How to Prepare for your First Fourteener

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Hiking to the top of a a 14,000 foot mountain is a quintessential Colorado adventure. Here's 5 simple steps to prepare for your first fourteener.

How to Prepare for your First Fourteener

Intro by Kristen Bor / Article by Ben and Jenna Thomas

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! – Kristen –

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 fourteener.

Sunset Watching

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.

  • Clothing

  • 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)
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Any extra layers for warmth depending on the weather forecast and/or if you know you get particularly cold.

Want specifics? Check out our post “What to Wear Hiking“

  • Hiking Gear

  • Food & Water

  • 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

Learn more about our favorite beginner 14ers

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 WSA

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!

WHAT PEAKS ARE YOU GOING TO TACKLE THIS SUMMER? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW, TWEET ME, OR WRITE ME A POST ON FACEBOOK

Kristen-Post-signature

 

There are 12 comments on this post.

About the author

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.

12 Comments on “How to Prepare for your First Fourteener

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  1. I love geeking out over 14er accounts. Being in Pennsylvania makes tackling one fairly difficult, but I hope to get out west soon and see what all of the fuss is about. 😉 This is a good guide, so thanks to Ben and Jenna!

      I used to live in DC, so I totally hear that! When you make it out west, come back and let me know. I wanna see pics! -Kristen

    Great list and article, lovely pictures, and wonderful suggestions for beginner hikes.

    I would also recommend bringing sunscreen. The exposure to the sun through the thin atmosphere at 14,000 feet doesn’t seem like a big deal when you’re on the climb, but burns happen quickly and quietly. Even if you’re wearing long sleeves and pants, cover your face with plenty of high SPF sun protection.

      Great addition Dan! I’m going to update the post right now. Really appreciate the comment and you stopping by my blog! -Kristen

      Ah, yes!! Thank you Dan and thank you Kristen for updating the post! Somehow sunscreen got lost in one of our edits, but it is SO important. I have fried from not reapplying, I can’t imagine a day completely without it at altitude.

    Great story. I’ve done a couple 14ers in South America. This is all good advice.

      Thanks Tom! I’m glad you liked the post! I bet those 14ers in south america were amazing. -Kristen

    Great article! Hopefully I can do one of the 14er for the first time. I would also recommend to get the book “freedom of the hills” it’s a great guide for beginners in mountaineering.

      Thanks for the tip Angel. I’ll definitely check that out.

    Great article – and I too share enthusiasm for 14ers, having my own site dedicated to Colorado’s 100 highest mountains over at http://www.100summits.com

    I just wanted to give you some quick advice – you might want to reach out to photographers before using their photos on your blog. Most, like me won’t mind at all, but if the photo you use is licensed by a stock photo agency you could rack up some fees and negative press.

    Feel free to use the one of mine here, no problem there! 🙂

    Cheers and keep up the good work.

      Matt – Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the tip. Most of the photos featured on my blog are my own. When I do source from others, I only use photos on Flickr that have a creative commons license. I’ll definitely check out your website though. Thanks again! Kristen

    Awesome article. I’m using your site to prepare for my through hike on the JMT next month! Hiking 14ers is getting me prepared.

    We’ve built an app to help you plan and save for your first or next 14er: Colorado 14ers on iOS https://appsto.re/us/ddX4ab.i

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