The Ultimate Adventure Guide to Hiking a 14er

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Hiking trail in the high mountains of Colorado.

THIS ADVENTURE GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIKING A 14ER, INCLUDING WHAT TO PACK, WHEN TO HIKE AND MORE INSIGHTFUL TIPS.

 


If you have ever looked into hiking around the western half of the United States then you might have already come across the term 14er (or fourteener). This interesting term is especially common in the state of Colorado, where you can find a couple dozen mountains classified as being a "14er."


But what is a 14er exactly, and more importantly, what do you need to know about hiking one?


In this in-depth adventure guide, we cover everything you need to know about hiking a 14er - including how to find the right mountain for you (especially if you have never summited a large mountain before), what gear to bring with you along the trail, when the best time to hike in the mountains actually is and finally, a few great 14ers to consider hiking yourself.




WHAT IS A 14ER AND HOW MANY ARE THERE?


In the most basic terms, a 14er is a mountain that sits at at least 14,000 feet or 4,267 meters in elevation. Presently, there are 96 mountains in the whole United States that receive this designation. The state of Colorado has the most with 53, while Alaska comes in second with 29. Interestingly, all 96 14ers are west of the Mississippi River.


The most famous 14ers in the United States are Denali in Alaska (the highest peak in North America), Mount Whitney in California (the highest peak in the contiguous USA), Mount Elbert (in Colorado), Mount Rainier (in Washington) and Longs Peak (also in Colorado).


➳ Explore this interactive map of all 53 14ers in Colorado.



SOME IMPORTANT WORDS TO KNOW:

Tree Line: this is the edge of the habitat at which trees can actually grow, either because of cold temperatures, extreme snowpack or lack of moisture. Overall, most trails up to the top of a 14er are past tree line. In Colorado, tree line is usually around an elevation of 11,500 feet, while in California tree line is around an elevation of 11,000 feet. But in Alaska the tree line is only at 2,000 feet of elevation. This is because of its much more northerly latitude.


Alpine: this term describes the landscape above tree line. Usually, alpine landscapes are quite barren and devoid of any large plant-like trees. The alpine environment is usually quite fragile and should be explored with care.


Summitting: this is the action of reaching the top or summit of a mountain. In the case of 14ers, summitting means you hike to the very top of the mountain. One way you will know you have "summitted" is when you see either a sign, flag or hiking log at the top.







JUMP TO...


🌲 PICKING YOUR FIRST 14ER 🗺 EXTRA TIPS FOR HIKING A 14ER

🍴 HIKING FUEL: WHAT FOOD TO CARRY 🥾 WHAT GEAR TO BRING ON THE HIKE

THE BEST TIME TO HIKE A 14ER 📌 6 GREAT 14ERS TO SUMMIT







 

HIKING A 14ER | PLANNING AND PREPARATION

 






\\ Picking Your First 14er | Where to Start


There are so many options when it comes to picking what 14er you want to hike. In fact, there are nearly 100 mountains within the United States that are classified as 14ers. While it might seem a bit overwhelming at first to decide which 14er to summit, in the end, there are a few things to consider that will help you narrow down the field.


Firstly, where do you want to hike. This might seem like a no brainer but it actually will help you narrow down the number of mountains significantly. While there might be nearly 100 14ers to choose from, depending on what state you are planning to hike it means the numbers shrink considerably. Below are the number of 14ers in each state.



COLORADO 53 // ALASKA 29 // CALIFORNIA 12 // WASHINGTON 2



Secondly, you need to decide how technical you want the trail to be. While all 14ers are around the same height, not all of them are created equally. Some routes simply require hiking on a single-track trail all the way to the top, while others require you to climb across a steep knife's edge. And still others require some serious climbing and snow skills.


Knowing your own hiking skill level will greatly help you decide what kind of 14er you want to attempt to summit. Similarly, this is also one of the most important things to consider in order to stay safe while hiking a 14er for nothing leads to more accidents than being too far outside of your comfort zone.


Finally, one of the last things you need to consider when picking what 14er you want to do is the overall logistics. While figuring out where to hike and what kind of trail you want to spend hours hiking on is definitely important, it is also important to figure out the basic logistics - including how you will actually get to the mountain (is a 4x4 required), what kind of services are nearby (how much preparation do you need to do ahead of time), and what gear you actually need for the hike.


While there are almost a hundred 14ers to choose from, these three points should definitely help you narrow down your search. Just remember, one of the most important things when deciding what mountain to hike is to know your own fitness and skill levels. While we are all for pushing yourself and breaking through your comfort zone, it is also important to remember that hiking a 14er is a challenge no matter what mountain you choose. And if you are totally outside of your skill level you will likely be putting yourself and your hiking partners in unnecessary danger.






