7 Tips to Hiking and Summiting Your First Fourteener Mountain
First, you may be wondering what is a 14er? “Fourteener” or 14er basically represent a class of mountains that are at least 14,000 feet in total elevation. Another commonly applied rule is that the “14er” must also have at least 300 feet of prominence in order to be considered a true 14er. In the United States, there are 96 total peaks that are commonly classified as 14ers. Colorado has the most, with 53 total. Alaska the second, with 29 peaks over 14,000 feet, and it also has the tallest peak in the United States (Denali). There are 12 in California, with Mount Whitney being the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. Then there are 2 in Washington.
I remember when I first moved out to California, hearing about the California 14ers and thinking, “Wow, maybe one day I will be able to do that.” Then that one day came sooner than I thought. I met some friends who essentially convinced me to start mountaineering with them, even though I had never gone before, and one of my first mountaineering trips also happened to be my first California 14er, Mount Whitney via the Mountaineers Route. Was I prepared for it? Not nearly enough! But it taught me so much about what it takes to get ready for hiking big mountains, and I haven’t looked back ever since. Since then we have hiked Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, White Mountain, Mount Langley, and attempted a summit of Grays Peak in Colorado. So if you’re just getting started and want to summit your first 14er, below are 7 of my personal tips to help guide you to your best chances for success.
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1) Choose the 14er You Want to Climb and Evaluate Your Objective
Not all 14ers are created equal. Some can be climbed in a day, and some should maybe be backpacked over 2-3 days. Some 14ers are technical and may require additional skills like mountaineering or rock climbing, but some 14ers have a trail all the way to the summit. Take into consideration your skill level and do a lot of research before choosing your first 14er. For your first 14er I would recommend choosing something that is “Class 1”, meaning it is not technical and can be hiked without additional gear. Let me use California 14ers as an example. White Mountain is probably the “easiest” California 14er. The trailhead starts around 12,000 feet, there is only about 3,000 feet of elevation gain total, and there is an easy to follow trail all the way to the summit. Mount Langley is also considered “easier” of the 14ers, but it has a lot more mileage than White Mountain, so you might possibly want to “backpack” this hike (although many people do it in one day too, again, it depends on your skill level). There are some “very slightly” technical route-finding skills you may need on Langley, but if you are prepared ahead of time, it shouldn’t be an issue. Finally, Mount Whitney is also considered and “easier” 14er since it is so accessible and there is a trail all the way to the summit. However, Whitney can be a brutal first 14er due to its intense amount of elevation gain and mileage. If you choose it for your first, I also recommend considering to backpack it. I think a lot of newbies underestimate how much actual gain there is on Mount Whitney, and will not reach summit because they tried to do a day push of the peak. If you are in Colorado, Alaska or Washington, just be sure to do your research before choosing a summit.
Another thing to consider when picking your 14er is to check if you need permits to hike or not? Many of the California 14ers require permits in order to get access to hike the trails and I imagine it is similar for many peaks in Colorado, Washington, and Alaska. I’ll be writing a post here soon all about the California permitting system, so make sure to subscribe to our newsletter to be notified of when that goes live. If hiking a 14er is on your list of goals this year, check if you need permits way ahead of time, because some peaks like Mount Whitney have a very competitive permit lottery system. White Mountain, on the other hand, does not require any permits to hike. Sometimes you can get “walk-in” permits day before or day of a hike, but then you are taking more of risk because it isn’t guaranteed you’ll get in. However, I have had many friends who were able to snag Whitney permits the day before their hike with this walk-in system. I usually prefer to reserve things in advance.
Will you do this hike as a one day push or will you make it a backpacking trip? Often this depends on your fitness level. Consider what distances have you hiked in the past. If you have only hiked 5 miles total ever, you may want to “Backpack” your first 14er. Yes, you’ll have to carry more weight on the hike in, but you’ll also get to break up the mileage and elevation gain into multiple days. You also may choose to backpack a mountain in order to enjoy the backcountry more, like me and my friend Cara did for Mount Langley, it’s such a beautiful hike! You might also consider backpacking if you want to minimize your chances of getting altitude sick. Altitude sickness is no joke and can be one of the main reasons why you don’t summit your first 14er. A good way to mitigate altitude sickness is to help your body acclimate to different elevations. Backpacking is a good way to do that because you break your hike and elevation gain up. If you want to hike your first 14er in a one day push, make sure that you are in great physical condition, and possibly consider a 14er that has less mileage and elevation gain. Don’t forget, summiting a 14er is only half the adventure, you still have to have energy to make it back down safely to your car.
