The Best Backpacking Gear for the John Muir Trail

By Michael Lanza

So you’re planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail and making all of the necessary preparations, and now you’re wondering: What’s the best gear for a JMT hike? Having thru-hiked the JMT as well as taken numerous other backpacking trips all over the High Sierra—mostly between late August and late September, which I consider that the best time to walk the Sierra, to avoid snow and the voracious mosquitoes and blazing hot afternoons of mid-summer—I offer the following picks for the best lightweight backpacking gear and apparel for a JMT thru-hike.

Indisputably one of the best backpacking trips in America, the JMT meanders for 211 miles through the magnificent High Sierra from the edge of Yosemite Valley to the summit of the highest peak in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney (where backpackers must then descend another 11 miles to finish the trip at Whitney Portal trailhead). I first wrote about thru-hiking the JMT in seven days while working as Northwest Editor (and lead gear reviewer) for Backpacker magazine, before launching this blog.

With few opportunities to resupply along the trail—and given the generally dry weather in the Sierra in summer—you can easily walk the length of the JMT with a very light pack. Maximum pack weight will depend on how many days you spend on the trail, but it’s quite feasible to keep your base pack weight (everything but food and water) within 15 to 20 pounds—or less—without compromising safety or comfort in camp.

See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” and my standard checklist for backpacking.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


A backpacker at Trail Crest on the John Muir Trail, Mount Whitney.
Mark Fenton at Trail Crest on the John Muir Trail, Mount Whitney.

The following suggestions for major gear items would also be solid picks for almost any backpacker who wants to go lighter and hike more comfortably in many mid-latitude mountain ranges in summer—although items like your tent and footwear would depend on the typical weather and bugs.

For a backpack, I like a few models that weigh under three pounds: the Osprey Exos 58 or 48 and women’s Osprey Eja 58 or 48 (read my review); the Gregory men’s Optic 58 or Optic 48 and women’s Octal 55 or 45 (read my review); and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider (read my review).

See all of my picks for the best ultralight backpacks.

Planning to hike the John Muir Trail? Click here for expert, detailed advice you won’t get elsewhere.

A backpacker on the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
A backpacker on the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

In late summer, outside the buggy season in the High Sierra, I prefer using a tarp shelter. 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, there are two-person tents that are well under three pounds, like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 (read my review), Nemo Dragonfly 2P (read my review), Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 (read my review), and Slingfin 2Lite Trek, which pitches with trekking poles (read my review), while the Big Agnes TIger Wall 2 Platinum is under two pounds (read my review). My favorite solo ultralight is the Gossamer Gear The One, which weighs under 1.5 pounds (read my review).

See my picks for The 7 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents all of my backpacking tent reviews, my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent” and my story “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent For You.”

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Descending south on the John Muir Trail from Forester Pass, Sequoia National Park.
On the JMT below Forester Pass, Sequoia National Park.

For backpacking the JMT in late summer, I carry a down sleeping bag rated around 30 degrees F, with a high down fill ratings (800 and above), because they are warmer, lighter, and more (if also more expensive), and well suited to the dry Sierra summers. People who get cold more easily may want a bag rated 20 to 25 degrees, although you can wear layers to supplement the bag’s warmth.

My favorites are the Therm-a-Rest Hyperion (read my review); the Marmot Hydrogen; the Western Mountaineering Summerlite (read my review); and the Sierra Designs Nitro 800 (read my review).

If you want a more affordable synthetic bag, I recommend the men’s Nemo Kyan and women’s Nemo Azura (read my review) and the Big Agnes Picket SL 30 men’s or women’s (read my review).

See my “10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag” and all of my sleeping bag reviews.

For insulation when nighttime lows will generally remain above freezing, take a lightweight or ultralight piece like the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody (read my review), the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer (read my review), or the warmer Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody (read my review) or Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket (read my review).

See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets,” my story “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is” and all of my puffy jacket reviews.

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

Lastly, if all of your gear is light, you should get lightweight hiking shoes or boots. For the JMT/High Sierra in summer, I prefer highly breathable, non-waterproof, low-cut shoes like the La Sportiva TX3 (read my review), or trail runners like the Hoka One One Speedgoat 3 or Speedgoat 4 (read my review).

If you prefer waterproof-breathable footwear that’s still relatively light, I recommend the Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX (read my review), or Oboz Bridger Mid or Bridger Low BDry (read my review).

See all of my reviews of hiking shoes.

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.

See all of my stories about the John Muir Trail.


