The John Muir Trail, north to south, 12 days, mid-September

October 21, 2016

Here are my answers to some of the questions I would have asked future-me when I first thought of walking this beautiful trail. I was a little worried about thunderstorms, cold nights, river crossings, bears (please!) and whether I was carrying enough food, but everything went well.

Which sections were hardest?
The Golden Staircase was tiring. Of all the passes, Forester was worst; Mather Pass was hard too. Many folks find Glen Pass particularly difficult, but I hiked it in the morning and found it okay. Similarly, I found my morning hike from Guitar Lake to Mount Whitney to be quite easy (but the weather was good). But for me the first day on the trail was the toughest: Happy Isles to Cathedral Lake was a big jump in elevation and I think I got a touch of altitude sickness.

How was the weather?
I was lucky: The weather was fantastic. I hiked 10-21 Sep—in shorts—and only got heavy rain on my second-last day. Some ice on Mt Whitney, but no snow. Nightly temperatures were below freezing in the higher altitudes and I was cold—in long johns, light pants, long-sleeve thermal shirt, wool shirt, packaway synthetic jacket and beanie—but I was fine once I was in my sleeping bag. No mosquitoes. River levels low as it was late summer, so only one river crossing for which I needed to take off my boots.

What about permits?
I was hiking alone, so I got my permit on my second try: Happy Isles to Whitney Portal, first night at Lower Cathedral Lake. Fire permit also for my stove.

What about equipment?
I was particularly pleased with my:

  • Stealth 1 tent. A very light one-person, double-skin tent. It’s important to peg this thing out well when the temperature drops and the outer tent starts to sag, otherwise the inner and outer walls touch, dripping condensation onto your sleeping bag.
  • Osprey Exos 58. This was the most popular backpack on the trail. Lightweight but with a frame (unlike many ultralight packs). After my resupply at Muir trail Ranch, it was carrying more weight than it should have, but that was only the case for a couple of days.
  • Zero-degree down sleeping bag. By that I mean zero Fahrenheit (a weird temperature scale favoured in North America.) Some nights were pretty cold, ice forming on my tent, but I was toasty-warm in my bag. My synthetic bag, although warm, wouldn’t have been quite good enough.
  • Mini-Trangia. Durable and lightweight. I like that I can screw the lid on to keep fuel in the stove rather than pour it in back in my fuel bottle (inevitable spillage). Aluminium foil as a windshield.
  • Kindle Voyage. This lasted 12 days without a charge, reading for three hours a night. I turned off the backlight to preserve the battery, using my little LED torch as a reading light.
  • Socks. I bought two pairs of good hiking socks several years ago for about £15 each. A wool blend, I can’t remember the brand. I vaseline my feet for the first few days of every hike and I try to take my boots and socks off and air my feet once or twice a day, but there’s probably no need, as I’ve never had blisters in these socks—and having previously hiked in cotton socks, I’m no stranger to blisters. Well worth the money. And although I didn’t end up using my waterproof socks on this trip, I wouldn’t go hiking without them.
  • Soap. I’m only mentioning this because I want to remind folks that alcohol soap (which I brought, of course), should be complemented with real soap. Alcohol soap isn’t much use against norovirus and hygiene is a real concern on a long hike like this.

What about water?
Water was plentiful—that was never an issue. I’m not a fan of purifiers/filters and Nalgene bottles, so I used Aquamira tablets and two one-litre plastic soda bottles (simpler and lighter). Each Aquamira tablet treats one litre of water and takes up to four hours to do its magic. Too slow on a hot day, but the Sierra water was very clean, so all good.

Which direction?
North to south, of course! This lets a walker gradually get used to the high altitudes.

Was 12 days enough?
For me it was just right; in fact, I slowed down a bit on the final few days because I didn’t want to finish too early (my pack was light and I had my trail legs). I was hiking from 7 or 8 AM to 5 or 6 PM most days and I didn’t take long rests.

What would I have done differently?
No surprise here: I would have packed less food. My Bear Vault BV500 was bursting after my resupply at Muir trail Ranch—and I had to throw out a fair bit of food when I got there. I was at Whitney Portal trailhead six days later with a decent bit of food still uneaten (although I eat less than I should when I hike). I certainly packed too much food for the first half: Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that I could schedule in big meals—and beers!—at Tuolumne Valley and Reds Meadow.

As for the food I carried, I would, above all, have brought less GORP. More Snickers and sesame seed bars and fewer fancy hiking bars. Hard sweets for the day I got the runs (not an uncommon thing). More cheese—chocolate and nuts get a bit tiring. (If you don’t already know this, a hike like the JMT, with few resupply points, requires very high calorie foods.) And more dehydrated veggies.

I was pleased with my equipment. There were some things I rarely if ever used (compass, rain pants, waterproof socks), but I was nonetheless glad to have. I might have been better off with trail shoes than my Scarpa boots. I slept on a three-quarter-length Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol, which was a bit uncomfortable, so I might recommend a thicker sleeping mat (I put my backpack under my legs).

And I would have liked to have taken a rest day at Muir Trail Ranch. But I had a job to get back to.