Two virtues of John Muir Trail backpackers are ones that some might see as contradictory. First, JMT hikers tend to be people of strong opinions. When you challenge yourself – and succeed – it makes sense that you would tend to see the process that produced success as the “right” way of doing things. Second, is the long tradition of “Hike Your Own Hike” honored by those of us who enjoy wandering around the wilderness. Hike Your Own Hike is more than a motto; it is a recognition that we are all out there with different skills and varying goals, all of which deserve respect.
As you work your way through your planning, you will likely encounter three recurring arguments. I’m not going to tell you what to do regarding any of these, but I would like to provide a little food for thought on each so you can make your own decision.
Boots or Trail Runners. May I quote from my book? Here we go:
“There are folks on the trail who will look with disgust at anyone wearing hiking boots as they float along (effortlessly, they tell me!) in their trail-runners. Conversely, the more traditional among us see only two types of trail-runner wearers: those who have seriously sprained their ankles, and those who are about to.”
I’m convinced that boots are the right choice for me. Of course, “me” is a 210 pound, 62-year-old hiker who carries a base-weight between 25 and 30 pounds. That means a soles-of-the-feet weight of over 250 pounds when I leave my last resupply with a week’s worth of food. When my wife and I go on our frequent day hikes, and I’m wearing a daypack of less than 8 pounds, I’m almost always in a pair of trail runners.
If you have less body weight, are younger, are in exceptional physical condition, or have your base-weight down to the low teens, trail runners may be a good choice.
Two final recommendations regardless: make sure that whatever footwear you choose fits and is durable. The fit requirement should be obvious, but you might be surprised at how fragile some trail runners or boots can be. I have a pair of Lowa Renegades with over 500 miles on them that are still going strong. Many years ago, on one of my first long-distance hikes, I wore a pair of Hi-Tecs that barely made it 100 miles. Don’t make a choice strictly by weight, or you may find your footwear falling apart at a quite inconvenient time.
Loops on Trekking Poles. Yep…this is a thing. The loops on your trekking poles are not there just to provide an easy way to hang them from a branch. They are an integral part of the system that takes pressure off your hands. The way I use my loops is to slip my hands through them, from the bottom, and then very lightly grip the handles. (See photo.) The length of the loop should be such that any pressure exerted on the hand is felt near the wrist, not the fingers. You should not have to squeeze the handles at all.
The advantages of this technique are less fatigued hands and much better fall protection. If you slip or trip, all the forward momentum is immediately absorbed by the wrist. There is no need to react by increasing the pressure of your grip on the handle. I’ve used this technique since buying my first set of trekking poles, and it has saved me from more falls than I can count.
There is a disadvantage, however, and it is not insignificant. By anchoring one end of the pole to your wrist, and the other end of the pole to the ground (as the point of pole sticks in), you are creating a tripping hazard practically on every single step. After years of hiking with the straps looped over my wrist, I have only done this once – but it was a nasty fall. It occurred just before I crossed the Piute Creek bridge, when my pack was the heaviest of the trip (I had just resupplied at MTR). I wasn’t paying close enough attention, and I got my right pole in front of me. If I was shorter, or my pack lighter, I might have managed to keep my balance, but my center of gravity quickly moved beyond the point of recovery and I went down hard.
Miraculously, I was unhurt. (Also, the hiker that witnessed my clumsiness from across the bridge was diplomatic enough to pretend he didn’t see it.)
Still, after my brush with disaster, I am a loop-on-the-wrists guy. I know some folks, however, who cut the loops off whenever they get new poles just so they aren’t tempted to use them.
Sleeping Bag or Quilt. I have tried both, and I am still undecided. I do not like to sleep cold, which was the problem I had when I used a quilt. I love the more blanket-like feel of the quilt, however. After experimenting I have come to this conclusion: if you want to be just as warm with a quilt as you are with a sleeping bag, you need to wear an extra layer in bed and have a better insulated sleeping pad. The extra layer and the better pad will likely use up nearly all the weight savings you accrued by carrying a quilt (instead of a sleeping bag), and it will probably be a more expensive sleep system.
That said, at least for me, I get a better night’s sleep using a quilt.
I hope this helps when you make your choices, and if you have a different opinion, let me know in the comments!
Good hiking, Ray