hiking a 14er

Hiking a 14er: Tips for Climbing Your First Peak

Climbing your first mountain is a beautiful experience and a remarkable achievement. With just a bit of preparation, essential skills, and friendly advice, we hope you’ll share your own incredible stories of summiting. Take a look at our tips for hiking a 14er and tell us about your experience! Your feedback is always welcome.

What is a 14er?

Simply put, it refers to the activity of hiking up a mountain exceeding 14,000 feet above sea level (ASL). In the continental United States, this entails reaching the summit of some of the highest peaks, offering views of some of the most stunning landscapes our planet has to offer.

Hiking a 14er

Ascending a 14er requires not only willpower but also fundamental knowledge and a degree of physical fitness. We have detailed several key topics to assist you in reaching the summit of your first 14er, including straightforward training exercises, packing advice, and proper acclimation strategies.

With a solid training regimen, reliable equipment, and, frankly, a strong determination, you’ll be conquering 14ers before you know it!

hiking a 14er
Pikes Peak 14,110 FT. Brian Gautreau

Hiking a 14er Training Plan

A beginner’s guide wouldn’t be complete without some essential training tips. Preparing for a hike up a 14er can be daunting for many, regardless of their fitness level. Factors such as altitude, alpine climate, and rough terrain take a significant toll on the body. Here are a few straightforward suggestions to aid in your training. If you’re starting from scratch and are out of shape, it’s wise to consider a physical examination, particularly if you have any existing medical issues or concerns.

The advantage of a training regimen for climbing your first 14er is that it doesn’t have to be unique or extraordinary—it involves activities you can perform in your own backyard or at the local gym.

Aerobic & Cardio

  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Stair Stepping
  • Hiking
  • Cycling
  • Rowing

Strength Training

  • weight training

Trail Hiking

Venture out and relish the hikes, as well as the elevation gains and losses, on your nearby trails. Consistent training on these trails is incredibly beneficial. The agility and muscle strength required for a triumphant climb can be developed on any accessible trail. Opt for trails with rugged, undulating, and irregular terrain to best mimic mountain conditions. While paved trails are nice for a casual park walk, they don’t offer the kind of training needed to build ankle, leg, and calf strength, nor do they enhance balance for navigating varied landscapes.

hiking a 14er training
My favorite trail to train for 14ers

Train with what you will need

I suggest carrying a hydro pack with water, snacks/food, and some of the equipment you’d normally have on you. Nothing is worse than feeling great about conquering your training program and working on all your local trails only to realize that those extra few lbs. of gear you need to plan for end up making that much difference.

It’s better to have trained and learned what to expect than to start hiking up the mountain only to realize not only is it harder than you thought but carrying a pack with some essential item’s sucks. Inversely, you don’t want to leave your pack and end up on the mountain cold and wet or parched and exhausted from being ill-prepared. So, train with what you need, and you will appreciate having done so.

Best time to hike a 14er

From my personal experience, the weather plays a huge role in planning the best time to hike a 14er. You should make yourself aware of the weather, aware of the climate and plan accordingly. While it may be hot and humid summer in the heart of Texas by early June, it could still be snowing up in the mountains. Make sure you know the forecast and plan accordingly.

Hiking a 14er in Summer

Leave as early as you can! During the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm – these typically happen around the 1-2 pm time frame. It’s best to summit around 11 a.m. and be down from the mountain by 1 pm. This means in most cases leaving as early as possible – even before sunrise (with appropriate lamps/lights) to get a head start on the trail.

Hiking a 14er in Winter

Just like summer, winter weather can be amazingly unpredictable – yet predictable. The pattern is the same. The sky can be blue and the next thing you know there is a winter storm. Don’t forget that the days are extremely short during the winter, and you should plan accordingly. I would not advise summiting during the winter without having any prior experience or support with an experienced guide and outfitter who can help you.

The picture below looks like an awesome winter view, but it was the first week of June. Alpine summits may not be cleared of winter snow (or may still experience snow) well into early summer.

Hiking a 14er
Quandary Mountain trail in the Spring (First week of JUNE!!)

