John Muir Trail, Part 3: Gear

What should you pack for a 200+ mile journey? Everyone starts knowing that they need as light a pack as possible, and promise to carry as little as possible; but all too often, they wind up carrying too much.

I think some people get caught in a “high-tech gear” mentality that causes its own problems. It’s tempting to believe that if you purchase the newest, lightest weight stuff, you can cut the weight and be more prepared. While it’s true that you can often spend $100 extra to shave a few grams, the returns on high-end camping gear are rapidly diminishing. For the most part, I urge buyers on focus on the middle-quality stuff; neither the heavy lowest-priced stuff, nor the extremely expensive ultra-light gear. But more importantly, avoid the mindset of buying neat gadgets that aren’t absolutely required.

A corollary of carrying as little as possible is deliberately planning to not prepare for certain circumstances; it’s impossible to bring enough gear for all contingencies. I’d suggest you list the climate ranges and obstacles you are planning for, and which conditions you are knowingly unprepared for.

Climate

Plan for mostly dry weather, with high exposure. During the daytime, you’ll usually be wearing shorts and t-shirts; you’ll be sweating a lot. Evenings can get cold quickly, down to freezing – but usually not too far below freezing.

  • A 3-season 15-degree sleeping bag is fine.  Don’t bring a 4-season monster sleeping bag; it’s not worth the weight and space. 
  • There may be rain; usually in the form of afternoon thundershowers. I’d suggest agreeing that rain will just suck, and you should only bring minimal rain gear like a lightweight jacket that doubles as a wind breaker. Consider whether you really need that pack cover.
  • Skip the ice gear unless you’re hiking early in the season, or it was a known big snow year. Leave the crampons, ice axes, and gaiters at home.

Mosquitos

Mosquitos can be bad, especially early in the season. Always bring some high-power DEET repellent; skip the hand-wringing about natural alternatives or lower-concentration stuff. If you’re going early in the season, bring a hat that has a mosquito net.

Otherwise, there’s not much extra gear you should bring; if bugs are a big problem, you can try to camp at higher elevations.

Hygine

Plan to be dirty and stinky. Accept it, and embrace it. Make a pact with your fellow travelers that nobody will mind a bit of B.O. and throw out the deodorant, creams, etc. Do not plan to use soap on your person; it’s not good for the fragile environment, and what’s the point?

Yes, you should of course occasionally towel off in a stream or jump into a lake. Hand-wash clothes in a stream. But you’ll find that once you get to camp after a long day and the chill sets in, it’s awfully hard to be as motivated to stay clean – and that’s OK.

You do  want to keep your sleeping bag clean. Your skin is covered with nasty dust + sunblock + mosquito repellent. At a minimum, I wipe my arms and nest off every evening, and wear clean(-ish) thermal underwear in my sleeping bag.

First aid

You’ll hear all sorts of wide-ranging advice on how much first-aid preparedness is needed, and how extensive your first-aid kit should be. I’m not at all an expert, and I’d suggest checking out this book (if you’re bringing an e-reader, be sure to carry a copy). That being said,  weight is limited, so any first-aid kit will need to make trade-offs weighted by the likelihood and consequences of various potential issues. You should plan for the problems you know you’ll have: in particular, there will be blisters, so bring lots of mole skin and blister care; and it’s all too easy to twist a knee or ankle, so bring ace bandages. You’ll want lots of ibuprofin for muscle pain and headaches. Your first aid kit should cover cuts, burns, allergic reactions (benadryl); but you can’t plan for everything. You might want to ask your doctor about altitude medication, but results may vary.

Water treatment

While on the trail, I heard several people proudly say that they don’t bother to treat their water and drink directly from the streams. While the Sierra water is pretty clean and you certainly won’t die doing this, there is a real issue with the parasite giardia; in fact, my dad got this several years ago in the Sierras. It’s not all that bad, but it’s not at all fun and would ruin your trip.  Treat your water.

Shoes

The single most important piece of gear to get right is your hiking shoes. Badly fitting or inappropriate shoes will ruin a trip; it’s entirely in your control to get right.  You should ensure your shoes are broken in, and that you’ve gone on a test trip  while carrying a full backpacking load up and down rough terrain.

It seems that hiking shoes have become increasingly popular; we saw a number of people hiking in them. I still like a full boot (especially when in rougher and rockier terrain) but boots certainly cause more blisters. A lot of people on the trail were wearing mini-gaters to keep gravel and dust out of their boots; it’s the 2016 hiker style!

Navigation

Any device with batteries is not to be trusted. Do NOT rely on GPS devices or your phone. Bring a good topo map, and know how to read it.

Phones

Mobile phones aren’t useful on the trail, and they’re surprisingly heavy. That being said, a phone is incredibly useful the moment you finish your journey, or if you have to leave the trail. I’d suggest bringing one phone per group.

Packing Lists

Everyone has a different goal for what a pack should weigh. It depends on your tolerance for losing certain comforts, hiking speed, how much food you eat, etc. My personal goal is that my fully-loaded pack, with 9 days of food and two liters of water, should be at most 40lbs (~18kg).

My meals average about 1.3lbs per person per day; so 9 days of food weighs about 12lbs. Two liters of water weigh about 4lbs. This means that my target maximum weight for a pack without food is about 26 lbs (~12kg).

