Tips for Summiting Longs Peak, Part I: Preparation

Longs Peak is the pinnacle of mountains here in Rocky Mountain National Park — quite literally. The peak dominates the breathtaking landscape with its height topping out at 14,259 feet. And, as one of Colorado’s many “fourteeners,” Longs is well known for its difficulty. If you’re considering the trek to the top, you certainly have some careful planning ahead. It’s crucial to prepare for the climb to the summit well in advance to ensure that you minimize the dangers and hazards that exist on one of Colorado’s most sought after peaks.

Here at Rams Horn Village Resort, we’re proud to cater to folks who plan on ascending Longs Peak to make an attempt at summiting. And regardless of whether an attempt is successful or the mountain proves to be uncooperative for the day (which happens frequently!), our guests always return with cherished stories. We urge hikers to prepare for their trek on Longs Peak well in advance. From finding lodging near Rocky Mountain National Park to finding the right hiking boots, we have all the tips that you’ll need to get ready for the journey.

A Word of Warning

First thing’s first, let’s highlight the difficulty and hazards of this climb — we cannot stress this enough: Longs Peak is dangerous! To quote the National Park Service: “The Keyhole Route [the main trail to climb Longs] is not a hike. It is a climb that crosses enormous sheer vertical rock faces, often with falling rocks, requiring scrambling, where an unroped fall would likely be fatal. The route has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs.”

In short, summiting Longs Peak isn’t for the faint of heart, and climbers should always be prepared to turn around at a moment’s notice. Never climb alone. Never attempt to summit too late in the day (when weather conditions can change drastically in minutes). Ensure that you are prepared to climb at altitude, and you are outfitted with proper gear, food, and plenty of water to make the ascent and descent.

All that having been said, climbing Longs is a glorious achievement and its trail offers tremendous beauty to hikers. It’s well worth the journey if you are prepared, patient, and careful. And, for those that aren’t comfortable with climbing and scrambling across sections of rock, most of the hike can still be enjoyed — in fact the trail is well-maintained and manageable for many hikers all the way up to the boulder field (which is under two miles from the summit). If you’re up for the challenge or simply want to navigate the hikable section of the mountain, then check out the rest of our preparation tips.

Train and Acclimatize

If you’re not used to long hikes or the altitude in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), then it’s wise to train and acclimatize before you begin hiking. As we mentioned, Longs Peak tops out at 14,259 feet, which is well over a vertical mile above the altitude here in Estes Park. If you’re from out of town, even the trailhead can be more than a mile above the altitude that you’re used too. Up here, the air is far thinner, which means that you may be gasping for breath on your hike. We recommend that you hike at altitude and work on your endurance to prepare for the thinner air and the long hike.

Hike at Altitude

Make time to acclimate to the altitude by hiking around RMNP and Estes Park. Your body will quickly adapt to the decrease in oxygen, which will mitigate the odds of having altitude sickness while climbing Longs Peak. It’s also important to remain wary of the danger of altitude sickness as you hike. Stop, take a break, and turn back if you continue to suffer from symptoms of altitude sickness. You can learn more about altitude sickness and acclimatizing in our article, High-Altitude Hiking Tips for Rocky Mountain National Park.

Improve Your Endurance

Now, you’ll have to take the length of the Keyhole Route into consideration if you’re planning on summiting Longs Peak. The climb is 7.5 miles from trailhead to summit — one way. That’s 15 miles round trip. Plus, the majority of the hike is straight uphill, so you can imagine walking on a stair-stepper for about 7.5 miles (and then you have to turn around and head down!). Train your legs to handle long, uphill hikes. Focus on strengthening your quads, glutes, and hamstrings (the muscle groups that will get the most use on the trail) as you perform endurance workouts. If you can, the best way to train for the hike is simply to hike at altitude! Start with shorter, manageable hikes and work to increase the length of your hikes until you’re comfortable attempting a Longs Peak summit climb.

Get the Right Gear

The Boy Scouts motto is a declarative, simple statement: Be prepared. These are words of wisdom for hikers planning an ascent of Longs Peak. Prepare for the climb by investing in the right gear. You’ll be more comfortable and more confident on the trail, and you’ll be prepared for the worst, which is always a possibility on a fourteener.

Break in Your Hiking Boots

If you don’t have a solid pair of hiking boots, invest in a pair now — you’ll want to break them in well before you attempt a summit. Find boots that fit your feet snuggly while providing support. Mid- and high-cut boots are best for the terrain and length of the Longs Peak trail. Look for a boot with a good balance of flexibility (which provides better grip and feel) and support (which helps distribute the weight you’re carrying while securing the ankle). Day-hiking boots are often the best choice for the Longs Peak trail.

