10 Tips I Wish I’d Known Before Hiking the John Muir Trail
I almost quit my John Muir Trail thru-hike four separate times. Four.
To put it into perspective, the journey was a relatively short 15 days and 250 miles, meaning I almost gave up roughly once every 4 days, or every 60 miles. While getting to the trailhead is an amazing achievement all on its own, and truly worthy of congratulations for anyone who makes it to the beginning of a long hike, the dream is to finish. When I decided to hike the JMT, I expected to hike the whole JMT. Coming up short wouldn’t mean that I failed, but it would be a tough pill to swallow, and I would need to wait for the wisdom of hindsight to pull solace from my truncated experience.
Throwing in the towel on Day 4, Mile 60 would be like quitting the Appalachian Trail before getting through Georgia, or leaving the Colorado Trail at Kenosha Pass. No small achievement, but not really the goal. Every single reason I wanted to quit could have been prevented (or, at least mitigated) if I had researched more, planned better, and had a crystal ball. What is it they say about hindsight?
Are you toying with the idea of hiking the John Muir Trail in the next few years? Lucky you — consider this article your crystal ball. Here are the four events that almost drove me off the trail, and the 10 tips that kept me hiking on.
Day Four: Physical Injury
If you’ve looked into the John Muir Trail in any capacity, you know that days can be cataloged by the pass you traverse. Well, Day 4 was Glen Pass Day and I had just finished a lovely lunch at Rae Lakes after the punishing descent from Glen. The following drop to Woods Creek was a pain — long, rocky, and steep — and my knee was twinging with every step.
I am nothing if not headstrong and silly, so I ignored the pain and pushed through. Motivated by dinner, I finished the descent as quickly as I could, assuming that the pain could be fixed by an Ibuprofen and a nap. Shockingly, it could not.
I woke up the next morning unable to bend my knee or take a step without a shooting, sharp ache. A month later, I would discover I had torn my meniscus while hurrying to camp, but all I knew in the moment was I had 192 miles until the end of the trail and a knee that could barely support me.
Tip #1: Be Gentle on Your Joints
Only your first two knees are free! The JMT is rocky, rooty, and full of opportunities to trip, twist, and tear various things in your legs. It is worth pushing your dinner plans back by an hour to give yourself time to lessen the impact on your knees — especially while descending.
Use your trekking poles to help support your weight, lean forward as you step downhill, and keep your pace slow enough to remain stable and reduce the thump of each step.
Then, if you have extra time, use it at camp to stretch out, paying particular attention to your quads and hamstrings. Injuries on trail happen, and I’m not saying being as gentle as possible will preclude you from any damage, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you rush towards camp and dinner.
Tip #2: Swim as Often as Possible
It’s the morning of Day 5, and I can barely walk. I don’t think I can make it to the end of the trail and, quite frankly, I don’t really want to with the amount of pain I’m in. Luckily, Pinchot Pass is a gradual and gentle ascent, and I’m able to push through until I find myself at Lake Marjorie.
Maybe it’s clear from the name, but alpine lakes? They’re really cold. Really cold.
I didn’t quite put it together until after a little swim around the lake, but the soak helped with the swelling and inflammation in my knee almost as much as my morning dose of Vitamin I. For the rest of the trail, I took advantage of nature’s ice baths and soaked my knee whenever possible. While the pain never fully went away, I credit the alpine lakes of the Sierra with getting me to Yosemite.
Wherever your aches and pains are hanging out, an ice-cold dip will likely help them. It’s all about reducing inflammation, and you don’t need to go full-send. Pop off your kicks and soak those beat-up tootsies to rejuvenate the spring in your step before the afternoon push.
A little worse for wear, I pushed past my first 60 miles and my first moment where I considered quitting the trail. At least the worst was behind me!
READ NEXT — Your Guide to Dipping Your Way Through the JMT
Day Eight: Weather and Hurricane Hilary
Whoever said California is in a drought has never hiked the John Muir Trail. While the drought is real and devastating, it doesn’t always feel like it in the mountains. By Day 8, I had yet to have a single day without a torrential downpour, terrifying lightning storm, or both. On a trail often described as “clear and dry”, this unexpectedly unpleasant weather took a toll on me.