Review: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 Backpacking Tent

Sawtooth Jewels: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes


10 thoughts on “The Best Backpacking Gear for the John Muir Trail”

  1. Hi Michael,
    I really enjoy your articles. Much to my surprise, I was lucky enough to snag a permit for the JMT this summer. I’ll be leaving from Tuolomne Meadows on 8/13 and expecting to reach Whitney Portal about 8/31. I’m planning on using a Hammock Gear 30 degree quilt (wide), and I’ll be in a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo tent. My sleeping pad is rated at 3.2 R value. I’ve been concerned that this won’t be warm enough for the last few nights at the south end of the trail, so I was planning on buying a Sea to Summit bag liner to add warmth. After reading your article, I’m not sure that I need the liner. I will have a base layer for sleeping and a fleece and a puffy jacket. I used this exact same setup on a Long Trail thru hike from 8/25 to 9/16 two years ago, and I was never cold. Do you think I should add the liner, or do you think my setup is adequate as is for the JMT in late August? Thanks in advance for your opinion!

    • Hi Brian,

      Congrats on your JMT permit, that’s definitely a winning lottery ticket! Your dates are prime season and may even be a little on the warm side, especially in the afternoons, when the Sierra sun can feel wilting. I don’t think you’re likely to have nights below around 40, so with the layers you’re bringing, I really don’t think you’ll need the liner. I’ve used a 30-degree bag in the Sierra many nights in September without being cold. I’ve done most of the Long Trail, too, in late September and October, and that was much chillier than the JMT in late August.

      I’ve also used the Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo and I’ll be posting a review of it. Good tent in many ways, though pretty snug, and make sure you ventilate it as much as possible.

      Have a great hike. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I am planning on solo hiking the JMT SoBo this summer and was worried I would have to buy all new gear but thanks to your article, I feel like I might be good with what I currently have! I have a Big Anges Copper Spur UL 2 person tent and Western Mountaineering Terralite regular. Some people have told me I need a warmer bag but I will be out there in late July/early August. Also, thoughts about bear cans vs hanging? And do you have any recommended resupply stops?

    • Hi Alison,

      Sounds like you have a good kit for the JMT. You could find a lighter tent to go solo—and there are four that are significantly lighter than the Copper Spur in my review of the 8 best backpacking tents (two of them 2-person, if that’s what you prefer)—but the Copper Spur UL2 isn’t terribly heavy. I don’t think you’ll need a warmer bag for the JMT in mid-summer (or even the first part of September if you went that late), especially if you have a light puffy jacket with you. (See my picks for the 10 best down jackets.)

      The national parks and forests in the High Sierra, including the entire JMT, do require bear canisters. The must-do resupply stop on the JMT is the Muir Trail Ranch and there are limited other possibilities. I offer Custom Trip Planning for a JMT thru-hike (as well as any trip you read about at my blog), where I can answer all questions about planning, prep, and pulling off that trip.

      Check out my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know.”

      Thanks for the comment. Good luck and keep in touch.

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for a great gear review! What are your thoughts on using a 4-person tent for the JMT? (I have a family of 4 and my kids were hoping to share one tent rather than split us up into two 2-person tents.) I was planning on the Hyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 4 to allow for 4 people but keep the weight down. I understand the potential problems with non-freestanding tents, but I’m curious if there will be a problem finding sites big enough for the 111″ x 111″ footprint of the pyramid.

    Thanks for any advice!


    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for the good question. Although we only used two-person tents on the JMT, I think that if your itinerary allows you plenty of time each day to find adequate campsites, you probably won’t have much trouble finding spots for a 4-person tent. There are plenty of established campsites with beaten ground along the JMT and I expect you’ll be able to stake out that tent virtually anywhere you camp.

      While I haven’t used the Hyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 4, I’m a big fan of HMG’s gear (see all of my reviews of HMG gear) and I was really impressed with HMG tent quality when I used the HMG Dirigo 2 in strong winds on the Wind River High Route.

      If you’d like to support my work on my blog, at no cost to you, you can click this link to purchase the Hyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 4. Thanks for doing that.

      I hope that helps. Thanks again for the comment. Get in touch anytime.

  4. Very helpful! I picked up the Gossamer Gear One tent (& LT5 poles) and Hyperion sleeping bag during the Cyber Monday sales, saving a bundle. I wish I had read your insights on your website BEFORE (years ago) I purchased this other set of poles (not adjustable) & a too heavy sleeping bag. Your expertise saves me time AND money. The right gear increases my safety in the mountains, and the “Fun Factor” too. Thank you!


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