Creating a basic itinerary is one of the first things that you need to do. It’ll help you to apply for a permit at the right time, and will give you enough information to start planning other elements of your trip, such as travel, accommodation and resupply.
To do this you’ll need to answer two main questions: ‘How many days will I need to complete the trail?’ and ‘What is my window for completing it?’.
How many days will I need to complete the trail?
Most of the people who I met, took between 17 and 22 days to hike the full John Muir Trail. Although along the way I met two guys doing it in 11 days and a couple taking 27 days.
If you’re more experienced than I was, you may find it pretty easy to figure out. As a newbie, I found it easier to break this question into three parts:
1. Estimate your average daily mileage
If you are unsure, it helps to consider your hiking style:
- How long does it take you to hit the trail in the morning?
- When would you like to be finished hiking each day?
- What is your preference for breaks during the day? Lots of short breaks? Only one break for lunch?
- Is your bag likely to be at the lighter end of the scale?
If you answered ‘I need a coffee or two in the morning’, ‘early afternoon’, ‘I’ll want a few’, and ‘erm… probably not?’ you’re edging towards 10 miles a day. If you plan to be up at 5 am, eat an energy bar once you get on the trail, hike ‘til it’s dark, stop briefly for a selfie or two, and sleep under a tarp, you’re looking at 14+.
If you are not used to hiking in this type of terrain, or for this duration, I would err on the side of caution. I decided to go with 11, anticipating shorter days at the start and longer towards the end. I’d usually cover more miles at home, but knew that the terrain and my slightly heavier bag would make me slower.
On the trail my average was actually just under 12, although I hiked as far as 17 miles and as little as five. I had a pretty steady routine of waking up at 6 am, ‘breaking camp’ by 7.30/ 8 am, having two or three decent breaks during the day, before arriving at 4.30/5 pm.
2. Divide your average daily mileage by the total length of the trail
The official length of the trail is 211 miles, but this only gets you to the summit of Mount Whitney. I included the 11 miles back down to Whitney Portal (making it 222).
Your calculation will look like this
(222 / average daily mileage) = total days on the trail (not including zero days)
For me this looked like
(222 / 11) = 20
3. Add on any ‘zero’ days
Around half of the people I met had planned to have a zero day. Those that didn’t were either super speedy ultra-light hikers… or a bit knackered! I’d really recommend allowing time for one if you can, as the terrain and other factors can really take their toll. You may also want to take time to explore areas off the trail.
I planned to have one zero day at Red’s Meadow, and to allow myself time for an extra one, if I needed or wanted it.
At this early planning stage it’s also a good idea to add a contingency day to give your plan some flexibility. My contingency day ended up being allocated to a Half Dome climb in my later planner stages. In the end it meant an extra zero day at Muir Trail Ranch staying in my friends cabin – luxury!
Your calculation will look like this
([Total trail length] / [average daily mileage] + [rest & contingency days]) = total days on the trail.
For me it came out as: (222 / 11) + 3 = 23
This meant that I could plan to spend a total of 23 days on the trail.
What is my window for completing the trail?
Once you know how long you need to complete the trail, you can decide when the best time is for you to do it and whether you have any wriggle room on those dates. You’re likely to have personal and work commitments and if you’re coming from far afield, you’ll need to consider travel time.
You should also consider the trail conditions that you are likely to encounter depending on when you start. An earlier start (June – mid/ late July) usually means lighter evenings, warmer weather, and greater water availability. However, it can also mean higher river levels, snow, and pesky mosquitoes. This will impact the type of skills and gear you will need, and could affect your comfort levels.
I was lucky to get a permit to start on the 16th of August 2017. By this time, the unusually high river levels had lowered and most of the snow had melted. I wasn’t too chilly at night, mosquitoes weren’t much of an issue, and water was still in abundance.