If you’re here, we’re assuming that means you’re looking to learn more about hiking 14ers. That’s so awesome! Be prepared for a difficult journey ahead, but know that it’s beyond worth it. To summit a 14er is an amazing experience and it allows you to enjoy views of some of the most incredible landscapes our planet has to offer. The key is being prepared, which is why we’re here with fourteen tips that will help your 14er hike be one of the best hikes you’ve ever been on.
What is a 14er?
A “14er” is a mountain peak with an elevation that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level. There are ninety-six 14ers in the United States, with Colorado having the most at fifty-eight, followed by Alaska at twenty-one. Because of the sheer amount of 14ers here in Colorado, it’s often the place to go for summiting your first one, or even multiple in a single day (in order to be its own peak, a mountain must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle of the next mountain over). It’s a favorite pastime for locals as well as visitors from all over the world, and it’s a badge of honor and a rite of honor to hike one. Ready to get started yet?
A Word of Caution
Some 14ers are considered to be easier than others, but don’t let this fool you. There is no such thing as an easy 14er. Even the “easy” ones require fitness and fortitude and can take several hours of hiking with large amounts of elevation change. Upwards of half or more of the hike will probably be above tree-line, putting you at risk of severe weather and abrupt temperature changes. While hiking a 14er can be an extremely fun and rewarding task, planning ahead should be taken seriously so you can make the best of your trip.
Remember what they say, there is no such thing as an easy 14er! The high alpine environment and steep incline/decline can be straining, even on those who are in shape. You’ll especially feel the effects if you don’t currently live in higher elevations – even people coming in from Denver (5,280 feet) can have issues and they’re at a decent elevation compared to most of the continental United States.
Before attempting to hike a 14er, it’s important to be physically prepared. You can do this via strength training in combination with cardio training. We recommend* exercising six days a week with one active rest / recovery day, one day as a training hike day, two days with longer, steady state cardio training, and three days with interval and strength training. A strong core will help keep you stable on uneven terrain, a strong upper body can help you when using hiking poles, a healthy heart will help you pump much needed oxygen more efficiently, and strong legs are essential in powering you uphill and guiding you downhill.
With any training, it’s important to start small and work your way up. As much as it’s enticing to hit the gym and rock it, this type of introduction could leave you feeling tired and sore for several days. That feeling doesn’t necessarily encourage you to keep going to the gym. In order to get into a program and stick to it, you must be honest with yourself about where you are and pace yourself to get where you want to be.
Cardio Training for Hiking 14ers
Obviously the altitude is going to challenge your cardiovascular health, but some very basic training could make all the difference in not just making it to the summit, but enjoying the climb as much as you enjoy the view. When you start researching how to train cardio for a 14er you will find 2 different workout classifications.
High Intensity Interval Training
High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT for short is defined as a cardiovascular exercise strategy alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods, until too exhausted to continue. Basically, you combine short bursts of high intensity exercise with intermittent periods of lower intensity exercise or active rest. The goal of this type of training is to improve your body’s ability to maximize oxygen use, all while keeping your workout shorter and just as effective. The more aerobically fit you are, your heart will have an easier time pumping blood and you’ll be able to go farther and faster.
The “high intensity” part of HIIT involves reaching and maintaining at least 80% of your max heart rate for two minutes. This is easier measured with a heart rate monitor but you can also estimate your exertion if you know your body well and can push yourself. Popular fitness centers such as Orange Theory use heart rate monitors and group classes to push your cardio training to the next level.
Steady State Cardio Training
Steady state is low to moderate intensity cardio training that focuses on steady effort that is sustained for an extended period of time. The aim is to maintain about 65-70% of your max heart rate with an emphasis on endurance. Think biking, jogging, swimming, rowing, power walking, elliptical machines, or stair-steppers for time periods ranging upwards of 45-60+ minutes.
Strength Training for Hiking 14ers
For strength training, you’ll want to complete a series of weighted exercises that work on your entire body, as well as stability exercises that strengthen your core. Strength training programs vary greatly based on several factors, one of the main ones being access to equipment. Whether you have a gym membership, have access to a home gym, or use gallon water jugs as weights, there’s hundreds of exercises that fall under the strength training category.
When strength training, you should always focus on larger muscle groups then move on to smaller groups. Start with movements such as squats, lunges, dead lifts, bench press, and lateral pull down. You can combine these by doing compound movements such as lunge with a lateral press, or a squat with a cling. Then decrease to small, specific movements such as leg adduction and abduction, bicep curl, and tricep extension. Incorporate core work into your sets – some ideas include dead bug, wood chops, plank, Russian twists, and bicycles.
