In my last Couch to 14K post, I went over some things you could do to get properly conditioned for your first attempt at a 14,000-foot mountain ascent.
Today, the topic is gear. We’re talking about the equipment, clothing, and nutrition you should have with you when you begin your climb. If you’re an experienced hiker, there is a good chance you have a lot of this stuff. If not, you may end up doing a little shopping spree before it’s all over. The recommendations I’m giving you assume your attempt is going to be on a mountain that can be hiked or climbed in a single day, and we’re talking about early summer to early fall weather conditions. So here goes:
Temperatures and weather conditions can vary on the mountain, and the way your body operates under physical strain all make a difference here. What you choose to wear is not just important to your comfort, but also your safety.
The things that go on your body – I don’t want to get too rigid on this, but steer clear of cotton clothing. Yes, plenty of people have hiked and climbed the 14ers in cotton T-shirts and jeans. But there are plenty of reasons not to.
Cotton retains moisture, so once it gets wet, it stays wet. A body in cold conditions with damp clothing all around is susceptible to hypothermia. Go instead for moisture wicking synthetic fabrics. Include an undershirt, then maybe something like a fleece top over that. You should always include a breathable rain jacket, as summer in the Rockies usually has a daily serving of afternoon thunderstorms that sometimes hit earlier than you expect. Cold and wet is no way to be when you’re up high.
For your pants, there are a number of good synthetic-fiber, moisture-resistant and breathable hiking pants on the market that suit your needs by keeping you dry. If the weather is going to be cooler than normal, moisture-wicking long underwear can be helpful.
Lastly, pack a wool knit cap (or an equivalent to that) and a pair of light gloves.
Keep in mind that as you’re headed up the mountain, your body heat will rise. So that’s why it’s wise to dress in light layers, adding or subtracting clothing as conditions warrant.
The things that go on your feet – This is important, and the “no cotton” thing is more critical here. Wear wool or synthetic wool socks. They will wick moisture away from your feet and help prevent blisters. Cotton socks are a recipe for blisters.
For your shoes, a decent, rugged (but not too heavy) pair of hiking shoes or boots is called for here. When you get fitted, be sure to buy a size that gives you a little extra room for your toes (try a half size bigger than you normally wear). This will help save your toes on the downhills. If possible, use boots that are water resistant or waterproof. (Many boots have Goretex fabrics to keep moisture out)
What’s in your pack – Rather than reinvent the wheel, here is what has been dubbed the new “10 essentials.”
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm)
Insulation (extra clothing; though you should be covered here)
First-aid supplies (lots of good first-aid kits out there)
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools (knife or multitool)
Nutrition (extra food; more than what you need for the day)
Hydration (extra water; water filter system; iodine pills; water bladder)
Emergency shelter (think “space blanket,” unless your trip is longer than a day; then we’re talking about a tent or a bivvy sack)
What type of pack you should use – The brand you pick is your choice. But my tips would include:
- Between 1500 and 2000 cubic inches capacity for a day trip
- Make sure it has a hip belt
- A sleeve for a hydration bladder is a good bonus
You don’t have to spend a lot of money. I paid about $80 for a North Face day pack, and it has served me well.
WHAT’S NOT IN YOUR PACK
In this case, the list is simple. Bring a hat that gives you some sun protection and sunglasses. The sunglasses are also helpful if you end up hiking through snow fields; trust me on that one.
You might also consider getting a pair of trekking poles. How much you spend is up to you; the lighter, more durable ones will be pricier ($130+) while a cheap pair can be found at Walmart of a big box sporting goods store for around $25. Trekking poles can help you stay stable on tricky terrain and can also take pressure off your knees on the downhills.
FOOD AND WATER
Altitude does funny things to your body in terms of your appetite, energy burn and hydration. Simply put, if you rely on how you feel, you won’t want to eat and you won’t drink nearly enough. So with that in mind, you have to be sure you bring enough food to keep you fueled (it’s not unusual to burn 2,000 or more calories on a summit hike) and enough water to stay hydrated.
Your food should be a mix of fast- and slow-burning carbohydrates, as well as some proteins and fats. Trail mix is a good standby, but you might also consider nutrition bars (Clif Bar makes some good ones) or just plain ole candy. My favorite: Snickers Minis. They are 100-calorie sugar bombs, easily consumed and provide just enough protein and fat to give you some slow-burn energy to go along with the sugar. Some salty snacks are a good idea, too, as you’ll run through salts pretty quick. A PBJ and a banana makes a pretty good summit lunch, but I’ve seen people haul burritos in their packs as well. That said, you’ll want to limit canned foods or foods that have a lot of water in their packaging. It’s just extra weight.
In terms of water, I’d recommend having 3 liters of the stuff ready to roll, and if your trip is going to be longer, see if there are going to be water sources on your path and use that water filter. Water is heavy, but you’re going to need it. For variety, bring a sleeve or two of powdered drink mixes. You can mix some of your water store in an empty bottle and get some flavor and extra calories as you hydrate, a real bonus. Eat periodically and drink often.
Depending on when you go, snow might be a factor. If there is going to be snow on your route, consider getting some traction gear for your feet, such as Kahtoola Microspikes.
So there’s my primer on what you’ll want to have with you on that first 14er ascent. In my next post: Picking the mountain and the route. Stay tuned!