which can aid your lungs in moving precious oxygen to wherever it’s needed. If you experience altitude sickness, take a pain reliever (again, ibuprofen or a similar product will do), take a rest until you feel better, and continue hiking if you’re comfortable.

Stop, Head Back, or Seek Help: As we mentioned, if you experience altitude sickness and can’t recover, then you should not push on. Stop hiking and rest. If you’re able to, head back to the trailhead. If not, seek help by asking fellow hikers or a park ranger.

Comfort Close to the Trails

We hope that our tips help you to enjoy all that the Park has to offer. And, if you want to stay near the Park (especially to acclimate to these higher altitudes!), then you’re welcome to stay here at Rams Horn Village. We’re minutes away from the park entrance, and our property rests at about 7,700 feet above sea level. Reserve a cabin at Rams Horn Village today!