How To Prepare To Hike A 14er
PREPPING FOR YOUR FIRST 14er HIKE
Hiking a 14er is a very rewarding experience that’s on most hiker’s bucket lists. You’re pushing your body to new limits, you’re climbing high, and there are quite a few of them so you can really turn peak-bagging into your own personal sport for the coming seasons. There are 96 14ers in the US. The majority of them are in Alaska, Colorado, and California.
But, what is a 14er hike? A 14er is a mountain that’s above 14,000 feet in elevation. They’re usually more challenging because of the mileage and the elevation gain, and of course, the altitude.
TRAINING TO HIKE A 14ER
Part of actually being able to hike a 14er and preparing for it, is training. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people I see and how many stories I hear of people being ill-prepared for these mountains, and then struggling the entire way up and down, which is a great way to ruin any hike. Or worse, they end up injured. Most hiking injuries are preventable by training your body correctly to handle the physical stress of hiking with the added load of your backpack.
Training also helps your body utilize oxygen more efficiently, which only helps you at altitude!
Hiking is a physically demanding activity, especially something like hiking a 14er, so training ahead of time is a must and it’s part of preparing to hike a 14er. Whether you’re planning on backpacking or day hiking, this is going to make or break you on your 14er hike.
You need a solid base of training your aerobic system through cardio workouts, while also adding in strength training. Those cardio workouts will give you the energy you need, help you improve your hiking speed, and make sure you’re not huffing and puffing the entire time. While strength training workouts are going to help you strengthen your body so it can actually handle the physical stress of hiking and prevent injuries.
For a full breakdown of how to train to hike a 14er, read through this blog post. If you’ve struggled with any sort of knee pain, ankle pain, foot pain, or anything else, you’re going to want to pay special attention to this blog post.
PICK A 14er THAT MATCHES YOUR SKILL LEVEL
There are a variety of 14ers out there. Some can be done as a day hike, others can be done as a long day hike or a weekend backpacking trip, and others require technical mountaineering skills. There’s a little something for everyone when it comes to selecting the 14er hike that you’re going to prepare to do. So when it comes to selecting which one you’ll do, pick one that matches your skill level.
If you’ve never done a 14er, maybe don’t start by picking one that will require mountaineering. If you’ve never gone backpacking, maybe don’t make a 14er your first backpacking trip (try a couple backpacking trips first before you go).
In this phase of your journey to prepare to hike a 14er, do some research on which one you’d like to do. Read through this blog post which breaks down my exact strategies for finding trails, including 14er hikes.
GET THE RIGHT GEAR
Part of preparing to hike a 14er is getting the right gear which is going to help you stay safe out there.
First, you’re going to need a good pair of hiking boots. Please don’t wear converse or your gym shoes, they don’t have enough support or traction. Now, the type of shoe you wear will depend on the season you’re hiking in, read through this blog post for that full breakdown.
You need to make sure you’re layering correctly for your 14er hike. You might be starting in the dark (more on this further down) when it will be cold, then it will be cold and windy at the summit, and then it will most likely warm up on your hike down.
So you need layers such as your base layer which is made up of moisture wicking fabric (leave the cotton t-shirts and jeans at home). Then you layer with a fleece and a down puffy jacket. You should also bring a rain jacket which can double as a windbreaker just in case the summit is windy, or it starts raining.
If you’re day hiking, you’re going to need to make sure you bring all the essentials with you, and if you’re backpacking, you’re also going to want to make sure that you have everything you’ll need to backpack a 14er.
BE PREPARED FOR CHANGING WEATHER
On that note, you also need to be prepared for changing weather on 14ers.
The weather at the top of a 14er will be much colder than when you started. Rain is possible on 14ers, especially in the afternoons because clouds get too heavy to pass the high mountains and so it rains. I’ve had it rain on me several times on 14ers and snow once. So whether you’re day hiking or backpacking, make sure you bring the right clothing with you so you’re prepared for when it’s in the 70s and 80s when you start, and for when it’s 30 with a windchill at the top.
