It wasn’t until our short time spent in Yosemite National Park a couple of years ago, then hearing from a friend how amazing a hike the 220 mile John Muir Trail actually is that we started thinking that this sounded right up our alley. The seed was set, the biggest hurdle by far being the availability of permits – it didn’t seem to matter whether we approached it northbound (NOBO), beginning at Whitney Portal, or southbound (SOBO) beginning in Yosemite National Park. The permits were vastly oversubscribed!

JMT Route, beginning Mt Whitney, ending Yosemite Valley

JMT Route, beginning Mt Whitney, ending Yosemite Valley

Permits
Being aware of the lottery process to get permits departing from ever popular Yosemite we were ready with completed application the maximum 168 days before our anticipated departure date. A full week went by and with each ‘declined’ email from the National Park Service another fax was transmitted requesting the next date – we had hoped for a weekend departure but as the declines came in it soon became evident that we would have to take any date possible. To make life easier we eventually completed the multi-day form, allowing us to put in a date range covering all possible departure dates. Still the daily email came through with a declined, pushing our dates out further and further, by now leading us into late September.

Finally we received an ‘accepted’ response, providing us with a 9/27 departure from Glacier Point in Yosemite, ending at Whitney Portal on 10/14. Neither Andrea nor I were super excited with such a late start but were more than willing to accept it! Fortunately other alternatives were possible.

The southern approach involved beginning with an ascent of 14,505′ Mount Whitney, a great way to be thrown in at the deep end! Due to Whitney’s location in Inyo National Forest permits were instead issued through www.recreation.gov, again using a lottery system. Not surprisingly there was nothing available on here either, my hope being that with a little patience a couple of cancellations may appear. For now all I could do was hit the refresh button for dates beginning mid August… and so it went on countless times each day, morning, noon and night. Refresh, refresh, refresh!

JMT Permit beginning at Whitney Portal

JMT Permit beginning at Whitney Portal

Out of the blue 2 spaces became available for 9/14, not exactly what we wanted but still 13 days sooner than our current permits. We paid the $36 and cancelled the non-refundable Yosemite permits. Still not completely happy a watchful eye was kept in the hope for something earlier. Finally on May 1st we got lucky and scored 2 permits for 8/31, slightly more expensive for some reason, but pretty much exactly what we wanted. Overall the 2 permits now totaled $91, $15 for Yosemite, $36 for the first Whitney batch, and now $40 for the latest purchase. These things really are like gold dust!

Food & Resupplies
With permits guaranteed there were a couple of other minor things we had to get worked out, firstly food – how to pack for 6000 calories a day over 17 days with limited resupply options, and secondly how fit will we need to be? We could make ourselves miserable by winging fitness but under no circumstances do we want to starve!

Loaded resupply bucket

Loaded resupply bucket

(In)edible beef jerky?

(In)edible beef jerky?

So with a lot of help from those who had gone before us and completed the JMT we found pretty much everything we could possibly need regarding lightweight food items, preparation, and packing. First off we knew we didn’t need to pack for 17 days but had to decide on a resupply schedule. Various options existed from ranches that receive and store resupplies until hikers arrive, pack animals that will carry supplies in, to significant off-trail detours to stock up at town stores.

After leaving Lone Pine, the town at the foot of Whitney Portal, we could either have mules carry in our pre-arranged supplies – this turned out to be far too expensive, or hike an extra 15 miles round trip to the Onion Valley trailhead and still have the expense and logistical problems of receiving shipped packages. This left Muir Trail Ranch at mile 111, pretty much halfway in to the hike, as our first resupply option.

From Muir Trail Ranch heading north towards Yosemite the options improved, including Red’s Meadow at 161 miles and Tuolumne Meadows inside Yosemite at 198 miles. Neither appealed enough to justify shipping buckets of food and paying for them to be stored until our arrival. Red’s Meadow however does provide meals throughout the day and hot showers, probably the first we’d get up to that point! The final decision was to carry enough food to hopefully get us to Muir Trail Ranch, pick up our well stocked 5 gallon resupply bucket, take advantage of the home cooked meals at Red’s Meadow, and if necessary hit the store at Tuolumne Meadows, before finally arriving at Yosemite Valley a couple of days later.

