So you want to hike a 14er?
Have you ever hiked a 14er? Want to but don’t know where to start?
Did you know that Colorado is home to 58 14ers and climbing one is a rite of passage for many outdoor enthusiasts? The challenge of the hike, views from the summit, and the experience of the mountain is what attracts and captures many, myself included. Spring is a great time to start preparations, plan trips, and get in shape. If you’ve never hiked a 14er or are looking to get prepared for this summer’s hiking season then join me as I head out and climb some peaks and get ready for some 14ers! To ensure you have a safe and fun hike, be sure to check our Colorado In Motion Facebook page for videos and tips on completing this awesome challenge! An overview of this article will outline some of the video topics discussed in the next several weeks so be sure to join along as I climb some peaks and discuss 14er preparations.
There’s a joke in the 14er community: the best way to train to hike a 14er is to… hike 14ers! Get out there and train by hiking, hiking, hiking! Starting with lower elevation hikes or long walks in the foothills can be a great way to prepare. Hiking 14ers requires strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. If you don’t consider yourself to be in great cardio shape you can get started right now! Running or walking is a great way to start revving up your endurance. To add to the challenge, try running or walking uphill so you can get that heart rate up. The stair master, biking, and rowing can all be good choices to get in a longer workout. In addition to cardiovascular endurance, strength training is also good practice. Hiking requires strong quads, calves, glutes, and hip flexors. Don’t forget about core and upper body (you have to carry that pack and be steady on uneven terrain!). Most importantly try making your training activity specific. There’s no substitute for altitude and getting on the trail.
In preparation for the summer hiking season I like to mix up my routine with days of training hikes, some with planned higher mileage or elevation gain. I also add in longer walks or runs on the days I am home. I often run hills at a fast pace and walk down to recover. I add in high intensity interval training workouts to get my heart rate up while working major muscle groups. Exercises like bench step ups (with a pack or hand weights) can be a great way to specifically target hiking movements.
Finally, know your limitations. Even the “easiest” 14ers require physical fitness and preparation. If you are not feeling good, turn back. No need to beat yourself up yourself on the first try -the mountain will always be there tomorrow.
Having a good fitting backpack can make a huge impact on completing a comfortable hike. There are many great brands and styles to choose from so be sure to go and try some on and pick one that fits well and feels comfortable. Better yet, have a knowledgeable salesperson help out with measurements and fittings. When trying out packs in a store, make sure to put some weight in them and wear them around for a few minutes. For ladies, there are women’s specific packs that are designed to fit a narrower and contoured shoulder base (this is where only 20% of the pack weight should be) , a shorter torso, and more curved and contoured hip belts (this is where 80% of the weight should be) that may be a better fit than a men’s pack or gender neutral pack. One important feature is that padded hip belt since the majority of the weight is stored here. Tightening a comfortable hip belt can make a heavier load much more manageable through a long hike. If your shoulders are sore through a hike, often tightening your hip belt or adjusting other straps can resolve this issue.
If you are in the market for a new backpack, pick one depending on your hiking goals. Are you interesting in short day trips? All day treks? Backpacking multi-day events? Picking a pack that is compact but large enough for your needs will ensure you’re not carrying too much weight.
Most packs you’ll choose from are either internal framed or frameless packs. There are also external framed packs but these may be more appropriate for carrying heavy or irregular loads. The internal framed packs are great for day trips. When you’re carrying a loaded pack, they are great for uneven terrain and distribute weight to the hips. They are often very comfortable and have a padded hip belt. The frameless packs are great for shorter trips and for the ultralight traveler.
When loading a backpack, the heaviest items should go in the middle or lower end of the pack, closest to the body. Water is often the heaviest item we pack so avoid packing heavy water bottles in the outside pockets. Put water in a bladder (which typically has a pouch near the inside back panel of the pack), or tuck your water bottles inside and close to the body for more even and centered weight distribution. Time and experience are good teachers for packing your pack and you’ll learn whether you’re packing too much or not enough.
The 10 Essentials:
While packing light is important, don’t neglect the 10 essentials when hiking 14ers. These items should be in everyone’s pack to ensure preparedness and safety in the mountains:
- Navigation: I always bring a map and compass on 14er trips (and usually a GPS with extra batteries) as I am often on less traveled trails. Don’t rely on your cell phone as it may not get reception when you need it. There are many blogs and classes on how to read and use a map and compass so be sure to brush up on those skills pre-hike. Staying on route is always a wise choice for safe navigation and for trail preservation.
