Worldwide there are approximately 100 million visitors to high altitude annually and about 15% of those are elderly. Nevertheless, basic information on the cardiopulmonary and metabolic responses to physical activity at high altitude in the elderly is scarce. Therefore, we studied 20 voluntary healthy elderly subjects (55-77 years) who were randomly assigned to a low- (600 m) or a high altitude (2,000 m) group. Both groups increased the duration of their daily hiking from 2.5 to 5 h during a period of 1 week. Pre- and post-hiking cardiopulmonary variables at rest were measured daily. Exercise tests (3 min step test) were performed on days 1, 4 and 7. Of the morning values at rest, only arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2) had decreased after the 1st night at high altitude. After hiking however, SaO2 was diminished on all days at high altitude. Post-hiking heart rates increased from baseline on days 1 and 2 in the low- and on days 1-5 in the high-altitude group. Exercising SaO2 (%) in the three tests was decreased [84.9 (SD 2.8), 88.1 (SD 2.1), 87.2 (SD 2.3)] compared to baseline [93.2 (SD 2.0); P < 0.05] and blood lactate concentrations were increased [3.1 (SD 0.7), 3.4 (SD 0.3), 3.3 (SD 0.2)] compared to baseline [2.7 (SD 0.6); P < 0.05] in all tests at high altitude. The 1-week hiking programme was well tolerated by the healthy elderly at both low and high altitudes. Ventilatory adaptation to high altitude in the elderly seemed to have been completed within the first 2 days during the measurements at rest. However, cardiopulmonary and metabolic responses to exercise were increased and recovery from exercise was delayed during the 1-week hiking programme at high altitude. Heart rate and SaO2 measurements are considered to be highly sensitive in estimating the state of acclimatisation and for monitoring exercise intensity and duration at high altitude.