Find a Hiking Buddy! I definitely recommend hiking with a friend or two for your first 14er. It’s really great to have a team to help get you through the tough parts of the hike and encourage you to the summit. However, be selective with who you pick. Makes sure they are dedicated to train for the hike. The last thing you want is to get to your “hike day” and your friends bail on you or even worse, they attempt the hike with you but give up way too early because they didn’t prepare at all. Obviously, there are reasons for turning around that can happen to anyone, like altitude sickness, but don’t let a lack of preparation, or your friend’s lack of preparation, be what keeps you from summiting your first 14er!
Finally, to summarize, here are the things to consider when you are deciding on a 14er to hike:
- How many miles round trip is the hike?
- How much total elevation gain is there on the hike (total elevation gain is all the ups along the whole hike, so don’t just subtract the peak elevation from trailhead elevation, oftentimes there is much more elevation gain than just that)
- Do you need permits?
- Will you hike the peak in one day or will you backpack it?
- Who are you hiking with?
2) Create a Training Plan
Ok, assuming you’ve picked a 14er, now let’s think about training and preparing your body for the elevation gain and mileage we will be putting it under. You can get as complicated or simple with your training as you’d like. There are a lot of good training resources, but if you want to keep it simple, here are a few things I suggest:
Start training 3-5 months out from your big summit. If you are already a pretty active hiker, then training shouldn’t be too difficult for you. What we want to focus on is making sure we are adapting our body to miles and elevation gain. So, plan to, over time, increase your weekly mileage and elevation gain.
Let me do an example. Let’s say your big 14er hike is 15 miles roundtrip, and the elevation gain is 3,000 feet of gain. Then over the course of the next few months, make sure your total weekly training mileage is more than 15 miles, and just keep increasing it with time. Here is a really simple example, which can either be done on a treadmill or on a local trail you have near where you live:
- Weeks 1-4
- 3-4 cardio sessions per week with 3-4 miles/session and 500-700 feet of elevation gain minimum + for additional benefit, add on a 10 lb. pack while you exercise
- Weeks 5-8
- 3-4 cardio sessions per week with 5-7 miles/session and 1000-1500 feet of total gain minimum + for additional benefit, add on a 20lb pack while you exercise
- Weeks 9-12
- 3-4 cardio sessions per week with 6-8 miles/session and 1500-2000 feet of total gain minimum + for additional benefit, add on a 30lb pack while you exercise
- Summit time!
The above example is really simplified, but you can get the gist. You want to increase your mileage and gain each week, and slowly adapt your body to the strains. It can also be beneficial to add in some leg exercises too like lunges and squats to build your leg muscles further, but if all that stresses you out, just keep it simple and start hiking more! Here is the book I recommended reading if you’d like to dig further into training for a big hike:
Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete - This book is fantastic! If you are interested in getting really knowledgeable about how training works and how your body adapts to training, I highly recommend this book. I haven't seen anything else out there better than this. It may seem like more focused on climbers and mountaineers, but it is a super excellent resource for hikers and backpackers too. Back in 2015 I even wrote a post about it.
3) Train Like Crazy!
This might be obvious, but after you’ve picked your peak and created your plan, you need to start training! Don’t keep putting it off because before you know it your hike will be here and training will help you be ready for summit day success. Get a training partner and keep each other accountable. Start a journal to track your hikes and training details! Track your weekly mileage and elevation gain to make sure you are on track for your summit. I like to use an excel sheet to track my training details, you can download my training tracking sheet below for only $3 if you’d like to use it.
Download the Training Log Template
A simple Excel Template for creating your training plan and then documenting your workout log.
4) About a Week or Two Out - Plan Your Trip and Hike Details
So now that your hike is only a week or two away, it’s time to start planning for some of the little details that you’ve been putting off. Here is what I like to research or write down about a week or two out from any of my hikes:
- How am I getting there? Is the trail easily accessible in my car? Do I need a 4x4 vehicle to get to trailhead? Some trails don’t have easy access to trailhead and you may even need to take a shuttle to trailhead. Look into this ahead of time to determine how you will get there.
- What time do you plan to get there? It’s often nice to sleep at a higher elevation the night before your hike so you can help your body adapt to elevation (remember our discussion about altitude sickness above?). Since where I live is close to sea level, I usually like to drive up the night before a hike, sleep at trailhead so that I start to acclimatize my body. If you drive up the same day as your hike be prepared that you may experience more altitude sickness feelings.
