Fastpacking The John Muir Trail

In 2013 I hiked the John Muir Trail in eight days. This post is a condensed version of the advice I’ve emailed to friends planning their own hikes. Feel free to comment or email me with questions:

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First off, congratulations on planning at all. You’re much smarter than me. I decided to do the trail less than two weeks before starting so my “planning” was essentially a Super Toy Run through REI.

Less fun when you’re footing the bill

But really, well done. If you prep correctly for the hike it should be a breeze. To make this less daunting I’ve separated my tips into three categories: logistics, gear, and hiking.

1. Logistics

The JMT is 210 miles long but hiking 210 miles from Yosemite Valley will put you squarely on top of Mt. Whitney so you’re actually going to hike 220 miles — surprise! The total elevation change is around 84k feet with seven passes topping 11k feet. The passes near Mt. Whitney are closer together so you’ll knock out more elevation per day at the tail end of your hike, assuming you start in Yosemite.

Most people I met along the trail were taking 18–25 days to complete the trip. If you can get that much time off and don’t consider punishing yourself with 25+ mile days relaxing, I think hiking the JMT in 18–20 days would make for a great trip.

If, on the other hand, you’re like me and have a desire to prove your toughness despite the fact that nobody really notices or cares, then I encourage you to go for the sub-10 day version. I did it and felt slightly cooler for a week.

The first thing to consider is your hiking permit. 60% are available online 24 weeks in advance and 40% are available for walk-ins. I obviously went with the latter option. Keep in mind that it’s common for people to start lining up outside the Yosemite Valley permit office at 4AM. Also keep in mind that you can’t sleep overnight in front of the permit office because that’s considered camping out of bounds for which you’ll be hit with a large fine–and if you’re caught “camping” there with food you’ll earn a bonus fine for not storing it in a bear box. Sweet.

It’s important to be at the front of the line for two reasons. 1. You’ll get a permit. 2. You’ll get the right kind of permit.

There are two kinds of permit: the one you want will allow you to go any distance on the first day, the other will force you to camp at Little Yosemite Valley, which is just four miles from the JMT trailhead and makes for an awkwardly short first day. The number of available permits fluctuates based on reservations and cancellations. Once you snag a wilderness permit you’ll be able to stay in the backpacker’s camp for one night and prep for your trip.

After deciding how you’ll get a permit you should determine a resupply strategy. I did two resupplies: Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch. Be sure to ship your bucket to Muir Trail Ranch early because they pick up mail infrequently. Muir Trail Ranch is the last convenient resupply point so people often send a huge cache there. More often than not people ship themselves more food than they can pack out so they have to ditch it at the Ranch. In other words, it’s likely you’ll be able to collect extra food or toiletries if you’re short.

Your last logistics obstacle is figuring out how you’ll get back to your car in Yosemite from Mt. Whitney. Most people arrange a shuttle or bum a ride from the trailhead, Whitney Portal, to Lone Pine where they spend one night. The following morning they take Eastern Sierra Transit from Lone Pine to Lee Vining followed by a YART from Lee Vining to Yosemite Valley. If this sounds super annoying, you’re right.

Hitchhiker gang

My return trip had the Rim Fire as an added ingredient. With roads shut down and YARTs cancelled, I joined a group in Lone Pine that hitchhiked from Lee Vining to Olmsted Point and then hiked an extra 10 miles to finally reach Yosemite Valley.

This concludes the boring logistics section.

2. Gear

In my opinion gear conversations devolve into bikeshedding almost immediately so I’ll just lay out my broad thoughts on the subject then share what I used, liked, and didn’t like.

A. It’s easy to be penny wise, pound foolish. Spend any amount of time on backpacking forums and you’re bound to run into a hiker sawing her toothbrush in half and ripping straps off her pack to save a few grams. Even better is the dude spending $300 more on a tent because it’s 3oz lighter than the alternative. Yes, weight is cumulative and less weight is better but you might be wasting time and money counting grams while overlooking pounds you could drop for free.

Here’s an example: a liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. Maybe instead of carrying a 3L bladder you could just collect water more frequently.

Taking a step back from gear entirely, don’t wait until you hit the trail to lose weight. Your knees don’t know the difference between 10 pounds on you vs. your pack.

B. Test, test, test. Bringing new gear on a big trip is a surefire way to stress yourself out. Even if it doesn’t fail, trying to figure out how a stove pump or tent pole works in the pouring rain is not fun.

C. Buy the good stuff the first time. To clarify, that doesn’t mean buy the most expensive stuff. It means skip the entry-level products because you’ll end up replacing them — usually within a year of use — and they’ll have no resale value. I made this mistake when I started backpacking and spent hundreds on gear I no longer use. In my experience, you usually fare pretty well with the most popular mid-level option.

D. Warranties are nice but won’t help if your gear fails on the trail. Look at your friends’ kits to find the stuff that’s been beaten up and lasted years. Buy those things.

E. Borrow from friends. People love knowing their gear is being used. If you have an outdoorsy friend group you can probably put a whole kit together — clothes and all — without spending a dime.

