My 4 Biggest Regrets From My John Muir Trail Thru-Hike

One week into my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, I found myself crying in my tent, terrified and in pain, searching my map for a route off the trail and to a hospital. A few poor decisions, combined with an incredible amount of bad luck, had left me in the kind of situation I never thought I would have to face.

Have you every looked back at a hike and thought that if things had gone just slightly differently, or you’d been a little less lucky, things could have gotten really bad?

On one hand, I hope you haven’t — it’s not a fun feeling. On the other hand, such realizations are an important catalyst for growth. Mistakes are our greatest teachers. We must all learn to acknowledge that we’re not above the dangers Mother Nature can throw at us.

Decisions and Consequences

hiker smiles in front of tent at forested campsite

Don’t get it twisted — I was crying both before and after this picture was taken.

When things go wrong for someone else, we are often quick to assign blame. It’s like a security blanket. After all, we wouldn’t have made such poor choices — nothing like that would ever happen to us! But in the backcountry, the most innocuous choices can lead even experienced hikers into danger.

While the JMT is objectively stunning, I spent too much time scared for my safety to ever say I “enjoyed” the hike. In this article, I want to talk about my four biggest regrets from my JMT thru-hike and how each minor decision I made pushed me further into a terrifying situation.

I open myself up to your judgment in the hopes that you learn from my mistakes and have a better time on your hike than I did on mine.

My Top 4 Regrets From the JMT

1. Rushing the Journey

The John Muir Trail spans 211 miles from the summit of Mount Whitney to the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite National Park. Since permits to start the hike at Whitney Portal are so competitive, most northbound hikers spend a few extra days on trail reaching the 14,505-foot Mount Whitney summit from an alternative starting point. My thru-hike, starting at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead, ultimately covered just over 250 miles.

hiker wearing puffy and headlamp holds small sign that says "Mt Whitney 14,505" jmt regrets

While the summit was socked in, the ascent and descent of Mount Whitney was breathtaking (literally).

With eight major mountain passes and over 45,000 feet of elevation gain to tackle, most people take around 21 days to complete the entire trail. Limited by my available PTO from work, I needed to do it in 15.

For the first week on trail, anxious about whether I could make it to Yosemite on time, I maintained a fairly strict pace of 17 miles per day. After all, I had averaged 20 miles per day on the Colorado Trail and had a splendid time! I thought my pace on the JMT would be challenging, yet fun and sustainable.

Miles, Menisci, and Maladies

Frankly, that pace was reasonable. But unlike the Colorado Trail, I went into the John Muir Trail with what I characterized at the time as “a few small aches.” I would later discover these “aches” to be a torn meniscus in my knee and a stress fracture in my foot.

The pace I was keeping exacerbated these injuries, but I kept pushing through the pain. Fixated on my schedule, I insisted on sticking to the plan rather than listening to my body. This stubbornness left me limping, in pain, and miserable by the fourth day.

Six months removed from this experience, I regret rushing. My faster pace led me to miss out on relaxing lunches, side quests, and opportunities to soak in the magnificent views of the southern portion of the trail. In hindsight, there was no need to rush. After all — spoiler alert — I finished the trail in plenty of time to return to work.

backpacker on exposed trail above treeline holds trekking poles aloft in triumphant gesture

The entire trail is stunning. However, those southernmost 100 miles are far and above the best views of the trail. Don’t rush them!

It’s easy to forget that these injuries put me in a very vulnerable position on the trail. When issues started piling up, I wasn’t physically able to make a quick exit from the trail, not if it involved a long day or lots of elevation change.

I was only able to manage moderate days with the help of regular doses of ibuprofen. I had pushed myself so hard that I effectively had no reserve of strength left for emergencies.

If I had slowed down, not only would I have enjoyed the beauty of the first 100 miles more, but I would have preserved my ability to make an unplanned, hasty exit from the trail.

READ NEXT – 10 Tips I Wish I’d Known Before Hiking the John Muir Trail

2. Using a Frameless Pack

hiker looks out at view of forested mountains: jmt regrets

My pack is a LiteAF ECOPAK 35L Curve frameless backpack. And it’s wonderful.

I love my frameless backpack. In 99 percent of situations, I will continue to reach for it.

