Research and Plan
1Understand the beauty and challenge of the JMT. The JMT is a high elevation (for the US at least) mountain trail through remote terrain.
- The JMT ranges in elevation from about 4000 feet above sea level, to 14,505 ft at the summit of Mt. Whitney. All of the southern half is above 8000 ft.
- The trail passes through 3 national parks, 5 wilderness areas, 2 national forests, and 1 national monument. There’s a very helpful “tour” of each with photos here.
- There are no huts or shelters along the trail, so you will be responsible for your own campsite and protection from the elements at all times.
- There are 10 passes (the high points between valleys) over 10,000 ft, and you will usually be hiking several thousand feet up and then down in a single day.
- The JMT grows gradually higher and the passes more demanding as you hike from north to south. In fact, if heading out from Muir Trail Ranch (the halfway resupply stop) with 100 miles (160 km) of food on your back and the most difficult terrain still ahead, it almost feels like the first 100 miles (160 km) were just the warm up!
- The trail is well marked, impressively constructed and well maintained. You won’t have problems with navigation if you pay attention, and as long as you prepare well and use good common sense, you can enjoy a relatively safe wilderness experience.
2Research the trail. A map and guidebook will be your best friends.
- Many maps are available. The Tom Harrison maps are generally considered very good, but you can also get maps from National Geographic, Blackwoods Press, or Halfmile.
- The guidebook by Elizabeth Wenk is a thoroughly researched resource. Her book, “John Muir Trail – The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail”, contains a good mix of real-world trip planning advice, human history, natural history, and detailed trail descriptions. The latest version is the 5th edition, released in June 2014.
- A good planning guide is Ray Rippel’s e-book, “Planning Your Thru Hike of the John Muir Trail”. Loaded with practical tips, it provides packing lists and three suggested itineraries for different lengths of time.
- There are tons of helpful and inspiring JMT videos on YouTube and other websites, including “Mile… Mile & a Half”. These videos include documentaries, time lapse videos, gear list demos, and how-to tutorials.
- A number of online groups and forums exist, including the John Muir Trail Yahoo Group, the John Muir Trail Facebook Group, and the Ladies of the JMT Facebook Group. These forums host an active community of people who plan to hike, or have already hiked, the JMT, and they contain a wide range of resources, including web links, documents, and databases.
3Decide when to hike. The JMT is usually mostly free from snow between July and September, but it varies by year. Your options are:
- June – July: You may encounter some snow, possibly a lot, depending on the year. Stream crossings will be more difficult but water sources will be abundant. You’ll see more wildflowers, but also have to fend off more mosquitoes. Days are longer and weather is generally warmer, but afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon during summer in the Sierra.
- August: Generally a good month for hiking the JMT. Snow is usually not an issue and the weather is still warm. A good balance of the trade-offs from earlier and later, which means demand for permits is higher.
- September: Some say this is the most stable weather of the year in the Sierra, but it depends on the year. Thunderstorms are usually less frequent, but the risk of an early winter storm is higher. Days are also shorter leaving less daylight for hiking, and nighttime temperatures will drop below freezing at higher elevations. In a dry year, some water sources may be unreliable but this won’t be a problem if you do your research. Mosquitoes and people are both less abundant. Wildfires (and their smoke) pose more of a risk, however, especially during dry years.
- October: Generally a less pleasant time to hike the JMT. Many resupply locations are already closed, daylight is short, and the risk of encountering an early winter storm is high. On the plus side, getting a permit should be easy and you’ll encounter fewer people on the trail, but only experienced backpackers prepared for snow should attempt hiking this late.
4Decide which direction to hike.
- North to south is most common and allows the hiker to “warm up” on the easier and lower passes in the north and acclimatize gradually to the higher elevations in the south. Summiting 14,505 foot Mt. Whitney is far easier after several weeks in the mountains.
- South to north is preferred by some who want to get the most challenging climbs out of the way first, or appreciate the aesthetics of the steeper and more dramatic south-side approaches to many of the passes. Starting late in the season might also be a good reason to get the higher elevation passes – and their potential for cold and dangerous storms – out of the way early. It is also easier to get a permit going in this direction.
- Allow for a couple of days near your starting point before beginning your hike to acclimatize to the altitude if you live at low elevation and don’t know how your body responds. This important whether you’re starting in the north or south, but is critical if you’re starting on Mt. Whitney. Do some easy day hikes during that time. Learn about altitude sickness and be familiar with the symptoms before you go.
5Decide how fast to hike. Many hikers take about 3 weeks to complete the trail, traveling at a pace that’s challenging but still leaves time to enjoy the scenery and take a day or two for rest or side trips. This works out to roughly 10-13 miles per day, though some days will likely be longer or shorter.
- An important limiting factor is the stretch between Muir Trail Ranch and Mt. Whitney. Unless you hire or convince someone to bring you food during this section, or add a couple of days to hike out to town, you’ll need to cover over 100 miles on a single resupply package. Food is heavy and has to fit in your bear canister, so this really limits the amount of time you can spend on this section. Nine to ten days is about the max unless you arrange another resupply.
- People who prefer more leisure sometimes take 4 or more weeks, and need to plan extra food resupplies accordingly. The record for fastest known time on the JMT, set by some amazing ultrarunners, is under 4 days, but that won’t be even remotely possible for most people.
- If you can manage the time off from work and your life at home, err on the side of allowing more time for your trip. You’ll be traveling through remote terrain that’s very hard to get to, so you may as well make the most of it while you’re there! It’s also better to have added flexibility for rest and recovery days–the worst case scenario is finishing a little early, which can be avoided by having some scenic detours lined up.
6Decide who to hike with. You can hike solo, with a partner, or a larger group, and each option will shape your experience in a different way.
- Keep in mind that everyone hikes at different paces and has different goals, so it can be difficult to keep a larger group together. Even a group of 4 may find it easier to split into pairs and arrange to meet for lunch and camping. Larger groups camping in the same place also tend to have a more harmful impact on delicate ecosystems.
