Are you hitting the trail this summer? Here are five helpful lessons I learned from hiking the John Muir Trail that may help you plan your JMT hike.
This article is in honor of those about to hike the 210 miles from Yosemite to Whitney (or vice versa) on the John Muir Trail! Congratulations! You are about to embark on a life changing journey, especially if it is your first time. I was lucky enough to get the full Happy Isles to Whitney Portal permit last year, as well as getting Katie, creator of this website, to come with me.
If I were to get back on the JMT (and I hope I do since I have 70 miles left to do between MTR and Kearsarge Pass), there are five lessons that I will take to heart that I hope will help you too.
(I don’t get into the nitty-gritty of planning here so if you need advice for getting a permit this is an excellent resource. If you need advice on gear look here. If you need a map, here’s what I used. Want resupply tips? Here you go.)
Lesson 1: Don’t overdo the food
The most common error people make on the JMT is waaay overdoing it on the food. Some estimates have the daily calorie intake at 3,500 – 5,000 a day, which put me into a food packing panic. From this freakout I now have the super power of identifying the most caloric thing by weight in any store (usually Little Debbie style fruit pies and Combos).
The reality is that most people lose weight on the JMT, which is ok since it is a “short” distance (210 miles pales in comparison to the 2,650 miles of the PCT) and you’ll soon recover what you lost after the hike. However, if you are a longer distance thru-hiker, hypoglycemic, diabetic, underweight, or have some other health concern, please consult your doctor and don’t take any of my advice.
Due to the calorie panic, I overpacked, ironically causing me to burn even more calories carrying the extra food weight. And I wasn’t even that hungry partially due to the elevation, which can suppress appetite.
Compounding things further is that I packed food I was apathetic about at home, which turned to contempt on the trail. I would avoid the calorie dense breakfast bars, Fritos, hot chocolate, tuna, and almond butter, angry at them all for their useless weight. However the stuff I love (guiltily) in real life like ramen, Peanut Butter M&Ms, salami, and cheese were gone way too soon.
Bottomline: Yes, bring food to try to meet your daily calorie goal. No, don’t bring extra on top of that. And definitely don’t bring food unless its tried and true for you. As evidenced by the overflowing buckets of discarded oatmeal and hot chocolate at MTR, you’re not going to want that extra oatmeal or hot chocolate (except I weirdly did want that extra oatmeal; oatmeal worked for me!).
Lesson 2: It’s not a hike, it’s a mind game
The hardest thing for me was when my mind got involved and not the actual hiking. Hiking is easy if your gear and body are cooperating (but they don’t always, admittedly). The most difficult situations for me were always caused by mental factors.
It is no coincidence that I felt strongest gazing at the mountains ahead on Donohue Pass or soaking in the sublime peace of Virginia Lake. And it is no surprise that the days I felt terrible were spent in burned out or wind torn forests with no inspirational views.
One of the hardest days was after a wonderful zero day spent in Mammoth. Reunited with friends from home who shared a comfortable condo with me and Katie, I was riding high on the fun, not to mention the frequent showers and easily accessible beer.
The high came crashing down the morning we hit the trail southbound from Reds Meadow and immediately started an uphill climb into a sad burned down area of trees. Fortunately, we were inspired after talking to two women around our age going north-bound, the mirror image of us going south-bound. They assured us that there were more amazing things to come.
So, we cut the hike off short for the day and went to bed early. That night’s rest provided a clean slate for us to start stronger, both mentally and physically, the next day.
Lesson 3: This is your hike
You have to do this for you and no one else. And if you feel like you are doing the hike for someone else, then maybe you should reconsider.
I actually dropped out halfway at Muir Trail Ranch with Katie because we were both feeling unsafe. I couldn’t think about the new friends who were counting on us to continue walking with them, the old friends from home meeting us for resupply, or my dad who flew out from Florida to pick me up at Whitney Portal. I had to push aside those feelings of guilt and end it for me.
What finally ended it was being stuck on a bald hillside crouched in the bushes avoiding lightning strikes for about 45 minutes, not to mention getting soaked by the rain. On top of that, I had already spent a sleepless night in lightning, fallen in a pretty swift stream earlier in the day, and made it through some terrifying crossings across the raging Bear Creek. My confidence was shaken, and with the rumors of melting snow bridges and even more dangerous river crossings to come, I felt I had to stop. The mental toll of feeling unsafe became too much to bear, because remember, this is a mind game.
I’m not an adrenaline junky or risk taker. I’m a librarian. That’s probably what took me out of the game, and is probably why some of my friends do not understand why we left. But I had to hike my hike, and I’m glad I did.
And I hiked my hike when I went back in to do the last 50 miles to summit Whitney. The terrible weather had passed at this point, and felt more confident that I wouldn’t be wiped out by lightning. In a spur of the moment I decided to go back in, supported by Katie who drove me to Onion Valley and walked me up to Kearsarge Pass. When we parted ways, I was so sad, glad to be wearing sunglasses so she couldn’t see my tears, but fortunate that we both recognized we had own individual and separate journeys.
Lesson 4: Don’t overplan (unless it makes you feel better)
I spent at least 48 hours tweaking our itinerary, trying to find the most optimal mileage and spots to stop each day. I revised the revised itinerary, updated it based on up-to-the minute trail reports, and when I was finally done, I printed out the color coded pages and laminated them. I had an idea that there would be things I couldn’t account for, but it just made me feel better to factor in everything I could while at home.
Once on the trail though, there was no way to follow the itinerary due to weather, campsite availability, and most of all, mosquitos. All of these factors forced us into situations where we asked ourselves, “We either hike way more miles into the unknown, stay here in suboptimal conditions, or hike back to a better situation.” Obviously we never hiked back (but I wish I had for at least Rosalie Lake because that was such an idyllic spot!).
And I had to be ok with the unexpected and the unplanned. I took one step at a time, stopping when I need refueling, which sometimes was in the form of a nap (which I strongly recommend).
I became so accustomed to taking things as they are that I re-entered the trail with no firm plan for returning home to San Francisco after Whitney, which leads me to my last lesson…
Lesson 5: Count on the goodness of people
Let’s face it – the JMT is not for those seeking solitude; it is super social. You’ll meet so many people, almost all of them kind and helpful. If there is an unkind or unhelpful person on the JMT, then you get to gossip about them with everyone else.
If you are running low on food, expect someone to want to share something delicious with you. If you are about to cross a dangerous river crossing, very likely someone will be waiting to cross with you (and you should never cross alone anyway!). If you can’t find a campsite, people will invite you to set up your tent next to theirs. And if you need a ride from Lone Pine to home, there just might possibly be someone who will drive you.
Total strangers gave me and Katie a ride from Florence Lake to Mono Hot Springs as we fled the trail. Then another stranger who we had only met days before on the trail invited us to camp with her on her choice Mono Hot Springs campsite AND drove us to Sonora. And when I re-entered the JMT at Kearsarge, another complete stranger chatted with me before I dozed off into another afternoon nap, adopted me as her hiking partner, and did everything except carry me to the top of Whitney. And then she drove me all the way home to San Francisco!
The fact that I am regularly in touch with three people I met on the JMT proves to me that people are fundamentally good, and that goodness especially shines in difficult situations. I can think of no less difficult situation than hiking 200+ miles in the Sierra. Good luck to you all!