- Sun protection: Clothing, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, and lip balm are all essentials and critically important for high altitude hiking. Protect your valuable eyesight with dark and full coverage glasses.
- Clothing: On 14ers you may be met with all four seasons of weather at any time of the year. Be prepared with extra clothes, rain gear, hats, gloves, and extra base layers for warmth. I’ve been caught in a snowstorm in July, and have had to gear down to a t-shirt in February because of the heat.
- Illumination: Bring a headlamp or flashlight. If you are out longer than expected, having a light to get your back to the car is essential. Don’t forget spare batteries.
- First aid kit: A small, compact first aid kit can be helpful for you or others. Some bandaids, medications, duct tape or adhesive tape, gauze, paracord, and a safety pin are some helpful items. There are prepackaged first aid kits, or bringing items for minor falls or scrapes, ankle sprains, blisters, and illness is a good way to stay prepared.
- Fire: Waterproof matches or a lighter in case you need to spend the night and stay warm.
- Tools: A small knife or multi-tool can be lightweight and a great way to solve a lot of problems. I typically roll some duct tape around my hiking pole to unwrap and use if I have to repair equipment on the go.
- Food: Enough for the day and extra in case something unexpected extends your day. (See below under Food and Water on what to bring)
- Water: More than enough for the day. If access to streams you can bring a filtration system. Many of these are lightweight. I rarely hike a 14er with less than 3L of water.
- Emergency shelter: a small bivy or emergency blanket are very lightweight options to have in your pack. A rain jacket can protect you from the elements somewhat.
Did someone mention layers? Being able to put on or take off the right clothing is key to staying comfortable with minimal perspiration on 14ers. It is not unusual to experience all four seasons at any time of the year on a 14er hike (and sometimes all four seasons in a single day!). Temperatures can vary significantly at the trailhead versus the summit, and also between early morning and afternoon. When it’s warm, I prefer my sun protection in forms of clothing: lightweight long sleeves, hats, and light gloves. It’s important to avoid cotton clothing as it holds sweat and moisture which can decrease your body temperature if the weather is cool or if you stop moving uphill. Instead choose a synthetic or wool base layer, synthetic or wool long underwear (for cooler hikes), and quick-drying/wicking pants and tops. A fleece jacket or other down or synthetic jackets can be great and lightweight. And don’t forget your rain protection. On most hikes (any month of the year) I always bring gloves and a hat for cooler weather or unexpected weather changes. Often the early mornings will be quite chilly and the temperatures will warm throughout the day, so being able to add or shed layers can be helpful to keep the right body temperature. I also highly recommend wool socks for comfort and for their wicking capabilities. Your feet sweat and will be doing a lot of the work on the trail- take care of them!
Finding the right footwear can be a challenge but there are many great options for 14er hiking. Finding a comfortable and well fitting pair for YOU is the most important feature rather than the actual brand or style. There are countless footwear options: one may prefer a hiking boot, others a lightweight trail runner, or maybe even a mountaineering boot. This all depends on your preference and the kind of terrain you’re hiking. Many 14er trails are well maintained and can be easily done in a trail runner, which gives you the comfort of an athletic shoe with more traction on the sole for uneven surfaces. Those who prefer a hiking boot with a lower cut or mid ankle support will have firmer and wider soles which can provide solid stability on uneven ground. Boots may also withstand heavy use better. Trail type can also be a deciding factor. For shorter class 1 and 2 dry season hikes I will often wear trail runners. If there is a chance of lots of loose rock I may choose a hiking boot that will give me additional ankle support and protection from getting small rocks in the shoe. If it’s a longer scramble, an approach shoe can provide extra grip and traction. When buying boots or shoes, it’s often wise to buy a half size larger than your typical street shoe to account for heavier socks and downhill hiking which can put extra pressure on the front of the foot and toenails. If you hike a lot in the spring season you may want to include a waterproof option for any snow crossings or wet terrain. Also, make sure to trim your toenails before your hike and wear a good sock (not cotton, wool is popular). If you are hiking and feel a hot spot/sore spot, stop and inspect the foot at that time and address before it becomes a painful blister. Before trying your boot out on a 10 mile trail, walk around the house for an afternoon to ensure a proper fit and comfort.
