Hiking My First 14er in Colorado: Packing Guide and Essential Tips

“The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters”

Conrad Anker
Hiking My First 14er in Colorado: Packing Guide and Essential Tips

This September I crossed off another bucket list item of hiking a 14er in Colorado! A 14er is a mountain that is over 14,000 feet and Colorado has 58 of these giant mountains! The impacts of being at this elevation make it way more challenging than your regular hike and all the more rewarding when you reach the peak! 

My friend and I hiked Mt. Bierstadt (14,065 feet), which is one of the 14ers that is closer to Denver being about 90 minutes away. I highly recommend having a hiking buddy for this intense hike, especially if it is your first 14er! 

A few days before

Depending on where you are visiting from, it is important to take elevation into consideration and give yourself a few days to adjust to Denver’s elevation of 5,280 feet. This is also a great time to go to the store to grab food, snacks, and anything else you might need for the big hike! If you have enough time, I recommend going on a hike over 12,000 feet or 13,000 feet to understand how your body reacts to the elevation change. 

Also, don’t forget to begin hydrating a few days prior to the hike!

The night before

We camped on Bruno Gulch Rd, which is a dispersed camping aka free camping site a quick 15 minutes from the trailhead. Since it is a free campsite, I would recommend arriving early to claim a spot with incredible views all around. The road to the campsite is a bit bumpy, so just go slow and you’ll be fine! I don’t have an AWD car and we did not have any issues. For the elevation, I found it helpful to sleep and spend several hours at about 9,700 feet the night before hiking up to 14,065 feet in elevation! Going from 5,280 feet to 14,065 is a huge just compared to a roughly 4,300 feet jump in elevation from the campground. I will note that since a cool front was coming in, it was pretty windy and woke us up during the night. We packed up everything we could to make clean up in the morning as quick as possible

The morning of the hike

We woke up bright and early around 4:30am, so early we got to see an insane amount of stars in the sky since it was still dark. We packed up the tent and additional gear relatively quickly, changed into our hiking gear and all the layers, and set off for our 15 minute drive to the trailhead! Remember to apply chapstick and sunscreen to protect your skin against all the elements ahead. 

Since the hike takes roughly 6-8 hours, a majority of hikers start very early around 5:30am-6:30am when it is often dark out. Due to the early wake up call, I recommend camping close by and having a short drive over a long 1.5 hour drive from Denver. Make sure to use the bathroom prior to starting the hike because there is not one on the mountain. 

During the hike

We started with lots of layers since it was roughly 30 degrees and our headlamps and followed the trail of other headlamps going up the mountain. This is a popular and “easier” 14er so we felt good about seeing a lot of people on the trail, especially in case something were to happen to us. 

This hike was insanely challenging, WOW! I’ll share my recommended packing list below, but man was I thankful I brought my trekking poles. The hike has an elevation gain of about 2,850 feet and trekking poles really help with both the incline and decline. As we hiked up, the sky began to brighten and we got to enjoy sunrise which was a cool experience. Due to the chilly temperatures, my water bladder froze and wouldn’t come through the tube. Thankfully, I also had a water bottle that was easily accessible (which I highly recommend) and was able to stay hydrated. Towards the top, there is definitely a bit of rock scrambling. There weren’t any scary ledges, but you’ll want to be careful with your foot placement and create a strategic path to the top! In general, just follow the other hikers and you should be good. 

Almost at the peak!

It was easily below freezing at this point and we were so close to the top! I definitely felt my fingers and toes get a little too cold and honestly think the lack of oxygen was affecting me. I felt a little more silly, yet still very determined to make it to the top since we had come all this way. Then, WE MADE IT! We found the official seal in the ground, took a few quick pictures, and enjoyed some snacks before beginning our journey back down. 

Hiking My First 14er in Colorado: Packing Guide and Essential Tips

All done, WOW!

We journeyed down the mountain, took our “we finished” photo, went to the bathroom (finally!) and came back to our reward treats we left for ourselves. I packed a topo and skittles and my friend packed their favorite soda and a snack. We changed out of our hiking gear, put some comfy shoes on, and made our way to get some post hike pizza! 

For those who want to hike their first 14er or need a refresher for an upcoming hike, here’s a few additional tips and recommendations for packing:

  • Plan to hike a 14er between June and August to have warmer weather. I went at the end of September and we experienced freezing temperatures on the hike, so pack accordingly if you plan to hike in late September or cooler months. 
  • Take plenty of breaks to breathe, to snack, to drink water, and to take in the incredible views
  • Wear
    • Over pack! With changing weather elements (rain, snow, sleet, wind, sun) make sure you are over prepared
    • Wear enough layers depending on the weather, noting it gets much colder at 14,000 feet! Hiking in cooler temperatures, I packed a rain layer, puffer jacket, puffer vest, thermal layers; I wore 4-5 layers for a majority of my hike to stay warm
    • Comfortable workout clothes, I’m wearing Outdoor Voices (this link will give yo $20 off your order!)
    • Hiking socks, I’m love my Smartwool socks my brother got my for Christmas one year
    • Good hiking boots, I love my Keen hiking boots; Salomon is a great brand as well!
    • A bandana is great to keep your face warm, be used as a mask, and face cover against the crazy wind
    • A beanie
    • And gloves or mittens
  • Hiking accessories
    • Camera (phones work too): to capture your hard work and big smile at the peak!
    • Sunglasses

What would I have done differently?

Overall, I felt like we were very prepared wearing lots layers, packing plenty of snacks for fuel throughout the hike, adjusting to altitude, but there are three main things I would consider changing that all relate the staying warm and being aware of the weather:

  • Hike in a warmer time. We went at the very end of September and with the recent cool front bringing freezing temperatures, I would suggest hiking a 14er between June-August
  • Pack or wear another pair of socks. My toes got a little tingly towards the top and I also have Raynaud’s Syndrome, which means I have poor circulation my extremities aka I get cold easier than most. Check the weather and pack accordingly for your hands and toes!
  • Speaking of hands, I would have packed thicker gloves or mittens. Same situation with my Raynaud’s Syndrome, I wish I had thicker gloves or mittens to keep my hands even warmer! We also used little hand warmers in addition to our gloves/mittens, but I think better performance mittens would have been ideal!

I hope you find these tips helpful and encourage you to hike one of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet! If you have any questions or additional tips for hiking a 14er, please comment below!

With wanderlust, 

Haley

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