Ask Me: The Best Backpacking Gear for the John Muir Trail
I read your article about ultra-backpacking and how you did the John Muir Trail in seven days. I am planning on doing it, but would like to know, for an ultralight backpacker, what do you suggest for a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, etc.? Any feedback or thoughts that you have would be much appreciated.
Very cool that you’re making a John Muir Trail thru-hike. (The lead photo above shows a view of the Cathedral Range from the JMT in Yosemite National Park.) I did it in late August, and I think late August through mid-September is the best time of year to hike the JMT, because you’ll find a largely snow-free trail, the voracious mosquitoes of mid-summer are just about gone, and the afternoons aren’t as blazing hot as mid-summer.
My specific gear suggestions below would, of course, apply to almost any backpacker who wants to go lighter and hike more comfortably in most mid-latitude mountain ranges in summer—although the choice of shelter would depend on typical weather and bugs.
You should also read my tips on ultralight backpacking, which includes my generic ultralight gear checklist and a chart describing each piece of gear and apparel with its weight; and see my standard checklist for backpacking.
Here are my picks for the major gear items.
For a backpack, I like a few models: the Osprey Exos 58 (read my review) or Exos 48, which has a women’s version, the Eja 58 and Eja 48; the Gregory men’s Optic 58 and women’s Octal 55 (read my review), and the smaller Optic 48 and Octal 45; and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider (read my review).
See all of my picks for the best ultralight, thru-hiking backpack.
In late summer, outside the buggy season in the High Sierra, I prefer using a tarp, like the Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp (read my review), which I used on an ultralight, 86-mile, four-day, September hike in northern Yosemite. I often sleep under the stars on a clear night, but a tarp, besides protecting you from rain and some wind, can trap a surprising amount of warmth underneath it on a calm night.
If you want a full tent, look for a solo that’s around two pounds or two-person tent that’s well under three pounds, like the two-person Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 (read my review), Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 (read my review), Slingfin 2Lite Trek, which pitches with trekking poles (read my review), or the MSR FlyLite (read my review). Or if you’re willing to carry a little more weight for more space, check out the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 (read my review) or Marmot Tungsten UL 2p (read my review).
See my picks for the five best backpacking tents, all of my backpacking tent/shelter reviews, my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent” and my story “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent For You.”
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
For most three-season backpacking, I carry a sleeping bag rated around 30 degrees F. It’s warm enough for me on nights above freezing, as most nights are in summer; on an unusually cold night, I can supplement by wearing my clothing. People who get cold more easily may want a bag rated 20 to 25 degrees—and there are some high-quality, relatively light and compact models out there.
Down bags were traditionally warmer, lighter, and more compact and durable than synthetic (if also more expensive), but the best synthetic insulations now compete with down for warmth and packability, while down feathers treated to make them water resistant compete with synthetic insulations for continuing to trap heat when damp or wet.
My favorites include a bag I’ve used for years, the Marmot Hydrogen; the Western Mountaineering Summerlite (read my review); the Sierra Designs Nitro 800 20-degree (read my review), which comes in a 35-degree version; the REI men’s Magma 10 and women’s Magma 17 (read my review); and the Big Agnes Picket SL 30 (watch for my upcoming review).
See my “10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag” and all of my sleeping bag reviews.
For nighttime lows generally above freezing, take a lightweight or ultralight insulation piece like the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody (read my review), the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer (read my review), or the somewhat warmer Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody (read my review) or Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody (read my review).
See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets,” my story “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?” and all of my puffy jacket reviews.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
Lastly, if all of your gear is light, you should get lightweight hiking shoes or boots. You may want something waterproof-breathable that’s still relatively light, like the Scarpa Proton GTX (read my review), Arc’teryx Acrux2 FL GTX (read my review), or Oboz Crest Low BDry (read my review).
For hiking the JMT at a time when it will be largely snow-free, I’d go with non-waterproof, mid-cut or low-cut hiking shoes for maximum breathability, as my friends and I did in late summer because we didn’t have to worry much about getting wet, and highly breathable shoes dry much faster, too. Shoes I like include the La Sportiva TX3 (read my review), Scarpa Epic Lite (read my review), Oboz Scapegoat Mid (read my review), and Arc’teryx Acrux FL (read my review).
See all of my reviews of hiking shoes.
I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
You should read my story “5 Things to Know Before Buying Backpacking Gear,” which has my general tips on buying any gear and links to my stories offering specific tips on buying a pack, tent, boots, and sleeping bag.
The JMT is a wonderful experience. Good luck.
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