Trekking poles are a piece of equipment many hikers use and love. They can help absorb shock from your knees on a descent, and help with balance and stability (I can recall several stream crossings where I was happy to have poles). Additionally, they can help assist uphill, help burn more calories, and can even be used in emergent situations. To fit your poles, adjust the height so your elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle when standing with the pole tips touching the ground. This may need to be adjusted on steeper up or downhill trails (shorter for uphill, longer for downhill). Take advantage of the wrist straps to ease strain on the hands. Insert your hand through the loops from the bottom upward, so the strap is cradling the wrist. Another feature I like is an adjustable pole with an external lever lock (versus a twist lock). These types of locks are easy to adjust and tighten (even with gloves on) and stay tight.
Colorado sun can be brutal at high altitudes and having proper protection is key for an enjoyable hike and an enjoyable day after. Wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen, applying at first light, and reapplying frequently will be important steps for those bluebird days as well as cloudy days (UV rays can penetrate clouds). There are a wide range of lightweight long-sleeved (even hooded) UPF sun shirts than can keep you covered without being too hot. Hats with bills or sun flaps can also be a great way to stay protected. Sunscreen SPF is a measure of the percentage of UV radiation filtered from the sun. A sunscreen SPF that is above 50 has very little difference in protection. For example, SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays whereas SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays. You may want a sweat proof, water resistance, or athletic sunscreen option to accommodate your activity level on the mountain. Don’t forget the back of the neck, ears, hair lines and parts in the hair, and the back of the hands as these are crucial areas that we often forget. Wearing a chapstick or lip protection with sunscreen is also very important. Choose a high SPF and reapply often after eating or drinking. Wearing dark sunglasses in bright conditions throughout the hike is also important. Excessive exposure to sun without eye protection can contribute to cataracts and macular degeneration.
Picking a 14er:
If you’ve never done a 14er before or have limited mountaineering experience, it’s best to pick an “easy” peak to see how you will do and give yourself the biggest chance of success. Every peak has it’s challenges, but a shorter hike with less elevation gain and easy terrain will be more manageable when starting out. Mountains are rated by class and are as follows:
Class 1: easy hiking on trail, often well-maintained.
Class 2: more difficult than class 1, may be off trail (boulder hopping, talus/scree fields). You may need a hand for balance or stability. This may have loose rock or some exposure.
Class 3: defined as scrambling or needing the use of hands but not requiring ropes. You will use your hands and feet for most navigation. May include steep slopes or faces with exposure.
Class 4: more vertical scrambling than class 3, often requiring foot and handholds for navigation. Rope is sometimes used on class 4 due to high risk of injury or death with a fall. Class 4 can be steep and dangerous.
Class 5: technical climbing necessitating the use of ropes.
Some good choices for class 1 and 2 beginner 14ers are Quandary Peak, Mt Bierstadt, Handies Peak, Grays Peak, Pikes Peak, Mt Elbert. There are many additional class 1 and 2 peaks but these should be a great start no matter your experience level!
Food and Water:
Bringing enough food and water and the right kind of snacks on a hike will give you the hydration and energy to get you to that 14er summit and finish strong. Altitude is often an appetite suppressant, so eating enough is important but not always easy. It’s important to stay hydrated the day before the hike, the morning of, and during the hike (don’t wait until you’re thirsty). I rarely go on a hike with less than 3L of water, depending on the length of the hike. Bring more than expected to ensure you have enough if something happens or your day turns longer than expected. Eat foods that will give you quick, sustainable energy with a good balance of protein and carbohydrates- and make sure they’re foods that you’ll actually want to eat. You can bring perishables if the temperature is below 40 degrees or the food is insulated.
Nutrition is important not only on the day of the climb, but before. Eating healthy throughout the week will prep your body for a good hike. Avoid the urge to “carbo-load” the night before the hike. Eat as you typically do so your digestive system won’t stress out with a giant bowl of pasta if it’s not used to it. But DO drink a lot of water. Fat is also more difficult for our bodies to digest at high altitudes so keep those fatty foods to a minimum.
Most hikers will bring quick energy, calorie dense, lightweight foods: a PB&J sandwich, dried fruits and nuts, energy bars, jerky, gu or gels, some chocolate or a candy bar, and cheese are some staples in my pack. I will often leave an electrolyte drink or an apple in the car for the return. Don’t worry too much about calories this day because you’ll be burning plenty.
Altitude sickness is caused by a lack of oxygen to the body and the failure of your body to adapt to air that holds less oxygen: going too high, too fast. Despite what you may have heard, there is no easy 14er. Hiking at altitude can be difficult for many. For those coming from out of state, high altitudes can be particularly challenging. Even those living in Colorado can be victims of altitude sickness. The best way to prepare for high altitude is to acclimatize, or climb to higher elevations prior to the summit. If you live in Fort Collins at 5000’ doing a couple training hikes in the National Park or foothills to gain some elevation prior to your 14er can be helpful. Camping at higher altitudes can also help acclimatize.
