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Yes, laptops get altitude sickness, too! We learned this the hard way, when my brand new Acer Aspire all of a sudden started to act up in Potosí, Bolivia at 4,050m/13,500ft, only five weeks into our South America trip and six week after I had bought it.

It began slowly: First, the laptop would freeze but ‘come back to life’, then it would freeze until I couldn’t do anything but turn it off, and eventually it would just shut off completely without any warning.

I freaked out, knowing that it was nearly impossible to repair or replace a laptop in Bolivia, and not sure if I’d be able to return the laptop to the U.S. from here while it was still under warranty.

laptop acer aspire
My laptop, the Acer S3 13-Inch Ultrabook

I also had laptop envy – Jess’ MacBook Air continued to work without a glitch… until a few days later, when it started to show the same symptoms. Much more proactive than me when it comes to laptop issues, Jess googled the symptoms right away and found out that our laptops were suffering from altitude sickness.

We didn’t even know that this was a thing (for electronics), or that laptops had a maximum operating altitude!

In case you’re wondering what this altitude is:

Now, for most people this will never be an issue, since only few places in the world are actually that high up.

Looking at our travel plans for the next couple of months though, this didn’t bode well for us. We had planned to spend around eight weeks in the Andes Mountain region of Bolivia and Peru, where almost all the places we wanted to visit were considerably higher than the altitude limit for our operating systems:

  • La Paz 4,058m / 13,313ft
  • Lake Titicaca 3,841m / 12,602ft
  • Puno 3,860m / 12,420ft and
  • Cuzco 3,399m / 11,152 ft
la paz
La Paz, nestled in a valley atop the Bolivian plateau at 4,058m / 13,313ft, surrounded by snowy peaks. In the background: the white head of Illimani, the sacred mountain.

In fact, Sucre at 2,810m / 9,220ft would be the only town we’d visit where we would be able to run our laptops without the fear of ruining them. Altitude sickness in laptops does not only mean that they randomly freeze or shut down without any warning, but the altitude can ruin the entire hard drive.

This affects mainly laptops with a hard disk drive, where the reading head rides on an air cushion just a fraction of a millimeter above the spinning disc. When the air pressure gets lower, as it does at high altitude, the reading head gets too close to the disc – and if it slams into it, it results in a hard drive crash and loss of all the data on the disc. Laptops with a solid static drive (Apple laptops, for example), a hard drive without any moving parts, are much safer to use in this altitude because they can’t crash the way hard disk drives can crash. However, the problems caused by altitude still arise and won’t be covered by warranty due to Apple’s maximum operating altitude warning.

The ordinary backpacker will probably not care much about this issue, since you’d only be using your laptop to book some hostels, look up information on your next destination or send some emails home, which are all things you can keep to a minimum while you’re traveling at that altitude. As digital nomads who run an online business this was a serious problem for us though. We travel at a much slower pace than most people, meaning we spend much more time in places, including the ‘laptop danger zone’, and we also use our laptops much more often, with entire 12-hour work days spent typing away on our laptops.

Well-meant advice for this situation like ‘keep your laptop shut off while you’re in La Paz’ wasn’t really helping us.

In the end, all we could do was trying to minimize the time spent on our laptops. This wasn’t particularly beneficial for our business, but since the wi-fi in Bolivia was painfully slow in most places, we wasted a lot of time waiting for websites to load anyway.

Whenever we did work on our laptops, we opened only one program at a time instead of running several programs simultaneously. Whatever we worked on would be backed up on a USB stick or an external hard drive right away to make sure we would not lose anything should one of our hard drives crash.

After leaving the high altitude of the Andes Mountains, my laptop kept acting up – my Acer has definitely suffered. Had we known about ‘laptop altitude sickness’ before traveling above 10,000ft, we would probably have prepared better – but I wouldn’t recommend spending an extended time in this area while trying to run a business and using your laptop more than an hour per day.

laptop acer working
Not fully recovered, but it’s still working!

Here are some tips on how to keep your electronics safe when traveling through the Andes, or regions of the same altitude such as Nepal or Tibet:

Back up your data before reaching the maximum operating altitude of your laptop.

Should your hard drive crash, you will at least have saved all your data. Flash drives are not affected by the altitude since they don’t contain any moving parts.

Always shut down your laptop completely

Power down your laptop entirely when you don’t use it, don’t just put it in ‘sleep’ or ‘hibernate’ mode. This goes especially for travel days.

Don’t overstress your laptop when you turn it on.

This means: as few tabs as possible in your browser, only one or two programs at once and no programs that keep updating / refreshing automatically (back-up programs, email programs).

Keep your electronics warm

High altitude usually comes with cold weather, which also puts a burden on the battery of your devices (iPods, cameras, laptops, etc). Keep your electronics as warm as possible to extend their battery life.

When your laptops get altitude sickness...
Trekking in Peru – 4,600m / 15,090ft

Does this apply to planes, too?

