Quick Guide to Hiking Up a Mountain – What You Need to Know


how to mountain hike

Hiking up a mountain has its own set of unique challenges.  In this post, I’ll give you the run-down on some of these challenges.  I’ll also provide you with some easy steps you can take to meet these challenges head-on.

Mountain hiking is harder than most other forms of hiking.  It can also be more dangerous than other forms of hiking as well.

Here are some of the challenges you’ll face when hiking up a mountain:

  • The weather can change quickly and dramatically.
  • Oxygen levels will feel lower.
  • Ascents are more physically demanding.
  • Descents can be treacherous.

Mountain Hiking Weather Changes

The weather on a mountain is almost always more challenging to deal with the higher you go.  It is colder, it is windier, and it can often be wetter.

For these reasons, you’ll need to pack both cold weather and wet weather gear with you.  This is true even in the summer months.  It can even be true on short day hikes up a steep mountainside.

I once made the mistake of assuming that my shorts and tee shirt would be more than enough for a short day hike I was taking up Buffalo Mountain.  It was summer and the hike didn’t last long so I figured it wouldn’t be much colder at the top.

buffalo mountain Virginia trail post

When I did get to the top, the winds were heavy and there were sheets of ice on the ground.  Fortunately, I did have a sweatshirt in my daypack and the cold wasn’t bad enough for me to feel like I was in any danger.

The issue was that by being unprepared for the weather change, I reduced the amount of time I got to spend enjoying the views I had just hiked up the mountain to see.  In fact, when I got home, I realized that I hadn’t really even taken any good pictures at the top.

Learn from my mistake and prepare for bad weather even on shorter trips up the mountain.  Doing so will make the hike more enjoyable and it will help keep you safe if something goes wrong when you’re at the top.

Temperature Changes by The Numbers

If you plan on going for a longer backpacking trip up a mountain, you might want to prepare as if you’re headed on a winter camping trip.  According to the Center for Science Education, temperatures will drop by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet of elevation.

This means that if you hike 6,000 feet up a mountain, you could end up in an area that is over 21.6 degrees colder.  But that isn’t the end of the story.  At 7,000 feet in elevation, you’re going to be exposed to more wind.  If the wind is blowing at 10 miles an hour, it might actually feel 30 degrees colder at the top of your hike.

altitude temperature changes

Here are a couple of quick examples to illustrate temperature changes by altitude.  This does not factor in the increased wind chill you might experience at higher altitudes.

The 70 degrees starting temperature at sea level will vary based on whatever your current temperature is.  Also, remember that the start of your hike might be at a higher or even a lower elevation than sea level.

In the United States, the only areas below sea level are in California and Louisiana, so chances are you’ll be starting at or above sea level each time you go for a hike.

Oxygen Levels

Technically, oxygen levels in the air do not get lower at higher altitudes.  The issue is that air pressures get lower which means you take in less total air with each breath in general.  This makes it feel like there is less oxygen in the air.

If you hike up a mountain that is very high in altitude, you may find breathing to be difficult.  For this reason, many high altitude hikers need to ascend slowly so that they can acclimate themselves to a different altitude or they need to do high altitude training before their hike.

Here is a chart showing how oxygen levels change based on your elevation.

Elevation Percentage of Oxygen
0 ft 20.9 %
1,000 ft 20.1 %
2,000 ft 19.4 %
3,000 ft 18.6 %
4,000 ft 17.9 %
5,000 ft 17.3 %
6,000 ft 16.6 %
7,000 ft 16.0 %
8,000 ft 15.4 %
9,000 ft 14.8 %
10,000 ft 14.3 %
11,000 ft 13.7 %
12,000 ft 13.2 %
13,000 ft 12.7 %
14,000 ft 12.3 %
15,000 ft 11.8 %
16,000 ft 11.4 %
17,000 ft 11.0 %
18,000 ft 10.5 %
19,000 ft 10.1 %
20,000 ft 9.7 %
21,000 ft 9.4 %
22,000 ft 9.0 %
23,000 ft 8.7 %
24,000 ft 8.4 %
25,000 ft 8.1 %
26,000 ft 7.8 %
27,000 ft 7.5 %
28,000 ft 7.2 %
29,000 ft 6.9 %

As you can see, the change in the amount of oxygen that is available per breath can be quite dramatic.  However, most people will never have to worry about these kinds of altitude changes.

The highest elevation on the Appalachian Trail is still only 6,643 feet and even the Pacific Crest Trail only reaches heights of 13,153 feet.  In order to reach elevations of 29,000 feet, you’d have to take a trip to Mt. Everest.  At this point, you’ve crossed over from being a hiker to being a mountain climber.

Ascents are Tough

Let’s face it, no matter how much experience you have, hiking uphill is tough.  The steeper the ascent, the harder your body has to work and the more calories you’ll burn per mile.

In fact, studies have been done that say that a person is likely to burn up to 60% more calories per mile when walking up an incline than they do when walking on flat ground.  You won’t make up for this on the way down either as studies have shown that you only burn about 7% fewer calories walking downhill then you do walking uphill.

If you’re interested in seeing where these numbers come from, the website verywellfit.com did a good job of breaking this down.

mountain hiking

Here are some tips for making hiking uphill easier on you:

  • Lean Forward
  • Use Trekking Poles
  • Take More Breaks
  • Train
  • Have Patience

Lean Into Your Hike

Lean into the ascent but not too far.  A slight lean will put your upper body slightly in front of your hips which will make walking uphill easier.  Lean too far and it will have the opposite effect.

Consider Trekking Poles

Walking will become even harder when you’re leaning too far forward and you’ll put yourself at risk of losing your balance.  Some people prefer to use trekking poles while hiking uphill to avoid this problem.  The poles force them to keep their posture more straight and they also keep them from falling forward.

Take More Breaks

You’ll probably need to take more breaks when hiking uphill as well.  Remember, you’ll be burning calories at an accelerated rate so you’ll need to stop to eat and drink more frequently during uphill mountain hikes than you would have to on a relatively flat hike.

hiker resting

Train

Let’s face it, being in great shape makes everything easier.  Get your legs in shape for uphill hiking through frequent hiking, walking, stair climbing, weight lifting, and even cycling.

You can even prepare yourself for uphill hiking by doing unrelated cardiovascular exercises like swimming and rowing.  These activities won’t help your legs, but they will increase your lung capacity and your heart’s ability to send oxygenated blood to your muscles.

Have Patience

Hiking uphill takes longer.  You’ll probably end up hiking more slowly and you may need to take more breaks than usual.  This is where you’ll need to have patience.

Recognize that the long hike you’re making will probably lead to a wonderful view.  Also, the workout you’re getting from your hike is much better than the workout you’d be getting while hiking through flatlands.

Descents Can Be Treacherous

One thought to keep in mind when hiking up a mountain is that the descent can be even more difficult than the ascent.  In fact, descents can be downright treacherous.

In some areas, a big reason for this is that you can’t see the falling rocks, rushing waters, and mudslides that might be coming for you.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to check the weather and to stay off of mountains immediately following a rainstorm that follows a drought.

hiking downhill

The weather isn’t the only issue you’ll need to be concerned with.  When you’re hiking down a steep incline, you’re more likely to trip and fall.  Fall while hiking down an incline and you’re more likely to roll downhill.  This can be painful on some trails and it can be deadly on others.

Avoid falling by hiking more slowly than usual and always be sure to scan the ground in front of you for any hidden dangers.  If you want to increase your stability on the trail, pull your trekking poles back out for the walk down as well.

 

Christopher Schopf

Christopher Schopf loves camping, hiking, canoeing, and basically anything that gets him outdoors.

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