Ultimate Guide to Planning a JMT Thru Hike - Part 1
The title sort of suggests a bold claim right? Well, this two part series will help you prepare for the John Muir Trail (JMT) in two major areas. In part 1 we will cover everyones favorite, gear. In the second edition of the series we will cover the dreaded logistics of planning a thru hike.
I will show how to break your planning process into these two smaller categories, and what to do along the way. I'll fill you in on what I plan on bringing with me on my thru hike, and all of the logistical struggles that I have gone through so you can learn from my mistakes. If you're like me, the idea of planning something that spans multiple weeks, regions, and towns sounds like a huge undertaking. I assure you that it's not, and you definitely should not let the planning aspect of the journey stand in your way from heading out in the High Sierras!
It's all about the gear
I know that most of you reading this are probably gearheads just like me... so I figured I might as well just jump in and start from there. To avoid boring you to death with a list that says how many q-tips you should bring along, I am going to cover a few basic ideas, and the absolute essentials for a successful thru hike.
The big three
We all know what they are... sleeping bag, pack, and shelter. These three, above all else, will make or break your base weight. You should always shoot to stay within 10-15 lb range without food and water.
Look at your shelter right from the get go. You can save a ton of weight, and live in style in the backcountry, with the right tent. Try to find a tent/shelter that performs well, is roomy enough for your tastes, and doesn't add a great deal of weight to your pack. I am going to hike with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II and I highly recommend that when you're finished reading this you run out to pick one up! At 26 oz for two people, how can you possibly go wrong?
Next, take a good hard look at your sleeping bag/sleep system as a whole. There have been tons of innovations in the past few years to save those precious pounds! From new designs such as the Nemo's Spoon shaped bags, to advancements in fabrics like pertex, even treating individual down feathers to make them waterproof, a lot has gone on in the sleeping bag world recently.
I am opting for a MontBell UL Super Spiral Down Hugger #3. Sure they may be a few lighter bags out there. But, it checks in at 1 lb 6 oz and lets me curl into a ball in the middle of the night, thanks to all of the stretchy innovations that MontBell has crammed into these bags.
I am going to pair this with the tried and true Therm-a-rest Z-Lite. While it might not be as comfortable as the X-Lite (which my wife is going to use) it does double duty as the frame for my pack!
The last of the big three, the pack itself. This should always be the last item you decide on. This way you know exactly how much space you are actually going to need to fit all your gear.
I would like to open your eyes to the world of frameless packs! If you hike with a closed-cell foam pad then there is no reason in the world to carry a heavy internal frame pack. Put that sleeping pad to work as the frame of your backpack!
Take a look at Equinox's Katahdin Ultralight Pack. This sucker comes in at 26 oz! I'll say that again... this pack weighs 26 oz! It's unbelievably comfortable, and every bit as stable as it's big-bad internal framed cousins.
This is an area where some people (my wife) tend to over pack! Packing too many clothes can really add up, not to mention just be plain unnecessary. Try to find a system of clothes that work off of each other. Don't bring two jackets, a soft-shell and a rain coat. Opt for a vest that you can layer underneath the rain coat, this way you can stay warm if you layer them together, stay dry if need be, or wear them independently, an generally be more adaptable on the trail.
It is really important to know your fabrics, and how they perform before you start compiling your packing list. I think this goes without saying, but cotton doesn't have any sort of place on a long distance thru hike. Instead, go with fabrics that perform well in all sorts of conditions. Look to merino wool, polyester, nylon, and lycra. All of these fabrics have insanely high performance in all of the various climates you will be exposed to on the JMT.
Much of the JMT is above treeline so it is imperative that you pack accordingly. You don't want to show up with only shorts and a t-shirt and be exposed to the sun for hours on end. I am planning on taking a mix of clothing that should keep me warm, dry, insulated, and cool... all while not weighing me down in the process.
My clothes will consist of a pair of Patagonia hiking pants, a pair of nylon running shorts, a long sleeve Ecofficio shirt, and a cheap nylon/spandex t shirt from Target. I will be able to mix and match these items to provide maximum comfort on the trail.
All that's well and good, but what about protection from the elements?
I am opting for a vest coupled with a North Face pertex jacket. This should give me some flexibility during the day, and allow me to layer up at night to stay warm. I have a Equinox Terrapin Ultralight poncho that is designed to fit over my pack and keep both me, and my gear, dry should the weather turn foul! Toss a buff and a sun hat into the mix and I should be more than prepared to battle whatever mother nature throws at me. The last major category to consider when creating your packing list is your cook system and water purification.
In efforts to keep things light I suggest that you leave the heavy canister stoves and Jetboils at home. Instead, check out alcohol stoves. They are insanely light and require little amounts of fuel to cook with. You don't need to bring an entire canister, you can just bring 4 oz along until you get to the next town.
If you add a titanium pot to the mix you will have an insanely light cooking system that won't weigh you down. Consider cooking on the fire at night as often as possible in efforts to conserve fuel, and carry even fuel less when you get completely dialed in.
Water Purification is another area that you can save so much weight by simplifying your approach. While pumps can offer clean safe drinking water, so can other products at fraction of the weight. Polar Pure (which isn't available anymore thanks to CA state laws) is my method of choice. I have treated water all over the world with it and will continue to do so. Aquamira is another alternative to heavy bulky pumps.
If possible find a way to leave the pumps and battery operated SteriPens at home. Simplicity should reign supreme when looking for the ideal water purification system.
Now all that's left to pack is a stuff sack of your personal items such as toothbrush and toothpaste, small first aid kit, a headlamp and whatever other small items you want to bring along.
Don't go overboard here, just bring what you need to survive, nothing more. Try to leave the iPads and other heavy electronics at home. You will be in the wood taking in all that Mother Nature has to offer. You won't miss playing Angry Birds, I promise.
If you are smart about how you pack, and more importantly what you pack then you can definitely achieve a really low base weight on the JMT. Take a good hard look at everything you plan on bringing along and make sure that it is absolutely necessary.
Stay tuned for the part 2 of the series where we will cover the logistical side of planning a thru hike. What to eat, how to get there, how to get home, mail drops, bear can permits, just the usual stuff that makes even a seasoned thru hiker want to cry! When you combine these two parts you should have all the knowledge you need to plan your JMT hike enjoy every step of your journey.
Kathleen and Brock | Shouldn't life be Our Favorite Adventure?!
Editor's Note: Please join me in welcoming Kathleen and Brock, owners and authors of OurFavoriteAdventure.com, as guest contributors to Brian's Backpacking Blog. In June 2012 they quit their jobs, sold everything, and set out to see the world. Their goal is to inspire others by sharing their journeys. I'm excited to have Kathleen and Brock as guest contributors for a fun series of posts, stay tuned for more from them. I highly recommend you visit their site and follow their social channels (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest) for more hiking and adventure updates.