Always check the weather before heading out so you’re prepared. When checking the weather, make sure to check the weather for the different altitudes too. I like using Mountain Forecast for that. It shows you what the temperature is at different elevations, the wind speed and direction, and if rain or snow is predicted.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO HIKE A 14er
Since afternoon thunderstorms are common, you’re going to want to be off the mountain by early afternoon at the latest. I usually recommend a 11am to 1pm turnaround time. Which means, depending on the trail and how long it is, you most likely will need to start hiking in the dark.
Also be prepared to hike slower, especially if you’ve mainly been training at sea level, because you will be slower at altitude.
Depending on the length of the hike, you might start as early as 2am. I know this seems ridiculous to start that early, but if you’re planning on summiting for sunrise, that’s just what you need to do. Even if you’re not planning to summit for sunrise, you’re going to want to make sure you make it to the summit by mid-morning at the latest.
This way, you’re also hiking with the sun instead of against it. I personally would rather start in the dark any day then still be hiking knowing the sun is coming up and you’re still fresh and have the whole day ahead, instead of hiking after dark when you’re exhausted and the day is over.
GIVE YOURSELF TIME TO ACCLIMATE
The BIGGEST mistake I see many people making on their 14er hikes is not giving themselves time to acclimate. Especially if you don’t live somewhere like Denver, where you’re constantly at altitude. If you’re coming up from sea level, you’re going to need to spend a couple of days at altitude before attempting to summit a 14er. Please do not take this point lightly.
Not only are you risking not making it if you get altitude sickness, but it’s also a danger to you. Altitude sickness can be deadly, and it can also make you disoriented making it more likely that you’ll slip and take a pretty bad fall.
As you’re preparing for your 14er hike, make sure to give yourself a couple day window beforehand to acclimate. Also take some time and become familiar with altitude sickness and what to do if you or someone in your hiking group gets it on your hike. Read through this blog post for more information on altitude sickness while hiking.
If you’re backpacking, you want to make sure that you’re camping below 10,000 feet in elevation the first few nights while you’re acclimating. Otherwise you’re in for a restless night with a pounding headache. We all know how important sleep is, especially when you’re doing something physically straining like hiking and backpacking a 14er.
CHECK TRAIL CONDITIONS
Always check the trail conditions before heading out. But even more importantly as you’re preparing for your 14er hike, you want to be aware of trail conditions which will be like depending on which month you decided to hike in.
Most people don’t realize that there is still snow on the trail in the mountains in the spring months. Most of the time through June! I can’t tell you how many stories I hear of people being ill-prepared for winter and spring conditions on 14ers, slipping and injuring themselves, or ultimately dying.
Needless to say, they usually don’t even have the right gear! If there is snow on the trail most 14ers require winter mountaineering experience, which will also require crampons and an ice axe. Depending on the snow conditions, they might also only require microspikes, you can read this blog to learn about the difference between microspikes and crampons and when you need which one.
This isn’t to discourage you from hiking a 14er, this is to help you build up your knowledge so you’re safe out there and have a successful trip.
Try to plan your 14er hike for July through September. You can also try for October but be aware that the chances of an early season snow storm are possible in October. As you gain more experience and venture into mountaineering, you can start to climb 14ers in the early spring months when they’re covered in snow. If you also ski or snowboard, you can mountaineer up and ski or snowboard down as your skill level increases. When it comes to hiking 14ers, there is always something to keep improving on and towards.
HYDRATE EARLY AND OFTEN
Hydration helps prevent altitude sickness and helps your body function better when you’re physically exerting yourself on your 14er hike. So make sure to hydrate before your big hike, and during.
Before your 14er hike, make sure you’re drinking enough water. Hydration does not mean pumping yourself with coffee, energy drinks, or anything else. You want to get enough plain old H20. Hydrating ahead of time is only going to help you once you start hiking, so be mindful that the week before your hike, especially the last couple of days, you’re drinking enough water.
