8-Step John Muir Trail Planning Guide

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8-Step Guide to Planning a Thru-Hike on the John Muir Trail

Planning your first long-distance thru-hike can be a daunting task. Last summer when I was preparing for my 22 day hike on the John Muir Trail, I was ready to pull my hair out. Between itineraries, permits, food, and gear, it was hard to know where to start. What I really needed was a simple plan that mapped out my tasks, and I now know that a little bit of organization when planning a trip like this can go a long way. So stop fretting and get your ducks in a row with my 8-step guide for planning that big backpacking adventure on the John Muir Trail.

Step 1: Decide if you will go solo or with a friend

I hiked the John Muir Trail with one of my closest friends from college, and I’m so grateful we got to experience the trail together. Hiking it with a friend, family member, or significant other isn’t without its challenges though. Throughout the course of your hike you will have very little personal space. You will likely share a tent, see each other naked, and have to deal with each other’s smelly clothes. The hardships on the trail can also bring out personality differences, and you want to make sure you can work through those. That said, if you pick the right companion, you will form a lasting bond and have those shared memories to reminisce over when you are old and gray.

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While going solo can be scary, there is a flip side to the coin. It simplifies your planning since you don’t have to depend on someone else’s ability to get the time off work, and you really get to hike your own hike. You don’t have to worry about when the other person is hungry or tired. You break when and where you want, and solo trekking can lead to a whole new kind of self-discovery. Chances are you’ll also make some new friends out there…we certainly did! If you are thinking about going at it alone, check out my post about my first experience solo hiking.

Step 2: Pick your dates and your starting John Muir Trail trailhead

The John Muir Trail runs from Yosemite Valley to the Whitney portal, and most people start in Yosemite and go south. This direction gives you more time to adjust to the increasing altitude and allows you to work up your endurance as the terrain gets more challenging. The classic route begins at the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, but there are three other trailheads in the park that also meet up with the JMT. Mid-June to mid-September is prime time on the trail. I departed on August 27th and had near perfect weather. Even with the ongoing drought in Sierras, we never had a problem finding water and later in the season meant all of the bugs had died off.

Step 3: Apply for a John Muir Trail permit

The permit process for the John Muir Trail out of Yosemite is competitive and confusing. Permits become available exactly 168 days before your start date, and if you miss the deadline by even by a few minutes, you will be out of luck. Check out this extensive post for more information on the permit process.

John Muir Trail permit process

Step 4: Get your John Muir Trail Gear

Now the fun part. The gear. Your basic backpacking gear should be fine, but if you are in the market for some new stuff, here is a complete list of every item I took on the trail. The key is you’ll want to pack as light as possible while still having what you need to be comfortable. That means having a solid tent, warm clothing for those cold Sierra nights, rain gear, necessary first aid supplies, an efficient stove, and the other backpacking essentials. Limit your shirts, socks, and undies to 2-3 pairs, and leave the makeup and (dare I say) deodorant at home. It’s also a good idea to test everything out before you hit the trail. The last thing you want is to find out that your pack rubs in a weird spot or your water filter is broken after you are already out on the trail.

Check out my complete John Muir Trail Gear List!

John Muir Trail Gear List

 

Step 5: Start Training

The first few days are going to be tough no matter what, especially if you aren’t used to the altitude. As you huff and puff your way up the mountain on day 1, just remember that your legs are getting stronger by the hour and before you know it you will be crushing those miles. That said, the better shape you are in before you start, the more fun you are going to have. Squats, lunges, core work, walking uphill, and cardio training are great ways to prepare. Just find something you love and do a lot of it.

Step 6: Map out a loose itinerary

There are several map packs and trail guide books available on the John Muir Trail. I brought the Wenk book and the Tom Harrison Maps, both of which I would recommend. Make note of any particularly awesome spots on the trail that you definitely want to camp at or any side hikes you might want to do. Then get a general idea of your desired pace and the total number of days it’s going to take you to get to each resupply point. What you don’t need to do is pre-determine your campsites every single night because once you are out there, your plan will inevitably change. Some days you won’t cover as much distance as you expect. For instance, you might come across the most tantalizing lake and decide to take a long afternoon swimming and sunbathing break. Other days, you’ll be cruising and bypass your planned destination way earlier than you imagined. By building some flexibility into your overall plan it ensures that your hike remains enjoyable while keeping you on track.

Check out my 10 favorite campsites on the John Muir Trail!

10 Best Campsites on the John Muir Trail

Step 7: Go food shopping and ship your resupply packages

Trying to figure out how much food you need each day for 3 weeks is the most difficult part of planning your John Muir Trail hike. If you are hiking in a group bigger than 2 people, I recommend everyone be responsible for themselves, since it makes the portion planning much easier. Plus you can always trade or share when you get sick of your own food. Unless you are a backcountry gourmet, make things simple by sticking to meals that don’t require a lot of preparation. Oatmeal, tuna fish, salami, bars, dehydrated backpacker meals, ramen, cous cous, and instant mashers are just a few suggestions that are lightweight, filling, and require very little cleanup. Don’t forget you’ll need a bear canister too, and all your food for each section of the trail will need to fit in it. For more meal tips, check out my post Simple Backpacking Food Ideas.

