Backpacking the John Muir Trail

Perhaps no other area offers backpackers such diversity, natural beauty and technical challenge than hiking the John Muir Trail, (JMT). Considered one of the most scenic trails in the country it’s 220 miles long with 11 passes ranging from 9,700 to 13, 600 feet; including Mt. Whitney the highest peak of the contiguous United States.

The mighty trail passes over 40 lakes, 25 river crossings and takes you deep into the desolate wilderness for long periods of time.  Hikers trek 140 miles of trail without seeing a road or any form of civilization, and the only road passed is Tioga Road 120 in Yosemite.

It took over 50 years to create the trail and it’s the perfect place to get away from it all with your best friends.  Hiking the JMT is a bonding experience, you can do and see things that most others never experience, and you are very much alone with others in a remote area of wilderness.

The trick to surviving this extreme backpacking experience is to only bring what you can’t live without. This is a better measuring stick than pack weight, which tends to reduce over the trip. Things like toilet paper, batteries and initial food waste are left inappropriate waste dump areas along the way.

The Big Three

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The first things to consider for this trek are what I call the big three-backpack, tent and sleep system.  For my backpack I use an Osprey XOS 58, it’s durable and light at just 2.5 lbs.  My tent is the Big Agnes Seedhouse 1, again it’s light and compact and fits well at the bottom of my pack. Make sure you get the rain fly too. Now my bag is my lifeboat, as nothing’s worse than a cold night in the woods.

Sierra mountain nights often mean a drop in temperature to the 30s and damp fog.  The Slumberjack Latitude 20-degree Mummy Bag works well in these conditions.  The other cool thing about Slumberjack is the wide range of sizes they offer, allowing you to get the right fit for your body size.

A water system is important for backcountry adventures. Be sure to pack a Platypus water bag with filters, and check your filters are fresh and clean before you leave.  You’ll want a Jet-boil to heat water, and a plastic cup and spoon to eat from.

Bear canisters are a good idea, but I take the smallest one available. Everything else gets hung from a tree about 12 feet off the ground. Use one of your stuff sacks for that duty.

A first aid kit and toiletries should be packed where it’s quickly accessible, and where they will stay dry. In mine, you always find Neosporin, Band-Aids, baby wipes, (much better than toilet paper), liquid soap, Q-tips and cotton balls.

Helpful Hint: Fire Starting

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Carry some olive oil with you, apply it to a cotton ball and you have one of the best fire starters ever. Especially if it’s raining, they will last about 10 minutes, plenty of time to get your fire started.

Some of the other things I take with me for trips like the JMT include rope, a headlamp, a fishing pole and lures and my cameras. I use both a Canon Power Shot for stills and a GO PRO for action. You will want to know each camera’s battery life and carry back batteries if needed.

One of the more beautiful places to start a JMT hike in Yosemite Valley. About 2 hours up you come across incredible views of Half Dome and Liberty Point, which is over 7000 feet and Nevada Falls. The falls get louder as you hike closer to them until they sound like a giant booming hose as it pumps massive amounts over the cliff to the rocks below.

From Nevada Falls you can hike to Crystal Lake. As you move along the air gets thinner. You are climbing to about 9,000 feet in elevation. Somewhere between eight and nine thousand feet, you may experience altitude sickness. This happens when you are not getting enough oxygen, symptoms include headache, nausea and feeling weak. Symptoms may not become apparent until a day after you are in a high altitude.

Stay Safe – Stay Connected

Typically it goes away, but severe altitude sickness can cause disorientation, fainting and extreme fatigue. Things you don’t want when hiking in remote areas such as the John Muir Trail. You never know who will get it or when it may occur; so it’s a good idea not to hike the JMT, or any high-elevation treks, alone.

Regardless of how many are in your party, you need to be able to reach for help when you need it. For this, you may want to check out a satellite communication device like the In Reach SE Satellite communicator.

Powerful and reliable it provides SOS and 24-hour search and rescue service, tracking with the ability to share GPS location and 100% global coverage.