- Be sure to discuss details of your plan with prospective hiking partners before deciding to hike together. Do you want to hike 8 miles a day at a relaxed pace while taking lots of pictures, while they want to push their limits and do 18? Do you like to sip coffee in the morning and hike into the night, while they prefer to rise at dawn and hit the trail? Are you more comfortable with a fixed schedule, while they like to play everything by ear? You might not make great hiking partners.
- Don’t be afraid to try a solo hike. A long solo hike can be an amazing life-changing experience, and many people prefer solo hiking after trying it the first time. To test it out, take a short solo weekend trip on a familiar trail, then decide if a solo JMT hike is right for you. There are many friendly people hiking the JMT during the summer hiking season, so in case you get lonely there will be plenty of opportunities to hike and camp with other hikers, and in case something unexpected comes up, there are people around to help out. By the mid-point of the trail, there are many solo hikers who have joined pairs or groups, and there are lots of people sharing food or helping other people out in other ways.
7Plan your resupplies. The trail is too long to carry all your food from the start, so you will need to plan and mail resupply packages to places along the way. Fortunately there are several resorts that will accept and hold a package for you (for a fee). Your options are:
- Tuolumne Meadows: about 24 miles from the trail’s northern start in Yosemite, this is a good place to restock if you don’t want to carry too much weight between the start and Red’s Meadow.
- Red’s Meadow: about 62 miles in. Friendly resort with well stocked store, picnic tables, bathrooms, restaurant and campground.
- Vermilion Valley Resort: 88 miles. You’ll need to catch a boat shuttle or walk 4.5 miles around the lake. Popular backpacker-friendly spot with a store, restaurant, and free campground. Your first beer is on the house, and if you ask nicely you might be able to get a complimentary spot in a tent cabin for the night.
- Muir Trail Ranch: 108 miles, right at the mid-point of the trail, and the last on-trail resupply option for the southern half of the trail. Very small store and no food or bathroom options, unless you’re spending the night in a cabin there, but you’ll likely want to resupply here anyway since it’s your last convenient opportunity. To resupply here, you need to mail a plastic bucket there more than three weeks in advance of your pickup date and pay a fee in addition to the shipping cost.
- If you don’t want to carry all your food for the next 100 miles after Muir Trail Ranch, which could take around 9 days or more, you have a couple of options: You can leave the JMT at mile 186, hike out over Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley trailhead and pick up your food resupply box that has been cached in a bear locker. Or hitchhike to town from Onion Valley and get a motel for the night. The Mt. Williamson Motel and Independence Inn have a resupply package that offers pickup and drop off from Onion Valley. This will add one or two days to your trip. Or, hire a pack mule service, or bribe a friend, to hike in over Kearsarge Pass or Bishop Pass with your resupply package, which will require careful scheduling, because food cannot legally be cached in the wilderness by your friend or the pack service.
- For people hiking northbound, the 100 miles at the south end of the trail is still a challenge for food resupply, but the difference is that there are plenty of bear lockers along the southern end of the JMT that it is possible to carry more food than will fit in your bear canister during the day, but at night, camp at locations with bear lockers to store the extra “overflow” food and other smelly items, until the everything finally fits into the bear canister.
- For a map of bear lockers in the High Sierra, visit the climber.org website.
- If you’re flexible and adventurous, it’s possible to resupply without shipping anything by raiding hiker bins at resupply spots and buying food from the stores. Many people ship themselves way too much food and dump the extra into bins full of food up for grabs. Red’s Meadow has one basket that fills up throughout the day and gets thrown out at night. VVR has several baskets full of food, along with separate baskets for non-food items (fuel, clothing, sunblock). MTR tends to have a cornucopia of food, gear, and supplies. The stores at Red’s and VVR have a good selection of things you might need, but don’t count on the store at MTR for anything except fuel.
8Plan a rough itinerary. This is a good thing to do before any hike, but especially useful on the JMT because of resupply logistics. Some people will prefer to “wing it” between resupply stops, but for those who like to plan in advance, here’s how.
- Make a spreadsheet with each hiking day as a row, and add columns for daily mileage, cumulative mileage, daily elevation gain, tentative campsite location, and notes for things like resupply stops or water sources along the route. It helps to divide your hike up into 3 or 4 segments between resupply locations, and then tackle planning each segment separately.
- Using your guidebook and map, start identifying approximate places to camp. You might choose them because they’re recommended for their beauty, nice campsites, proximity to water, or simply because they’re well spaced for the number of miles you want to hike that day.
- Especially in the southern half, the JMT follows a fairly regular pattern of high passes alternating with protected valleys. If you plan your campsites well, you’ll often end up camping in a valley, climbing a pass in the morning, and heading downhill to your next campsite in the afternoon. Camping in the lower elevation valleys is easier because it’s less cold, less windy, and water is more abundant. Most people sleep better at lower elevations. And many hikers prefer to get the difficult uphill climbs done early in the day, before it gets hot and they get tired.
- Don’t forget to factor in climbing, descent, and high elevation. If you’re hiking over 13,200 foot Forester Pass today, you’re probably climbing 3000 feet up before lunch and another 3000 feet down in the afternoon, all in thin air at high elevation, so your mileage for the day might be shorter. On the other hand, you can cover ground relatively quickly on the more gradual, lower elevation trail in Evolution Valley. Don’t underestimate the more challenging, rocky terrain of the southern half. You may have your “trail legs” by then if you started from the north, but the passes are higher and steeper than their northern counterparts.
- Let yourself warm up by planning a couple of shorter days at the beginning of your hike. Then try to intersperse a few shorter “rest” days (if you’re hiking 15 miles a day, an 8 mile day feels like a rest) throughout the remainder of your hike, to give any nagging aches or pains a chance to recover. Your legs will thank you the next day.
- You will probably not follow your plan exactly as you hike. That’s ok. But it’s important to start with a plan, because then it’s much easier to make small adjustments on the fly and still hit your resupply stops on time. It’s also a great way to get familiar with the trail and its landmarks and water sources, which will help you feel oriented during your hike.