When determining how much weight to use, you should complete the exercise with whatever weight gets you close to failure within 5-8 reps. If you can do 10-15+ reps, then the weight is too light and you get into endurance strength training instead of weight strength training. Do 2-3 sets of each exercise, giving yourself a rest period in between each set. Over time, you should be increasing your weight and the amount of exercises you do.
Hiking Training for Hiking 14ers
Nothing prepares you for hiking more than hiking. Take the time at least once a week to get outside and hike away. You should wear and carry the same gear you plan on having on your 14er hike, such as the same backpack, same amount of water, and same hiking boots. This will get you used to your gear, and strengthen your shoulders in preparation for pack carrying. As with any training program, you should start within your abilities and gradually increase difficulty by completing longer hikes with increasing elevation change as time goes on.
You should always begin your workout with low intensity, dynamic warm up such as opening and closing the gate, high knees, butt kicks, and cherry pickers. At the end of your workout, you should finish with basic stretching as a cool down. Take your time and thoroughly stretch your entire body, holding each stretch for 30 seconds.
2. Pick the Right Peak
Some fourteeners are more of an uphill hike while others are tough, technical climbs. Routes on 14ers are assigned a difficulty ranging from 1-5 and this is called their class. Basically, 14ers range widely in difficulty and this should be one of the main factors when selecting your climb. Here is a breakdown of the class ratings:
Class 1: Easy hiking, usually on a well-marked trail.
Class 2: More difficult and may be off-trail. You may have to put your hands on the ground at times to keep your balance.
Class 3: Scrambling and un-roped climbing may be required. Must use your hands a majority of the time to hold balance or find your route.
Class 4: Climbing most of the time. Handholds and footholds required for downward or upward progress. Rope can sometimes be used if falls can be fatal.
Class 5: Technical climbing with use of rope and belaying. This class can be further broken down into decimals based on the Yosemite Decimal System but we won’t get into that.
We’re focusing on non-technical hiking, and first timers should definitely stick to Class 1. A good place to start is a hike with about 3,000 feet in elevation gain and something less than 9 miles. Some suggestions are Quandary Peak, Mt. Bierstadt, Gray’s Peak, or The Decalibron Loop. Make sure the trail you choose is out-and-back (not-point-to-point or a loop), meaning you start and end at the same place. That way if something happens and you can’t summit, you can just backtrack to your starting point. These “easier” fourteeners are more accessible and more likely to be busy, especially on weekends. While some people dislike the crowds, think of them as a built in safety net that is there to support you and your climb. The higher traffic also creates a more beaten path, so new hikers are less likely to get off route. If crowds aren’t your jam, climb on weekdays, use alternate routes, or go during the off season. The farther the hike from Denver, the less busy it will be. Good examples are Redcloud, Sunshine, Handies, and San Luis.
3. Acclimatization and Altitude Sickness
If you have ever come to the mountains or went on a ski vacation, you’ve probably felt the effects of Altitude Sickness. Headache, bloating, dizziness, and in the worst cases, nausea and shortness of breath, are the most typical symptoms people experience with AS. The good news is even when you don’t feel well, it isn’t normally life threatening. However in the worst cases, it can result in blood clots forming in your lungs, otherwise known as a high altitude pulmonary edema, and that can be extremely serious.
Altitude effects everyone very differently, and just because you’re healthy or fit doesn’t mean it won’t take you out. After living at altitude for several years, we see people almost every day that are affected negatively by altitude, and each person varies greatly in common contributing factors such as obesity/weight, fitness level, smoker/non-smoker, age, etc. If you aren’t feeling right, you should consult a physician.
The quick and easy explanation for altitude sickness and acclimatizing before your hike if at a lower elevation. is spend a few days at a middle elevations, hike a couple days before and work your way up higher and higher before making your push for the summit.
4. Plan Ahead
Besides physically climbing the mountain, the biggest part of your adventure is how to plan a hike. Believe it or not, most people don’t wake up one morning and hike a 14er before lunch. The planning for hiking a 14er is extensive and starts weeks, if not months, in advance. This part of our guide ties back all the way to the top of this list. Start your training regimen early and be consistent. A few weeks of training can make the difference in between an excruciating climb and an enjoyable hike.
Fast forward to the days before your climb and we can start talking about your pack list. Having the proper equipment and attire during your day is one of the most common things that can make or break your day in an instant. Pack enough water for the entire trip, as well as snacks. It is individual preference whether you pack light or pack everything you may need – packing light means faith in your ability to move quickly and safely, while a heavier pack means more time on the mountain and more exposure, therefore you’ll need more gear. It’s important to find the right balance for you and your abilities. Something that always helps us before a big hike is a checklist!
