July 9, 2013

How to Hike the John Muir Trail or Any Long Trail

Many people I talk to are really envious of my John Muir Trail thru hike in 2010.  And most people are just waiting for a magic fairy to carry them to the trailhead so they can start their dream thru hike.  You actually have to take action if you want to do it.  Most people won't and end up doing nothing.  You have to plan, train, and most importantly just book the time off work.  

The most popular post on this website is John Muir Trail: Start to Finish in Pictures.  Over 1000 people have seen it, salivated, and envied that trip.  

I also wrote a full story about my JMT thru hike called JMT'ing It: Life on the John Muir Trail.  Much less popular than the pictures post because people don't like reading, don't care or I suck at writing and telling stories.  

The Quick Story on How I Hiked the John Muir Trail and the 3 Steps to Making Your Dreams Come True

I am a big advocate of taking one week per year to do something you really want to do.  For me, I enjoy going on long, solo backpacking trips to places I have never been before.  In 2010 when living in Arizona, I had it narrowed down the 3 places: Southern Utah Canyonlands, San Juans in Southwest Colorado, or the Sierras in California.  It was July and I didn't know which one I wanted to do, so I simply booked 1 week off work during the last week of September/first week of October because it fit well with my racing schedule.  So that is step 1: Book the time off.

As the date got closer, I realized I was in really strong running shape from doing races like the Pikes Peak Ascent and Imogene Pass Run in Colorado.  So I naturally wanted to cover some big ground which lead me to choose the John Muir Trail.  

Covering the John Muir Trail in 9-10 days seemed reasonable to me given my good running shape (work week + 2 weekends).  However, I ended up completely destroyed after the hike because I relied solely on being in great running and aerobic shape.  I did not even put my pack on until I set off from Yosemite Valley on that sunny September morning which proved crippling.  So that is step 2: Get in Hiking Specific shape (takes 3-4 months of specific training).

I decided to hike the John Muir Trail 2.5 weeks before starting.  I was worried about the logistics of everything:  Permits, Bear Canisters, getting to and from the trail head, Gear choices, food and/or food drops.  The reality is that the logistics are where a lot of people get caught up.  Yes, it is important to plan and be prepared, but what is more important is to start the trip.  Logistics will work out.  Logistics don't mean much if you are still scouring over maps in your living room.  Getting to the trailhead healthy and fit is the biggest hurdle.  Which is why I have logistics as the 3rd and final Step when planning a Thru hike.  Step 3: Logistics, Simple is Better.  

I actually enjoy not having everything figured out when starting a big trip like the John Muir Trail.  The unknown is part of the fun.  If everything was perfectly planned out and executed perfectly, there would be no stories to tell.  "Yay, I hiked the John Muir Trail and had zero difficulties or surprises."  BORING.  Isn't that why we go in the first place, to feel that vulnerability that we are constantly trying to numb ourselves to while toiling away in the city?  Besides, the JMT so well marked, and so well trodden that the logistics are quite simple.  You can literally find hundreds of online journals from hikers.  Aside: don't let that deter you from doing it.  It is the most beautiful 222 miles of wilderness you will ever see.  Once you complete the JMT, you can then look to take on the more challenging and remote Sierra High Route.       

I read online on how you can rent bear canisters and that 40% of permits are available for walk up hikers.  I planned on packing 10 days of food so I didn't have to worry about the tricky food drops at the midway point.  The most tricky thing about the John Muir Trail from my perspective was determining where to leave my car and how to get to/from my car to the starting point.  To my delight, working through this issue turned out to one of the best parts about the trip.  Long story short, I hitchhiked with 3 different people some 200 miles to get to the start in Yosemite Valley.  I will tell that story at another time since this is a how to hike the JMT post.


This is by far the most important step.  Don't get hung up on details or fitness.  That will come.  First you need a goal, a light at the end of the tunnel.  Look at your calendar, determine your pace, and pick out a week or two that is convenient for you.

How much time off?  I did it in 8 days.  I also broke my femur.  I would recommend 15 days.  15 days @ 15 miles per day = 225 miles.  Very possible for most people.  And everyone should be able to do 3 weeks (10 miles per day)  

When Should I Hike the JMT?  September.  I did it in Late September/October.  I didn't want to deal with bugs or "crowds" so this worked well for me.  I also got to see fall foliage, some light snow fall which made me feel hardcore, and none of the passes were snowed off yet.  I could make an argument for late June/July so you could see more epic waterfalls, gentler weather. 

Step 2: Get in Shape to Hike

Feet First.  The Achilles heel of most thru hikers is their feet.  Failure mechanism number one is blisters.  I like wear trail running shoes.  They are lighter, more comfortable, and more breathable than hiking boots.  Despite running in my shoes for weeks/months before the trip, I still had blisters which I had to manage early on in the trip.  So my suggestion is to break in your shoes for a few months by running in them but also walk in them with the pack on.  I never did this and learned that walking with a pack creates different hot spots than just running.  Failure mechanism number two is fatigue or achy feet.  I ran a lot so this never was an issue.  But I would recommend never sitting down for the few months prior to the hike.  Change your office desk to standing only.  Spend more time on the feet to tougher your legs and feet.  And finally, be ready to manage blisters early when you do start hiking.  

