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.
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.
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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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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.
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).
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).
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.