(and what we would have done differently)
Shortly after 3:00 am and less than a quarter mile into the JMT, the reality of a thru-hike began to sink in. We were used to early morning alpine starts, cold weather, and long days. What was entirely new to us was the 40+ pound packs, and the fact that we wouldn’t be rewarded with a shower, good nights sleep in a bed, and a hamburger after each long day in the mountains. On our first thru-hike, we learned to trade these comforts we were so accustomed to being rewarded with after a climb for a freeze-dried meal, snickers bar, swig of fireball, and mediocre sleep on the Sierra Nevada floor.
We had initially planned to do the JMT before leaving for our road trip, but thankfully were denied a permit and planned for September instead. After a summer of climbing mountains and camping more nights than not, we thought we were perfectly prepared for a three-week backpacking trip and only needed to consider the logistical side of prep. As our legs felt the weight of our packs on that first climb out of Happy Isles trailhead, we knew this would be an entirely different animal. So – we’re sharing everything we did that we felt prepared us well, what we struggled with, and what we would have done differently with the hope that aspiring thru-hikers don’t make the same mistakes as we did!
How Climbing Mountains (and camping this summer) Helped us Prepare for the JMT
Long days on our feet were second nature
Through the many mountains we’ve climbed in the time we’ve known each other, we have never gotten off the trailhead without our feet aching. It’s an inescapable reality of hiking – your feet are going to hurt at the end of every day. We were ready to be uncomfortable.
Using mountain climbing as our main training point for the JMT prepared us to welcome the foot pain and know it would disappear overnight. Our muscles were also trained for long descents, which often can cause more soreness than the climb up.
We knew how to hike together
A hiking partner can absolutely make or break a thru-hike. Alex and I both agreed that having the summer to develop our friendship and learn even more about each other was a serious plus to doing the JMT after our road trip. Having someone who knows when you need space and who is just as excited to get to the top of a pass as you are is irreplaceable. With one look at the end of the long day or one deep sigh when packing up camp in the cold mornings, we could communicate more about how we were feeling than any amount of words.
We had also spent enough time together to know that we could push through difficult moments together. We had to rely on our own brains to get us up and over passes, but at the end of each long day we had each other. Not having a hiking partner I could be purely vulnerable and authentic with would have made the trail much more challenging.
We knew our physical and mental capabilities
One of the most difficulty days on trail was continuing on after a few of our friends had decided to leave. What made us more worthy of completing the JMT than hikers who had spent months meticulously preparing and weighing absolutely every item in their pack? Though we were logistically under-prepped, this is where we felt our experience over the summer benefit us. We knew that the most magical of experiences are likely going to feel anything but such in the moment. We both fondly look back on our experience on Mt. Hood as formative and unforgettable, yet in the moment we wanted to be anywhere but on that mountain. We were somewhat used to suffering and knowing that even bucket-list items can be hateful in the moment. Even though the JMT was 18 days of pushing past physical and mental barriers, we had been unknowingly gearing up for it all summer as we climbed mountains and tested new skills.
Unmatched muscle development
Though we wished we would have done a bit more weight training, the muscles we developed through climbing up and down mountains over the summer cannot be matched. No amount of stair master with a weighted pack can emulate exactly how hours on the trail feel on your legs and your feet, and we found ourselves able to push long days as soon as we hit the trail.
Sleeping on the ground and general discomfort
Over the summer we spent roughly 80% of our nights in a tent. Though there were many incredibly kind people who gave us a night in a bed here and there, we were used to crashing in a tent at the end of a long day. We did have few other luxuries when living out of a car however, and I definitely missed my large pillow and extra blanket while on the JMT. Both of us struggled with sleep deprivation on trail, but were were well aware that it was coming. In the future, a remedy for this might be a long midday nap or nighttime sleep aids.
What We Weren’t Prepared For (and what we would have done differently)
The two of us never really considered that throughout our entire summer, we hadn’t backpacked for more than one night. I had been on one four-night backpacking trip, back in 2012, and Alex had done one three-night trip a couple of years ago as well. Besides that, we had only ever done overnight trips together. And here we were, confidently marching onto the John Muir Trail without seriously considering the difficulties of backpacking for 18 days straight. Needless to say, there were a few challenges that caught us off guard.
