I’m hiking the John Muir Trail, and you can too!
When the permit applications for the PCT opened late last year, I applied (on a whim) for a 500 mile southbound permit through the Sierras. Why? Because I wanted a backup hike for when I moved home to the states. I was currently living abroad in Denmark, and I knew my visa would run out and I’d be returning home in the summer of 2017. I was only half expecting to use it, but I wanted it there just in case.
What is the John Muir Trail?
The JMT is a 221 mile long-distance trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It traverses through three national parks; Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. It begins at the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley and finishes at the summit of Mount Whitney.
Why a SOBO PCT permit?
Southbound (SOBO) PCT permits are easier to come by, as most people want to hike with the herd going northbound (NOBO). The purpose of getting a SOBO permit was that if I couldn’t do the trail, I wouldn’t be robbing someone of a precious permit (they can be hard to get heading NOBO). I’m also going to be hiking in September, when the trails are less crowded.
Why a PCT Permit Instead of a JMT Permit?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s easier.
Getting a permit for the JMT is nearly impossible due to the volume of people applying. The National Park in which it starts, Yosemite, limits the amount of people on the trail for a number of good reasons which I won’t get into (it’s a long list). The PCT follows the JMT from Tuolumne Meadows south to Mount Whitney, with the JMT taking its own route for a bit in the middle. So basically, a PCT permit is valid on the JMT, even on the separate middle bit of the JMT which is referred to as a ‘PCT alternate route.’
Why hike the JMT again if you’ve basically done it already on your PCT thru-hike?
Because it’s crazy majestic out there. As in, if unicorns are real, this is where they would live and prance.
I have a few other reasons as well. When I was on the PCT last year I did not summit Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. When I was in the area on the PCT last year, I was suffering from altitude illness. I was nauseous, couldn’t eat and had a dull headache. I hadn’t had the chance to properly acclimatize, gaining too much elevation over only a few days from Kennedy Meadows to the side trail to Whitney. SOBO on the JMT will allow me to adjust over a couple of hundred miles before I get to Whitney.
Also, when I returned to Red’s Meadow from a break in Mammoth, it was Father’s Day weekend. My plan was to do the side trip along the Devil’s Postpile trail and see the volcanic natural wonder. Annoying tourists prevented me from doing so. On the bus ride up, tourists manhandled my pack and ice axe while it was in the luggage bin, as if it was another tourist attraction. Not cool. And before I could even make it to the trail, I was bombarded with ridiculous questions that made my head explode. I literally had a crowd surrounding me.
“Aren’t you scared? What about bears? Don’t you carry a gun?” and so on. I had to run away; it was too overwhelming.
Lastly, when I was in Yosemite at Tuolumne Meadows, it happened to be at the same time as the POTUS and First Family visit. That meant no trip down into the Valley. I’ve never been to the Yosemite Valley, and I’m excited to finally see the sights.
The (minor) bump in the road
My PCT permit starts at Tuolumne Meadows, which is about 21 to 24 miles (depending on who you ask) from the start of the JMT. I want to do the entire JMT, which begins in the Yosemite Valley at the Happy Isles Trailhead.
I have a couple of options to explore.
The first is to try to get a walk-up permit the day before for the stretch between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, with a backcountry camp layover in the middle. This will probably be pretty hard as the rangers only issue a small handful and the queue for them starts early like concert tickets for a rare band reunion.
My second option is to hike from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows in one long day. I won’t need a permit for this, as it’s considered a day hike. I verified this with a Yosemite ranger over the phone. It will be a very long, extremely strenuous day, but this is likely what I’m going to do. I’m no stranger to long days, having done up to 30 miles a day on the PCT. To make my pack lighter, I’ve sent a resupply of food to the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office to be picked up when I get there. This will spare me the weight of carrying food for five days on my long day hike from the Valley to Tuolumne Meadows.
Upon arrival in Half Dome Village, I’ll be spending my first night in the backpacker camp behind The North Pines Campground ($6). The next day, I will get up crazy early and begin my haul towards Tuolumne Meadows. I don’t expect to get there before the post office closes, so I will be carrying food to get me through the day as well as a dinner for the night. There’s another backpacker campsite at Tuolumne, where I’ll be crying myself to sleep after my long day.
My two resupply points will be Tuolumne Meadows (see above) and Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR). I expect to be at VVR in around 5 days after Tuolumne. From VVR, I will be carrying 7 days worth of food. Heavy, yes, but my other choice is to send another box to Red’s Meadow, and they charge an abominable fee to hold a resupply box.
