Why Does Hiking Give Me a Headache?

Do you love hiking but hate the pains of a headache whilst doing it? Well, you’re in luck because we’ve identified possible sources of your headaches. Though there are many reasons a headache can occur, solutions and remedies are provided to help you have the best hiking experience you can!

Headaches that come from hiking are predominately associated with altitude sickness. Due to the increase in elevation and difference in air pressure, a headache is a common symptom. Other plausible causes of headaches will be addressed, but hiking headaches are mostly results of the altitude change.

Whether or not your headache is directly related to altitude sickness or another source, we’ve compiled several ways you can effectively treat this pain.

A trekker standing in front of Himalaya mountain range in Everest region, Nepal, Asia

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is also known as “Acute Mountain Sickness.” As stated before, it is an illness that comes in response to the ascendency to a higher altitude. With higher altitude comes less oxygen and a change in atmospheric pressure. Because the human body isn’t accustomed to the difference in elevation, it often produces symptoms such as headaches, nausea, exhaustion, and shortness of breath.

Hiking usually involves climbing to a state of higher elevation and altitude which is precisely why your headache could very well be a result of Acute Mountain Sickness. These symptoms usually come at elevations of 2,500 meters above sea level and higher.

Anyone can be prone to the symptoms and effects of altitude sickness no matter how physically fit or experienced at hiking they are. Though it doesn’t matter who you are, it does matter where you are and how fast you go. The speed at which you ascend to these higher altitudes will drastically affect your likelihood to get altitude sickness. (Source)

Preventing Altitude Sickness Headaches and Symptoms

There are a lot of ways you can reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. These tips will also help you to avoid getting altitude sickness.

One of the best things you can do to prevent headaches and other symptoms is to hike slowly. It is recommended that you only hike up to 500m a day. Going beyond this threshold pushes the amount of altitude increase that the body can take within a certain period of time. Our bodies take a few days to adjust to significant altitude changes. When you hike too high too fast, you are risking headaches and other symptoms of altitude sickness. (Source)

Another thing you can do to prevent your altitude headaches is to avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. Although altitude sickness doesn’t pick favorites and can affect anyone regardless of whether or not they smoke and drink, once the sickness is caught having the effects of smoking and alcohol and the effects of the sickness will cause a serious strain on the body. Smoking harms your lungs, and with altitude sickness, it becomes difficult to breathe properly. Together, the two can cause fainting and strokes.

Head Pain concept

Dehydration and Caloric Depletion

Altitude sickness isn’t the only cause of headaches in hikers. Often it can be as simple as dehydration. Your body is working hard and losing water and electrolytes through sweat. Most people don’t even drink enough water on a daily basis doing minimal exercise, so imagine how deprived of water your body will be when you start hiking.

Dehydration is a common source of headaches. Thankfully, the solution to this problem is fairly simple and straightforward. Drink more water! Women need about 2.7 liters of water a day, while men need around 3.7 liters. Or you can drink half an ounce to an ounce of water per pound of bodyweight.

For adults, while hiking, you should strive to drink about 2 cups (half a liter) of water per every hour of hiking. This is just a general guideline that depends a lot on the person, but it is a good goal to aim for. If the weather is going to be humid and hot, you should plan on drinking around 4 cups an hour.

Girl drinking from a drinking bottle

Not only will you need to stay hydrated with water, but you will also need to keep your electrolytes up. Good options are sports drinks such as Gatorade, or electrolyte drink mixes/tablets.

You should also make sure you have an adequate amount of calories in your system to provide you with energy. Have a good breakfast with lots of healthy fats and carbs to get your body fuelled and ready for your hike. Foods to bring hiking that will help prevent your headaches are nuts and seeds, dried fruits, nutrition bars, and meat sticks.

Exertion Headaches

Hiking can be a strenuous exercise that puts a lot of pressure on the body’s systems. Oftentimes, if your body isn’t properly prepared for a hike, it will become fatigued too early and this stress can produce a headache.

To prevent exertional headaches, make sure not to overwork yourself. When you start to feel tired to the point where your body is not in a stressful state, you should discontinue exercise and rest. Make sure you get adequate amounts of sleep before your hikes and warm up before you embark. Stretching and warming up the muscles will not only help to prevent injury, but it will also help the body be less prone to negative stress and fatigue.

Norwegian mountain landscape during hiking to Halls Fortopp peak, with a view on Stetind, Northern Norway, Nordland county, municipality of Tysfjord, Ofoten, with fjord and lake

Make sure your body is well prepared for the hike, nutritionally and physically. Don’t hike too hard too early in your career hiking. Overworking your body is what leads to exhaustion and causes your body to exert more than what it should, therefore producing physical stressors such as headaches and injuries.

If your headaches become too extreme to bear, consider taking a break from hiking and consulting a doctor to see if there are any underlying conditions that could be potential agitators of your headaches.

Though there could be several other causes of your headaches whilst hiking, keeping your body hydrated and fuelled, resting properly, knowing your body’s limits, and being prepared will help prevent your headaches and get you on your journey to pain-free hiking!

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