Thru Hiking Gear Review: What Worked and Didn't Work on The John Muir Trail

Thru hiking the John Muir Trail was one of the biggest adventures I'd ever attempted. A hike of this distance requires a lot of planning, logistics, training, careful gear choices and a lot of flexibility. I put together my John Muir Trail Gear List and tested everything to make sure it would work the way I wanted it to. I'll tell you about a few of the backpacking gear choices I made and how those worked out for me.

Trail Running Shoes

After much deliberation, I chose to go with trail running shoes from La Sportiva instead of heavier hiking boots. This saved each foot from a considerable amount of weight plus the quick drying trail runners breathe really well and don't keep the moisture inside like waterproof boots do. I was happy with this choice as I don't feel like I needed the additional ankle support and the light weight shoes functioned pretty well.

La Sportiva

Unfortunately, after about 100 miles it felt like the soles softened. My feet really began to hurt when I hiked through talus and scree. The sections of softball-sized rocks tore up my feet. I could have really used some additional support from a stiffer sole. I still stand by my decision but if I ever do a two week backpacking trip again, I'll look for something with a little stiffer sole.

Steripen Water Purification

Water purification is very important when you'll be living two weeks on natural water sources. I chose to purify my water with a Steri-pen. The ultraviolet light is lightweight, quick to purify and it doesn't change the taste of the water. On the trail I would fill a bottle with water, purify it real quick then drink the water as I filled the second bottle. Meanwhile, Chris was still pumping water through his filter and Paul was waiting for his chemical drops to take affect.

Water Purification Chris drinking fresh pumped water

I enjoyed the natural taste without the physical work of pumping the water and I was glad I didn't have a long hose taking up space in my backpack. On the other hand, the Steri-pen was a little glitchy. It didn't always seem to work correctly. Sometimes the light would turn off for no apparent reason. Then it would work fine. With a little patience, I was able to keep the Steri-pen working throughout the trip. I asked Steri-pen for suggestions after my experience and they just told me to change the batteries. I think there is a bigger glitch than batteries, otherwise I would have ran out of batteries long before we finished the trail. Still, I was happy to use an ultraviolet light purifier as the benefits outweighed the slight inconvenience.

Thousand Island Lake Thousand Island Lake

Framed Backpack

I spent a lot of time looking at backpacks before this trip. I thought a lot about ultra lightweight packs as I own one that was just a little too small for this trip. In the end I chose comfort over weight and went with a Mountain Hardwear Backpack that weighed in at 4.0 lbs. This was heavier than some packs I looked at but the thicker straps, more substantial hip belts and increased frame all provided the comfort I need for this longer backpacking trip. Lighter is not always better when you give up comfort and I never regretted my choice of backpacks.

Free Standing Tent

The final thing that took a lot of consideration was whether I should use a free-standing tent or more of a bivy or tarp system. I used to work for a company known for their one-man tarps. I'm quite familiar with the benefits and how to use one but in the end, I went for a free-standing tent. I figured in 13 nights the possibility of heavy winds or rain was pretty high. I didn't want to take any chances to just save a couple ounces.

Tents Photo by Chris Martin

I chose the Sierra Designs Vapor Light 1. At a trail weight of 2 lbs. 14 oz.. I wasn't giving up much weight but gained a lot of extra space, great vestibule area (which I wouldn't have had with a bivy) and the tent stood up to a hellish rainstorm. In fact, the only guy who brought a non free-standing tent had a terrible night when a heavy rain saturated the ground and heavy winds blew down his trekking pole, everything he had was soaked.

If you are really counting every gram then maybe a tarp is right for you, but I'm very satisfied with the tent I selected. As I said before, comfort is more important than weight. I tried to save weight everywhere I could but first I chose gear that fit my needs then tried to make it as light as possible.

JMT views

Of course this information all begs the question, what is the one thing I wish I had brought that I didn't? Ibuprofen. Yes. I brought some pain killers but I was mostly thinking about high altitude headaches when I packed it and only brought a few. To keep up the pace of 16 miles per day, I had to beg the other guys for their pain killers.

I had an amazing time hiking over 200 miles in 14 days on the John Muir Trail. The time I spent researching and studying gear paid off as I was happy overall with the gear I brought. My suggestion to you is that you first think about how you will use the gear and factor your comfort into the decision.

To learn more about my time on the John Muir Trail, follow this link: Day 1-3 Tuolumne Meadows to Crater Creek.
Andy Hawbaker
posted by
Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
Join the Conversation