There are probably hundreds of pages about JMT logistics (though not that many for northbound trips). This post-trip entry isn’t intended to be general information for planning, but reflections on how things went for our particular hike.
The NOBO Life
We’d originally planned to hike south, but we had a fairly narrow window for the hike, and when we failed to get permits after several attempts, northbound started looking pretty good. In retrospect, it was a great option for us. Supposedly, the major concerns about NOBO hikes are:
Altitude — This was our big worry, since starting from the south puts you at 10,000+ feet elevation right away. We trained hard, but we live basically at sea level, neither of us had ever hiked over 7,000 feet before, and we had no idea how the altitude would affect our bodies. We found that a night in Lone Pine and a night at the Horseshoe Meadow trailhead worked well to acclimate us before we started the hike. We also had prescriptions for Diamox, which we began taking about a day and a half before going up to the trailhead. We tested it at home to ensure no bad reactions, and the only “problem” we had with it on trail was intense tingling in our fingers and toes (an extremely common side effect). [Also feeling like I needed to pee all the time for the first day, which made the ESTA ride from Reno to Lone Pine a harrowing experience. -Cyn] I stopped taking my Diamox after Forester Pass; I think Cyn continued hers for another day or two after that.
Permitting — There’s a lot of anxiety about getting a northbound permit that starts at Mt. Whitney, which can only be done through a very competitive lottery system. We avoided this altogether by starting further south, at Horseshoe Meadow via Cottonwood Pass. I loved this option — the permit was a snap, those miles were beautiful, we had a little more solitude in our first few days, and it gave me a chance to really acclimate before making my Whitney climb on the third day. As a bonus, in 2016 the Cottonwood Pass permits also included permits for climbing Half Dome (even though we didn’t do it!).
Crowds — Since most JMT hikers travel southbound, NOBOs tend to experience a more crowded trail: you pass a bunch of SOBOs every day. But these encounters were typically brief, and because we’re comfortable dry camping, we could usually find campsites in solitude if we wanted them. Also, we never expected this trail to be the kind of super private experience we had in Joshua Tree, so just took it in stride most of the time. The most crowded spots were the Rae Lakes area, the trail off Kearsarge down to Onion Valley, and the last day’s hike into Yosemite Valley (which was admittedly pretty overwhelming, but did provide us with many options for food and transportation at the end).
None of these “downsides” proved to be issues for us. On the contrary, there was a lot to love about hiking north. Cyn appreciated getting many of the more difficult portions out of the way at the beginning so that we got stronger and the trail got easier as we went on. We agreed we’d rather briefly cross paths with people going the opposite direction than be constantly leapfrogging tons of hikers. It was generally easy to find secluded campsites, because there were far fewer people trying to set up for passes on the south sides. And we were, of course, very pleased to avoid climbing up the Golden Staircase and Bear Ridge.
It seems that many people worry about resupply on the southern half, especially when adding in the extra 20 miles to get onto the actual JMT. We both loved our trip over Kearsarge to Independence: truly beautiful hiking along the Bullfrog Lake and (especially) Kearsarge Pass trails, a lovely half-day at the Kearsarge Lakes, and most of all, a rejuvenating stay at the Mt. Williamson Motel. Cannot recommend it highly enough. [Seconded. -Cyn]
We used the National Geographic paper map on trail, and I took Elizabeth Wenk’s databook on my phone’s Kindle app. Pre-hike I also used Erik the Black’s JMT map for planning, and I printed and carried two individual pages from his PCT set, which covered the Horseshoe Meadow to Crabtree Meadow section. You can also download and print free maps for that section from Halfmile (it’s the last few pages of Section G).
Additionally, we both had Guthook’s JMT app on our phones, though it stopped GPSing us for about a week in the middle there. I tried not to use it much because I found it made me feel anxious about mileage, [I had the opposite experience. It was a great comfort to be able to check exactly how far we’d gone and how much farther we needed to go. The days without it were definitely tougher for me, mentally. -Cyn] but it was nice for looking ahead at water sources, possible campsites, and elevation changes.
Food & Water
I made a detailed, day-by-day food list beforehand — not because we would adhere to that daily menu on the trail, but to ensure we had enough calories to sustain us. We practiced packing the bear cans with our largest resupply before we left for the trip.
Breakfast: We like to get up and go in the mornings, so we ate a bar or some trail mix while hiking out of camp.
Lunch: On this trip we usually ate our hot meal for lunch, which let us enjoy a long scenic break in the middle of the day. We put together several different “homemade” meals for freezer-bag cooking. These started with a carbohydrate base — ramen, instant potatoes, Stovetop stuffing, or couscous — and then we added flavoring (like instant soup or gravy mix) and freeze-dried chicken and veggies. We also bought a few commercial freeze-dried meals to rotate in: chicken & dumplings, and spaghetti with meat sauce.
Dinner: Various cold foods: tuna pouches with mayo/mustard/relish, tortillas with peanut butter and honey, meat sticks, cheese sticks/string cheese, crackers, etc.
