Coloradoans love to measure altitude. We all know how many feet are in a mile (5,280), which is the height of our capital city.
Another standard of measure is 14,000 feet, since Colorado is home to 53 peaks that reach 14,000 feet or higher. These peaks have special “14er” status, and climbing a 14er is a Colorado rite of passage.
It’s just altitude
Certain things start to happen at 10,000 feet, where many of the 14er trails begin. As you gain altitude, the atmosphere gets thinner and the temperature drops. You’ll pass the timberline, where trees suddenly decide there’s just not enough oxygen in the air to survive. Most people will feel some effect of altitude on their system.
High altitude sounds very daunting, but don’t let it scare you away. If you like hiking and you’re up for a challenge, you can find a 14er that’s right for you. Colorado 14ers have a great trail system and information to help you. No mountaineering expertise or highly specialized gear is needed. You just have to want it.
Things you DON’T need for climbing a 14er
What surprises me most about 14ers the #1 reason people give for not giving them a try: they don’t have the gear. My #1 response: neither do I. You don’t need much beyond a simple hiking outfit to start out on Class 1 (easier) 14ers. Here’s some flair you can do without:
1) Camelbak hydration system
You will see a lot of people with hoses coming out of their backpacks on the trail. Hydration systems are great for taking in water continuously and gradually. They’re also pricey and not entirely necessary on a Class 1 14er. You can carry your several liters of water any way you want. If you have to stop walking in order to get to you water, then that’s just one more opportunity to take a good look around and catch your breath.
2) New heavy-duty hiking boots
If you’re concerned about footwear for climbing a 14er, the worst thing you can do is buy brand-new boots. On the easier Class 1 ascents, you’ll be on trails where high-top ankle support isn’t mandatory. Hiking shoes will do the trick, or even your trusty all-purpose tennis shoes. The most important thing is that they’re comfortable and already well broken-in.
3) Fancy zip-off hiking pants
If you start your trek early in the morning (recommended) you will be cold in the beginning, warm on your way up, and cold again at the top. Wear shirts in layers. For your legs, don’t get hung up on technical layers and convertible pants. You’ll see people in all combinations of shorts, pants and spandex. I’ve hiked 14ers in yoga pants. I’ve seen gym shorts, army camo, and polyester plaid on the trails. Just steer clear of jeans and heavy cotton, and you’ll be fine.
4) Energy bars and gels
If you eat a solid breakfast and pack a hearty lunch, you don’t have to get technical with energy bars and gels. I had to laugh a bit at a hiking friend who paid $5 for a bag of about 10 power jellybeans with extra electrolytes. Classic trail mix or Snickers bars are all you need for a good balance of fast-burning sugars and slow-burning proteins.
5) Hiking poles
Unless you have knee problems, you can manage a 14er with just two legs. Going without poles frees up your hands to take photos, eat snacks, drink water, add and subtract layers, etc. If you decide at some point that you want a little more support, you can scout out a long branch to use and then discard.
No more excuses about not having the equipment for a signature Colorado hike. Find a good group, camp near the trailhead for an early start, and approach it like the strenuous day hike that it is. For a list of good beginner peaks, check out the Class 1 list on 14ers.com.