Hiking a 14er for Beginners

When planning your first attempt to summit a 14er, I would advise planning for mountains with specific traits. This includes:

  • well maintained trails
  • well-marked trails
  • close to civilization
  • secure/safe parking
  • frequent traffic
  • Stay within the range of communications
  • nothing “expert” rated

A good trail for beginners isn’t one where you start at 5,000 feet and hike up another 9,000+ feet to reach the top – Doing nearly 2 miles of altitude gain is impossibly hard unless you’re already in great physical fitness – save these adventures for future goals. New hikers should focus on a mountain that they can safely ascend within a ~ 6-hour window from ascent to descent and one within their physical and mental capabilities.

I would avoid making any plans where you are committed to summit a mountain in order to get to a destination other than your starting point. For most people new to mountain hikes, it’s hard enough to go up and down the way you came, adding the stress of having a waypoint further down the trail is often a recipe for disaster. You want to make sure that if you can’t make it that you can easily turn around. Don’t commit yourself to climbing that mountain and making it through to a remote destination. Through hikes are a wonderful experience, but I don’t believe they should be your first experience – in the context of achieving your first 14er.

My initial summit experience was at Quandary Mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado. Take a look at our climb up Quandary Peak. For those seeking an incredible hike with abundant wildlife and unforgettable views, Quandary makes for an excellent first summit. The trail is popular and clearly marked, and Breckenridge serves as a fantastic base camp for acclimatization!

Acclimate to Altitude

If you’re not accustomed to alpine altitudes, it’s crucial to allow your body time to adjust before attempting to climb a 14er. Arrive at your base camp or the surrounding area a few days early. Ensure you stay hydrated and engage in brief hikes and activities nearby. Not acclimating before tackling a 14er, particularly for those not living in alpine regions, is a primary reason many fail to reach the summit or vow never to try again after a successful climb.

Typically, a person may require 3-4 days (sometimes longer) to adapt to altitudes above 8,000 feet. Symptoms of inadequate acclimation include headaches, nausea, dizziness, and breathlessness.

Based on my experience, acclimation can take an additional day or two if I fly into alpine regions compared to when I drive.

Altitude Sickness: It can strike without warning and strike hard. Acclimation and plenty of hydration is a wonderful way to prevent altitude sickness.

climbing a 14er altitude sickness

Hiking a 14er checklist

Never depart without these essentials: water, food, layered clothing, and a map. These items are crucial for your safety, comfort, and concentration. Your objective is not only to reach the summit but to do it safely and without undue risk or discomfort.

Gear checklist

  • Quality Shoes / Boots – Good boots that breathe and offer grip and stability are critical.
  • Breathable Shirt and Layers – Layer up with moisture-wicking clothes that you can easily add/remove. Layers will help with unpredictable weather and assist your body with changing temperatures and different levels of exertion.
  • Windbreaker/Rain Gear – It’s often windy at altitude and if there is any precipitation – wind + rain + altitude can drop the temperature and increase the risk of exposure/hyperthermia.  Raingear + layers = warmth and comfort. Don’t skimp here!
  • Gloves – Keep those hands warm as well as offer protection. Lightweight gloves can also be great when using hiking poles. If you’re hot and muggy starting out in a dense forest you may think you don’t need them, but if you’re at the summit and a cold wind is blowing, you will wish you had them.
  • Map – Trail maps are a necessity. Printed maps don’t need recharging or batteries. If you’re looking for great electronic maps, we really enjoy Gaia GPS Maps. Gaia GPS is great for mapping, tracking, and saving your routes!
  • Water – Stay hydrated and drink fluids constantly. Bring more water than you think you will need.
  • Snacks – Bring easy to eat/digest snacks. As you get higher in altitude note that your appetite and taste for food will change. I prefer salty foods and trail mix style. Chocolate tastes great at lower altitudes but can be overpowering and unappetizing above the tree line.
  • Sunscreen – Put it on and use it every couple of hours. Your face, skin, neck, and arms will love you. Plus, a good sunscreen can also help keep your skin moist and hydrated.
  • Sunglasses – protect your eyes. The sun is bright and the wind can whip up dust and debris.
  • Hat – Brimmed hats are great for shade and protecting you from the elements and help keep warmth in as well.
  • Emergency Kit – Bandages, Whistle, ibuprofen, etc.. Small portable kits are better than nothing.
  • Handheld 2-way Radio – (Especially if you’re going solo).  Simple radios offer a great way to stay in touch on the mountain, stay in touch with base camp and many offer local weather.
  • Camera – You will want photos to capture those awesome memories!
  • Trekking Poles – I won’t do a trail with ascents/descents without them! Telescoping trekking poles don’t add much weight in your pack and are great at saving your knees and giving you more traction and stability.

