An Introduction to Hiking Colorado's 14ers
Over the past few years, I've dragged a number of friends up 14ers with me, answering a lot of questions about what to expect, what to wear, what to bring, etc. I decided it was probably time to finally write down some of my answers - if for no other reason to give some of my friends something to look at as a resource, but also to hopefully help out other people new to hiking 14ers. This information is really just based on my personal experiences hiking, as well as those of some of my regular hiking partners - your mileage may vary.
So you're interested in hiking a Colorado 14er? Where do you start? This guide may help you in preparing for your first 14er ascent and give you some good tips or starting points. As with any guide, take this with a grain of salt - this is based on my personal experiences of hiking in the summer in Colorado, frequently with new hikers. The information described below should be adequate for nearly any Class 2 hike on a Colorado 14er in summer months.
The first question I typically get is, "When can I start climbing 14ers?" It may seem like you can start climbing shortly after the ski season is over, but snow will continue to block the trail (and often the trailhead) until late June. For those interested in just hiking (not snowshoeing or snow climbing), late June/early July is really the soonest I'd recommend attempting a 14er. Of course, this will vary based on the snow conditions and weather of the year, or where the trail is located, but it's a good rule of thumb. Check the forums on 14ers.com to start gauging how the trails are. Hiking season for 14ers is typically July through September, possibly early October on a dry year. There are a lot of great resources online that can help you assess whether a trail is passable yet, based on forum posts and trip reports by other hikers like yourself.
There are a number of fantastic resources to help you in your hike, from maps to trip reports and photos. The website 14ers.com provides excellent trail guides, user forums, and resources for any level of hiker. Their forums are frequently filled with recent trip reports, trailhead conditions, and helpful tips for hikers. Another good site dedicated to summits of all kinds is SummitPost.org which contains all user contributed content for a wide array of summits around the world.
A book worth investing in is Colorado's Fourteeners - From Hikes to Climbs by Gerry Roach, a local Coloradoan who has hiked every route described in the book. You'll see this book in nearly every car at a trailhead. I find that combining Roach's trail descriptions with those on 14ers.com provides the best appreciation for the routes complexity and difficulty, as you get multiple perspectives. If you want even more information, post a question to the forums on 14ers.com. Within hours you'll likely receive plenty of responses from other helpful hikers.
Before going on any hike, I read the description in Roach's book, the route guide on 14ers.com, and then skim 14ers.com for recent trip reports to see if there's any detail that I should know about. Frequently, I'll print out the 14ers.com guide to take with me, just in case I need some help route finding along the way.
Hiking a 14er is surprisingly much easier than most other backcountry excursion - most likely because the trailheads are well maintained, access is easy, and the trails are frequently very obvious. Couple this with the throngs of people you will likely see on your hike, and there is relatively little need to prepare for a hike. You should, however, ensure that someone in your group is doing at least a little legwork to ensure that they know where they are going. It won't hurt if you spend some time studying the route. Despite well marked and easy to follow trails on the easier peaks, people seem to get lost every year.
Google Earth is a great software tool to examine the terrain of the mountain, and you can even overlay USGS Topo maps over top of the satellite imagery to get an even better feel for the terrain. Things to look out for are forested areas, steep spots, possible exposure, etc. I also use National Geographic TOPO software, which has a full set of Topo Quad maps for the entire state of Colorado where I can trace my route, assess the elevation profile, and download data to/from my GPS.
Being in good shape before the hike will help tremendously, but you'll quickly find out that the thin air will wind nearly anybody. The best way to train for being at altitude is literally to be at altitude. The more high altitude hiking you do in a summer, the better you'll feel. Otherwise, the only thing you really need to reach the top is determination. If you don't want to get there, you probably won't. Hiking with motivating friends is a good way to keep your enthusiasm up!
So now that you know where you're going, you probably need to know what to wear and what to bring. What do you really need to get up a 14er, anyway? Really - nothing. I've seen hikers in jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops make it up successfully. Of course, how comfortable you are on your hike will largely dictate how much fun the hike is. Weather can change really quickly in Colorado, and a clear bluebird day can became rainy and cold in an instant. This simply emphasizes the point: there is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing. So here's my suggested list of what you should have for the hike.
