22 BACKPACKING LESSONS FROM 22 DAYS ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
I’m baaaaack. Did you miss me?
If you haven’t heard, my friend b-Rad and I just got back from 22 dynamite days on the John Muir Trail. What a crazy and extraordinary experience. The non-stop scenery was freakishly beautiful with the best swimming, camping, sunsets, stars, and the best views that I’ve ever laid eyes on. And as for personal growth, it’s hard to put into words really. The mental and physical challenges were pretty monstrous, but I showed myself that I could do things that I never thought I could do. When I was standing on the top of Mt. Whitney watching the sunrise, the sense of accomplishment I felt was overwhelming. I might have even shed a tear as I approached the summit that morning. At the end of it all, I came home feeling inspired, more confident, and ready to take on the next adventure.
I also learned a ton during those 22 days about how to be a better backpacker. Some stuff we did right. But there were also things I would have done differently.
So whether you are planning a trip on the John Muir Trail or a simple overnighter near your home, here are 22 backpacking lessons from my 22 days on the trail. Follow these tips, and you’re guaranteed to have the time of your life!
Day 1: Weight matters
Like whoa. Does my pack weight 80 pounds? Well not quite. After ditching a few pieces of gear in the parking lot, it rang in at 43 pounds with 7 days of food and 3 liters water. Not terrible, but even so that first day climbing up to Sunrise Lakes was hell. I just kept asking myself how I was going to hike 220 miles with this beast on my back. Anyways, the point is that every ounce really does matter. Cut out the luxury items….that bluetooth speaker, dental floss, body lotion. I now know that those things are unnecessary and totally not worth the extra weight. Check out my complete gear list here.
Day 2: Ease in
The first couple of days on the trail are the toughest. You’re not used to the altitude, and you don’t yet have your strong trail legs. We had planned on hiking an average of 10 miles a day, but those first few days, we were struggling to make 8. So we gave ourselves a break and did what we could each day before reaching a state of utter exhaustion. Then by the end of the first week, we were feeling much stronger and able to ramp up our distances. By the end of the trip, we were total rockstars, knocking out 12-14 miles a day, no problem. So ease in and don’t get frustrated if you feel like you are struggling when you first hit the trail.
Day 3: Don’t be Patagoons
I LOVE my Patagonia trucker hat. I didn’t love that bRad showed up to the trailhead wearing the same one. That’s right. We were the losers with matching Patagonia hats. And EVERYONE was gossiping about it (I’m not exaggerating). I literally overheard a girl whispering to her friends about us, as if we had planned it. This lesson is more of a joke, but if you don’t want to be the talk of the trail, don’t be Patagoons. Haha!
Day 4: Be realistic about detours
Before starting out, we had plans to take all kinds of crazy detours to visit sites off the trail. Ha! What a joke. At the end of each day, we were pooped, and all we wanted to do was rest our weary bones. Going off trail to explore was the last thing we wanted to do. That said, the few times we did decide to venture off the JMT, it was always totally worth it. On day 4, we took a mile-long side trail to find an isolated campsite at Davis Lake. It was gorgeous up there, and we pretty much had the lake to ourselves. When planning your trip, have a few realistic (short) detours in mind. Try to do them, but don’t get upset if you just don’t have the energy.
Day 5: Sleep Under the Stars
Up there in the mountains, it’s cold. And fires are prohibited most places along the JMT. It’s easy to fall into the trap of crawling in your tent the second it gets dark causing you to miss out on all those shooting stars. So here’s a better plan. Pull out your sleeping bag and sleeping pad and set up shop outside. You can stay nice and cozy while gazing up at that magnificent sky, and if you end up falling asleep out there, it’s no big deal. You can always head back into the tent if you wake up freezing (and you will).
