A little birdy told me that a few of you badasses will be climbing your first Colorado 14er this summer 🙌! So to help you totally rock it, I drank way too much coffee and wrote down 61 of my best Colorado 14ers tips for beginners.
Here’s a tip for every 14er, plus three for the repeats.
Enjoy, and if you have additional awesome tips, please comment to share.
Photos: Some goofy girls climbing Mt. Bierstadt (14,065′) in April 2017. We definitely beat the crowds. Though if you are going for this one as your first 14er, I definitely suggest waiting until July!
- For your first 14er, choose a Class 1 or 2 route with 2,500 to 3,500 ft. of elevation gain. (For ideas, see this post on 14ers for beginners.)
- When’s the best time to climb a Colorado 14er? It might be later than you think. Snow usually lingers on the high-country trails through June, making route finding and travel more difficult. By mid-July, most trails will be melted out and easier to follow. Trails usually stay clear through mid-September (and sometimes well into October).
- Colorado 14ers (especially the easier, more accessible ones) get very crowded on summer weekends. Consider hiking during the week for a more enjoyable experience (and fewer hassles with parking).
- Before you leave home, check the forecast at weather.gov. You can even obtain a point forecast by typing the name of your 14er into the search field. Another good site: mountain-forecast.com.
- Always leave a detailed trip plan with someone at home. This should include a description of your vehicle, details about your planned route, your expected return time, and the phone number of the nearest search and rescue unit. (Hint: it’s usually the county sheriff’s number.)
- Many Colorado 14er trailheads can only be accessed via rough forest service roads. In these cases, you’ll need a vehicle with sufficient clearance and possibly 4-wheel drive. From 14ers.com, click the “trailhead” link for more info about road conditions and driving difficulty.
- It’s important to start your 14er hike early in order to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. A good rule of thumb is that you should be off the summit and heading down by noon. So plan accordingly. It’s not unusual for groups to start longer 14ers (like Longs Peak) at 2 or 3 a.m.
- If you have a long drive to your 14er, consider heading down and camping out the night before. Note that some land management agencies don’t allow you to camp right at the trailhead.
- Rough Class 2 trails will chew up sneakers and light hiking boots. For your first Colorado 14er, wear sturdy hiking boots with ankle support.
- Never wear cotton in the backcountry. It traps moisture against your skin and can contribute to hypothermia. Instead, wear wool and synthetic fabrics. They’re much better at managing moisture.
- Carry extra clothing layers. Even when it’s hot in the city, it can be surprisingly cold and windy near the summit of a Colorado 14er.
- In fact, you should carry enough clothing to survive overnight on the mountain in an emergency. Even in summer, that means a winter hat and gloves, an insulated puffy jacket, and a shell jacket and pants.
- Bring an extra pair of wool or synthetic socks and switch them out on the summit. Your sweaty feet will thank you, and you’ll be less likely to get blisters.
- Colorado 14er summits can be extremely windy and cold, even in summer. Bring a buff, gaiter, or mask that you can pull over your face if needed. (These also offer great sun protection.)
- Even “easy” Colorado 14ers are big, serious mountains where hikers can quickly get in trouble (just ask any search and rescue volunteer). Don’t skimp on survival gear. Always carry your 10 essential systems.
- Mountain rescues can take many hours. If you get lost or injured, you may even need to wait overnight. A lightweight survival bivvy is a smart addition to your gear. Even a trash compactor bag will help to hold in some warmth.
- You should never count on having cell phone service in the backcountry. However, you may be able to get enough signal to call 9-1-1 in an emergency by ascending to a ridge or high point. So keep your phone charged up, and consider carrying a portable charger.
- Colorado 14ers are battered by intense UV rays, so be fanatical about sun protection. Carry SPF 30+ sunscreen and reapply every 2–3 hours. Protect your eyes with sunglasses. Consider wearing long sleeves, long pants, and a sun hat.
- Forget overpriced commercial first aid kits. Follow these tips to make your own! It’s got everything you need, and it’s small enough to fit in a one-gallon freezer bag.
- Before you climb, trim your toenails.
- Do your heels or toes blister easily? Prevent blisters by taping up trouble spots before you hike. Moleskin, athletic tape, or even duck tape should do the trick.
- Ibuprofen and acetaminophen can both help to fight mild headaches caused by altitude, so carry a few pills with you on trail. (However, descend if you experience a severe headache.)
- Even the shortest Colorado 14er hikes will take 5–6 hours for most hikers to complete. Bring more high-carb snacks than you need and also a balanced lunch.
- About once an hour on trail, eat a high-carb snack. Experiment with energy gels, gummy snacks, fruit candy, dried fruit, and energy bars to see what keeps you moving — and also what agrees with your stomach at altitude.
- Adding a little protein to your trail diet (nuts, peanut butter, protein bars) helps to fight hunger and fatigue. However, protein alone is an inefficient energy source. So don’t rely on protein bars to get you to the summit.