Bear box #1

Bear box #1

Bear box #2

Bear box #2

We need more space!

We need more space!

Our plan for all meals was to simply add boiling water, avoiding dirty pans and saving time on cooking. If all we need to do is pour water into personal meal bags and let stand for 5-10 minutes then calorie replacement at the end of a long day will hopefully not be a chore. Andrea researched and came up with various recipes that were divvied up into ziploc freezer bags, labeled with the required amount of water and the cooking time, and put into piles depending on whether it was going into our resupply bucket or bear boxes. Freezer bags are preferred over regular ziploc bags due to their ability to take boiling water without disintegrating. Additionally we purchased ULD Cook-N-Coozy Solo ovens to keep the food contents hot whilst cooking.

Andrea had gone through everything meticulously and the small bags of prepared food, snacks, goodies, and drink mixes looked impressive. The one thing we overlooked was freshness, in particular with jerky. We had purchased the healthiest we could find in Biltong, certainly not the cheapest, nor loaded with crap like its rivals. We had removed everything from its original packaging, tossed out the small drying pouches (as they aren’t necessary, right?), then to reduce size repackaged into freezer grade ziploc bags – not the best idea we come to find out a few days before sending out our resupply. Almost all of the precious jerky was covered in silky white mould! Turns out those drying pouches are in the sealed packages for a good reason. Fortunately we caught this prior to departure and found far better Salami sausage replacements. We also found out that trying to buy those little pouches is extremely difficult from a store – I hunted high and low throughout Bozeman to get my hands on a bunch to throw into other moisture sensitive food items, finally getting hold of much larger silica gel packs that we just threw into the resupply bucket and bear boxes.

All we can do now is hope the resupply food looks, smells and tastes the same in around 5 weeks as it did when packaged!

Physical Preparation
At 220 miles this hike is by far the furthest either of us has ever undertaken, then throw in upwards of 40,000′ of elevation gain, seven significant mountain passes, a highpoint of 14,505′ at the summit of Mount Whitney (on day one), all whilst lugging packs weighing around 50lbs. How do you train for that?

Excerpt from 'GUIDE TO THE John Muir Trail'

Excerpt from ‘GUIDE TO THE John Muir Trail’

Six weeks out with an ascent of Mount Borah, the Idaho highpoint, we decided that it was time to get our act together and hit the trails regularly. By the time we reached Bozeman for our month long housesitting gig we were out almost every other day with weekends being long haul days and during the week we’d be on the trails for up to four hours. Never had we hiked so much in bear country! Our only downfall was not lugging heavy packs with us, Andrea carrying only 3 liters of water and me preferring 23lbs of camera gear.

Finally on our last training weekend the plan was to be out for two nights, a necessity due to the 29 miles it took to bag Kings Peak, the Utah highpoint. We went heavy! Without bear boxes our packs were far heavier than we took on day hikes – fortunately only carried for the 8 mile hike into our summit camp, then another 8 back to the trailhead. We were scared at the thought of throwing in full bear boxes weighing in at around 13lbs each!

