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—and among the very best I’ve taken over three decades of backpacking, including 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor and lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—the JMT meanders for 211 miles through the magnificent High Sierra, from 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). See my story about thru-hiking the JMT in seven days.

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 and your food weight, 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. 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 for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A hiker at Trail Crest on the John Muir Trail on Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park.
Mark Fenton at Trail Crest on Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan a JMT thru-hike.

See my stories “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-Day, Ultralight Plan,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your JMT thru-hike and any trip you read about at The Big Outside, and my affordable, expert e-guides to backpacking trips in Yosemite and other parks.

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 (and time of year). Most recommendations below have a link to my full review of each. Click on the name of any product to buy it; those are affiliate links, meaning you can support my work on this blog by purchasing through them, at no cost to you.

Please share your thoughts on these gear suggestions for the JMT, or your own suggested gear, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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.

Backpack

For a backpack, I like a few models that weigh under three pounds: two top-loaders with traditional features like lots of external pockets, the Osprey Exos 58 or 48 ($220, 2 lbs. 11 oz. for the Exos 58) and women’s Osprey Eja 58 or 48 (read my review) and the Gregory men’s Optic 58 or Optic 48 ($210, 2 lbs. 7 oz. for the Octal 58) and women’s Octal 55 or 45 (read my review); and the utralight, mimimalist Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($355, 55L, 1 lb. 15 oz., read my review).

See all of my picks for the best ultralight backpacks.

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The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 in Utah's High Uintas Wilderness.
The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.

Tent

In late summer, outside the buggy season in the High Sierra, I prefer using a backpacking 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 two-person tent, get one that weighs under three pounds, like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 ($450, 2 lbs. 11 oz., read my review), Nemo Dragonfly 2P ($400, 2 lbs. 10 oz., read my review), Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 ($400, 2 lbs. 4 oz., read my review) or Big Agnes TIger Wall 2 Platinum is under two pounds ($550, 1 lb. 15 oz., read my review), and Slingfin 2Lite Trek, which pitches with trekking poles ($329, 2 lbs. 6 oz., read my review).

My favorite solo ultralight is the Gossamer Gear The One, which weighs under 1.5 pounds ($300, 1 lb. 6 oz., 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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Feathered Friends Hummingbird UL 30 sleeping bag.
The ultralight and warm Feathered Friends Hummingbird UL 30 sleeping bag, with 950+-fill down.

Sleeping Bag

For backpacking the JMT in late summer, I carry a down sleeping bag rated around 30 degrees F, with a high down fill rating (800 of above), because it’s warmer, lighter, more packable than a synthetic bag or down bag with lower fill quality (if also more expensive), and well suited to the dry Sierra summers, where there’s little risk of getting a bag wet. 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.

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

My favorites are the Feathered Friends men’s Hummingbird (30-degree, $429, 1 lb. 6 oz.) and women’s Egret UL (read my review), the Therm-a-Rest Hyperion (32-degree, $360, 1 lb. 1 oz., read my review); the Marmot Hydrogen (30-degree, $341, 1 lb. 7 oz.); the Western Mountaineering Summerlite (32-degree, $410, 1 lb. 3 oz., read my review); and the Sierra Designs Nitro 800 (20-degree, $320, 1 lb. 15 oz., read my review).

If you want a bag that’s not as constricting as a classic mummy, check out the crazy-light and comfortable Sierra Designs Cloud 800 bag, which comes in 35-degree ($300, 1 lb. 7 oz.) and 20-degree versions (read my review).

If you prefer an ultralight quilt, check out the Sierra Designs Nitro Quilt, also available in 35-degree ($250, 1 lb. 5 oz.) and 20-degree ($280, 1 lb. 11 oz.) versions (read my review).

Looking for an affordable synthetic bag? I recommend the Big Agnes Picket SL 30 men’s or women’s ($260, 2 lbs. 4 oz., read my review).

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

 

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Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Down Hoody
The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Down Hoody.

Insulation

When nighttime lows will generally remain above freezing, as is usually the case on the JMT at least into mid-September, take an ultralight puffy jacket like the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody ($299, 9 oz., read my review), the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer  2 Down Hoody ($325, 8.8 oz., read my review), or the lightweight and warmer Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody ($379, 11 oz., read my review) or Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket ($339, 11 oz. , read my review).

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

The Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket.
The Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket.

Rain Shell

On the John Muir Trail—or anywhere in the High Sierra—in summer, where rain occurs only rarely and most often as a passing thunderstorm, you don’t need the same rain protection as, say, in the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast. In fact, if you generally head out in warm, dry weather—common in many Western mountain ranges in summer—you may only need a less-expensive and ideally lightweight shell, like the Black Diamond Treeline Rain Shell ($129, 10 oz., watch for my upcoming review), an impressive value in part because it has an adjustable, full-coverage hood, a feature sometimes lacking in bargain rain jackets, making it suitable even for wet environments.