Here’s a spreadsheet of what I used. I’ve included alternatives for the things that I didn’t like. Below are highlights:

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 — Keeping your feet in top condition should be your top priority. I made the mistake of hiking in Merrell Trail Gloves and they were a disaster from day one. Blisters led to an altered gait that brought on terrible knee pain, all of which slowed me down. Since hiking the JMT I’ve put a few hundred miles on the Altras and love them. Ditch your boots and use these on every hike without snow.

Black Diamond Trekking Poles— Hiking with poles will help you go faster, be more sure-footed, and encounter fewer injuries. You’ll also take some pack weight off your shoulders, which will keep you hiking longer. I’m so committed to poles that I trail run with them now. If you aren’t using them you should.

Fuji X100— While I wouldn’t call this a necessity, I will say that relying on your phone to capture the sunrise at Thousand Island Lake or the stars above Kings Canyon is a bad idea. Of the mirrorless cameras I’ve tried, the X100 has the best color and is the most fun to use.

I wrote the first draft of this post a couple years ago so there are new models available though I think the X100 is still a great camera.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad— For the longest time I camped without a sleeping pad because I thought they were useless weight. Turns out I had a junk sleeping pad. Not only will this improve the quality of your sleep, it’ll keep you substantially warmer at night because it retains heat your body would normally lose to the ground.

Patagonia Nano Puff— Awesome. This is an essential item for me on any trip. Put it under a shell and you’re good well below freezing. It also makes for a decent pillow when stuffed into its pocket. Grade A nerd gear.

Leukotape — Another necessity on every trip. It’s ultra-sticky athletic tape with Zinc Oxide, which helps prevent skin irritation. Place some where you normally get blisters to prevent them from happening or use it to keep bandaids on when you’re sweating. I learned about this stuff when I was already on the trail and had to make due with the cheap tape I packed. It comes in large rolls so wrap what you need around an old plastic gift card and throw it in your kit.

Probars— Stop eating Clif Bars and switch to these. They’re better tasting and better for you. I tend to prefer the flavors without chocolate but they’re all good.

GU Brew Electrolyte Powder — Until hiking the JMT I thought these powders were BS. Turns out they aren’t. GU makes a caffeinated version called Roctane, which is 3X more expensive though I don’t find it to be 2X let alone 3X more effective. If you want to save weight Perpetuem packs in more calories and Skratch is an alternative that tastes less engineered.

You may have noticed in the spreadsheet that I didn’t mention a stove or cooking gear–that’s because I didn’t bring any. I opted to pack four kinds of calorie-dense GORP and not worry about cooking and cleaning every night. It worked out alright. If I were to do it again I’d bring my Snow Peak Giga Power stove to make warm drinks and the occasional bag meal at dinnertime.

3. Hiking

Telling yourself — and believing — you’ll complete the miles that day essentially guarantees success. For me it was as simple as underlining my target campsite in the guidebook and going there. I never allowed for deviations, even when my knee was throbbing and I’d been hiking for 18 hours straight. I’d just take an Aleve, eat something, and keep rolling.

One thing I quickly learned on the trail was that thunderstorms pose a risk not only to your safety but to your ability to knock out miles. Crossing an 11k ft pass during a thunderstorm is neither smart nor fun. What’s more, once you leave tree line at 8–9k ft you’re exposed. That means to cross a pass safely — leave tree line, go up, over the pass, and down back into the trees — you need to spot a thunderstorm hours in advance. The problem is thunderstorms roll in fast — usually with less than an hour’s notice — so what do you do?

My strategy was to wake up early — around 4AM — and check off the day’s passes before the early afternoon, when thunderstorms are most common. To do this you need to be smart about where you camp. In other words, you don’t want to camp at the bottom of a valley–in the Sierra the valleys are entire watersheds. You’ll want to push on and camp at altitude, making your first pass the following morning much easier. Completing a pass within a couple hours of beginning each day always provided a nice morale boost.

The other time consideration is in regard to picking up your resupplies. If I remember correctly, Red’s Meadow is open from 7AM to 7PM and Muir Trail Ranch is open from 8AM to 5PM. Make sure to double check those times and if you’re planning to cut it close, arriving at Muir Trail Ranch at 4:45, don’t. You can easily be delayed on the trail and waiting overnight for a resupply is an avoidable annoyance.

In terms of campsite locations, my only advice is to go where your miles and passes dictate. Some sites are better than others but they’re all pretty excellent. If you’re going to arrive at camp late and leave early, try to find a spot away from other hikers. Backpackers are a pretty laid-back bunch until you wake them up with your headlight and camp noise at 4AM–trust me on this.

Regarding animals, I didn’t see anything large or dangerous. I did meet a couple dudes who had a bear take their food in Lyell Canyon but they weren’t using a canister so they kind of had it coming. My advice is to not be messy at camp and make noise while you’re hiking, especially at night. Occasionally knocking my poles together or on a nearby rock makes me feel like I’m deterring animals–who knows if it actually helps.

My last bits of advice are recommended goals: stay positive and avoid injuries. If you accomplish one, you’ll complete the trail. If you accomplish both, you’ll complete the trail and have a blast doing it.

Good luck!

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