- Is your trail out and back, or is it point to point? If you will end up in the same location as your original trailhead, then the car situation is simple, but some trails start and end at different locations. If that’s the case, you may need to arrange to have 2 separate cars, or arrange some sort of shuttle for your hike.
- If I have a permit for the hike, where do I pick up there permit and what times am I able to pick up the permit? Do I need to call ahead to notify the rangers for a late permit pickup or after-hours pickup?
- If I am backpacking, do I need a bear canister? If I don’t own one, do I need to rent one? In California, a lot of trails in the Sierra require you have a bear canister if you are spending any over-night time in the backcountry. Be sure to check out your parks regulations for the hike.
- Does the trail have a reliable water source along the hike? It’s good to do some research on this beforehand. If it does, consider bringing a water filter with you. If it doesn’t, make sure you pack enough water! People like to recommend a liter of water for ever 2 hours of hiking, so it really depends on your body and the conditions. Is it going to be super-hot out? You might need more water than that… but it is also not super practical to carry around 10 liters of water. For White Mountain, which took us about 7-8 hours to hike (15 miles RT and 3400’ of gain) I packed about 4 liters of water. Hydration is also another key important part of keeping your body functioning properly on a hike and helping to prevent altitude sickness, so make sure to drink water on your hike even if it’s cold out or you don’t feel like you need it.
- Do you need to buy a map for the trail? I always like to have one physical map and I like to download a GPX file to load into my GPS.
- Weather, start keeping track of what the weather is going to be like for your hike. If there is going to be some epic weather, you may have to postpone your trip, or maybe you just need to pack a little bit differently. It depends on your experience, comfort zone, the route technicality, etc.
5) Pack for Your Hike
For a full detailed list on what I consider essential day hiking gear, please refer to my blog post on Essential Day Hiking Gear List. It will have everything you need for a day hike on it.
If you would rather download the above list for reference, you can get access to the download below:
Essential Hiking Gear Packing List
Download the essential hiking gear packing list for easy reference next time you pack for a hike.
6) Hike and Give It All You’ve Got!
It’s go time! This is the moment you’ve been waiting for and training for! It’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to take all of your mental and physical strength to get through the hike, but give it all you’ve got. Leave everything on the trail, no regrets. Assuming you’ve done your research (as we discussed above) on your particular hike, make sure to start early enough in the morning so that you can plan to be OFF of the summit before noon. A lot of mountains tend to get afternoon showers and thunderstorms fairly consistently around noon. So, make sure to check the weather the day of or before your hike, and make sure to start early enough in the morning to avoid any thunderstorms. Thunderstorms can be very dangerous at high altitudes and not something to risk messing around with. Check out this one book called Lightning Strikes for more information on how to prepare for thunderstorms in the mountains, and what you should do. It is a short easy read with great information. On the day of the hike here are some good rules of thumb I like to follow:
- Try to hike at least one full hour before taking any breaks, and when you do take breaks, take shorter 5-10 minute breaks to keep the pace going.
- Every break that you take, make sure to eat a little something and drink water. This is also a good time to re-apply sunscreen
- If it is really warm outside and you are feeling like your feet are sweating, change your socks and let your sweaty pair get some air on the back of your pack. Dry feet are one of the key ways to prevent blisters!
- Listen to your body. If you start feeling too sick, dizzy or nauseous, consider turning around. The peak isn’t going anywhere. You can come back and try it again. You definitely don’t want to get to a point where you are throwing up or so sick that you can’t even get off the mountain. Don’t rely on other people to help you down, listen to your body and make good judgement calls.
- Sign the summit Register! If you get to the top, celebrate! Sign the register and enjoy the views, but don’t forget that getting to the top is only half of the hike, you still need to make your way back down.
Woo hoo! Whether you summited your first 14er or had to turn around early due to altitude sickness, or there was bad weather, or because your body just couldn’t take the abuse. Believe me, there have been times I’ve had to turn around 400 feet from a summit due to exhaustion or injury… or perceived ability…. it happens to all of us. Regardless of the outcome, you should celebrate because you gave it your all and you went out and gave the trails and the mountains all you had. You’ve earned that pizza, or whatever it is you like to celebrate with. Be proud of yourself. There is so much more reward to hiking a 14er than just reaching the summit. If you’re anything like me, once the pain and soreness has worn off, you’ll begin plotting your next adventure in no time.
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