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Three Steps to Fourteener (14er) Fun


If you live in Colorado, it is likely that you have at least heard of The Fourteeners (14ers).  The 14ers are the 52-54 (depending on how you classify them) mountain peaks that are over 14,000ft in elevation.  Having heard of these high peaks, you have probably considered hiking them. Whether you immediately dismissed it as something for wackos who lack a basic sense of self preservation, or if you thought that you may want to one day get to the top of at least one, you have probably thought about it.

At first, hiking a 14er may seem like a daunting and frightening challenge, and to be blunt, there are good reasons to feel this way.  Hiking a 14er is not like going for a quick hike in the foothills; you cannot simply go out on a whim and have a safe, successful, enjoyable experience.  First off, the routes to the tops of these 14,000ft behemoths are usually longer than a typical day hike; few routes are shorter than 5 miles.  Not only are they longer, but the terrain you will typically encounter is more rugged.  Then you have to take into consideration the fact that most of the hike will be at a high elevation.

It is not my intent to scare anyone off of hiking a 14er.  In fact, it is just the opposite: I want to convince you that with a little work on the front end, you can do something you will remember for the rest of your life.  It is true that there are unique and real challenges to summiting one of these famed peaks, and it is much better to recognize what these are and plan accordingly rather than show up in a newspaper as another grateful recipient of a search and rescue operation. You can hike a 14er, and you can have an absolute blast doing it.

There are three main things to consider for hiking a 14er, especially if it is your first one.  You will need to have and bring the right gear, prepare yourself for the hike, and plan out how you are going to do it.

1) Gotta Get the Gear 

What to wear:

A general rule of thumb for everything you will be wearing on a 14er: NO COTTON!  This means no cotton socks, no cotton hoodies, etc.  Part of this is personal preference, but for the most part, it is an issue of practicality.  If you do encounter any weather (or sweat) on a 14er hike, any cotton you are wearing will soak up water (or sweat) like a sponge. It will be heavy, uncomfortable, and cold.  This could put you in a dangerous situation if you are exposed on a mountain for any significant length of time, and at a minimum will make you uncomfortable.

Now, for what you would want to wear.  If you are a nerd like me, you could call this the base of your "clothing system".  Lets go from the bottom up.

  • Shoes 
    • For most of the 14ers that are popular for first timers, you will not need to buy full blown $200 hiking boots or special trail shoes. If you decide you love it and want to tick more peaks off your list, you can purchase a dedicated pair of shoes. I prefer to wear a lightweight pair of trail runners.
    • Sturdy running shoes or tennis shoes that you are familiar with and know to be comfortable should be just fine.
  • Socks 
    • I really like wool, but it isn't for everyone.  Just pick something that is comfortable with the shoes you are wearing. Again, try to avoid cotton.  Soggy socks are the worst.
  • Pants 
    • Yes, I would recommend pants for a summer hike.  It is usually windy, and always significantly colder at 14,000ft than it is around town. You will also be starting out early in the morning when it is still cool.
    • Pants also offer protection from sun, plants, rocks, and various trail hazards that would otherwise leave your legs scrapped, sore and uncomfortable
    • If you do not have dedicated hiking/climbing pants, use a pair of work out pants.  These can be running pants or yoga pants.  They will be able to move with you as you hike, and are made for active use
  • Underwear
    • For guys, I suggest a pair of synthetic boxer-briefs (under armor style). These handle constant movement way better than cotton type boxers.  If you want to be fancy, grab some some merino wool boxer briefs. They are the bee's knees.
    • For the ladies.... I am not entirely sure.  Wear whatever type of underwear you would for running or working out.  This is what my wife does and it works just fine.
  • Shirt 
    • Again, go for something synthetic or wool that you find comfortable.  Ladies, it is important to keep in mind that you will be carrying a back pack, so spaghetti straps are not ideal. And guys, no bro tanks. Ever.
    • Long sleeve or short sleeve?  I would say there are two things to consider here.  First is temperature.  If you get cold easily, go long sleeve.  The other is sun.  If you burn easily, or want to use less sunscreen, go long sleeve.  Other than that, a short sleeve shirt is just fine.
The packing list below should be fairly self explanatory. A lot of these things you will likely have laying around. If you don't, you can pick them pretty easily for not too much money at a box store of one variety or another.

Pack List

Item/category    Details
Backpack20-30L Capacity
3 Liters or so 
Bring a bunch

candy bar for the summit
granola bars, trail mix, etc.
Something salty (Pringles!)
Baseball cap (optional)
Light beanie
Sunglasses (must)
Light weight
Rain jacket
Light insulation  (fleece/down/synthetic)
Windbreaker (optional)
Small 1st Aid (1 per group)
Bandanna (handy)
Knife/multi-tool (handy)
TP (unless you like rocks…)
Trekking poles (if you want)
Headlamp (for early start)
Phone (yes, you will likely get service at some point)
My standard gear for a Summer 14er

If you do have any specific questions, feel free to ask in the comments below.

2) Prepare Yourself


That's right, you always pre-game for 14ers.  Gotta drink a bunch before you even get out there.  I usually try to drink about 2 liters the evening before a hike.  Then I usually bring another liter to drink in the car.  You will have to stop to pee a bunch on the hike, but it is totally worth it.  Lots of water allows your body to get rid of all the toxins that come with exercise and breathing the thin alpine air.