I believe the most important thing on the hike is footwear. You'll be on your feet for a long time, and poor footwear will cause you additional fatigue and possible pain, not to mention blisters and sheer misery (I'm still not sure how the guy in flip-flops made it!) I prefer a sturdy pair of hiking boots with good ankle support - the trail is often rocky and uneven, so a good strong sole and ankle support goes a long way to help. Remember that you'll be on your feet anywhere from 5-10 hours, depending on the trail, so comfortable footwear is important. Waterproof boots are typically a bit more expensive, but often worth it. Small streams occasionally flow down the trail, making them muddy and wet - waterproof boots will keep your feet much happier for the day.
As far as socks are concerned, I'd recommend a good pair of hiking socks - wool or SmartWool. Cotton athletic socks will become miserable once they get wet - most likely from your sweating feet - and start to cause blisters. If you're prone to blistering, a second pair of liner socks (typically polypropylene or silk) underneath your thicker socks may reduce the odds of blisters. I hike with two socks, but most people just wear one pair.
A good backpack can make all the difference on a hike. Your first objective should be to get a pack that fits well and has a hip belt to transfer the weight off your shoulders down to your waist. Ideally, your shoulders should bear almost no weight. The size of your pack will be determined by what you need to carry. In the early summer and early fall, I tend to carry a larger pack because my extra layers are bulkier, but mid-summer my layers are relatively thin and I can get away with a smaller pack. Water will likely take up the bulk of your pack, but you'll want some room to cram extra layers, food, and perhaps emergency supplies. I typically hike with a pack that's about 1500 cubic inches (about 24 liters) - specifically the GoLite VO24 pack.
I'm a big believer in the CamelBak-style of water bladder that goes inside of a pack. CamelBak is obviously a maker of such packs, but just about everybody makes a hydration-bladder compatible pack. Some come with bladders, others you may have to buy separately. Why am I such a fan of these? If you have a water bottle, typically it's buried in your pack and so you must stop and dig it out in order to drink. This lowers your likelihood to stay hydrated on a hike because it's such a hassle to find your water. In Colorado, especially at high altitudes, you dry out incredibly quick and staying hydrated is probably one of the most important factors to enjoying your hike. If you have a CamelBak (or similar style) water system, you've got a small hose located at your shoulder, and you can constantly sip water along the hike. This makes drinking far easier and staying hydrated trivial.
- Rain Jacket
If you've spent any time in Colorado in the summer, you know that short torrential downpours are pretty commonplace in the afternoon. For this reason, I highly recommend a lightweight rain jacket to be a staple in anyone's pack. A breathable fabric, like GoreTex, is ideal, because you may have to hike a while in it and your perspiration will quickly soak you if the jacket doesn't breath. A plastic poncho may do in a pinch, but they become quickly uncomfortable due to their lack of breathability. A good rain jacket also doubles as a nice additional layer that can keep you warm in the early morning or at the summit.
The clothes you wear is really dependent on what your personal preference is. Here are my suggestions on what you should wear/bring.
- Don't wear cotton!
Yes - it is the "fabric of our lives" and it's quite comfortable to wear, but it makes for terrible outdoor clothing. Cotton is terrible at wicking moisture away from your skin - an important thing since you will be sweating. Instead, it just gets wet and clings to your skin. Additionally, once cotton gets wet, it ceases to have any insulation value whatsoever. You may be nice and comfy in jeans and a t-shirt on a sunny day, but if it starts to rain (a decent chance on any hike in Colorado) or you sweat up a storm on your ascent, you'll quickly find yourself freezing and uncomfortable with no insulation. Any outdoor outfitter (REI or Sports Authority) will sell a wide variety of polypropylene clothing that insulate well, breath well, and wick effectively.
- Wear layers
This is a common adage in Colorado. Rather than wearing something thin underneath a big bulky jacket, it's better to have 2-3 thin layers that you can add and remove to adjust your temperature. Each of these layers will fit much better in your pack than a bulky jacket, and it gives you a wider range of adaptability.
