How to Prepare for Hiking a 14er in Colorado

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So, you have made the (amazing!) decision to hike your very first Colorado 14er! But now you’re beginning to wonder things like:

What should I wear?

What should I bring?

What gear do I need?

How long will it take to hike a 14er?

These are all extremely important questions to consider as you prepare for a long and strenuous hike. We will be answering these questions (and many more) throughout the rest of this post as preparing for your very first Colorado fourteeners is extremely important as well as exciting!

First of all, let’s address a few things regarding Colorado and fourteeners. As a Colorado native, I’ll be the first to let you know that the weather here is absolutely unpredictable. It’s common knowledge among Coloradans that you can never leave the house without being prepared for the weather to change. I always carry an umbrella and a sweater, even if the weather is 100 degrees with no clouds in sight. (If you’re from Colorado, you understand what I mean!) This being said, hiking a fourteener puts you into the elements at an even more crucial level. At 14,000 ft., you are going to feel the very first drops of precipitation before anyone down below and if there is lightning…you’re the first to find that out, too.

The best season to hike a fourteener in Colorado is the summer and here’s why:

  1. Winter in Colorado is cold at 6,000 ft. At 14,000 ft., winter is extremely treacherous, conditions on the mountains are absolutely unsafe for seasoned hikers, let alone a first-time mountain hiker. Don’t go in the winter!
  2. The fall is a nice season here in Colorado and I’d venture to say that if you picked a beautiful October day to hike, you may be okay. But you still run the risk of getting caught in an early snow and you definitely don’t want to get stranded on the mountain.
  3. Spring is a really risky time to try and plan a fourteener hike. Snow is melting until June and there are even some late May snowstorms at 14,000 ft., even if the weather down at 6,000 ft. is gorgeous.

Summertime is ideal, and you’re way better off planning a summertime hike. You’ll be happy you did. Plus, your backpack will be much lighter as you won’t need as much clothing, and you’ll be way more comfortable if you choose a gorgeous day in early July than if you pick any other time of the year.

So, as I said; weather in Colorado is unpredictable. Depending on which fourteener you choose, your current physical condition, and your endurance abilities in the higher altitudes, you’ll want to make sure you’re off the mountain in time for an afternoon lightning storm. When we hike fourteener, we usually get to the trail head by 5:30 am. and aim to be off the mountain by 1:00… 3:00 at the very latest.

So, before you commit to a day to hike, check the weather in the closest town to the fourteener you choose. If rain is in the forecast, be careful. If rain is NOT in the forecast, be really careful (because it is Colorado weather, after all!). The last thing you want is to get caught in a rain/thunder/hail/lightning storm on the top of a Colorado mountain (I’ve been there. DON’T DO IT)!

Okay, so this brings me to my very first question to answer: What should you wear?

I mentioned that you should hike a fourteener in the summer, right? But don’t expect to hike in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. Although the weather at the bottom of the mountain may be warm; when you reach high elevations (and EVEN after you’ve been exerting lots of energy hiking for hours), the very top of a Colorado fourteener is not only super windy, but very chilly. So, you should plan to dress in layers.

I did not understand the importance of layers when I hiked my first fourteener (Humboldt Peak) in 2012. My (then boyfriend) husband warned me to dress in layers before I left my house. But I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that in the middle of July (when the temperature is over 100 degrees), that I’d need a jacket at the top of the hike! After the miserable first experience, I invested in a lightweight (but warm) jacket like this one. What I love about this jacket is that it is plenty warm for the top of a mountain (and seam-taped for full waterproofness, in case you find yourself in some Colorado weather), and the hood keeps the wind out of my hair and my ears on the tip top of the mountain. It is really easy to pack in my backpack. This jacket also has ‘PitZips’ which help you regulate temperature when you are hiking a fourteener.

So, as far as layers are concerned; I’d wear a tight-fitting undershirt/tank top as the bottom layer (Please note: I say tight-fitting because it’s way easier to layer up when things are snug!)

The second layer should be a light-weight long sleeve shirt (or you can just get these, which my husband claims are completely amazing!)

On top of the long-sleeve, I’d cover up with a sweater (especially if you start off early in the A.M. You’re going to want to feel cozy as the brisk night turns into morning!).

…and finally, your jacket.

It’s important to remember that depending on the weather, you may not need all these layers all the time, but it will be necessary to have them in your backpack so that you can continue to be comfortable as you summit.

