Ask Me: Questions From a 55-Year-Old Woman First Time Hiking the John Muir Trail
I am a first-time JMT hiker this summer. I am an avid day hiker and will do some two- and three-day hikes in spring to prepare. I am also losing 20 pounds and doing a lot of strength training. Here are my concerns: I am 55 years old and this trip is my way of celebrating this milestone along with 25 years of sobriety! I may have to hike part of the trail alone—I have friends with me for the first week and another friend joining the last week. I really want to pack light. I know I can do 10 miles/day, but I would like to try to average 15 mpd. I have read pack lists from women who have ended up with 40 to 50 lbs.! I have no desire to carry that much. Can you give me an idea of a realistic daily mileage and how I can keep my pack 35 lbs. or under without running out of food and water, and where I should stop to resupply?
Are there days that I can do more miles and days that I will be moving slower? I am going to invest in as much lightweight equipment as possible. Do you have to have a new pair of socks every day? That seems like a lot of weight! I also love your idea of bringing food that doesn’t require a stove, etc., and I love all the items on your suggestion list! Is it realistic to do this? I signed up for your newsletter and thank you in advance for your help!
[Originally submitted as a comment at the story “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun.”]
South Lake Tahoe, CA
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Good on you for taking on such an ambitious challenge. But I think your goal of a John Muir Trail thru-hike the way you describe it is realistic, and I say that as an age peer of yours. To answer your specific questions and offer some suggestions:
Strength and aerobic training should be considered mandatory prep for a long thru-hike, so you’re smart to be doing that. (See this story’s tips on hiking farther.) But nothing prepares you for a long backpacking trip better than carrying a pack with what you’ll have inside it on the JMT for a few shakedown weekends, and a somewhat longer trip if you can fit it in.
I don’t think you have to worry about hiking part of the JMT alone: I think most people (perhaps especially women) find that backpacking solo isn’t as scary or difficult as they had anticipated. There are a lot of backpackers on the JMT. You may meet companions to hike with, or maybe not, but you will meet and see other hikers, most of them friendly, quite frequently. If or when you’d prefer more solitude, hit the trail at first light in the morning (packing light makes it easier to get on the trail early) and hike in the evening (more pleasant than the hot afternoons).
Friends hiking only part of it with you may not be up for your pace, anyway, especially by later in the trip. (Frankly, I have just a handful of friends who I invite on backpacking trips when I want to hike big days.) And like I said, the JMT is a busy trail, so you won’t feel as if you’re really out there alone.
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The permit is hard to get. Flexibility in dates is your best strategy. I always prefer hiking in the Sierra in late summer, because the afternoons don’t get as oppressively hot and the mosquitoes are mostly gone by late August/early September, and I like using a tarp instead of a tent to go lighter. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
If you train well, 15-mile days are entirely realistic. Experiment with hiking 10-12 miles a day first, on your pre-JMT backpacking weekends, and see if you can work up to 15-mile days on those weekends. Within a week on the JMT, when you get your trail legs, you may find yourself hiking 20-mile days without having to put in ridiculously long hours, too. Let your prep hikes guide your strategy, and don’t start out too hard, that risks injury. Build up your leg strength and endurance.
One challenge of the JMT is the lack of convenient resupply anywhere south of Muir Trail Ranch, as you know. But if you hike north to south and build up to 15-mile days, you should be able to do that southern half of the trail in about eight days; at two pounds of food per day, that’s 16 pounds of food. Keep your base pack weight to 15 pounds (or less), and you’re at or under 35 pounds (with 1-2 liters of water). See my tips on ultralight backpacking and all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear and all my backpacking gear reviews.
Experiment with your food on prep backpacking weekends. I was perfectly happy eating all dry food for a week on the JMT; it was satisfying and I was hungry! But you should try it out on a couple of weekend trips first, to see if you like it. Weigh everything and count calories; know how much you’ll need to eat, so you’re not either going hungry or carrying way too much. Food weight matters: If you really only need 1.75 pounds of food per day, then you’ll drop two pounds from your pack weight compared to carrying two pounds of food per day for eight days.
You need to get your systems for doing everything down, hopefully before the JMT trip, but you’ll figure that out through experience. Those prep hikes will help you figure out what you really like and need and don’t need in terms of gear and clothes.
Water sources are generally frequent; you’ll often not have to carry more than a liter, but plan water based on scanning your maps to know the distances between water sources. Check out this review of water-filter bottles.
I don’t carry more than three pairs of socks. You can rinse and dry them out, and the JMT won’t likely be very rainy and muddy.
See the itinerary and other planning tips in my story about my JMT thru-hike.
I hope that helps. Good luck and let me know how it goes! Thanks for following my blog and congrats also on your sobriety, that’s a huge achievement.
I really appreciate your help. Your blog is fantastic.
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