When you first encounter a fourteener, you don’t get the luxury of an introduction. In fact, you probably won’t even see the peak because you’ll be starting your hike in the dark. So before you set out, there are a few things you should know.
What’s a Fourteener?
A fourteener (or 14er) is a mountain that meets or exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet (or 2.65 vertical miles). Not all points over 14,000 qualify as a fourteeners, though; a true fourteener must rise at least 300 feet above the surrounding area.
Where Can I Find a Fourteener?
In the United States, all fourteeners can be found in the western half of the country, with 53 in Colorado, 21 in Alaska, 12 in California, and two in Washington.
What Kind of Terrain Does a Fourteener Have?
Fourteeners have extremely varied terrain ranging from wide, open meadows filled with wildflowers to steep, unrelenting inclines. You’ll likely encounter talus slopes or scree fields—runoff zones where loose rocks have rolled and settled; you should navigate these with caution as the rocks can be unstable. These tough conditions are made more challenging because of the high altitude and thin air—meaning there is less oxygen available as you increase elevation. That said, our 12-week training plan will help you prepare for the intense terrain and elevation gains you’re going to encounter when hiking.
How Long Does It Take?
You can expect the hike to take six-plus hours. However, the actual duration is largely dependent on five factors:
- Trail: The trail or route you choose will directly impact the hike’s duration. The trail length, condition, and terrain will also dictate your time spent on the mountain—for example, a smooth trail will be a lot faster to hike, while varied terrain will require a slower pace to prevent injury.
- Physical Fitness: Being physically prepared and fit will immensely aid your ability to scale a mountain. Meaning: strong legs, core, and lungs will make steep inclines and long descents feel more manageable.
- Altitude: A fourteener’s “thin air” can wind you and slow you down quickly. Know that your body will take a mile or so to acclimate to the available oxygen. Exercises like cardio can help you mitigate the effects of elevation. But how fast a route gains altitude is also important to consider as you weigh what route you want to take. For example, a 3-mile route that gains more than 4,000 feet of elevation leading up to the summit will take at least three hours one way because of the altitude and probable steep terrain you’ll encounter. This translates into 400 flights of stairs. For perspective, the Empire State Building has 86 flights of stairs—so you’d hike the Empire State Building (up and down) two and a half times.
- Weather: The weather will also affect how long it takes to hike a fourteener: summer storms often roll in around noon and can slow you down, so your start time needs to be well before dawn. This change in weather also means cooler temperatures and wind.
- Preparation: You’ll want to prepare food and pack your bag the night prior, so at the very least you’re looking at a couple of hours to get ready. For more info on prep and what to pack, check out our gear guide.
How Do I Pick a Route?
Fourteeners have five classes of approach techniques: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The class is directly related to difficulty level: class 1 entails hiking on a well-maintained trail while class 5 consists of technical climbing. For your first fourteener, a class 1 or 2 approach is the best place to start. Class 1 approaches are considered easier and typically wide-open trail, while a class 2 may include off-trail scrambling or exposed ridgelines. Before you commit to a route, consult a fourteener guidebook or sites like 14ers.com to learn more about class types and route details, and even read other people’s trip reports.
What Should I Expect?
The most basic rule when navigating a fourteener: hope for the best, but plan for the worst. For example, while that bend in the trail might look like a nice area to rest, it might actually be a wide open scree field, exposed to the elements. Here are a few pointers on what to expect when hiking and preparing for your first fourteener.
- Choosing a route is going to take research. You’ll need to consider what kind of terrain you feel comfortable on while hiking your first fourteener. Additionally, know that routes may not be well marked—so refresh your map skills and bring one along with you.
- Prepare yourself for a very long day. The hike will be strenuous. It’s crucial that you start training as soon as possible. Being physically prepared will help you tackle elevation gains, tough terrain, and mentally challenging obstacles.
- Going solo can be dangerous. Get a hiking partner to make the training and day-of experience more enjoyable and safer.
- Altitude sickness is your body’s response to a lack of oxygen. Oftentimes, altitude sickness will manifest itself as nausea, dizziness, exhaustion, general disorientation, and hyperventilation. Some experts suggest spending a few days at 8-10,000 feet of elevation for an easier transition. A training plan with cardio intervals will also help offset the chances of altitude sickness, but this doesn’t necessarily prevent it in full. That’s why it’s better to hike with a partner and have an emergency plan in place if one of you experiences altitude sickness.
- The best time of year to hike is dependent on the mountain range. It can vary from region to region, even within a single state. For example, in Colorado the Front Range has a different “best time to hike” than the southern San Juan Mountains. Generally speaking, August and September are the best months to hike.
- Weather on a fourteener will change throughout the day. Get an alpine start—a 2 or 3 AM start time—you can push it back to 4 AM, but be prepared for inclimate weather. Many trailheads have campsites or overnight parking; consider camping at the trailhead the night prior.
- Leave No Trace: Whatever you pack in—pack it out. This practice ensures that you, and everyone else who adventures on the mountain, is able to enjoy it for generations to come. To learn more about Leave No Trace etiquette, visit their site.
- Have an emergency or bail plan. Be sure to: 1. Pack an emergency kit. 2. Create a “when to bail plan.” A “when to bail plan” should cover what to do if the weather turns bad and how to respond when someone in your hiking party gets hurt, experiences altitude sickness, or feels the onset of hypothermia. The mountain will always be there—so if you need to turn back for the sake of safety, you should. Ultimately both the emergency kit and bail plan will help keep you safe.
As you plan the hike, visualize yourself succeeding. Seeing yourself at the top of a fourteener summit will motivate you to train when you’re considering taking a day off and get you through challenging moments on the mountain. Your first fourteener will probably be the most challenging peak you’ll bag, but it may also be the most rewarding.
Pro Tip: Keep your adventure in perspective. “Adventure to me means putting [yourself] in a situation where you have to make decisions that will ultimately dictate the outcome of your experience or your day…that could mean traveling, or it could mean playing in the mountains, the hills. But to me, it mostly means having the opportunity to put your mental and physical skills to the test and making decisions on the go in the outdoors.“ Jason Antin on what adventure means to him.