How to Hike a 14er: Tips on Difficulty, Preparation and Gear
14er’s can be massively challenging and push you to think about hiking differently, but intermediate and advanced hikers will reap the benefits of superior view, longer hikes, and more interesting locations. If you have graduated from shorter, less strenuous day-hikes and choose to take on that challenge, be wary that hiking past 14,000 feet is no easy feat. With prudent packing and planning, the grueling uphill can easily be managed; one foot at a time. There are ninety-six fourteeners in the United States, all of which are west of the Mississippi River. To find one near you, simply search up “14ers in _______ state,” and make sure to check the difficulty rating!
What Do These Difficulty Ratings Mean?
14ers have a 5 class difficulty rating system. For your first 14er, I recommend taking on a Class 1 trail. The hiking will be straightforward and on a good trail. Class 2 trails are a little more difficult, and can include steepness where you have to be on all fours, an easy snow climb, exposure to the sun or wind, or loose rocks.
Now for a turning point, I’d recommend Class 3 trails for experienced hikers and climbers. Class 3 likely requires scrambling up rock surfaces on all fours, and there will likely be a combination of extreme terrain and weather encountered. Class 4 is climbing with ropes up a mountain, and Class 5 is technical climbing. If you are not a seasoned outdoor climber, do not attempt a Class 4 or 5 fourteener because falls can oftentimes be fatal.
Remember that for all the Classes, the difficulty can rapidly increase due to inclement weather conditions so plan ahead and never forget the weather. For those of you attempting to scale a Class 1-3 fourteener, these points will cover everything you need (beyond a basic packing list that can be found here: What Are the 10 Hiking Equipment Essentials?) to safely embark on your journey.
How Should I Plan My Hike?
One of the worst things that can happen is being near the top of a fourteener and finding that daylight is fading or that a storm is about to hit. During the summer months when you may be itching to get a hike in, be wary of the late afternoon thunderstorm threat that is present on most fourteeners. You do not want to be near the summit when it starts pouring or the clashing differentials produce a psychologically scarring and physically dangerous thunderstorm. To combat this, start early. Very early. Usually called an alpine start in seasoned hikers jargon, be prepared to embark on a pre-dawn start. Depending on your level of fitness and your quickness of ascent, this could be necessary for you. Most people on a Class 2 or Class 3 fourteener should plan for an alpine start, and hikers that are slightly out of peak fitness should plan for a dawn start on Class 1 fourteeners.
Fourteeners typically take 8 to 12 hours so for most peaks you can start out around 5 am, summit at 11, and be on your way down the mountain before late afternoon. Try a Class one fourteener with an alpine start to get a baseline for your fitness level and a feel for your timing! If it takes you more than 6-8 hours and you want to attempt a more arduous hike, make sure to plan an early alpine start and be at the base of the trail from 2-3 am.
Lastly, if the sky starts to darken, be wary of summit fever and turn back. Ideally, you will be out before late afternoon, but remember that there’s no point in being stuck at the top when night falls, so, head back down and try again during another daylight. The mountain will still be there tomorrow, but you caught in a storm or groping your way down a mountain might not.
What Should I Bring When I'm Hiking a 14er?
A fourteener is still a day hike so pack everything you typically need or like to have in your routine, and pay extra attention to these next few items! Wear that fleece and extra layers during your alpine start and as you gain in altitude and pause at the summit. Additionally, a headlamp and hand (+ foot) warmers will provide additional ease and comfort during the first portion of your trip. On the way down the mountain, more likely than not with ideal weather conditions, you will not need your extra layers or light because the hot summer weather will become more apparent as you descend to lower altitudes.
Make sure to hydrate early and often rather than waiting till your body needs water to continue functioning at peak performance. Bring extra socks and used and proven sturdy hiking boots. The extra socks will come in handy to prevent blisters or as a dry change if the morning dew gets your starting socks wet, and the hiking boots that you are familiar with will steadily guide you up the mountain in a comfortable shoe that works for you.
Additionally, consider hiking poles to reduce the load on your knees depending on the steepness of the trail. Consult this article: Deep Dive into Used Hiking Poles: Specs, Materials, Impact if you want to learn more about the benefits of using a hiking pole. Along a similar vein, consider wearing gloves to provide protection when scaling up rocks and warmth in the morning or if temperatures drop.
Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, protect yourself from the sun, especially if you are trekking during the summer! Regardless of your complexion or ability to tolerate sun exposure, at higher altitudes it can be ravaging. Bring extra sunscreen and reapply as needed. Even better, wear a long sleeve UV protective athletic shirt and UV protective pants or shorts. Wear a hat to shade your face, and most importantly protect your eyes from excessive sun exposure by wearing UV protective sunglasses or ski goggles depending on the weather conditions and location. Remember that even if you are hiking somewhere with mild cloud cover and lots of snow on the ground, your eyes will be experiencing much more UV exposure than they are used to, so always protect them.
As a bonus (and this is highly optional), if it is safe to do so and the conditions are right, consider sledding down parts of the mountain on the descent! This can be a fun and safe way to quickly descend certain fourteeners that have adequate snow cover during the desired season, are Class 1, and are well mapped. Sled at your own risk and have fun!
Where Can I Get Gear to Hike a 14er?
Make sure to check out our listings here on Rerouted. We have goods for outer layers, base layers, hiking boots, backpacks, sturdy running shoes, hats, socks, pants, and shorts! Find everything you need to be well protected from the elements during your fourteener and with these tips you’ll return warm and safe. Go out and find your next peak!