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Climbing 14ers: Getting Started

Gear and Preparation

Some basic preparation is required for any hike in Colorado because you don't want to be "that guy" who grabs a water and heads up a peak unprepared. The unprepared hiker puts not only themself in danger but also other hikers and Search and Rescue (SAR) personal who might need to be dispatched to the mountain to help if the hiker is injured or worse.

You'll definitely want to start out by hiking with experienced partners but also consider taking an entry-level hiking class that covers high elevation hikes, or at least check out the Intro to Hiking Colorado 14ers webinar, provided by 14ers.com member Nick Gianoutsos. It's very helpful and informative. General mountaineering classes are offered at the Colorado Mountain Club and REI has a How to Climb a 14er class.

Spend time learning how to use a map & compass, it's a very helpful skill that could save your life. It's a skill that is often overlooked these days because we all have electronic devices but we still recommend that you have some basic map & compass skills. At a minimum, learn how to efficiently use a GPS device or smartphone with GPS capabilities.

Get in Shape

Hiking a 14er requires a combination of cardiovascular endurance, leg strength, and proper conditioning. To increase your chance of reaching the summit you'll need to train your body ahead of time. Even if you consider yourself to be in good physical shape, you might still need training in preparation for the difficulties of hiking in high elevation. Do more research and hatch a training plan for at least the 6 months prior to your hike. Get to it. For further reading, check out How to Train to Climb a 14er (REI).

Acclimating to High Elevation

If you're visiting Colorado from a lower elevation, you'll definitely want to give your body a couple of days to adjust to the thinner air before you climb. If you can, stay in an town higher than Denver where it won't take long for you to find out how your body deals with the high elevation even before you get out on the trail. Avoid alcohol, excessive caffeine and drink plenty of water. Before heading to your 14er, take a couple of short hikes to see how your body reacts. The high elevation affects everyone differently so don't be surprised if you need 3-5 days of acclimitization before you can attempt a 14er.

Altitude Sickness

Before attempting a 14er, be sure to give your body some time to acclimate at high elevation so you know how susceptible you are to altitude sickness is common for people coming to Colorado from a low elevation and symptoms might include headaches, poor appetite, breathlessness or fatigue. Severe altitude sickness is a life-threatening condition, cannot be ignored, and will force you to return to a lower elevation. It comes in two forms: 1) High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is a progression of the breathlessness feeling, even at rest. It is caused by a dilation of blood vessels in the lungs to allow more oxygen to flow. If the blood vessels leak, fluid can fill the lungs and could potentially cause heart failure. 2) High altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is a progression of headache symptoms caused by dilation of the blood vessels in the brain. If it persists, the blood vessels can leak, causing the brain to swell and potentially leading to a coma.

Sometimes even the most in-shape people—even athletes—get altitude sickness.

Gear and Supplies

For clothing, you'll also want to have fairly lightweight clothing since you have to lug all of it to the summit. You also want to avoid cotton materials because they will absorb and retain moisture next to your skin, increasing the risk of hypothermia. A layering strategy is best, making it easy to add or remove layers to avoid sweating or getting cold:
  • Base Layer: Synthetic underwear wicks sweat from your body
  • Middle Layer: Insulating layer to keep you warm
  • Outer Layer: A shell/jacket to shield you from rain, snow and wind

Here's what you'll need for a summer, day-hike on a 14er. Yes, it's a fairly long list and it does not include gear required for a technical climb, like Little Bear Peak or Capitol Peak. You may be thinking "Surely, that's not all needed to climb a 14er." We implore you to consider the entire list because some of this gear will save if your life if you or someone in your party gets lost or injured and you have to spend the night on the mountain:
  • Water (2-4 liters!)
  • Food
  • Synthetic base layers, top and bottom. And maybe an extra shirt in case it's cold.
  • Fleece, puffy or other warming middle layer
  • Waterproof shell/jacket and rain pants
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Hiking pants
  • Hiking boots/shoes
  • Hiking socks
  • Nylon shorts
  • Watch
  • Pack (that fits the hike/climb)
  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses
  • Knife or light multi-tool
  • Water bladder or bottles
  • Cell phone or smartphone
  • GPS or Smartphone w/GPS and mapping app
  • Compass
  • Map(s)
  • Tape
  • Whistle
  • Matches/lighter
  • Sunscreen
  • Toilet paper
  • Small bag for trash
  • Extra batteries
  • Emergency supplies, including a first aid kit
  • SPOT, Garmin InReach or other personal locator device
  • Optional: Trekking poles (very helpful)
  • Optional: Battery pack and cord to charge your phone
  • Optional: DOG Rescue Harness if you're bringing your large dog
  • Optional: Water filter

The 10 Essentials

And a reminder to not forget the 10 Essentials while hiking in winter:
  • Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger (phone/device: cold temps will shorten battery life, carry a portable charger with cords, switch your phone to "airplane mode" to conserve the battery)
  • Headlamp plus extra batteries (cold temps will shorten battery life, lithium batteries will usually last longer), Headlamps with separate battery packs are popular in cold temps because you can put the pack under a layer or two.
  • Sun protection sunglasses, goggles, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen (sunlight reflected off the snow can increase the chance and intensity of sunburn, as well as sunblindness)
  • First aid: including foot care, frostbite care
  • Knife: plus a gear repair kit
  • Fire: matches, lighter, tinder, fire starter and/or stove
  • Shelter: carried at all times (can be an emergency bivy)
  • Food: For the day and a bit more
  • Water: For the day and a bit more
  • Proper winter clothes: For the hike, an extra layer and for emergencies. An extra pair of socks can help with wet feet or cold hands in an emergency.

Bringing Your Dog?

If you're a dog owner and have a few 14ers under your belt, you may want to bring your dog on your next hike. Please consider this carefully since dogs must be kept on the trails and not be a nuissaance to wildlife and other hikers. And just like you, your dog needs gear and supplies:
  • Leash: Your dog should be on-leash at all times.
  • Water: Don't assume your peak will have a water source.
  • Food/snacks
  • Harness: Much more comfortable for leash use.
  • Booties: Some dogs need them for the long hike on a rugged, rocky trail.
  • Dog pack: Your dog can carry her own gear!
  • Optional: If you have a large dog, consider carrying a dog rescue sling. Each year there are plenty of incidents of dogs needing rescue from a 14er and this device can really help.

14ers.com Mobile App

If you are new to the 14ers and use a smartphone, we strongly encourage you to download the 14ers.com mobile app and become familiar with it before you head out on a hike. It's free and contains all of the 14er route descriptions and trailheads you'll find on the site, as well as trailhead status and peak condition updates. Seriously, we think it will help you and it's a good thing to have if you lose the trail and need to use the mapping functions.