Usually, a pair of loose-fitting jeans/shorts, or exercise leggings (yoga pants) are comfortable lower attire. My personal favorite is the yoga pants because I have the best mobility and the lowest risk of tearing my pants when I wear stretchy clothes but the choice is yours!

Let’s talk about hiking shoes vs. boots… Because there is a difference. Especially when you are hiking a fourteener.

Now, depending on the class of fourteener you’re going to tackle, you’ll really want to think about your personal abilities and level of …ummm… clumsiness … when you consider this next option. Hiking shoes (my choice) vs. The hiking boot (my husband’s choice).

The hiking shoe, such as this one here (love this shoe! Merrell is all I’ll use for my hiking shoes!), is my preferred choice. However; the husband has to have the hiking boot (similar to this one) because he feels like it protects him from hurting an ankle. The boot protects a little higher than the shoe, but both are completely fine and it just has to do with preference.

Okay, so now that you know what you’re going to wear on your fourteener adventure, it’s now important to know: What you’ll need to bring.

Of course, any of the clothes mentioned above that you don’t physically wear starting out (i.e. the jacket) is an item you’ll definitely want to pack in your backpack. This is a nice lead-in to the first (and arguably, most important) item you’ll need: A hiking backpack.

Take notice of this hiking backpack here:

It looks a little different from the backpack you wore to elementary school, right? Well, it’s also a lot more comfortable, too. Hiking backpacks are designed to carry a lot of stuff. They are longer (see image above) and the straps include more clips and latches, in order to hug your body a whole lot tighter, than a school backpack. Could you get away with a regular backpack that you kept from high school? Sure (I did on my first hike). But you’ll be a lot more comfortable if you break down and buy a backpack made for hiking. It’s just much more comfortable, can carry lots of weight without breaking your back, and it just makes the experience THAT much more enjoyable. Because trust me: After you have hiked 11 miles, you don’t want to deal with a flimsy backpack that doesn’t fit snug and weighs a ton because it’s not meant for hiking!

Let’s talk about my personal favorite: The food.

If you’re gone from 5 am until roughly 3 pm… You’re going to need to bring some food for snacking. Now, you can be like my husband, who eats the world’s largest breakfast before the hike (in order to prevent carrying tons of food up the trail), or you can opt for the (smarter) more me option. I like to prepare a bunch of small, healthy baggies of snacks (I say baggies because you do NOT want to bring Tupperware up AND back down the mountain). A few favorites of mine include: carrots, trail mix, boiled eggs, apple slices, beef jerkey, and my ultimate favorite hiking treat: RXBARs (Chocolate Sea Salt flavor, please!) AND WATER. A 32 oz. bottle filled with water.

Considering the fact that when you’re on a fourteener trail and you’re probably miles from civilization (and your cell phone WONT work all the time), you’re going to want to think about the subject of first aid/emergencies.

You probably don’t need to make room for a huge first aid kit here (because anything super serious is not going to be remedied by applying a band-aid on a rugged Colorado fourteener trail). I’m thinking about some really practical items you might need on hand: Tylenol, iodine (for purifying water), and matches/lighter. I mention the iodine and the matches because whenever you’re that far from civilization without fully functional cell reception, you really should be prepared.

Aside a hat, sunglasses, water, water, and more water, you probably don’t need to carry anything else…except maybe a camera, so you can get some beautiful photos of your experience!

As far as ‘gear’ is concerned… Every trail is completely different. If you really feel it necessary, hiking sticks may be helpful on lower parts of the trails (but I find that after such a long hike, they become more of a hassle towards the end). I would recommend climbing ropes/harnesses if your fourteener is class 3 or higher (but DON’T attempt these if this is your FIRST time!) Otherwise, the only gear you should concern yourself with are your own two legs!

…and finally (Yes, I’m almost done!), you should consider how long you’re going to be hiking and prepare yourself mentally for a trek this long.

Like previously mentioned, make sure you choose a:

  • Nice day with a good weather forecast
  • Bring enough clothes so that you are comfortable
  • Pack a hiking backpack with plenty of snacks and water
  • Don’t forget to prepare for harsh conditions.
  • Make sure your shoes are comfortable (definitely try them on days BEFORE you hike to ensure they fit right)
  • and most importantly, HAVE FUN!

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