The 212-mile John Muir Trail is quickly becoming one of the most popular long-distance backpacking trips in the West: In the past 15 years, requests for permits has increased from a little more than 500 per year to more than 3,500. Colby Brokvist, general manager and senior backcountry guide for Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, has hiked the JMT a dozen times and knows a thing or two about what to pack. We asked him for his suggestions and his packing list for SYMG’s 23-day trip:
Invest in Your Pack
Get a backpack that has a real suspension and fits you well. I’m about as ultralight as you can get and I won’t skimp on a well-made backpack that is made to carry some weight. For an extra 1-1.5 pounds, packs like the Deuter ACT Lite 65 will add an element of comfort to my day, and I sleep better too; those flimsy ultralight packs can wreak havoc on your back and shoulders. On a multi-week trip like the JMT the benefits of a good backpack are not to be underestimated.
Choosing the right gear for your trip is important for maximizing your enjoyment. The old adage “light is right” will serve you well. Plan on pack weight being 20-25 pounds max, any pounds less than this the better (on our trips, we’ll add an additional 10-15 pounds of food and group gear). You’ll be traveling high in the mountains where daytime temperatures are warm (65-70F) and nighttime temperatures can be cold (30-45F). Even in July/August it is possible to have a little snow or rain.
There are a few water crossings on the JMT. They are typically easy, although on heavy snow years the water may be fast moving. Because crossings are very infrequent, most guides just wear a pair of socks for traction and do not bother carrying the weight of an additional water shoe for 23 days. For those who also prefer secondary footwear for camp, consider something that can double as a water shoe too. We recommend a reef-runner wetsuit shoe. These have good traction, dry quickly, are very light, and can be worn with socks on cold nights in camp.
Down vs Synthetic
Another notable is the choice of down vs. synthetic/wool. Although down is lighter and more compressible for any given temperature rating, having a down jacket and down sleeping bag will leave you with no insulating pieces if they get wet; a dangerous situation. Synthetics and wool retain much of their warmth even when wet. Thus, we recommend an ideal combination as a down sleeping bag and synthetic/wool jacket.
Ultralight Gear Choices
We get a lot of questions regarding ultralight setups and gear. Note in particular that the ultralight backpack choices have extremely light suspension systems, meaning that they can’t carry more than 20 to 25 pounds without sagging and deforming. For an extra 1 or 2 pounds, a fully framed pack will carry loads much better, improving your overall comfort over a 23-day trip. Even if the rest of your gear is of the “ultralight” caliber, remember you’ll be carrying a bear canister full of food and a portion of the group gear, equating to an additional 10 to 15 pounds and taking up additional space in your pack. Backpacks need to be able to carry all of this gear effectively.
Tents have become impressively light in the last few years. and these choices represent some of the better designs. We prefer fully waterproof, bug-proof models with floors for our JMT clients because they offer more comfort and an added measure of safety over other ultralight shelter designs. Other ultralight options include tarp shelters like the BD Betamid. Many of the guides prefer this style because they have no floor, which is also good for cooking in bad weather. However, this benefit is more applicable to the guide and these designs are very finicky and require extra effort to keep your belongings clean and dry. In many cases, a tarp shelter and bivy sack actually weighs more than just carrying a lightweight, fully enclosed tent.
Backpack: about 4,000 ci (60-65 L), and with a waterproof pack cover (ex. Deuter ACT Lite 65)
Sleeping Bag: 15-20º F. Down is lighter for equal warmth (ex. Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15)
Tent: 3-season, under 4 lbs for 2 people (ex. Mountain Hardwear Super Mega UL)
Boot/Trail Hiker: low or high top, good traction. Buy for fit, then features. (ex. Vasque Breeze)
Socks: 2-3 pairs, wool or synthetic hiking socks
Underwear: 2-3 pairs. Synthetics are nice to hike in, a pair of cotton for camp.
Long Underwear Bottom: light/mid weight wool or synthetic (ex. Patagonia Merino 2)
Long Underwear Top: midweight wool or synthetic. 1/2 zips are nice (ex. Patagonia Merino 2 Zip-neck)
Convertible Pants: 1 pair of convertibles do the work of pants and shorts for less weight (ex. Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants)
Shirt: 1 or 2 synthetic t-shirt or collared shirt (short or long sleeve), as preferred (ex. Columbia Silver Ridge Collection, Columbia Mountain Tech Short Sleeve)
Insulating layer: light fleece or powerstretch (ex. Patagonia R1)
Insulating jacket: down or synthetic “puffy” jacket (ex. Ortovox Piz Boe Light Tech)
Sun Hat: brimmed hat; baseball cap style, or more if needed
Warm Hat: for the chilly nights and mornings
Sunglasses: A must in the mountains! Polarized is nice for rock/snow glare (ex. Smith Lowdowns)
Personal Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, chapstick, bug repellent, nail clippers
Personal Medications: Don’t forget these!
Headlamp: makes camp activities and reading easier (ex. Black Diamond Ion)
Water Bottle/bladder, 2-3 liters of capacity: plastic drink bottles are lightest or Camelbak
Whistle: it’s louder than a voice and we require that kids carry one
Trekking Poles: Highly Recommended to reduce fatigue and add stability and required if pitching tarptents (ex. Leki Thermolite)
Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.
Photo by John Lloyd