However, the John Muir Trail requires a bear can. While the bear can technically fit inside my pack, the lack of a frame caused the hard plastic to dig directly into my back with every step.

Filling the can with a large food carry and strapping it to the top also proved ineffective; the heavy can pulled back on my straps and left me incredibly unbalanced.

The only option I found to work was this: fill a stuff sack with my food and keep that inside my pack during the day. Fill my bear can with lightweight items and strap it to the top of my pack. Each evening, swap the items in my can for the food in the stuff sack and move it all back again in the morning.

This was not the most efficient process, but it allowed me to comfortably carry everything I needed while adhering to best practices for food safety in the area. If I were hiking this trail again, I would bring a pack with enough internal volume and a frame to allow me to store my bear can horizontally inside.

hiker with mountain lake in background and backpack with gear strapped to outside: jmt regrets

Eventually, I grew very tired of having to swap out my food each morning and evening. A larger pack that allowed me to comfortably store my bear can internally would have made the journey easier.

Canisters and Contamination

Among the lightweight items stored in my bear can during the day were my camp shoes. Bulky but light, they seemed like the perfect item to fill the space. During most river crossings I’d reach back into my bear can, put on my camp shoes, cross the river, and swap back into my dry trail runners. The wet camp shoes were returned to the bear can.

hiker fords ankle deep mountain stream

Even in a typical year, the John Muir Trail has many river crossings. In the record-breaking high snow year of 2023, these crossing were even deeper and more plentiful than usual.

Despite filtering every drop of water I drank, I quickly got incredibly sick on the trail. Was I unknowingly eating food contaminated with unfiltered water? It seems possible.

I can’t say for sure that this was the cause of my sickness. But either way, constantly swapping food and non-food items in and out of the canister certainly set the stage for all sorts of cross-contamination.

READ NEXT –  Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking of 2024

3. Making My Meal Plan TOO Exciting

Unlike many thru-hikes, the John Muir Trail is nearly impossible to complete without mailing food drops. And, as I’m sure you know, your appetite and preferences drastically change along the way. Many hikers struggle with boredom as they unpack resupply boxes loaded with the same dull backpacking food week after week.

I had the opposite problem.

wood signpost with signs pointing to Canada, Mexico, Tuolumne Meadows, Mt Whitney, Devil's Postpile, and Happy Isles

Red’s Meadow is one of the places that accepts food drops along the way. Most places also have a limited inventory of food to buy there, but you shouldn’t count on anything specific being in stock.

I’m a fan of intense flavors and salt explosions while backpacking; spicy coconut curry is one of my favorite backpacking dinners. Even my breakfasts on the JMT, consisting of chai granola and cold soaked curry lentils, were packed with flavor.

Usually, I find it hard to choke down plain oatmeal or bland mashed potatoes on the trail. But I quickly changed my tune when I began experiencing the onset of something akin to food poisoning.

Spices and Sickness

After puking three times, the idea of my salmon chowder dinner demoralized me more than I can describe. Knowing my following meals would be just as spiced and rich made me feel even worse.

alpine lakes with islands and tall mountains in background

What a beautiful view! I yakked here, just out of frame to the left. Good memories.

My stomach begged for a dinner of plain pasta, but I had to keep trying to force down the elaborate meals I had mailed ahead.

Even if I had considered the possibility of sickness, I wouldn’t have changed my resupply strategy too much. The odds of getting this sick were low, and packing food you’re excited to eat contributes heavily to the success of a thru-hike.

That being said, I wish I had packed just one bland meal per box. Who knows if I would have been able to keep it down, but at least my stomach could have had a fighting chance.

READ NEXT – A Complete Guide to Resupply on the John Muir Trail

4. Inadequate Medical Supplies

Following my thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, where I was plagued only by manageable blisters, I made the decision to downsize my medical kit. Where I previously included a knee brace and antidiarrheals, I now carried only a couple extra alcohol wipes and an undeserved sense of confidence in my ability to deal with injuries in the backcountry.

The John Muir Trail is uniquely remote; you won’t have the luxury of popping into town every couple of days to pick up an item you wish you’d packed from the beginning. While I hesitate to encourage people to pack their fears, you need to consider everything you may need throughout the John Muir Trail from the start.