That evening, a ranger informed me that Hurricane Hilary was expected to pass directly over the trail. It felt almost comical. A hurricane? In the Sierra? I would’ve laughed if I hadn’t been so demoralized, cold, wet, and tired.
Tip #3: Plan for Rain
This means a lot of things for different people. For me, planning for rain means bringing my raincoat and rain pants, but it also means preparing mentally. I have a deep-seated (and healthy?) fear of lightning, and any clap of thunder above treeline can set the tone for the rest of the day. Getting caught at the top of Mather Pass in a thunderstorm colored the experience for me, which is a shame since the next stretch is gorgeous.
Manage your expectations when heading out on the trail. If you know you’re someone who gets cranky in the rain, expect to be cranky. If you have a dry experience, then great! But it’s better to be pleasantly surprised than caught off guard. The Sierra can dish up some powerful thunderstorms.
READ NEXT — How to Survive a Thunderstorm on the Trail
Tip #4: Know Your Exit Strategies
Nothing is more terrifying than sitting in the rain, sky too full of clouds to send a satellite message, trying to find a way off the trail before you’re hit by a hurricane. The only message that my satellite phone picked up was a note from my Dad, reading “Just stay out of canyons”. My response (“That is hard to do in Kings Canyon National Park”) had not been delivered.
I had two options in front of me. I could bail out from the trail to Bishop, or pull huge days to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). Due to time constraints with work, I knew in my heart that if I went to Bishop, I would not be finishing the trail. But looking at the alternative, I couldn’t help thinking that not finishing wouldn’t be the worst option.
I ended up pushing forward to VVR — and was very glad I did — but did not enjoy trying to learn the fastest way out of a flood zone over dinner. Be sure to give yourself the tools needed to plan an exit strategy, and remember that GPS and satellite messaging can become spotty in bad weather.
Tip #5: Splurge on a Good Satellite Phone Plan
I value the solitude and separation from real life that comes with a thru-hike. My parents, on the other hand, value constant reassurance that I haven’t been eaten by a bear, crushed by a tree, kidnapped, frozen, burned, or fallen off a cliff, etc., etc.
To allow them to communicate with me, I usually hike with a satellite phone. However, with a finite number of monthly messages, this also ensures that I have my space. On the Colorado Trail this worked great. There were no emergencies and no need to contact anyone when I wasn’t in town. However, when scrambling for exit strategies on the JMT and staying up-to-date on inclement weather, I regretted not splurging on the unlimited plan.
For 2024, I plan to go unlimited, but will still tell everyone that I pay per message. It’s the best of both worlds. The extra messages weigh nothing. In situations when accurate information is necessary, outside contact becomes vital.
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Day Twelve: Illness and Food Poisoning
Thru-hiking is a strenuous activity at its best, but trying to hike 17 miles a day without keeping down food or water is a different kind of ridiculous.
On the Colorado Trail, my most pressing medical emergency was the occasional blister, and I went into the JMT with a completely unfounded confidence in my body. I will spare you the worst details of my food poisoning, but just know that I would have paid any amount of money for a single Imodium by Day Twelve.
Tip #6: Dial in Your Med Kit
A thru-hiker’s med kit is the embodiment of “packing your fears”. Every item I put in the bag is something I hope to not use, and accepting that extra weight is tough. But take it from me, who was in dire need of medicine I did not have: Take the extra weight. It’s worth it.
I did not get a single blister on the John Muir Trail, and I can guarantee that the extra ounce of bandaids and leukotape I carried with me had no bearing on my success or mood. However, not having medicine to treat my food poisoning, or an ACE bandage to stabilize my knee, jeopardized both. Your med kit is not the place to skimp.
Tip #7: Change Up Your Food Strategy
When you’re sick, people say to eat bland food to help settle your stomach. Imagine you’ve rolled into camp on day two of intense food poisoning, and all you have for dinner is dehydrated spicy coconut curry shrimp pasta, to which you’ve added an absurd amount of red pepper flakes and bacon bits.
Hindsight is 20/20, and I never could have predicted getting sick, but I really wish I had brought at least one bland, safe dinner. Eating plain oatmeal for dinner one night would have been fine had I been completely healthy, but it was unbearable to eat my heavily spiced dinners on an upset stomach.
