“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”
So you’re ready to tackle a 14er (or Fourteener)? Colorado certainly offers plenty of opportunities to stand on top of a 14,000-foot mountain—but you’re gonna have to work for it! Sure you could ride the cog train (or drive) to the top of Pikes Peak and take in the views just as millions of tourists do each year. But if trekking your way to the top powered by your own energy is more your style, you can join roughly 400,000+ hikers (according to an estimate by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative in 2020) who climb and grind their way to the summit of a Colorado 14er each year.
If you’ve lived in Colorado long enough, or even visited enough times, you’re no doubt well aware of the state’s famous 14ers (for newbies, that means mountain peaks that reach 14,000 feet or higher in elevation). There are 58 (or 54 depending on who you ask) of them scattered across the state. And while hiking all the way to the summit of a mountain is a one-and-done accomplishment for some; for others it’s a personal passion. Regardless, the physical and mental challenge of making it to the top of a 14,000+ foot mountain will definitely earn you some hiking cred. While all of Colorado’s 14ers are considered challenging….some are rated more difficult than others ranging from Class 1 to Class 4 climbs. Some will require more technical skills; some involve a ton of trail mileage but a pre-req for all of them is some serious determination and personal grit. However all of your effort and hard work will be rewarded with the most extraordinary views and an amazing feeling of accomplishment. If you have yet to experience the thrill of hiking a 14er and have it as a personal goal, you'll need to get prepared. Here are our best tips to help prepare for your first Colorado 14er.
Be Physically Prepared
Once you’ve decided you want to tackle a 14er, it’s time to begin training yourself physically. Now is not the time to take a “weekend warrior” approach. Regular and consistent cardio exercise as well as strength training and conditioning will prepare you for the physical exertion required to climb up the side of a mountain. When you’re continually climbing up often steep trails and gaining elevation, your heart rate will increase and this is when the cardio conditioning really helps. Keep in mind however that even the fittest of athletes can struggle with the fact that there is less oxygen at such high altitudes. The air definitely gets thinner, especially above treeline. So, if you're visiting from out of state, you'll want to give yourself a few days to acclimate to higher elevations before attempting a high altitude hike. Of course, muscular strength is equally as important—unprepared leg muscles will surely end up feeling like noodles when finished. Challenge yourself to some more strenuous hiking trails with some elevation gain to help prepare both your cardiovascular and muscular systems (as well as your lungs) for a 14er. Also try some stair and incline workouts. In the Denver area, the Castle Rock Challenge Hill, Rueter-Hess Incline Challenge and the stairs at Red Rocks Amphitheater as well as the Manitou Incline near Colorado Springs are all excellent training facilities for a 14er. No outdoor inclines or stair challenges near you? Try bumping up the incline on your treadmill at the very least.
Mind Over Mountain
While training for mountain hiking will have you preparing yourself physically, keep in mind that a good majority of the climb is also mental—like probably around 80% of it! Some folks naturally possess a strong mental fortitude while others may need to work on building a “I can do this” attitude. If you let your mind wander to a place of thinking “this is too hard. I can’t do this.”—those negative thoughts will wear you down more than the actual physical effort of the hike. If you find your thoughts drifting in a self-limiting direction, remember your goals and personal reasons for climbing a mountain in the first place. Ask yourself: “why am I doing this?” Is it because you want to cross something off your bucket list? Is it based on a family heritage of mountaineering? Is your motivation competition or recognition based? Is it because you seek inspiration? Or is it because you feel energized and invigorated by being outdoors in nature? Whatever your reason is, it is uniquely yours and when you circle back to awareness of WHY you are doing it, the focus on the difficulty of it all tends to fade away.
Also know beforehand going into it, that you’ll no-doubt experience some low points during the process. You may encounter crazy weather—wind, rain, sleet, hail, snow—all are not unusual on high altitude hikes. Your lungs will be challenged and breathing will become more difficult at higher elevation, your legs may feel fatigued, your feet may be sore—as many high altitude hikers and climbers will say, “embrace the suck.” You may be hurting from the physical grind of it all, but look around you. Stop for a moment (or a few!) and take in the stunning alpine landscape and natural beauty you have immersed yourself in. You may be hiking with friends or loved ones and if that’s the case, just think of the lifelong memories you are making together. And remember that most of the best things in life require some suffering and sacrifice to achieve. Afterall, just as it is in life, when we’ve experienced challenges and low points, it makes us appreciate the high points and achievement of a goal even more!
