Elk Hunting photo

Starting in late August, thousands of hunters from east of the Continental Divide converge on the Rocky Mountains to hunt elk and mule deer. Most of them will experience the hunting trip of a lifetime, whether they tag out or not. Some of them will spend the first couple of days feeling, generally, like crap. And, though it’s rare, a small percentage could succumb to much more serious health problems associated with the high country.


Hunters who rush from their home at lower altitudes into the mountains run the risk of suffering from acute mountain sickness (AMS), more commonly known as altitude sickness. AMS generally manifests itself in symptoms such as headache, shortness of breath, nausea and loss of appetite. Generally, its consequences are not much more serious than losing the first couple of days of the hunt. It’s easily treated by spending a day or so at an altitude below 8,000 feet.

Much more serious is High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). These two potentially fatal ailments are most common at extreme high altitudes – think Everest, but can happen above 8,000 feet, where much of the Rocky Mountain elk and deer hunting takes place. HAPE causes a build-up of fluid in the lungs and difficulty breathing while HACE is marked by confusion and mental fatigue. It’s a leading cause of death among climbers. Both must be treated by quick descent to lower altitudes and medical attention.

Preventing altitude sickness means acclimatizing yourself slowly. Experts suggest gaining only 1,000 feet of altitude per day. Better yet, if you’re coming from out of state, plan to spend a day in the foothills before heading to a high-country camp. Don’t over-exert yourself the first day of the hunt and stay hydrated. Setting up camp at lower elevations than you’re hunting can also help you acclimate faster.

For more information about staying healthy in the high country, you can learn about AMS here. — David Draper, F&S Contributing Editor