Tips for Considering a JMT Journey

There are plenty of sites, groups and blogs related to preparing and explaining what it takes to undertake the 210 mile journey on the John Muir Trail. Here are a few tips/suggestions from my experience.

Mental -vs- Physical

To many, the physical nature of hiking 210 miles with a 40 pound backpack up 27,000’ of elevation inclines is enough of a barrier to overcome. I was fortunate and confident enough that I was fit and strong enough to be able to handle the rigors. I always knew that barring an unforeseen injury or if a limiting condition developed, I could always take the time needed to finish the journey.

In my mind, the mental game needed for a 3-week outing in the wilderness is even more important to understand before the trek. There are two main mental traits that I believe are paramount to be successful on any long trail: tolerance and persistence.

You are always dirty, you might not make the campsite you want, the weather might not be ideal, your food might not taste good, your gear might not work the way you wanted…. For these, you have to be tolerant and get over them. If any of these are things you can’t overcome or would ruin your trip, perhaps it is not for you.

The routine over the 2-3 week effort can get to be grueling and repetitive. The pass might seem to high and far away. You don’t feel like setting up your camp, again. You are tired of eating the same food or meals start to taste all the same. It is difficult for you to see mile 210 when it is only mile 60 and it seems you have been on the trail forever. This is where persistence comes into play, to plow through and realize the end goal (and benefits) are going to be worth it. Fortunately, there is daily gratification in benefits with the continual, amazing views, so you do have something to make it worth it.

One mental aspect that never bothered me was loneliness. Even though I did the trip alone, I was never that lonely. They call the JMT “The Highway”, for good reason. You are always seeing people, and invariably get to know and hang out with many along the three week trip (another post).

Planning

If you don’t like doing research and the nitty-gritty details of logistics, then the JMT might not be for you (or your experience might not be that great). If you are not a seasoned long trail hiker, it is really, really worth it to invest in this area.

I read two JMT books (twice each):

https://www.amazon.com/John-Muir-Trail-Essential-Americas/dp/0899977367/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474665756&sr=8-1&keywords=John+muir+trail

https://www.amazon.com/Plan-Go-Trail–Complete-Greatest/dp/0692208933/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1474665756&sr=8-4&keywords=John+muir+trail

Both were very useful and offered enough different information/tips to make both worthwhile.

I participated in the Yahoo! JMT Group, which was excellent for tips on travel logistics, gear tradeoffs, fitting all your food in your bear canister, checking on your full backpack…. Many people on the trail noted they also joined the Facebook group (I did not).

Most of all, become obsessive with your food and gear choices, as well as practicing how you can fit all of them into your pack and bear canister. I ended up taking much less food than originally thought, just because I had to fit 8-days/7-nights worth of food into it for the last half of the journey. (One of the best tips I obtained was to take a rolling pin to your dehydrated meals and repackage them into quart-sized freezer bags to save space in the bear canister.)

Of course, there are many other planning/logistical tasks that will consume your time. These include figuring out and arranging your travel to the trail start and from trail end, working out your target trail schedule, as well as shipping your resupply buckets/packages. Bottom line is if you normally fly by the seat of your pants, you might want to change your approach for this endeavor. For reference, my JMT planning spreadsheet is 160 KB in size.

Gear

My biggest recommendation is to scrutinize every piece of gear you select, even if it is a piece of gear you have used for awhile. Most people who are considering undertaking the JMT (like myself) have not been on the trail for over 4-5 days max, so it is paramount to make sure your 4-5 night gear is suitable for 210 miles/20 nights, in addition to the rigors of the JMT. Even if it results in higher cost of your trip, divide that cost by 20 and you can easily justify that dollar amount per day as you are lugging it 13 miles and 3,000’ up passes each day.

My biggest mistakes were in my pack and my sleeping pad. I used my original pack that I purchased 10 years ago. There has been a lot of advances in backpack technology, and using my first pack that was purchased when I was dipping my toe into backpacking waters was not a wise choice. I am sure I could have saved at least four pounds as well as have an easier time packing it.

I chose a pad that I purchased a few years ago that is more comfortable than my original, thinner pad. I chose it for the trip without looking too closely at the specs with the justification that a good night’s sleep is more important to the success of my journey. Not only could I have shaved over a pound off my pack, this luxe pad was very difficult to pack (look for the white object in the back of my pack in my pictures).

Another item that was a waste for me was the fleece I brought. Not only did I also bring a puffy jacket that would have been good enough (along with the rain jacket if it got colder), but the fleece I took was from when I was heavier and a full size too large! This probably added a pound to my pack, and the bulky fleece was a pain to pack every day.

A few other gear takeaways for me:

  • Get a JetBoil. I have a small, Snow Peak stove that attaches to an isobutane canister, however the speed and efficiency at which a JetBoil does the job is worth it (and will require less gas).
  • Pump hydration filters are past their prime. The new Sawyer systems and Platypus gravity systems had me in water-filter envy all trip. Given that my pump broke, I will probably go with a Sawyer set up.
  • Always carry iodine tablets. I had issues with my pump (ended up breaking for good with a few days remaining in the trip), and iodine is a very acceptable method for water treatment on the JMT. I was glad I bought a supply during my zero-day since I was having issues with my filter.
  • Consider Trail Running Shoes instead of hiking boots. I switched from high-ankle boots to low-cut boots for the trip, and they did fine. Everyone who used Trail Running Shoes instead raved about the comfort, light-weight and lack of blisters. For doing a well-maintained trail like the JMT
  • Whatever shoes/boots you decide, train/test them on every type of surface. Surprisingly, the JMT’s most prominent surface is soft, sand-like pumice. While this is easy on your feet, it causes a different issue (at least for me) in that I didn’t test my boots on and that ended up causing a lot of problems with blisters on the bottom of my toes since the toes were much more involved on this surface. It is not quite a beach-type of sand, but perhaps an inch or two thick sand.
  • I came across these very cool hiking poles camping with a Scottish couple and am seriously considering getting them (it helps that I left my poles on the shuttle bus to Lone Pine at the end of the journey): http://www.pacerpole.com
  • It is a very dry climate. Lip balm is critical (make sure you have enough for the entire trip or purchase at VVR or MTR), and I wish I had taken hand cream as my hands were a mess. Be prepared for the impact on your sinuses, as well.
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