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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.