Everyone has different packing lists. The REI JMT list is a fine place to start. I’d suggest that you think about your gear not as one list, but as:

  • Core – my required items
  • Shared – items the entire group uses (so the weight can be split)
  • Group optional – “extras” for the entire group
  • Personal optional – “extras” for me
  • Food

Core (target: 17lbs)

My core “personal essentials” backpack kit should weigh in at less than 17lbs. (For the purpose of weighing, I exclude the clothes I’m wearing – so I’m not counting the boots and one outfit). For the JMT, I packed:

  • Boots
  • Backpack
  • Empty water bottles
  • Flashlight (head lamp) and spare batteries
  • Rain cover for backpack (I just use a big trash bag)
  • Pair of sandals
  • Clothes
    • 3 changes underwear
    • 3 changes thick socks
    • 1 thermal underwear pants (for sleeping and cold mornings)
    • 3 fast-drying short-sleeve shirts
    • 1 pair fast-drying shorts
    • 1 pair fast-drying long pants
    • Small towel
    • Long-sleeve layer (thin and warm)
    • Down jacket
  • Note pad and pencil (not pen)
  • Sleeping bag (15 degree, goose down)
  • Sleeping pad 
  • Toothbrush, floss, toothpaste
  • Cash, credit card, ID, insurance card
  • Knife / multi-use tool
  • Sunglasses
  • Chapstick
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sun block (8oz per person, for 20 days)
  • Toilet paper
  • Duct tape
  • Lighters (2 per person)

 

Duct tape is incredibly useful stuff. Besides fixing gear, you can wrap your feet to prevent blisters. I’d suggest as much as 4 yds/person. A good way to pack duct tape is to wrap it around your water bottle.

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I know I’ll be pilloried for saying this, but I don’t think a compass is necessary. There are enough features in the Sierras that you’ll be fine as long as you can read a topo map and can figure out which way is roughly North.

I’ve found that a pair of sandals is absolutely essentialNot only do your feet demand you slip into something different when you reach camp, but sandals are also useful for river crossings, and are a measure of last resort if your boots become unbearable and you need to wear something. I love my lightweight, fast-drying closed-toe sandals.

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Shared (target: 6 lbs / person)

The per-person weight of shared gear of course depends on how many people are hiking together and sharing tents.

  • Maps
  • First-aid kit – I’d suggest packing your blister-care and ibuprofin separately, since you’ll be reaching for these much more often. 
  • Cook kit
    • Fuel
    • Stove
    • Pot
    • Cups
    • Utensils
    • Brillo pad – just a small square to clean-up
    • A bit of soap – you don’t need much, just 1-2 oz of Dr. Bronners. Cleans out cook kit if it gets oily. 
    • Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes
  • Tents
    • It’s a good idea to bring a tent footprint too, to help keep water out and reduce wear on the tent. Instead of buying a fancy tent-specific footprint, you just cut out a footprint from the 0.4mm plastic sheets used for painting.
    • My wife and I shared a tent; but I’d suggest considering personal tents. They weigh about the same fractional weight as a shared tent; and you’ll probably sleep better not being right next to someone.
  • Bear cans – there are different models; but the 700 cubic inch Bear Vault was by far the most popular choice. It weighs 2.5 lbs; we needed 4 of these cans to carry 10 days of food for 3 people.
  • Small shovel – for toilet needs. Plastic shovels do break; there are light metal shovels. 
  • Water purification – strongly recommended to bring a backup pump.
  • Spare nylon cord (at least 20 feet), nylon straps – it’s always useful to have some extra nylon cord – it can be a clothes line; fix shoe laces; fix backpacks; strap gear on; hold a tarp; etc. 

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Water purification

There are a growing number of purification options. Most people avoid iodine (except as a backup) because you have to wait and it tastes weird. For pumps, make sure you can either clean it if it gets clogged, or have a backup option. I’ve become enamored of the Sawyer squeeze system; not because it’s easy (it’s a bit of a pain) but because it’s very light and easy to keep clean (by backwashing), which makes it much more reliable.

How much fuel? Which stove?

It was hard to get data on how much fuel we should plan to bring. Of course, everyone will say “it depends.” In our case, we used a Jet Boil Sumo stove with half-pound ISO fuel containers. We were surpised to find we could get 5 days per half-pound container of fuel for 3 people, which included boiling water every day for: morning coffee; breakfast; soup; dinner; and tea.

We saved a bit of fuel by only heating pre-treated water, so we didn’t need to boil for an extended period of time to kill e.g. giardia. However, the more recent guidelines in the previously mentioned book Wilderness Medicine suggest that just 2 minutes of boiling probably suffice.

Optional shared items (target: 1lb / person)

There are some “luxury” items that benefit the whole group, so should be tallied as a shared weight. These include:

  • Solar charger
  • Cell phone
  • Water sack – for camp
  • Back roller
  • Pack of cards
  • Satellite communicator – I’d say about a third of people on the JMT trail were carrying a Delorme Explorer

Beware solar chargers. Some people on the trail were festooned with solar panels, and it seems ridiculous to have that many gadgets.

A back roller is surprisingly great. A compact roller only weighs a few ounces, and we found ourselves using it every night on our legs and backs. It made a big difference.

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Personal optional items (target: 2 lbs/person)

This is the hardest category; the line between “optional” and “necessary” can be blurry. I’d suggest you ask yourself “is this thing necessary for basic survival? Is bringing this going to make my trip so much better that I can afford the weight?” This is the category where you cut first when weight becomes an issue.

 

  • Trekking poles
  • Watch – ideally, with an altimeter
  • Camera – with batteries, or some way to keep charged
  • Binoculars
  • Books or e-book reader, like a Kindle
  • Toiletries – hand lotions, etc. These can get heavy!
  • Extra storage pouch
  • Pillow
  • Sitting pad
  • Star guide
  • Musical instrument

Trekking poles are so useful I debated whether to put them in the core category. They reduce wear on my knees, and saved me from a number of falls. If you use poles, I think these are one place where it’s worth it to spend the money on the ultra-lightweight carbon fiber models.

These days, bringing an ebook reader seems almost like a no-brainer. It’s lighter than a book, and you can read without making a rustle in the tent. And you can bring reference material for first-aid or navigation.

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