Snacks: PopTarts, crushed potato chips, various bars, trail mix, Snickers and m&ms, cookies, Chex Mix, Nutella, oatmeal creme pies…
Our favorite things to eat were ramen, PopTarts, tuna, and spaghetti with meat sauce. We took a variety of bars, hoping that we wouldn’t get sick of any one kind, but even still Cyn will probably never ever eat another ProBar Meal bar. [Never. Ever. – Cyn] Kate’s Real Food bars were my favorite breakfast. It was awesome to have special snacks as a reward at the tops of the passes. But it was too hot for our traditional mid-morning Hot Drink break — I think we gave up after the second day. Cyn just made her coffee cold and I donated most of my cocoa packets to the hiker boxes. Jolly Ranchers and Nuun electrolyte tablets were lifesavers in the heat.
By the halfway point, we had stopped thinking of things in terms of “meals” vs “snacks” and just ate whatever we wanted at any time of day. Hiking at altitude can really mess with your appetite, so I was glad we brought a variety of textures and flavors to choose from. Despite eating tons of high-calorie junk food, I was pretty shocked to realize how skinny I was when we hit the Red’s Meadow showers and then again in our hotel at the end of the trail. [It was interesting to observe how much my appetite fluctuated over the course of the trip. Hot meals at lunch were good for a while, but then started making me nauseous. Things that I thought I could eat forever started tasting horrible. So I too am glad about the variety and that we both had a plan and were able to be flexible with it as things changed. -Cyn]
Our Bearikade bear cans worked well, and we each clipped a washer onto our packs to easily open the can lids. Cyn’s lid did become difficult to fully lock for a while, I think. We heard lots of stories about bold animals stealing food, especially in Yosemite, but we were extremely vigilant and lost no food to wildlife! (We did see lots of tourists trying to feed squirrels in Yosemite Valley. Not okay.)
Water was easy. The few dry stretches were clearly marked on our map — but after hiking in Joshua Tree, a waterless 5-6 miles doesn’t really seem like a “dry stretch” anyway. We each carried two 1-liter bottles and one 2-liter bladder. We shared a regular-sized Sawyer filter and appreciated its faster flow rate compared to the Mini, with Aqua Mira drops as back-up water treatment.
Gear & Clothing
I’m always looking for ways to lighten my pack, but I still appreciate some creature comforts like camp shoes (I need these less now that I have my comfy Altras, but they’re still nice for water crossings) and a fully enclosed tent (my distaste for creepy-crawlies in the night makes it unlikely I’ll ever convert to tarp camping). I generally follow the theory that you’ve packed properly if you regularly used everything in your pack. There are exceptions for first aid, repair kit, and rain gear — we always take these essential items, but count it as a bonus if we don’t have to use them! We take a minimal first aid kit with some basic blister care items, ibuprofen, immodium, benadryl, and antibiotic ointment. Except for some minor blisters and Cyn’s mysterious foot/Achilles pains, we experienced no injuries or illnesses. We take a minimal repair kit with some small sections of different tapes, a tiny sewing kit, a bit of extra guyline, a few safety pins, and single-use superglue. We had no gear failures, unless you count that stupid tent stake, which is also the only thing we “lost.”
Clothes: We each brought a light fleece shirt in addition to our puffy down jackets, because last summer’s Terrible Day cemented our fear of hiking in cold rain without an insulating layer. I wore my puffy in camp most mornings and evenings, but only put my fleece on twice. Cyn wore hers more regularly. [Usually just while hiking in the somewhat chilly mornings and at the top of some passes. -Cyn] I don’t take any extra clothing aside from one spare pair of underwear and one spare pair of hiking socks. [I took a short sleeve smart wool shirt just because I could not make up my mind which to take and decided that I’d rather have the peace of mind of having options than choose the wrong thing. In the end I didn’t need that at all. Especially with tattoos, I was more worried about sun protection than being a little too warm. I’m not sure that short sleeves would have made much of a difference anyway. -Cyn] We were glad to hike in long sleeves, long pants, sun hats, and sun gloves because the sun was very intense at altitude. Most nights were cold enough that I wore my thin wool liner gloves to bed, and they really did a lot to keep me toasty without adding any other layers. We also each sent a new pair of socks to our halfway-point resupply at MTR (and tossed one of the worn pairs), which was a nice treat.
