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  • Jen Bloss

Overwhelmed and obsessed: a novice backpacker prepares for the John Muir Trail

trail overlooking mountain and trees on John Muir Trail
Breathtaking views on the John Muir Trail

Nothing like jumping in head first to a new challenge- but it comes at a cost

Backpacking the John Muir Trail- why not?

A few months ago, a friend of mine was telling me that she had permits to hike the John Muir Trail. She mentioned that she had extra permits and her husband couldn’t go, so she was planning to do it alone. “I’ll do it with you!” I exclaimed. All I knew about the trail is that it was somewhere in the vast expanse of Northern California (which to me, is basically everything above Los Angeles) and that it was long and that permits are hard to come by. Aside from “The mountains are calling and I must go”, I knew nothing about John Muir, including how to pronounce his name. But why not? I like adventure and hiking and have been wanting to try backpacking for a while now. I’d just been lying in wait for the right combination of willing friends and opportunities. A quick google search informed me that I had committed to 211 miles of hiking over 2.5-3 weeks, with 46,000 feet of elevation gain! The 211 miles didn't impress me so much, but that elevation gain blew my mind. WHAT. Even as a trail runner, more than 2,500 ft of climb in one run leaves my legs wobbly and threatens to flare up any one of my dormant overuse injuries. The trail starts in Yosemite and ends on the summit of Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous United States), and nearly the entire trail lies at a minimum altitude of 8,000 feet.

First Impressions

My first few thoughts: How in the world will I train for this? How much stuff will I need to buy? Will I go broke doing so? As I started down on what would become a life-consuming quest for information related to this new hobby, I realized a few things. 1- “Thru hiking” sounds super legit and I am secretly psyched to say I’m doing that, and 2- I know NOTHING when it comes to this sport. Trail running, hiking, and camping are helpful skills, but backpacking is its own world.

This is not to say I have no outdoors experience and this is completely out of my league. I’ve run some ultramarathons, done several multi-day hikes, mountaineered above 19,000ft, and even camped for a week in the remote mountains of Nepal. But for all of those experiences, I either had guides, rented gear, cooks, or MREs to eat. I’ve never had to plan anything, own the equipment, navigate, bring all of my own food and cook it, or conquer long distances carrying heavy loads on my back.

The madness begins...

And so began the spiral. I had everything to learn, everything to buy, everything to plan. And thinking about and researching these things began to overtake every thought and free moment of my life. Every click of the mouse led me to a new opinion, another piece of gear, another consideration. I also learned that I wouldn’t only need to research stuff, but also skills. How do you cross rivers safely? How do you walk over snow covered passes? How do you choose a campsite and keep bears out? How do I use all of the features on my Garmin inReach? Oh, and then the logistics! How do you get to and from the trailheads when they start and end in different cities? How does resupplying work? What are all of the nuances of the permit rules? I am a detail-oriented person and a contingency planner, so I cannot leave any stone unturned. This became very overwhelming. Can anyone else relate?

Early discoveries about the world of backpacking

The first thing I discovered is that there is a preference for “ultralight” backpacking. This means a base weight (everything you carry, except for consumables like water, food, and fuel) of under 10 pounds. Sounds great! But as it turns out, it is very very expensive to do that. I learned that people even cut their toothbrushes in half and make spreadsheets of their gear to track how many grams things each item weighs. WOAH. As a beginner, I realized this was out of my league, but I did make a decision to try to get the lightest gear I could for a reasonable price. As so the quest for gear began.

Gear researching: a hobby unto itself

Preparing to backpack the John Muir Trail actually got me two new hobbies instead of one. Backpacking gear became my new favorite topic and seemed to overhaul my personality. Here is a sampling of how it all went:

  • Packs: I ended up trying on or purchasing at least 15 different packs. This was a dire Goldilocks situation. Multiple people told me “if you have the right pack, it feels like you’re not carrying any weight at all!”. But I was shocked at how heavy 25 pounds felt in almost every pack. At one point, I had 5 packs at my house and I took turns stuffing each of them with weight and walking around my apartment complex, going up and down the stairs. None were perfect, unfortunately, and I just had to choose the least bad of the bunch.