I usually start the morning with a thin, short sleeved base layer shirt, with a medium weight long sleeve layer on top of that. If it's particularly chilly in the morning, or the trailhead is still in morning shadow, I'll throw on my rain jacket for additional warmth. On my legs, I wear nylon hiking pants with zip-off legs (to turn into shorts), with the legs still attached. Once we're in the sun, I get hot quickly, so tend to shed both the jacket and my over layer. I'll occasionally zip-off my pant legs as well, depending on the weather.
There are a few things that you should definitely carry with you. Here's my list of absolute necessities for the trail. Remember to leave enough room in your pack for your layers as you shed them!
As indicated above, I highly recommend a CamelBak-style bladder. I like the style with an On/Off switch by the bite valve, which will keep it from leaking if you set something down on top of the bite valve (like the pack itself or something else in your car). Depending on the length of hike, I'll carry anywhere from 2 to 4 liters of water (my bladder is 3-liter, so I'll bring a Nalgene bottle for the extra liter). For most hikes, 3 liters is good for me.
You should put on sunscreen before you head out - I recommend SPF 50 (you're hiking at high altitudes and the sun is incredibly intense), but you'll likely rub off or sweat off your sunscreen before you return to the trailhead. Pack a small bottle, or at least make sure that someone else in your group has some.
It can often be cold and windy on the summit, and having a pair of gloves is sometimes a good thing. While not always necessary, they're good to have in your pack.
- Warm Hat
As you ascend, the temperature will drop. On a cold or cloudy day, it can be quite chilly (and windy) above treeline, so a hat for warmth is a real good idea. If you have a hood on a jacket, that will probably work fine.
- Here's what I carry in my pack:
- Goldfish (I like Parmigian) - They're portable, lightweight, and salty
- Planters Cajun Snack Mix
- Crasins - dried sweetened cranberries
- Beef Jerky (I'm fond of Jack Links Carne Seca) - good protein and salt
- Clif Bars
- Gel Shots/Clif Bloks - a quick shot of energy so you don't have to wait an hour for your Clif bar to digest
- Extra insulating layer
You may not need it, but it could be critical if you have to spend the night out in the elements)
- Matches and/or firestarter
- Swiss Army Knife (or equivalent)
- Chocolate for the summit (my friend Shari recommended this as essential...hard to disagree)
You really want good, high energy food with a nice balance of protein and carbohydrates. Avoid foods with High Fructose Corn Syrup (i.e. most foods...), as it does not digest easily. Be careful with overly sugary foods as well that will "burn hot" giving you a burst of energy, but crashing you shortly thereafter. It's hard to recover from these types of crashes on the trail
Optional Items for your Pack
My pack holds a lot of extra gear that's more on the side of preparedness.
I have short hair, so my scalp will sunburn if I don't wear a hat of some sort. Not a pleasant experience.
- Nylon Straps
I carry a handful of nylon webbing straps from REI. These come in really handy if you need to jury rig something on the trail, such as attaching a coat to your pack or someone's pack breaks. They weigh next to nothing, so it doesn't hurt to carry them.
- Extra Socks
If you step too deep into a creek while crossing, or it's raining cats and dogs, your hiking socks may get soaked. Continuing to wear them will undoubtedly lead to painful blisters - an extra pair of hiking socks can make the rest of your day much more pleasant (plus, in a pinch, they can double as mittens).
- First Aid Kit
At least one person in your group MUST carry this - not everyone has to have one.
- Map and Compass
You shouldn't need this to find the summit - the trail should be painfully obvious, but in case you wander off the trail and get lost, you really should have a map and compass to find your way back (and know how to use it).
I like carrying a GPS to get a good idea of what my altitude is, how far we've traveled, and how far left there is to go. Sometimes it comes in handy for route finding, but rarely is it needed for that purpose.
- Hiking Poles
I like hiking with poles - they're a bit of a stabilizer and can take the load off your legs a bit, but this is a matter of personal preference. Collapsible poles are great, because you can attach them to your pack if you chose not to use them.
If you hike with a large group, or even just a few hikers that travel at different paces, small family band radios work great to communicate to those up ahead or behind you. This also gives you more options if a portion of your group decides to turn back early.
- Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer
- Other Odds and Ends
- I have a few other odds and ends that I keep in my pack for various emergencies/repairs. You likely won't need any of this stuff, but I'm listing here in case you felt like carrying it
It's super strong and great for spot repairs
- Extra boot laces
If you break a lace, you may have an interesting time repairing them on the trail, plus you can use the extra one for all sorts of MacGyver-esque solutions.