\\ What to Pack For Hiking a 14er


One of the most important things to think about when planning your first hike up a 14er is what gear you are going to bring with you on the trail. For not being prepared with the right stuff - including food, water, and clothing - can 100% make or break your hike up the mountain.


The most basic gear you will need to have with you for the hike are proper shoes (comfortable hiking boots are best), a backpack that can carry enough food and water (more on that below), a warm jacket and a wind breaker (the weather at the top is usually quite rough), sunscreen, and a headlamp.


When packing for a 14er, you will want to focus on bringing gear that can withstand long hours on the trail, no matter what type of conditions you might come across. This includes wearing shoes that you can hike 10+ miles in and not get terrible blisters, clothing that is breathable but also warm, and a backpack that carries all of the food you need but is still comfortable after 3 hours of going straight uphill.


You will also want to pay attention to the trail beta when deciding what kind of gear you need to bring. For example, if the mountain includes a lot of scrambling across sometimes loose rock then a climbing helmet is a good idea. Or if the trail is known to be snowy almost year-round, then consider packing a set of gaiters or wearing long pants. Knowing ahead of time what kind of conditions you might be facing is a great way to ensure you are comfortable on the trail.


► You can find our full Hiking a 14er Gear List below.




FOOD AND DRINKS TO BRING WHEN HIKING A 14ER


SNACKS

Salty foods are especially great when hiking since you will likely be sweating quite a bit. Some great salty snacks to bring with you on the trail are pretzels, trail mix or GORP, nuts and seeds, and crackers. Besides packing plenty of salty foods, you will also want a healthy mix of sweets (this will help keep your blood sugar up). We like to pack a couple of pieces of fresh fruit (oranges are great) and dried fruit, some gummies (candy included), peanut butter and chocolate granola bars.


We also like to bring some sort of "victory" food for the summit. This can include a victory bagel sandwich (very tasty) or just a simple chocolate candy bar.



DRINKS

Besides having plenty of snacks with you for the hike, you will also want to make sure you have enough liquids to get you through the whole day. Obviously, you will want to have plenty of water - a good rule of thumb is 1 liter of water for every 2 or so hours of hiking - but you will also want something that has a bit of electrolytes or sodium, especially if hiking in the middle of the summer.


We like to pack little electrolyte packets for the trail, or just have an electrolyte drink already pre-made before starting the hike. Our go-to are the Mio Sport electrolyte squirts since they are easy to carry on the trail, there is a lot less plastic involved and they last quite a long time.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are planning to hike somewhere that has a fair amount of running water then consider bringing a water filter with you. This will allow you to carry less water from the start and also ensure that you always have plenty of water while hiking. See our recommended water filter below.




Sunny summer day in the high mountains of Colorado.





\\ Figuring out the Logistics of Hiking a 14er


Once you decide on what 14er you are going to hike it is time to start figuring out the necessary logistics - namely where you are going to sleep the night before and after the hike and how you are going to get to the trailhead.



SLEEPING

For the most part, many of the more well-known 14ers will have at least a couple of lodging options nearby. For example, many of Colorado's popular 14ers are near the towns of Leadville, Buena Vista, Aspen or Silverton - all of which have plenty of motels and hotels to choose from.


Now, if you don't feel like staying in a hotel or motel, or you just want to be even closer to the trailhead, then your best option for sleeping is to simply camp (either in a tent or in your car). For the most part, all of the 14ers will have either an established campground nearby or be located in National Forest or BLM land - meaning you can camp pretty much anywhere.


► You can learn more about free camping and boondocking in our Ultimate Guide to Free Camping in the USA.



TRANSPORTATION

Besides figuring out where you are going to sleep, you also need to decide how you are actually going to reach the start of the hike. While some trailheads are really easy to get to, some of the more remote14ers will require driving some rougher roads and maybe even a vehicle with 4-wheel drive.


When deciding on which 14er to hike, make sure you read the full beta on getting to the trailhead beforehand because nothing is going to ruin your day like getting your car stuck on the way to the trailhead.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you aren't comfortable driving rougher dirt roads during the day definitely don't take them on in the early morning when it is still really dark (starting early is one of the keys safety tips when hiking a 14er). Therefore we suggest picking a trailhead that is easy to reach no matter the type of car - especially if this is your first 14er. Some great ones in Colorado specifically are Longs Peak, Mt. Bierstadt, Mt. Elbert, Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans.






\\ Picking Your Date | The Best Time to Hike a 14er


While you can technically hike a 14er year-round, by far the most popular time of the year is between the months of May and September.


But with that being said, it is important to note that during the early weeks of summer (and especially the last couple of weeks of May) you will still likely have to deal with a bit of snow, especially when you reach the area above tree line. If you don't mind hiking through some snow while on your way up to the summit, then the early summer might be a great time to hike since it is usually less busy.