camping gear and backpacks and packages on floor

  • Footwear: I thought this would be straightforward- you wear hiking boots. But no. No, no, no. I learned that almost all thru hikers wear trail runners, waterproof footwear is bad, and apparently people take off their shoes to cross rivers. Backpackers actually like crocs and use them for this purpose. Bringing an additional pair of shoes for camp is also a thing. Well, I’m in a tough spot because I love my hiking boots, but they are waterproof, so if they get submerged in a river crossing they will never dry out. I also have trail runners, but they are not comfortable enough to wear for 200 miles, So, my two current pairs of $170 footwear will be insufficient and I will need to choose another pair of $170 to fill this niche. Great!

multiple shoes lined up on the floor
These were only 4 of the 7 different water shoes I evaluated

  • Tents: A few days of my life are gone from researching this too. Apparently there are single wall and double wall tents; free standing, semi freestanding, and trekking pole tents. 1 person or 2 person? All come with pros and cons, all of which you can find detailed arguments for all over the internet. When it came down to it, 2 main things helped me make my decision. Remembering that I am a newbie and don’t need the most advanced equipment right off the bat, and that REI was having a 20% off sale that ended in 2 days. So I narrowed down my choices to what I could get on sale. Even after purchasing, I continued the mental debate. Eventually I had to make a conscious decision to just stick with what I bought!

  • Hydration system: I was appalled to discover that most hikers seem to use Smart Water bottles because they are lightweight. Don’t plastic water bottles leach bad particles into your water when reused multiple times and exposed to sunlight? I was NOT going to do that. Wait! Just kidding… I am. Hydration bladders are cumbersome to fill and get in and out of a pack. So I’m going to turn a Smart Water bottle into a hydration system to get the benefits of both. And I’m going to choose to ignore that I am melting particulate matter into my water for 2 weeks.

  • Food- I thought it would be as easy as picking up those packets of backpacking meals I always see at REI. But it turns out that those are at least $10 a piece! Insane! I will pack a few of them, but I will need to think of my own food to make and bring. And OMG how many calories you need to have! Some people bring pouches with olive oil to add to their food to increase the calorie count. And apparently you are supposed to take all food out of their original packages and put them into ziplock bags, in order to have enough space in the bear canister for all of them. Then, you cook directly into the ziplock bag. Yes, apparently you pour boiling water into a plastic bag, and this is not a problem. I am learning so much.

bags of backpacking food laid out next to bear can
Prepping food to fit in the bear canister

The search marches on

And this learning obsession continued for each category of gear. Sleeping pads, hygiene (what do you mean no one brings deodorant?!), coffee, clothing, first aid kits, stoves, pots… the amount of knowledge I had to gain was immense. Every waking moment I poured through blogs and reviews. I think that most people gain this information over years of experience, but I felt like I had to cram it all in at once, which was extremely overwhelming.

Checking myself

In all of my obsessing and researching, I’ve found myself getting really carried away with everything, and I kept forgetting to bring God into the midst of all this. One of my personal policies is that anything of big magnitude should be done with God. I don’t want to do it on my own. I’m so human and God is so much bigger and capable of more than I am. He always makes a way. I’ve been given this incredible opportunity, but I've spent a lot of time tunnel visioned and forgetting to ask God into the details. So at one point, I just prayed for wisdom on what I should buy and peace in the choices I make. Prayed for the knowledge I need and for Him to walk through this whole process with me. There is nothing I love more than adventuring and experiencing creation with God. I’m also looking forward to experiencing God’s provision and power and strength through the many inevitable low moments when the trail gets really tough.

Not coincidence

One cool thing I know has been a God thing in this whole process is the fortuitous meeting of people who are very knowledgeable about backpacking. It’s been the people in my running group who have backpacking experience and listen to me talk about it often. Or meeting a girl on a run who happened to be an experienced backpacker and answered about 1,000 of my questions on one run. Or the guy I randomly struck up a conversation with while walking along the road, who happened to have done the JMT multiple times and has spent many nights in the Sierras. Each of these "chance" encounters has been such a blessing, because it’s allowed me to get real input and advice based on experience, and helped me get out of the insanity swirling inside of my brain. And make new friends, of course. I can’t chalk this up to coincidence, it’s been too many repeated encounters. And I know that one of the main ways God works is by providing people in our path to give us what we need.

Let's get on trail already!

After all of the stress and the research and the purchasing, I am SO looking forward to the day in which I can finally put my new knowledge and gear into practice. Time to get out on the trail!

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