In this post I’ll outline how to plan and prepare for your John Muir Trail itinerary to custom fit your needs and goals. I’ll also share which resources I used to help plan my itinerary and keep myself on pace each day on the trail. As a hiker that finished the JMT in 11 days, this post is going to be focused on helping those of you who are interested in finishing the John Muir Trail in a similar number of days.
My quest for knowledge and resources on the John Muir Trail began like most, with a few searches on Google. I would recommend you do the same and try to find a few blogs and accounts of fellow adventurers that have hiked the JMT in the number of days that matches your goals. When Julia and I first started planning, we had the ambitious idea of hiking the JMT in 7 days! I found a great deal of inspiration from one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lanza of The Big Outside, and his accounts of a 7 day John Muir Trail thru-hike. I also found this 9-day fastpacking guide useful.
After reading through numerous accounts of varying John Muir Trail itineraries, Julia and I settled on an 11 day plan. We found 11 days to be the perfect balance of being able to enjoy the best of hiking and the best of camping without feeling to hurried or rushed. Below in my Creating An Itinerary section, I’ll go into great detail on how we factored in mileage, elevation change, pack weight, desired campsites, and many other factors before arriving at this 11 day itinerary. Before I get to that, I’ll share a few references and resources that will be useful to have while you design your own itinerary.
Elizabeth Wenk’s Comprehensive John Muir Trail Guide – If you’re only going to purchase one resource to aid in your planning, this is the one to get. This book covers everything under the sun in regards to John Muir Trail prep.
Tom Harrison John Muir Trail Maps – This is the second most important resource for putting together you John Muir Trail plans and itinerary. Being able to see
Halfmile’s PCT Maps – These are some nice free online resources for PCT hikers. JMT hikers can reference the JMT section of the PCT.
Blackwoods Press JMT Pocket Atlas – Blackwoods Press is run by Erik Asorson. Erik runs an incredible blog and offers a lot of very useful resources.
Onthetrail.org – Make sure to check out these detailed topo maps for planning.
Guthook Hike App – I used this app more on the JMT than I did in the planning stages, but it’s nice to have a phone based JMT map reference on the go.
Creating An Itinerary
Before you get into planning your exact itinerary, it’s important to note the characteristics of the John Muir Trail and how many miles you plan to walk each day. Take some time to think about your desired itinerary, and what each day on the trail will be like. Are you the kind of person that is going for a speed record? Do you like to hang out at camp until late morning and take long breaks? The John Muir Trail can be the trip of a lifetime, make sure your itinerary meets your needs and desires. Below, you’ll find a few topic areas that will help you organize your thoughts before putting your itinerary together.
- Mileage And Elevation: How far do you plan on walking each day? How much elevation will you gain each day? — When Julia and I first started planning for the John Muir Trail, we knew we wanted to finish in less than two weeks. We both felt that anything more than that would require us to haul around too much food and move at far too slow a pace to be considered enjoyable for our preferences. Given that starting point, we knew we had to cover around 20 miles a day. Once we decided on that, we looked at a few maps and elevation charts, and started plotting our daily itinerary with campsites. Broken down into 10-12 days, we expected to cover around 20 miles with around 4,000ft of climbing each day. Looking at an elevation chart with mileage listed helped me a lot. To help plan, I printed out a few copies of the map below and drew in campsites for each night, with options for different trip lengths and campsites. The final itinerary we settled on was very close to the JMT we actually hiked.
The John Muir Trail is 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney plus 11 more miles from Mt. Whitney to Whitney Portal. The total distance is 221 miles. Here is a breakdown of average daily mileage:
7 Days- 31.5 miles per day
10 Days-22.1 miles per day
14 Days-15.7 miles per day
20 Days-11 miles per day
25 Days-8.8 miles per day
It’s important to reference the elevation profile above when planning your days in regards to when you’ll be hiking over the passes. Thunderstorms are just a part of life in the Sierra on the JMT, so expect to encounter them most afternoons. It’s wise to stay off passes in a thunderstorm, so plan to hit these sections early in the morning if possible.
