By Michael Lanza
Are you planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail? “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” should be on every serious backpacker’s tick list. After hiking it in seven days, I became convinced that—while that was very hard—the traditional itinerary of spreading the roughly 221 miles out over three weeks or more has a serious flaw: With limited food-resupply options, you’ll carry a monster pack that may not only make you sore and uncomfortable, it could cause injuries that cut short your trip.
In this article, I lay out my ultralight strategy for thru-hiking the JMT in 10 to 11 days—and why you’d want to do it.
Over the years, I’ve evolved from being one of those traditional, heavy-pack backpackers to traveling as light as absolutely possible, and the John Muir Trail—definitely one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips—is perfect for an ultralight strategy because of its generally dry, late-summer weather, well-constructed footpath, and moderate grades. Fit hikers who arrive with their legs in trail condition can knock off 20 to 22 miles a day—spending about 10 hours a day on the trail (including breaks) and averaging 2.5 mph when walking, a reasonable pace for someone in good shape who’s walking with a light pack.
Season A JMT thru-hike can be done from July through September. But the best time for an ultralight thru-hike is mid-August to mid-September, when—usually—the mosquitoes have abated and rain is rare (allowing you to use a tarp instead of a tent), the high passes are snow-free, and mornings are cool.
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The Itinerary Fastpacking the JMT isn’t just for the lunatic fringe—ultralight hiking was born here. Our group found seven days doable but extremely hard. More reasonable is 10 to 11 days, because fit hikers capable of averaging 20 to 22 miles a day can, with early-morning starts, still take a break in shade during the worst afternoon heat—and critically, not carry more than five days of food. Here’s how:
• Hike north to south—from Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal—to gradually acclimate to the highest elevations.
• Start early every day. Hike in the cool morning and evening hours, and rest during the afternoon heat. Knock off most of your day’s mileage by early afternoon. By going ultralight and not cooking, you’ll find that packing up camp takes just minutes. (See more about backpacking only with food that doesn’t require cooking in my article “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun”)
• Plan fewer miles on days when your pack is heaviest, and more miles when you’re traveling lightest.
• Hiking southbound, the hardest and hottest climbs are to Mather Pass, Glen Pass, Forester Pass, and Trail Crest/Mt. Whitney. Try to do these in the morning.
Permit Get a permit for the entire JMT from the park or forest where you plan to start, either Yosemite National Park or the Inyo National Forest (see below). JMT permits are in great demand for dates in July, August, and September. To hike the JMT southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park exactly 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin—for example, apply on Feb. 20 to start hiking Aug. 20. Increase your chances by applying for a range of start dates in Yosemite. Permits for hiking northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 15. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.
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Minimize Pack Weight With This Resupply Plan
• From Yosemite Valley, carry only light hydration packs for the 22 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. Have your backpacking gear and food waiting there. (Convince a friend to meet you there with your group’s gear and food.) Eat a big meal in the Tuolumne café.
• At Red’s Meadow (redsmeadow.com), a short hike off the JMT, resupply for the next 50 trail miles either by having someone meet you there, or for a fee, mailing or delivering a package in advance. Eat a big meal at the Mule House Café.
• Resupply a final time at Muir Trail Ranch (muirtrailranch.com/backpacker), about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s midpoint. Ship non-perishable food weeks in advance; a fee is charged.
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Not up for 20-mile days?
It’s not for everyone, of course. Many hikers allot three weeks, a pace of about 10 miles a day. Maybe the smartest strategy for you would be something in between—say, 15 days averaging 14.7 miles per day. Experiment with backpacking longer days and traveling light on shorter trips before your JMT thru-hike.
Still, traditional backpackers can draw benefits from adopting strategies employed by fastpackers—including going north to south on the JMT. Besides giving you time to acclimate to the higher elevations of the southern Sierra, it gives you two resupply opportunities (Tuolumne Meadows and Red’s Meadow) to keep your pack lighter while building up your trail legs. And it gives you half the trip—prior to reaching the last resupply opp, Muir Trail Ranch—to gauge your food needs and daily mileage capabilities.
By that time, you may find you’re walking farther every day than you anticipated and possibly eating (slightly) less than planned. Both realizations are common among people doing their first long trail. Backpackers are as likely to overestimate food as underestimate it. Plus, except for the high passes, the JMT is not, step for step, as difficult as hiking in other parts of the country. Give serious thought to food supply and daily mileage, because leaving Muir Trail Ranch with 10 or 11 days worth of food will add about 20 pounds to your pack as you head for the JMT’s highest passes.
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You might even plan to hike shorter days for the trail’s northern half, as you’re getting stronger as well as to linger in places, but by the time you reach Muir Trail Ranch, be ready for longer days in order to reduce your pack’s food weight for the southern half of the JMT.
And that, really, is the whole point. Carrying too much weight on your back only makes a trip more difficult, and can make it miserable. You spend too much time thinking about when you can take a break from carrying your pack instead of thinking about where you are. That’s not why you’re out there. Discard any misguided notion that you’ll “miss too much” by hiking bigger days—you’re still walking, after all, and only incrementally faster than you would walk with a heavier pack. You’re just walking for more hours each day—and more comfortably.
Let’s face it: The real reason you’d hike slower with a heavier pack is that it’s crushing weight is slowing you down—not because walking at that pace somehow gives you a higher-quality experience.
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See more advice about planning a JMT thru-hike in the Make It Happen section of my story about our seven-day thru-hike, which has more photos and a video, plus tips on planning it. See also my picks for the best ultralight gear for a JMT thru-hike.
And see my Custom Trip Planning page for details on how I can help make your JMT hike exponentially better by giving you a personalized, customized trip-planning consult.
You can also view just the video from my JMT thru-hike here.