Similarly, during the last few weeks of summer (namely during the month of September) you might have to hike in slightly colder temperatures, especially during the early hours of the morning before the sun starts to rise. But just like during the early weeks of summer, you will likely find the trails much less busy.


Overall, we would suggest hiking in the middle of summer (July and August) for the best all-around weather. While this time of year is definitely the most popular time for hiking a 14er, you will be rewarded with comfortable temperatures (even in the early morning), nice sunny days and likely drier trail conditions.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you want to hike a 14er during the busy season, but don't want to deal with crowds of people, then consider heading out on a weekday. On the weekends, the more popular trailheads have been known to fill up really quickly.




Dawn light on Mount Shasta, a 14er in California.






 

HIKING A 14ER | 4 IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW

 






1 | Wake Up Early


One of the most important things to know about hiking a 14er is that you need to get up nice and early in order to have the best chance of summiting and the best chance of completing the hike with optimal weather. During the main hiking season in the USA (May to September) afternoon thunderstorms are quite common. And these storms can be very dangerous if you are above tree line and especially if you are out in the open on a high mountain top.


The recommended hiking start time for most 14er summit attempts is between 2 AM and 3 AM depending on the length of the trail and your overall fitness levels. Plus, by starting this early, you will likely be done with the hike and off the trail by around noon or 2 PM at the latest. Meaning there will be plenty of time for post-hike activities, like scarfing down a whole pizza or watching a movie.


💬 INSIDER TIP: it can be quite cold in the morning when you start hiking, so make sure to layer up your clothes. We especially like wearing a puffy, since it helps keep you warm but also packs down really tightly.






2 | Know the Signs of Bad Weather


One of the biggest reasons you need to start hiking early in the morning is to avoid any possible bad weather. Luckily, because you are so high up and often out in the open (especially once you pass tree line), you can easily get an idea of the weather systems around you. A clear sign of a developing storm are clouds that start to billow/puff up and grow vertically. When hiking up the mountain, make sure to regularly check your surroundings to see if any storm systems are forming nearby.


Other important steps to take to mitigate any danger from these afternoon thunderstorms is to make sure you are checking the weather forecast before hitting the trail (at least a couple of days out) and to make sure you have proper rain gear with you. If a storm does pop up while you are hiking, immediately head back down the mountain to lower elevations (below tree line is safest). Remember: no matter how close you are to the summit, it is never worth risking your life if a storm blows in.




Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.




3 | Know the Signs of Altitude Sickness


By far one of the biggest dangers of hiking a 14er is dealing with the high elevation and the much smaller amount of oxygen. This set up can lead hikers - no matter their fitness level - to start to feel quite sick. This is known as altitude sickness or mountain sickness.


In basic terms, altitude sickness is a set of symptoms that can occur when you walk, hike or climb to a higher elevation/altitude too quickly. Altitude sickness is especially common for people who live at lower elevations (like along the coast) who then travel up to higher elevations to recreate.


There are actually three different types (or levels) of altitude sickness: acute mountain sickness (AMS), high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). The first, AMS, is the least dangerous and also the most common, while the other two - HAPE and HACE - can be quite dangerous and even life threatening in certain situations.


Altitude sickness is quite common when hiking a 14er, especially for people who are coming up into the mountains from much lower elevations. Some of the best ways to counteract altitude sickness are to drink plenty of water, start out slowly in order to acclimate, and get plenty of sleep.


When out hiking your 14er, if you start to feel any symptoms of altitude sickness - especially a headache, dizziness or shortness of breath - slow down, drink plenty of water, eat a salty snack and, if your symptoms don't start to go away, even consider heading back down.




WHAT ARE COMMON ALTITUDE SICKNESS SYMPTOMS


The most common symptoms of altitude sickness are headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, problems with sleep and loss of appetite. More severe symptoms that may occur - especially in the case of HAPE and HACE - are trouble walking and loss of coordination, a severe headache that doesn't get better after the use of medication, confusion, a tightness in your chest and a cough that produces a white frothy substance.


These symptoms often occur within half a day (12 hours) to 24 hours after reaching higher elevations. While they might be bad at first, most altitude sickness symptoms do subside after a couple of days. If the symptoms persist longer or get worse, you may need to get some altitude sickness medication or head down to a lower elevation.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: one of the best ways to help with altitude sickness is to drink plenty of fluids. Water and electrolytes can really help you feel better at higher elevations. Though of course a sure-fire way to feel better is to either spend extra time acclimating before heading out on any big hikes (like a 14er) or heading back down to lower elevations.



➳ You can learn more about altitude sickness, including more information on treatment, here.




Person hiking up a mountain trail in the alpine.




4 | Leave No Trace Practices While Hiking a 14er