The John Muir Trail’s 220 miles are the cream of the Sierra Nevada. There isn’t a wasted moment from when the trail rises above the calamity of Yosemite Valley till you top out on Mt. Whitney and descend down the 99 switchbacks to Whitney Portal. The all-star roster includes: Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sierra National Forest, Devils Postpile National Monument, John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon Wilderness. Sightings included: White-tailed Jackrabbit, American Pika, Mule Deer, Yellow-bellied Marmot, a few grouse, and plenty of birds and trout.

Index

Trip Logistics

Permit

Hiking the JMT requires a permit ($5 + $5/Person), which if you’re hiking from North to South must be obtained in Yosemite National Park. Due to the popularity and low reservation cost of the JMT it’s best to reserve as far in advance as possible (although, if your departure date is flexible, Yosemite resells permits at the wilderness center that remain unclaimed at 10am of that day). The hike from Yosemite south can only be started from four trailheads with limited numbers and the total number of people leaving for Donahue Pass cannot exceed 45 persons per day. The ideal and “true” starting point is at the Happy Isles Trailhead deep in Yosemite Valley. This can sound rather complicated, but the park has a daily updated PDF with a color coded table that makes it very simple. Just scroll down in the PDF, where you’ll see the available dates for Happy Isles and Donahue Pass indicated by cells in the table with a green background. Once you’ve located a date that works, call the office and reserve the time. The Yosemite Wilderness Permit Station is open from 8am to 5pm, and is hard to find, so look at the map to know it’s location in advance if arriving in the afternoon. Bear canisters are also available to rent for $5 at the Wilderness Station with no need for a reservation.

Resupply

There are three location options with varying prices. The ideal location is John Muir Ranch, since it’s barely a detour and is at the midpoint of the hike, however they don’t open until around June 20th and it costs $70. If you’re hiking before this date the options are Reds Meadow for $40 or Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) for $22. I chose VVR because it was further along the trail (end of day 4) and thus closer to the midpoint. It still required picking up 6 days worth of food which was decently heavy and very very difficult to fit into my rented Garcia bear canister.

Transportation

If you have or can borrow a car, transportation is easy: drive to Yosemite NP and park in the lot labeled Trailhead Parking past Curry Village. There is no time limit, just don’t sleep or leave food in your car. Once you’ve finished the JMT, take a shower at the hostel in Lone Pine and hitch hike back to Yosemite. I’m a bearded 6’6″ man and for both rides it only took about twenty minutes of holding my sign before a kind soul picked me up.
If you don’t have a car, check Craigslist for rides to Yosemite.

Gear List

Maps and Planning

Tom Harrison JMT Map Set. $18. Purchase.
Fourteen single-sided, waterproof 8.5″ x 11″ pages. These worked perfectly, every morning I would put the current map and the next map in my pocket and consult at intersections or landmarks. It was always felt good to make it to the second map of the day.

John Muir Trail Data Book by Elizabeth Wenk. $9. Purchase.
Everything you want, nothing you don’t. Trail logistics, elevation profiles, hundreds of campsites with descriptions, maps, labeled peaks in pass panoramas, and milage from both the start and end of the trail to each campsite. Some of the campsites were tucked away off the trail and I never would have found them without this book. Just pop it in a ziplock, since unlike the Tom Harrison Maps, you can’t let this book get wet.

Clothing

Some people say to only bring clothing that, in your coldest moment, you could don all at once. This is a good trick to help remove redundant, unnecessary clothing. The one exception to the rule is socks, so I start the list with socks. No matter what, you’ll want to bring two pairs as one will always be getting wet on your feet and you’ll be drying your other pair on your pack. Dry socks are critical to good foot care and if you’re extremely prone to blisters, bring a couple pairs of liner socks as well, which relocate the friction from skin-sock to sock-sock.

Base Layers

2 Pairs of Socks | SmartWool Phd Medium Crew. $24 per pair. Purchase.
These socks are the best, I have a couple pairs that are 3 years old and still in my daily sock rotation. For this trip I bought two new pairs and wore each pair once to ensure no defects (both pairs were perfect) before the trip. What’s so great about these socks? Their design very effectively prevents bunching or wrinkles, while they still have plenty of cushion in the toebox and heel area. I’ve tried many other brands of socks, but always return to these for trips like this.

