Donohue Pass

John Muir Trail: Lessons from a first time thru-hike

It was September 2010. Three friends and I decided to do something we’d never done before: backpack a segment of one of the United States’ quintessential thru-hikes, the John Muir Trail. It had been a very snowy winter and even at the end of September as we embarked on our planned nearly 60 miles of the JMT, there was still snow covering the mountain passes.

My life was in flux. Through a cosmic twist of fate that was, in retrospect, my own unconscious doing, I was between jobs for that week that we’d be on the trail, plus a week prior for planning. My new gig started the day after my planned return home with no room to spare. I would set foot on the trail with a whole lot of unknowns in front of me, the most pressing being the two-day climb out of Yosemite Valley with a 35-plus pound pack on my back with a group of three male friends. I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I worried I wouldn’t be able to make it past the first couple days. I worried I’d be a girl and cry somewhere along the way.

I had trained. I’d been hiking every weekend for three months with Team in Training’s hike team as the sole participant carrying an overnight pack on day hikes. I had arrived in Yosemite a couple days early to allow myself to acclimate to the elevation. I had planned every meal. I had checked the trail map and the weather, then checked it again every day for a couple weeks before we left. I knew where to rent a bear barrel and what clothing I would wear each day. I made lists. I revised lists. I was the exact opposite of “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed. I was prepared.

I was also completely clueless. I had done all of two backpacking trips in the years prior – the three-day Skyline-to-the-Sea (a well-known first-timers backpack trip) and an overnight in Death Valley. The first was a success with little risk, hiking through highly populace areas full of day hikers in our San Francisco backyard; the latter a sharp lesson in my own limits with an unbearable water weight on an unmarked backcountry trek up a planned 5,000-feet in elevation with far from sufficient backcountry skills (needless to say, we didn’t make it to our end-point).

I knew this trip was either going to make me a backpacker for life or put me back in my rightful place as a day hiker.

I set foot on the trail in Yosemite Valley with the crowds heading to Vernal and Nevada Falls with plenty of knowledge but little understanding of what it was I was actually undertaking. I left the trail with a soulful awe for the Sierra Nevada mountains and a desire to keep going for the full 220 miles.

A year later I was back in the rocky, alpine terrain of the Sierras on a day hike with two of my backpacking comrades. We joked about how it felt like we should keep going, like we were back on the JMT. The realization: The JMT made me a backpacker. I later that year did a 4-day backpack in Yosemite’s backcountry.

This September, almost exactly 2 years since that first trip, I’ll be heading back on the trail to do another segment of the JMT, picking up near where we left off around Mammoth Lakes and exiting at North Lake via Piute Pass.

As I’m preparing for this longer, more remote segment, I can’t help but think back to the lessons I learned on the trail. I’m hoping these will help fellow hikerly folks who may be considering making the leap from day hiker to backpacker. It may not be for everyone, but you won’t know if it’s right for you until you try it.

You are doing what? Why?

I get asked this question a lot from people when I talk about backpacking for 60-70 miles and being in remote wilderness for more than a week. It’s sometimes followed by a “I could never do that because…”

My reason: Donohue Pass. Ok, the pass itself isn’t the reason, but the day I had hiking over Donohue Pass was. Four days into our trip having climbed 7,000 feet, breathing heavily and stepping slowly up and ultimately over the highest point on our trip (11,056 ft.) I was for the first time in recent memory in complete awe. In that moment I saw the world around me with my whole being. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to understanding what gurus mean by “being in the moment;” to the religious sort, you might say it was being close to god.

The truth is that while the scenery was spectacular, if I’d driven up to or day-hiked to it, I wouldn’t have had that experience. The difference was after 4 days of strenuous backpacking I had let go of all the filters through which I usually look at the world. My life had become simply walking, finding water, pitching camp, making dinner. That was it. And with everything else gone, the world around me wasn’t just a backdrop, but also a distinct part of me. And I wish everyone could feel that just once in their lives. It’s amazing.

Is backpacking right for me?

Backpacking certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you ask “You’re doing what? Why?” without an “I could never…” statement following it, you are probably considering it.

I can tell you my initial weekend-long backpacking trips were about challenging myself. They were to satisfy curiosity about if I could do it. If you are considering backpacking, that’s a good place to start. Borrow or rent the equipment, join up with some more experienced friends or find a guide/group and just try it out.

Something worth knowing: Backpacking can be both physically and emotionally tough, especially for us ladies. For me, the first couple days are when I feel the muscles and sore feet. Then I tend to get emotional. I have been known to cry on the trail and wonder why the heck I’m there, and it’s always 2-3 days into a trip. But after those momentary meltdowns, things change. The physical hiking becomes easier. Life back home falls away leaving the simplest thing ever: Me and the trail. And with that, a calm joy that I wish everyone could experience.

