The famous John Muir Trail – over 200 miles long cutting a swath through the heart of California’s High Sierra Nevada. A wild wonderland of shimmering alpine lakes, lush meadows and craggy granite peaks kissing the sky. Sounds like a dream and you’re itching don a pack and get out there. But are you ready and prepared to succeed on one of America’s most famous hiking routes? Here’s a primer on what you need to be ready. Not what gear you need to buy or what coolest new sports bars you need to eat, but how you as a person need to be prepared to hike a committing long distance backpack like the JMT in the traditional 2-3 week style.
This might seem very obvious, but It’s important that you have previous hiking experience. Especially on multi-day hiking tours on uneven trails. While the John Muir Trail is well maintained, it is no sidewalk. You must be comfortable hiking across rock-strewn trails with occasional high steps and muddy or wet sections. Comfort walking on snow is also important if traveling earlier in the summer hiking season as there may a few snow patches to navigate. In other words, you need experience walking on this earth. Not just on city sidewalks.
So you feel comfortable walking in the wild. But for how long? To complete the John Muir Trail in a reasonable amount of time, expect to be able to hike 10-14 miles per day…day after day, after day. And not just on flat trail but trails with a lot of up and down. Stamina and a relatively low heart rate are both key here. There is no need to move fast but you must move steady without a lot of breaks. The mantra is slow and steady with consistent movement for at least an hour at a time without taking a break. Taking many small breaks every few minutes is harder on your body and will actually make you more tired.
Running, cycling and other aerobic workouts can help here. But avoid just road biking as the movement involved with riding a bike has almost nothing to do with walking in the wild. Speed hiking for at least 3-4 hours without a heavy pack is also a very beneficial work out. Hiking with a heavy pack can help a little, but it is best left for your training backpacking trips. There are so many workouts out there, but the most important thing to remember is to keep it real and mimic what you will actually be doing. There are no gym machines in the High Sierra.
So your fit and you’ve mastered the uneven trails on your many day hikes. But you get out there with an overloaded sixty-pound pack full of stuff you don’t need and missing key items you wished you had. A 200-mile wilderness hike is no place to learn to backpack. Work up to it starting with a few weekend jaunts and then working up to a 4-6 day trip.
Dealing with the logistics of long distance backpacking is more than reading blogs on the Internet, buying the coolest gear and hitting the trail. There’s a learning curve of knowing what works for you and having the practical outdoor experience to put it all together for well more than a week. There are so many little things you wont read about in a book that can really matter. Even things such as knowing what food you like, and don't like, can make a huge difference. So organize your life in such a way that allows you to get out and go backpacking! Taking a beginner backpacking course is an excellent way to gain the proper skills from a professional and can shorten the learning curve drastically.
This is one area that folks love to overlook. Probably most failures on the John Muir Trail happen in the first few days and many people who are otherwise fit enough feel the altitude sap their strength. Many people begin the JMT from Tuolumne Meadows and within a day or two are hiking near 11,000 feet. No matter how fit you are, or how dialed in your systems may be, altitude illness can kill your psych and end your hike. It’s important to spend at least a night and a day above 7,000 feet before embarking on the JMT. It’s also important to take things slow until your body has fully acclimated, usually 3-4 days into the hike. If you begin in Yosemite Valley at 4,000 feet, you will be acclimating as you hike but still keep things slow the first few days.
Can you go without your precious smart phone for 2-3 weeks? Can that new Game of Thrones episode be put off? Can you leave your personal matrix and sink into the real world of the High Sierra? How bout when a thunderstorm has soaked you through to the bone? These questions, and many more, you need to ask yourself. It takes a lot to let go of the world you have constructed for your self and enter another, more real, world. "Can you do it" is not really the best question, because of course you can. Should you? Yes!
There is little to no cell service on much of the JMT and things can get very quiet out there (even though you wont be alone!). It’s not always fun, nor comfortable. You need to have the mental stamina to keep going when your mosquito bites are pulsing, your blisters are raw, and that one spot you forgot to put sunscreen on looks like a boiled Maine lobster. And also when you’re hungry, tired and really craving your favorite coffee drink at Starbucks or a big, greasy cheeseburger. Fortunately there are not all that many easy escape routes off the John Muir Trail to temp you.
Just Go Do It
You can only prepare so much and at some point to you have to "you know what" or get off the pot. For many Americans it can be hard to schedule 2-3 weeks off of their lives (and work) for a long stint in the wilderness. For many the hardest part is actually moving from “I’m gonna hike the JMT some day” stage to actually putting shoe rubber on the trail. Once you feel you’re ready you need to act. If the logistics are daunting, or you don’t have a partner and don’t want to be alone, you can always join an organized guided group.
A long distance hike in the mountains can be a life altering experience for many people. So go apply for permits, buy your gear, arrange your logistics, or join an organized group and JUST GO DO IT! You won’t ever regret it.
IFMGA Internationally certified mountain and ski guide
Dave has spent the last 43 years hiking and exploring his home mountain range of California's Sierra Nevada.