8 Prep Tips for Hiking the Highest Mountain in North America


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At 20,310 feet above sea level, Mount Denali in Alaska has the distinct honor of being the highest mountain in North America. Set against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky and towering glaciers, its imposing stature makes even the most experienced climbers skittish. For many, the toughness of the challenge makes the victory more satisfying. Having this mindset is key if you’re going to take on the snow-covered peaks of Denali.

The mountain has everything — treacherous terrain, extreme weather, fixed lines, steep altitudes — the whole roster. You want to make sure you’re well-prepared for your expedition. So here are the eight most essential prep tips to help you train adequately for your journey. 

1. Get Your Experience Up 

Hiking up the highest mountain in North America requires a ton of practical mountaineering experience. Thousands of people sign up yearly, with only a 53% success rate for the average individual. Glacier travel is no joke and you’ll need to acquire ample experience with ascending and descending glaciated peaks to prepare for this climb better. 

Improving your technical climbing skills is also imperative, especially regarding route finding and crevasse rescue procedures. You’ll find many professional courses covering essentials like fixed-line climbing and self-arrest techniques to work your way up Denali’s challenging topography. 

2. Pre-Acclimatize Before Your Trip

Denali is a super cold place. The mountain is located in the Denali National Park and Preserve, a massive expanse spanning 6.1 million acres with arctic-type conditions almost year round. This expedition environment can be unforgiving, especially to the uninitiated. You must build up your adaptability to winter camping and traversing at high altitudes. 

Professional guide services require climbers to have good acclimatization before they can embark on the expedition. While many online resources and prep programs exist, practical experience remains the best teacher. Go on numerous training climbs on more accessible snowy peaks, gradually building up to longer exposures at increasing altitudes. Generally, it takes 1-3 days for the body to acclimatize at a particular altitude. Your body has to re-acclimatize as you ascend. 

3. Get in Prime Mountaineering Shape 

Hamstrings, muscle cramps and altitude sickness will dampen your climb. You must be in peak physical and mental condition to America’s highest mountain. If you haven’t hiked in a while, you might want to start doing strength training, increasing the tempo as you progress. 

Even if you travel frequently, engage in physical activities to prepare your body for the trek. The National Park Service recommends training with a 40-70 lb backpack, which you’ll carry across uneven terrain for 6-8 hours. There’s also work to be done setting up camp and implementing safety measures, so improving your endurance is crucial. 

4. Learn How to Ride on Sleds 

Don’t just come to Denali for the climb. Familiarize yourself with the terrain and take some time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery all around you. Dog mushing is Alaska’s state sport and offers one of the best ways to explore the park. Authorized guide services may provide sledding services and safety lessons. There’s also an on-site kennel where you can meet the dogs and cuddle the puppies — another highlight to your unforgettable trip. 

You’ll use sleds to haul your gear up the mountain when the proper climb begins. However, these will be attached to your waist. Hiking up snowy trails while dragging a heavy pack is physically demanding and risky. You must know the basics of distributing weight evenly from front to back and having redundant attachments to provide immediate backup if one attachment point fails. 

5. Invest in High-Quality Gear 

Minor details such as your jacket zipper and equipment buckles can greatly impact your mountain climbing experience. High-quality gear is more durable under extreme conditions and can often be a lifesaver during your hike. 

Pack lots of layered clothing and double-insulated boots to keep warm at all times — the risks of hypothermia and frostbite increase the higher you climb. Remember to personally test every piece of equipment and redundancies before embarking on the climb. 

6. Take the Well-Beaten Path 

Denali’s least technical ascent route is fraught with complexity enough, so there’s hardly any need to overcomplicate things by selecting a more challenging path. Plus, more people sign up for the route with the most minor climbing difficulties, so reaching the minimum size for travel groups is quicker. According to the park records, over 90% of Mount Denali hikers climb through the West Buttress pass. 

7.  Know Your Limits

You know your body best. Don’t overexert to the point of endangering yourself or others. If you’re having problems, notify the hike leader right away. Many climbers experience headaches, blurry vision and fatigue during the journey. These tend to subside as they acclimate to the altitude and get some rest. However, worsening symptoms might indicate Acute Mountain Sickness, requiring you to return to lower elevations immediately.

Make sure you eat enough. Your nutrient reserves deplete faster during exertion, so you need lots of calorie-rich foods to keep your energy levels up. 

8. Enhance Team Dynamics and Communication 

The highest mountain in North America is a global monument, attracting adventurers and thrill seekers worldwide. Since 2022, 34% of climbers at Denali have come from outside the U.S., so expect a diverse climb team with varying individual cultural backgrounds and philosophies. However, once the climb commences, these differences take a secondary role. Summiting Denali demands teamwork, communication and a relaxed attitude. 

You’re climbing as a group and you need to trust each other and cultivate a supportive environment. Keep to agreed timelines and maintain a commitment to safety. Lastly, lend a helping hand as needed. It could be you who needs the extra assistance the next day. 

Conquer the Highest Mountain in the U.S.

Denali stands tall and majestic, overlooking the pristine Alaskan wilderness. The mountain poses the ultimate challenge, daring the bravest climbers to attempt its summit. Going on such a high-altitude hike is one of life’s most exhilarating experiences, so ensure you’re well-prepped for the journey. Let these tips be a starting point in your preparations for the achievement of a lifetime.

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