by Josh Jacobson
There’s something about the number fourteen. Gandalf knew it when he invited Bilbo to join Thorin and his company of dwarves. There are only so many peaks in the continental United States that climb above fourteen-thousand feet, and if you’re reading this you’re probably kindling that irrationally shared desire to stand at the top of one of them.
Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer or planning a peak ascent for the first time, this list of essentials will keep you prepared for one incredible summit after another. The following are items that I bring on EVERY fourteener (or even thirteener). Some of the more technical ascents (class 3+) may require additional gear, and of course, if there’s something missing here that would make you feel more comfortable, you should bring that too.
Quality footwear is one of the most crucial aspects of a successful summit. If your feet are uncomfortable, it’ll be a bad day. Footwear should be chosen to match terrain, physical condition, and preference. People seem to think they need Gore-Tex, leather, lugged, mid-height boots for every type of hiking. Yet, most of the time a low-cut trail-running shoe is more appropriate. They’re lighter, more breathable, and generally more comfortable. Gore-Tex can be nice for short stream crossings, but the trade-off is breathability. If you have ankle issues or plan to be carrying a lot of weight, you may want to consider a hiking boot with more ankle support.
There’s a unique feeling of self-sufficiency in carrying everything you need on your back. Just remember, you do actually have to carry everything you bring. Using a simple ~20 liter daypack can help minimize that load, and will have plenty of capacity to hold all the gear you’ll need for most routes. Just make sure it fits well and feels comfortable.
FOOD & WATER
DRINK MORE WATER! Some of the greatest dangers on any outdoor excursion are dehydration and heat exhaustion, both of which are directly influenced by a lack of water. As a rule of thumb, carry three liters of water per person on most fourteeners; but as always, check your distance and plan accordingly. Also, if you don’t live at elevation, or if it’s your first ascent, consider trying ‘Acclimate,’ it’s tasty and full of electrolytes. Food is really up to personal preference, but it’s better to bring too much than not enough. Just be sure to get your calories and protein content. I’m a fan of bars, nuts, and maybe a bagel. Stay hungry, and stay hydrated folks.
This is a pretty simple one. Nobody likes to see trash along the side of the trail, it ruins the serenity that we’re all after out there. Please practice leave no trace principles and pack out what you pack in. A gallon size Ziploc is usually enough.
Needless to say, at fourteen-thousand feet you’re a little closer to the sun. Be ready to face the radiation with shades, a sun hat, buff, spf lip balm, and sunscreen. If sunscreen isn’t your thing, long sleeve sun-shirts have also become pretty popular. Just be sure to use protection.
BASIC FIRST AID
With the proper planning and preparation, fourteeners are generally pretty safe. That said, it’s always smart to be prepared in case something does go wrong. For something really serious (like a broken limb), you’ll likely need to get the help of search and rescue. Otherwise, the following items will get you through most situations: knife,adhesive bandages, compress dressings, antiseptic wipes, lighter, toilet paper (also a fire starter), duct tape, 15ft guy-line, and anti-inflammatory pills (for a sprained ankle, headache, etc.).
Hiking a fourteener is no easy task, it’s definitely a type II kind of fun. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, get educated. Basically you’ll be getting real hot and sweaty which means you’ll want to have breathable clothing that can wick away moisture. This includes synthetics (polyester, nylon, etc.) and wool. I’m not talking your grandma’s comfy sweater, I mean technical wool garments that are designed for outdoor activities in warm and cool climates. They’re just so much more comfortable when you’re out being active. In general, just stay away from cotton. In the outdoor industry we say “cotton kills” because it doesn’t breathe or wick moisture which can really kill your vibe.
If you start the ascent early enough, hopefully you can beat the afternoon thunderstorms and avoid ever pulling your shell out of the pack. However, getting caught in the mountains without a rain jacket is like having your pants fall down in front of a large crowd; pretty embarrassing and uncomfortable. Mountain weather can be highly unpredictable, so it’s best to have a rain shell at all times. They also make for great wind protection if it happens to be breezy on the peak. Just keep in mind that while most rain jackets are considered “waterproof-breathable,” you’re still going to get a little wet in a downpour, and you can’t expect to avoid sweat altogether when hiking in a shell. In the mountains, we learn to roll with the punches.
It’ll be pretty chilly on those alpine starts, and even though you’ll be increasing your body temperature while hiking, it can definitely be nice to have that extra layer (or two) of warmth before the sun comes up. Whether it’s an insulated jacket, synthetic pullover, or lightweight vest, check the temperatures ahead of time and bring what works for you.
BEANIE, GLOVES & BUFF
Along the lines of warmth, beanies and gloves are also nice for the lower temperatures in the morning or when taking a lunch break at the summit. Buffs are a great multi-use piece of equipment as they can be made into all kinds of head and neck wear that will keep you protected from wind and sun.
Depending on the season, it will likely be dark out when you first hit the trail. Even at dawn, a little extra light will keep you from tripping over those pesky roots. Headlamps also serve as a precautionary measure in the rare instance you’re forced to camp out on the mountain or finish the hike after dark.
While some may not agree with this one, I think a camera is an absolute essential. Every fourteener is a hike to remember, and I find that bringing a camera along helps me focus and engage with the landscape. I’ll often notice something amazing while taking a photo that I would’ve otherwise cruised right past.
MAP / DESCRIPTION OF TRAIL & TRAILHEAD
Planning and preparation is the best way to set yourself up for an awesome time on the mountain. I generally refer to the ‘14ers.com’ app which has maps, trailhead and route descriptions, peak conditions, and photos which can all be saved for offline access. This is helpful for planning the hike and finding the trailhead, but once you’re on the trail the route is usually pretty obvious. Nonetheless, it’s always good to have the info as a backup.
YOUR FAVORITE COLD ONE
Arguably the most important item on this list. If you forget the beer you might as well turn around and come back more prepared next time. Topping out on the summit is a great feeling, and that much better when you crack open that can and give the open skyline one big cheers.
“The smaller we come to feel ourselves compared to the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness.” –Arne Naess