Can I take my child up a 14er?

There are over fifty 14ers in Colorado. A 14er is a mountain with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. If summited, these majestic peaks afford their climbers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Being that many people within Colorado – and those who come to visit – are active, a question often voiced by parents is: “Can my child hike up a 14er with me?” Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question and the simplest response is: it depends.

According to recent research, it appears that children are largely similar to adults when it comes to adapting to higher elevations. Research examined children’s short-term cardiorespiratory adaptation, incidence of acute mountain sickness, hypoxic ventilatory response, and maximal exercise capacity and found little variance between adults and children (Garlick, O’Connor, & Shubkin, 2017).

When CAN you take your child up a 14er? There are a multitude of factors that affect when and if a child can climb a 14er. For example, children develop and mature at different rates. This might affect whether your 11-year-old is able to climb a 14er, compared to someone else’s 11-year-old. Additionally, some children grow up being exposed to technical hikes and climbs, while others are not. This affects ability level and is certainly something to keep in mind (Provance, n.d.). Another factor to keep in mind is whether you’re child has an underlying condition. For example, conditions such as congenital heart disease, asthma, sickle cell anemia, an upper respiratory infection, or an ear infection can significantly increase the risk for high altitude illnesses (Garlick, O’Connor, & Shubkin, 2017, p. 6). Yet another factor is whether you live at altitude or are visiting from a lower elevation. There is a strong recommendation for those individuals traveling from a lower altitude to take some time to acclimate. Spending a night or two at an intermediate altitude is recommended. Additionally, be mindful not to overdo it when you do ascend to a higher elevation: stay hydrated and don’t overexert yourself. If you decide to climb a 14er, it is imperative that you give your body at least a few days to acclimate to the altitude (“How can I optimize my health at high altitude?”, 2016).

So, what’s the bottom line? Since it isn’t possible to place a concrete age on when it’s okay for your child to climb a 14er, it is ultimately up to you to know you’re child’s limits and to decide if such a challenging hike is right for you and them. The most important thing is to make sure that everyone remains safe.

If you do decide to set out on the challenge of hiking up a 14er, there are some things to remember in order to keep yourself and your child as safe as possible and ensure that the hike is an enjoyable experience for all (Kirkland, 2015):

  • Set out early: Summiting the peak by noon is recommended in order to avoid afternoon weather, thunderstorms, and potential lightning strikes.
  • Start slow and easy: It’s important for you to determine whether or not you’re child will be able to summit a 14er. Start with easy hikes and build up over time so that you have a good understanding of your child’s abilities.
  • Know the weather forecast: Check the weather before you set out to prevent getting stuck in a storm.
  • Clothing: Wear appropriate clothing. It is important to layer since it can be colder on top of the mountain. Additionally, it is important to wear clothing that protects you from the elements (including the sun!).
  • Protect yourself from the sun: The sun can be very strong when one is high up. It is very important to ensure that your child is adequately protected from the sun: sunscreen, clothing, etc.
  • Food and Fluids: Bring adequate nutrition and hydration.
  • Be prepared to turn around ahead of time: There are many things that could cause you to turn around. It’s very important to accept ahead of time that you might not manage to summit the peak and to accept that’s okay.
  • High altitude illness: It is incredibly important for you to know the symptoms of high altitude illness and be prepared to turn around should your child exhibit any of them. Symptoms of high altitude illness include: fussiness or irritability, refusal to eat, lack of energy, nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness, and light headedness (Provance, n.d.).

References:

Garlick, V., O’Connor, A., & Shubkin, C. D. (2017). High-altitude illness in the pediatric population: A review of the literature on prevention and treatment. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000519

How can I optimize my health at high altitude? (2016). Retrieved from http://www.altitudemedicine.org/optimizing-health-at-altitude/

Kirkland, E. (2015, May). Taking kids to new heights: Hiking Colorado’s “14er” mountains. Retrieved from http://www.outdoorfamiliesonline.com/hiking-colorados-14er-mountains/

Provance, A.J. (n.d.). What age can my child start hiking fourteeners? Retrieved from https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/new-and-featured-articles/sports-safety/when-can-kids-start-hiking-fourteeners/

Rianne Smeele, BSN, RN, Regis University FNP Student

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