This ended up being our measly 6 week training plan, fortunately with a lot of elevation and altitude thrown in…

8/26 – Kings Peak, UT highpoint 29.0 miles, 4917′ elevation gain
8/24 – Beus Canyon Trail 5.6 miles, 2246′ elevation gain
8/21 – New World Gulch Trail 9.4 miles, 2009′ elevation gain
8/19 – Daly Creek to Sky Rim Trail 18.9 miles, 4250′ elevation gain
8/17 – Saddle via Bridger Bowl 6.9 miles, 2884’ elevation gain
8/15 – Saddle via Middle Cottonwood 9.3 miles, 3629’ elevation gain
8/13 – Summit Lake Trail 18.3 miles, 3434’ elevation gain
8/12 – Pine Lake Trail 9.7 miles, 3399’ elevation gain
8/11 – Bridger Bowl Trail 3.5 miles, 2040’ elevation gain
8/9 – Garnet Lookout Trail 7.8 miles, 2733’ elevation gain
8/7 – Bridger Bowl Trail 3.5 miles, 2040’ elevation gain
8/6 – Hyalite Peak Trail 16.1 miles, 3352’ elevation gain
8/4 – Saddle & Baldy Trail 13.8 miles, 4598’ elevation gain
8/2 – Sypes to Baldy Trail 9.6 miles, 2642’ elevation gain
7/31 – Baldy from M Trail 6.6 miles, 2744’ elevation gain
7/24 – Sacagawea Trail 4.6 miles, 1935’ elevation gain
7/23 – Blackmore Trail 12.4 miles, 3449’ elevation gain
7/16 – Pioneer Cabin Loop 8.8 miles, 2724’ elevation gain
7/15 – Mt Borah, ID highpoint 7.6 miles, 5035’ elevation gain
Totals: 201.4 miles, 60,060’ of up

Gear List
Where to begin! We thought we had everything to hike anywhere, turns out that whatever outdoor gear you own it can always be added to. REI was once again top of our list for stores visited, the most frequented being in tax-free Bozeman, followed by the online retailers backcountry.com and campsaver.com. Seventeen days of wilderness hiking is not where we needed to discover that our gear was not up to the task, hence the reason to upgrade a bunch of items as well as adding bear boxes and more specific stuff.

Our final gear list included…

  • Backpacks
  • Backpack covers
  • Sea to Summit Ultra-sil Daypack
  • Down sleeping bags
  • Big Agnes sleeping mats
  • Silk sleeping bag liners
  • Travel towels
  • Tent/ groundsheet
  • Trekking poles
  • Bear Vault BV500 bear boxes
  • Snowpeak titanium mugs, bowls, sporks
  • Knife
  • Snowpeak titanium pans
  • MSR Stove & 3x Propane cylinders
  • Poop bags & trowel
  • Food warmers
  • Headlamps
  • Microspikes
  • Sawyer personal water filter
  • Steripen Adventurer water filter
  • Chlorine tablets
  • Leatherman multitool
  • Garmin eTrex 30 GPS
  • SPOT tracker
  • Nikon D810 DSLR Camera & batteries
  • Tom Harrison waterproof JMT maps
  • Sunglasses
  • Spare batteries
  • Lighters
  • Multipurpose soap
  • Body wipes
  • Sunscreen
  • First Aid kit
  • iPhones
  • Anker power bank charger
  • Anker solar panels
  • Camera charger
  • Hiking shoes
  • Hiking socks
  • Dirtygirl gaiters
  • Water shoes
  • Down jackets
  • Wind jackets
  • Goretex jackets
  • Rain pants
  • Hiking pants
  • Shorts
  • Baselayer underwear
  • Tee-shirts
  • Skirt (Andrea!)
  • Underwear
  • Sun hats
  • Baseball caps
  • Beanies
  • Buffs
  • Gloves

Final Thoughts
Hopefully the scenery will far outweigh the pain, with each step forward being a step towards the 220 mile goal. We know this is going to hurt… a lot, but as each meal and snack gets consumed our packs will be lighter reducing the loads on our hips (and probably shoulders too), right. Its definitely times like this I ask myself this question: Why do I eat so much? I sense 17 days of a rumbling stomach! If this hike was in Nepal there would be a Sherpa or two involved. And who’s daft idea were bear boxes – are there really bears in the Sierras?

…and finally no one mentioned over 5,000′ of up on day 1 with the heaviest packs!

Oh well, the next 17 days will provide some fun memories for sure 🙂

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