1 Pair of Underwear | Exofficio boxers. $23. Purchase.
A good pair of underwear for long periods without bathing. They’re very comfortable and dry quickly, so washing on the trail isn’t too difficult. I’ve tried others, and want to find a good merino wool pair, but thus far haven’t been able to. Let me know in the comments if you have a wool favorite.

1 T-Shirt | Basic Ibex merino wool t-shirt. $95. Purchase.
Wool is my favorite and I generally stick with Ibex or Icebreaker.

1 Long Underwear Top | Ice Breaker Tech T. $90. Purchase.

1 Long Underwear Bottom | Patagonia Capilene. $40. Purchase.

1 Buff. $23. Purchase.
Buff’s are thin, stretchy, seamless, polyester neck gaiters that can be worn scrunched as a single layer, doubled over, or pulled up for a full face balaclava. Lightweight and versatile. I originally purchased it in my gear up for climbing Mt. Rainier in 2009, but continue to use it on any trip that’ll involve snow ranging from ski mountaineering Mt. Shasta, resort skiing, to hiking the JMT.

Mid & Outer Layers

1 Pair of Pants/Shorts | Old pair of convertible pants.
Convertible pants can be annoying, but it was nice to be able to turn my shorts into pants at the end of the day, or vise versa and start the day in pants and quickly turn them into shorts. The question is, do you really need pants for the JMT in June if you also have long underwear and rain pants? It is possible to wear them all at once, but it’d have to be some fierce weather. Most of those on the PCT wear short running shorts, however if you’re going to try to reduce your exposure to sun, I think the weight savings will be negated by having to carry a large supply of sunscreen with which to lather your thighs.

Wool Pullover Sweater | Ice Breaker 320. $200. Purchase.
For the weather on my trip this layer wasn’t necessary, so I only wore it on the ascent of Mt. Whitney during the final morning to at least wear it once before the trip ended. I really like this sweater, it’s actually the only sweater I ever wear, because it’s both stylish and high performing. Be careful though, they seemed to have changed the sizing in their latest batch.

Insulating Jacket & Pillow | Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer w/ Hood. $320. Purchase.
I wore this excellent jacket almost every evening and morning while setting up and breaking down camp. If packed into it’s sleeve it also turns into a great pillow. It also packs into it’s pocket, but that ends up too firm to sleep on. When I first bought it I thought it was impractically delicate and was going to rip immediately, but I’ve now worn it all over, and have only torn it twice: once with a zipper snag and once hooking myself fly-fishing. I’m certainly cognizant while wearing it that I should be careful, but that doesn’t impede my abilities or actions. If I’m going through thick brush I layer my hard shell on top as protection.

Rain Jacket | GoLite Shell circa 2005.
There was some form of precipitation (rain, snow, sleet) on 7 of the 10 days so, while I didn’t expect to use this much, it was in constant rotation. Perhaps GoLite went out of business because their gear didn’t stay true to their name. Or maybe their expansion plans were too ambitious for the market size. Regardless, I’ve been debating replacing it with one of these ultralight shells that are half the weight: Marmot Essence (6.3 oz), OR Helium II (6.4 oz), and Patagonia Alpine Houdini (6.6 oz).

Rain Pants | GoLite pants circa 2005.
Basic rain pants. Not very breathable, but only worn when it’s cold.

Gloves | OR Catalyzer Liner Glove. $30. Purchase.
These are super light weight. I originally purchased them to wear as liners while taking photographs in the alpine environment, but they also turned out to be perfect for this trip. They’re a little hard to put on and take off, and feel like they might rip, but thus far have held up for my purposes. Note that they aren’t very warm, especially if it’s windy, but they worked well when my hands began to go numb from cold rain on the south side of Mather Pass and were also useful for the alpine start on Whitney.

Shoes | I wore La Sportiva Bushido in size 13.5 on the JMT, but have since tested and recommend Altra Lone Peak 2.0 ($120). The Bushido’s were very grippy, and had what I was looking for: trail running weight with a rock plate, but the heel capture is a hard piece of plastic–I tried on the Bushido’s in the same size at two different stores to try to find a pair that would have a better heel (thinking it might be a manufacturing issue, rather than design), but they’re just made of stiff material. Predictably I got a blister on the back of my heel even though it was taped from the start. The Altra’s meanwhile have a great heel capture that’s soft and secure. They also have a strong rock plate, zero lift (equal thickness sole from toe to heel), and a velcro patch in back that perfectly attaches to the Dirty Girl gators, negating the need to add your own velcro to the shoes. What you’ll notice first is their very wide toe box, which feels like your foot’s flopping around inside a huge shoe, and looks almost comically wide, but once you’re used to them there’s no going back (and no issues with tripping or rock hopping either).

