By Michael Lanza
So you’re planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail and making all of the necessary preparations, and now you’re wondering: What’s the best gear for a JMT hike? Having thru-hiked the JMT as well as taken numerous other backpacking trips all over the High Sierra—mostly between late August and late September, which I consider that the best time to walk the Sierra, to avoid snow and the voracious mosquitoes and blazing hot afternoons of mid-summer—I offer the following picks for the best lightweight backpacking gear and apparel for a JMT thru-hike.
Indisputably one of the best backpacking trips in America—and among the very best I’ve taken over three decades of backpacking, including 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor and lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—the JMT meanders for 211 miles through the magnificent High Sierra, from Yosemite Valley to the summit of the highest peak in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney (where backpackers must then descend another 11 miles to finish the trip at Whitney Portal trailhead). See my story about thru-hiking the JMT in seven days.
With few opportunities to resupply along the trail—and given the generally dry weather in the Sierra in summer—you can easily walk the length of the JMT with a very light pack. Maximum pack weight will depend on how many days you spend on the trail and your food weight, but it’s quite feasible to keep your base pack weight (everything but food and water) within 15 to 20 pounds—or less—without compromising safety or comfort in camp.
See my stories “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-Day, Ultralight Plan,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your JMT thru-hike and any trip you read about at The Big Outside, and my affordable, expert e-guides to backpacking trips in Yosemite and other parks.
The following suggestions for major gear items would also be solid picks for almost any backpacker who wants to go lighter and hike more comfortably in many mid-latitude mountain ranges in summer—although items like your tent and footwear would depend on the typical weather and bugs (and time of year). Most recommendations below have a link to my full review of each. Click on the name of any product to buy it; those are affiliate links, meaning you can support my work on this blog by purchasing through them, at no cost to you.
Please share your thoughts on these gear suggestions for the JMT, or your own suggested gear, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Table of Contents
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For a backpack, I like a few models that weigh under three pounds: two top-loaders with traditional features like lots of external pockets, the Osprey Exos 58 or 48 ($220, 2 lbs. 11 oz. for the Exos 58) and women’s Osprey Eja 58 or 48 (read my review) and the Gregory men’s Optic 58 or Optic 48 ($210, 2 lbs. 7 oz. for the Octal 58) and women’s Octal 55 or 45 (read my review); and two utralight, mimimalist packs, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($355, 55L, 1 lb. 15 oz., read my review) and Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 ($270, 60L/3,661 c.i., 1 lb. 14 oz., read my review).
See all of my picks for the best ultralight backpacks.
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In late summer, outside the buggy season in the High Sierra, I prefer using a backpacking tarp shelter like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2 ($735, 1 lb. 2 oz., read my review), Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp ($200-$230, 10.5-15.5 oz., two sizes), and Slingfin SplitWing Shelter Bundle ($315, 1 lb. 5 oz., watch for my upcoming review). I often sleep under the stars on a clear night, but a tarp, besides protecting you from rain and some wind, can trap a surprising amount of warmth underneath it on a calm night.
If you want a two-person tent, get one that weighs under three pounds, like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 ($450, 2 lbs. 11 oz., read my review), Nemo Dragonfly 2P ($400, 2 lbs. 10 oz., read my review), Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 ($400, 2 lbs. 4 oz., read my review) or Big Agnes TIger Wall 2 Platinum is under two pounds ($550, 1 lb. 15 oz., read my review), and Slingfin 2Lite Trek, which pitches with trekking poles ($329, 2 lbs. 6 oz., read my review).
My favorite solo ultralight is the Gossamer Gear The One, which weighs under 1.5 pounds ($300, 1 lb. 6 oz., read my review).
See my picks for “The 9 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents” all of my backpacking tent reviews, my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent” and my story “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent For You.”
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For backpacking the JMT in late summer, I carry a down sleeping bag rated around 30 degrees F, with a high down fill rating (800 of above), because it’s warmer, lighter, more packable than a synthetic bag or down bag with lower fill quality (if also more expensive), and well suited to the dry Sierra summers, where there’s little risk of getting a bag wet. People who get cold more easily may want a bag rated 20 to 25 degrees, although you can wear layers to supplement the bag’s warmth.
