Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Backpacking The John Muir Trail (part I)

Last weekend my brother Greg and I safely completed our backpacking expedition of a small section of the JMT! Well, it wasn't so small actually...it was about 1/5th of the total trail (almost 40 miles), as the entire JMT is 215 miles long (which we hope to eventually knock off section by section).I believe I must apologize up front here, as this first post will be EXTREMELY boring as its pretty much all about the pre-hike preparations.

We agreed to meet at 10am Friday morning in the bustling metropolis of Mojave CA (it's where our travel routes meet). Our meeting place was the originally the McDonald's, however that was closed for renovation, so I switched it to the Carl's Jr. Greg was still about 15 minutes out, and I was already knee-deep into a 2nd breakfast when he arrived (hey...you never know when your next meal will be, and I'm not one to turn down food very often). Greg had a quick breakfast and we then took off headed for Rt 395 north, destination Lone Pine Ranger Station. It is there every year that we get our hiking/wilderness permit, then grabbed us each a Subway sandwich (that nights dinner). We then we headed up the crazy climbing road and dropped Greg's car off at the Mt. Whitney Portal (which is the southern END of the John Muir Trail), which is accessed from right there in Lone Pine. Then we headed north to one-horse town of Independence and then again turned west towards the mountains, finally arriving at the Onion Valley trailhead around 3pm, which is where our 2013 odyssey truly begins. This is the same trailhead that we backpacked out of last year, however this year we were doing it one-way (in lieu of our typical "pack in, set up a base camp, then fish/day hike, and finally hike back to the same trailhead).

As of our arrival, we had two schools of thought for how to proceed.

Option A: park in a camping spot and spend the night "car camping" right there at the trailhead, where we do a little bit of acclimating our bodies to elevation. Whitney Portal is around 8600', and Onion Valley trailhead is about 9600', and we had driven up from our near sea-level lives that morning. In the past we've always gone for Option A.

Option B: quickly ready our packs and hit the trail. This is the manly option, as it will surely incur some fair amount of pain as our bodies are forced to adapt under pressure (or lack of it actually) as we coerce our tired and oxygen starved bodies up and over Kearsarge Pass (about 11,600') under the deadline of darkness. IF we were truly hoping to pack out on the following Tuesday then this was pretty necessary.

So, of course being the manly men that we are, we went for Option B. We went thru our packs in a fair hurry, trying desperately to rid them of any unnecessary weight. I had a paper-copy of my excel spreadsheet where I had been weighing all my camping items (including the empty backpack) in an attempt to get a grip on where the weight was coming from. In years past we've each packed in over 35 lbs each. This year we knew that to carry our packs the entire way we needed to drop some weight. Hard choices were made, redundancies were eliminated. Also new this year was we BOTH carried a bear-can. Usually we do one can (carried by Greg, as I carry the tent) and I also would carry some mesh bags and line to do a bear hang of any extra food/smelly items that we don't want in our tent in case a bear were to show up. However we knew we'd be spending a few nights above tree-level, thus no bear hangs (and they aren't technically allowed...bear cans are the only recommended way to protect your food in 'bear country').

One of the redundant items we eliminated was a 2nd Jet-boil stove. I've been an adamant supporter of having two stoves. Having HOT food is a MUST in my book. Consider our dinners and breakfasts are in need of hot/boiling water, and it would be a very sad meal if only cold water were available. Being as I was carrying the tent (which is a new model, 2 lbs lighter than the tent I carried in years past!), I gave Greg the large bear can and I carried the medium size one (it weighs 1/2lb less). The food was all divvied out for each of us, and then I put some of mine in Greg's can along with him carrying the stove (1.5lb) to offset the 4lb tent. Also eliminated this year was fishing gear, camp-shoes (comfy things to wear once you make camp), butt-pads (to sit on rather than just sitting on a log or rock) among other things.

Also new this year is some home-madeTyvek gear. I have been researching making some necessary items from Tyvek for the last year, and a month or so ago I bought a 100'x9' roll at Home Depot. You see, Tyvek is a wonderful miracle water-proof yet LIGHT WEIGHT material used mostly in construction. The 9' roll is used over the bare plywood of a house before the siding is put on. It is a waterproof yet breathable film membrane. Off the giant roll it makes a HORRIBLE noise as it is quite stiff...you wouldn't want to pull out a sheet of this in a campground after dark I can assure you. However, if you take said sheet and run it thru your washing machine a few times (with a tennis-shoe or other like item in there with it) and then air-dry it, the material comes out almost like a cloth, all soft and wrinkly, with the thunderous crackle all gone. I had made us both bivy bags, ponchos, pack-covers, and also a footprint for the new tent. I modeled the poncho's off of our heavy 'super ponchos', however my Tyvek ones weighed just a bit over half of the store-bought ones. The bivy bags are simply a little tube for our sleeping bags. They can be used in lieu of a tent (if you are a TRUE ULTRA-lightweight backpacker, which we are NOT), or if we were expecting COLD weather they can be used inside the tent to extend the temperature rating of our sleeping bags by about 10 degrees. The pack covers are elastic-banded covers that slip over the packs as they sit out in the open at night, and are lighter and cheaper than any store bought models.