This trail found me miles from civilization with a painful knee, aching foot, tummy troubles, and not a single blister. While a kind hiker gave me a knee brace and bandage she had not been using, I was on my own with my mystery gastrointestinal sickness.

despite regrets jmt hikers pose smiling by sign in woods that says "Welcome to Happy Isles"

At the terminus of the trail (yes, somehow I made it!) with a bandaged knee that barely supported any weight.

Dehydration and Deterioration

Three days into my sickness, I still hadn’t managed to keep any food down. While the lack of calories was intellectually concerning, I really wasn’t hungry at all. Every few hours I would stop and force something down out of obligation, but I wasn’t craving food — a first, for a thru-hike.

Water was the more pressing issue. Despite being surrounded by rivers, filtering my water, and drinking regularly, I could not stay hydrated. A few antidiarrheals in my med kit may not have fixed everything, but they would have given my body a chance to absorb some water.

One night, I realized my urine was bloody — a condition I would later learn is called hematuria — from my severe dehydration. As someone with no background in medicine, and no service with which to consult Google, this freaked me out.

Already dealing with decreased concentration and coordination, fatigue, and muscle cramps, this terrifying development was the final straw. I finally made a smart decision: it was time to get off the trail and go to a doctor.

Rest and Recovery

My tramily and I found our way to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), some 90 miles from the finish line in Yosemite Valley. At VVR, I had access to a warm shower and bed, cell service, and unlimited food and water. It took a 16-hour nap, pills from the general store, a burger, eight liters of water, two warm showers, and several frantic hours on WebMD, but I finally felt my body returning to somewhat normal.

mountain lake reflects cloudy sky: jmt regrets

I’m sure it’s just because I felt like a human for the first time in days, but I will always remember VVR as being the greatest place I have ever stopped at along a thru-hike, ever.

I was back on the trail less than two days later. Against all expectations, I was able to finish my hike and get home before work started up again.

READ NEXT – Health and Safety: Things Every Hiker Should Consider


Maybe you’ve finished reading this and are sitting there judging my decision-making ability. That’s fine — I probably deserve it.

I got lucky so many times throughout this hike. Lucky that my mystery illness vanished without the need for medical intervention, lucky that I was sort of close to VVR when my symptoms got unmanageable, and lucky I had some members of my tramily willing to stay with me as my pace slowed and my body weakened.

five thru-hikers pose triumphantly with mountains in background

A huge thanks to my tramily for helping me in so many silent, supportive ways. I noticed and appreciated my water magically being filtered for me while I napped during breaks, bland food magically appearing in my bag after complaining about my stomach, and someone always hiking slower to keep me company. Truly — thank you.

If I had gotten unlucky at every turn instead, if I had been sicker, further from town, and alone, it’s not hard to imagine how much worse things could have been. I wonder what people would have said about my decisions if the worst had happened.

It’s easy, when I lay it all out like this, to see where I went wrong. I’m not perfect. Haven’t you ever made a poor decision and skated by without suffering any consequences?

No One Is Invincible

Have you ever drank from a water source without filtering? Slept with food in your tent? Made a wrong turn? Had a critical piece of gear fail with no way to replace or repair it? The backcountry is unpredictable, and you might skate through 99 questionable situations before shit hits the fan that 100th time. Some mistakes only become obvious in hindsight, after you’ve suffered the consequences.

There is no room for ego in the backcountry. Recognize your own lapses in judgment, learn from them, and approach each trail a little smarter than before. Remember those moments when tragedy strikes another hiker, and approach the conversation with more empathy and understanding. The best and most rational among us are still at risk, and it’s important to acknowledge that risk when engaging in the activity.

As I continue my journey with long-distance backpacking, I try to embrace experiences like the John Muir Trail with humility and a sense of humor. Each of the missteps in this article serve as a valuable lesson, and I hope you are able to take something away from them.

If nothing else, always pack an anti-diarrheal. Your pants will thank you.


Featured image: Photos via Katie Jackson. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 16

  • Your Second Biggest Fan Behind Dan : Feb 15th

    Proud of you for putting yourself out there for all (me) to judge, and hopefully everyone reading this recognizes that we’re all subject to misfortunes in the backcountry!!

    • Katie Jackson : Feb 15th

      Thanks, friend! AN eye-opening experience, for sure!!