Electronics: We shared one external battery to keep our phones charged, recharged as we could at our resupply stops, and kept our phones on airplane mode when on trail. We were never even close to running out of power, even though we took tons of photos, checked the GPS regularly, and read a lot on our Kindle apps at night. [The key, at least on an iPhone, is to close all apps when you’re not using them. -Cyn] We carried a Delorme InReach and used it to send a pre-set check-in message to our emergency contacts every night from camp. Cyn also brought a tiny iPod shuffle to use for tough climbs (and as a soothing device in the thunderstorm). [One of two luxury items and I’m so glad I brought it. -Cyn]
Health & Hygiene: It is wicked dry up there at 10,000+ feet! I was very grateful for our little tube of Neosporin to heal our chapped lips, cracked fingertips, Cyn’s chafe, and my sunburned nose. A travel-size sunblock (shared) and SPF lip balm (one each) were important. We are both fans of the bidet + pee rag combo, which is definitely the least gross toilet hygiene option we’ve tried. We found a tiny plastic squeezable bottle marketed for taking salad dressing on-the-go, and used it as a bidet. It holds 2 fluid ounces, is compact and lightweight, and worked like a charm. We also brought a few wet wipes for toilet needs, and used Wysi Wipes to help clean our super dusty/dirty legs and feet. We always use this method for packing out toilet waste — packing it out is really not a big deal, and it makes a huge difference for the environment and fellow hikers. We bring a tiny (maybe 0.5 oz.) dropper bottle of Dr. Bronners soap (in all of our hiking I think we’ve only used this twice, always far away from water sources), 1oz. of Purell each, a travel-size toothpaste (used sparingly, can last two people the whole hike), nail clippers, and that’s about it for hygiene items.
The only new gear that we took on the JMT was our tent, the Lightheart Gear Duo. Up until this trip, we’d used a fairly standard lightweight freestanding tent. The Duo uses trekking poles to set up, so it weighs less but also takes a little more practice to pitch properly. We both loved this tent. It has so much more room than our old one! We had plenty of space to store our packs at our feet and never felt like we were sleeping on top of each other. I especially liked the awning, which allows for good airflow and views while still protecting from mild rain. Condensation can be an issue in single-walled tents, so we always put the awning up and tried to keep one vestibule door open on the other side, and we chose campsites carefully. We only had a couple of mornings with light dew on the tent walls, easily wiped down with a bandana. The tent was very solid in the wind and one evening of rain. I’d practiced pitching it at home, but Cyn developed a real knack for it on the trail. One of the only downsides I found is that you have to get inside the tent to put the trekking poles in place — it’s not a huge issue, but just means that if it’s raining or your shoes are dirty, you bring the mess in with you during set-up. Before we left home, I used a taut-line hitch to knot some extra cord into adjustable loops on the ends of the guylines — then when we camped on granite or other areas where it was hard to drive stakes into the ground, we just slipped rocks into those loops and piled heavier rocks on top. The tent is lightweight, packs up pretty small, and as a bonus, is made by a woman-owned cottage company in North Carolina. (There aren’t that many reviews online for the Duo, so I hope this short overview is helpful for others who might be considering this tent!)
Sometime in our last week of hiking, we pondered the three items that contributed most to our happiness during the trip, which are as follows:
- Nuun tablets — made a huge difference in the searing heat. [Nuun forever. I love you, Nuun. -Cyn]
- Trail runners — I am 100% devoted to my Altra Lone Peaks and can’t imagine hiking in anything else. Cyn was very comfortable in her Brooks Cascadias, though the lugs on the soles wore down in the forefoot area, so their traction wasn’t great near the end of our trip. Thinking about the severe foot pain that we both suffered on the Wonderland last year, which lasted for weeks after the hike, I’m so grateful that we both found shoes that feel good and that we stopped using Superfeet insoles.
- Bug headnet (Toby’s pick) — absolutely crucial defense against the relentless mosquitos.
Inflatable pillow (Cyn’s pick) — weighs less than 3oz. and dramatically improved her sleep quality.
Looking back, our planning was pretty spot-on, and I’m not sure I’d make any changes. We would have liked to do the bulk of our hiking in August to avoid the mosquitos, but had to start in early July to get back home in time for fall semester. Mosquitos were definitely unpleasant at times, but we were otherwise very happy with a July hike, and found the snow and water crossings only very mildly challenging, even after a comparatively wet winter. Our training plan worked out very well, even here in the flat Midwest — I think the packs-on “hiking” to and from our football stadium climbs was key, as was our work on the gym’s stair-stepper machine.
After this trip, we no longer feel like novice baby backpackers. [I even feel comfortable with the idea of doing solo trips now, which is not something that I ever thought I’d say. -Cyn] I’m glad we had done some shorter trips before embarking on this one, because we felt very comfortable with our gear, food needs, and hiking/camping routines, and could just really sink into the hike. [Joshua Tree was especially helpful in getting used to hiking in low-water areas and in choosing camp sites and camping alone. -Cyn] We had a loose itinerary in mind to ensure we hit our resupplies and exit point at the right times, but otherwise tried to go with the flow based on how our bodies felt, where the passes were, what the weather was like, and where we found nice campsites. I’m especially glad that I budgeted extra time and low miles for our first few days — it was a good buffer to have in case altitude slowed us down at first, and because we didn’t need that buffer after all, we got the surprise awesomeness of a night at Kearsarge Lakes.
Cheers to all of the friendly hikers we met along the way, especially The Newlyweds and The Venetians, whom we fondly considered trail family by the end. Maybe in the next couple of months we’ll write up longer posts on some of the political issues we discussed during our hike (including perceptions of rural folks in trail towns, the so-called “Wild effect,” and gendered exposure to the outdoors). I am planning to hike a big chunk (maybe all?) of the desert section of the PCT this spring, my first real solo endeavor, and then we hope to do a shorter trip in Colorado in the early summer. Until then…