Eating right and staying hydrated have a huge impact on how enjoyable a 14er trip is. Eating enough keeps you moving and clear-headed.  The more you hike the more you will be able to gauge how much water you need and how much food you want.

Eat a good breakfast.  Something fairly hearty, like oatmeal with peanut butter, or peanut butter toast. And yes, I do like peanut butter.


Though a lot of people would be capable of doing a 14er with zero previous training or planning, I would strongly advise against it.  It is a good way to have a bad experience, or even put yourself in a dangerous situation.

The training doesn't have to be intense.  I am talking about something of the lines of going for a couple hikes near town (going to Chataqua Park in Boulder will give you lots of options for trails). Approach it like it was the 14er, especially gear-wise.  Wear the shoes, use the pack, bring everything you would on a 14er.  Why do this? Because a 3-mile day-hike close to town is a low-risk setting in which to test your preparation.  If you get terrible blisters because your cotton socks soaked up all your sweat (I warned you!) and the new shoes rub you the wrong way, it is much better to be 1 mile from the car and civilization instead of at the top of a 14er.  On a 14er, if this happens while you are working your way up an exposed ridge above tree-line as a serious thunder storm rolls in, there could be more serious consequences.

In addition to testing out your gear and making  sure it all fits your backpack of choice, you will be able to gauge how good of shape you're in.  This will help you in selecting which 14er (and which specific route) you want to hike.  Remember though, just because  you can hike just as far, with just as much elevation gain, on the front range does not mean you will crush your first 14er.

This leads me to my last point: if you can, spend some time at elevation.  It affects everyone differently.  A good place to spend some time up high is Loveland Pass. Hiking out to Mt. Sniktau is relatively quick and a good introduction into hiking at altitude.

3) Plan

Planning out your day and understanding the conditions you will likely encounter (temperatures, wind, weather, distance, elevation, technical terrain, etc.) will help tremendously in summiting your first 14er. It lets you know what to expect to see when you get on the trail, whether or not you should bring an extra layer, if you should choose a different, less challenging route, and on and on.

Trail Conditions

I ALWAYS look at before hiking.  Spend some time poking around the website.  You can look up route information, see maps, read recent trip reports, check trailhead conditions.  Read and research.  Print yourself a little map.  Take notes in a moleskine journal. Build a spreadsheet.  You know, whatever your into.  Basically, this is where you will get all your trail information: location, route, difficulty, mileage, elevation gain, etc.


I ALWAYS look at the week before a hike.  This website lets you pin-point exactly where you want the forecast.  This is very helpful, as most of the time, the nearest town will have significantly different weather than the trail itself (temperature, wind, etc.) Check the weather a couple days out and the day before. If there is anything more serious than an afternoon thunderstorm, re-schedule. The mountain will still be there in a week. Or a year. 

Peak 14er season is from mid-July up until the first time the high country gets snow, which is usually in late September or October.  Typically, during this season Colorado gets afternoon thunderstorms. Every afternoon.  Plan on this being the case.  This is why you should always start early and plan on being on your way down by noon at the latest.


Next, it is a good idea to plan out your itinerary. Start with when you want to summit. I strongly suggest shooting for 11am or earlier. The rule of thumb is being off the summit by noon.  11am gives you time to hang out on the summit a bit, and get well off the summit before the storms. What time do you need to start hiking to get to the top at that time? 

Here, I almost always estimate an overall pace with 1 mph.  This has been surprisingly accurate across multiple years, different people, and different terrain. This takes into account all stoppage time (snacks, water, breathers, clothing adjustments), time on the summit, and all hiking.  This estimate is for the hike as a whole.  You will be slower going up. More breaks, more pictures, etc.  Estimate that about 60-70% of your overall time will be spent going up the mountain.  

Now that you know when you need to start hiking to get the top on time, when do you leave your house?  Use Google Maps.  Give yourself an extra 15 minutes to get ready once you reach the trail head.

I try to be conservative with my times and estimates.  That way, if things are running late, it isn't a big deal. Things will often run a bit behind, and that is just fine.  Below is a sample of an estimated schedule for hiking Mt Evans.

-Leave house at 5am
-Get to trail head at 6:15am
-Get on trail at 6:30am
-Summit around 10am
-Back to car around 12pm noon
-Eating pizza/burgers around 12:30pm

This general outline of events gives a good idea of how the day will progress.  It helps you figure out how much water and food to pack.  It lets you know you are crushing it if you are consistently ahead of schedule. Or it lets you know you need to give yourself more time if you are consistently behind.  

Take Aways

I know this seems like a really long post just for a hike.  And you know what? You are totally right.

What you really need to remember are these three things:
1.  Bring the stuff on the packing list 
2.  Drink lots of water before and during the hike, prepare yourself physically
3.  Look at conditions (length, time, location, weather, etc.) and plan accordingly

I hope this little write up has been helpful. I hope it encourages you to get out there, into the mountains.  I hope you get that itch for more.  That desire to chase the wind across the tundra. That ache in your bones.

If you think there is anything that I left out, or if you have any questions, let me know in the comments.

-Matt "Too Prepared" K.

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