Aerobic and Muscular Conditioning.  Running is most effective exercise when preparing for a long hike.  But I learned that simply running a lot is not enough.  My body wasn't ready to handle carrying a pack and I snapped the strongest bone in my body.  So this may sound dumb but practice carrying the load during weekends trips.  Since most people are busy, I would run for 30 minutes per day and do 30 minutes of weights (circuit covering everything) during work days.  On weekends, go for hikes with a heavier pack.  Or work out a routine to walk to work everyday with the pack.      

Step 3: Logistics

There are so many websites and reports to read about logistics and gear (listed a few below).  But here are my thoughts on a few.  

Permits.  You can book your permit months in advance.  Or just rock up and snatch one of the 40% that they give to walk ins.  I chose to just take my chances and show up.  I got there early enough so I was OK.  But I had time so I could have waited another day.  Bottom line is you don't have a to book ahead so don't let that stop you.  

Bears.  You are required to carry a canister.  I just rented one from the NPS at the same time I got my permit for 5 dollars per week (or 20?).  At the end of my trip, I simply put a address label on it and threw it in the mail.  No drop off or running around to hand it in required.  Easy.  I should mention it was heavy and a bit small for 10 days of food.  Looking back on it, I would have bought a lighter, larger capacity one to use on this trip and for future trips to bear country.  

Water.  I only carried 1-2 liters at a time because there was water flowing everywhere.  I did not filter any of the water.  My reasoning was that you can see the water flowing out of the mountain at 11000 feet.  What are the chances of it being contaminated?  But that is your call to make.  I brought tablets just in case I was unsure of a water source.    

Food.  I packed enough food for 10 days.  Expect 2-2.5 pounds per day.  Your food should be energy dense: 100-150 calories/oz.  So two pounds (32 oz) gives you between 3000-4000 calories per day.  That is more than enough to sustain you.  I brought 4-5 cliff bars per day, lots of chocolate, trail mix, nuts, and pre-made meals for dinner that only required boiling water to cook.  I like to get up and go first thing in the morning.  I do not want to be heating water up in the cold first thing in the morning.  So I eat a Clif bar while packing up camp and go.  I only cook at night for dinner using a lightweight alcohol stove. 

Food Drops.  I don't like doing food drops because it is logistically difficult.  If you are going to be out for 10 days or more it would make sense.  I can't offer much advice on this but I would recommend sending an extra pair of socks and or underwear in the food drop.  Might as well hit the reset button on dirty, smelly  clothes mid-way through.  

Clothing.  I wear the same clothes everyday.  I bring two pairs of socks: one pair to walk in and one pair for camp/sleeping.  Both pairs get destroyed at the end of the trip as well as the shoes because they are permanently stinked.  I bring just enough clothing to keep me warm through the night while in the sleeping bag.  That means I wear every article of clothing I bring to bed.  I assume when I am up, I am moving.  When I am stopped, I am in my sleeping bag.  This saves of additional or unnecessary weight which would be needed to keep you warm while lounging around camp.   

Shelter.  I used a Golite Poncho tarp.  I only needed it the final two nights when it rained.  On the second to last night, a dense wind was blowing rain sideways so I had to curl up in a ball towards the back of my tarp set up to not get wet.  I also got a massive nose bleed from the altitude which caused a swimming pool of blood next to me.  The couple camped next to me thought I died or had a period.  Basically, I was wet, I was drowning in my own blood, and freezing my butt off because I packed the minimum amount of clothing.  But if I wanted to be comfortable and numb, I would have stayed home.  I go out to be in the elements, to expose myself to those vulnerabilities and to learn to deal with them.  And the moments when I am fully vulnerable are the ones I tend to remember and feel most alive.

I could keep going on and on but there so many resources on the Internet for you to do further research if you want.

Bottom Line:

The John Muir Trail isn't easy.  It is one of the hardest physical things I have ever done.  But doing it or any long trail will change your life.  I still think about my solo long hikes weekly if not daily.  Don't focus on the small things.  Don't get hung up on the minutiae of gear selection or permits or weather patterns.  Just make it a priority to get to the starting line.  The rest will take care of itself.    

JMT Links:

The free, downloadable, printable map set I took with me on the trail.  

This guy put together and epic list of trip reports and blogs about hiking the JMT.  http://freeoutdoors.com/blog/hiking/hike-john-muir-trail


  1. i was trying to find a way to message you on tumblr, but your comments/message/ask stuff is all turned off. i just wanted to say that i've spent all of my lunch break reading this blog! great stuff on here!

  2. Thanks Samantha. Yours is great as well. Still trying to figure it all out. Email is still my method of choice. Shoot me one if you ever want to. Zach