There are several places along the John Muir Trail where you can mail yourself packages, and most people resupply 2-3 times. To help you determine your resupply strategy, I’ve written a comprehensive post on John Muir Trail resupply. The most important thing is that you don’t leave this until the last minute. Most of the resupply spots recommend sending your package three weeks ahead of your intended arrival.

Check out my John Muir Trail Resupply Guide!

John Muir Trail Resupply Guide

Step 8: Pack your bags and go!

Now all the hard work is done and you can breathe. The only last detail that you’ll need to figure out is your transportation. Either make arrangements to have someone drop you off and pick you up at the end, or take two cars and park one at each of end of the trail. I suggest spending one night at one of the established campgrounds in Yosemite the night before your hike. It will give you a chance to take a last minute inventory of your gear, split up any group items, and maybe even take a nice sunset hike to get those lungs working. Once you depart on your 212 mile journey, remember that it’s all about having a good time. Stay up late stargazing, snap tons of pictures, embrace every moment of the extraordinary scenery, and never pass up that perfect swimming hole.

Want to take public transportation to the JMT? Check out our Transportation Planning Guide!

John Muir Trail transportation guide

 

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL? LET ME KNOW IN THE COMMENTS, TWEET ME, OR WRITE ME A POST ON FACEBOOK

Bearfoot Theory

 

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There are 21 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

21 Comments on “8-Step John Muir Trail Planning Guide

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  1. Even after you trimmed back your gear it seems you had a lot of heavy stuff. What did your pack weigh full up with food, fuel, and water?

      Keith – My pack weighed about 40 pounds with 7 days of food and 3 liters of water. I’ve since upgraded some of my gear (tent/sleeping pad/etc) with some lighter options that I will be posting soon. And if you have recommendations on how to cut down, I’m all ears! -Kristen

    Great writeup! Thinking about doing the JMT, and a few questions come up in my mind. I’m naturally a (very) fast hiker, so I was thinking a solo 7-10 day trip, but then I was thinking of taking a friend (which would slow the pace significantly). The food part is interesting, as I always make my own healthy snacks in the dehydrator (jerky, fruit, smoothie leathers, etc… with the exception of a few specific healthy bars), but I can arrange to have someone ship food to me if I’m on a long trip. Thanks for sharing!

      Paul – I suggest you check out my resupply post for questions about food https://bearfoottheory.com/john-muir-trail-resupply/. I think 7-10 days is doable…for me, however, that would be rushed. I’d only do it that way if you really don’t have the extra time to spare. it’s so pretty, you want to be able to have the time to enjoy it. Keep me posted either way and hope you are able to do it!

    Hi Kristen! I love that you have a section on your site dedicated to the John Muir Trail. I’ve recently begun my planning to hike the trail in September of next year and your posts are making this process so much easier, more fun and less nebulous. I do have a question about transporting gear via the airlines. I’m actually a pilot based in Houston so while I’ll be able to get to Fresno for free, we unfortunately don’t get any special treatment as far as our bags go. My ULA Circuit isn’t really durable enough to get thrown around by baggage handlers and there are things in my gear load out that you of course can’t carry on an airplane. What are your experiences when it comes to flying with your pack and gear?

      Hey Richard – Exciting news! And September is a great time to hike the JMT. I’ve flown with my pack and camping gear before. I usually tighten all the straps and then place it in one of the large plastic bags that they have at the check-in…never seemed to have a problem. The only thing that can’t go in checked bags (I believe) is fuel. So you’ll probably want to pick some up on your way to the trailhead. Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions! Kristen

      Hi Richard! – I am actually in your same situation, flying in from Miami…so I just thought of an idea, we could do the plastic wraps that they have at the airports. I’ve never done those before but I did see them in a few airports and heard they charge between $10-15 for wrapping your luggage. I’ve seen people use this and it looks pretty safe and strong so i think I’ll just try that. Thanks for asking that question, I hadent thought abouth this part of the logistics! XD

    Hey Kristen! Awesome site and very informative and helpful in helping me plan my 2016 JMT hike! I have a couple questions that you could probably help with, it would be greatly appreciated! First, I would love to try the same route you took by starting at Sunrise/Tenya lakes trailhead, however, given the difficulty to obtain permits especially with a Donohue pass exit, I was thinking about trying to apply for a Sunrise lakes permit with an “exit” at Tuolumne, then trying to get a walkup permit from there, I don’t really mind missing most of the valley especially the huge climb, but I do want to at least go to Clouds Rest. My question is, how much better are your chances of getting a permit if you don’t apply for a permit to exit over Donahue pass? ie. Sunrise to Tuolumne. Is the trailhead quota of 20 the same no matter what? I was thinking I could even do the Sunrise lakes -Tuolumne section that way I wouldn’t miss Cathedral Lakes either, and then picking back up somewhere down around Devil’s Post Pile since the Inyo permits seem to be much easier to obtain. Also, I will be shipping my resupplys. but can I fly with my bear canister full of food or do I need to arrange that once I get to Cali? I am coming from the East coast, thanks for all the info! I follow your Instagram account as well, awesome pics!