- To ensure you get a nice, steady flow of carbs into your system all day, add a little powdered electrolyte mix to your water. (It should be one that contains actual sugar.)
- Eating a real lunch (sandwich, cold pizza) near the summit can be a real morale booster, and can also provide the sustained energy you need to descend safely.
- Hiking at a relaxed, conversational pace will encourage your body to burn fat, which is your best energy source on long hikes.
- Thin mountain air can dehydrate you quickly, especially when you’re exerting. Drink a little more water than usual the day before your 14er hike. On trail, stop at least once an hour for a drink break.
- Carry at least two liters of water on every 14er climb. Increase to three liters for longer routes and larger individuals — or if you just tend to drink a lot of water.
- Investing in a hydration system can help to keep your water intake steady. When making the transition, be sure to carry more water than usual. You will probably drink more.
Conservation and Trail Etiquette
- Remember that all Colorado 14ers are high-traffic areas that are in danger of being loved to death. Be exceptional in your conservation ethic, and set a good example for others.
- Familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace principles. These are evidence-based steps you can take to protect the environment while hiking and camping.
- Walking around muddy spots widens the trail and contributes to erosion. Walk through the mud, even if it means getting a little dirty. If you do leave the trail, stick to rocks and snow.
- Hikers headed uphill have the right of way. If they’re moving toward you, step aside and let them pass.
- Never shortcut switchbacks, unless you can do so on rock or snow.
- Take your pee breaks at least 200 ft. from lakes and streams. Double bag your toilet paper and pack it out.
- Consider carrying a potty bag in case you need to poop on trail. It’s better for the environment than digging a cat hole — and also a lot faster when you’re feeling that special urgency.
- Preserve the wilderness experience for others. Keep group sizes small. Avoid disturbing others with shouting or blasting music from your backpack speaker.
- Are you coming from sea level for your 14er hike? Spending 2–3 days in a mountain town (or even a front range area like Denver) will allow your body to gradually adapt to the higher elevation.
- Altitude may upset your stomach. Eat small but frequent meals while hiking. Hydrate often by drinking a few mouthfuls of water.
- Expect to feel tired and move slower than usual. You will need to exert about 35 percent harder at 14,000 ft. to sustain the same aerobic intensity that you would at sea level. That’s not a huge difference, but you will definitely feel it.
- Factor altitude into your trip plan. Give yourself some extra cushion time, especially on the ascent.
- Altitude sickness in Colorado is rarely dangerous, but descend immediately if you experience vomiting, severe headache, or shortness of breath at rest. Seek medical attention if these symptoms persist.
While You Hike
- Use “rest stepping” to conserve energy on steep slopes. Straighten your leg completely on each step so that you can rest momentarily on your skeleton. This gives your leg muscles a short break.
- Synchronize your breathing with the rhythm of your steps. If you feel tired, exhale forcefully. Pushing out carbon dioxide allows you to take in more oxygen on the next breath.
- Hike at your own pace. Don’t race others or rush to keep up. Hiking at a conversational pace is more enjoyable, and it also stimulates your body to make aerobic adaptations that will pay off over time.
- Monitor the weather as you hike. Lighting, hail, and hypothermia can quickly turn a pleasant hike into a high-stakes survival situation.
- Consider turning around before noon if cumulus clouds start to tower into thunderheads.
- Descend immediately if you hear thunder or see lightning, even in the distance. Lighting can strike from miles away.
- If you have cellular service, check the forecast every few hours during your hike.
- Be assertive. Speak up when you have concerns.
- Take responsibility for your own safety. Don’t blindly follow the group, even if your fellow climbers are more experienced.
- Don’t let “summit fever” cloud your thinking. It can be really hard to turn around, especially if you’ve trained for a long time and traveled a long way to get to this mountain. But no summit is worth putting yourself, your friends, and potential rescuers in danger.
- Never completely deplete yourself in order to reach the summit. Always save some juice for the descent. Most accidents happen on the way down when climbers are tired and losing focus.
- Enjoy the journey. Don’t focus so hard on the summit that you miss out on a beautiful hike.
- If the distance feels overwhelming, remember that it really is just one step at a time to the top.
- Be kind to your body, even when it’s tired, headachy, pukey, blistery, and so on. You’re asking a lot of it. Thank it for going above and beyond.
- Be an awesome team member. Show concern and consideration for others. Encourage people to listen to each other and make decisions together.
After Your Hike
- No matter how high you climbed, celebrate! You probably burned a couple thousand calories, so indulge in a beer and some good, high-protein nosh.
- If things didn’t go as planned, well … welcome to mountaineering. The weather doesn’t always cooperate. Your body will sometimes let you down. Sometimes you drive all the way to the trailhead, then remember your boots are still at home in the closet. Shit happens. Learn from it, accept it gracefully, and remember that the mountain will always be there.
There you have ’em. My best Colorado 14ers tips for beginners.
Hope you enjoyed them, and have a happy and safe first ascent!
Originally published April 9, 2018.