How to Hike a Fourteener

Back in June, I received an email from a reader who was tackling her first-ever 14er here in Colorado! She was looking for tips on what to bring and what to expect. I shot her an email response back and didn’t think much of it. However, I’ve received a couple of similar emails since then, so I figure it’s about time to publicly make a list!You see, hiking 14ers (or any other high altitude hiking) is different than regular hiking. Temperatures can wildly vary, exertion levels may differ and in my experience, everything just seems more extreme. So, without further adieu….

Always bring a waterproof and windproof shell!

Most 14ers have at least 3-4000 feet of elevation gain, so the temperatures will wildly differ from base to summit. While climbing the peak, you’ll likely just carry the shell in your backpack and sweat your face off. However, temps usually severely drop around 13,000 feet and I typically get chilled, regardless of how hard I am working. Plus, you’ll *hopefully* have extra time to take in the views from the top, and that’s pretty hard to do when you’re bone chilled and getting attacked by wind! Additionally, storms frequently hit while hiking 14ers, and it’s key to keep your base layers dry. I use my Columbia Compounder Shell and it’s pretty perfect for the peaks.

Cindy, Heidi, and me (I’m wearing the Compounder)

Don’t forget to add some sort of electrolytes to your water.

For all y’all that already participate in endurance events, this may seem like common sense, but it’s even more extreme on 14ers. Fact: staying ridiculously hydrated is the best way to combat altitude sickness! For example, I always carry at least 100 oz. of water along with 4-5 scoops of Cytomax. The kicker? I’m super accustomed to the altitude and drink significantly less than someone from Ohio would need at elevation. I usually recommend most of my out-of-state friends to carry a full Camelbak bladder plus at least one or two water bottles. Yes, it’s heavy, but I’ve seen altitude sickness in action and it is no bueno!

Absolutely do not forget your sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, and chapstick with SPF!

Although you may be freezing at the top and trying to force your way through some seriously chilly gusts of wind, don’t be fooled– the sun is HOT! I mean, you are a few miles closer to the sun than you are at sea level, so that means that it is super easy to get sunburned. I swear, the high altitude sun is like a furnace! Plus, your eyeballs will seriously start to hurt if you forget your shades, so just save yourself the headache.

The above photo is just as we started our summit bid of Mt. Rainier. It was around midnight, but I want you to see the ridiculous sunburn I have on my face. I had forgotten a hat on this trip and the snow reflected the sun back onto my face during the entire hike into Camp Muir. My skin literally fell off in pieces for the next few weeks, and I am still concerned about melanoma to this day!

Invest in good hiking boots.

I have some out-of-state friends that will fight me on this all day long and have even summitted a few peaks in their sneakers or running shoes. Yes, these shoes are comfy, but if you intend on seriously hiking above tree line, a good pair of hiking boots is necessary. First of all, the boots will provide more ankle support which is critical when you are hiking through the numerous talus and scree fields that cover mountains above 12,000 feet. Additionally, the soles of hiking boots are more sturdy and stiff. This allows you to hop from rock to rock while minimizing the impact on the soles of your feet. Running shoes have flexible soles that don’t do a lot in terms of protecting your feet. Often, running shoes will lead to bruised heels. In short, no bueno!

Plan to be off the summit before noon.

This is a guideline that should really be a definitive rule. Without fail, massive thunderstorms roll onto the summits of 14ers in the afternoon. Sure, a little rain is one thing, but at that elevation, we aren’t talking about a few sprinkles. Instead, think of black skies, gusting winds, sideways snow, and apocalyptic lightning storms. I’ve stupidly experienced a few storms above 13k and even had to launch my ice axe once when it started mildly conducting electricity. How did I know? It was freaking ringing! 

Storms at 14,000 feet are, quite literally, deadly and should be avoided at all costs. Start your hikes as early as necessary, and if possible, try to summit by 10am. Often, this may mean hiking in the wee hours of the morning before dawn. On Mt. Rainier, I started hiking around midnight (because the snow bridges soften as the morning heat index rose). Was it bizarre to be hiking that early in the morning? Sure…but safety always has to come first!

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Think you’ll ever get into high altitude hiking?
 
Are lists like this at all helpful or useful? 
 
What tips would you add?

31 Comments

  • Reply misszippy September 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    This is really great information. I would seriously LOVE to hike some 14rs in Colorado. Being a newbie, I’d probably make some of the green mistakes you mentioned without info like this!

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      A lot of people do and it can make a fun trip totally miserable!

  • Reply Kayla Carruth @ kpLoving It September 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    One day, I’ll put your knowledge to good use.

  • Reply Heidi Nicole September 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I’ve worn old running shoes on every 14er I’ve hiked…its doable but I have extremely nibble ankles and I really can tell how nice it would be to have legit hiking boots {especially the sturdy sole} on the way down the mountain – my feet could feel the rocks a bit more than they would have liked! Someday I will invest, I promise!

    Also…don’t forget to charge the battery on your camera and put the SD card back in it. Not that I’ve ever forgotten that or anything…

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Ha, I remember talking to you about the shoe thing 🙂

  • Reply Cat @ Breakfast to Bed September 18, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    This makes me want to spend a lot of time in Colorado.

  • Reply Lena September 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Awesome first-time tips. I’m guilty of hiking 14ers in running shoes though…

  • Reply PavementRunner September 18, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Epic photos… and I thought my 6700′ run was intense? You, my friend, are the coolest bee in the hive. Frog in the pond? Duck in the lake… wait, those are both swimmers. Lamb on the farm. There. Now you have a flying, swimming and walking one. 🙂

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 18, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      Hahha 🙂 Besides, you were actually running, sunshine! There is no way I could run a fourteener– definitely not that cool!