My favorites are the Feathered Friends men’s Hummingbird (30-degree, $429, 1 lb. 6 oz.) and women’s Egret UL (read my review), the Therm-a-Rest Hyperion (32-degree, $360, 1 lb. 1 oz., read my review); the Marmot Hydrogen (30-degree, $341, 1 lb. 7 oz.); the Western Mountaineering Summerlite (32-degree, $410, 1 lb. 3 oz., read my review); and the Sierra Designs Nitro 800 (20-degree, $320, 1 lb. 15 oz., read my review).
If you want a bag that’s not as constricting as a classic mummy, check out the crazy-light and comfortable Sierra Designs Cloud 800 bag, which comes in 35-degree ($300, 1 lb. 7 oz.) and 20-degree versions (read my review).
If you prefer an ultralight quilt, check out the Sierra Designs Nitro Quilt, also available in 35-degree ($250, 1 lb. 5 oz.) and 20-degree ($280, 1 lb. 11 oz.) versions (read my review).
Looking for an affordable synthetic bag? I recommend the Big Agnes Picket SL 30 men’s or women’s ($260, 2 lbs. 4 oz., read my review).
See my “10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag” and all of my sleeping bag reviews.
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When nighttime lows will generally remain above freezing, as is usually the case on the JMT at least into mid-September, take an ultralight puffy jacket like the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody ($299, 9 oz., read my review), the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Down Hoody ($325, 8.8 oz., read my review), or the lightweight and warmer Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody ($379, 11 oz., read my review) or Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket ($339, 11 oz. , read my review).
See my picks for “The 10 Best Down Jackets,” my story “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is” and all of my puffy jacket reviews.
On the John Muir Trail—or anywhere in the High Sierra—in summer, where rain occurs only rarely and most often as a passing thunderstorm, you don’t need the same rain protection as, say, in the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast. In fact, if you generally head out in warm, dry weather—common in many Western mountain ranges in summer—you may only need a less-expensive and ideally lightweight shell, like the Black Diamond Treeline Rain Shell ($129, 10 oz., read my review), an impressive value in part because it has an adjustable, full-coverage hood, a feature sometimes lacking in bargain rain jackets, making it suitable even for wet environments.
Another option for backpackers who rarely see rain is an ultralight, waterproof-breathable rain jacket, and two of the best are the Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket ($159, 6 oz., read my review) and The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket ($280, 8.5 oz., read my review).
If you need a rain shell for almost any conditions and don’t have the budget for multiple jackets, then you’ll have to get one that serves all of your needs, and the Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket ($249, 14 oz., read my review) is a top performer at a competitive price.
See my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking” and “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Running Jackets,” plus “5 Expert Tips For Buying a Rain Jacket for Hiking.”
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Shoes and Boots
If all of your gear is light, on a well-constructed trail like the JMT that’s often dry in summer, get lightweight, highly breathable, non-waterproof boots or low-cut shoes like the La Sportiva TX3 ($135, 1 lb. 9 oz., read my review), trail runners like the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 ($145, 1 lb. 4 oz.) or very light mid-cut boots like the Hoka One One Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX ($170, 1 lb. 10 oz., read my review of both).
If you prefer waterproof-breathable footwear that’s still relatively light, I recommend the Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX ($185, 1 lb. 11 oz., read my review), or Oboz Bridger Mid BDry ($180, 2 lbs. 6 oz.) or Bridger Low BDry (read my review of both).
See all of my reviews of hiking shoes.
Trekking poles should be essential gear on any backpacking trip, but for the JMT—if you’re going lightweight or ultralight, as you should be—get very light poles that are ideally adjustable and very packable. Among the best are the folding and adjustable Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ ($190, 12.7 oz./pair, 105-125cm, read my review), the collapsible and adjustable Gossamer Gear LT5 ($190, 10 oz./pair, read my review), and the folding, adjustable Leki Micro Vario Carbon Black Series ($250, 15 oz./pair, read my review) or the similar Leki MC 12 Vario ($250, 15 oz./pair, read my review).
See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
Get the gear that’s right for you. Buy smartly, starting with my story “5 Things to Know Before Buying Backpacking Gear,” which has my general tips on buying any gear and links to my stories offering specific tips on buying a pack, tent, boots, and sleeping bag. See also all of my reviews of backpacking gear, ultralight backpacking gear, and hiking gear and all of my stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”