And so...here is the FINAL list of what made my backpack for this trip:
Bear can (Bear Vault 450), tent, 23 degree down sleeping bag, 1 two-liter platypus water bottle (for filtering water into at our nightly camp, Greg also carries 1), mosquito head net (just in case, it only weighs 4.8oz, and IF there are mosquitoes it would suddenly be worth about a million $), small plastic orange 'poopie' shovel (to dig your 12" hole for your dooty), long handle plastic spoon, insulated cup, Tyvek poncho, Tyvek pack cover, long underwear (merino wool blend), rain/wind shell, fleece jacket, 2nd pair hiking socks and separate wool sleeping socks, wool stocking hat/gloves, inflatable pillow, sleeping pad (new model: gray foam pad bonded to thin blue pad: total weight 1lb 10oz and works FAR better than the MUCH heavier Thermarest inflatable), and all the food: mountain house dehydrated meals for each dinner, 3 packs instant flavored oatmeal for each breakfast, and 2 cliff bars and 1/2 pack beef-jerky each day for on the trail lunches. My TOTAL pack weight (consider my empty pack weighs 4lb 11oz) was 28lbs at the start (we weighed them at Whitney Portal at the end and my pack was now 23lbs). Also it has to be said that there are always a few 'stowaway' items, such as a shoestring (in case I break a boot string, also useful for many other emergency repairs), my led head-light, and a few other odds and ends. Also this year I carried my little 'bathroom kit' in my pants cargo-pocket (toothbrush w/ handle cut off, mini half-empty toothpaste tube, motrin and antacids, small sunscreen 'chapstick' style tube, and sleeping pills (Unisoms, we both take 3 gel-caps each night to help us sleep, which works WONDERS when you are old and sleeping on the ground). 

I carried my drinking water this year in a disposable water-bottle with a little carabiner clip around it's neck, and it was attached to my belt (NOT in/on my pack..water is heavy!). I also carried my Tyvek poncho and half of my long underwear on my back above the pack waist-belt (so technically it wasn't in my pack, thus another pound was lost). There are many arguments about whether total weight or weight of your pack is what matters. In my book (and being as I am the one carrying it all), it's weight on my back that matters most. My legs are strong...I have no problem with the weight. It's how much I have sitting day after day hour after hour on my shoulders/hips that matters most. I can tell you with absolute certainty that having my pack sub-30lbs for the first time EVER made a HUGE difference! Even at the very start when I lofted it to sling it over my shoulders, I didn't GROAN for the first time. Huge diff between 35+ and 28lbs! HUGE!!! Greg's pack weighed a bit more at both ends: 30 at the start and 25 at the finish. However he didn't quite go thru his pack with a fine-tooth comb like I did...he still had some extras (large zip-lock plastic bags separating clothes, full size (vice miniature) deodorant, stuff like that) and he now realizes that all those tiny things add up to a few extra pounds.

And so. At just about 3:30pm we locked the car after totally repacking our backpacks, and we hefted our now lighter loads onto our shoulders and we HIT THE TRAIL. I leave this first installment with our 2 trailhead pictures.
Greg and I locked and loaded, ready for us grizzled mountain-men to hit the HIGH Sierras!

Our final pre-departure picture: the obligatory trailhead sign selfie.


  1. Remind me not to backpack with Engineers. And where were your 5.10 climbing shoes and chalk bag?

  2. Hey David...now you made me realize I DIDN'T weigh my hiking boots (they are a medium weight...still carrying too much for a "lightweight" boot). No chalk-bag for us either...that would entail scary climbing skills & stuff that we don't do...(besides...that would be extra weight!) NOTHING goes in my pack now without making it thru a RIGOROUS qualification procedure...and if something goes in, something MUST come out! (my pack will NOT get heavier! Lighter is the only direction I will go!)

  3. Your tyvek idea is BRILLIANT! Looking forward to the next post and pictures!
    Looking at your list and remembering what I used to carry. My backpack partner & I were poor (and also thrifty) plus some items available today just were not on the market then in the early 80's; we worked in a hospital and found that the one liter bottles that sterile saline came in fit perfectly into the side pockets of our pack. We used oxygen supply tubing to run from the bottles over our shoulders for our own version of Camelbacks (they stole our idea!). We used cut-down convoluted foam for sleeping pads (they were bulky but light and effective). I think I still have a roll of that stashed with my gear down in the basement, although I haven't used any of it for near 20 years now.


  4. Rae, I can't claim ownership of the Tyvek camping gear idea...I'd heard about it long ago, and there are numerous Utube videos of guys making stuff from it. Tyvek is good stuff tho..and far lighter than the commercial stuff..(however longevity is an issue...but considering we use this stuff MAYBE once a year for a few days, I suspect it will last for YEARS!)

    Too bad you didn't capitalize on your hydration system...running tubing from your bottles so you didn't have to reach back and TRY to remove your bottle from your pack while wearing it was BRILLIANT! (My old pack had those pockets on the sides, seems great until you realize your arms don't work that way to get them out...too high and back to reach). But now I don't carry water in my pack anymore just due to the sheer weight...hook it to my belt/pants pocket works GREAT, and is super easy to get at any time. And being as Greg carries a filter kit, I only carry 1 bottle at a time (unless we know there will be a long stretch w/ no lakes/streams, then I carry another disposable bottle inside my pack..normally it's there but empty).