Day 6: Let the outside world melt away
I had big soul-searching plans for my time on the JMT. I was going to figure it all out. What I want to do with my life, where I want to live next. For the first few days, I kept a journal where I tried to contemplate these questions. But that didn’t last. In less than a week, all those cares slipped away and all I could really focus on was getting to the top of that mountain, how excited I was for my freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff dinner, reminding myself to drink water, and taking pictures of the gorgeous scenery. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get a bit more clarity out there, but when else do you have the opportunity to completely purge your brain of the stresses of daily life. Let that shit go!
Day 7: It’s an experience, not a competition
An overwhelming majority of folks we met on the trail were super awesome. However, there were a few groups that seemed to be competitive, bragging about their speed or lightweight gear or superior campsites. So annoying. Hike your own hike and don’t let those big-talkers bother you. The fact is you are probably having more fun.
Day 8: Gimme some of that cool, cool water
Yes, the water in the Sierras is cold. But please don’t let that stop you from taking an exhilarating dip. Nothing feels more refreshing than diving in and letting the dirt and grime rinse away. You’ll come out feeling like a whole new person ready to dominate that 2,000 foot climb.
Day 9: The trail is not the time to go on a diet
When planning your food for any backpacking trip, it’s really hard to know just how hungry you are going to be. But keep this in mind. You are going to be burning like 5,000 calories a day, minimum. Low-fat this and low-calorie that are 100% NOT going to cut it. You want your food packed with as much calories and fat as possible in order to keep your energy levels high. So go ahead, throw in a few Snickers bars and stock up on as much Nutella as you can carry. You’ll still lose weight, I promise. Plus, those are hot commodities on the trail, and you can always trade ’em with fellow hikers if you run out of something else important. (Need some fresh menu ideas for your next camping trip? Check out my recent post Simple Backpacking Food Ideas!)
Day 10: Morning routine means everything
For the first 9 days, bRad and I couldn’t seem to get on the trail before 10am, despite the fact that I was waking up at 6:45. When I’d get up, I’d make our coffee and breakfast and then politely wake bRad up. I sound like a pretty good campmate right? Then after eating we would do our chores like breaking down the tent, filtering water, yoga, etc. On Day 10, we decided to switch things up. While I made breakfast, bRad got up and packed up the tent. This slight change in our routine allowed us to be packed up and ready by 8:30. Wha? That’s crazy right? It made a huge difference that allowed us to take more breaks during the day and arrive at the next night’s camp at a more decent hour.
Day 11: Make trail friends
Throughout the course of the trip, we kept seeing the same people over and over again. But some of our favorite people included a group of four hilarious actors/producers from LA who everyone referred to as “the LA boys,” as well as a marine from San Diego named Steve. We ended up hiking with them on and off for about a week, and I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie. We realized that we are all facing the same challenges, and it was fun to have some new friends to joke around with. At the end of the hike, we ended up meeting the LA boys for beers and dinner in Lone Pine, and I have a feeling we will all stay in touch. If you are curious, about these characters we met, check out their absurdly funny mini-series, The Human Condition. Cheers to new friends!
Day 12: Look for the perfect rock
Rocks = back support, and a good rock can make or break your camp. Without a good rock, you have no place to lounge. So when choosing your campsite for the night, make sure to look around and do a rock inventory. Is there somewhere to sit while you are cooking dinner? Somewhere to prop up and rest your lower back while you are watching the sunset? If not, think twice about whether it’s the best spot to shack up for the night.
Day 13: Bring good rain gear
Seem obvious? You’d be surprised how many folks we saw without proper rain gear, and today, they were really wishing they had some. As we ascended through Evolution Basin towards Muir Pass we got caught in a sideways torrential downpour. We were above the treeline with nowhere to hide, and being soaking wet in cold temps at 12,000 feet is no fun at all. Don’t risk it by skimping on rain gear.
Day 14: Address hot spots immediately
After slogging through the previous day’s rain, my feet were starting to show signs of blisters. I guess I was lucky to make it this far without them. At the first sign of trouble, I stopped and taped up the hot spots. Best decision ever. My feet stayed healthy, and I was able to continue hiking comfortably. Don’t wait for your hot spots to turn into full-blown blisters. Prevention is the best cure.
