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Colorado’s Sunshine, Elevation and Altitude Sickness

Colorado's Sunshine, Elevation and Altitude Sickness

Colorado is high (and we’re not referring to the people) and dry. If you don’t properly prepare, Colorado’s sunshine and elevation, as well as altitude sickness, can ruin your outing – or worse – your entire vacation. Don’t make a rookie mistake by looking like a lobster because you stayed out in the sun too long without protection. This page covers the essentials about Colorado’s intense sunshine and extreme elevation, and it provides info about how you can prevent and treat altitude sickness.

Colorado’s Sunshine

Colorado gets more than its fair share of sunshine, and you won’t catch us complaining! In the Denver area there are typically only 30-40 totally overcast days each year. About 300 days have at least one hour of sunshine sometime during the day. This is why many people say that Colorado has 300 days of sunshine each year. Because of the significant number of sunny days, combined with the fact that you’re closer to the sun due to Colorado’s high elevation, we recommend you bring sunblock, sunglasses, and a brimmed hat when you visit.

And don’t let winter fool you because you can still get severely sunburned while out skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Snow has a high albedo (the fraction of solar energy reflected from the Earth back into space), which means you can get fried from above and below when snow is covering the ground. 

Elevation and Altitude Sickness in Colorado

We often get questions about altitude sickness on this website. Altitude sickness, aka acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a common health concern for those visiting Colorado to ski or hike – especially for those who live at sea level and are traveling to the mountains. But everyone is susceptible to altitude sickness, even if you’ve lived in Colorado for decades or your entire life.  Colorado has the highest average elevation of any state (Colorado has 53 Fourteeners, peaks higher than 14,000 feet). Additionally, the majority of the Colorado ski resorts have a top elevation greater than 10,000 feet, some over 12,000 feet.

AMS most frequently occurs above 8,000 feet, although people can be affected at lower elevations. Altitude sickness impacts about 40% of people to some degree at a moderate altitude, which is about 10,000 feet (e.g. the elevation of Leadville, CO). Headache is the most common symptom of altitude sickness, and other symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, increased heart rate, and insomnia. Breathing heavily and getting the heart pumping while hiking, skiing, or snowboarding aggravates altitude sickness symptoms. In severe forms, altitude sickness can produce a wet cough, stumbling, lack of coordination, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. Severe forms of high altitude sickness are very serious, can be fatal, and should receive immediate medical attention.

You can help prevent altitude sickness by staying hydrated, ascending gradually, and easing into your Colorado adventures. Take it slowly the first couple of days, drink plenty of water, and minimize or eliminate alcohol intake (we know this can be extremely tough to do with all of Colorado’s amazing breweries and distilleries). Aspirin can also help prevent and treat mild AMS. If you begin to feel the symptoms of AMS, you should try to descend to where there is more oxygen.

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