Ray Rippel

Gear and the John Muir Trail

From to time to time I’m going to talk about gear on this blog, even though, in a way, I’m reluctant to do so.  Hiking the John Muir Trail is about the walking, the scenery, the people you meet, and the experience.  It’s not about the gear.

Yet gear is necessary, so we might as well choose it well.  In “Planning Your Thru-Hike of the John Muir Trail” I suggest a framework for evaluating gear called the Gear Triangle.  That diagram depicts this basic truth when it comes to choosing equipment: you can have it cheap, light or comfortable—pick any two.

But there IS one exception; something that is weightless, costs little (at least in the long run) and will make you more comfortable and safer: skill.

John Muir Trail Sierra Nevada backpacking

With the possible exception of judgment, skills are the most important things to carry with you.  Let me use something simple to illustrate the point: layering.

Your sleep system is critically important to a good hike.  If it fails to keep you comfortable you won’t sleep well.  It could even be a safety hazard if the conditions deteriorate.  But, by using a layering strategy, you can get away with a much lighter sleeping bag.

On my trip I had the following layers:  Capilene 2 short sleeved shirt, Capilene 3 long sleeved shirt, Polartec fleece jacket, Polartec fleece pants, waterproof rain jacket and waterproof rain pants.  That’s four different upper and two different lower layers I could wear or shed as the temperature fell and rose.  True, all that weighs in at a little more than four pounds (the fleece is heavy), but each piece is also multi-purpose.

The multiple layers allowed me to choose a sleeping bag with a rating fifteen degrees warmer (and, therefore, substantially lighter) than I would have otherwise taken.  It also kept me comfortable regardless of the temperature, even on my last night at Guitar Lake when high elevation and a clear sky meant near-freezing temperatures.

Learning to layer is a pretty simple example, but there is so much more to learn.  Here are three quick recommendations:

1. Go to school.  There are tons of outdoor schools out there.  Two that you should consider are: Mountain Education  and Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiking Courses.  Both are well known for quality education.

2.  Surf the web.  So many websites, so little time!  Two of my favorites are Backpacking Light and Backpacker Magazine’s website.

3.  Read a book.  Obviously, there’s only so much you can learn about a very hands-on activity (like backpacking) from a book, but two that should definitely be on your list are The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail by Andrew Skurka and The Backpacker’s Field Manual by Rick Curtis.

Gear is good, but it’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing.

Good hiking, Ray