Day 15: The best campsites are slightly off-trail
We never understood when we saw people set up camp directly on the trail or directly next to another group. Aren’t we all out there to find some peace and quiet? And where do you go to the bathroom or change clothes in the morning when the early birds are passing by? Sometimes all it takes is hiking 200 feet off the trail to find a private spot where no one can see or bother you and you aren’t going to bother anyone else. It’s totally worth the minor extra effort.
Day 16: Talk it out
Today bRad and I got in a fight. Luckily it was the only scuffle we had, but for the hour that it lasted, it was pretty horrible. We were both to blame, and I was literally ready to quit as my blood pressure rose and angry thoughts relentlessly swirled through my mind. Fortunately, we were able to resolve it by each admitting our wrong-doing and apologizing. If you have a disagreement with your hiking partner, which you probably will, do not let passive aggressive tension make it worse. Simply talk it out, forgive, and move on.
Day 17: Silence is golden
I love my tunes more than most people, and I was adamant about bringing music on the trail. However, bRad wasn’t into it, so the only time we listened to it was when we were stuck in the tent during an afternoon rain storm. Over the course of the trip, my senses got more keen to the sounds of nature, and today at Rae Lakes I really paid attention. I began to hear things like birds’ wings fluttering as they whizzed by, squirrels munching on acorns, water plopping as fish jumped, wind whistling through the mountains. These are really beautiful sounds. Why cover them up?
Day 18: Be spontaneous
Some of the best times out on the trail were when we chose to be spontaneous. See a sublime swimming hole? Dive in. Find a warm, sunny rock with a epic view? Stop for lunch. Discover that perfect campsite but it’s only 3pm? Don’t pass it by. You are out there to enjoy yourself, and those impromptu moments will be the ones that make for lasting memories.
Day 19: Strip down and get comfortable
Today it rained off and on. I was wearing waaaay too many layers, but I was too lazy to take the layers off and put them back on again once the rain started back up. Big mistake. I was boiling. Dripping sweat. I literally felt like I was going to pass out. And as if I didn’t smell bad enough already. When I finally decided to strip down a bit, I instantly felt a thousand times better. Temperature regulation is super important, so if you feel yourself overheating (or if you are cold), take the time to put your pack down and adjust your clothing.
Day 20: Don’t let steep climbs intimidate you
For weeks we had been hearing about how crazy hard Forester Pass was. At 13,100 feet, it would be the highest pass of the trip, and I really let myself get scared by the run-of-the-mill rumors. Then the day came. And guess what? We totally dominated. Forester was a long climb, but it wasn’t any more challenging than the other passes we had encountered. I learned that I shouldn’t be fearful. When the uphill gets tough, all you gotta do is stop, catch your breath, eat a snack, snap some shots, drink some water, and then keep going. Slow and steady and you’ll be fine!
Day 21: More hot drinks
There’s nothing better than winding down in the evening with some hot chocolate or hot apple cider (even better if you make it a nightcap with some whiskey). Hot drinks warm your belly in that cold mountain air and give you a small sweet treat to look forward to. I brought some hot apple cider packets, but not enough for bRad and I to each have our own, and we ended up having to split the packets in half for most of the trip. Totally unsatisfying. But on our last night, we each got our own full packet. It was glorious. So next time, I’m upping the quantity and variety of hot drinks, and you should too.
Day 22: Do it in the dark!
No, not that. I mean Whitney. We really wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of Mt. Whitney on our last day. So we woke up at 2:15am, broke down camp, and headed to the summit, led only by our dying headlamps. The stars were amazing, and the fact that it was dark helped us forget how much elevation we had to gain. I’m pretty sure it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. We arrived at the summit around 6:10, just in time to see the sun come up over the horizon. Incredible! If you are on the John Muir Trail, you should absolutely considering climbing Whitney for sunrise. Or if you are going somewhere else, consider doing a short nighttime hike for an exhilarating experience.