- Sewing Needles
Useful to sew floss to things. I've seen a pair of snowshoes repaired with needles and floss!
- Contact case
I wear contacts and just in case I have to spend the night in the wilderness, I'd like to be able to pop my lenses out
- Iodine tablets
If I run out of water, I'd like to be able to get more from a stream without worrying about Giardia
- Pencil and small pad of paper
Just in case you need to leave a message for someone, or you're bored and want to play tic-tac-toe
- Nylon cable ties
Another wonder repair material
- Plastic bags and rubber bands
I'm not really sure why I have this, it just seems like it might come in handy...
Now that your gear is all squared away, you've got the route plotted out, and you're dressed for the occasion, it's time to talk about the hike itself (remember why you started reading this in the first place?)
I should start by cautioning some readers that a 14er is not the place to "get back to nature." If you're climbing a peak near the front range, you will be on it with 500 of your closest friends - this is not a place to get away from people. 14ers are very popular to hike in Colorado: they're well enumerated (there are only 54 of them), the trails are well marked, and there are a large number close to the populated regions of the Front Range. If you're expecting a solitude, wilderness experience, go hike a 13er instead - they're practically deserted (yet frequently more challenging!). The farther you get from the front range, the more solitude you will likely have on the peak, but it's rare to be on the mountain alone.
But when should you start hiking? Typically, much to the chagrin of my friends, I like to start at 6am, or earlier. The departure time may vary, depending on how much vertical we have to climb, how long the trail is, and the time of year. I'm more lax in May than in August, but then a little more lax in late September. A typical hiking speed is about 1000 vertical feet of climbing an hour. Of course, this will vary greatly depending on the grade or condition of the trail, but it's a reasonable approximation. This matters for two reasons: when should you leave and how much water should you bring. A long hike will dictate more water as well as an earlier departure time.
Why is your departure time so important? One word: lightning. As far as most 14ers are concerned (at least Class 1 and Class 2 hikes), lightning is really the only risk (yes, you could trip and break something, but the odds of that are pretty low). When you're above treeline, you quickly become the best lightning rod around, so the thing you must always be aware of is the lightning risk around you.
As a broad generalization (perhaps a bit too broad), thunderstorms tend to sweep through Colorado in the afternoon, so a good rule of thumb is that you want to be off the summit by noon at the latest. That said, I personally have been caught in storms as early as 10am, so vigilance and caution is always warranted.
As to the weather, when you start in the morning, the temperature is usually around 40 degrees. Once the sun begins to shine in the valley (which may be a while if you're approaching from the west) temperatures will rise quickly. But, even as temperatures rise in the sun, the air temperature typically drops about 5 degrees for every 1000 feet gained, so it will typically stay pretty cool on the climb up. Wind whipping across ridgelines may affect the temperature as well. Plan on your ascent being cool (rest assured - you will be generating enough heat), but things tend to heat up on the descent. The heat of the sun will have really picked up the ambient air temperature, and you're descending (adding 5 degrees each 1000 feet now).
But what about the hike itself? I find that the best approach to climbing is to set a slow and sustainable pace, taking breaks maybe once every hour. A common mistake I see on the trail, particular peaks with lots of beginners, like Grays and Torreys, is people moving 300 feet then stopping and gasping for air. Each time you stop, it's harder to get moving again as your muscles have cooled down a bit. Minimizing these breaks will work wonders for your ascent. Trying to keep your breaks short will help too, for the same reason. This is one of the reasons why I favor CamelBaks for water - you can drink water without taking a break. I also tend to keep a Clif Bar accessible in my pants pocket or in a reachable pouch on my pack so I can snack while still moving.
The number of people on 14ers demands a certain degree of backcountry etiquette. The principal reason is ecological - the number of people on 14ers can impact the environment catastrophically. The other reason is purely social - your climb, and as a result others' climbs, will be better if people are polite and respectful to you on the trail.