Everyone has a different rate of acclimatization. Fitness does not play a part in altitude sickness; even high level athletes can feel the effects. The most common mild sign of altitude sickness in Colorado elevations is headaches; other symptoms include difficulty sleeping, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, and significant fatigue or weakness. Severe altitude sickness (or acute mountain sickness) can also occur and includes confusion, inability to walk or poor balance, bluish skin, cough, chest tightness, or shortness of breath at rest.
The quickest and most effective way to improve altitude sickness symptoms is to return to a lower altitude, FAST. Even a few hundred feet of elevation can make a difference. Stay well-hydrated and eat properly. Avoid alcohol and smoking. Go slowly and don’t over-exert yourself during the hike. Most importantly, let someone know if you’re feeling poorly. Stop to rest and if it doesn’t improve, it’s time to head down.
Leave No Trace (LNT):
The Leave No Trace principle is important to remember and follow in order to enjoy the 14ers and ensure that others may enjoy it as well.
-Pack out what you pack in: never leave any trash, food, toilet paper, signs, clothing, or equipment in the mountains.
-Stay on trail: short cutting and off trail hiking can further erosion.
-Dispose of waste properly: use the bathroom at least 200 feet from a water source and dig a hole about 6-8 inches deep for solid human waste. Wash any dishes 200 feet away from water with a biodegradable soap.
-Do not take anything from the trail including flowers, berries, or rocks. Take a rest on rocks rather than vegetation.
-Be respectful of others, yield on trails, and avoid loud noises so everyone can enjoy the serenity of nature.
-Lastly, be respectful of wildlife: do not approach or feed animals in the wild.
Weather is an important factor when planning your 14er trip. Many 14ers requires multiple miles above treeline which is no place to be if a thunderstorm or lightning rolls in. Weather can change quickly, so always be aware of the sky and be prepared to turn around if conditions turn unfavorable. Large puffy clouds with a building structure and dark undersides can quickly turn to storm clouds. Lightning is a serious danger.
Summer is typically monsoon season in Colorado which means predictable afternoon storms which can include thunder and lightning. These storms typically occur between the hours of 11:00am-3:00pm which is why many hikers adopt the principle of being off a summit before 12:00pm. On many occasions this will require an “alpine start,” or starting in the pre-dawn hours. A headlamp is a great investment and can facilitate good navigation in the dark before sunrise. While getting up at 3:00-4:00am is not always fun, a sunrise above treeline is a great consolation!
Planning your trip around a favorable forecast can also give you the best chance of success. Checking the weather during the week leading up to your planned trip, and especially the day before can give you a decent idea of what to expect. The National Weather Service (from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – forecast.weather.gov) has peak forecasts and is a great resource. I also use Mountain Forecast (www.mountain-forecast.com) which is a good secondary source.
Even the easiest 14ers can be dangerous or deadly. Taking a hiking safety, mountaineering, or map and compass class can be beneficial for improving your outdoor skills and self-reliance.
-Hike with experienced hikers as they can teach you a lot and help navigate the backcountry.
-Start early and check the weather forecast: the summer hiking season is also monsoon season with afternoon thunderstorms often present.
-Tell someone your itinerary: where you’re going and when you expect to be back. You may not get cell phone reception on the mountain if something happens.
-Research your peak. Know the trail, route descriptions, and map of the area thoroughly so you can recognize landmarks. Downloading photos and descriptions of your route to use offline (or airplane mode) or printing out paper copies can help navigate if the trail is not obvious or the weather turns bad.
-Stay on route. Don’t leave the trail as it causes erosion and damage. Off trail hiking is an easy way to get lost or disoriented.
-Be aware of your surroundings. Watch for loose footing, other hikers, tree branches, falling rock, holes, and wildlife. Do not approach or feed wildlife.
-Know your limitations. Be prepared to turn back if the weather is turning bad or if someone in your party is ill or incapable of finishing. Stay as a group or pairs; do not leave a partner on their own. Listen to your body.
-Bring the proper clothing, gear, food, and supplies. Do your homework and be prepared!
Don’t forget to check out these tips in action on the Colorado In Motion Facebook page, and make sure to share your 14er successes with us! Now that you have a basic understanding of what goes into 14er hiking, there’s only one thing left to do: pick a peak and get out there! Have fun and I’ll see you on the trails!
Dr. Kirsten Oeffling is a physical therapist and avid hiker at Colorado In Motion