Staying hydrated is also essential at preventing altitude sickness. Wondering how much water you need to drink at altitude?
Just for reference – High altitude is defined as 5,000 and 11,500 feet, very high altitude as between 11,500 and 18,000 feet.
It’s recommended to drink an extra 1 to 1.5 liters of water daily at high altitude, for a total of around 3 to 4 liters. Aim to drink a couple of quick sips every 15 to 20 minutes while you’re hiking and then take big chugs of water when you stop for a break.
Ideally those 3 to 4 liters should contain 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrates. You can do this by adding electrolyte supplements to your water. I use NUUN tablets or Liquid IV powder. I usually carry water in my hydration bladder in my pack, something like a CamelBak or an Osprey. Then I usually also bring a Nalgene bottle where I put my electrolytes into.
Now something to also be mindful of is how much total water you’re going to drink on your 14er hike. Generally, a good recommendation is to drink half a liter of water per hour of moderate hiking in moderate temperatures. But you might need to increase that depending on the temperature and intensity of the hike. So when you’re planning how much water to bring with you, do some research and see if there are any places to filter water along the way of your 14er hike. If there are, make sure to bring a water filtration system, like a Sawyer filter or an MSR filter.
I know a lot of hikers try to save pack weight, so food and water are the first place they usually try to cut weight. Please don’t. You need both food and water for your body to perform optimally and to feel your best. Do you really want to be dragging your feet, starving, dehydrated, feeling miserable, and risk needing a search and rescue team because you didn’t bring enough food and water with you?
On that note, you also need to make sure you are fueling your body for this strenuous trail. I’ve done a 14er with a heavy backpacking pack on and hiked out 16 miles on an empty stomach, I made it, but I cannot even begin to tell you how much that sucked. I spent the last 8 miles doing nothing but dreaming of the pizza I was going to get in town.
I didn’t do this on purpose, but I didn’t plan my food correctly on a backpacking trip and then ended up starving.
Make sure to have a good dinner the night before. Whether you’re backpacking or day hiking this makes a huge difference. Because your body digests overnight and uses that as energy the next day. Every time I’ve been too tired or nervous to eat the night before, I’ve regretted it the next day on my hike. I felt tired, lacked energy and the entire day dragged on.
Also, make sure you’re making nutritious choices before your big hike. Fill yourself with healthy fats, proteins and carbs that are going to make you feel good inside and out, and give you the energy you need.
While hiking, make sure to be snacking at least every hour. Don’t wait until you’re hungry to eat something, this is going to keep your energy high and keep you going for longer. I recommend eating meals and snacks that are full of healthy carbs and fats because those will specifically fuel your body. Carbs give our body quick release energy, while fats help with sustained energy, both are required to hike a 14er.
For more on what to eat while hiking or backpacking, read through this blog post.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR FEET
Last but not least, you need to take care of your feet. Your feet are responsible for getting you up the mountain and I promise, if they hurt, you’re not going to have fun on this hike.
Which means you need to wear the correct footwear, make sure to break in your shoes beforehand, do what you can to prevent blisters and to stretch your feet. For more on how to prevent blisters while hiking, read through this blog post.
When selecting hiking footwear, make sure to always size up by at least half a size bigger than your street shoe size. I personally size up by a full size. Then you also want to make sure that when you’re walking downhill your feet do not touch the front of your shoes. If they do, you’re going to end up losing a toenail or more.
If you keep sizing up and your feet keep touching the front of your shoe, change the shoe. The type of shoe or the shoe brand. Finding the correct footwear for you will take some trial and error, but you’ll be happy you put in the effort while preparing for your 14er. For more information on how to stretch your feet and take care of your feet on your 14er hike, read through this blog post.
This is probably the single most important thing you need to remember when hiking and preparing to hike a 14er, is to have fun! This is an amazing experience, whether you’re already into your hiking journey or just beginning.