This week I’m excited to share this guest post by Ben and Jenna Thomas – Colorado natives, photographers, and authors of international travel blog Wild Imagining. As experienced hikers, they share with us their best tips for preparing to trek up Colorado’s highest peaks. Now go get those legs ready!
How to Prepare for your First Fourteener
by Ben and Jenna Thomas
It’s almost summertime in Colorado. That means the return of hiking season in the Rockies, and tackling a Colorado Fourteener is as Coloradan as it gets. While hauling yourself up a 14,000 foot mountain may seem like a daunting task, take our advice on how to prepare for the climb, and you’ll be on top of the state in no time.
Wait, what’s a fourteener?
A fourteener is a mountain that rises over 14,000 feet above sea level. In Colorado, there are 54 fourteeners scattered across the western half of the state, ranging in difficulty from a challenging day-hike to full-on technical rock climbing that calls for a rope and helmet. For now, we will focus on the easiest ascents and give you some tips on how to prepare you for your first fourteeneer.
Mt. Evans (Photo: Zach Dischner)
Step 1: Pack your Gear
While many of Colorado’s fourteeners can be done in half a day, you still need to have a backpack full of gear to hike them safely and responsibly. The weather can also change rapidly, so layering is crucial to your comfort. Below is a checklist of things you’ll want, along with a few specific recommendations.
- Quick-dry short sleeve top – Avoid cotton clothing! Hiking up to over 14,000 feet will cause you to sweat, and cotton does not dry fast enough. Wet clothes at the top will chill you to the bone, making for a miserable experience.
- Shorts and Long Pants
- Wool Hiking Socks
- Hiking Boots (men’s/women’s) or shoes with plenty of tread and ankle support. Be sure this isn’t your first time wearing new shoes!
- Warm midlayer, like a long-sleeve shirt or fleece pullover
- Rain Jacket (men’s/women’s)
- Any extra layers for warmth depending on the weather forecast and/or if you know you get particularly cold.
- First Aid Kit: ibuprofen, band-aids, blister bandages and more. You can buy tiny, inexpensive first-aid kits at REI and other outdoor stores.
- Swiss Army Knife or multitool
- Trekking Poles (your knees will thank you)
- A comfortable and durable backpack that can fit everything. This Mountain Hardwear waterproof Outdry pack is a great option.
Fuel to keep you going
- Water: At least 2 liters per person. Consider bringing a three liter hydration reservoir.
- Food: gels, bars, and trail mix to eat along the way, and pack a lunch to eat at the top.
- Optional: Celebratory Beer or treat of your choosing!
Step 2: Plan your route!
Once you’ve committed to climbing a fourteener, the next big hurdle is choosing which one. In our book, the best fourteeners for a beginner are:
- Mount Bierstadt from Guanella Pass
- Mount Sherman from Four Mile Road
- Mount Democrat from Kite Lake
- Gray’s Peak from the Gray’s Peak Trailhead
- Handies Peak from American Basin
There are plenty of resources out there to research the trails on your fourteener of choice, but the best might be 14ers.com. Some mountains have multiple trails to the top; choose one labeled Class 1 or Class 2 (or go with the most common route).
Finally, be sure to check and make sure that you can get to the trailhead. Some trailheads are located on rugged dirt roads that require a 4WD vehicle. Others are on roads that most normal cars can handle. Double-check before you go!
Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)
Step 3: Find a buddy
For your first time up a fourteener, it is best to have at least one other person to hike with. Finding someone who is experienced with fourteeners would be best, but if you and a buddy want to tackle your first one together, make sure you are both prepared mentally and physically. Having someone along with you is especially helpful in case something goes wrong – be it altitude sickness, a sprained ankle, or if you just aren’t having any fun – having someone there to have your back is a huge asset on any big hike.
Step 4: Acclimate, hydrate, and study up
One of best ways to avoid altitude sickness is to get acclimated. Basically, this means you are getting your body used to the altitude gradually. If you are traveling into Colorado from a lower elevation, try to spend at least one night either in Denver or in the mountains before you climb. The more time you spend at altitude, the better adjusted your body will become.
Altitude sickness is the most common problem people run into on their first fourteener. This write-up will help you prepare and hopefully prevent it.
Along with acclimatizing, drink plenty of water and eat a big dinner the night before. Being properly fueled before you push yourself at altitude is crucial to preventing altitude sickness.
Finally, do a last minute check on the weather conditions for your hike and make sure it is still safe to go. Make sure you know how to get to the trailhead and double check that everything is in your pack. Then, when the alarm goes off, you’ll be set!
Step 5: Slow and Steady
After all that preparation, you’re ready to climb! Be sure to get an early start—we’re talking pre-sunrise. That way, you’re off the mountain (or at least back below treeline) before any notorious afternoon thunderstorms roll in. Keep an eye on the clouds, and plan to turn around no later than noon or earlier if the weather turns sketchy. Getting caught in a lightning storm above treeline is downright terrifying, not to mention life-threatening.
As you are climbing, pay attention to YOU. Check in on your buddy and see how they are doing, but do not push yourself too hard in an attempt to keep up. Hiking at altitude is difficult. You’ll get tired faster, breathe harder, and your heart will be pounding.
Remember, you don’t have to reach the top in order to have fun! Yes, the summit is the obvious goal, but if weather is moving in early or you feel sick, don’t push your luck. The mountain will still be around later; your job is to make sure you will be too.
Finally, enjoy yourself! Soak in all the big mountain views. It may be harder than you expect, but push yourself safely and it will all be worth it. Remember our advice and we’ll see you up there!
Mount Sneffels (Photo credit: Matt Payne)
About the authors: Ben and Jenna Thomas are a pair of newlyweds who both grew up exploring the mountains of Colorado. Right now, they’re working their way around the world, from one exciting adventure to the next. Follow their journey at WildImagining.com and make sure to check out their awesome photography on Instagram and Facebook.