A Guide to Climbing Colorado’s 14ers - Serac

A Guide to Climbing Colorado’s 14ers

For those wanting to step up their hiking game and test their fitness at higher altitudes, climbing one of Colorado’s 52+ summits over 14,000 feet (“14ers” or “fourteeners”) is a great place to start.* But for a newbie, it can be a challenge to know where to go, what to bring, and how to prepare. This guide answers some of these basic questions for beginners, and it provides great resources for beginners and experts alike to get more information.

Where to go.

With so many fourteeners scattered across Colorado, how do you decide which fourteener you should climb first? The website 14ers.com is the best resource for planning your first peak-bagging trip. To access some of the information on the website, you will need to register for a free account, but even without registering you can access some handy resources to get you started.

The most obvious place to start is the website’s list of Easiest 14er Hikes. This list includes hikes that are rated “Class 1,” meaning they are “easy” hikes on good trails. Practically speaking, this means that the conditions you encounter on the hike are easily manageable by mountain standards. It does not mean that the effort required is “easy.” For example, if you look up a hike to the top of a fourteener on AllTrails, you will likely find that it is rated “difficult” according to their system.

A simple way to narrow your choices from among the easiest fourteeners is to consider which one will be most convenient to you, based on where you will be traveling from:

For those coming from Denver, your are in luck! Grays Peak is a very pleasant, scenic, and straightforward hike. It is not “easy,” but it is worth the effort, and it is a great introduction to what fourteeners are all about.

If you will be coming from the Colorado Springs area, I apologize. The hike to the top of Pikes Peak is more than twice as long (24 miles) as any of the other summits listed, and you will find crowds or people, cars, pets, and a souvenir shop on the top! Pikes Peak is one of two fourteeners in the state that you can drive up in your car (the other is Mt. Evans).

Quandary Peak is among the most accessible 14ers, especially if you stay in Breckenridge. You can sleep in a proper bed and be at the trailhead in 15 minutes! It’s also quite scenic, includes forested and alpine sections, and has a great trail. This is the best choice for a straightforward fourteener that keeps you close to civilization.

One of the most popular and “easy” 14ers in the state is Mt. Elbert. It’s Colorado’s highest mountain at 14,433 feet. If you want to start your 14ers odyssey by reaching Colorado’s high point, then this is your hike. In my opinion, it’s not the most enjoyable hike, and it’s not the easiest, but it adds a feather to your cap! An added bonus is that you can reach one of the trailheads within 30 minutes to 1 hour from Aspen, Leadville or Buena Vista.

Handies Peak and San Luis Peak aren’t the most accessible, unless you happen to be traipsing around southwestern Colorado. If you are, take advantage of the opportunity and climb these mountains! Otherwise, save some time and gas and climb a 14er that is closer to you.

What to bring.

When you climb a 14er, you will encounter people wearing all sorts of things carrying all sorts of gear, but here is a list of the essentials to wear and bring on your first 14er.

  • lightweight hiking boots

  • 20-30L hiking backpack (a.k.a., “daypack”)

  • trekking poles (recommended)

  • at least 2 liters of water (3 liters recommended)

  • food (snacks and lunch)

  • 2 pairs of hiking socks

  • moisture wicking underwear

  • lightweight hiking pants

  • lightweight shirt

  • insulating “midlayer” jacket

  • waterproof “shell” jacket

  • lightweight gloves

  • insulated gloves

  • ball cap/sun hat

  • insulated cap (“beanie”)

  • sunglasses

  • sunblock

  • small first aid kit

  • toilet paper

  • trash bag (e.g., 1 gallon Ziplock bag)

  • headlamp

  • navigation (map/compass/gps)

  • pocket knife or multi-tool

  • matches/lighter/fire starter

  • camera

  • SUMMIT SIGN! (for your picture at the summit)

This list assumes “typical” summer climbing conditions. If you are climbing a 14er in the early or late summer, there is a good chance conditions will be colder and you might encounter snow. Plan accordingly, and consider taking the following in addition to the above:

  • waterproof “shell” pants

  • microspikes or snowshoes

  • gaiters

  • additional or thicker insulating “midlayer” jacket

  • thermal top and bottom (a.k.a., long johns)

  • heavy gloves or mittens

  • face cover (buff or balaclava)

  • hand and toe warmers

How to prepare.


Everyone experiences the demands of hiking at altitude differently, making it very difficult to predict how you will perform. That said, most people who are physically active and comfortable with full-day efforts should be able to successfully climb a 14er. The more you train for your hike the better you will perform and the more you will enjoy your experience.

It is important to focus on long, aerobic activities in your preparation. Climbing is an endurance activity, so HIIT exercises won’t necessarily translate well. As a rule of thumb, your heart rate should be at or below 180 minus your age to stay aerobic. Try to incorporate as much “vertical” as possible into your workouts by climbing stairs, using a stair master, setting the treadmill at an incline (at least 10%, preferably 15%), doing hill repeats, or any other activity that simulates hiking uphill.

You will also benefit from some basic core routines so that you are more stable while traveling over uneven terrain and carrying a backpack. As you progress with your training, consider using a weight vest or weighted backpack (up to 20 or 30 pounds should be sufficient).

Weather and Trail Information.

It is important to know what conditions to expect during your hike. Mountain Forecast has excellent weather forecasts specific to the peak you are climbing reported at multiple elevations, including at the trailhead and summit. Keep checking the forecast in the days leading up to your climb so that you get an idea of the trend and variety of conditions that are possible.

As useful as this information can be, remember that weather in the mountains is even more unpredictable than at home, and that the conditions are much more variable. You should expect and be prepared for sweltering heat and bitter cold during your hike.

You can also find recent “condition updates” and “trip reports” on 14ers.com, as well as other hiking apps like AllTrails. This information is invaluable, as it will let you know of any problems or surprises previous hikers encountered during their climb.

Summer Thunderstorms.

One of the most important considerations for your climb is timing. Summer thunderstorms often develop on 14ers during the afternoon, so you always want to be heading down from the summit by noon. After this, your risk of getting caught in a storm increases dramatically.

To get the timing right, you should plan to take 1-2 hours per mile on your way up and 1-2 miles per hour on your way down. It generally takes twice as long to get up the mountain than to get back down, but this assumes that you don’t “bonk.” Coming down still requires a lot of strength, so if you use all of your energy on the way up then your day could become very long.

“The summit is just a halfway point.” – Ed Viesturs**

* If you thought there would be a straightforward answer to the question, “How many 14ers are there in Colorado?”, then you would be wrong. Due to differences in climbing conventions, like the 300 feet rule, survey data, and aesthetic or subjective qualities, “official” counts include 52, 53, 54, 58, 75, or – by Alaskan standards – 10. Read this article for more of the details.

** Ed Viesturs is the only American to climb all 14 of the world's peaks over 8000 meters without supplemental oxygen. He has also made seven ascents to the summit of Mount Everest.

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