9Plan your transportation. The JMT stretches between Yosemite and Mt. Whitney, over 200 miles apart. Unless you plan to turn around and walk back when you finish, you’ll need some way of getting back to where you started.
- One option is to arrange a car shuttle with hiking partners. Drive separately to your endpoint, leave a car there, drive together to your start point, complete the hike. Then drive together from the endpoint back to the car at the start point, then head your separate ways.
- Public transportation is available via the CREST, YARTS and ESTA lines, and can be used with or instead of a car shuttle. Note that these often stop running in early September.
- A private shuttle, East Side Sierra Shuttle, offers comfortable transportation on the east side of the Sierra, and custom trips are available.
10Apply for and get your permit. You need a permit to hike the JMT, and they’re in high demand. See the PCTA permits page for current information. Fortunately, though you’ll be passing through several national parks and forests, you only need a single permit for the area where you start.
- If you start in the north, you’ll need a permit from Yosemite National Park. If you start in the south, you’ll need a permit for the Mt. Whitney Zone from Inyo National Forest.
- Permits in Yosemite are a lottery system, and currently you need to apply exactly 168 days in advance to have a chance. Permits for the official start at Happy Isles are very hard to get, so many hikers start further south at Lyell Canyon in Tuolumne Meadows. Yes, this cuts about 20 miles off your hike, but it’s 20 of the easiest miles to access. If you can’t get a permit for Happy Isles and don’t want to feel short-changed on total mileage, consider starting at Tuolumne Meadows and making up the extra miles on side trips in more spectacular and remote sections of the JMT.
- For other ideas on alternative start locations, see the Yosemite trailhead quotas page. A trailhead with a higher quota will generally be easier to get a permit for, if you’re willing to start your trip from a non-traditional location.
- As of February 2015, Yosemite has implemented an additional quota for JMT hikers exiting Yosemite via Donahue Pass. Only 45 thru-hikers can get these permits per day, making it even harder to get a southbound permit than in previous years. If you cannot get a permit for the classic JMT, alternatives include:
- Starting in Yosemite but exiting the park via Isberg pass, meeting back up with the JMT at Red’s Meadows.
- Starting at or around Devil’s Postpile.
- While it’s possible to start north of Yosemite in the Hoover Wilderness at a trailhead like Robinson Creek and join the JMT at Tuolumne Meadows, in 2015 the Bridgeport Ranger Station is not issuing any permits to JMT thru-hikers. Call to confirm: (760) 932-7070
Prepare Your Gear
1Carefully choose the “big 3”: backpack, shelter, and sleeping system. Test these first on training hikes.
- Your choice of pack, shelter and sleeping bag will depend on how much weight you’re willing to carry. “Traditional” backpackers, carrying 40-60 pounds, definitely do complete the JMT. But it’s also increasingly common to see semi-lightweight backpackers carrying minimalist packs, tarps instead of tents, and lightweight down sleeping quilts instead of bulky synthetic sleeping bags.
- If you choose the lighter weight route, the best gear is often found in smaller online shops and not available at your neighborhood REI. Check out names like Mountain Laurel Designs, Enlightened Equipment, Six Moon Designs, Gossamer Gear, Tarptent, and many more.
- Whatever you choose, make sure it’s adequate to keep you safe and comfortable and you know how to use it. Your pack should be able to carry food and water for your longest segment, including the extra 2-ish pounds added by a bear canister. Your sleeping bag should be rated for 30 degree F temperatures at the warmest, and cold sleepers hiking in September should consider 10 or 0 degree bags. Your tent or tarp must keep you and your gear dry through a night of rain and wind.
Choose your clothing. If you’re not an experienced backpacker, do your research on clothing systems for backcountry hiking. Weather can range from 90 degrees F on a summer day to below freezing and windy at night. Bring the layers and accessories (gloves, hat, etc) to be safe and comfortable. Many people choose to wear long sleeves and pants for protection from the sun, since many parts of the trail are exposed and at high altitude.
3Plan your hydration system. During a long hike, a good portion of your day revolves around water – finding it, purifying it, drinking it. You’ll need:
- A water purification system. It’s generally not a good idea to drink directly from streams and lakes in most parts of the High Sierra, because bacteria from people and livestock can make you sick, though some people do choose to take the risk and drink unfiltered water. Water purification systems come in many forms, including gravity filters, pump filters, UV sterilizers, squeeze filters, and chemical tablets and drops. Research the tradeoffs and choose what’s best for you. A Sawyer squeeze filter attached to a Smart water bottle is common setup for ultralight hikers on the JMT.
- Four liters of water carrying capacity. There are many ways to arrange this, but one useful system is a 3 liter hydration bladder with hose that you can drink from while you hike, plus an extra 1 liter bottle. The bottle is faster to fill up, better for dispensing water to cook with, and easier to keep in your tent at night. While many people feel it’s better to be safe than sorry, there are also many people who hike the entire trail with only two liters of carrying capacity, but this is only recommended for those who have the confidence to hike further if your planned water source is dried up (especially later in the season).
4Choose the rest of your gear. The internet is full of checklists and blog posts about what to include in your backpack. Long debates have occurred over which particular type of titanium pot is best! Do your research and look for resources from communities that match your hiking style. REI has a good standard checklist if you’re just getting started. Going ultralight? Check out the gear forums at backpackinglight.com. This is not a complete list, but here are some JMT-specific gear suggestions:
- Hiking poles are extremely useful on the steep and rocky JMT. Even if you don’t normally hike with them, consider bringing a pair. They will steady you during creek crossings and support your tired knees and ankles on many steep and rock-strewn sections of trail.
- Bring a camera! The JMT is incredibly scenic. Depending on your phone for picture taking might drain the battery extremely quickly.