You’re save to use your electronics at 30,000ft since the airplane cabins are pressurized above 10,000 ft, making it safe to use your device during a flight.

Have you been to a region that high and experienced ‘laptop altitude sickness’ there? Please share in the comments below!

Tags : boliviaperuTravel Technology

50 Comments

  1. Who-da-thunk it! After all these years of getting high and losing my short term memory. A little puff of air huh? And all this time I thought my head was solid state.

    1. You were lucky!! How much time did you spend there? When we discussed the issue with other travelers up there, it turned out that they all spent way less time than us at that high altitude. I guess they also didn’t spend 8 – 10 hours a day on their laptops 😉

  2. I seriously had no clue about this. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I am wondering though so nothing can happen to your laptop if you have it completely off while you are up there? Obviously you know I run a blog, but not an entire business so I know I would be able to plan ahead to make sure I don’t need my laptop much for a few weeks. I’m curious so I know while I am down there to plan for this.

    The other thing is I know y’all both travel with an iPod touch. I will be traveling with one too this time around. Did y’all have any troubles with them while y’all were up there at all? Can an iPod mess up at such high altitudes?

    Last thing & this is going to be a dumb question… do they have computers & laptops up there? If they do how do those not mess up. Obviously people who live up there will be using their devices on a regular basis. Just curious.

    1. Thanks, Jaime! As long as your laptop is completely off, you don’t need to worry about it. I think you’ll be fine if you use it occasionally for shorter periods of time. Our iPods worked fine (except for the battery life – I highly recommend packing a portable charger – best gadget we bought before we left for South America… also helped tremendously on those long bus rides 😀

      As for your other question – we didn’t see a lot of laptops up there, to be honest! Computers yes (internet cafes), but very few laptops – I guess I know now WHY!!

    1. Yes, that’s the thing about the warranty – once they hear what happened, they’ll point to the maximum operating altitude and won’t cover a thing. I’ll still have Acer check my laptop when I get to the U.S. next month – let’s see if they can fix some of the things that are not working right 😀

  3. Wow, this is really helpful as we’re planning to head that way in a few months. I had no idea this was a real thing, so we’ll try to minimize any problems.

  4. Wow! My friend and I were reading this and we had absolutely no idea such a thing could happen to laptops! Good to know – thanks for the information, Dany! I hope you guys sorted your laptop issues though!

    1. Pauline – my laptop is still suffering!! It developed several ‘bad habits’ up there that just won’t go away (one is the wifi connection – it often can’t connect to a wifi network when other people don’t have a problem with that at all. Super annoying!)

    1. You’re welcome, Beverley… We thought somebody needs to talk about it – sure would’ve helped to have this information BEFORE we went to the Andes region 🙂

    1. Yes, I wish we’d known about that before we planned our trip!! Would’ve prepared so much better for that. Any plans to explore South America soon, Amanda? 🙂

  5. Wow! I am not aware of this.. Thank you for sharing this. I am a scheduled flight to bolivia next month, though I always use my laptop in the plane and never experienced any issues, after reading this, I wouldn’t risk using my laptop again in high altitudes. Thank you!

    1. Luckily this can’t happen in planes because of cabin pressurization 🙂 But once you touch down in Bolivia, you’ll have to be careful! Enjoy your trip, Adrian!!

  6. I was flabbergasted when I heard about laptops with altitude sickness! Seems like not only the “human operating system” suffers from these things… 🙂 Certainly good to keep that in mind when travelling in these parts of the world or similarly demanding surroundings, so thanks for sharing!
    Btw Dani, seems like you fancy from glasses, right!? Marvellous! 🙂

    1. I guess you’re right, Oliver – and it’s actually caused by the same thing (thin air with little oxygen), so in a way, it makes sense 😀 P.S. As for the coffee – that’s how they serve it to me, I don’t ask for it in a glass, I swear!! 😉

  7. Yikes! I didn’t even think about this. I was planning on bringing my laptop to Nepal when we go on a trek because I will need it for work. Not that we will have Wifi in the Himalayas, but after that.. thanks for the tips. I’m kind of weary about taking it!

    1. Sarah – do some research before you go, I read several stories by people who went to Nepal and had problems with their laptop there. Maybe you can leave it off for most of the time you’re there and then use it afterwards? Enjoy the Himalayas!

  8. We were lucky and didn’t have any problems with this even in La Paz, for example. We both have Apple devices, so I guess this helped, but we didn’t notice any difference in their operating. The only place I completely switched off my laptop and didn’t even open it was on the 4 days trip around the salt flats in southern Bolivia where we reached 5,000 masl.

    1. You really were lucky!! Did you spend much time above 3,000 meters? We shouldn’t have stayed that high up for six weeks, I guess 🙁

  9. I’m the same as Sam – I was in all of the same places and didn’t have any issues with my iPad. Although now it’s running really terribly, so maybe there was some belated damage..! I definitely noticed how quickly all my electronics got through their batteries in higher altitudes though.

