One of the John Muir Trail resources that I follow, religiously, is the JMT Yahoo Group. The breadth and depth of knowledge available there is really quite remarkable.
A month or so before my last John Muir Trail thru-hike, one of the group’s moderators (who hikes solo) mentioned that he rose early most mornings and walked for an hour or two before breakfast. He listed several reasons: it meant more hiking in cool weather, more frequent wildlife sightings, and was generally a great way to start the day.
A few days into my hike (mostly because of the weight I was carrying and its effect on my pace) it became clear that if I was going to meet my daily mileage goals, I was going to need to find a couple of extra hours to hike. I’ve always been an early riser, so I thought, “Why not try the early morning thing?”
I loved it!
In fact, I loved it so much that during the second half of the hike I was usually on the trail by 4:30 a.m., which meant that typically I would hike about ninety minutes in the dark.
Hiking in the dark is really pretty neat. In fact, I can think of only one disadvantage: you can’t see the scenery. Here’s how my mornings would work.
I’d rise about 4:00 a.m. That might sound needlessly tortuous, but remember this: due to the way the land cools through heat radiation, it’s normally warmer at 4:00 a.m. than it is at 6:00 a.m. (Unless there is something unusual happening weather-wise, it’s coldest about an hour after sunrise.) I found it much easier to climb out of the sleeping bag.
I’d also prepare myself the night before so that I could make a quick getaway. I’d have sufficient water to get to the next planned water source. My stove, rain gear, spare clothes, etc., would be packed. On more than half the nights, even my tent would stay in my backpack.
Once up and dressed, I could be on the trail in about twenty minutes.
On moonless nights I used a headlamp so that I could see where I was going. If the moon was up, and if it was obvious where the trail was, I left the light off. Each night I would also try to position myself so that I began the day with a climb. Ascending early meant I had fresh legs, cool temperatures, and, psychologically, it was easier to climb in the dark (because you could only see a few yards ahead). On days that I went over passes rising early really helped me get off the highest ground before noon (and avoid afternoon thunderstorms).
Eventually, even on moonless nights, my headlamp would become unnecessary. About forty-five minutes after I turned it off the sun would rise, and I would start looking for a place for breakfast.
This isn’t a great solution for everyone, especially if you are the type who likes to lounge around the campsite and get a later start, but it’s worth a try. If you are hiking in August or September, look for the constellation Orion. On most mornings it was right in front of me as I moved southbound.
Good hiking, Ray