- You’ll need a cooking system that’s lightweight but reliable. A small folding stove and single titanium mug or pot would be a good choice, but do some research if you’re curious about other options. Many people eat and drink out of the same pot they cook in. Keep in mind that high altitude, cold, and wind all extend cooking time of your meal, and at higher elevations on the JMT the difference is noticeable, so budget extra fuel. Post Office rules prohibit shipping fuel in resupply boxes, but you’ll be able to purchase standard backpacking stove fuel canisters at resupply points.
- Some kind of light, ideally a headlamp (and extra batteries), is essential.
- Don’t forget rain gear! Sudden thunderstorms are common in the Sierra in summer, and the temperature can drop below freezing at night, making wet clothing and gear a dangerous problem. A waterproof pack cover and/or lining, rain pants and waterproof jacket, or poncho, are essential.
5Remember safety essentials. Parts of the JMT are fairly remote, and you may hike for half a day or more without seeing anyone. The nearest town can be a three day hike away. In addition to being prepared with proper gear, you should always have a basic first aid kit (and know how to use its contents!). A compass should always be carried though the trail is well-marked, and a good map is a must. Know how to use them both, and know the exit routes in case of emergency.
Choose a couple of luxury items that will really enhance your trip. A camera, small journal, or good book (consider the Kindle app if you carry a smart phone) are nice options, but don’t go overboard. It’s easy to think you can’t do without something, but your daily routine on the trail will be so different that you probably won’t miss what you don’t bring.
7Consider and plan for your personal needs in the wilderness. More exhaustive general lists can be found on the internet, but here are some notable items to consider for many long hikes and the JMT in particular.
- Entire days of hiking will be spent above treeline with no shade, so sunscreen and sunglasses are required. Some people wear lightweight gloves to protect the backs of their hands, which get a lot of sun exposure if you use trekking poles. Many people wear lightweight pants and a long-sleeved sunshirt to provide sun protection as an alternative to applying sunblock.
- A small bottle of bug repellent is helpful if hiking earlier in the summer. A headnet is also recommended if you are one of those people that bugs really enjoy eating.
- Baby wipes will seem like the best thing ever. At the end of a long and dusty day (the JMT is a dusty trail when dry), start with your face and hands and proceed to progressively dirtier areas. Pack out the used wipe in your trash bag.
- Deodorant, lotion, and soap are all optional, believe it or not. You’ll have to carry them the whole way, and many people stop using them after a few days once they’ve adjusted to life on the trail. A small bottle of hand sanitizer is a great alternative to soap, and doesn’t harm the environment (even “natural,” biodegradable soaps can disrupt fragile ecosystems). For brushing your teeth, a few drops of biodegradable soap per brushing will do the trick and is better for the environment than toothpaste. Bringing a packet or two hand ointment such as Aquaphor in case your hands get very dry and crack later in the trail can be a nice luxury.
- Don’t forget toilet paper or wipes! Just as importantly, don’t forget a way to pack it out. Yes, all of it. No, burying it doesn’t count. It doesn’t always stay buried thanks to animals and erosion, and no one wants to hike through other people’s used TP. Here’s a system that works: put some bleach powder in a plastic bag, then double bag it in another plastic bag, ideally an opaque (non-see-through) bag if you can find one (or just cover it with duct tape). Include one of these setups in each resupply package so you don’t have to reuse them. You might even want a spare inner bag to change out between resupplies. If this sounds gross to you, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. It’s well worth the minor unpleasantness to keep the wilderness lovely for many years to come.
- Extra plastic bags are always useful for something. Bring a few in several sizes and include a few more in your resupplies. Large ones (kitchen garbage bags) make useful lightweight pack liners and emergency pack covers. Medium ones (gallon ziplocks) are great for your food-related and personal trash. Small ones (sandwich bags) are perfect for protecting your camera or journal from water.
8Weigh your gear ahead of time and make sure it fits comfortably in your pack. Ideally you will do this several times on shorter training hikes. The day before hitting the trail is not a good time to find out that your pack weighs half as much as you do and your sleeping bag won’t fit inside it.
- If you are really into shaving ounces, weigh each item of gear separately and create a spreadsheet. This will allow you to make informed decisions about weight tradeoffs, like “if I don’t bring that bottle of biodegradable shampoo, I can bring 10 baby wipes and an extra pair of socks!”
- If you’re not quite that detail-oriented, simply put all your gear and clothing in your pack, step on a bathroom scale, then subtract your weight without the pack. This is known as your “base weight,” the weight of your gear without food and water.
- When weighing your gear, don’t underestimate the amount of weight food and water will add. Food weighs 1.5 to 2 pounds per day, and water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter. For example, 5 days of food and 3 liters of water would add over 16 pounds to your pack!
Prepare Your Food
Choose a bear canister. Black bears on the JMT are typically not dangerous to humans, but hikers need to take special precautions to keep it that way. Storing your food and scented toiletries in a bear canister is required on the John Muir Trail, both for your safety and that of the bears. A bear that makes a habit of eating hiker’s food in the backcountry will often be killed by rangers due to safety concerns, and no one wants to be responsible for that. And, if a bear eats your food supply on the most remote portions of the trail, you’re going to have an unpleasantly hungry hike out to the nearest town two days away.
- A standard bear canister can be purchased for about $80 from an outdoor gear store. It will add about 2.5 lbs to your pack weight.
- Lighter canisters are more expensive, so decide how much you care about weight. If you spring for the “Cadillac of bear canisters,” the carbon fiber Wild Ideas Bearikade, you will pay over 3 times as much for 31 ounces of carbon fiber and aircraft aluminum alloy awesomeness. Wild Ideas also rents these to JMT hikers for a much more reasonable price.
- If you don’t need a bear canister in your gear collection permanently, you can rent one in Yosemite for much less money.
- Depending on your resupply plans, you may be trying to fit as much as 10 days of food into a bear canister on the southern half of the JMT! This is almost impossible unless you plan on eating nothing but peanut butter for 10 days (not recommended). Consider getting a larger canister, like the Bearikade Expedition, to make your life easier. Note that national park regulations may allow you to bear hang your food in the area near Muir Trail Ranch (check local regulations), so if you choose your camp location carefully and bring rope/cord, you can cut a day off the amount that must fit in your canister.