- Minimize Tundra Impact
Above treeline be very careful to minimize your impact on the alpine tundra, or grassy slopes. Footsteps on the soft tundra causes significant damage - it's best to travel over "durable surfaces", which means any rocky surface. For this reason, when you step off the side of the trail, select rocky outcroppings rather than soft tundra. If you're traveling off trail (class 2), minimize your impact to the tundra by spreading out - not hiking single file. If a trail is already worn through the tundra (from other hikers or wild animals) follow it where you can.
- Stay on the trail
In most cases, a solid, well established trail will exist on most peaks - follow it. As indicated above, just a few people treading off the trail will irreparably harm the tundra, causing a new social trail to be worn, which will suffer from serious erosion with the spring runoff and rain storms. Even on rocky surfaces, it's important to follow the trail to minimize additional soil erosion.
- Don't shortcut the switchbacks
Seriously - respect the mountain. This causes terrible erosion when water runoff begins to channel through the shortcuts
- Trail Right of Way
The uphill hiker always has the right of way, because they have momentum and its best to let them continue their pace. When descending, be sure you to step off to the side of the trail when oncoming hikers approach (although you'll commonly find that the uphill hiker will yield to you, as a convenient excuse for a break!)
This one really should go without saying - don't litter! If you see trash, be a good Samaritan and pack it out
- Bathroom breaks
This is a bit of an awkward subject, but I think it needs to be covered. Let's face it - you're on the trail for a long time, you may need to use the bathroom. First, you need to accept that there's very little privacy above treeline - you might be lucky to find a rock or a small depression, but odds are you'll have to trust your friends to look the other way. That said, find a spot well off the trail...if you're using toilet paper, try to dig a small hole to bury it in. When you're done, bury everything so it's not visible, and ideally difficult for an animal to dig up. There's nothing more unsettling then hiking down the trail and seeing toilet paper...or worse! Some very diligent individuals even pack out their toilet paper in a ziplock bag - that's even better.
- Road etiquette
Some trailheads have 4 wheel drive roads as the only access. Others may have a road that a passenger car may successfully navigate, but may be extremely narrow, much like a 4WD road. In cases like this, where passing opposing traffic is a challenge, the rules of 4-wheeling apply: the downhill traffic has the right of way. Why? The uphill driving vehicle is better positioned to see out their rear-view window to back up to a safe passing spot. The standard right of way may give way to common sense: if the downhill vehicle just passed a pullout, they may back up to the best spot - it really just comes down to what makes the most sense.
This really should go without saying, but if you are a slow driver and have a number of cars behind you, take advantage of a pullout along the road to let them pass.
Most 14er guides (including Roach's book and 14ers.com) use the Yosemite Decimal System to describe trail conditions.
Class 1: Well marked and worn trail. No route finding is necessary
Class 2: This can vary from a semi-worn trail to no trail at all. Trail surface may be steep and slick (loose dirt/scree) and route finding may be necessary. Scrambling (using your hands) may be required.
Class 3: Scrambling is to be expected - a good rule of thumb is that, for a class 3 hike, downclimbing will require you to face the rock, rather than face outward.
Class 4: Climbing - usually without a rope, but one may not be a bad idea. A fall may be lethal.
Class 5: Technical climbing with a rope
Getting Started on Your First 14er
So you're ready to go for a hike...where do you go? My recommended beginner hikes are as follows:
- Grays Peak
It's in the front range, so it's close to most people; it's well traveled (so if anything goes wrong, help may not be far away) and it's got a good, solid, gentle trail. The drive up to the trailhead (Stephens Gulch) requires a high-clearance vehicle (or a very ambitious driver in a sedan), but otherwise it's very accessible. A lot of people chose to do Grays and Torreys together - I'd say don't be too ambitious on your first 14er. Grays, by itself, is a good climb. Plus, the view from the top is great.
- Quandary Peak
Just to the south of Breckenridge, Quandary is very accessible and a relatively easy climb. The trail is very straightforward and it's a short climb up.
- Mt. Bierstadt
Bierstadt is a bit steeper in spots than Grays or Quandary, but that just means you get to the top all that much faster! Bierstadt offers a nice climb a bit closer to Denver.
In addition to the peaks I listed, there are plenty of other good starter peaks out there. Short (6-8 miles, round trip) Class 1 or Class 2 hikes should offer a good start.
Good luck - and remember to have fun!