10 Tips for Climbing Your First Colorado 14er
Part One of Our New Series: So, You’re New to Colorado. Here’s What to Do.
Disclaimer: Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
Welcome to Colorado. The playground for all things outdoor recreation. At 5,280 feet, Denver sits one mile above sea level. And that’s just the beginning. All the real fun happens after you go above tree line. Don’t worry if that doesn’t mean anything to you yet. You’ll pick up the lingo in no time.
One thing you’re sure to have heard about by now, though, are the infamous Colorado fourteeners. Aptly named, this is a collection of 58 peaks with a top elevation above 14,000 feet. If you haven’t done one already, we know it’s on your bucket list, and if it isn't, it should be. So we’ve compiled our best tips and tricks from the trail to make sure your first time is just the beginning of your fourteener fascination. Let’s do this!
1. Hydrate Early and Often
When doing any strenuous physical activity, hydration is key. But it’s even more critical in this case because there’s less oxygen at higher altitudes. Your body compensates by taking in oxygen more frequently by breathing rapidly. Combine this natural response with heightened physical effort that has you literally gulping air on the side of a mountain, and you could dehydrate very quickly.
To avoid dehydration, start early! Drink plenty of water the night before and the morning of to prep your body for the work ahead. Keep drinking while hiking and use your number of pee breaks as an indicator of how hydrated you are. Peeing above treeline can be, well, exposed; but don't let that deter you from staying hydrated. ’Nuff said.
2. Fuel Up
Most of us aren’t used to six to eight hours of sustained strenuous activity. We’re talking heart pounding, lungs burning, legs shaking kind of work. For six hours! In a row! This is not for the faint of heart. And that’s not to scare you away. We simply want to put into perspective how important it is to give your body the right (and enough) fuel for your journey ahead. You’ll need a mix of the following macronutrients:
⦁ Carbs – A quick-use fuel source your body needs for bursts of energy.
⦁ Protein – Longer-term fuel to recharge the muscles you’re breaking down.
⦁ Healthy Fats – Keeps you full longer, so you don’t have to continually replenish.
We love these trail-ready snack combos:
⦁ PB&J – Perfect mix of healthy fat (peanut butter), sugar (jelly) and sustained energy (whole grain bread) to keep you satisfied all day long.
⦁ Trail mix – Raisins and M&Ms for carbs. Nuts and seeds for the protein and fat. Make your own based on taste preference or allergies.
Ultimately, bring what you like. You don’t want to be caught at the top with no appetite because you brought a snack that no longer sounds appealing. Instead, bring a meal that feels like a reward. Trust us, you’ve earned it.
3. Start Early
The hiking rule of thumb is to be off the summit by noon. In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms roll in fast and out of nowhere. At 14,000 feet, you’re the tallest thing around. Don’t let your body become a human lightning rod.
Work backward to calculate your start time. If the trail is 4 miles out and back, assume you’ll go 1 mph (this is a conservative estimate). Start at 7 a.m. and you’ll reach the summit by 11 a.m., and be off the peak and out of danger by noon. Plus, finishing early means you have the rest of the day to soak up the Colorado sun and sip a well-deserved craft beverage from any one of our numerous mountain town breweries. (Or sleep. Glorious, glorious post-hike sleep)
4. Wear Layers
The temperatures on any given fourteener can range from 30º-80º F — and that’s in one day. Starting early means cool mornings, especially if you’re on the trail before day-break. Temps could be in the low 40s. Don’t freak out. It will (probably) warm up. At the peak, expect cool air coupled with strong gusts of wind. Look for a little nook, typically built out of rocks at the summit, to enjoy the views and your sandwich while shielded from the elements. And you might break a sweat on the way down if it’s 75º F and sunny. Bottom line: You never quite know what to expect, so plan for it all.
5. Pack Smart
The last thing you want is to arrive at the trailhead and realize you forgot a crucial component for your journey. Besides food, water and clothing (all covered above), here’s our quick list of must-haves for any fourteener.
- Head lamp – Necessary to see the trail before the sunrise.
- Rain jacket – If not for rain, always for the wind. Trust us on this one.
- Hydration bladder – Allows you to hike and preemptively hydrate, rather than stopping to unscrew the lid of your water bottle every time you get thirsty.
- Gloves and Hand warmers – This follows the “you never know” principle, but hypothermia is a real thing. Better to be safe than sorry… and miserable.
- Quick fuel – Can’t exercise on a full stomach? Totally get it. Try a pack of Gu or even a candy bar. You need something to eat, even if it’s light.
- Extra socks – If the trail is wet, it can be nice to have a backup pair. Hidden puddles can be a big bummer.
- First Aid Kit, complete with blister care – Nothing is more miserable than hiking for six hours with a blister. Grab yourself some moleskin, Band-Aids and other basic first aid items.
- Sunscreen – If you’re higher in elevation, you’re closer to the sun. Remember to reapply often. You will be in enough pain the next day as your muscles begin to recover, don't add the pain from a sunburn, too.
- Camera – You put in a lot of work to stand above the clouds, you’re going to want to document your achievement.
6. Break in Your Boots
An 8+ mile hike is not the right time to test out new shoes. Yes, hiking boots are nice to have for added support and improved traction. However, if you don’t have a well-loved pair already, now is not the time to go shopping. You’re better off wearing a pair of comfortable running shoes and wool socks than new boots for this type of hike. Plus, the ankle support is mostly only necessary when you’re carrying a heavy pack, a la backpacking.
7. Do Your Research
Not all fourteeners are created equal. In fact, they are divided up into five categories, or Classes, based on the amount of exposure. So a Class 1 climb is still going to be arduous, but it is otherwise safe. A Class 5 route requires extensive mountaineering experience and technical skills. Translation: Bring your own rope and helmet — you’re scaling a vertical wall! It goes without saying, but we will: Please start on a Class 1. The good news is that there are many close-by Class 1 peaks perfect for fourteener newbies: Quandary Peak, Mount Bierstadt, Mount Evans, Grays and Torreys Peak are all great options.
When in doubt, reference 14ers.com. It’s the uncontested authority on all things Colorado fourteeners, hence the name. Find route maps, trip reports, full photo logs of the trail and a forum of active hikers ready to answer any question you have.
8. Plan for a Weekday
Colorado is getting more crowded. So it’s no surprise that more and more people are hitting the trails in an effort to test their limits and, let’s be honest, check something off their bucket list. Just know that if you go on a Saturday, it will be crowded. Go early to get a spot at the trailhead parking lot (if there is one). If and when you have to pass other hikers, let them know you’re there. And if you’re on the way down, yield to uphill traffic.
9. Just Keep Going
We often get asked by novice hikers, “But do you think I’ll be able to do a fourteener?” Our answer is always a resounding “YES!” Because a 14,000-foot mountain is still the same as any other hike. It’s steeper. It’s longer. There’s a little less oxygen at the top. But the same rules still apply: Keep putting one foot in front of the other. You’ll be amazed at the ground you can cover (figuratively and literally) in a day when you just don’t quit.
10. Have Fun!
At the risk of sounding very cliché, climbing mountains should be fun! After all, that’s why you moved to Colorado, right? To experience this amazing state and all it has to offer. But don’t get so caught up in “peak bagging” that you forget to enjoy the journey. And because we want everyone else to enjoy it just as much as you for many many years to come, please be sure to stay on the trail, minimize your impact on the terrain and pack out any trash.
Have you climbed a 14er? Do you have any tips for first-time hikers? Let us know. We’ll love to hear your stories and advice!