An Expert Guide to Hiking a Colorado 14er
Been dreaming of summiting one of Colorado's fourteeners? Camping & Hiking expert Jessica LaPolla breaks down how to make your trek a success.
Standing at 14,000 feet above sea level and looking down on the peaks of neighboring giants, gazing out at hundreds of miles of blue sky, is an otherworldly experience. Colorado is home to an array of stunning and unique 14ers, with many classic routes to choose from. However, not every 14er is created equal. In fact, the Colorado 14ers are ranked using a class system, with the easiest routes being placed in Class 1 and the most difficult in Class 4. Many different factors go into the ranking, including distance, trail conditions, elevation gain, and technical aspects like scrambling. When choosing a 14er to climb, it is vital to research every part of the climb, from getting to the trailhead to reaching the summit. In this article, I will cover everything you need to know about choosing a Colorado 14er and offer recommendations based on skill level.
Choosing a 14er
The first step in deciding to hike a 14er is deciding which 14er is right for you. If this will be your first 14,000 foot peak, you’ll want to select a Class 1 or easy Class 2 route. This will give you a good introduction to climbing 14ers while still testing your physical and mental limits. If you are not currently living in Colorado or at elevation, it is all the more important to select an easier route, because your body will already be working in overdrive to combat the lack of oxygen. We will touch more on this later.
Other factors you may want to consider when choosing a 14er to climb are your overall fitness, previous hiking and climbing experience, how you are planning to get there, if any specific gear is needed, and the time of year. Most, if not all, Colorado 14ers offer a relatively short window during the summer months in which it is safe to hike them without any special gear or need for technical climbing. If you attempt even the easiest of the 14ers in the winter or spring, it becomes a mountaineering adventure and you’d better have your ice axe handy.
My personal favorite Class 1 Colorado 14er is Grays Peak. Only an hour outside of Denver, this popular hike is a great introduction to climbing 14ers and offers stunning views and plenty of chances to see wildlife. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can walk across a saddle to the neighboring Torrey’s Peak and bag two 14ers in one day. Torrey’s Peak can be climbed by itself using a different route on the South Slopes that is ranked as Class 2. Check out this website for information on all of the Colorado 14ers, including their difficulty rankings, detailed descriptions and directions, and maps.
Preparing to Hike a 14er
So you’ve selected a 14er, but you’re not sure how to prepare for such a big hike. The two biggest factors you need to focus on are your overall fitness and acclimatization to elevation. You need to be in good hiking condition and should be comfortable with long, arduous hikes before attempting to hike a 14er. Remember, a 14er is a difficult hike, made even more difficult by the high altitude.
If you live in a place that offers hiking at 12,000 or 13,000 feet, spend as much time as you can getting your body used to the altitude and elevation gain. If you are making the trip to Colorado just to hike a 14er, try to do at least one other hike a few days or a week before your 14er attempt that gets you above 10,000 feet. If you only have the weekend, try camping at the trailhead or doing part of the hike the night before, camping, and summitting the mountain the next morning. These options will give your body a better chance at acclimatizing to the altitude and reducing the risk of altitude sickness while hiking. For more information on preventing altitude sickness, check out this guide.
I cannot stress this enough, but in the days leading up to your hike, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink plenty of water and electrolytes to make sure your body is hydrated. This will decrease the risk of altitude sickness. Make sure you eat well and eat plenty before and during your hike. Your body needs a lot of fuel and will be constantly burning calories that need to be replaced.
Preparing for your hike also entails figuring out logistics such as transportation, parking, and packing gear. Do your research and figure out what time you need to start your hike in order to descend from the summit before afternoon thunderstorms come rolling in. It is not uncommon to begin hiking a 14er between 1:00-4:00 am (don’t forget your headlamp!). Some trailheads require a bit more planning, as parking lots can fill up quickly or may be difficult to get to. In terms of gear, carry only what you’ll need for the day. You want to make sure your pack is as light as possible. Wear comfortable clothing that you are used to hiking in, including footwear. This is not the time to break in those new boots. Last-minute preparation includes checking the weather the night before and the morning of your hike. Do not attempt to hike if there is going to be inclement weather. Have a backup plan or a rain day scheduled.
Actually Hiking a 14er
You’ve done the research, you’ve made all of the necessary preparations, and now it’s time to get out there and hike! Pace yourself, don’t try to keep up with others, and remember, it’s your mountain to climb. Take breaks if you need to and pay attention to what your body is telling you. Everybody’s body handles hiking at altitude differently. Knowing your limits and knowing how far to push yourself are essential when doing big hikes and climbs. There is never any shame in turning around if you feel unsafe or unable to continue.
That brings me to summit fever, which I’m sure we’ve all had a taste of. You are so close to the end that you can taste it. There’s nothing that could make you turn around. This might fly on a normal hike, but when you’re at 14,000 feet, don’t let it get the best of you. It is absolutely vital to know when to turn around. If you are sick or injured or if the weather is taking a turn for the worse, get off the mountain. There is always another day and another chance to reach the summit, and nothing is more important than your health and safety.
Here are my recommendations on gear for climbing a Class 1 or 2 14er. Again, every 14er is different, and some may require more gear than others. Do your research beforehand so that you know what to pack.
- Day pack: A small pack that can hold water, snacks, and a jacket. Need help picking one out? Check out this guide.
- Hydration pack or bladder: Bring at least 3 liters of water. I suggest using a bladder so that you can take sips as you go. If you have to constantly keep reaching into your pack for a water bottle, it is likely you won’t drink enough and will become dehydrated more quickly.
- Snacks! Bring some light trail snacks and/or lunch, depending on how long your hike is. Jerky, trail mix, dried fruit, protein bars, or my favorite trail snack, a bagel with butter, can all be great options. Read through this article for more ideas!
- Trekking poles: You may not normally need these to hike, but trust me, they will save your knees on the descent.
- Layers: It will most likely be chilly in the morning when you start, get hotter throughout the day, and then the temperatures will drop when you near the summit. Start with a short-sleeve baselayer, followed by a mid-layer, which could be a long sleeve shirt or a thin jacket, followed by a light puffy jacket or outer layer. You can customize this to fit your preferences. I run cold, so I like to bring plenty of options. Stay away from cotton. Wear wool or other wicking fabrics so that your sweat dries quickly.
- Supportive shoes: Wear hiking shoes that are comfortable and supportive. Most trails include very steep and rocky sections, so be prepared.
- Headlamp: There’s a good possibility you’ll be starting your hike in the dark, so make sure you have a headlamp (with new batteries).
- Toilet paper, a pee cloth, or a bandana: It is no fun having to use the restroom above the treeline, but you’ll most likely have to at some point. Remember to leave no trace and pack out all of your trash.
- GPS or map: Make sure you either have the trail map downloaded on your phone or GPS device, or have a physical map.
- Sunglasses: The sun is intense at 14,000 feet.
If you need help selecting gear for your 14er hike, reach out to one of us here at Curated and we’ll get you geared up and ready to hit the trail.
Hiking a 14er involves a ton of planning, preparation, determination, and grit, but there is no better reward than that found at the summit of a beautiful mountain. I hope you all can get out there and experience it for yourselves. Happy hiking!