If I had never pushed myself beyond my first meltdown moment, I wouldn’t have had my Donohue Pass experience. Don’t let one rough day turn you off from the experience. A weekend backpack will let you know if you can physically handle it. A week long will let you know if you can mentally do it.

Need more inspiration to get out there yourself? Check out these videos from the John Muir Trail.

What about practical lessons for the trail?

Here’s just a quick list of tips and tricks I learned or found really worked along the way on our first thru-hike. Add yours in the comments!

  1. Always stop at intersections to keep together without hiking together
    Not everyone’s pace is going to be the same on any given day or terrain. If you are with a group, adopt the rule “stop at intersections” and then let folks go at their own pace. You’ll find there are times you stick together chatting and others where you charge ahead or fall behind lost in thought. As long as everyone stops at every intersection and waits for the full group to get back together, you will know no one made a wrong turn along the way (or if you do, you’ll make the wrong turn together). This includes stopping at intersections where all you are doing is continuing straight; what might be obvious to you may not be to a fellow hiker.
  2. Expect to go slower than normal
    I’m a relatively strong hiker, averaging 2-3 miles an hour usually on day hikes. With that in mind, when we decided to average 10 miles a day, it seemed like no big deal. Plenty of time leftover for enjoying the scenery, making lunches, etc. The reality is at elevation with a pack, there were many days we averaged just 1 or 1.5 miles an hour. Some of it was the strenuousness and some of it was simply the desire to take it in, take photos. While not true for everyone, for me an 8 mile day is much more fun than 10.
  3. Hike your own way, just communicate with your team
    I learned I was slower on steep uphills than my compatriots and I hated feeling like the laggard even though I know they didn’t mind. My solution: on mornings before a steep start, I would pack up quickly, let my friends know I was starting ahead of them with a set point to meet if they didn’t catch me on the trail first and take off. They would eventually catch up to me and I would have had my morning meditation/alone time while not feeling any pressure to go any particular speed. Meanwhile others in the group would peel away to take timelapse photos or go fly fishing for a bit. Each time, we just agreed on where we would reconnect and the rough timing so we would know when to worry if someone ran into trouble.
  4. Bring a SPOT
    We didn’t need it, but if you are in a remote area, knowing you have a way to reach the outside world if something bad happens is worth it. Added bonus, most of them can send out pre-written messages with your GPS coordinates to let your mom know you are OK. Trust me, she appreciates it. Oh, and make sure everyone in the group knows where its kept and how to use it. Just in case.
  5. It’s OK to change plans
    You’ll know your own constraints to the overall trip (i.e. needing to get home on a specific day to start a new job), but beyond that, be flexible. Even the best laid plans don’t necessarily look the same when you are in the midst of them. We had set out to do 60 miles in 6 days; after 4 days on the trail, we realized we wanted to stop somewhere and take a break. We picked Thousand Island Lake after a blissful less than 4 mile day. To compensate, we exited one trail earlier than planned and cut the overall trip down by about 8 miles. No regrets.
  6. Make brownies
    I carried a skillet brownie mix with me till we were more than halfway through our trip and then surprised the group with them. Maybe brownies aren’t you thing, but a little extra something that’s a treat is great for everyones spirits.
  7. “Backpacking is just a series of chores”
    That’s a heard on the trail quote that was a lesson too. You’ll find your groove with the set up and tear down to-dos each day.
  8. Bring hiking poles
    I always have mine but one person in our group didn’t think he needed them. After climbing up and out of Yosemite Valley and starting to feel some knee pain, he changed his mind. Thankfully we passed through Tuolumne where he could buy some before we really hit the backcountry. Bonus: they can double as a splint, a tent pole should yours break, and more.
  9. It’s OK to have some “comfort” items
    I try to keep my pack as light as possible but I’m not bound by the ultralight ethos. If you are going to be in backcountry without access to any modern conveniences, it’s OK to carry a little extra weight if it makes your experience better. Everyone’s comfort item is difference – in my case it’s a small down pack pillow and bath wipes for a nightly wipe off before getting in my sleeping bag.
  10. How to get the backcountry forecast
    It’s important to look at micro-weather based on the trail location and elevation, not just the nearest city which won’t necessarily be anything like your experience in the backcountry. Learn how to do that here.
  11. What to bring
    This is my go-to packing list for every backpacking trip.

What are your backpacking tips and advice? Tell us in the comments below!