- Acclimatization And Elevation: What is the max elevation for each day? What is the elevation gain for each day? How will you acclimatize during training and upon arrival to the JMT? — I’m very fortunate to live in Southern California where I have 10,000ft mountain peaks with lots of prominence within an hour’s drive. The mountains here are hot, rocky, and dry. The conditions here are tough, which is why I think the John Muir Trail felt so easy. If you can’t train at elevation, try to arrive in Yosemite a little early and get a few days at elevation. It’s harder to breathe at higher elevations, so don’t take this lightly. I think it’s a bigger problem if you can’t train for elevation gain, as legs trained on flat land usually have a tough time adjusting to the up and down nature of mountain trails. Make sure to factor in elevation when you’re planning your itinerary.
- Trail Conditions: How rocky or steep is each daily section? — Much like your preparation for the elevation and trail grade, the trail conditions are something else to consider when putting an itinerary together. There is a lot of dirt single track in the first half of the JMT. The JMT turns a bit more rugged in the second half as you enter the higher elevations found in the Southern Sierra. I was ready and had trained for all of that. There was one trail condition that I was not ready for though…mosquitos! My home mountains are either bone dry or frozen most of the year, so I almost never have to deal with mosquitos. These made us skip a few breaks we had planned, which got us to our desired campsites ahead of schedule. There were a few sections on the JMT that had me hacking through clouds of mozzies. I was very glad to be in possession of a head net and bug spray.
- Pack Weight: Are you going “lightweight”? How much food will you carry? — Julia and I are what most would consider “lightweight” backpackers with pack base weights around 15 lbs. On the JMT, I packed more than I usually do, mostly with additional electronics and food. My base weight was 24 lbs for the JMT! This definitely was an important factor in stretching our itinerary to 11 days. We probably could have shaved our weight down a little more, but the marginal cost to start shedding base weight starts to become a little expensive when you reach 15-20lbs. Some people are willing to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to shave a few ounces…to each their own. I’m not here to tell anyone how to pack, but I can tell you what has worked for me and many others. Edit ruthlessly, but not stupidly. I’ve dedicated an entire post just for gear on the John Muir Trail. It’s not important that you have your entire gear lineup ready to go when you begin planning, but you should start to think light and train to live without luxuries. Only pack what you need. The same goes for food. Pack enough food to sustain yourself and maintain your energy. This isn’t a Carnival Cruise with all you can eat buffets. Finally, make sure your final training hikes include everything that you plan to carry, including water. If you only train with a light day pack, your muscles and joints will not take kindly to the sudden jolt of a full pack.
- Overnight Camping: Do you prefer to sleep low or high? Tarp tent, full tent, or cowboy camping? — Julia and I brought a Tarp Tent Double Rainbow and camped at high elevations as much as possible. We like to camp at high elevations to avoid bugs, bears, and condensation. It may be a little colder, but much more enjoyable for our tastes. To prepare for this, we spent the night on top of Mt. Baldy (10,064ft) and Cucamonga Peak (8998ft) a few times. This was a great way for us to train physically, but also to do a dry run on our shelter, food, and gear.
- Food Resupply Locations: This is one of the most important factors in planning your itinerary. I have an entire post dedicated to food and resupplies. Check out my post and look at your resupply options, you’ll wan’t to build your itinerary around these locations. The most important is Muir Trail Ranch, the last on trail resupply point for SOBO hikers.
Once you’ve taken the time to think about all of the topics above, you’ll have a better idea of what your itinerary will look like. Start with a spreadsheet or work with pencil and paper if you prefer. It will take some time to get a good feel for your desired itinerary. Most importantly, plan on things to not go according to plan and build in contingency plans for the surprise thunderstorm, gear failure, injury, etc. I had our original 11 day itinerary, but I also had contingency plans in the event of an emergency. This meant planning a 13 day and 15 day trip, even though I knew full well they weren’t likely scenarios. Know where and when you can exit the trail if need be, and have all of these marked on your itinerary plan (Wenk’s book is great for this). Hopefully you’ll be able to go with plan A, but it never hurts to have a plan B and C.
I hope this post helped, feel free to leave a comment below with thoughts or questions.