Gators | Dirty Girl. $20. Purchase.
PCTers swear by these. I didn’t know about these before I started, but I wish I had, since I had to empty my shoes of debris every 2 hours, sometimes even more frequently if the trail was particularly sandy or gritty. This becomes incredibly frustrating and no doubt led to extraneous blisters. I’ve since ordered a pair and am currently testing them and, thus far, on my first couple hikes they’ve performed perfectly, keeping my shoes free of debris.

The Big Three | Pack, Tarp, & Sleeping System

Pack | Gossamer Gear Mariposa Pack. $255. Purchase.

This pack worked well, and everything found it’s place, but it always felt like my organization method wasn’t quite right. This is likely due to the water bottle location and asymmetric side pockets. My tarp and sleeping pad would go in the long pocket with one water bottle and on the other side I’d have my toiletries and a water bottle up top, with my dslr down below. This allowed me to grab the camera quickly without taking off the pack, but not my water. The solution is probably to buy the little ties that keep a water bottle on the front of a shoulder strap, but I have yet to find them or make my own. I also had an issue with the back pad mesh capture seam, which rubbed on my vertebrae until it was quite sore and I had to unhook the pad from the bottom capture. The rubbing was partly caused by the bear canisters shape, which doesn’t lend itself to comfortable packing. The canister is a heavy item so I wanted it against my back, but when I tightened the pack straps it would change the shape of the pack, pushing out in the middle where the rubbing was occurring. The solution was to roll some clothing up and put it on either side of the canister to prevent the center pressure. I’ve ordered a new canister and will continue to test to see if this is an ongoing issue.
Besides that, the design of the pack was good, the waist belt and shoulder straps were comfortable, with the pockets in the waste belt lending themselves well to snacks or AquaMura. There were times when it felt like the waist belt wasn’t holding as much weight as it should, but I think I just had the bear canister located too far off my back, creating a moment that would pull the shoulder straps no matter what the waist belt was doing. The outer mesh pocket was great for quick layer adjustments or drying socks and the ‘head’ pocket built into the flip-down flap also worked reasonably well – a bit annoying, when the pack wouldn’t stay open because the weight of the pocket was too much, but it’s a good combination for weight savings.

Pack Liner | Garbage bag. $0.25
I used a normal trash bag, but a trash compactor bag is more durable.

Tarp | Gossamer Gear Q-Twinn Cuben Tarp. $315. Purchase.
This 47 sqft catenary Cuben Fiber tarp has an incredible coverage/weight ratio. It can be self-supporting with poles and has lineloc adjustment buckles that work really well to adjust the tension of the guy lines. That said, it suffers from the fact that it’s a tarp: it’s a pain to pitch and makes a f*** ton of noise in the wind. If it’s too windy it’ll begin to flap like a flag, both making a racket as well as tugging on the stakes, eventually pulling them out if the soil is weak. It’ll also move rocks the size of bowling balls (but obviously less spherical) which adds slack in the pitch, only making it louder and the tugging stronger. It’s just not great above tree line if it’s windy, which it frequently was. On calm nights in the forest, it created a dreamy, large, waterproof lair. When the gable guy lines are attached to tree trunks it’s super secure. It includes reflective orange guy line & a small stuff sack.

Tarp Stakes | 4 Gossamer Gear Titanium V-Stakes. $12 ($3 per). Purchase.
I got four v-stakes for the center gable-peak guy lines as well as the corners near the larger opening (which theoretically might catch more wind and benefit from larger stakes). I also had four generic round stakes found on a previous trip for the remaining guy lines. If I were to do it again I’d get 8 v-stakes for the added staying power, but even those might not always hold. It’s likely that the Fatty’s would be better in such poor soil, but frequently I’d just resort to tying the lines to rocks, although even that didn’t always hold down the sail of a tarp. All I know for sure are that the V’s were definitely better than the standard round stakes for sandy soil.