Days on end without cell service
This was arguably the most difficult aspect of the JMT for me. We both have so many wonderful, supportive people in our lives and I was accustomed to calling my loved ones at the top of a summit and back at the trailhead, for either support or to relay our successes. To slog on for seven days straight, marching right on through significant discomfort without the relief of outside support was at times incredibly tough.
To prepare for this in the future, or for anyone attempting their first thru-hike, testing out a 4-5 day backpacking trip without allowing yourself cell service would be a great start. Being stuck with your own thoughts can sometimes be harder than anticipated.
With a summer of climbing mountains, we were both in the routine of putting ourselves through serious pain for a day or two and then returning to the comforts of ‘real life.’ On day four of the John Muir Trail, we were already thinking about the nights we camped during our road trip with fluffy pillows and extra blankets. At the end of a long day of hiking or climbing, it’s normal to look forward to collapsing back into a car waiting at the trailhead. When that car is weeks or months away, it can be a bit more difficult. One of the most difficult moments on the John Muir Trail was hitting a resupply in a campground at a trailhead, seeing those cars, and forcing ourselves back out onto the trail.
Thru-hiking provides a different challenge every day, with the comfort of being ‘done’ when the sun sets. In fact, thinking about the end of a thru-hike in the first portion of it is a good way to psyche yourself out. There isn’t a foreseeable end or destination for quite awhile. While summiting mountains may prepare a hiker for the physical challenges, the mental battle of extreme delayed gratification catches some woefully off-guard. Again, a longer backpacking trip to prepare for this sort of delayed gratification would be a great way to prep.
Fighting monotony / Existential crises
This may sound silly, but Alex and I would spend hours thinking or talking about why we were out there. A basic question left to simmer and float around while walking through the backcountry can devolve into serious doubt, and both of us questioned our purpose more than a few times. We’ve both read that having a clear purpose or “why” can fuel a thru-hike, and this was a barrier for us to overcome. When the days are long and monotonous, knowing that you’re working towards a specific goal or personal objective can blaze the path.
While we were on trail, we did quite a bit of journaling. Every night, we would write our high, our low, a lesson learned, and an intention for the next day. In the future, I would add my “why” for the day to help my objective and focus stay clear.
No matter which way you slice it, on a thru-hike you will be at a caloric deficit. We actually ate more than many other people we met on the trail, and were still ravenous pretty much all the time. The only thing we would have changed about our food strategy was swapping freeze-dried lunches for a cold option (tortillas, summer sausage, etc.), but the only way to prepare for this level of depletion is to just know that it’s coming. And to eat a few extra slices of pizza or pie before you hit the trail.
Pure, inescapable vulnerability
Our friendship grew more in 18 days on the JMT than it did over two months on our road trip. Day after day was a new physical, mental, or emotional challenge and we quickly found that we only had each other (and new friend Dan) to rely on. There is absolutely no way to prepare for this, but our thru-hike was made so much more meaningful by the fact that we fully experienced our lows. Because we had each other to cry and complain to, our emotional journey had layers of depth. On any future thru-hike, it’s imperative for me to surround myself with people who welcome the emotional struggles as well as the physical.
We hit the trail in Yosemite fairly confident and were quickly humbled within the first 12 hours. A thru-hike is a completely different beast, and for those who are used to climbing mountains there are countless unique difficulties that come with the decision to live outside for weeks on end. Though on day 15 neither of us could imagine ever wanting to do something like that again, I think we’re both already eyeing future trails. We’ve now both had months to reflect, and in sum we found ourselves relatively prepared for the physical aspect of a thru-hike. We had no freakin’ clue how emotional of a transformation the two of us would make, and I hope in the future to be able to replicate that trying and seemingly impossible experience. Pushing through those long days and longer nights, I found a strength and passion I didn’t know existed.