2Plan your resupply details. Review your goal itinerary from part one. Your hiking speed, time constraints, and pack weight concerns should have already determined where you’ll need to mail food packages or (if you have really nice friends) have a friend hike in to meet you.
- Each resupply location has specific mailing instructions, forms and fees, so make sure to read their websites carefully or your package may not be waiting for you when you arrive.
- Be prepared to mail your resupply packages about 3 weeks before you’ll pick them up.
3Identify your meal and snack counts. If you haven’t already, make a spreadsheet with a row for each day you’ll be on the trail. Mark resupply days on the spreadsheet, and figure out exactly how many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks you’ll need based on how many days are in each segment.
- For example, if you plan to eat lunch and resupply at Red’s Meadow around lunchtime on day 4, and you will have breakfast in Yosemite before you start on day 1, you’ll need 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 3 dinners, and about 3.5 days worth of snacks to get you through the first segment.
- If you have space in your bear canister, consider packing an extra partial or whole day of food. Yes, it’s extra weight, but life is uncertain in the backcountry. If your resupply stop is delayed by a day while you wait to avoid a dangerous electrical storm on the next high pass, you’ll be hungry and grumpy unless you have a little extra food stashed away.
4Plan your menu. There are many great resources on the internet for optimizing hiking food, so do your research. Everyone seems to have their own preferences, but here are some general guidelines that apply especially well to longer trips like the JMT:
- Most hikers need about 3000-3500 calories per day. That’s probably a lot more than you usually eat, but after a few days of climbing high mountain passes with a heavy backpack, you’ll still be fantasizing about food, no matter how much you brought. Your food will weigh about 1.5 to 2 pounds per day.
- Dense foods high in protein and fat are satisfying and full of energy: nut butters, hard cheeses, salami. These pair great with tortillas, which happen to fit nicely in the bottom of a bear canister…
- Dehydrated food helps save space and weight, especially for staples like grains. At higher elevations on the JMT, a traditional canister stove takes longer to cook your food, especially when it’s cold and windy, so choose foods that rehydrate quickly or learn to love crunchy rice and pasta. An insulating pot cozy can help. Couscous is the easiest grain to cook on the trail, as it rehydrates in only a couple of minutes and can even be rehydrated with cold water in a pinch (takes longer though). Rice and pasta also work if they are cooked first, then dehydrated. Grains like quinoa and uncooked pasta can take a really long time and burn through a lot of fuel. Ramen and instant mashed potatoes are common backpacker dinner staples, and ramen can be substituted for pasta in many dishes.
- Convenient foods like energy bars, dried fruit, trail mix and sports gels are great for quick snacks. Bear Valley Pemmican bars pack in more calories (over 400 in a bar) than most bars and are a great compact source of nutritious trail food.
- Freeze-dried chicken, bacon bits, or beef jerky are great ways to add more protein to your meals.
- Some hikers bring a container of olive oil or ghee and add some to each meal for more calories.
- Don’t forget some favorite indulgences! Dark chocolate (may melt), instant coffee, tea, or even dehydrated pumpkin pie (really!) will taste heavenly on the trail.
- Delicate foods like crackers and cookies, though delicious, will likely get crushed in your bear can.
Make and/or buy your meals. You have many options here, depending on how much time and money you want to spend:
- Purchase freeze-dried meals from an outdoor gear store. These are more expensive but very easy.
- Dehydrate your own food. This is less expensive than buying dehydrated meals, and gives you more control over your menu, but it does take time.
- Buy/make and combine dehydrated and freeze dried ingredients into your own recipes. For example, mix instant oatmeal with powdered whole milk, freeze dried apples, almonds, salt and cinnamon for breakfast. Or, mix couscous or instant rice with curry powder, freeze dried veggies, freeze dried chicken, and some added olive oil when you rehydrate for dinner.
6Mail your resupplies and, if possible, confirm that they arrived.
- Read the guidelines for each resupply point you’re using. They all have their own preferences for packing and labeling. A five gallon plastic bucket, with the lid securely taped down, is a common choice.
- Brace yourself for the postage fees. It can cost $20 – $40 to mail each package, in addition to the fees each resort charges for picking up and holding them.
7Do a test pack with your bear canister to make sure it all fits. It’s easy to say “I’m sure it’ll fit!” from the comfort of your kitchen, but when packing your resupply into your bear canister on the trail and half your food doesn’t fit, you’ll have a dilemma on your hands. Better to know in advance and modify your menu to include denser, more compact foods.
- If the bears don’t get your food, the marmots will! These guys live above treeline in higher elevation areas and can be quite aggressive, especially in areas like Guitar Lake where they are used to an easy meal because so many hikers camp there. Look away for a second and your food will be gone if it’s not in the bear canister!
Prepare Your Body
Decide to train. If you are already fit and active, you may not need much extra training to complete the JMT, but a little extra physical preparation will make your experience more enjoyable. If you’re becoming more active for the first time in a while, the steps below should help you prepare.
2Be generally active. During your hike, you’ll likely be walking for 6-8 hours a day or more. Getting your body used to that much activity, especially for people who work at a desk all day, is difficult. The more you make a habit of daily activity, the less foreign it will be to your body during the hike.
- Walk everywhere you can. Park far away from your destination. If you can, run errands on foot. Going to the grocery store? Bring a backpack (great training) and carry your groceries home on your back.
- Lots of variety will help you get strong with less risk of overdoing any particular thing. Try to incorporate a variety of activities into your week: walking, running, biking, yoga, lifting weights, whatever else you enjoy.
3Take progressively longer training hikes and incorporate a weighted pack.
- Start with a distance you can comfortably hike, whether that’s 2 miles or 10, and add a mile or two each time. Try to get out for these shorter day hikes a couple of times a month in the months before your hike.
- Once you can comfortably hike a given distance, try adding a pack with extra weight. Hand weights, water bottles, rocks, and sand are good choices if you don’t want to pack your full gear collection every time.
