High altitude trekking travel guide

Some of the world’s most unusual landscapes, most celebrated sites and most spectacular views can only be enjoyed by placing one foot in front of the other, day after day, on a trek that takes you to dizzy heights – in every sense. Gazing over African plains from an extinct volcano; seeing barren, lunar landscapes sliced through by glaciers; discovering a mystical Inca city, appearing through the mist after four days on the trail – these are not everyday experiences, and will test stamina, reward resilience and involve some risk.
If you want a physical challenge, ever changing scenery, a summit view and a sense of achievement, the only way is up.
Uneven terrain, changeable weather and wild camping are standard on this kind of trek; the negative effects of altitude are less predictable. Not all trekkers are affected by the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations, but for some the altitude provides another layer of effort in an already tough trek. Don’t be put off though; proper preparation and acclimatisation, the right kit and a responsible guide will usually see you to the top, safe and smiling.

What does high altitude trekking entail?

Forget lowland valley walks or coastal paths, this is about reaching elevations that serve up clear views and extraordinary vistas, but which can affect the human body. Some treks, like the Inca Trail, begin at high altitude; some climb slowly and climax at elevations above 5,000m; others involve crossing lofty passes before a triumphant downhill surge.
The air is thinner the higher you go, with oxygen levels reduced, which can turn a challenging trek into something of a slog. For ‘altitude’ read anything over around 2,400m; above this height, some trekkers may experience symptoms of altitude sickness. But only some; not everyone is affected, and it’s impossible to predict who will be. Fitness, age and health have no bearing, and even individuals who have been fine at altitude on one occasion can feel rough the next.
Early symptoms of altitude sickness – also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) – include feeling short of breath and taking a while to get your breath back once you’ve stopped moving. Headaches, nausea and dizziness are also common, as is feeling tired but finding it difficult to sleep, as symptoms can worsen at night. While this is unpleasant, it’s not usually considered serious. The higher you climb, though, the greater the risk. If you ascend to altitudes of between 3,500m and 5,000m or more – reaching Everest Base Camp means trekking right up to 5,364m – be aware that AMS can have severe consequences, the most serious being fluid in the lungs and swelling of the brain.
While this is undoubtedly intimidating, in reality, it’s rare for trekkers to become really ill while at altitude. The attention of an experienced guide will ensure safety – he or she can move you back down to lower elevations if concerned about how you’re coping. An organised trek will also include plenty of time for acclimatisation. This typically involves incorporating rest days during the course of a trek, shorter walks and days where you climb high but return to lower elevations to sleep. You should also take simple precautions yourself, such as staying well hydrated (three litres of water a day is recommended), avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and eating light meals and energy snacks.

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Unlike a standard walking vacation that requires little or no preparation, a high altitude trek demands fitness, so it’s crucial to do some training before you leave. Cardiovascular workouts such as swimming, running and cycling improve lung capacity and your body’s ability to absorb oxygen. You should also head out on long weekend walks, carrying a heavier pack than you’ll use on the trek and progressively adding on the miles.
High altitude trekking vacations are not something to tackle independently – in some places, such as Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s not even permitted to attempt the summit without a registered guide – so book onto a small group departure or tailor made trip, which includes an experienced guide. He or she will know the best routes, understand the conditions and will ensure you acclimatise correctly. Organised treks will also arrange any permits, such as to Machu Picchu, and transfers to and from the trail.
When it comes to accommodation, these treks tend to involve an element of ‘roughing it’. You don’t find many four-star hotels at 3,500m on Mount Kenya, so you will typically be camping along the route, or using simple huts or mountain refuges. That means traveling in a group with not only a guide, but a support team of porters who can carry water, food supplies and camping equipment. You will need good kit, capable of coping with the conditions (you can sometimes hire sleeping bags), and be ready for the cold of higher elevations, too.
In terms of when to go, you can find a high altitude trek to join at almost any time of the year. Winter isn’t necessarily a no-go period – you can trek in Nepal in December and January with clear skies and few other trekkers around – but monsoon seasons will make trekking impossible here, with conditions unpleasant and the possibility of mudslides and washed-away trails. A trek to summit Mount Toubkal in Morocco is a short and superb autumn and winter adventure, while tackling Mont Blanc in the Alps is a summer only option.

Is high altitude trekking for you?

Go high altitude trekking if…

… you have time to spare. Tackling a high altitude trek safely takes time – both to reach the higher ground and to acclimatise along the way. If you only have a few days free, choose a trek at lower elevations. … your mind is as fit as your body. Mental toughness is as crucial as physical. High altitude treks often take a week or more, so you need to be comfortable with the idea and prepared to dig in when trail conditions or weather get tough. … you want awesome views. These treks lead you to some pretty remarkable high points around the globe, from Everest Base Camp, to the top of Mount Kenya or Mount Toubkal. Those hard-won summits provide killer views and a huge sense of achievement. … you want more than just a walking break. Most organised vacations involve time in a regional city at either end of the trek, and in East Africa you can add on a safari. A guide will bring local culture to life, too.

Don’t go high altitude trekking if…

… you love to stride ahead. Climbing slowly and taking rest days is essential – your guide will deliberately slow your pace if you’re going too fast. Interestingly, the people who are most often at risk of AMS are the fittest ones, because they are more likely to ascend too fast. … the last time you broke a sweat was at your infant school’s sports day. You don’t need to be an elite athlete to do a high altitude trek, but a good level of fitness is essential. The more training you do, the more you’ll enjoy yourself. … you hate roughing it. The higher you climb, the less fancy the facilities. You’ll be camping out or crashing in huts and refuges, with no shower facilities and shared tents or dorms. … you like to trek independently. In some destinations it’s possible to trek independently, but it’s advisable to go with a local guide who will keep you safe and explain what you’re seeing. A small group trek is often the most practical and economical option, with a full support team of porters and even ponies or mules to carry gear.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: DMSU] [High altitude trekking intro: Steve Hicks] [What entails/Inca trail: Jeffe Locke] [Humantay/Peru: Steve Upton] [Altitude sickness: Steve Hicks] [Altitude sickness/eating: Calviani] [Trekking fitness: Michael R Perry] [Mount Kilamanjaro: Kyle Taylor] [Porters kilamanjaro: Abir Anwar] [Trekking Nepal: Stefanos Nikologianis] [Cerro Torre: Thomas Bonnin]