22 Backpacking Lessons from 22 Days on the John Muir Trail

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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 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’s 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!

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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.

campsitesOur campsite at an unnamed lake about 200 feet off the trail below Pinchot Pass

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.

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What are you favorite backpacking lessons? Tell me…I wanna know!

There are 19 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.

19 Comments on “22 Backpacking Lessons from 22 Days on the John Muir Trail

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  1. Great list of things to consider, not just hiking the JMT but for any backpacking trip. I am sure you are a pro now. I continually learn things on my journey and what works best for me (even after 7+ years of backpacking). Glad you had fun and can’t read more about your JMT journey!

    I’m a fan of John Muir and even mention him to my college classes. I am going to visit family soon in Sacramento and am coming from the East coast in mid April (2015), so I’ll have no camping gear with me. My son and I (he’s in his 20s, I’m 58+) only have a day to spend at Yosemite and would to see some of the John Muir Trail. What part do you suggest we visit? Is the hike to the base of the Cathedral Peak very long/strenuous?

      Hi Deejay – The hike to Cathedral Peak isn’t too long actually…a small amount of elevation gain but nothing too crazy. If you got up early and linked directly with the trail at the western end Tuolumne Meadows that would make for a nice day hike. If you do head up there, make sure to go to Cathedral Lakes. They are both stunning. Here is more info that might be helpful: http://www.yosemitehikes.com/tioga-road/cathedral-lakes/cathedral-lakes.htm

      Another option would be to head east from the Tuolumne Meadows Rangers Station along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. That is an easy stroll, no elevation gain, and you could just turn around whenever you wanted.

      The only thing is Tioga Pass, which is the road you need to take to get to these trailheads and Tuolumne Meadows is currently closed for winter. I’m not sure when it will open but you should check on road conditions here:
      http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/conditions.htm

      Do you have the option of coming up through Yosemite Valley? That is accessible year round.

    Its been 40 years since I did part of the JMT (Kearsarge Pass to Whitney and Devils Postpile to Yosemite Valley). Such amazing memories (I was 12 & 13 – Boy Scouts). My question since its been 40 years is my daughter and her cousin wish to go next year (20 and 17) and do maybe a leg or 2 during summer break. Require one my sons or cousins to go along (just a fatherly concern)? I trust both implicitly. Both have hiked (up to 5 day trips). I just dont know how the trail and travelers are these days. Was a lot less traveled in the 70’s.

      Hey Brian – That’s so awesome you got to do some of the JMT at such a young age. I wish I was exposed to the outdoors so early on. As far as your daughter….all I can say is we saw plenty of solo females on the trail, and they all seemed to be having a great time. Many of them actually paired up together. There are a lot of people out there, so they definitely won’t be alone. Maybe you should consider getting them a SPOT transponder or a sat phone to bring with them. I’m in the process of writing a review of my SPOT. I take it with me on all of my solo hikes and it gives my parents peace of mind. Stay tuned for more info and feel free to email me if you have more questions. Thanks! Kristen

    Kristen, great set of wisdom. I really agree with 21. Having hot tea or cocoa in the morning really helps me get going, and then I have a cup of hot soup in the evening while waiting for my Chili Mac to rehydrate.

    Thanks!

    Cheers, Bill
    http://billhensley.wordpress.com

      Ahhhh chili mac. thanks for coming by my blog and glad you enjoyed the post! -Kristen

    Thank you so much for such a great JMT blog! We have a group of 5 leaving July 3rd, 2016 and I keep returning back to your blog for info and tips! At times this hike seems so daunting (and gives me anxiety!!) and at others I’m just totally excited. So, again, thanks for sharing your experiences in such a thorough and well-thought out way!

      Hey Kimberly! That’s awesome. Thanks so much for stopping by. You’ll have to come back and let me know how your hike goes.

