How to Hike a 14-er, and Enjoy It

If you have looked into hiking at all in Colorado

you have probably come across the term “14-er.” While it might seem like a weird word, in truth it is just hiker jargon for a really tall mountain (that and that it is over 14,000 feet). Colorado is home to 53 14-ers, with the tallest being Mt. Elbert at 14,433 feet and the shortest being Sunshine Peak, who just passes with 14,001 feet.

Hiking a 14-er seems to be a bucket list item for many outdoor enthusiasts - from both Colorado and beyond. And while it is no small task to conquer a 14-er, there are a couple of tips and tricks you can take to make hiking it that much easier.

Hydrate Before You Step on the Trail

With any hike, long or short, it is important to keep well hydrated, this is especially true if you are coming from out of state (and lower elevation). Altitude sickness is very real - and very, very sh*tty. Drinking lots of water is a surefire way to keep altitude sickness away, as well as many other unpleasantries (headaches, lethargy, etc.). So drink LOTS of water.

When hiking a 14-er, you should really start hydrating at least the night before if not the whole day before. Making sure you are hydrated before you even step foot on the trail will make hiking it so much more enjoyable - promise. A good rule of thumb when planning out how much water to bring is one gallon per person. Yes, it is a lot of water and weight to carry, but you will be so glad you did once you get to the top and you still have plenty left (and no headache to speak of).

Boy drinking orange water bottle in front of lake.
Good hydration = success. PC Maria di Lorenzo.

Bring Sun Protection

Again, with any hike you plan to do, being prepared for the suns rays is imperative. But even more so when you are planning to hike a 14-er. Once you hit treeline, which sits between 11,000 and 12,000 feet in Colorado, you still have over 2,000 feet of hiking to go. Now that is a lot of time in direct sunlight, so make sure to bring a hat (wide-brimmed being the best), lots of sunscreen (and reapply regularly), and longer articles of clothing (make sure they are made out of breathable fabrics).

Keeping as much of your skin out of the suns harmful rays will make sure a more enjoyable hike - and a more enjoyable afternoon afterwards. Because there is nothing worse than being exhausted from hiking a huge mountain and being sunburnt.

Two hikers in front of cloudy mountain.
Get up early to beat the storms. PC Toomas Tartes.

Start Early, Like Real Early

No one likes getting up at 2 AM (unless you are crazy… or at least a crazy productive morning person). But when planning to hike a 14-er, the earlier you get on the trail the more likely you are to actually be able to reach the top. Why? A. You will spend less time hiking during the heat of the day and B. It is very common for afternoon storms to roll in up at that high elevation and you do NOT want to be up there when one comes in (that is how people die).

So make sure to be on the trail as early as possible, don’t worry you will definitely be able to catch up on sleep afterwards when you are absolutely exhausted.

*pro tip: since you will be hiking for a couple hours in the dark, make sure to bring a headlamp.

Don’t Be a Stubborn Mule

As mentioned above, it is quite common for afternoon storms to roll in up at higher elevations (like 14,000 feet…), so in the instance you start to see clouds forming, even if they look super far away, be prepared to turn around. It is not worth losing your life or getting struck by lightning, to reach the peak. We repeat, do not be stubborn and think you can make it to the top and back down before the storm hits. Storms come in fast and remember, you are still thousands of feet from the safety of the trees.

So be okay with not reaching the top. Don’t worry the mountain will still be there for you to conquer next time.

Be a Professional Packer

You probably already know that you cannot go on a long hike and not bring snacks, but knowing the best types of snacks to bring along is maybe something you have never thought about. Well don’t worry - we have done our fair share of trial and error to know what works and what doesn’t. The first thing to remember is that you will be burning some serious calories, so don’t be afraid to bring “unhealthy” snacks. Our favorites are some type of gummy candies (bears, worms, llamas, they’re all good), a few granola bars (KIND makes some pretty delicious flavors), a hearty sandwich (almond butter and banana, or turkey and cheese) and a celebratory candy bar for the top (like we said, unhealthy).

Also, make sure to bring plenty of layers - you never know what Colorado’s famously touchy weather might throw your way. A good packing list is to bring a rain jacket, a pair of tights (or shorts depending on what you start hiking in), a pair of gloves and a cozy hat, and some thick socks. Usually when you start hiking the temperature is a bit chillier (though you quickly warm up once your heart gets pumping) but by the time the sun starts to rise you will be ready to change into shorts (but remember the SUN), but once you get to the top it will be windy, so you will probably need to put back on some layers (it’s a process). So make sure to be prepared, maybe even over-prepared.

The moral of the story is to bring unhealthy food (you’ve earned it) and multiple types of jackets (you’ll need it).

Now all you have to do is hike the mountain. Jk. First, you need to decide what mountain to do (here is a list of all 53 14-ers in the state of Colorado and their elevations) and look at the weather forecast. Then get your best buddies together, pack your bag, grab your comfiest hiking boots and get to the trailhead (and try to get a good nights sleep).

Two hikers on mountain ridge line.
You'll have views for days once at the peak. PC Galen Crout.