Mental checklist

Bring a friend – Nothing beats getting to the top than getting to a top with a friend. A friend is a great companion to share the experience with and someone who can help you out if anything should arise. If you can’t have a trail buddy be sure to use a two-way radio with someone who is staying back. Two-way radios will often reach for miles as you climb up a mountain and are a wonderful way to keep loved ones up to date on your journey and status.

Eat up – You will need energy and lots of it. I found it much easier to have a good breakfast at basecamp than to try and snack my way up. I usually lose my appetite completely once I’m above the tree line.

Research – Know your route, read up on your trails – read trail reviews and check out others’ success or failure stories. Knowledge about the hike will help you along the way and pays you back in dividends. Make sure everything you’re researching is as current as can be – every season can bring new terrain, trail closures and massive changes to these mountains.

Some trails and mountain summits may require permits, fees, or permission from property owners before you can legally climb them. Make sure that you know any requirements before hitting the trail. Often these permits are used to help pay for maintenance, search and rescue and other services to keep them open to the general population. Please respect private property, posted signs, or required permit laws – we want to preserve our climbing and hiking trails for future generations and not risk closure.

Safety at Altitude

Pay attention to your body and prioritize your well-being over your objectives. It’s better to live to attempt another day than to risk your health or life. If you’re running low on water, head back. If you’re feeling ill and vomiting, head back. If you’re unable to think clearly, experiencing dizziness, disorientation, stumbling, or losing balance, head back—these could be signs of altitude sickness, dehydration, or acclimatization problems, and the safest action is to return.

If for any reason you do start to feel altitude sickness – turn around. Take your time, take rests, drink water and snacks to maintain energy and hydration levels. Do not under any circumstances attempt to take any shortcuts or try alternative trails back. Stay on the main trail and ask for assistance from passersby if you need any help for any reason. Everyone on that mountain is out there because they have a passion for the outdoors and I’ve yet to run across anyone who wasn’t extremely nice and helpful or would refuse to assist. Asking for help is not admitting defeat. That mountain will be there for another day and another climb.

Protect our trails

Remember, what you bring in, you must take out. Let’s preserve the natural beauty and integrity of our trails for everyone’s enjoyment! Avoid littering, leaving trash behind, or damaging public or private property. Many alpine summits are delicate ecosystems, so it’s important to stick to designated trails and heed any posted signs regarding closures and restrictions. Practice ‘Tread Lightly’ principles and savor the experience.

Have Fun

Take your time, sit down, and take frequent breaks to adjust and enjoy the scenery. Your first ascent shouldn’t be a world record attempt not will you get any brownie points for having the fastest time. Have fun, be friendly and be safe. Don’t forget to take lots of pictures so you can share them with us in the comments below. We would love to hear about your first trip hiking a 14er!  Please let us know what worked for you below!

FAQ

What time should you start hiking a 14er?

I recommend you start as early as you can. With tall mountains, afternoon storms are common. It’s best to get up and down the mountain before these afternoon showers.

Can you hike a 14er at night?

You sure can. A lot of times, I’ll start a daytime hike well before sunrise. I would always advise you have a hiking friend and only do night-time hikes on trails you are experienced in.

Can you hike a 14er alone?

Yes. There is no law that says you must hike with a friend, but as always, Bring a friend. If anything goes wrong, you don’t want to be stranded by yourself. If you do hike alone, then I would advise trails with plenty of hiker traffic so that you are no “alone”.

What to eat before hiking a 14er?

I prefer high calorie, easy to digest foods. A great breakfast will go a long way. I found the higher I got up the mountain, the more I lost my appetite. Altitude does strange things like that. Eat well before you hit the altitude.

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Tips for hiking a 14er

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