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How to Hike a 14er: Tips and Tricks to Get to the Summit cover
February 18, 2022

How to Hike a 14er: Tips and Tricks to Get to the Summit

If you’re a beginner hiker or just new to hiking in the mountains, tackling your first 14er can seem like a daunting task. Luckily, 14ers don’t have to be hard or all that scary, and you can take some of that stress away by simply going in prepared. 

A 14er is a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet. There are 96 peaks in the United States that can be classified as a 14er. Colorado has the most 14ers in the US at a whopping 53, and Alaska comes in second with 29. 

That’s a lot of mountains and a long way to hike to get up one! Or so it would seem. 

The good news is that among those many 14ers, there are plenty of less technical hikes that beginners may enjoy. Before you jump over to Google and search “the easiest 14er for beginners,” you need to know how to hike a 14er

Anytime you are hiking, there is a focus on things like hydration, proper trail food, physical
conditioning, and the gear you need. Many of these same rules apply here, but because a 14er can be more demanding than some other types of hiking, more planning and preparation go a long way. 

How to train to hike a 14er

While it is easy to gravitate towards planning what to bring when hiking a 14er (which we will talk about), first, let’s talk about physical conditioning. Being in adequate physical condition will provide a much safer hiking experience anytime in the mountains. 

Although there are several non-technical 14ers out there, they can still have areas that include
rock scrambling, crossing scree fields, and even snow crossings. Not to mention the fact that you’re climbing a mountain! So yes, you will be walking up relatively steep inclines, and then you’ll have to walk back down them. 

We are not saying you need to be an ultramarathon runner to do this. Not at all. However, as someone looking at tackling a mountain, physical safety should be a priority, including a bit of conditioning beforehand.

All you need to bag your first 14er is a decent base level of fitness. If you are already hiking regularly, all you may need to prep for this is adding in a few strength training days a week. If you don’t hike much and live somewhere relatively flat, it may take a bit longer to work up to it. 

While hiking alone can be an excellent course of training, adding in more cardiovascular and leg stabilizing exercises may be beneficial. Cardiovascular training can help you optimize your body’s ability to use oxygen. No matter your fitness level, as you gain elevation, your body cannot get as much oxygen because of the lower atmospheric pressure. 

Some hikers begin to feel changes in their ability to breathe around 5,000 feet, but you’ll definitely feel it as you cross over 10,000 feet. 

Training in a gym or your neighborhood is a great place to start. But if this is your first foray
into the mountains, it helps to introduce your body to higher elevations as well. Each person’s training routine will vary according to their personal needs and goals. Always consult your physician before starting a new training program. 

What to bring when hiking a 14er

As you work on creating a training plan that is right for your needs, you can also start gathering your gear. If you are an avid hiker or participate in other outdoor sports, it is possible that you already have most of what you need for your upcoming hike. 

While there will be some variation in this list for many of you, the basics that we suggest packing with you include: 

  • Proper Shoes: hiking boots, trainers, trail runners, etc. We all likely have preferences when it comes to our favorite trail shoes. The biggest consideration when choosing a hiking shoe for a 14er is that they provide adequate protection from the elements and the terrain. After that, ensure they are also broken in to prevent blisters and hot spots. 
  • Backpack: for most hikers, a day pack will be large enough. Consider using a hiking pack with a waist belt and hydration pouch for more comfort and convenience. 
  • Hydration: packs with a pouch for a hydration bladder make carrying and drinking water much easier. If you do not have a water bladder, bring a few water bottles. For most 14ers, three liters of water per person should be enough for the day, but you can judge how much water you need by basing your hydration on one liter every two hours. Since you’ll be at a higher elevation, you may need to drink more water than usual as well. 
  • Trekking Poles: these are not necessary for a successful hike, but your knees will thank you. Trekking poles are game-changers when hiking on uneven, steep, or downhill terrain. They take some of the pressure off of your legs and distribute it through your upper body
    as well. 
  • Food: don’t forget to fuel your body. Bring snacks that you enjoy eating, are easy to carry, and are packed with either fast or lasting energy. Having a small snack every 45 minutes to an hour can help keep you feeling energized when on the trail. Things like trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit, or even a pb&j sandwich are great options. 
  • First Aid Kit: bring the basics in this kit – bandaids, blister care, ibuprofen, etc. 
  • Sunscreen: you may not need it all day, but sunscreen is a must for any hike. 
  • Headlamp: even if you are starting with the sun, having a headlamp just in case can bring peace of mind and help you from stumbling down in the dark if you get behind schedule. Plus, you’ll likely start before sunrise, so you’ll need it in the morning. 
  • Extras: camera, hand warmers, multitool or leatherman, spot device

