Although we’re just shy of the winter solstice and Christmas, it might seem premature to be planning Summer 2014 adventures. But for those who are planning a long distance hiking trip/expedition, it’s never too early. After several years in a row of tackling the Mt. Whitney (CA) day hike, I have something more ambitious on the 2014 calendar, the John Muir Trail (Yosemite to Mt. Whitney). Until wilderness permits are confirmed, plans are tentative, but an early August date is highlighted on my iCal.
A couple of best-selling authors have written popular books about long distance hiking. Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ (1998) was a humorous account of his adventures on the Appalachian Trail. More recently, Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ (2012) chronicled her attempt to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. While these books were wildly popular, the authors seemed to revel in, and were almost proud of, their lack of preparation – the ‘fish out of water’ approach. The books were entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend them as ‘how to’ manuals. They’re ‘how NOT to’.
While Bryson’s and Strayed’s approaches might make for a more dramatic and/or humorous story, I prefer the boring well-prepared way of adventuring. There’s enough inherent excitement in such trips. I do have the advantage that as I begin my preparation nine months in advance, I consider myself a hiker who happens to write, rather than a writer trying to figure out which end of his trekking pole to hold.
As for this article, it is not written as a comprehensive piece on preparation. There are full-length books for that. Rather it’s a starting point. There are three main points to consider when planning these types of trips. They are: fitness, gear, and logistics.
For any type of mountain hiking, whether it’s day hiking Half Dome (Yosemite), Mt. Whitney, Desolation Wilderness, it’s important to train. The best advice I ever received while training for my Mt. Whitney hikes was given to me by a friend who had climbed the highest peaks on five of the seven continents. I’d asked how much he runs or how many times a week he goes to the gym. He looked at me quizzically and said that he does none of that. To train for a hike, he hikes. Granted he does long distances at a brisk pace with a full backpack.
Since changing my approach and becoming a habitual hiker, I’ve been able to summit Mt. Whitney twice (doing the 21.4 mile day hike from the Whitney Portal). I still run and occasionally lift weights or do other gym cardio, but training hikes are the most important component of my preparation. Overnight backpacking trips, especially multi-day excursions into the wilderness (such as the JMT or Pacific Crest Trail) require a few modifications.
It’s important to train with a fully loaded backpack to strengthen the body and become accustomed to the weight distribution. Many hikers even add extra weight (rocks, barbell plates, toddlers) for training hikes. It’s also important to familiarize oneself with how to load gear properly onto the pack. With all the compartments and exterior attachment points and straps, it can be confusing the first few times. There are countless YouTube videos that give detailed instructions and tips. Specific to the John Muir Trail, there are also Facebook groups, websites, books and more. Additionally, REI offers backpacking and mountaineering classes at their various stores. These classes are excellent for those who are new to these activities and want to explore and test their skills in a semi-controlled environment under the eye of experienced instructors.
The next point is gear. What works for a day hike, won’t necessarily work for multi-day hike. You’ll need a bigger pack, in some cases much bigger. Again, there are many resources for determining what you’ll need depending on length of the trip, the weather, terrain, etc. If you find REI or North Face gift cards in your Christmas stocking instead of lumps of coal, consider yourself lucky and promptly head out for some post-Christmas deals.
In most cases, the pack itself is going to be the biggest expense, and possibly the most important piece of gear. Shoes are also high on that list. Recently, I read a discussion of packs on the JMT Group Facebook page and there are definitely many good options. Osprey and Gregory both make excellent quality packs (my choice is a Gregory Baltoro 75). As for finding your own pack, do a lot of reading and research and be sure to try them on in a store. And before you embark on your adventure, take the pack (and other gear) out for training hikes and practice loading and unloading. If you do a long distance trip like the JMT, PCT or Appalachian Trail, you’ll be loading and unloading your pack almost daily for a significant stretch of time. As for other gear such as water filters, portable stoves, GPS, and others, know how to use them before the trip.
The final point is logistics. This can be daunting, but as with the other points, there are online resources to help sift through the details. While this article revolves mainly around the John Muir Trail, others such as the Appalachian Trail, Mt. Rainier, Denali, Grand Canyon and other adventures world-wide are easily researched. Specific to the JMT, a wilderness pass needs to be arranged 6 months before the entry date at one of the various trailheads. The beginning point in Yosemite is near Happy Isles in the valley. There are other trailheads, but Happy Isles is the usual starting point for those wishing to travel south, the more popular direction.
Food resupply is another logistical consideration, since carrying enough food to last 200-plus miles isn’t feasible for the average backpacker. There are a handful of places along the trail, especially for the first 120 miles – Tuolumne Meadows, Mammoth Lakes, Vermillion Valley Resort and Muir Trail Ranch. There are some other options for the Kings Canyon/Sequoia segment, but they involve hiring companies to bring in supplies by horse or mule. This can be pricey, but this is a viable option, especially if traveling in a group, in which case the price can be shared.
A final thought is transportation between trailheads. Again, for a group, this becomes easier since you can leave one vehicle at the Whitney Portal or other exit point, (Sequoia National Park, for example) and drive a friend’s vehicle to Yosemite. It does mean a lot of driving, however. For those hiking solo, as I likely will be, the trip back to one’s vehicle becomes more problematic. Unless, of course, like this writer, you have a saintly brother who volunteers to chauffeur you from the Whitney Portal to the Happy Isles trailhead. This brother will not find coal in his stocking this year.
In future articles, I’ll further detail some of the preparations and training options, logistical issues and gear choices. I’ll also be writing about this and other adventures on my blog: The Mountain Journals.