- Push yourself in one aspect at a time during training hikes. For example, focus on your endurance by taking longer hikes without a pack. Alternate these with shorter hikes with heavier pack to focus on strength.
- Work up to at least one two-night trip with all your gear. Ideally, do several trips of 2 or 3 nights on the trail, to get comfortable with managing your gear and hiking for several days in a row.
- Focus on hill training. Long climbs and descents are a hallmark of the JMT. Some days you’ll start climbing first thing in the morning and not hit a downhill until after lunch. As much as possible, train on hills, the longer the better. If you live in a flat area, get creative and seek out stairwells, stadium bleachers, or even the stair climber machine at the gym.
4Hit the gym to strengthen your hips and legs. Many hikers worry about their knees and ankles, but your hips and glutes (butt muscles) should be your body’s main source of power and stability. Get these muscles strong and coordinated, and your knees and ankles will usually take care of themselves.
- Do lightweight exercises like glute bridges, clams, and quadruped hip extensions with perfect form to “activate” your hip and butt muscles. This will strengthen the connection between your brain and the muscles so they are easier to recruit to their full potential.
- If you have access to coaching or can carefully research technique, learn to properly and safely perform weighted barbell exercises like squats and deadlifts. These exercises are one of the fastest ways to build a strong, stable athletic body. After a few months of these, you’ll be amazed at how much stronger and more comfortable you feel after a long day of hiking. You’ll recover faster too, which is key when you have to wake up tomorrow and hike all day again.
Don’t overdo it. Muscles adapt fairly quickly to increased activity, usually within a few weeks or months, but tendons, ligaments, and bones are slower to strengthen. If you’re training seriously for your hike, make sure to take periods of rest so any weak spots have time to recover. If you injure yourself from training unwisely, your hike may never happen.
Stay healthy and keep your body strong in the weeks before the hike. This means a good diet, enough sleep, and enough rest. If you are worried about your preparation, this is not the time to go crazy and wear yourself out with intense training. Have faith in the preparation you’ve already done, and understand that your body takes several weeks to adapt to training, so if you’re trying to cram it in at the last minute, it probably won’t help anyway.
Hit the Trail
1Leave no trace. The JMT runs through a spectacular and fragile wilderness area and we are guests there. Following these principles will help preserve all the things we love about the wilderness for ourselves and future generations. Everyone who bothers to secure a permit for the JMT probably knows not to leave their granola bar wrappers on the trail, but here are some equally important guidelines you may not be as familiar with:
- Don’t dump your pasta water or dirty dishwater on the ground. It contains food and can disrupt fragile ecosystems and attract animals. The gold standard is to rinse out your pot or cup with water and then drink the water. When you have to purify and carry every sip of water you drink, this will seem like a good idea for multiple reasons. You actually don’t need dish soap for this, which can still be disruptive when used in large quantities, even if biodegradable. Simply leave your pot or bowl out in the midday sun for an hour or two to prevent bacteria growth. Same goes for bigger food scraps; eat them or pack them out.
- If drinking the rinse water seems gross to you, try making “cleanup soup” with a packet of ramen or miso seasoning. It dissolves and tastes decent with cold water (though you can warm it up if you want to allocate the extra fuel) and after that you only need a much smaller rinse and sip to clean your pot.
- If you do use biodegradable soap to wash dishes (or clothing, or yourself), never dump the soapy water in a lake or stream. Soap will biodegrade quickly in the soil, but it will last for many years in a cold mountain lake, leaving a ring of bubbles around the shoreline long after you are gone. Dump it at least 100 feet away from any body of water.
- Camp in previously used campsites instead of creating new ones, no matter how inviting the spot looks. Learn to spot the mark of an established tent site: flat, rectangular, and clear from vegetation. Avoid camping on living plants, and don’t camp within 200 feet of water sources to protect the fragile environments near lakes and streams.
- Check campfire regulations and always respect areas where fires are prohibited. Typically this is due to either forest fire risk or lack of sufficient firewood. On the JMT, you’ll see signs prohibiting campfires in many of the higher elevation areas above treeline, because if hikers started using the scarce vegetation for fuel, the lovely high country would be stripped bare.
- Never go to the bathroom within 200 feet of a lake or stream, to avoid introducing harmful bacteria into the water supply. Avoid going near the trail or established campsites to minimize the chances of others encountering your leavings, and bury solid human waste in catholes at least 6 inches deep.
- In the Mount Whitney area, you will be required to defecate in a in a WAG bag, which you carry out with you and dump in special dumpsters located at the Whitney Portal trail head. Though the kit provided when you pick up your permit has a double bag system, you might feel more comfortable if you have yet a third bag in which to enclose the stuff.
- Pack out all used toilet paper. See the section above on preparing your gear for more detail. Some people think burying it is acceptable, but sometimes animals dig it up or erosion uncovers it for future hikers to encounter. If you’ve ever hiked in highly used areas where people don’t respect the wilderness, you know how unpleasant these “toilet paper blooms” can be.
2Manage your water supply carefully. Have a plan for where you’ll fill up next, and arrange to camp near water as often as possible. Water on the JMT is usually abundant, especially earlier in the summer and following high snow winters. Even in September after the dry winter of 2013-2014, it was still possible to situate almost every campsite and lunch spot by a lake or stream. If you pay attention to the map and know where the next reliable water source is, you can often save weight by carrying only a liter or two at a time. But even with water every few miles, missing a refill opportunity when you’re running low can leave you uncomfortably thirsty for a few miles at best. At worst, you risk heat exhaustion and dehydration if hiking in the heat of summer through very exposed terrain.
- Don’t assume every creek or small lake on your map is reliable. Snowmelt in the mountains is dynamic and varies each year. Many small creeks dry up every year during late season. Some small lakes may completely disappear during a dry year.