Since most of the 14ers that are likely to be on your list can be completed in a day, think about what you usually pack on a day hike. You may need more layers, different food, and more water since this is more demanding than your usual hike, but those items are a good start. 

Additional planning for your hike

Being physically ready for your hike is a great place to start, but that’s not the only consideration. You also need to pick the hike, travel to the destination, start earlier enough to summit, and avoid inclement weather. 

If this is your first 14er ever, we recommend finding a hiking buddy. This is not a requirement, but having a hiking partner can help alleviate some of the stress of planning, especially if they are more experienced than you. Having a more experienced hiker with you can also bring more awareness about altitude sickness and planning around alpine weather patterns. 

Before your hike, part of the physical conditioning should also include some altitude training. If
this isn’t possible where you live, and you’re traveling to a destination to do a hike, then you need extra time to acclimate to the elevation. Acclimating is when you let your body ease into the altitude and get used to higher elevations gradually. 

Since Colorado is one of the most popular destinations to travel to and hike 14ers, if you’re coming from a lower elevation area, plan to spend a day or two in Denver or another city of similar or higher elevation. That will give your body some time to adjust. You can also consider camping near the base of one of the 14ers for a day or two. Camping is a popular option not only to acclimate but also to allow for an earlier start time. 

While packing plenty of snacks and water is important for the day of the hike, plan for a nutritious meal and plenty of fluids the night before. Avoid drinking alcohol and other dehydrating beverages the night before, especially since you’ll be at a higher altitude where it is easier to get dehydrated. Set yourself up for success with a healthy meal, plenty of water, and a good night's rest. 

Try to plan your hike for a good weather day if you can. One thing to know about the mountains is that you can almost always expect an afternoon rain shower. That doesn’t mean that is the only time it will storm, though. So, keep up on the weather and pick a date with a decent forecast. 

The day of the hike

Get an early start. This helps you avoid the afternoon storms and skip some of the crowds on the way up the mountain.

As you are getting your things together, do a last-minute weather check. It’s unlikely you’ll have service on the mountain, so get a good idea of what to expect throughout the day regarding precipitation and temperatures. 

If you see a storm rolling in as you hike, turn around and head down. This can be disappointing, but these storms become more dangerous once you get above the treeline due to lightning and high winds and should be avoided. 

When we say an early start, we mean before the sunrise. The best-case scenario is you’re on your way back down before noon. Heading down earlier is ideal, but if you head down at least by noon, you should make it below the treeline before it storms. 

Even if you are in great physical condition and often hike, pay attention to how you feel as you go and do not hesitate to take breaks. If you are in a group, communicate with each other and let someone know if you start to feel sick. 

Common signs of altitude sickness:

  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Shortness of breath

Hydrate often, and be sure to stop and eat snacks. These water and snack breaks are a great time to get in some good views too! Get to know the signs of altitude sickness and if you or a hiking buddy starts to have symptoms, turn around and start to hike down. 

Finally, take it slow and enjoy the day. Hiking many of the beginner 14er mountains is best enjoyed on a weekday when there are less people, but no matter the day, it’s always
good to be in the mountains. 

FAQs about how to hike a 14er

Can beginners hike a 14er?

Yes! Beginner hikers can hike a 14er. It helps to go with another person, choose the appropriate 14er for your ability, have the right gear, plan accordingly, and have a base fitness level. 

How long does it take to hike a 14er? 

Most 14ers can be hiked and completed in one day. Plan for anywhere from 3-8 hours of hiking, depending on the route you choose and your general ability level. 

What is the easiest 14er to hike in Colorado?

There are many great beginner 14ers to hike in Colorado. Among the most popular for beginners includes Mount Evans via Summit Lake, Mount Bierstadt, and Quandry Peak.