I’ve passed through Red’s Meadow before on the PCT, and the store there does have a decent resupply for hikers and a shuttle bus that runs down to the ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes (where further resupply is possible). However, as I’ll be there in September and towards the end of the hiking season, I can’t count on them to have decent stock in their store. Also, it’s important to note that the shuttle bus from Red’s Meadow into Mammoth stops running the day after the Labor Day holiday (September 7th this year).
Here’s what is inside my resupply boxes:
I like high protein, calorie and fat dense foods. I burn a lot of calories huffing and puffing up those mountains, and fatty foods help you sleep better and warmer. I also prefer my dinners to be quick and easy, with little clean up. Everything I’ve listed below is pretty affordable, as I’m on a tight budget for this trip.
- Knorr Pasta or Rice Sides (not broccoli cheese flavor, no thank you)
- Idahoan instant mashed potatoes. Affordable, loads of different flavors and so quick to make it’s ridiculous. I like to repackage them in zip top bags, boil water and then just pour it into the bag. You’ve got dinner with no clean up.
- Packets, not cans, of tuna. There are lots of different brands out there, such as Starkist and Kroger. They usually run under $2, and I like to stock up on my favorite flavors when they are on special at the supermarket.
- Clif Bars. I just recently stocked up on these when my local shop was having a killer sale on them. I hear Trader Joe’s has a good deal on them as well.
- Clif Builder’s Bars. Tastes like a candy bar.
- Lärabars. Fruity and nutty. Keeps you regular.
- Fruit snacks or gummy bears
- Coconut Oil packets. A great all in one oil, it adds calories, fat and flavor to your dinners and can be used to treat skin irritations. Found on Amazon.
- Beef summer sausage. Full of fat and protein and lasts a few days unrefrigerated after it’s opened. Try dicing it up and giving it a quick fry in your pot before adding a Knorr Side. Magic.
- Chocolate bars. The more pretentious, the better.
- Pop tarts. The true breakfast of champions for thru-hikers. Favorite flavors: S’mores, Red Velvet and Chocolate Fudge.
- Instant coffee with milk in it, either Starbucks Via (expensive) or Folgers (cheap)
- Gatorade drink mix or Mio Fit with Electrolytes
- Crackers, usually a cheesy variety like Goldfish or Cheez-Its.
- Little Debbie Nutty Buddies. The only time I get to eat these without feeling guilty is when I’m hiking a long distance trail. So bad, they’re good.
- A few toiletry items in case I get to take a shower at my resupply point: travel size soap, shampoo and lotion. So luxurious.
- Maps from my resupply point to the next stop. You can get free maps for the PCT and JMT from Halfmile (California sections G and H).
I’ve learned a lot since thru-hiking the PCT last year; what I need and most importantly, what I don’t need. Since then, I’ve made a couple of serious changes to my gear. I’ve upgraded my pack and sleep pad to lighter options, but have stayed with some gear items that I consider ‘tried and true.’
On the downside of things, I’ve sent my trusty Big Agnes Jackrabbit SL1 (discontinued model) into a local gear repair shop to have the zippers replaced, but they’re super busy and I won’t have my tent in time for this particular hike. Instead, I will be using another Big Agnes tent that I own: the Big Agnes Fairview 2 Tent. It’s a two person tent, therefore it will be heavier than what I want. But seeing as this hike was a bit last-minute, I don’t really have a lot of time to research and try out anything else. I am pleased with this tent, and on a good note, I’ll have the room to store my gear inside if there’s poor weather.
I’ll also be lugging a bear canister with me. Not my favorite thing to carry as it’s bulky and weighs a lot, but hey, it’s to protect the bears as well as myself.
Here’s what I’m taking
Okay, so I’m no ultra-lighter by any means. I think my gear is of good quality, and I’m happy with it. I once belonged to a Facebook group called the ‘PCT Class of 2016’, and quite frankly, it was a shit show. A potential thru-hiker would post about their gear choice and then immediately be attacked by several fan-boy types who think their brand is much superior than everyone else’s. I’ve even seen someone make a post stating that no one else knows what they’re doing in comparison to him. Because he must be some kind of backpacking ultra-light wilderness God? I’m sure…
Kind of shitty, right?
The moral of the story? Don’t be a gear troll. Some people are more experienced that others, and that’s fine. Offer encouragement to those who are just starting out. You can like a particular brand of gear and it’s okay to recommend it, just don’t be an evangelical dick about why it’s better. Different things work for different people.
What I’m wearing on the trail:
- Nike Women’s DRI-FIT Cool tank top (scored at a Nike Outlet)
- Nike Running Shorts with mesh liner (also scored at a Nike Outlet)
- Columbia PFG Bahama long sleeve shirt
- prAna Women’s Halle hiking pants
- Fingerless cycling gloves from Decathlon* (to protect my hands from sunburn)
- Sunday Afternoons trucker hat
- Darn Tough medium weight crew socks
- Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trail running shoes
- Dirty Girl gaiters
I will also be carrying a pair of Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles; they weigh around a pound and for some reason I didn’t feel the need to add them to any list. Perhaps because I will be carrying them in my hands and in the front of my body the whole time? I don’t know, just roll with it.
