The idea of training for the John Muir Trail (JMT) was a pretty daunting task. How does someone living at sea level in central London prepare for a trail with a starting elevation greater than the highest point in the U.K.?
And it wasn’t just the physical aspect that I’d need to prepare for; I’d never actually backpacked. I’d hiked, I’d camped and hiked, but I’d never set out with everything on my back and the sole responsibility of keeping myself alive in the back-country for multiple days. I didn’t even know what ‘back-country’ meant.
Practice trips and outdoor adventures
I began training in March, shortly after getting my permit. I wasn’t as organised as this post may make it look, but on reflection there was some method in my madness. I pretty much took every opportunity that I had to get outside and tried to build up my experience. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fully simulate what I was likely to encounter on the JMT (especially the wildlife!), but I wanted to give it my best shot.
South Downs Way
I did a day hike with my pack at almost full weight. This was a shock to say the least. And I was only walking across the rolling hills of southern England.
Lake District National Park
I spent a long weekend in the Lake District with two friends. We stayed in a hostel and did two lengthy day hikes including a summit of the highest peak in England (Scarfell Pike). This was of course laughably small compared to what I would encounter in California. But we had a great time and I was pretty chuffed to have done it.
Snowdonia National Park
I stayed at a campsite in the park over Easter weekend and did some pretty serious hikes. This included a summit of the highest peak in Wales (Snowdon) with a descent via Crib Goch – genuinely nerve wracking.
It was really cold and wet for most of the weekend and I’m not entirely sure that I enjoyed it. However, from my litany of failures I learnt a lot. This included;
- how to put up my new tent.
- how to use my new stove.
- the need for a decent down jacket at night – I froze!
- the misery of wet socks and the importance of dry bags.
- the necessity of taking my own map and compass and not relying on someone else to navigate.
- the need to set out early and be realistic about potential distances.
- that hiking poles are my friend.
The Cumbria Way
I thought that a solo multi day hike with all of my gear was probably in order. I chose the Cumbria Way – a beautiful trail that runs south to north through the Lake District National Park.
I had a brilliant time and learnt some more, including:
- how to plan and pack my meals – I needed more food than I thought!
- how to pack my backpack.
- how to cut some pack weight.
- how to estimate my time and distance covered.
- Compeed blister plasters are amazing.
- I needed a different sleeping pad.
Some friends and I joined an organised three day hiking and kayak trip. This was actually booked long before I got my JMT permit, but it was a great opportunity to practice my wild camping skills (with our pro guide) and to get in some serious elevation. It was a fantastic trip. Even if I did throw up in the kayak on the last day (seasickness is real).
The West Highland Way
I wanted to fit in another multi-day hike with all my gear, so I picked a trail on the west coast of Scotland and set out on my merry way.
I cheated a little by having a bag courier service for some of the sections. I found the mileage on a couple of days quite daunting (up to 19) and I wanted to enjoy the trip in and of itself. On reflection I wish I’d carried my full pack the whole time, as it would have helped me to lose some more pack weight ahead of the JMT. I’d allowed it to creep up with the addition of some new gear and didn’t fully appreciate how heavy it was over long distances.
But I still learnt a lot, including:
- how to speed up my morning routine.
- how to set up camp in torrential rain.
- that I needed coffee and hot food (stove-less is not for me).
- hikers are great.
- whiskey is also great.
June & July
I was very lucky to spend June and July in Spain and Portugal. Here my ‘training’ went slightly out of the window as I mostly drank rioja, ate chorizo and stayed up way to late.
However, I did manage to get in a few really beautiful and quite long day hikes on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte route) which kept up my fitness levels and was pretty thrilling in itself. My boots were now fully broken in.
I arrived in Mammoth Lakes a couple of days before the start of the trail. This helped me to acclimatise to the elevation and to rest from my journey.
I had a headache on the first day, but luckily it went away and I didn’t have any issues after that. I heard second hand of a few people whose hikes were ended due to altitude sickness, so I was glad to have a little time to acclimatise.
I was fortunate to be starting with a fairly good base level of fitness as I used to run long distance. Although I hadn’t for a while by the time I got my permit, I was still running 5 -10 km (3 – 6 miles) twice a week and was in the habit of walking everywhere. I also swam a fair bit to take the pressure off my joints.
Strength and flexibility
I aimed to go to yoga once a week and to stretch after my hikes. I found this essential for injury prevention as a runner and it’s faired me well as a hiker.
I also did a few strength building exercises to help protect my ankle and knees. These were recommended by a physiotherapist.
This is not to be overlooked. Whilst I’m pretty gung-ho in a lot of what I do, there were times that I felt a little daunted. I never doubted that I’d be able to do it, but I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to prepare for it mentally as well as physically.
Key to my mental preparation was being able to make some mistakes in fairly safe environments and knowing that I’d learnt something from them. By the time I began the JMT I fully trusted myself and my ability to get through. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t nervous (far from it), but I knew that I’d done all that I could, and the rest I’d figure out along the way!
In addition to the skills that I picked up organically, I took a navigation and map reading course and a mountain first aid course.
Anything I’d do differently?
Were I to do another long thu hike I would probably spend a bit more time walking with my fully loaded pack. Although there’s really not a lot that can prepare you for the ascent out of Yosemite Valley!
I’d also do some practice trips at a lower convenience and comfort level, in order to try cutting some more from my pack. But no one is taking my camp pillow from me.