Your First Time: Climb a 14er

5 tips to help you top out on your first big-mountain hike

They're our answer to the Andes or the Himalayas, the 80-plus mountains scattered across Colorado, California, Alaska and Washington that soar above 14,000 feet. To summit a Fourteener is a life-list item for many hikers, but safely venturing to such lofty heights requires careful planning, especially on your very first time. Be ready with these tips from the American Alpine Club’s Eddie Espinosa, who has experience as a climbing guide and personal trainer and himself has topped out above 19,000 feet.

Know the route.
“Do this not only for safety, but also to prepare yourself mentally for the trip,” Espinosa says. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the whole journey, locate waypoints such as stream crossings or trail junctions along the route before you set out. “Focus on just hitting one after the other, and you’ll soon find yourself on top.”

Get in shape.
“The less you have to worry about how painful your legs are, and how hard you’re breathing, the more you can enjoy the view and your hiking partners’ company,” he says. Build endurance so your body becomes accustomed to long stretches of constant movement, but don’t neglect strength and interval training, too: You’ll need it on those high steeps.

Know the effects of altitude.
“Above 8,000 feet, the human body will start reacting to the reduced amount of oxygen in the air,” Espinosa says. Mild nausea, headache and appetite loss are common symptoms, but be alert to early warning signs of potentially lethal high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edemas, which include confusion and extreme fatigue. If it gets so bad that it’s severely impacting your performance—and thus, your safety—the only cure is to retreat to lower elevations. Remember that, if you have the time, it’s best to let your body acclimate to high elevations. Try to spend a day or two before the hike around 7,000 feet. For more, see Altitude Adjustments.

Watch the weather.
“Leave early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms,” Espinosa says. If you do get stuck in a storm above treeline, try to blend into the landscape. “Don’t be the tallest thing in your immediate area, and stay away from the thing that is.” For more, see How to Survive: Thunderstorm.

Stay hydrated and fed.
“An electrolyte-replacing drink is key on the really hot days when your body is losing a lot of salt through your sweat,” he says. Stick with foods you’re accustomed to in order to avoid digestive distress. “These bigger trips are not a good place to experiment with food you haven’t tried.”