I recently interviewed professional mountain guide Greg Aiello. Based in the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains, Greg works with Southern Yosemite Mountain guides, specializing in long-duration backpacking trips in the Yosemite area and hikes along on the famous John Muir Trail. When he is not guiding, he is busy hosting a TV series on the Live Well Network called Motion (Sundays at 7 pm ET/PT), profiling his outdoor adventures across the US National Parks and beyond. Below, Greg shares some of his tips for any of you considering a hike of the John Muir Trail.
1. What is the best time of year to hike the John Muir Trail? I like the month of September. There are no mosquitoes, water crossings from snow melt are much safer, crowds are low, and September is historically the driest most stable weather month in the Sierra.
2. Which direction do you prefer? I like north to south. This direction gives you a better chance for acclimatization. Mount Whitney, at 14,454 feet, is the official southern terminus of the trail. Starting from this direction is usually very difficult for people. Also, because most people do the north to south route, you are going with the flow of traffic and therefore not passing so many people in the opposite direction.
3. What type of training is required? Some basic training is certainly advised. Stair training, hiking, and bike riding are all great. The best thing is to hike with your loaded backpack to get your body ready for the unique demands on your muscles and balance. Make sure to hike on uneven surfaces as often as possible.
4. How long does it usually take and are there ways to make it shorter/longer? Most people shoot for three weeks. This gives you an average of 10 miles per day to complete the trail. I think it’s a good idea when your body can handle it to pull some 15 or even 20 mile days so that you can have a layover day or two out there for rest or to enjoy a particular location.
5. If I am thinking about hiking the JMT, what are some good resources I should turn to for planning? In addition to reading trip reports or blogs online, there are some great publications that are handy to have on the trail. I think the best is: John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. This book is easy to pack and is loaded with great information on campsites, reliable water locations, distances, elevation gains, and much more.
6. Is route finding generally straightforward? There are very good signs for keeping you on the John Muir Trail. A couple of junctions could be considered tricky, but for the most part, there are people around to ask and staying on the path is usually not a problem for most.
7. What is your recommended gear list? Gear lists vary a lot from person to person. There are some basics to consider, but keeping pack weight low is always my recommendation. Here’s a basic list that I usually give clients:
- Backpack: about 3,600 cu in (60 L), internal or external frame, waterproof pack cover.
- Sleeping Bag: 15-20°F. Down is lighter than synthetic for equal warmth.
- Sleeping Pad: inflatable.
- Tent: guides carry tarp shelters to reduce even more weight and bulk. 20 ounces per person is light!
- Trail Hiker / Boots: Lightweight, low or high top, good traction and comfortable.
- Socks: 2 pairs, wool or synthetic hiking socks.
- Underwear: 2-3 pairs. Synthetics are nice to hike in, a pair of cotton to change into at camp.
- Long Underwear Bottom: light/mid weight wool or synthetic.
- Long Underwear Top: mid weight wool or synthetic. 1/4 zip necks are nice.
- Convertible Pants/Shorts: 1 pair of convertibles do the work of pants and shorts for less weight.
- Shirt: 1 or 2 synthetic t-shirt, collared shirt, short or long sleeve.
- Insulating layer: light fleece.
- Insulating jacket: synthetic “puffy” jacket.
- Waterproof Shell / Pants: Lightweight waterproof/breathable top and bottom. Ski Jackets are not appropriate.
- Sun Hat: baseball cap style, or more if needed.
- Warm Hat: for the chilly nights and mornings.
- Sunglasses: A must in the mountains!
- Personal Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, lip balm.
- Personal Medications: Don’t forget these!
- Headlamp: makes camp activities and reading easier.
- Water Bottle/bladder: 2-3 liters of capacity (example: Plastic drink bottles are lightest).
- Whistle: it’s louder than a voice and we require that kids carry one.
- Trekking Poles: very highly recommended to reduce fatigue and add stability- a must if pitching tarp tents.
The items below are optional items you might want to bring:
- Book: consider taking only sections.
- Knife: a small knife could be handy.
- Gloves: lightweight- for early or late season.
- Camera: For posterity.
8. Any hesitations on solo hikers? I think solo hiking the John Muir Trail is one of the most amazing experiences a person can have. You must be ready for what solo travel entails. Mostly, your skills should be equal to the task. There are many people that hike this trail and though you can find solitude, the JMT is usually very social and help is easy to find if needed. Make sure you always give friends and family your itinerary and expected exit dates.
9. General trail tips for the first time backpacker or long distance thru-hiker? The only tips I would give are to start out with as light a load as you can talk yourself into and pace yourself.
The JMT is definitely on my to do list- anyone else?