    Important lesson for back packing & hiking. Foot care is critical. Don’t believe the Goretex marketing message that it’s waterproof and breathable. Bunk. It’s not breathable. In the Sierras it’s hot & dry (for the most part). Your feet will sweat so let them breathe. At lunch time take off your shoes and socks to let them air out. Then again in the mid afternoon when it’s hottest find a nice shady tree by a lake and take another nice break to air out your feet. Your feet will thank you!!!

    Bearfoot – You provide a great service with this website – and you are building community!
    I have JMT permit for August 2016, hiking solo, which I have done for years.
    Question about backpacker campground at Tuolumne Meadows. Your site and Elizabeth Wenk’s book say that hikers arriving by bus get 2 nights at backpacker site.
    But when I tried to confirm that with Yosemite rangers over the phone they said “No such policy – limit is one night.” The person on the phone even stepped away to check with others in the office.
    So… has the 2 nights for bus riders changed?
    Many thanks – “Walking Home”

      Hi Doug – I’m not sure about the backpacker sites, but if that’s what the ranger is telling you, then I would assume that is the rule. There is also a full car campground there, so you could always get a site there if you needed an extra night.

      That\’s strange. I emailed the rangers about a month ago and they said I could get one night because I was arriving by bus and another night because I had a wilderness permit.

      Hi Doug! My son and I are doing the JMT in August as well. We officially start from Happy Isles on the 7th, but we are arriving earlier to hike to North Dome and do the cables at Half Dome. Where are you coming in from? Maybe we will see you on the trail

      Liz

      I realize this thread is old, but I thought I\\\’d mention that while solo car-camping at Tuolumne, around 6 pm when the campground was full, I was

      approached by a young couple in a small car who asked if they could share my space.

      It was fine with me!

      We ate together, swapped backpacking stories until the fire died, then they crawled in their tent and were gone early the next morning.

      So don\\\’t be afraid to ask.

    Loved reading about your trip on the JMT. My son and I are doing it in August this year. I have backpacked before but my 18 year old son has little experience out in the wilderness. Any ideas? I’m taking him on a few short trips locally up in Mt Rainier to help get him ready for some long days of climbing up switchbacks. Unfortunately the highest elevation we will get to out here in WA is about 10,000 feet. (Camp Muir, Camp Shurman areas). Did you experience any type of altitude issues? Other than staying hydrated, sleeping at lower elevations, and eating well, what helped you out?
    My biggest backpacking lesson is: Get to camp before dark, there is nothing worse than setting up in the dark and then a big weather change occurs in the middle of it all. I also learned on my solo hikes to not push myself so hard. Like you said in your post, It’s not a competition. Yes, I try to make good time into camp, but now I take the time to enjoy the experience, take more scenic stops to take it all in, and stop when I have a snack instead of stuffing my face while I’m climbing up hills.
    Biggest lesson of all…DONT FORGET THE TP! 😉

      Love these tips. Thanks for adding them to the conversation. Hydration is a huge factor in altitude sickness, so drink lots of water and you can also take some sort of electrolyte tablet or capsule http://amzn.to/29Jpvi6

      Also try to adjust to the altitude gradually.

      Hope that helps and good luck!

    Your blog is great- totally loving the tips. Headed out next week for 16 days solo! BTW I have the same Deuter pack so it’s nice to know that it will work for the JMT! 🙂

    So I enjoyed your article and thought I would add something a little different. I hiked the trail back in 2000 and we are going to have a go again in 2017. Seems permitting has become more of a thing. Anyway one of our group of four sixteen years ago was/is a huge Lewis and Clark buff. So on day two I told him to really hit me with the full story. So many hours later he spoke about how they would setup half camp for dinner often then hiked on after dark when the moonlight was good. We thought we might try and it when we wanted a few more miles or campsites weren’t ideal or whatever the case may be. We did it two times that trip and it was really a fun expierence, hiking by moonlight while looking at the stars is really something. And of course setting up camp is a whole new challenge at night. I am planning on doing it at least once again if the new 2017 group is willing.

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