  • Reply Lisa@RunWiki September 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Really great tips for being safe and hiking smart. It is no joke to be caught in the elements. When I lived in CO. I did Princeton… if I recall that is one of the easier ones.. a good place to start. It was still tough and I was really fit back then.

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm

      Princeton is a good class 1/2 peak so it’s great for people starting out. Plus, there is a sweet cabin around 13,000 feet that is open to anyone to sleep in. It’s very rustic but oh-so-adorable!

  • Reply Efo September 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    If that “5 Tips for Hiking CO’s 14ers” isn’t already up on Pintrest, you totally should put it on there 😉 I’d also include: bring a “lunch” for the summit, do your research on 14ers.com before going, and hike with a buddy (because it’s more fun and more safe)! Great list, girl!

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      Yes on all of those! Have you used the 14ers.com app? I recently discovered it and it’s great for finding trail heads! It has the GPS coordinates for them and will plug it directly into your phone’s mapping service. Best way EVER to find those sneaky trail heads after dark!

    • Reply lgsmash.com September 19, 2012 at 2:03 am

      shoot! i didn’t know 14ers.com has an app! downloading now!

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 20, 2012 at 1:14 am

      It’s AWESOME. Super handy.

  • Reply Steve W. Weiss September 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Two biggest things for me: chapstick and some sort of face guard. Chapstick is obvious…I would think, but if you forget it, you are gonna have a bad time. The face guard like you said, the snow can burn the hell out of you. I know your pain, happened to me too up at Mt Hood. It was disgusting/oozing/fell apart…bad, bad mistake.

  • Reply Angela @ Happy Fit Mama September 18, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Great tips and beautiful pics! I always laugh when I see others hiking in running shoes. Sprained ankle anyone? I’m a huge fan of Merrells. I really like using poles, too. They’re great for the descent to take some of the strain off my knees.

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 19, 2012 at 1:57 am

      Merrell definitely makes awesome stuff also! I also have a pair of their boots– they’re just a bit heavier so I’ve been using the Peak Freaks. Once there is a dusting of snow, I’ll be back in the Merrells! And you know, poles are super helpful! I just don’t know why I’ve never used them!

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb September 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    You know I want to do this so bad. Of course I’d be lead by a pro though…you! =)

  • Reply Gretchen September 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Love this list! I am a Texan and I’m getting ready for my sixth 14er summit in Oct. I also got caught in a snowstorm on La Plata — on the Fourth of July, no less. Always, always hike with a shell; that’s a great tip!

    I see someone else added the tip about the 14ers.com app. It’s AWESOME.

    Another tip I might add: I never leave home without thin gloves. They’re great to keep you warm when the wind picks up, but they’re also great on some of the Class 3-ish bouldering.

    Awesome blog — keep it up!

  • Reply Lauren @ Oatmeal after Spinning September 20, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Hmmmm…. am I “the reader” that emailed you?? 😉
    Your tips are great- and they SO helped me out when I hiked Grey’s and Torrey’s!! I can not WAIT to tackle another one.
    I would also just say bring food… snacks and something awesome to have for lunch (we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some Dale’s Pale Ale :)).
    We summitted both by noon, and I couldn’t believe that we kept passing people way back near the start of the trail as we were going back- they were just STARTING their hike around 2:00!! What the heck?!

    • Reply Colorado Gal September 20, 2012 at 1:14 am

      Haha, nope, this was before you! But after I got your email later, I started to think maybe lots of peeps had questions! PS Love that you packed up some beer!

  • Reply wanderingeducators February 10, 2014 at 11:17 am

    What fantastic tips – and inspiring photos!

  • Reply 12 Things You Must Do In Colorado April 14, 2014 at 4:38 am

    […] Get your climb on and hike one of the 53 fourteeners in the state (a 14-er is peak with a summit of l14,000 feet). Take note: Arrive to the base in the early morning in order to off the summit before noon. Nasty storms can roll in during the late afternoons and you do not want to get caught up in that! The peaks vary based on ability, but for a first-time 14-er I would suggest Mt. Elbert or Gray + Torreys (You can summit both in one day!) For more 14-er tips, check out this post: How to Hike a Fourteener. […]

  • Reply Bean Bytes #7 January 19, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    […] tips How to Hike a 14er via Just a Colorado […]

  • Reply greg frye May 27, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    I am considering a trip to hike 14ers late September. Is this too late in the year? The goal is to do as many as possible in 8-10 days. Any thoughts?

    Greg

    • Reply heather May 29, 2016 at 5:27 pm

      Late September is not too late as long as you are prepared for the weather. It could very likely be snowy, gusty winds and cold at that point. If you’ve never done any before, it may be less than ideal. Feel free to email me if you have other specific questions!

      • Reply greg frye May 29, 2016 at 10:48 pm

        Thanks for the heads up.

        Greg

  • Reply Sharon Tharp July 13, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Can you please tell me some things I can do to prevent blisters on the great toes while descending. I had such a problem my first time with the two blisters. I want to do more but this is a thing that I have to work on. Thank you

    • Reply Heather July 19, 2017 at 11:37 am

      As in your big toes? A lot of times your feet swell when hiking so you end up needing a shoe that is a half size bigger than what you usually wear. If it’s too tight, your big toe ends up mashing into the front of your boot, causing blisters. May be worth investigating?

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