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Compared to lower elevations, living at high altitude in Colorado comes with a new set of difficulties and challenges. The air is drier, it’s harder to take in oxygen — even food cooks differently here!
In this episode of the podcast, we talk about what you need to know about living at high elevation. We discuss the effects of altitude sickness and how to prevent it from happening, or at least decrease the symptoms.
We also chat about our favorite high-altitude mountain towns and our best tips for cooking and baking at high altitude.
And we promise to keep the “high in Colorado” jokes to a minimum! 🙂
1. What is considered high altitude?
High altitude is anything that’s higher than 3,000 feet above sea level. Even at the lowest point in Colorado, the elevation is still about 300 feet above that threshold.
So, you’re living pretty high in Colorado, anywhere you choose. (Sorry, but we had to — just once!)
In Colorado Springs where we currently live, it clocks in at over 6,035 feet above sea level. While Denver, being true to its name The Mile High City, is legit at 5,280 feet in elevation.
2. Knowing the symptoms of altitude sickness
Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness, has quite a range of symptoms in varying severity levels. But generally speaking, it’s similar to getting the flu.
You’ll start to feel dizzy, fatigued, have a headache, experience vomiting and shortness of breath. These symptoms can be very mild, to being so extreme you may need medical attention.
You may also experience all of these symptoms at once or just a few at a time. Because of this, it’s important to pay attention and listen to your body while being at high elevation.
3. Preparing for a quick ascent to high elevation
When visiting Colorado from Texas as a teen, Carrie would get altitude sickness when skiing in the mountains. She would seldom prepare herself for the drastic change in elevation, simply relying on her resilience as a youth to recover quickly.
Don’t let this happen to you!
When ascending to a high altitude rapidly, there are some important steps you can take during your travels to ensure you’re not as affected.
- Stay hydrated: As you’re traveling and ascending quickly, be sure to drink lots of water. This can help prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness, or at least reduce their intensity.
- Nourish your body: It’s also key to keep yourself well fed with foods that will energize your body. Your body’s working overtime to make sure your blood is staying oxygenated enough to function at high altitude.
- Get a lot of rest: Along with staying hydrated and well fed, it’s also important to take it easy and rest often. Get a good night’s sleep or take naps throughout the day as needed.
- Avoid alcohol and too much sugar: Drinking too much alcohol or eating a lot of sugar can exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness. It’s smart to avoid these things while acclimating.
In many of Colorado’s mountain towns, you will likely find places called, Oxygen Bars. They are exactly what they sound like!
An Oxygen Bar is a place you can visit, stick your head into a tube, and pay to briefly breathe highly oxygenated air. The goal is to highly oxygenate your blood to help keep the symptoms of altitude sickness at bay.
4. Adjusting to living at high altitude
Our first summer living in Boulder, Carrie was outside doing some gardening on our apartment balcony. As she was pruning and transplanting her succulents, she wasn’t paying much attention to her body.
After being out in the sun for hours, without the proper amount of fluids, she started developing symptoms of heat stroke. As we’ve mentioned, the air is much thinner and dryer here, so it’s easy to not notice you’re getting dehydrated.
Even though she had lived in Colorado for more than six months, she was still a bit unaccustomed to the high altitude. This is why it’s so important to be mindful of living at high elevation at anytime — especially if you weren’t born here.
Even now, after living in Colorado for several years, Carrie still struggles with the effects of high elevation when hiking or visiting the mountains.
As a Colorado native, I have almost no reaction to elevation change whether going up or down. But you never know, especially as you age, how different elevations will affect you. So, be careful!
5. Tips for avoiding altitude sickness
When experiencing altitude sickness, there are few things you can do to get better or even avoid it altogether.
- Stay out of the sun: The thinner and drier air can quickly sap your body of moisture and leave you dehydrated. Be sure to wear sunscreen and again, drink lots of water!
- Take it slow: When you reach your high elevation destination, take it slow. You want to take the first day after arriving in Colorado, to get plenty of rest. This will help ensure that your body is better acclimated for the thinner air in the coming days.
- Use the recommended dosage of Ibuprofen: If you’re experiencing headaches or nausea, taking the recommended daily amounts of Ibuprofen can help reduce the pain and increase blood flow to your body.
Also, the opposite problems can be true for people used to the high life (lol) when they come down to lower elevations quickly. For anyone used to living at high altitude, descending to lower elevation can produce many of the same symptoms, feelings and problems.
This is called Reverse Altitude Sickness.
6. Cooking at high altitude
Our bodies aren’t the only thing affected by high altitudes, but cooking and baking are as well. For the most part, what’s affected in cooking at altitude is anything that involves water.
The air pressure is lower here, so that means the boiling point is also lower. At sea level, water will boil at 212 degrees while at a mile high, water will boil at 203 degrees.
For example, boiling things like pasta can take a bit longer than it normally would. Braising and steaming will also take longer, simply for the fact that the water temp cannot exceed its boiling temp.
The trick for cooking with things that use water, is to add one-quarter more cooking time at the same temperature. Increasing the heat will just result in drying out your food.
Cooking things that use air (instead of water) to transfer heat will not be affected by altitude. So, oven roasting or grilling food will have no changes to how you would normally cook it.
7. Baking at high elevation
There is definitely a different kind of science when it comes to baking at high altitudes. Changes is baking will happen because there’s less pressure experienced here.
Leavening agents like yeast, baking soda, and baking powder will have more power. There is less pressure pushing against those gases being created, so using 20% less is a general way to compensate in baking when above 5,000 feet.
During baking, water will be cooked out of foods faster so you’ll want to use a little bit more. I like to add an extra egg — whether that egg whites, yolk or using XL eggs — when baking cakes, muffins and other items.
And finally, microwaves cook by exciting the water molecules in food. This means it’ll always take a bit longer to microwave something in the mountains, rather than at sea level.
8. Our favorite places to get high (no, not that kind!)
Now, let’s talk about some of the highest elevation mountain towns here in Colorado. Specifically, the ones that we enjoy visiting the most!
Alma, Colorado sits at 10,578 feet high and is the highest township in the United States with permanent residents. This town is very quaint, and a cute place that we frequently pass through on our way to skiing in north central Colorado.
It’s really high and you can definitely feel the change in elevation here!
Woodland Park, Colorado is also a cute mountain town with lots to do. We love to go in the summer time to beat the heat, because the elevation here is 8,465 feet.
It sits northwest of Colorado Springs and is surrounded my mountains, which makes camping and hiking easy. The Donut Mill is a great brunch place with delicious (and huge) donuts and pastries. It also has one of the best biscuits and gravy combos you’ll ever taste!
As mentioned at the beginning of our podcast, Pikes Peak is the “purple mountain majesties” that Katharine Lee Bates referred to in her poem, America the Beautiful.
At 14,115 feet from sea level this magnificent mountain stretches miles and miles to the east. It’s actually a very safe, paved drive up the mountain, unless of course you want to climb a 14’er.
At the top, you can stop by the Summit House, which is a great place to get out and feel like you’re on top of the world.