Frigid, sixty-mile an hour winds.
Blazing hot sun.
These are just a few of the words I would use to describe my experiences with hiking 14ers.
After hiking five of these last summer, I can tell you, there's something really magical about being on top of the world, knowing you defeated a mountain.
But with the intensity of a 14er hike, you need to be equally prepared with both gear and physical fitness.
I've put together a comprehensive list to ensure you have the best experience possible with adequate preparation.
Before I dive into the list, I want to mention a few other things....
.... if you are from out of state where there is no altitude, I highly recommend staying in Colorado a night or two before your hike. Altitude sickness is your biggest risk and this can help prevent that.
....you will need to start your hike around 5 or 6 am as you want to be descending before noon to prevent being exposed to lightening. Basically every afternoon the mountains have storms and since you will be hiking above tree line, you are a lightening target (not to scare, but it's a real risk if you don't get an early start).
...often times you have to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get to the trailhead, otherwise you have to park quite a ways away as the roads can be tough to get up without the 4-wheel.
Okay, on to our list!
1. Sun protection
Regardless of whether or not you are prone to burn, skin protection is absolutely essential at altitudes of 14k feet. I recommend sunscreen, chapstick, hat, quality sunglasses, gloves (yes, your hands will burn), and a light shirt to wear in case it's warm but you just want to keep your arms covered.
Especially if you are coming in from out of town, you must be hydrated before hiking a 14er. The risk of altitude sickness is much higher if you aren't properly hydrated. You will need to bring a hydration pack (needs to have at least a 2L water container).
Temperatures and weather conditions can vary greatly when hiking at 14k feet. It's a good idea to wear a synthetic or wool t-shirt (no cotton) followed by a light base-layer. Wear or bring a fleece or similar mid-layer, and a light, compressible puffy jacket (preferably waterproof or resistant) and a stocking hat.
You will be taking clothes off and on throughout the hike as temperatures fluctuations will change from one minute to the next. I can't emphasize layers enough!
Also, it will likely be very cold when you start your hike. Even in lower elevations like Denver, the mornings can be cold but beginning your trek at 12k feet, temperatures will likely be in the 20's with the possibility of frigid winds.
4. Hiking Shoes
Make sure you wear comfortable, durable hiking shoes. Having good trek on the bottoms will be helpful during your descent on loose rock.
Your feet will take a beating so make sure they are shoes that won't give you blisters and also wear Merino wool socks to prevent any blistering and sweating.
5. First Aid Kit
Accidents can certainly happen during adventure like these so make sure you are prepared with a good first aid kit.
Additionally, you will want to bring some toilet paper, because, nature sometimes calls, ya'll.
These are certainly optional, but they may be a lifesaver for you on the descent. Especially if you have bad knees or IT band syndrome, these are very helpful in taking pressure off of your legs.
The ones I linked above are collapsable so you can stow them in your bag when you don't need them.
7. Quick Food
Carbohydrate rich snacks: dried fruit, hearty muffins, bananas, etc and quick lunch options like jerky, paleo bars, nuts, and boiled eggs are great places to start.
Hiking a 14er requires a decent level of physical fitness and even catches those who are very fit off guard with the intensity at times.
You must remember, you are at very high altitude so it's going to feel much more intense than your workout at the gym. If you are coming in from out-of-state, I would focus just as much on cardio as you do strength to improve your cardiovascular output to compensate for the altitude factor.
I recommend working out 4-6 times per week with the following strength, explosive movements, and cardiovascular work:
1. 3-5 miles runs w/ hills (or incline on treadmill or other machine)
2. sprint session: sprint 20 second on, 20 off X 10 (you can do this running or on any machine)
3. Long walks (7-10 miles; preferably with hills or elevation gain)
Strength Moves: (pick 2-3 moves, 10-20 reps x 4 sets)
-Step ups (hold as much weight as possible), bulgarian split squats, planks, single-leg glute thrusts, plie squats (hold heavy weight), walking lunges, barbell thrusters