Three Must-Have Gear Items When Thru-Hiking The John Muir Trail

When it comes to planning a thru-hike, dialing in your gear is one of the most crucial aspects of the trip. A faulty tent pole or uncomfortable pair of footwear can make or break the experience. To ensure maximum success, I make sure I’m confident in the durability, quality, and usage of all my gear before stepping foot on trail. 

In June, I thru-hiked 270 remote miles of the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California. The long-distance trail, which follows the Sierra Nevada mountain range, meanders through Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks, and takes hikers through deep, wooded valleys, over high-elevation mountain passes, and past picturesque alpine lakes. The southern terminus, and the official start of the trail, sits atop Mount Whitney – the tallest peak in the continental U.S., at 14,505 feet above sea level. 

Because the entire trail stretches at or above 8,000 feet in elevation, hikers must be prepared for all kinds of weather in the mountains: treacherous snowfields in the summer are not uncommon, and afternoon thunderstorms are to be expected. Furthermore, the JMT is extremely remote, so lack of cell service, amenities, access to trailheads, and luxuries of civilization are hard to find.

In the three-day stretch between Pinchot Pass and Muir Pass, I hiked for hours through a white-out snowstorm, shivered through nights of a 20-degree cold front, and thawed out frozen sneakers in the early mornings—quite the jumpstart in the A.M.!

Yet while temperatures rose as I dropped in elevation, the last 90 miles warranted early-morning starts to avoid getting caught in electrical storms. For days on end, the miles came slowly as the weather forced patience. I continually found myself wringing out sopping-wet clothing at the end of the day, my fingers and toes prune-like from hours of walking in the rain. My daily hiking routine consisted of waiting in the trees for a storm to break before quickly ascending and descending a pass, just in time for another storm to roll through.

While June is typically considered early season for this trail, the Sierra hit a historically low snow year this year, making a lot of these snow crossings much less tedious. Glen and Mather Passes posed the sketchiest crossings, with steep—but short—traverses across switchbacks. And while the ascent up the north side of Muir Pass was covered in a thick blanket of snow for miles, the route was well-trenched and gradual. After noon, however, it was a post-holing mess. While I personally did not utilize my micro spikes, I kept them handy in my pack, but did not find a need for an ice axe when I crossed these passes mid-June. Depending on an individual’s comfort level in snow, however, carrying both is advised.

Due to the remote nature of this trip and the expect-the-unexpected mentality that comes with thru-hiking, I’ve honed in on three pieces of quintessential gear that I could not live without on trail. If you’re looking for reliable gear to take with you on your next thru-hike or overnight into the wilderness, read on for some of my JMT favorites. 

Sierra Designs Nitro 20 Degree Sleeping Bag

The Sierra Designs Nitro 20 Degree Sleeping Bag is the perfect combination of lightweight, comfort and affordability. Clocking in at just under two pounds, this bag was a game-changer when temps dipped below freezing. The 800-fill hydrophobic down kept me nice and toasty during rain, hail, and snow storms—I never had to worry about camping at lower elevations due to the piercing cold. The Nitro 20 also boasts a deep hood and draft collar to trap the warm air. During my coldest night on-trail, temperatures dipped below 20 degrees. I prepared for the worst and layered most of my clothing—a down jacket, fleece, and long pants. While I was certainly on the cusp of the comfortability rating of this bag, the Nitro did not disappoint as I was nice and toasty all night long.

The best feature of all, however, was the self-sealing foot vent. On warmer nights, this was a great feature for regulating my body temperature without having to unzip the whole bag—or, for walking around camp in my sleeping bag, which was something I utilized often. This was a big-selling point for me; I often enjoyed watching the sun dip behind the mountains in an abstract of pinks and purples, snuggled up in my bag against the side of a cliff. Or, during those mornings where I wasn’t quite ready to get out of bed and needed the caffeine to kick in while I shuffled around to complete my camp chores.

Somewear Global Hotspot

This satellite communicator was a game-changer for getting off-grid in the backcountry, while staying safe and connected to loved ones. The Somewear Global Hotspot easily clipped onto my backpack strap and was the definition of reliable: my messages were always sent, no matter where I was. In the app, the seamless messaging feature made it easy to keep track of conversations, on-demand weather updates helped me make crucial hiking decisions, and sending my location at camp each night was always accurate.

While the Somewear allows real-time tracking for family and friends to get live updates of your location, I preferred keeping the device off during the day. I reconnected with loved ones before I’d depart in the morning and when I’d arrive at camp for the evening. This helped preserve the battery and still allowed me to feel as though as I off-the-grid and disconnected during most of my hike. When turning the device on after a full day of hiking, it took less than 30 seconds to receive any incoming messages from the day. I typically had four or five different conversations going at a time each day, and outgoing messages rarely took longer than a minute to send.

The battery life on this little tear-shaped gadget was impressive; my longest stretch between civilization was around nine days, and the Somewear lasted the entire leg without needing to be charged. Fortunately, I never had to utilize the SOS function. But, if I had needed to, the instructions on how to send an SOS were straightforward, clear, and even printed on the device. Overall, the user interface was easy to figure out and this device does exactly what it’s supposed to do in a quick, timely manner.

BioLite Charge 20/40 PD

While I spent much of my trip off-the-grid, it was comforting to know I could charge all of my devices straight from my tent. The BioLite Charge 20 and 40 PD chargers are small, lightweight, and compact power banks that are built to withstand the durability needs of backpacking. With USB-C ports and high-speed charging, I never worried about running out of juice on my devices. They even had a handy blinking light feature to tell you how much charge was left in the power banks.

On the trail, I only ever needed to charge my phone between resupply points, but it gave me peace of mind to know that I had a way to charge my satellite communicator and watch as well. I opted for a non-rechargeable headlamp that utilized batteries instead of a charging port, so that I could ensure I had enough charge in my power bank for other essential items. If I’d had a rechargeable headlamp, I would not have had enough power bank capacity to keep all of my electronics charged up.

When using my phone for only photos, videos, and sending messages on my satellite communicator, the Charge 20 was just enough power to get me through six to eight days of hiking. I could charge my phone twice and still have power to spare, but would usually come into town with a power bank that needed a full charge. However, when I used my phone for navigating on a GPS all day, this used significantly more battery, requiring me to charge my phone two to three times on some of the longer stretches. This is where the Charge 40 came into play, ensuring I could still utilize my GPS daily without having to make sacrifices.

The Charge 20, which weighs a mere 165 grams, charged my phone to full capacity 1.5 times, and the Charge 40, weighing in at just 265 grams, charged it 2.5 times. The device was compact, easily transportable, and the perfect size for charging all of my devices when on the go. 

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