    Hey Kirsten!

    What is a rough estimate of total cost to do the JMT? Flights, hotel, food, etc …everything. I know it will vary/person, but could you give me a good estimate? Thanks!

      Hey Jocilyn,

      I really can’t give you an estimate. I didn’t stay in hotels, didn’t have to fly or pay for any transportation. It’s also going to depend on what new gear you buy for the trip and how you choose to do food. Sorry I can’t be of better help here! Kristen

    Just wanted to say thank you for all your tips! Your site was by far the most helpful in my planning for the JMT last fall. Unfortunately we were smoked out by the Rough Fire. Hopefully we’ll be going back this fall to finish the trek.

    Photos:
    http://www.what-is-happy.com/2015/09/14/john-muir-trail

      Hey! Thanks so much! It’s great to get this kind of feedback. It’s what keeps me plugging away here. Sorry to hear about the fire, and I really hope you can finish up this year.

    Hi Kristen! First of all…I LOVE YOUR PAGE!! I told you this before on Instagram (@domi.bou) but its just sooooo helpful, so thank you!! Now I have a question for you (and I’m sorry if someone else already asked and you already answered, I tried to read everything but you got a lot of followers girl!) so, I am completing the permit application, and my doubt is the following: I wish to start at Happy Isles but I am also completing the other 3 options since it will obviously increase my chances to get a permit.I am wondering if it will be best to keep the same dates and change the entry trailheads or keep the trailhead as Happy Isles and change the dates? Also, if I change the dates for the 2nd and 3rd choice, they will obviously not coincide with the 24 weeks prior, since only the 1st choice will (I dont know if im explaining myself) Is that Ok? The whole permit thing is so confusing and stressful, Ive been reading about it for weeks and going crazy! I must have read your post on it like 5 times already haha Help me???? THANK YOU LOTS!!!!!

      Hi dominique –

      You want to use the same date and three different trailheads on your application. If you fail, then you try again the next day with the next start date. Hope that helps! Kristen

        Thank you Kristen!!!! You are awesomeee, thank you for helping all of us 🙂 🙂 Im insanely excited about this trip….so fingers crossed for that permit!!! Thanks again !

          Hey Dominique – Stoked for you and my fingers are crossed too! Come back and let me know how it goes. Cheers! Kristen

    Thanks so much for your detailed posts on your JMT experience! I use your website daily in planning my trip and it definitely helped me get my permit.

      Thanks so much Johanna! Glad you’ve found it helpful!

    Kirsten, I love your blog and have used it extensively. Thanks for the awesome info. I have a favor to ask of you! I have permits and I am all set to fly to California from Utah and begin this epic trip on June 22nd 2016 (start hiking June 23rd). I have two people joining me for the first of my three week trip. Everything for the trip is set to go, including food in buckets and ready to ship out. However, the girl who committed to join me for the last two weeks just barely bailed due to a job promotion! :0 You of anyone can understand how much time, energy, and money goes into planning a trip like this, which is why I am devastated at the thought of canceling my trip or at least coming home two weeks early.
    Is there anyway you can post or get the word out to fellow backpackers that I am more than happy to have someone random join me for either the whole trip or the last two weeks. I have permits for four people (so I have three extra for the last two weeks). It is killing me to think I won’t get to do this trip, but I really don’t want to go solo for the last two weeks. Thanks in advance! If you know anywhere else I should be posting this request to find someone interested, I’d love to know!

    Hi Kristen, I stumbled upon Bearfoot Theory today and am so excited and thrilled! I believe things align for a reason. 🙂
    I’m planning the JMT as one of my big adventures, but for work reasons I won’t be able to take 3 weeks off in a row. My maximum will be 2 weeks. I’m considering doing the JMT as 2 section hikes (1 section in August and 1 section in September) do you have recommendations of how to split it up into 2 “section hikes” or do you think it is comfortably do-able in 16 days (2 weeks off of work?)

    Second part of the question: before you thru-hiked the JMT, what was the longest amount of nights you spent on the trail in one trip?

    Thank you!

      Hi Tracy – Lots of people do the JMT in 2 weeks. If it were me, I would try to do it that way rather than 2 separate trips. The longest trip I’d been on before the JMT was 5 days.

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