|Near the Golden Staircase in Kings Canyon|
- #1 Take the MOST amount of time to complete the trail as you can: My single biggest regret of my experience on the JMT was that I only had 2 weeks to complete it. Two weeks is ample time if you're a skilled backpacker and in great shape, most complete it in 20-25 days or longer. Some crazy folks attempt to "fastpack", i.e. run, the whole trail and complete 210 miles (337km) in less than a week. However, I found that doing it in a faster time prohibited me from enjoying a lot of the side trails and spectacular sights that can be seen off-trail. You can also bag quite a number of otherwise difficult to reach peaks such as Split Mountain-14,064 ft (4,287 m) and Donahue Peak- 12,023 ft (3,665). Other places like LeConte Canyon and Evolution Valley were so picturesque that I wish I could have taken my time. So, if you can, take your time!
- #2 Go ULTRALIGHT and ditch the stove: This was the best packing decision I made on the trail. While its nice to have a warm meal, coffee or hot chocolate on the trail, a stove is heavy and takes room out of your pack. Ounces=Pounds in long distance backpacking and you can do fine without a stove. Fuel is also heavy and extremely hard to restock once you get further down the trail. All dry food is denser and takes less room in your pack. Examples of food I brought on the trail were; protein bars, cereal, trail mix, pop-tarts, energy goo, granola, salty snacks, ect. I mostly focused on getting high energy, high density and high fiber foods. I say all this with a caveat; Drink 4 to 5 liters of water a day! Dry food can be very taxing on your digestive system. Coupled with extreme hiking and high elevation, you can completely destroy your insides if you're not careful to drink lots of water
- #3 Ditch the tent, get a bivy sack: This decision was also an excellent space/weight saver on backpacking. I bought a bivy sack for the John Muir Trail and I've never gone back to tents. A bivy sack is like this; imagine a sleeping bag, made out of waterproof tent material that's just as thin. All you do is put your sleeping bag into the bivy sack and zip it up around yourself. The lightest of ultralight, ultraexpensive backpacking tents are 3-4 pounds (1.3-1.8kgs). A decent bivy sack is $100 and less than a pound. I should note that my 0 degree sleeping bag and bivy sack combination has since kept me warm throughout the John Muir Trail, in winter mountaineering trips, -10 degree weather in the Sierras, thunderstorms in the Grand Canyon, and a Mt Rainier expedition. I've probably spent 100 nights in my bivy sack, it never fails!
- #4 Know thyself: This might sound unnecessarily "zen", but long distance backpacking does require that you know your own physical and mental capabilities well. For example, I knew, before going, that I would always hike well and be in good spirits in the morning. I often covered the most distance and tackled the harder passes in the morning when my spirits were high. The few times I had to hike in the dark were also highly enjoyable for me. For whatever reason, however, late afternoon to twilight were the most difficult hours for me to hike. I wasn't sore or tired, just unmotivated during those hours. Hence, I planned my day schedule accordingly. Knowing yourself is also important when it comes to deciding who you will hike the trail with. Many a backpacker has gone on a long distance trail with good friend(s) who make awful trail companions. Solo backpacking is also an option which may appeal to some. I solo'd the John Muir Trail and had a wonderful experience; others might find the solitude nighmareish. Make sure you know how you're body and mind will handle a long distance trail BEFORE you go!
- #5 Go in July for the company, September for the solitude: When you decide to hit the trail is often determined by career and family commitments, but the season is generally accepted as the time from late June to early September. Each month has its advantages and disadvantages but July usually has the best weather. If you're concerned you might get some kind of "cabin fever" while on the trail, go in July- you will meet many other JMT'ers and PCT'ers as well as hundreds of other hikers. The trail is certainly more social, but don't think that this is a substitute for having good survival skills and self-dependancy. I decided to go in September when the crowds were minimal and the trail was often my own! People warned about water sources being low, but I never went more than 4 miles without finding a reliable water source.
Read. Plan. Get Out There!