  • Herman Ondricka : Feb 16th

    Fantastic site Lots of helpful information here I am sending it to some friends ans additionally sharing in delicious And of course thanks for your effort

    • Katie Jackson : Feb 16th

      Thank you! It’s always the highest of compliments when someone shares an article 🙂 thank YOU!

  • Rushmore : Feb 16th

    Some tough times, but you made it through. And learned from it! Kudos!

    • Katie Jackson : Feb 16th

      Thank you! It wouldn’t feel as rewarding if there weren’t a couple of tough times.

  • Harvey Lotus, Howard : Feb 16th

    Great article, Kati. you continue to be one of my favorite writers on the trek. so thoughtful and informative. For myself, I know I need to keep hearing to consider all aspects of a hike. I want to protect myself from arrogance, my own arrogance that I think I can just hike through anything. I need to be aware.I’m learning Hike less miles. Enjoy more. We just read about a very experienced Hiker with way more skills and experience in miles than me who died in New Hampshire. I want to keep hiking, so I need to be realistic in my assessment of the challenges and my capacity to meet these challenges. One time I hiked off my map in the Canadian Rockies. Ate the last of my food. used the last of my gas because I was being ultralight. I didn’t mention yet, but it was snowing. I wasn’t sure where I was. Clearly, I made some poor decisions to get the that . It worked out, but it taught me an important lesson.
    Thanks for your regular contributions.

    • Katie Jackson : Feb 16th

      That means a lot to hear- thank you! I think it’s such a common experience to find yourself in a scary situation and realize that sometimes the only thing separating you from the consequences of your choices is luck. I’m so glad to hear you were okay in the Rockies, and even more glad to hear we both learned the same lesson! Happy Trails 🙂

  • Chicken Legs: fellow tramily member and 3rd biggest fan : Feb 16th

    We’ve all heard the phrase something like “a bad week of vacation is better than good week of work”… talking about prioritizing work life balance.

    So, was it?

    • Katie Jackson : Feb 16th

      oh you know it was better than work 😀
      I think thru-hikes are like childbirth- all I remember now are the good parts and I can’t wait to do it all over again!

  • GearNerd : Feb 16th

    Super courageous post!! It is truly terrifying how small, seemingly innocuous choices can suddenly add up. Your post actually reassured me about my tendency to always have the “full” med kit etc even though I’ve never had to use any of it. So think you so much!
    See you out there!

    • Katie Jackson : Feb 16th

      I’m so glad to hear it! My med kit has been top of mind as I prepare to leave for the CDT. Everytime I consider leaving something behind, I remember that desperate feeling in the Sierra and end up keeping it in. The only things I cut now are things I don’t think I’d really have the expertise to use effectively in the backcountry anyways (such as sutures).

  • Dan : Feb 20th

    Great article and a sobering gut check! You will definitely get no criticism from me and actually I am grateful that you had the character and transparency to share an article like that. It is very easy to get complacent, especially if you love the outdoors and you are in it a lot! I am continually working on my Ten Essentials list and probably 90% of the time I don’t use most of those items. But it’s the ONE time you do that you are so thankful that you have them. Being prepared and having the right gear helps tremendously and I think most of us can probably learn that pretty easily. It’s the critical thinking and decision-making process that we all have to work on and your willingness to share your experiences helps us all!

  • John : Feb 25th

    Have you ever drank from a water source without filtering? No
    Slept with food in your tent? No
    Made a wrong turn? Yes
    Had a critical piece of gear fail with no way to replace or repair it? No

  • Tracy Collier : Feb 28th

    Thanks so much for your candor! I always learn so much from your posts.

    My daughter (also Katie) reminds me often that we have been humbled because of circumstances like yours on every long hike we have done. I tend to be enthusiastically unrealistic and optimistic when planning hikes.

    This and many other of your posts help me to remain enthusiastic and optimistic but remove a lot of the unrealistic expectations. Thank you!

  • Dennis Blankenbaker : Apr 10th

    Katie, after 40+ years of long-distance backpacking around the USA; I’ve always kept one thought foremost prior to embarking on my journey(s): It is better to have and not need, than to need and have not. Keep the sutures in your med pack, they don’t weigh much!


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