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Preparing to Hike the John Muir Trail by Andy Hawbaker

Hiking in Colorado's Front Range

I love hiking, camping and exploring the outdoors but like most people, my daily obligations of a full-time job, a wife and two kids leave me little time for longer backpacking trips. Still, when I was asked to join a group hiking more than 200 miles on the John Muir Trail in California, I accepted with little hesitation. The planning and preparations for this hike have taken a lot of time but they are important to the success of the trip.

In my life, like a lot of people’s, kids, bikes and family camping gear have taken priority over lightweight backpacking gear. As you can imagine, getting ready for the John Muir Trail has been a lot of work. With an average of more than 14 miles of hiking per day on this upcoming trip, I had to get in better shape, and I had to replace some older gear.

Hiking Trail


Being in good shape can make the difference between a great outdoor experience and an uphill struggle. Literally. Early this spring I committed to hiking eight to 10 miles each weekend. Luckily, I live on the Colorado Front Range, so gaining 3,000 feet of elevation and reaching heights over 10,000 feet is pretty accessible. The John Muir Trail features seven passes over 11,000 feet and rarely drops below 8,000 feet. Training at elevation would make or break this trip, I realized.

In addition to the longer weekend hike, I also squeezed in evening hikes near town, and I tried to run a few miles two evenings each week. I lost a few pounds, and it helped my lungs learn to handle longer workouts. I often hiked with my loaded pack, knowing that a heavy pack will make a huge difference in my ability to hike comfortably. A lot goes into training for a distance like the John Muir Trail, and you can read more about my training schedule if you’re looking to hike a similar route. 


Planning for a two-week backpacking trip is harder than it sounds. Choosing gear, scheduling a mail drop and making a meal plan are all things I’ve stressed over for weeks. When choosing gear you have to balance ultra-lightweight with comfort. I’d rather carry a little extra weight than not have the things I need. Still, a too-heavy pack means paying a price.

For our John Muir Trail, we’ll hike the trail in 13 days with only one refueling stop. We’ll stop at the John Muir Ranch where we’ve mailed our final seven days’ worth of food. That means I crammed six days of food into a bear canister (weighing in at over 12 pounds) for the first leg of the trip. If you burn 4,000-5,000 calories per day backpacking, you’ve got to carefully plan your meals to fit enough high calorie and high protein foods into the limited space of a bear canister.  Here are more details about my JMT backpacking meal plan.

Bear Cannister


Any thru-hike requires a lot of planning. The logistics of how to get to the trailhead and how to get back to a car (much less an airport!) are always important things to consider. We’re hiking the John Muir Trail from north to south. You can fly into San Francisco and take a series of buses into Yosemite National Park, fly into Reno, Nevada, and take a bus or try your luck with Los Angeles or Fresno, Calif. The bus schedules to Reno and San Francisco seemed complicated to me since they only ran on certain days. We’ll be depending on a family member to drive us from LAX to the trailhead and back again. My advice? Carefully study all your options and be flexible.


As I said earlier, I have kids and a wife. Training for this trip and then the trip itself puts some strain on them, too. As my departure date nears, I realize how much around the house has to be done before I leave. I’m paying bills ahead of time, adjusting the sprinkler system and wondering how bad the yard will look after not being mowed for two weeks. Every household has a division of labor and whether you think about it or not, leaving for an extended backpacking trip requires some effort and understanding from your family, too. It’s a good idea to get everyone on the same page so they know what to expect while you’re gone and leave yourself enough time to get all of your at home duties taken care of before you leave. Your homecoming will be much sweeter for it!

If you carefully plan for your gear, meals, training, logistics and family situation then you’ll be better prepared for an amazing adventure. Don’t take the planning lightly. It’s a very important part of enjoying the overall trip. We’ve created a special page on our site just in case you’d like to know more about our trip on the John Muir Trail. Also, you can check in on our progress by following the hashtag #JMT2013 on Twitter. We’ll also be posting updates from the trail on the Sierra Social Hub and our Facebook Page.


  1. Wow, this is great! I am planning to hike JMT next summer and I am looking forward to following your trip on your website. Good luck and happy hiking!

  2. Good points about domestic issues Andy – my wife both loves it and hates it when I go on long multi-week backpacking trips. We miss each other terribly, but she also misses the fact that I do all the yard work and dishes when I’m at home!

  3. Try it in seven days. Lot less food and starting your morning at 4:30 am. Just make sure you drink 20oz right before you go to bed. Wakes you up at 4. 10 miles by 10am is the rule if you try.

  4. Andy – have you ever tried to eat 5,000 calories in a day? It takes a lot of time not to mention that your body can only absorb 250 calories per hour. I think you may be going a bit heavy on the food….I reckon 1.75 – 2 pounds per day should be your target with a goal of 100 or more calories per ounce.

  5. Thanks for the comments. We successfully completed the trail in 14 days and had a blast.

    • Hey Andy,
      We are planning a 14 day through hike next year and I would love to hear your itinerary. Email me when you can and let me pic your brain on some questions

  6. I’m planning on same schedule this September…do you think the bv 450 could hold the last 6 days of food?

  7. I really enjoyed this post. I am doing the Camino Frances with work next year and getting into prep mode already (150km in 8days). I swear I am already having nightmares about the blisters.

  8. Hi, I’m from Minnesota where the elevation is about 700 ft. I plan on hiking the JMT in the summer of 2017. I am starting to train this summer, 2016, by going to Colorado to hike some peaks and also running a marathon. One of my friends says, “There is no use training for a hike that will be a year away.” She also says training in high elevation even two weeks before the trip is useless because our bodies will forget what it feels like in high altitude. Is this true? Am I really wasting my time by hiking and running a lot for a hike that is a year away?

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