This post is based on my experience of preparing for the John Muir Trail over about 6 – 9 months. I found it a little overwhelming at first, but once I got going it was really exciting.
Six months + out
Keen as I was to dive in, I had a few things to consider.
- Is this the right trail for me?
I was drawn to the region that the John Muir Trail (JMT) goes through and had wanted to go to California for a long time.
I was also attracted to the idea of being out in the wilderness and having to be self-sufficient, although it made me a little nervous too. Three weeks felt doable!
- Do I have time to hike the trail and when should I do it?
I had to get an idea of when I could start and how many days I was likely to spend on the trail. In addition to my personal commitments I also considered things like my fitness level and trail conditions. Having a basic itinerary allowed me to start planning key things, including applying for a permit at the right time and booking travel.
- How much can I budget for this trip?
Completing the trail doesn’t need to be expensive, but if you are coming from overseas like I did, you are already adding on significant and unavoidable costs due to flights and accommodation.
- Will I do it with someone?
In some respects I would have loved someone to go with and there are definite advantages to having the right person with you. But overall, I’m so pleased that I went solo.
- Do I have time to prepare?
This is quite individual. I met people who had made complex freeze-dried meals, been on multiple training hikes with their bag, and had their kit fine-tuned to within a gram. This wasn’t me. However, you are going to need some time over the next few months to accommodate whatever level of planning and preparation you are comfortable with.
Six months out
Apply for a permit
Permits are required to hike the trail. Most people apply for a permit to walk the trail south bound (SoBo). This costs $5 per person plus $5 for a successful reservation.
Your Sobo permit will be confirmed six months ahead, whilst other permits are confirmed both earlier and later than this.
Get a visa or visa waiver (if applicable)
As a U.K. citizen I am able to travel to the USA under the ESTA visa waiver programme, for up to 90 days at a time. Getting an ESTA is very straightforward and usually takes a couple of weeks to process. The application costs $14 and once approved, lasts for two years.
For more information visit the US Customers and Border Protection website.
Get familiar with your trail clothing and gear
As a relative newbie to backpacking, practicing with and testing out my gear was one of the best things that I did. It also allowed me to spread out the cost of any new gear and to take advantage of sales and promotions.
Create a training plan
Training is quite a personal thing and we are all limited by where we live and the time that we have. However, it’s a good idea to do as much as you can, as you’ll really feel the benefit when you’re going up those big hills! As well as improving my general fitness, being in the outdoors before I started the trail helped me to feel more confident in my food and gear choices, and my overall ability to do the trail.
You could also consider taking a first aid and navigation course.
Make travel arrangements
Californians’ generally drive to the trail. If you are coming from further afield, you probably want to look at travel a little further in advance. I was travelling to the JMT from the U.K., which looked to be an impossible task at first! But it was actually pretty straightforward.
Book on trail accommodation (optional)
If your budget can accommodate it (pun intended), there are some options on the trail for a night away from your tent. They are popular, so if you are keen you need to book as far ahead as possible (six months for Muir Trail Ranch).
Aside from the obvious budgetary considerations, you should consider whether having a set date and place to be is something that you want, or whether you’d like to keep things a little looser.
Book off trail accommodation (optional)
Your need for accommodation off trail will depend on how you get to the trail and how far you are travelling. For peace of mind I booked a hotel in L.A. and two nights in a motel in Mammoth. Included with my permit was a reservation at the ‘backpackers’ campground in Yosemite Valley, for the night before my start date.
I didn’t make any accommodation plans for after the trail as I wasn’t 100% sure when I would finish. There is plenty of accommodation in Lone Pine if you need it, just check that you won’t be arriving on a public holiday.
Three months out
Create and action your resupply plan
It isn’t possible to carry everything that you will need for the duration of the trail, so thru hikers generally plan two to four ‘resupplies’. You’ll need to give some time to your ‘resupply’ plan – both to ensure that you’re happy with what you decide to do, and to comply with the delivery instructions of the places along the trail who accept packages.
Figure out what you’re going to eat
There is plenty of generic guidance out there that you can use to help determine your calorie intake on the trail, and it’s generally a good starting point.
However, just how much you’ll need will depend on a number of factors, including how much you weigh, how far you’ll hike each day, how much elevation you gain, and how speedily you’ll be going.
Having the chance to practice in a more forgiving environment makes food and resupply planning a lot easier.
Create a more detailed itinerary (optional)
Before the trip, I knew my travel plans, where I would resupply and when, my average daily mileage, and my anticipated end date. Once on the trail, I planned a couple of nights ahead in terms of where I expected to camp.
I was pretty comfortable with this, but I met many people who had a much more detailed itinerary.
One month out
Share your itinerary with family and friends
I didn’t take a SPOT device and went almost the entire trial without being able to communicate with the outside world. I personally loved it, although it was a little strange at first!
I’d recommend sending copies of your itinerary to friends and family so that they know roughly where you’ll be and when they can expect to hear from you.
Print copies of important documents
Print or make a hand written note of key information, such as flight or room bookings, as you will have little to no internet access on the trail.
One week or less
There are a couple of things that you’ll need to do just before you start the trail.
Collect your permit
Full instructions on where to collect it will be provided in your confirmation email.
Collect your rental bear canister (optional)
If you are coming from abroad, or have limited future use for a bear canister (a footstool?), the easiest and cheapest thing to do is to hire one at the same time and place that you pick up your permit. It only costs $5 a week, and you can post it back from Lone Pine (or any other US post office) for less than $10.
You can find more information on the National Parks Service website.
Buy fuel (optional)
It’s not possible to carry fuel onto flights (even as checked baggage) or to post it from abroad.
I bought mine from an outdoor shop in Mammoth Lakes. You can also buy fuel at the shop in Yosemite Valley, and at Tuolumne but I’ve heard reports of them being out of stock.
Final ‘shakedown’ (optional)
Yes I was still repacking my bag the day before. This was largely due to the bear can. I also ditched a couple of things (including 500 ml of red wine…) at the backpackers’ campsite in Yosemite.
There are post offices in Mammoth, Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, where you can send things either home or onward. You may want to post your travel outfit to the Post Office at Lone Pine, for collection when you finish – I ordered some jeans and a t-shirt to be delivered there. If someone is meeting you at the end of the trail, you could ask them to bring you a nice clean outfit.