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

Welcome to the “Planning Your Hike of the John Muir Trail” blog…

This blog has a single purpose: to get you thinking about hiking all or part of the John Muir Trail.  Regard- less of whether you’re an experienced backpacker or if you’ve never walked farther than from your car to the mall, I want you to seriously consider making this 200-plus mile trip through the Sierra Nevada.  Why?

Because you can do this.  You can walk this entire trail (or substantial parts of it), through miles of gorgeous scenery, without ever crossing a road, and end up at the literal top of the forty-eight contiguous states.  And you can do this without tons of experience or technical training.

What you WILL need is a plan.  The plan is found here; the inspiration to starting planning, I hope, can be found in this blog.


But why the John Muir Trail?  Why not something shorter, easier or closer to home?  Why something so tough?

Let’s begin with five good reasons:

1.  Hiking this trail, particularly all of it, is hard, and doing hard things makes us better people.  Accomplishing something difficult is an all-purpose solution to many life’s problems, simply because so many of life’s problems stem from a lack of confidence.  One thing I’ll guarantee you, particularly if you decide to hike the whole length, is this: at the end of this hike you might lack energy, you might lack cleanliness, but you won’t lack confidence.

2.  At 211 miles (222 before you’re really done) it’s just about the ideal length.  Depending on your age and physical condition, you’re looking at two to four weeks of walking (although doing it in fewer days is certainly possible).  You’ll need to walk about 19 miles per day to do this in two weeks.  Just ten miles per day will do if you have a month.

3.  The Sierra Nevada, besides being some of the most beautiful scenic places on the planet, is also known as “The Gentle Wilderness.”  It’s just about the most forgiving wild place you’re likely to come across.  That doesn’t mean you can be careless, and gross lapses of judgment can cost you dearly, but there are far fewer dangers here than in Alaska, the Grand Canyon, Mount Washington or other popular backpacking destinations.

4.  The weather is about as benign as it can get, particularly during prime hiking season.  Sunshine and mild temperatures are the norm, with occasional rainstorms that infrequently last more than a few hours.  There are some weather-related dangers (lightning during thunderstorms and snow at the end of the season are two that come to mind), and I can’t guarantee you sunshine every day, but the odds are definitely stacked in your favor.

5.  You couldn’t design a better trail even if you had the power to move mountains and change the course of rivers.  If you hike it the way I recommend, the first half of the trail begins in what is arguably the most beautiful of America’s national parks, gives you a substantial break after the initial (admittedly grueling) ascent, keeps you at a relatively low elevation, and pampers you with frequent spots to rest, recuperate and resupply.  It’s during the second half that great challenges occur, after you’ve acclimated yourself to the elevation and the daily exertion.

Wouldn’t 2012 be a great year for a great adventure?

Good hiking, Ray