What to Think About When Planning a Thru-Hike of the John Muir TrailPosted by Adventure 16 | 08.22.2018
Considering a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail? Before you can enjoy those carefree summer days wandering through the Sierra you’ll need to invest a good chunk of time and effort planning your hike. Here’s an overview of the things you should think about thinking about.
By far the most challenging part of thru-hiking the JMT is securing a permit. The numbers are staggering. Annual permit requests have more than doubled in recent years and 97% of requests are denied. Getting a permit starting from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley has become the backpacking equivalent of winning the Powerball Lottery. Be creative and consider using less popular alternate trailheads, going Northbound, or even starting in the middle to do a segment one way, then returning to the middle to do the other unfinished segment. Apply as early as you possibly can and reapply if you are denied your first (or first few!) times.
When to Go
This has become a very difficult question to answer. Hiking in the Sierra presents unique challenges depending on the timing of your hike. Early in the hiking season the high passes can still hold significant amounts of snow, water crossings can be tricky and temperatures may not encourage early morning starts or evening swims. However, the days are long, crowds on the trails are thin, and wildfire risk seems to be less. The middle of the hiking season sees improving overnight temperatures, still has long days, and the wildflowers can bloom impressively. On the down side mosquito populations can peak during this period, afternoons can be brutally hot, and in recent years we’ve seen the eruption of significant wildfires blanket the skies with thick smoke. Later in the hiking season crowds on the trail are thinning, freezing overnight lows have usually eliminated the mosquitos, and temperatures in all but the early morning hours are generally pleasant. Wildfire threat persists, the days are shortening in duration and the odds of being caught by real “weather” (cold, storm, precipitation) begins to increase.
I used to have a strong opinion on prime time for backpacking in the Sierra. The fire activity in recent years has me very confused about the middle and end of the hiking season and now I wonder if earlier season hikes are starting to make the most sense.
“Light is Right” when it comes to gear and corners of the internet are filled with pages breaking down equipment and clothing lists into gram tallying spreadsheets. It may seem silly but the exercise has value even if that level of minutia nauseates you. Your starting point is your “Big 3”; your backpack, shelter and sleep system. With modern gear you should be able to get these three down to 6 lbs. Next, scrutinize every piece of gear you are planning to bring and ask yourself if you will definitely need it. Make the tough decisions about the “might need” pile and try and include items that serve multiple purposes (i.e. a down jacket in a stuff sack can become a pillow). Also keep in mind that hiking the JMT requires that you use a bear canister for food storage which adds an unwelcome, although absolutely mandatory, 2 pounds (at least) to your pack from the outset!
Food & Resupply
Food on a thru-hike is more than just sustenance. It’s your fuel source, morale, and sometimes the highlight of your entire day! I’ve learned that meal planning is an ever evolving pursuit and the internet is a great resource to learn about cooking methods or to find inspiring recipes. You’ll also need to come up with a resupply strategy. This is often times a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum that involves determining the mileage between resupply points, calculating how many days it will take to cover that mileage, then calculating how much food you’ll need for those days, then figuring out if that food will fit in your bear bin, then usually circling back to the beginning to adjust mileage, hiking days, food count, etc. until you get it all balanced.
Route Planning & Mileage
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the trail and come up with a rough sketch of your itinerary. Bear in mind that this exercise is not a simple as dividing total miles by days on the trail. You’ll want to consider elevation gained/lost, the amount you are carrying (you’ll move fastest on the day before resupplying and slowest just after loading up your resupply), and where you are in your hike (longer miles will be easier later in your hike once you’re fully acclimated and more fit). Will you want/need a “zero day” to take a rest? What about a day in the front country to resupply, do some laundry, take a shower, and communicate with family/loved ones? Will your itinerary allow for you to sit out an afternoon thunderstorm or cut a day short when it’s hot, your legs aren’t cooperating and you just want to sit in the creek? You won’t necessarily stick to this itinerary, but it will give you an idea of what kind of daily mileage you’ll be doing and whereabouts you’ll be camping.
Transportation & Parking
As with any thru-hike transportation is an important consideration. Along the Eastern Sierra there are two bus options; the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) and the Yosemite Regional Area Transportation System (YARTS) which can shuttle you from Lone Pine to Yosemite Valley and all of the major stops in between. Using these you can leave a car at either your starting or finishing trailhead. In terms of getting from trailheads to the front country the JMT has a few convenient services (i.e. Shuttle from Reds to Mammoth, Bus from South Lake to Bishop) and other less economical but customizable commercial shuttle services. Then there’s my favorite “bumming a ride” option which usually takes shape by chatting up fellow hikers near trailheads and hopping in for a “ride down the hill”
The Thru-Hiking Gods!
With a permit secured you might think you’re one lucky devil and are good-to-go but Mother Nature is the ultimate decision maker in granting you the green light. My 2015 hike coincided with the Rough Fire, a 165,000 acre blaze in Kings Canyon. I was lucky to be hiking northbound that year and while the smoke was a real detractor, I was able to finish while many southbound hikers were forced to bail. 2017 saw record snowfall which made the early season high passes and creek crossings perilous for all, and regrettably, lethal for a few. As I type this now, one week before my 2018 JMT permit start date, the Ferguson fire has burned 100,000 acres completely closing Yosemite Valley and the starting trailhead listed on my permit.
Realize there’s a component that you have to leave up to the thru-hiking gods. Plan for the worst while hoping for the best. Stay optimistic but remain flexible. Don’t be too crushed if something comes between you and your hike; the mountains will be thee for you at another time.
Dedicated pages on the web and YouTube channels devoted to thru hiking can be invaluable. There is also a very active JMT Yahoo group and I’ve read mention of a Facebook group (although I have no personal experience with it). Both would be informative and allow you ask questions or seek guidance from other members. In addition, your local Adventure 16 has frequent in-store events on thru hiking, backpacking, etc. that you’ll find educational and will allow you to meet other like-minded hiking community members.
Tim Axall bought his first sleeping bag from the San Diego Adventure 16 store as a kid in the late 80's. His interest and passion for the outdoors have persisted since. He cherishes time spent in the Sierra Nevada's hiking, backpacking or skiing. Most recently Tim took his adventurous spirit a bit further afield, spending 6 months traveling through Southeast Asia experiencing new cultures, riding rickety old trains, and eating mysterious street foods. Follow Tim’s adventures on IG: @timaxall
FOOD STORAGE (Required on the JMT)