- Water is often available every mile or so on the JMT, but there are a few longer potentially dry stretches to be aware of. Notably, the section between Guitar Lake and Whitney Portal has a few water sources on the descent from Whitney (heading south), but between Guitar Lake and Trail Crest the options are very unreliable. You’ll want to stay well hydrated on the high-elevation ascent of Whitney, so be sure to pack extra water for this stretch. At the northern end of the trail, Little Yosemite Valley to Cathedral Lake can also be a long dry stretch if a few key water sources are unavailable.
- Ask hikers coming the other direction where the next water source is. They’ll be happy to tell you, especially if you exchange some information about the direction they’re headed.
- When in doubt, top off your supply of water whenever you have a chance.
- When you stop for lunch or arrive at camp for the night, start filtering water right away. This is especially true if you have a gravity filter – fill it up, eat, and it’ll be ready when you’re done.
Take care of your body, before small problems turn into big ones.
- If you feel a blister coming on (the feeling often called a “hotspot”), stop and take care of it right away. If there is no evidence of a blister yet, apply a generous amount of anti-friction ointment like BodyGlide. If you do see a blister developing, treat it immediately. You did bring a blister kit, right? Some athletic tape and moleskin will come in very handy. Cut the moleskin into a donut that surrounds the blister so that it takes pressure off the irritated spot.
- Rinse your feet and socks regularly, ideally when you stop for lunch and at each night’s camp. It not only feels good, it also helps prevent dust from irritating your skin and causing blisters. It even helps just to change your socks every few hours; smack the socks you just removed against a rock a few times to shake off the dust, then strap them to your pack to dry off and air out as you walk before putting them back on later. Keeping your feet clean and dry goes a long way in blister prevention.
- Your body may feel stiff and unbalanced after so much hiking, so take some time in the mornings, evenings, or during rest breaks to stretch and move around in ways that don’t just involve putting one foot in front of the other.
- Bring a golf ball! It sounds strange, but it’s small, lightweight, and the perfect remedy for tired feet at the end of a long day. Roll it gently under the arch of your foot, the backs of your calves, or anywhere else that could use a massage.
4Know the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), such as headache, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, fatigue, dizziness and trouble sleeping. The more serious forms can be fatal: High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). The best response depends on the severity of symptoms. For mild AMS, taking an extra day before ascending further may be all that is necessary and symptoms may resolve. For HAPE, and especially HACE, descent may be required. 
Study the map often, and always know where you are and what’s around you. Not only is it fun to identify all the landmarks in distant vistas, it’s also a basic wilderness skill that will help you identify water sources, predict the time to your planned campsite, and understand the difficulty of the terrain ahead of you.
6Keep an eye on the weather and modify your plans if necessary. Summer thunderstorms are common in the Sierra, and the high, exposed passes on the JMT are dangerous during electrical storms. You should never attempt a pass when there is lightening or possibility of lightening nearby. Instead, rest your legs and wait out the storm in a safer, lower valley.
- This is especially true of Mt. Whitney, where hikers have died from lightening strikes on the summit. It’s never a good idea to be the tallest thing around in an electrical storm, so being on top of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states is obviously a horrible idea. If you hiked north to south, Whitney might be your final day and you are probably excited about finishing and almost out of food. It can be very, very tempting to push though during a storm but it’s not a risk worth taking. You won’t die from one day without food, but you can certainly die from a lightening strike.
- Mountain thunderstorms often form in the early to mid-afternoon. This is another good reason (along with cooler temperatures and fresher legs) to arrange your campsites so that you’re up and over the highest passes before noon.
- Reading the weather can be difficult, because it’s normal to see harmless puffy clouds that don’t turn into thunderstorms. Keep an eye out for clouds that grow taller, darker on the bottom, and/or flatter on top, as these signal a thunderstorm forming.
- For vague but longer-range planning, try asking other hikers if they’ve heard a recent weather forecast. Forecasts often aren’t accurate several days out so don’t depend on them completely, but they can give you a general idea of what to expect. It may have been weeks since you last had access to the internet, but hikers out for “only” a long weekend might have more recent information and will be happy to share it with you. You can also ask staff for the latest forecast at resupply stops.
Take side trips. You’re in a beautiful, remote location that’s impossible to drive to and requires, at best, several days of hiking to reach. Make the most of it! Your guidebook will have numerous suggestions for short day trips off the JMT. Make time and energy for a few, you won’t regret it.
Enjoy the little pleasures. The simplicity of hiking for days can make it easy to feel joy over small things. Savor an energy bar on top of a 12,000 foot pass while looking back at all the ground you just covered. Soak your dusty feet in a creek during lunch. Watch the sun set while you make camp at the end of a long day. Spend a few minutes looking at the stars before you zip up your tent at night.
- Go for a swim whenever possible. It will be cold and you will need to garner courage to fully submerge, but you will feel cleaner and more refreshed, and there’s a saying that “you never regret a swim” which applies on this trail. Do watch your footing, though, or wear sandals or your stream crossing shoes to make sure you don’t cut your foot on a rock or branch.
Give yourself a few extra hours to enjoy resupply stops like Red’s Meadow, Vermilion Valley Resort and Muir Trail Ranch. These are often where you will run into other hikers who have been slightly ahead of or behind you on the trail, so take a minute to chat and celebrate your shared progress as you cram your resupply into your bear canister. These are also good places to indulge that random food craving you’ve been obsessing about for the last 50 miles. A beer and an ice cream sandwich at the Red’s Meadow picnic tables just might be the best snack you’ve ever had.
- Red’s Meadow and Vermilion Valley Resort are great places to buy snacks or a hot meal, enjoy the wonders of a real bathroom, and restock on anything you may have forgotten from the general store.
- Muir Trail Ranch is more minimal. No bathroom, no ice cream, no beer unless you’re a paid guest. There is a small store but it carries only bare essentials, because they have to pack everything in on horseback. If you’re not staying the night in their cabins, you’ll probably may want to unpack your resupply box and move on, or enjoy the public Blaney Hot Springs across the river.