The Ultimate 14er Checklist
- Pick a Peak
- Research the routes
- Choose your ascent
- Make your team
- Share your plan with someone
- Start Acquiring Gear
- Start breaking in your hiking boots
- Start Paying Attention to Weather Patterns
- Pack your First Aid Kit
- Make a packlist
- Find a place to stay close to the trailhead
- Keep up with your training program
- Meet with your team to discuss safety plans
- Finalize your packlist
- Preliminary acclimatization
- Share your final plan with someone
- Make adjustments in schedule based on weather
- Get your snack pack ready
- Day hike up to higher elevations
What to pack for a 14er
- Water Bladder or Bottle
- Water (2 liters or more depending on distance)
- Hiking Shirt
- Long Underwear
- Rain Jacket
- Hiking Boots
- Hiking Socks
- Knife or Multi-tool
- Lighter or Matches
- TP (for those unforeseen emergencies
- Trekking Poles
- First Aid Kit
- Tape or Moleskin
It’s important to start your hike as early as you can so you can be back down below tree-line by early afternoon. Colorado is notorious for afternoon pop-up storms so it’s essential to not be exposed during electrical storms. To make it easier for an early start, camp or stay near the trailhead – that way you’re not having to drive long distances before your day even begins.
5. Take Proper Precautions
Let others know what your plans are and what your planned route is. Always make sure someone knows when you’re supposed to be back so they can alert the proper authorities if you don’t return in a timely manner. Bring a buddy and always pack at least a small first aid kit. This may seem a little overkill if you plan on ascending and descending within the same day, but these simple precautions can be the difference in between being down river without a paddle, or being prepared should some worst case scenario happen.
This is also why we recommend doing a climb that is more trafficked your first time around. We did Quandary Peak for our first 14er and had an incredible time! It’s a highly trafficked trail right outside Breckenridge and is commonly referred to as an “easier” 14er.
6. Pick your day based on the weather
Time of year, day of the week, and time of day are all extremely important factors when deciding when to hike. Keep in mind that alpine summits keep snow much longer than lower elevations, meaning that your hike may be under snow well into the summer season. Keep an eye on trail reports so you know what kind of gear is required for your summit. Snow makes for a more difficult hike, but summer brings persistent, daily afternoon thunderstorms that can post a risk for lightning strikes (which calls for immediate descent) and an increased hypothermia risk for the unprepared hiker. When you travel long distances to summit a 14er, it always isn’t your choice which day you get to hike, but if your schedule isn’t limited, pick the best day weather-wise. Evaluate as you go and don’t take it lightly – better be safe and turn around because you can’t outrun a storm.
7. Research, Research, Research
Knowledge about your hike will help you along the way. Know your route and read up on the trail. Read reviews and check out others’ success and failure stories; make sure your research is as current as possible as every season brings new terrain, trail closures, and massive changes to the mountains.
Not only that, but research proper equipment. What you need to bring on 14ers is just as important as how to get there. When you are looking into how to climb 14ers, start with good gear and everything else will fall into place much easier.
8. Dress Appropriately and Have the Proper Gear
The weather changes quickly and can be unpredictable, plus the sun shines very intensely at altitude. It’s important to wear breathable UPF layers that protect you from sun exposure – long sleeve shirt, pants, wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Wear your shoe of choice; I personally recommend wearing high top hiking boots with a rock plate as these have saved my ankles many times. That being said, I know people who hike in Chacos or boots without the ankle support. It’s just personal preference. Same thing goes for trekking poles – they can be helpful on long distance hikes, but can also take up more energy so the choice to bring poles or not is all yours. Regardless of the forecast, always bring a rain jacket! The weather is very weird above 10,000 ft and it’s better to be prepared.
9. Have Realistic Expectations
It’s important that you know what you’re in for because no amount of training can truly prepare you for what you’ll encounter at high altitude. You’re going to slow down the higher you go and that’s normal. Your hike will be steep and it will push your body to its physical limits. The sun is harsh, the rocks are big, the air is thin, and the weather is unpredictable. Your preparations can help you avoid obstacles, but not all of them.
10. Fuel Your Body
This section is not just about food and water. When you body is at high altitude, it processes food differently, metabolizes nutrients differently, and the better you can fuel your body at high altitude, the more energized your body will be and ultimately the more fun you will have on your climb. Remember to always hydrate and eat before you are thirsty or hungry, otherwise you’ll feel the effect of high elevation more severely.
So What Exactly is ‘High Altitude’?