At the very least, anticipate your tastes changing while you’re on trail. Try to stay away from repetition, and give yourself options for when all your food sounds gross. When in doubt, I’ve never not wanted to eat a bag of potato chips and a Snickers bar.
Or, as a friend helpfully told me, “Simply don’t get food poisoning”.
READ NEXT — 100+ Backpacking Food Ideas
Day Fourteen: Lack of Motivation
I am now fewer than 30 miles and one day from the terminus — and I want to quit again. No one told me that the final day going NOBO on the John Muir Trail has you walking through some very populated areas of Yosemite National Park. This also means the park’s buses circulate just steps from the trail.
I’m standing at one of these bus stops on Day 14 of a 15-day journey, and I could be at the terminus in 15 minutes if I just catch the next bus.
Then, the bus drives up. I don’t get on.
The bus drives away.
Tip #8: Document Your Journey
There are hundreds of things about a thru-hike more important than “the narrative”. However, in moments when you want to take the easy way out, picturing “the narrative” can push you to keep going.
On the JMT I documented each day in the Notes app on my phone: what I saw, where I hiked, interesting conversations from the day, the best and worst poops of the trail, and more. It was hard to picture this document, so full of adventure and perseverance, ending with, “Then I got on a bus and drove to the end”. Instead, I just kept hiking, and I’m glad I did.
You never really ‘conquer’ a trail. The challenge becomes a part of you, and you become a part of it. Logging the experiences that have made you stronger is an excellent motivator when you need to draw strength from the challenges you’ve pushed through before.
Tip #9: Stay Up for Sunset, Wake Up for Sunrise
This tip is really about shaking up your routine and managing your anxiety. I like getting up for sunrise, hiking until dinner time, and passing out in my warm sleeping bag as early as I can. I get anxious about making it to camp on time and seldom allow myself to sleep in. This routine is great, but it means I rarely see the sunset while hiking.
For my final night on trail, I realized I didn’t have to wake up early to finish on time, which meant I could stay up at camp to watch the sunset from outside my tent. The differences between the sunset and the sunrise shocked me. The colors were completely different, and the vibe was cozier.
I don’t regret a single sunrise on the trail, but I do regret not shaking it up every few days. Sometimes it was really hard to get out of my sleeping bag, and I should have let myself lean into that feeling and hike a little later into the day.
Give yourself permission to deviate from your routine. Doing so can provide a much-needed mental reset and lead to new experiences you never realized you were missing.
Tip #10: Have a Purpose
Thru-hiking is about finding beauty in the struggle, strength in the challenge, and purpose in the journey. For some, it’s a time for clarity, peace, and self-reflection. For me, it’s the perfect time to stew on past arguments and win imaginary fights with people in my head.
Call me crazy, tell me I’m missing the point of the “serenity of nature”, but I genuinely believe that being a hater helps me in moments when I want to quit. There is not a chance I’m getting off trail while picturing the made-up people back home who would be all too happy to see me fail. Yes, this is ridiculous. But, this does motivate me in my worst moments.
I’m not implying you have to pick an enemy and imagine them rooting for your downfall while hiking (although it is a pretty motivating thought), but I do encourage you to find purpose and motivation beyond the joy of backpacking.
Especially on longer trips, you may encounter long stretches where the act of backpacking is not joyous. It’s beneficial to have a reason to keep going that’s deeper than “hiking is fun” for those moments when hiking is not, in fact, fun.
For me? I’m a purist. I only count a shorter trail, such as the John Muir Trail, as a true thru-hike if I truly walk from terminus to terminus without skipping sections. While this doesn’t need to be everyone’s mindset, this attitude gave me a reason to stay on trail when I was standing at that bus stop in Yosemite. Temptation almost got me on that bus, but my deeper motivation kept me hiking instead.
READ NEXT — What’s the Definition of a Thru-Hike?
Was my John Muir Trail thru-hike fun? That’s probably not the word I would use to describe it. But, I am incredibly proud of myself for staying on the trail through some of the most mentally and physically challenging moments of my life.
I credit some of these tips with allowing me to do that, and hope that you are able to use this advice to make your next hike safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable.
Featured image: A Katie Jackson photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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