- The directions to the campground and hot springs posted at MTR are a little confusing. After the trail drops you off at the river, cross it into an obvious campground, but bear right as you continue forward. At some point you will bump into (well, hopefully not literally) a barbed wire fence on your right that marks the border of MTR. Follow this fence into a meadow; a hot spring is right up against the fence. Not far away is Warm Lake, which isn’t actually warm, but is called that because it gets a small amount of hot spring heat which makes it not as cold as most lakes.
- Except for Tuolumne Meadows, all the resupply stops mentioned here have “hiker bins” where hikers can leave food and supplies they don’t need, and pick up free stuff left by others. Take advantage of these, both to unload weight you don’t need, and to discover someone else’s discarded snack that suddenly looks like the tastiest thing in the world after eating exactly the same kind of trail mix for two weeks straight.
10Streamline your camp chores. The first couple of days, if you’re not used to backpacking in the mountains, it can seem like setting up and breaking down camp takes an eternity. By the time you’ve pitched the tent, filtered water, cooked dinner, packed up your bear canister, set up your sleeping pad, and crawled into your tent, an hour or two may have gone by. Don’t worry, you’ll get faster as your hike goes on. Here are some tips:
- Do tasks involving water (filtering, rinsing dust off your body) as soon as you get to camp. At high elevations surrounded by tall mountains, the sun dips behind the nearest peak well before typical sunset time. Splashing around in a cold mountain stream trying to fill your filter bag can leave you uncomfortably cold once the sun goes down. If you’re lucky enough to have a gravity filter, get it started as soon as you arrive and it’ll be ready by the time you’ve pitched the tent.
- If you’re not hiking solo, you can split up camp chores to make them go faster. Maybe one person prefers to cook, while another would rather set up the tent. It can make sense for the person who gets cold most easily to do more physical tasks like setting up the tent, since it can often be done with gloves on and involves moving around more.
Don’t worry! You will have easy days and hard days. On the hard days, it’s tempting to think things will continue getting worse. But very often, the next day you will feel stronger than ever and you will marvel at your body’s ability to adapt.
12Celebrate on Whitney! If you hiked from north to south, Whitney’s 14,505 ft summit – the highest in the continental United States – is your moment of triumph. For a truly spectacular end to a spectacular trip, try hiking up in the dark (carefully, watch your footing) and watching the sun rise from the summit. Bring plenty of warm layers (you can drop your pack a few miles from the top) – it’s chilly up there. And don’t forget, you still have 11 miles of unrelenting downhill before you exit at Whitney Portal, so save some energy for the descent.
- Whitney Portal (the southern trailhead of the JMT) has a store and restaurant where you can enjoy that food item you’ve been dreaming about for the last week. Once you’ve finished celebrating, you can hitchhike the 11 miles to Lone Pine (a common practice in this area since many hikers are headed that direction) for a night in a hotel or hostel. There’s also a campsite at Whitney Portal, if you can’t get enough of sleeping under the stars. Check the Inyo National Forest website for more information.
Decompress from your Adventure
Share your story. Friends and family will want to know what it was like to live in the wilderness for several weeks. If you took photos, enjoy looking back through them and sharing them with people who ask. Others who didn’t have the time or persistence you did may enjoy living vicariously through your adventure, and you can encourage them to plan an adventure of their own one day.
Relive your favorite moments. If you wrote in a journal, read through it. Look back through your guidebook at your favorite parts of the trail. You might find it interesting to compare the descriptions to your actual experience, and it will help calibrate your expectations the next time you’re planning a trip from a guidebook.
Give yourself time to readjust. Though you haven’t actually been gone that long, it’s easy to get used to the slower pace of hiking all day and sleeping under the stars at night. For many people, long distance hiking is a temporary escape from life’s daily demands. Coming back to “real life,” with its constant stream of emails, traffic, and people, can feel overwhelming at first. Realize that you are calibrated to a slower pace (about 2-3 miles per hour!) and be patient with yourself – you’ll be back in the swing of “real life” all too soon.
Start planning your next trip. After experiencing the beauty and solitude of the John Muir Trail, you might be hooked on long distance hiking. Want more of the High Sierra? Check out the Tahoe Rim Trail. Inspired to take things up a notch? Some people take months to hike thousands of miles on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. Can’t quite devote a whole summer to hiking? The Colorado Trail is only about 500 miles. Interested in a trail outside the US? Countless options abound, like the Torres del Paine circuit in Chile. Even when real life stands in the way of multi-week adventures, you can always tap into the peace and beauty of the trail on a weekend backpacking getaway. Happy Trails!
Is it ever a good idea to have a canteen full of juice or tea in the desert? I’ve been in the desert in Texas but never long enough to have to bring a full canteen.
Plain water is the best, but tea and other beverages are okay to have, depending on the duration of your hike and how much weight you feel comfortable carrying.
Ask a Question
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- Exchange contact information with the friends you make along the trail so you can stay in touch. You’ll meet people from various parts of the country and the world, from all walks of life, and potential future backpacking partners.
- If you find trash like wrappers, tea bags, or water bottles, be a good wilderness steward and pack it out, and try your best to assume it was dropped by accident!
- The term “The Sierras” or “Sierra Nevadas” is incorrect; it’s “Sierra” or “Sierra Nevada”.
- You might find that despite how tired you are at the end of the day, you don’t sleep that well because of the altitude. Many people wake up throughout the night and/or having strange dreams. Don’t be alarmed by this; just give yourself extra time to sleep so that you get enough “sleep sessions” to feel rested. This tends to get better as you adjust to the altitude.
- If you do come across a bear, be loud – clap, yell “SHOO, BEAR!” and be obnoxious. It will probably run away. See How to Escape from a Bear. The most important thing, though, is to not surprise a bear. If it hears you coming, it will run away before you even spot it. Converse loudly, whistle, and make your presence known, especially in more remote parts of the trail.
- While uncommon, plague is a risk in the Sierra. Know how to prevent and recognize infection. Never feed animals (no matter how cute they are), wear insect repellent, and don’t pitch a tent or prepare food near rodent burrows (evidenced by lots of scat).
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