As far as your body and experts are concerned, anything over 6,600 feet in elevation is where your body starts to act differently compared to sea level. At 6,600 feet, the atmospheric pressure starts to be at a point where you and your body will notice, and obviously you’ll notice more the higher you go up. A great way to think about lower atmospheric pressure is the air getting ‘thinner’. The contents and percentages of the atmosphere don’t really change, just the density of the particles in the air. This effectively lowers the amount of oxygen molecules that your body can breathe in 1 breath.
High Altitude affects your body in a number of ways:
- Higher Rate of Breathing As discussed, there is less oxygen present in each breath as higher elevation. Your body will increase your rate of breathing to compensate for the oxygen deficit and in conjunction with that your heart rate will elevate to deliver more oxygen rich blood throughout your body. However, this normally won’t be as effective as it needs to be, meaning your muscles with have an oxygen deficiency, limiting your physical performance.
- Water Loss Increases and Dehydration With increased respiration rate comes dehydration. In fact, your body loses water through respiration at high altitude twice as fast as it does at sea level. Activities like hiking, backpacking, climbing, and running at high altitudes can make you need to urinate more often. Those things combined with the extra exertion put on your body by higher altitude is a perfect recipe for dehydration.
- Digestive Issues Someone coming up from lower elevation is more likely to experience this than others, but it is certainly worth mentioning. Feeling fuller sooner than you would otherwise on a smaller portion of food is very common up here. Obviously less calorie intake will easily translate into feelings of exhaustion and being sluggish, not a great way to feel before climbing a mountain. The good thing is that these symptom normally subside within a few days of coming up to high altitude. Just another reason to spend a few days in Denver before heading into the mountains!
Now that you know how high altitude affects your body at high altitude, you can better understand how to fuel our body for optimal performance before, during, and after your climb.
Staying Hydrated While Climbing
It’s easier to drink lots before you go because water in your tummy feels lighter than water on your back. With water weighing in at 2lbs per liter, it will be the heaviest but most important thing in your pack. A general rule of thumb is 1 liter for every 2 hrs of hiking – but everyone is different so you’ll learn over time how much water is appropriate for you. All that being said, staying hydrated while climbing is a huge issue that you have to pay attention to. We strongly recommend carrying a good hydration bladder in your backpack for easy and convenient water while you are hiking.
What to Eat When Climbing a 14er
Snacks are important and some people will tell you to bring healthy snacks like jerky and trail mix/nuts. We think Pro Bars are some of the best snacks for hiking; small, delicious, and packed with good calories. But the reality is that those foods digest slowly and you will also need energy quicker than that – snacks like energy chews, chocolate, and glucose based products that are easier to digest and give you quick energy. *
11. Listen to Your Body
Pace yourself and don’t put your goals of summiting above your well-being. If you’re feeling sick, can’t think straight, are vomiting, low on water, dizzy, or losing balance and/or stumbling, turn around. It’s better to be safe than to risk your life when you’re not feeling 100%. That peak will be there for another day and another climb in the future. Always ask for help if you need it – hikers are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet.
During your hike, your body and mind will be pushed to their limits, and you must know the difference between pushing past the discomfort and knowing when to call it. You’ll feel elated yet defeated, tired yet strong, optimistic but doubtful, all within the range of a few minutes sometimes. Know when to push past your doubts, but also know when you can’t push yourself any more. *
12. Protect Our Trails
You’ve probably heard of Leave no Trace, but what does that really mean? It’s more than just pack out what you pack in. It also means don’t litter, don’t trespass on private property, and tread lightly by staying on marked trails and not cutting switchbacks. High alpine environments and plants are extremely fragile so it’s essential that you stay on rock as much as possible, don’t pick flowers, and keep your dogs on a leash. If you have to relieve yourself, it should be at least 100 feet from any water and preferably below tree line. Feces should be buried at least 6 inches below the soil and toilet paper should always be packed out.
13. Push Past Your Doubts and Offer and Receive Encouragement
While it’s extremely important to listen to your body, there’s a difference between symptoms that tell you to turn around and symptoms of hiking up a steep hill at altitude. Don’t ignore physical symptoms like pain and dizziness, but do push past mental barriers and general fatigue.* Offer your fellow hikers encouragement – you will feel an immediate bond with them. On the way up, people coming down will tell you how awesome the view is and how much it’s worth it. Do the same for your fellow hikers when you pass people on your way down. Remember to encourage your fellow hikers and inspire them to keep going!
14. But Most of All, Have Fun!
There’s no need to set a world record on your first 14er. Have fun, stay safe, and be friendly. Spend some time at the summit – you’re on top of the world! Take time to enjoy this moment and reflect on your success; show gratitude for your body and its abilities, and take it easy on the way down.
*We are not doctors, nutritionists, or trainers.. We are offering this advice based on our experiences, and you should always consult an expert on important topics including, but not limited to, the categories listed above.