The Big 3:
- Big Agnes Fairview 2 Tent and footprint, 3 lbs 12 oz
- Exped Lightning 60 Women’s Backpack 2 lbs 8 oz
- Sleep system: Women’s Mojave +10 Down Sleeping Bag (size regular) 2 lbs 6 oz, Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad (size regular), 8 oz
- Sleep clothes: Smartwool medium weight socks, running tights from Decathlon*, North Ridge wool top*, Columbia beanie and a spare pair of Darn Tough Socks, 14oz
- ULA Rain Skirt 2 oz
- Decathlon Neoprene Gloves* 3 oz
- REI Rhyolite Rain Jacket, 10 oz
- Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor sleeping bag liner, 8 oz
- prAna Down Puffy, 10 oz
- Tentlab ‘Deuce of Spades’ trowel (LOL) .6 oz or 17 grams, barely enough to count
- Lifeventure* Waterproof 15 liter stuff sack for sleeping bag, sleep clothes and bag liner, 2oz
- BearVault BV500 food canister, 2 lbs 9 oz (empty)
- Cook system: MSR Pocket Rocket Stove, Snow Peak Titanium cook pot and lid, Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spork, Bic lighter and my homemade pot cozy, 1 lb 8 oz
- small, trimmed-to-fit-my-butt piece of Z-lite foam pad for sitting on, 1 oz
- Trash compactor liner bag from Safeway (used as a waterproof pack liner) 1 oz
- Equinox Ultralight Pack Pouch 1.5 0z
- Luci Aura inflatable solar lantern 3 oz
- Princeton Tech Remix Headlamp 3 oz
- Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and Coupling attachment 4 oz
- Swiss Army knife 2 oz
- Battery pack, charger, Samsung S7 phone, ear buds and USB cable 1 lb
- Columbia wind jacket 5 oz
- 2 (empty) water bottles, a 1 quart size Smartwater bottle for use with my water filter and a small Gatorade bottle for drinking water 2 oz
- Misc. items: compass, map, tent/mattress repair kit, pen and a small notebook, 2 oz
This gives me a grand total of 18 lbs 8 oz of base weight (not including food, fuel, water, toiletries and the clothing I’ll be wearing as I hike).
*These are items I bought in the UK from retailers like Decathlon and Go Outdoors. They may not be available in North America, but you should be able to find similar items at REI or online.
I live in the Seattle area, so my options for getting down to California have been by Amtrak Train, flying, driving myself or by Greyhound Bus. I chose the latter. Why? Because of the price (see below).
From the bus depot in Merced, I’ll catch the YARTS bus to Half Dome Village. There’s several running everyday. For more info, click here. The PCTA website also has valuable information on getting to the JMT. Once inside the park, there’s a free bus that can get you around to where you need to go.
My transportation plans for when I finish the trail is still a bit up in the air, but it will likely include a bus ride from Lone Pine to Reno, and then another Greyhound from Reno to Seattle.
Budgeting for the Trip
This one has been challenging. I already have all the gear I need, so my biggest expenses have been travel and resupply so far.
Since I’ve just recently moved back from living abroad, I’m without work at the moment. The plus side to this is that I have time to thru-hike the JMT. The downside is that I am going to be tight with my money, so no luxury motel stay at VVR or fine dining in Yosemite.
I bought a one-way Greyhound bus fare to get from Seattle to Merced. The Amtrak was significantly more, nearly triple the price I paid for my buc ticket. All of my food plus the postage to send it cost me around $140. This does not include any fees that some of the resupply points charge to hold boxes.
Here’s a list of expenses to expect along the JMT:
- Yarts fare into Yosemite $13
- Yosemite entrance fee $15
- Yosemite Valley backpacker camp $6
- Tuolumne Meadows backpacker Camp $6
- Holding fee for resupply box, $25 at VVR or $40 at Red’s Meadow ($75 at Muir Trail Ranch is laughable)
- Shower and laundry $12 to $15 (either at VVR or Red’s Meadow. Prices vary)
- Beer and ice cream fund (very important) $40
Now that we’re ready to hit the trail, just remember to always, no matter what, follow the principles of Leave No Trace. This is the law in the backcountry as far as I’m concerned, and I know that my fellow thru-hikers and wilderness rangers would agree. This means no fires if they’re banned, bury your poop and pack out every bit of your trash, even the toilet paper.
I’ll see you out there.