Altitude and acclimatization
Height, our bodies and some tricks to properly acclimate
The success of a crossing or a hike along a trail with multiple stages starts with good planning. One of the key elements when preparing to go trekking and enjoy it safely and comfortably is the backpack. What should we bring? How should it be packed? What is expendable? What is the maximum weight we can carry? These are all questions that need to be resolved.
Experience is the mother of wisdom, which is why we have talked with Ángel López Amorós (@lamorosangel), a veteran Wikiloc community member, so he could explain what to bring and how to organize the backpack before heading out for various days, and he goes on to give us advice on how to optimize the space and control the weight we carry. He has completed trekking trips in the Annapurnas and the Everest Base Camp (Nepal), on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, the Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda), on the Baltoro Glacier (Pakistán) as well as the Aconcagua (Argentina), just to name a few of the many trails with multiple stages he has done, and habitually shared with his sentimental partner.
The selection of the material needed will depend on the trail we follow, the days we are on it, where we sleep and the time of year as well as the meteorological conditions in the forecast.
There is a list of all the basic items to pack at the end of the article!
We must understand that it is not the same to go trekking in summer as it is in winter, and also whether the region is at a higher or lower altitude. But, as a rule of thumb, we should pack a pair of boots or mountain shoes that are resistant to adverse conditions, a windbreaker (interchangeable with a Gore-Tex jacket or a rainproof layer), two or more technical shirts and mountain pants, in addition to enough socks and underwear. The quantity depends on the days the trail takes, but we must prevent carrying too much weight, since it is really a “matter of washing it often”, @lamorosangel recommends.
If we are heading towards regions with low temperatures, we need to bring gloves, a warm hat and other warm multilayer clothes such as breathable thermal shirts, a fleece or feather lined garment and a Gore-Tex or waterproof jacket (for the top half of the body) and some breathable thermal pants, one for trekking and another one with a waterproof layer (for the legs). That makes for getting dressed in three layers: one that is breathable, insulating, and protective (the theory of the three layers). @lamorosangel adds that even in tropical regions with elevation gain, we cannot forget the multiple-layer clothing. Moreover, if rain can be expected, we must remember to bring waterproof garments, no matter the place nor time of year.
The first piece of material at the top of the @lamorosangel‘s list is a thermal blanket: “I always have one in my backpack. It’s lightweight, doesn’t take up space, and it can be rather useful, whether to block out the cold or even the heat.” Water purifying tablets (or something similar which makes water safe to drink), a rain cover for the backpack (which protects it from rain and dust), a headlamp (with an extra set of batteries if battery operated), a mobile phone, a GPS device, battery chargers and external batteries (or solar chargers for trips without access to electricity) in addition to duct tape, medical tape, cords or fine rope, and a pocket knife.
Other items that we should have with us to be well-prepared are the personal ID and the required travel documents, a paper map, a compass, a whistle and a lighter.
The list of @lamorosangel’s essential items includes a pair of sunglasses and a cap or hat to protect us from the sun, a neck warmer and a pair of light sandals with bands (for crossing rivers or for resting your feet). He also recommends that we bring safety pins or clothespins to hang wet clothes we have cleaned and need to dry. Inside this kit, furthermore, it could be useful to have a microfiber towel and a few plastic bags (to put things away or pick up trash).
We should remember to bring lightweight hiking poles, too! @lamorosangel points out that they are not only useful for taking off some of the weight we carry on our backs and legs when we walk, or even for crossing complicated rivers, but they are also good for setting up a makeshift emergency shelter or bunk bed together with some cloth.
Last of all, we have to highlight the importance of getting informed as to whether the trail calls for specific technical gear (such as crampons or an ice ax) and whether we sleep in refuges or any other kind of lodging or not, in which case, we will have to consider bringing camping gear and some refreshments.
