Be aware and prepare

by Kate Prengaman
Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hiking the full 340-kilometer length of the John Muir Trail (JMT) isn’t a beginner backpacking trip. Make sure you enjoy slowly plodding up switchbacks carrying a heavy pack for days before you start out on this weeks-long trek. That said, I met a surprising number of people for whom the JMT was their first wilderness foray, and as far as I know, they all survived.

The hike itself is hard, climbing over nine passes near or above 3,350 meters. Depending how fast you travel, it takes several weeks to a month to hike. We did it in 21 days. (You can hike sections of it in a day or a week as well — however long you have — which many people do.)

The logistics of the trip provide their own challenge, similar to other through-hikes such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, albeit far shorter than both. The Pacific Crest Trail (which runs from Canada to Mexico) actually follows the JMT through this stretch of California. Like on those trails, you must plan ahead and figure out your food situation: how much food you will need to carry versus what you should send ahead in your resupply boxes. You can mail packages with food and extra Band-Aids — or whatever you think you might need — to three outposts along the trail, where workers will pick up your packages from the post office and hold them for you for a fee. Keep in mind that fires aren’t allowed along many parts of the trail, so you shouldn’t plan on making a campfire and cooking your food each night.

Likewise, you’ll need to figure out how far you plan to hike each day (and thus when you’ll reach your resupplies) as well as what gear you’ll need versus what might become an unnecessary burden on your back. The more you know about yourself and your companions as hikers, the better you can plan.

For example, how necessary is that extra guidebook? After several years dreaming about this trip, my hiking companion and I initially thought we needed to bring multiple guidebooks with us, including both plant and geology field guides and a trail guide, so we would know what we were seeing along the way. The first time I put on my nearly 20-kilogram pack, however, that idea went out the window, and we left all the books behind except for Elizabeth Wenk’s excellent trail guide, “John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail,” which is written with a naturalist’s eye. The trail guide included not just mileage, key landmarks, elevation gain and campsite recommendations, but also information about how the forest ecosystems transition as you head south, why the appearance of the granite suddenly shifts, and the differences between the various species of ground squirrels that will occasionally try to steal bites of your lunch. “Liz,” as we affectionately began to call the guidebook, offers a taste of everything the observant hiker might want to know and was surely worth the weight. For more serious science, check out James Wise’s “Mount Whitney to Yosemite: The Geology of the John Muir Trail.” For topographic maps, the best choice is Tom Harrison’s pack of 12 waterproof, full-color maps that are small enough to keep the one you need in your pocket.

Packing for the JMT is like packing for any other backpacking trip: Your most basic needs include good shoes or boots and socks, a tent, a sleeping bag, warm overnight clothes, a camp stove and other cooking gear, a water purifier, a headlamp and a first-aid kit (check out a good list of things to bring ahead of time, like the one offered here: A bear-proof food canister is required, at least one per person, which adds an extra kilogram or two. These can be rented from the park’s wilderness office for a small fee or purchased for $75 to $300.

Some folks wing it, figuring everything out after hitting the trail. But knowing that we might often be a full day’s hike or more from an exit point inspired us to take the prep work seriously. And even with careful planning, things are bound to go wrong, like afternoon lightning and hail storms that prevent you from climbing up an exposed pass, or your water-filtration system calling it quits on day three.

Although the JMT runs through wilderness upon wilderness, far from roads and cell phone reception, unlike on some other through-hikes, you’ll rarely go more than a few hours without passing other hikers. You can choose your level of solitude, finding secluded spots to camp alone every night or joining a popular spot to make trail friends. We met endurance athletes trying to do the whole trip in five days; a multi-generational family reunion going just 8 kilometers a day for a short section of the trail; an almost-retired couple training to do the entire Pacific Crest Trail; and groups of college kids.

The John Muir trail is many things to many people, but by planning ahead, you can make the trip work for you.

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