How To Hike Your First 14er In Preparation For A Thru Hike
If hikes like the Continental Divide or John Muir trails are on your list, then one important aspect of preparing for your trek is getting comfortable with hiking a “fourteener”. Even hikes like the Pacific Crest and Colorado Trails summit peaks that are slightly less high, but equally as deserving of proper preparation. Because of this, many thru hike-hopefuls use 14ers as a sort of shakedown hike to prepare them for the big summits they’ll traverse on their routes.
Fourteeners are simply mountains that reach 14,000 feet or more in elevation, and are among the highest points in the contiguous US (with Mt. Whitney being the highest at 14,505 feet). Without proper knowledge or experience of how to summit a high peak, you could set yourself up for a dangerous situation on your thru hike. Luckily, many of these situations can be avoided by property preparing for a 14er or other high peak before you hit the trail. There’s a lot that goes into basic safety when hiking at high altitudes, but for now we’ll focus on covering the in’s and out’s of summiting a 14er in preparation for your long distance hike:
Pick the Right Summit
With over 67 fourteeners in the lower 48, it can be challenging to decide which one to start with. Luckily, these peaks are broken into different classes which help hikers determine the difficulty of each climb. Although no fourtneer is considered easy, class 1 climbs will be the least challenging as these hikes consist of straightforward trails that allow hikers to walk to the summit. Class 5 on the other hand requires mountaineering experience, ropes, helmets, and rock climbing gear. Beginners should always start with class 1 climbs, and can slowly work their way up to more difficult terrain.
We mean like really early – sometimes around 3am depending on your trail. The reason for these early starts is because of severe lightning and storm danger in the afternoons on many high peaks, and the last place you want to be during a storm is above treeline. People die on high peaks every year, so the threat of storms is more than just being concerned about getting wet – often including hail, downpours, dangerous lightning strikes, and minimal cover, alpine storms should be taken seriously. Many hikers opt to sleep in their car at the trailhead so that they can easily start before the sun rises, and be out of any alpine areas before the storm clouds start rolling in.
Be Mindful of Weather Windows
Not every day is a good one to summit a high peak and it’s important to pay close attention to both the weather and trail conditions before you start your hike. Many peaks will receive massive amounts of snow starting as early as October, and these areas often don’t become passable again until June or July. In addition to snow, watching the weather radars can help predict your chances of severe thunderstorms, and at what time you need to be off trail. No matter what the radar says on the day of your hike, be mindful that afternoon storms often pop up suddenly and without warning in alpine environments. Always be prepared to get down to safety at the first sign of storm clouds.
Layers Are Key
With temperatures sometimes ranging from 30-80°F in a single day, packing the appropriate clothes for your hike can be overwhelming. Generally speaking, it’s wise to wear lighter clothes, with warmer layers over top – this way you can take off layers depending on how warm things get on your way down from the summit. Things are often chilly when starting first thing in the morning, and will remain chilly all the way up to the summit. Winds also typically start kicking in the closer you get to the top (gloves, windbreakers, base layers, and insulating jackets are life savers during this stretch). On the way down, the air usually starts warming up and hikers often finish the day in tank tops. Plan to be prepared for any weather condition thrown your way – even if it means bringing more clothes than you typically pack.
Be Prepared for The Altitude
Altitude Sickness has the power to take down even the strongest hiker, and should be taken seriously. Leave time to acclimate to higher elevations before you start your hike, and properly fuel your body with hydrating beverages. One of the biggest obstacles to summiting a 14er is the decreased oxygen pressure, which makes it challenging to breathe that high up. Be patient with yourself, expect to travel at a slower pace, and take breaks when your body asks for it.
Pack The Right Gear
Just like backpacking, it’s important to consider what will be in your bag for a big hike like a 14er. Among other things, proper food, clothes, and tons of water will be necessities you shouldn’t leave behind. Each person’s packing list will vary based on the summit they are climbing, time of year, and experience of the hiker, but a few 14er staples include:
Appropriate Clothing – Warm clothes layered over some lighter options for after things warm up. Also remember a windbreaker, insulated jacket, gloves, hat, hiking socks, durable footwear, and a comfortable backpack.
Hydration – There are often minimal chances to refill water when hiking in the alpine, so bring more water than you think you’ll need. Electrolyte drinks (like Gatorade and Powerade) also help your body by replacing anything you sweat out.
Food for Sustained Energy – Jerky, nuts, and sandwiches are all great options to keep you fueled.
Quick “Pick Me Up” Snacks – Think: granola bars, dried fruit, candy bars, etc.
Sun Protection – The sun is significantly stronger the higher elevations; bring sunscreen and sunglasses to protect yourself.
Map or Downloaded Trail App – A detailed map of water sources, and trail route. (Remember to bring a battery phone charger if relying on your phone).
Trail Sign – This one isn’t necessary, but with many 14ers often not having a marker sign at the top, some hikers opt to bring their own sign to the summit so it’s easy to remember each mountain through photos.
Although it might sound intimidating, hiking a 14er is oftentimes an achievable goal that will help tremendously when preparing for a thru hike. When the going gets tough – and the altitude makes it hard to breathe – just keep putting one foot in front of the other, respect your body when it asks for breaks, and remember basic alpine safely.
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