    1. I don’t think we had any problems with our iPad either, Flora – it was definitely a laptop issue! The short battery life in the high altitude was crazy, right?

  10. I was in Cusco for almost 3 weeks, a week in and around Puno… and due to lots of rain, spent def more than 8 hrs a day on the laptop. Sturdy Korean workhorses, I guess…

    1. I want your laptop!! 😀 What brand is it? I am considering buying a new one when I get to the States (even though I only bought mine last October!) because mine is still acting up so much!

  11. When I read the headline I assumed the destructive agent would be the radiation and ionized particles from the cosmos our plateaus. Glad that’s not the case!

    Good information to know, thanks for the post.

  12. Oh dear, I’m so sorry that your brand new laptop is still suffering symptoms of exposure. I think I’d cry if that were the case for me. I had no idea this could happen and thankfully I doubt I’ll ever forget. I wonder if those Toughbooks would experience the same issues. They’re supposed to be built sturdy and somewhat indestructible, but I have no idea about the components inside of them.

    1. It’s still acting up sometimes but it’s alive 🙂 Your laptop won’t be affected if it’s fully turned off. And you should be fine turning it on for short periods of time, I’d just recommend you don’t run a lot of programs simultaneously and always turn it off instead of leaving it in Sleep mode.

  13. As a permanent resident in Peru I have to work in and around several mining sites. The highest one is located at 5,000 meters (around 16,400 feet). All the mining engineers and mine employees will tell you that the laptop of choice up there is the Toshiba. They have a very robust line that is specially suited for very high altitudes. Sadly my trusty HP was not, and I had to replace the hard drive; now I use it at sea level and have a Toshiba Tecra for my work at mines.

  14. An article about altitude sickness and not a single solution offered besides warmth and using a solid state hard drive (we have no idea why that recommended Toshiba Tecra functions OK at 5000 meters. Does it use a solid state drive? Are there some that work at any altitude? Are there any mechanical hard drives that work at high latitudes? These are answers we need. Also, if the Apple laptop that uses a solid state drive still had problems significantly above 10000 feet, why? There is no mechanical hard drive in there. No moving parts at all. And you could easily replace your mechanical hard drive in any laptop with a solid state drive as they’re getting cheaper every day. Obviously there are other issues besides the hard drive.

    1. I´ve been using DELL and HP laptops at high altitude mines in Chile for years…. without problem, precision, presario, vostro and elitebook. Sony and old Toshibas suffer a lot.

  15. Thank you for your post. I am living in Cusco since 2014, July. I have a laptop HP Pavillion (6 years old) and it have worked just fine. I have worked everyday around 6 to 12 hours. I also, leave it on. I did not know anything about high sickness for laptops.

    I was planning on buying a new macbookpro to replace it. Because my old HP is very heavy and noisy, but after reding this I do not know what to do. I need the laptop to work, everyday, because I am a consultant. 🙁

    Would be the same performance with desktops?

  16. Thanks for the information!! Some comments here also helped me a lot. Im heading to a place in the Peruvian Andes, between 4000 and 5500 meters for a photography sesion and Im really worried about the batteries life of my cameras and how to backup the photos while we are there. We are going to be 3 days on the mountais, higher than 4500mt. I think the best option would be to uso my 3 memory cards until the end and backup when we go back to Huaraz, that is the lowest we are going to be before going back home. What about battery life? Is there a huge difference? Also, about going from cold to warm places might generate umidity in the devices, any recomendations for that? Thank you so much again!

    1. Hi Nathaly, I kept my camera batteries very close to my body at all times, usually in the pocket of my pants – also at night when I was sleeping. I don’t know if that helped at all but I didn’t want to risk them loosing too much battery life from the cold. I think it’s best to use several memory cards and back them up when you’re back in Huarez, yes. As for the humidity – that definitely happened to me when I was doing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu… we moved from tropical temperatures to below zero at 16,000 feet. I usually just waited until the steam /water cleared off my lenses eventually but I guess there’s a better way to deal with it? Anyway – enjoy Peru, it’s gorgeous! 🙂

  17. I had no idea that this could happen to a laptop! I guess it makes sense. I once took a laptop on a plane and when I got off and began to use it, I realized the screen would get a little glitchy… I always thought it got broken when it was passed through the x ray/detector at the airport but I feel like it very well could have been altitude! Thanks for sharing!

  18. My MacBok Pro started playing up when we arrived at San Pedro de Atacama, a few hundred metres below 3000. It would freeze and play up bigtime. I then learned about hard drives failing due to high altitude. It worked fine in Sucre, Bolivia, but now we’re in La Paz and it’s powered down completely.
    I can’t take the risk of it failing completely as my blog work is too important to me. At least I have everything backed up in two other places, just in case. Next stop is Lake Titicaca, which is also over 3000m. So annoying!

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