Another option for backpackers who rarely see rain is an ultralight, waterproof-breathable rain jacket, and two of the best are the Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket ($159, 6 oz., read my review) and The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket ($280, 8.5 oz., read my review).

If you need a rain shell for almost any conditions and don’t have the budget for multiple jackets, then you’ll have to get one that serves all of your needs, and the Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket ($249, 14 oz., read my review) is a top performer at a competitive price.

See my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking” and “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Running Jackets,” plus “5 Expert Tips For Buying a Rain Jacket for Hiking.”

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Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 trail-running shoes.
The Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 trail-running shoes.

Shoes and Boots

If all of your gear is light, on a well-constructed trail like the JMT that’s often dry in summer, get lightweight, highly breathable, non-waterproof boots or low-cut shoes like the La Sportiva TX3 ($135, 1 lb. 9 oz., read my review), trail runners like the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 ($145, 1 lb. 4 oz.) or very light mid-cut boots like the Hoka One One Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX ($170, 1 lb. 10 oz., read my review of both).

If you prefer waterproof-breathable footwear that’s still relatively light, I recommend the Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX ($185, 1 lb. 11 oz., read my review), or Oboz Bridger Mid BDry ($180, 2 lbs. 6 oz.) or Bridger Low BDry (read my review of both).

See all of my reviews of hiking shoes.

Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ poles.
Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ poles.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles should be essential gear on any backpacking trip, but for the JMT—if you’re going lightweight or ultralight, as you should be—get very light poles that are ideally adjustable and very packable. Among the best are the folding and adjustable Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ ($190, 12.7 oz./pair, 105-125cm, read my review), the collapsible and adjustable Gossamer Gear LT5 ($190, 10 oz./pair, read my review), and the folding, adjustable Leki Micro Vario Carbon Black Series ($250, 15 oz./pair, read my review) or the similar Leki MC 12 Vario ($250, 15 oz./pair, read my review).

See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”

Get the gear that’s right for you. Buy smartly, starting with 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 also all of my reviews of backpacking gear, ultralight backpacking gear, and hiking gear and all of my stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail.

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for your article! I’m planning on hiking the JMT starting around Aug. 9, 2021. I have a Nemo women’s Forte bag rated to 35 degrees, do you think that with many layers under (fleece pants and jacket, puffy jacket, beanie, gloves, plus base layers), I would be okay to take that bag, or would it be necessary to purchase a bag rated to 25 or 30?

    Thanks for any advice!

    Jessie

    Reply
    • Hi Jessie,

      Congrats on your JMT plans and getting a hard-to-get permit. You ask a good question and I have a two-part answer for you.

      First of all, the degree of warmth you need in a bag depends in part on your own body. As I write in “Pro Tips for Buying a Backpacking Sleeping Bag:” If you get cold easily, get a bag rated 20 to 25 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures you plan to sleep outside in. People who don’t get cold easily will be more comfortable in a bag rated to 10 to 15 degrees of the coldest temperatures you plan to sleep outside in—and possibly even a bag rated right around the coldest temp you’ll encounter, provided you have extra clothing to put on. I don’t get cold easily in a bag and generally use a 30-degree down bag in the High Sierra in summer and find it plenty warm enough. In August, your coldest nights will likely be in the 40s (and maybe not much below 50° F).

      But I would also ask why you need fleece pants and jacket in addition to a puffy jacket and base layers. When I backpacked the JMT and whenever I backpack in the High Sierra (and I have two trips there planned for this September), I’ll take one synthetic T-shirt and midweight long-sleeve top, an ultralight puffy jacket, and a lightweight rain shell, zip-off nylon pants, and that’s all I’ll need. Mornings are cool enough for extra layers in camp and when you start hiking, but I doubt you’ll need those fleece layers in camp or on the trail.

      My point is that you may find it a smarter distribution of weight to leave the fleece at home and get a slightly warmer bag, rated 25-30.

      Of course, it still depends on your body and how easily you get cold. And if expense is an issue, as it is for many people, then I’d say your system will keep you warm enough on the JMT with the fleece and other layers you’re planning.

      Check out also my “10 Pro Tips for Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag:” and all of my reviews of sleeping bags and stories about backpacking the JMT at The Big Outside.

      Lastly, I’ve helped many readers plan their JMT thru-hike. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

      Thanks for the question. Keep in touch.

      Reply
  2. 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!

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • Thanks so much for the great information and the quick reply, Michael. I really appreciate it. And you just saved me 8 ounces!

        Brian

        Reply
          • Hi Michael,

            I just wanted to follow up with you after my successful JMT hike (Tuolomne Meadows to Whitney Portal, August 13 thru August 27). The advice you provided to me was spot on – my 30 degree quilt was certainly adequate, without adding a sleeping bag liner. It was chilly on a few nights, and there was frost on at least two mornings, but I just wore an extra layer on those nights and I was fine.

            Thanks again for responding to my inquiry earlier in the year. And what a fantastic hike!

            Brian

  3. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  4. 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!

    Steve

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  5. 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!

    Reply