The contents of the first aid kit and the toiletries bag can also vary depending on the trail we choose to follow and the conditions we will come across. According to @lamorosangel, we will always have to bring: antibiotics (especially for digestive problems), antidiarrheals and mineral salts, antipyretics, anti-inflammatories (both tablet and ointment forms), wound closure strips, salve to prevent chafing and pressure sores or to moisturize the skin and lips, dressings of different sizes for blisters, chafing and wounds, antiseptics, gauze and bandages, a surgical blade, tweezers and scissors. In addition, if we are going to a place with high altitude, he suggests we bring medication specifically designed for altitude sickness (normally diuretics and corticosteroids). Ask a specialist beforehand to know which medication you may need for every situation and how to use it properly.
On the other hand, we cannot forget sunblock (for the body, face and lips) and, depending on the time of year and location, insect repellent, as well as personal hygiene products like a bar of soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, paper tissues or toilet paper.
If we want to keep our load down without putting ourselves at risk of dehydration, it is fundamental to control the amount of water we carry. @lamorosangel explains that he is used to bringing a 1.5-liter water bottle and water purifying tablets in case it is not possible to fill up on drinking water along the trail: “On treks like the one in Annapurnas or the one at the Everest Base Camp, many villages fill your bottle at a reasonable price at drinking water stations; however, other places can turn out to be more difficult.” He also warns us that if our trip is planned for North America, sometimes “you must look out for the giardia and bring plenty of water, or bring a special filtration system to purify the water with a carbon filter”.
Once we determine what items we need, it is important to choose the right measurements and features of the backpack we want to bring. The commonly used backpacks for a 1-night trekking trip tend to have capacity for 25 to 45 liters, without camping gear, and anywhere from 45 to 60 liters for multi-stage trips that are longer.
It is important that we feel comfortable with the backpack that allows us to allocate the equipment properly and gives us easy access to a certain number of bags. Moreover, it is important for it to have a rigid frame, adjustable bands and a waistband to avoid only carrying the load from our shoulders, but rather distribute it down to our waist. Other features to consider is that it is padded, that the straps adapt to our anatomy, and that it lets the back breathe.
The rule of thumb when distributing your gear is keep in mind the weight and how often you use each item. It is a good idea to place the heaviest material in the center and near the back, even though @lamorosangel tells us that he is used to putting the heaviest part at the bottom (especially when the object at hand is one he will not use that much), objects of average weight in the intermediate part and the top is where he places the lightest items and those he uses more frequently. The external pockets should be saved for items for immediate use such as the map, headlamp, pocket knife, mobile phone, sunglasses, hat or gloves.
Besides using the different internal compartments, another piece of advice that he gives us is that we use cloth bags to put things away (such as food or clothes) inside the backpack, or even “packing cubes” or organizers like his sentimental partner does.
The personal preferences and experience gained over time will end up defining the perfect backpack and distribution of the equipment, depending on each person and trail.
On a hiking trail, it is important to bring whatever we need and whatever will improve our comfort and safety, but all while bearing in mind that we should restrict the maximum weight, because otherwise, we may turn it into an inconvenience.
The general theory is that the backpack should weigh anywhere from 10% to 20% of our own weight, depending on whether the trail has one stage or more. “I weigh 63 kilos and my wife weighs 42. I am used to carrying a 8-9-kilo backpack”, @lamorosangel says. And he goes on saying: “In a long hike, less weight is nearly impossible.”
As we have seen, the key is knowing what is essential and what isn’t, always following “the tendency to simplify the gear as much as possible to avoid overloading ourselves”, as @lamorosangel highlights. Yet, beyond that, do we need to consider anything else? “You must never lose the enthusiasm to travel, the best school to get to know the world and everything about ourselves”, emphasizes @lamorosangel. As well as not forgetting that “travelling is enjoyed three times: when you plan it, when you do it and when you come back and think of all the memories”.
Before and during a trail, remember the importance of following the fundamental pieces of advice to enjoy the mountain safely.
For low temperature regions:
For rainy days:
Ask a specialist about the necessary medication for each instance and about how to use them.