So you’ve decided to hike or climb a 14er… However you don’t know when you should get started on your trek. The answer depends on a couple simple factors, though you’ll probably be surprised at how early we suggest. Typically in the Rockies, we aim to summit by noon, so we can be off the summit and ridgelines by 1pm at the latest – this keeps us safe from common afternoon thunderstorms. Here are a few things to consider when answering What Time you should Start Hiking a 14er, including the time of year, class distance, and altitude. Don’t forget to set a firm turn-around time too!
What time of year is it? Winter climbs require more time.
If you’re like most sane people, you’re planning to hike in the summer. In this case, you need to aim to summit before noon (some say 1pm at the latest – but why tempt fate?). In the wintertime, you don’t have afternoon thunderstorms to worry about, so you don’t need to be off summit by afternoon. However most winter climbs are long, arduous trips that require more than a full day. You should still plan to leave early to avoid hiking back in the dark. For summer trips, I try to ensure I leave right around dawn, while in the winter I try to get to the trailhead an hour or two before sunrise.
What Class is the Route? How Technical is it?
This is common sense, but it’s worth repeating: A Class 3 Route requires substantially more time than a Class 2 Route. Longs Peak’s Keyhole Route is a great example: It’s a 6 mile route from trailhead to summit. However the final mile of scrambling and climbing takes most people as long as the first 5 miles of hiking. If you are doing a Class 2 or 3 peak, factor in at least an extra 1-2 hours for the scrambling portion of the route, depending on how long it is. Consider researching other climbing times on 14ers.com to have an estimate of the time requirements.
Factor in the Distance and Altitude to Climb.
14er routes range a LOT in distance – from 6.5 miles roundtrip on Quandary Peak, to the 20+ mile Barr Trail up Pikes Peak. Generally, you can expect to hike around 2 miles per hour, though that may be inaccurate if you’re out of shape or not acclimated. The amount of altitude you need to climb also matters: The rule-of-thumb is to ascend about 1,000 feet per hour on average. If you have 4,500 feet to climb, with an 8 miles route, a realistic guess would be 4-5 hours to summit. That would require hitting the trail by 7am at the latest. If this was a winter climb, I’d add another 1-2 hours for wiggle room, and be on the trail by 5am.
When planning a route with a long approach, remember that you can hike faster at lower elevations where the slope isn’t as aggressive. However, keep in mind that you’ll also drag along more on your return trip, sometimes significantly slower than your way up.
Don’t Forget a Turnaround Time Too!
Once you’ve figured out your Starting Time, your job isn’t done. Take a moment to set a firm turnaround time as well – this is when you’ll head back to the trailhead, even if you haven’t made it to the summit yet. Turnaround times are important because they help us make better decisions, especially in the low-oxygen environment of the mountains. Pick a time that allows you an honest chance of getting to the summit, without putting yourself at risk. You can also choose to shift your turnaround time as weather conditions change – but do so with a lot of caution. During the winter, set your turnaround time so you can avoid spending an unplanned night outdoors. Things get dark much faster in December and January, so extra time to get down is key.
Make Things Easy: Make it an Overnight!
All this planning and research takes time… and easier way to do it involves taking two days for the climb! Backpack up to a campsite near treeline, spend a night sleeping outdoors, and get a leisurely start up the rest of the mountain the following morning. By getting a few miles out of your way the night before, you can get a few extra hours of sleep, and enjoy a fuller expedition experience! Click here to see four great routes for your first overnight climb!
What Time Should You Start Hiking a 14er?
It depends, of course. If you consider the time of year, route class, distance and altitude, you should have a pretty good idea for when you should leave. Be sure to get off the summit by noon during the summer, avoid nights outside in winter, and always remember to set a turnaround time!
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About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.