Prepping for a Fourteener - Leading Up to a Hike
“If you think you’ve peaked, find a new mountain.” – Unknown
The weather is warming up and summer is quickly approaching, which means that our annual trip to Colorado is right around the corner. We are just over two months away from heading out the door for our road trip through Nebraska to our home away from home in Summit County.
One thing about us to note is that we are meticulous planners – except when it comes to our trips to Colorado. For these trips, we basically make sure to pack all of our camping supplies, get in the car, and go. We do a lot of decision-making in the moment while there. The one thing we do not wait to decide on, though, is which Colorado fourteeners to conquer.
I’ve been asked before, what is a fourteener? Simply put, according to goColorado, “it is any mountain that stands higher than 14,000 feet above sea level – this is known as a fourteener. While there are 14ers in other states, Colorado claims the most with 54 stretching across its land.”
Did you catch that? There are fifty-four fourteeners in the state of Colorado. With each reaching at least 2.6 miles above sea level, that equates to a lot of trails and a lot of altitude. I’ll be the first to share that on our first few fourteener adventures, neither one of us was truly in shape. It was before my days where working out or running were even on my radar, and neither one of us had ever been to that altitude before.
In fact, I remember our first conquered fourteener – Mt. Democrat – quite well. Our uncle, Barry (another shoutout to the best Colorado tour guide anyone could ask for!), told us it would be a good first fourteener to hike. He shared that he and his wonderful dog Tina would come along to lead the way. Well, I won’t age him, but he is quite a bit older than both of us, and he smoked us up that trail. There were many times where he had to wait for one or both of us to catch our breath or rest our poor legs before we could continue on. Finally, as I think I mentioned in one of my last posts, when he saw the peak, he just continued on and waited for us at the top.
Although he has lived in the altitude for years, it still certainly made us feel out of shape (which we were, in fact, out of shape – but that’s neither here nor there). Not only that, but after we hiked our way back down to altitudes of about 10,000, we were both wiped out, and I got altitude sickness in the form of a nasty migraine. I’d like to say that it was in that moment I decided I would better prepare for our next fourteener, but in all honesty, I don’t think it was. I don’t think another fourteener was on my radar at all because of how nasty I felt.
We have officially crossed eleven fourteeners off our bucket lists – Buzz has crossed seven of those off his bucket list too. That being said, we have figured out some tips and tricks along the way for preparing to hike a fourteener.
Two-Four Months Prior to Your Trip
Be aware of you, your body, and your limitations. Always consult your doctor before starting a new training plan of any sort, especially plans that involve high altitude exercise.
Train and Get in Shape! – Focus on cardio, strength, stability, and flexibility.
I personally consistently do strength and cardio training along with running 2-4 times per week.
Multiple websites suggest to start training 2-4 months in advance, especially if not already active.
If you’re new to training, check out REI’s article with more tips on how to train specifically for a fourteener.
Train at Altitude – A lot of training plans suggest to train at altitude – but for some (like me), it is not a possibility to do so.
If you’re really lucky, you may be somewhere near an Altitude Training Room – an indoor environment that simulates high altitude oxygen levels.
Seriously, though, whether you have access to an altitude adjusted room or not, focus on the cardio. The better the cardiovascular health, the easier it will be on the body to adjust to the lesser amounts of oxygen at higher altitudes.
Practice hills, either by using a stair stepper or by hiking up and down as many hills as possible.
Complete training hikes with a heavy backpack. Trail and Summit suggests to hike with full water bottles that can be dumped out at the top of a hill or mountain hike.
Don’t forget the strength training! I love a good Beachbody on Demand strength workout (and I’m not even a coach! I just really love their at-home workouts).
Yoga is always a good move for flexibility too, whether preparing for a fourteener, a big race, or just as recovery. There is yoga for anyone and any reason – honestly, I just got back from a strength-training yoga session. It was amazing!
Right Before Your Trip
Time Big Hikes Appropriately – Did you know that there are a few very specific windows that are best for acclimating to high altitudes for races and similar activities?
Research suggests that to arrive either 2 weeks early, or only 24 hours in advance. I remembered learning this in my coaching courses as something that really stood out to me (since we constantly visit high altitudes for just one week at a time).
According to VeloNews.com, “While arriving 2 weeks early won’t be enough to fully acclimate, it may be enough for partial or mild acclimation … On the other hand, arriving 24 hours in advance will not offer any acclimation, but it is likely that symptoms of altitude sickness will not set in before your event.”
If a fourteener hike is already on the agenda, it may be a good idea to hike it either on the first day after arriving or two or more weeks into the trip.
Zac and I typically tackle our fourteeners around day five or six of each vacation, but I learned this information shortly after our last trip – and apparently we have been wrong all along!
Drink Tons of Water – Stay hydrated! Right before your trip into a high altitude location, and while there, it is so, so important to stay hydrated. The air at high altitude is a lot dryer than at sea level, so it impacts the body’s need for more water.
Minimize Alcohol Consumption – For the same reason we need to drink a lot of water, we should avoid alcohol. It dehydrates the body.
Get the Right Amount of Sleep – Sleep is so necessary for altitude acclimation. The body has to work that much harder for everything at higher altitudes. Sleep is the time when the body recovers, so the more sleep, the better the recovery.
Eat Carbs – Interestingly enough, high carb, low salt diets have been shown to help ward off altitude sickness.
We have a system for the night before and the morning of a fourteener hike as well, from the snacks we pack to the Tylenol we take (seriously, it's kept us from altitude sickness for the past few years). I will share those in an upcoming post.
Until then, though, I'll continue thinking about our next hike. Doing a bit of research for this post allowed me to run across some of the favorite "first" fourteeners, and Mt. Elbert was listed repeatedly. That being said, there are quite a few of the 54 that we are still wanting to hike, so we will have to do some digging on what will be the best next hike.