Layers of Clothes for Rain or Shine

Weather conditions on Longs can change in an instant. Sunshine can transition to rain, hail, and lightning in minutes near the summit. So, you should pack plenty of layers to accommodate for any condition. Be sure to bring a poncho or rain jacket, a hiking coat, hats and gloves, sunglasses, a sweater, hiking pants, and clothes that are more breathable if you get too warm. Wear breathable, yet warm socks, and consider bringing an extra pair in case you sweat through the first.

Invest in a Comfortable Pack

It’s likely that you’ll end up carrying 20 or 30 pounds of gear or so — including water, snacks, and extra clothing — on your journey up Longs. Invest in a pack that fits all that gear and fits your body size and shape well. A medium-sized pack is often best for this trek. Invest in a pack that has a hip belt and sternum strap to take most of the weight off your shoulders (the hip belt will transfer much of the pack weight to the hips).

Additional Items

Pack a first aid kit, a headlamp (which you’ll need for the beginning of the hike, since it’s best to start before sunrise), sunscreen, a personal locator beacon (for emergencies), a trail map and compass (in case you get lost — however, the majority of the trail up to the boulder field on Longs is well-traveled and well-marked), waterproof matches, a pocket knife or multi-tool, a whistle, and possibly hiking poles. You’ll also need lots of water and plenty of snacks, since you’ll burn through calories and break a sweat while you’re heading up the “hill.” You should bring at least 2 cups of water per person per hour that you plan on spending on the trail (don’t forget to calculate the trip down the mountain!). Pack a few thousand calories of high-energy, healthy snack foods that are quick and easy to eat while taking short breaks (think trail mix, granola, jerky, protein bars, dried fruit, oatmeal cookies, etc.).

Plan Ahead

While you may have the urge to climb Longs Peak on a whim, we urge you to plan ahead. You should stay near the mountain to acclimatize and to give yourself a window of opportunity to attempt the summit. And, as your window of opportunity approaches, you should keep an eye on the weather and trail reports for the Keyhole Trail.

Stay Near the Mountain

Hikers start on the Longs Peak trail early. How early? Well it’s recommended that you begin the ascent before sunrise — in fact, the National Park Service suggests that you begin the ascent by 3 AM to be safe. Climbing Longs Peak takes most hikers between 10 and 15 hours in total, and you should aim to summit well before noon, when weather conditions usually begin to destabilize. Summiting too late could lead to thunderstorms, lightning, high winds, and poor visibility, among other hazards.

That’s why we recommend that you stay near the mountain before the day of your hike. Finding a location that’s near the entrance to RMNP and the trailhead to Longs Peak will save you hours of travel time, enabling you to get a good night’s rest (or at least part of a night) before attempting the climb. If you’re looking for lodging near RMNP, we’d be ecstatic to have you stay here at Rams Horn Village Resort, which is just minutes from the entrance to the Park.

Check Weather & Trail Reports

As your planned hike date approaches, you should monitor the weather and trail reports closely. It’s best to attempt the summit once all the snow has melted off the trail. The best hiking conditions tend to be between mid-July and mid-September, when snow and hail are less likely to be on the trail. Be wary that the trail may still be wet (which makes the final stages of the climb more difficult and hazardous). You can check the National Park Service’s Longs Peak trail conditions report, which is updated fairly often. In addition, monitor the weather conditions in the region prior to your hike.

Know the Route

Finally, you should familiarize yourself with the route on Longs Peak. The Keyhole Trail has various sections with varying degrees of difficulty, and knowing the obstacles that lie ahead will help you to better prepare for the journey. We’ll take a look at the diverse sections of the Keyhole Route in our next blog, Summiting Longs Peak Part II: The Keyhole Route Trail — check it out!

Stay at Rams Horn Village Resort

If you’re looking for a comfortable, cozy place to stay that’s minutes away from Rocky Mountain National Park (and the Longs Peak trailhead!), then there’s no better place than Rams Horn Village Resort. Book a stay as you plan your climb while acclimating to the altitude. You’ll love the many amenities we offer, and the warm character of our cabins. Plus, once you’ve completed your trek you can enjoy a dip in the pool! Schedule your stay today, and don’t forget to check out our next article in the series: Summiting Longs Peak Part II: The Keyhole Route Trail!