Sleeping Bag | Sierra Designs Zissou 12 in size Long. $320. Purchase.
A basic 700-fill warm & light bag. The zipper design is excellent for preventing the zipper from catching on fabric and the long length provided proper length for my 6’6″ body. It’s unclear if the DriDown actually did anything as the bag did get damp and I couldn’t dry it during the day, but it did dry out the next night.

Sleeping Pad | Regular Z-Lite & Regular NeoAir Xlite. $43 & $160.
This combo is usually reserved for winter camping, and is probably the least ultralight aspect of my gear choices, but it provides great comfort by allowing for back or side sleeping, which I switch between throughout the night. The combination is also still lighter than my previous XL Prolite4. And the Z-Lite protects the NeoAir, so the setup is durable and redundant.

The Rest of the Gear

Poles | BD Ergo Cork w/ Fliclock. $91. Purchase.
I bent both the mid and lower section of my left pole on my final descent off Whiney when I slipped and fully weighted it. I continued to use the bent pole for the rest of the decent, since it was only about a 10 degree bend. After returning home it was possible to bend them back to nearly perfectly straight, but that can only be done a limited number of times.

Water Bottles | 2 1L Smart Water Bottles (nice and light) & a 2L platypus bag (most frequently used as a knee pillow at night, but also useful for larger batches of aquamira).

Bowl | 16oz Nalgene w/ screw top lid.
Good for mixing prote and “cooking” (soaking) dinner.

Spork | Blue Vargo Titanium. $9. Purchase.
A camping classic.

Headlamp | Black Diamond Revolt. $45. Purchase.
Lasts a long time, is nice and bright, and recharges with a MicroUSD (most android smartphones).

Bear Canister | Garcia, rented from Yosemite NP for $5.

DSLR | Canon 760D + Canon 10-22 lens + UV Filter.

DSLR Neoprene case | Op/Tech USA. $23. Purchase.

Dopp Kit

Joshua Tree 18 SPF Chapstick
Copper tone 30 SPF Sunscreen for arms
Badger 35 SPF Sun Stick for face
Toothbrush & travel size Tom’s toothpaste
Purell hand sanitizer
Dr. Bronners liquid soap, 2oz travel size. Works for hands, body, and clothing.
8 J&J Bandaids. These stick like no other.
Moleskin
Metolius Cloth Tape to tape heels. Designed for climbing, this tape sticks really well.

Left At Home

Tent
Stove
Change of clothes

Food

Meal planning is critically important for performing on the trail, however it’s probably the trickiest part of planning due to the variability between individuals and the natural tendency to bring more food than necessary. Any food left over at the end of the trip was unnecessary weight in the pack. With this in mind I still packed way too much food, having a full 3 lb of trail mix left over at the end of my 6 day stretch. Thus my pack was 3lb heavier than it needed to be every day for the last six days. I created my meal plan based on the goal of 50% Carbs, 35% Fats, and 15% protein suggested by Dr. Brenda Braaten at 5000 calories per day. I’m 6.5′ tall & 175 lbs with a very fast metabolism and couldn’t find good data on what my needs would be, but with a revised meal plan I expect it would be possible to consume 4,500 calories per day and maintain weight. Without a body-weight scale in my home it’s not clear if I maintained weight on the trail or lost weight due to the difficulty of eating so much trail mix every day. If my weight did change it was by an insignificant amount. The biggest lesson I learned was that, as delicious as trail mix is, it’s still loose trail mix, and when compared to a Probars or Snickers bars it takes far longer to consume the equivalent calories with the combination of delivery method and excessive chewing. That might sound crazy, but I got so tired of chewing trail mix. I created an excel spreadsheet before going to determine the proper mix of ingredients, but it immediately broke down on the trail when I couldn’t eat as much coconut flakes as I thought I’d be able to and instead picked out all the chocolate and dried fruit.

Training

I’m not an expert when it comes to training and everyone is at their own level and has their own thoughts, but at the very least go on a 22+ mile hike with significant elevation gain and loss with a trail weight pack to get a feel for the average day. I chose the Desolation Wilderness for my weighted-backpack test hike and ended up finishing in the dark due to an unexpected amount of snow. In addition to this test hike I also hit the stair master a couple times (interval setting, 30 minutes, level 12), and did some shorter day hikes with a pack. I’m pretty active though in day to day life and and end up doing a fair amount of day hiking, biking, and climbing, which inherently helped.

Additional Resources

Trail & Ultralight Tips
JMT Resources
Food Resources