Lastly, you can also try reciting motivational sayings or mantras in your head. We’ve personally used this with keeping kids motivated while hiking but it certainly works for adults too. Some suggestions: “One step at a time”, “I can do this!”, “Just keep going” and a personal favorite, “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Invest in Durable Gear
Without a doubt, high altitude hiking requires specific gear. A well-made pair of durable hiking shoes or boots with good tread to provide you with steady traction is essential. A hydration backpack is also an absolute must while hiking a 14er. The day will likely be long and the trail strenuous at points, so a pack to carry enough water to stay hydrated as well as high protein snacks for refueling yourself are key. Other essential items include hiking socks to prevent blisters and protect your feet; layers of clothing featuring synthetic fibers including a base layer for warmth, hiking pants, non-cotton shirts, a windbreaker and/or fleece jacket, a waterproof rain shell/jacket, a warm beanie cap and gloves. Don’t forget sunglasses and a ballcap, trucker hat (check out our inventory at www.adventumcolorado.com) or wide-brimmed backcountry hat for shade. If you’re starting before sunrise, as many 14er hikers do, a headlamp is a very helpful piece of equipment to have as well. You’ll want to have a cell phone for photos and for emergencies as well as a watch/GPS or compass. Some will say that a satellite phone is also worth investing in as cell signals are not reliable when in the backcountry of the mountains. Additionally, the following items may not be considered essential but are definitely helpful: trekking poles, micro spikes, climbing helmet, water filter, extra batteries, extra water bladder or bottles. For a more detailed explanation of essential gear, check out our Gear Up story in Trail Notes: www.adventumcolorado.com/blog/news
When it comes to buying good quality gear…we’re not suggesting to pay top dollar for specific name brands, but now is not the time to skimp either. Look for high quality, durable products that feature conveniences tailored for hiking and are manufactured to last. You may spend a little extra for added features specifically made for hiking but it’s worth it. Talk to a knowledgeable salesperson at a store specializing in outdoor activities like hiking, climbing and mountaineering. Backcountry, REI, Cabela’s, Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot and Sportsmans are all great resources.
Do Your Homework
You may have been able to get away with cramming for tests in school, but now is not the time to just wing it! Make sure you are prepared for your 14er experience by reading ahead. www.14ers.com has loads of great information including route options, trail conditions, recent feedback from other hikers/climbers, pictures of the routes, etc. Also be sure to read ahead about traveling to the various trailheads. Some of the roads are very rugged, narrow, steep and only recommended for 4WD vehicles with high clearance. Also do your research on the weather. Some months are more prone to rain, monsoons and thunderstorms. And keep in mind the elevation also plays an important role when planning. June may feel all nice and warm in Denver, but you can easily still find snow fields and icy conditions above treeline at that time of year. August may still be hot along the Front Range, and a hike can start out warm and sunny but things can quickly change once above treeline…even resulting in unexpected snowfall. So check the weather forecast leading up to your hike. And check it again the morning of. The day of your hike, make sure to apply sunscreen to any areas that may be exposed while hiking (face, neck, ears, hands, arms, legs)—sun exposure is much more intense at higher elevations. And lastly, make sure you are properly hydrated in the days leading up to your hike. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Enjoy the Journey
After all your planning and preparation, it’s now time to enjoy the adventure and excitement of hiking a 14er. Depending on your fitness level (and those of your hiking companions), it’s best to plan for this experience to be an all-day excursion. Many hikers get an early start (before dawn). It is not at all unusual to see the glow of headlamps from other hikers heading up the trail in the dark before sunrise. The other important reason for getting an early start is to follow a basic rule of high altitude hiking: aim to arrive at the summit and then back down to treeline by noon—the reason is because afternoon thunderstorms can very suddenly appear and if you are caught above treeline in a thunderstorm, it is an extremely dangerous situation and NOT a very fun place to be (trust me, I know from experience). Also know that each mountain hike is unique. On some hikes you’ll have perfect weather and you’ll feel tip top physically and everything just goes right. Other times, you may not be feeling your strongest or the weather might get crazy…perhaps a piece of gear breaks or you have a harried wildlife encounter that frazzles your nerves. Pay attention to the way you feel on each hiking endeavor. Whatever the reason may be, if you’re not able to achieve your goal of making it to the summit, it’s easy to feel defeated but try to maintain a mindset that mountain climbing, just like life itself, is not all about the destination but the journey and the lessons we learn and experience along the way.
- It is always best to hike with at least one other companion.
- Always let someone know your plans. What mountain you are hiking, what route you are taking, from which trailhead you’ll be starting at, the date(s) you are going and the times you are starting out and when you expect to be back.
- Stay aware of your surroundings.
- Know your limits. Know your physical limitations and signs of altitude sickness. If you have to turn back for whatever reason, be it ominous looking storm clouds or physical limits—listen to your intuition and turn back. The mountain will always be there for you to hike another day. If you take unnecessary risks, you may not be.
- Keep an eye on the sky (and weather). This cannot be emphasized enough. If you see storm clouds blowing in or hear thunder in the distance, turn around. The LAST place you want to be during a storm with lightening right above your head, is on a mountainside with nowhere to seek shelter.
- Remember, you are only halfway done once you reach the summit. Everyone has reason to celebrate once they’ve reached the top, but remember you still have the rest of the trail to descend. This is when muscle fatigue can really appear. The descent can sometimes be harder in a different manner—you may not be challenged as much with cardiovascular capacity, but hiking down a steep trail can be rough on joints particularly knees, feet and hips. And with overworked leg muscles, it's on the descent that slips and falls on loose scree commonly happen. Allow yourself enough time to make it safely back to the trailhead.
- Once finished, a nice hot tub soak or even dipping your tired feet in a cool river is a lovely feeling.
Climbing Colorado’s 14ers is a challenging, exhilarating, awe-inspiring and sometimes life-changing experience. While there are plenty of picture-perfect Instagram and Facebook posts highlighting others’ summits, remember that mountaineering in Colorado can be dangerous resulting in serious injury or death. It is extremely important to research, be appropriately prepared and know your limits. We encourage you to pick up a book or two—there are many available with valuable information on hiking Colorado’s 14ers. Online you’ll find helpful information at www.14ers.com
Have fun and enjoy Colorado’s glorious mountains but above all—be safe out there! See you on the trails! ~ KM
**We'd love to hear from you! What are your favorite suggestions/tips for those new to hiking Colorado 14ers? Please share your comments and ideas below!