Thoughts on Hiking the JMT this Year

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Big Adventures

Well, it’s the end of March and somehow only a matter of months before I turn 30. And, more importantly, fly out to the US of A to start the John Muir Trail. Since this is a flipping big adventure for me (I haven’t been back since I was 2: catch up here) I feel like sharing how the run up to it is going. This will make good reading for me in the the future – because adventures never turn out the way you expect. Plus my musings about planning and prep might help other people (you, I guess) to plan your own adventures. Be that a US thru hike as a European or some other multi-week journey. The process is often similar.

Expectations for JMT 2023

So then, let’s start with my expectations – and all the emotions – for my John Muir Trail hike as we stand right now. First up, the funniest thing to me is about the weather: snow. I thought when I was initially planning this trip that I might need to worry about wild fires. Turns out that the opposite looks more likely. The High Sierras have had a record high snow year, some 700 inches of snow that hasn’t been seen in 40 years. This is more than 2019’s 200% snow pack year. Of course this will have some big effects on what my hike is like. But I still can’t help but find this funny. Having spent the first 3 months of the year doing winter mountains I announce: “I am so fed up of snow.” Now life is making me take it back again. It looks like 2023 for me will be a full year of snow.

In some ways I’m a bit disappointed by the whole thing. I wanted a “normal” year so that I could just experience the High Sierras without any extra drama. But then is there such thing as a normal year? I’m also lurking in the John Muir Trail Facebook Group and it is really hard to tell how bad the conditions are and how much it really will affect my trip. Because everyone overreacts on Facebook and assumes the average reader has zero outdoor experience. But then if someone randomly posted a question on the UK Ground Conditions group people would also assume the worst. So I guess we’re all guilty. Reading between the lines it will probably be fine for people with good winter/alpine experience and judgement. At least at the end of June when I’m going.

Otherwise, I’m just caught in the place between wanting it to be the best thing ever, but not wanting to put too much pressure on it to be amazing. I hate the term “Adventure of a Lifetime”, but this really is going to be one for me. You can’t go back to the US for the first time since you were a toddler twice. And after a lifetime’s worth of stories about Yosemite and California, I really hope it lives up to my expectations. I’ve been told by a few people that it definitely will, but that’s not really too reassuring. Anyway, I guess we’ll just have to see.

Snow Considerations

So then, what does doing John Muir Trail across the High Sierras in a high snow year mean? Well, I’m going to be starting north bound at the end of June – which is relatively early in the season on a normal year but common for PCT through hikers. There will be snow on the ground. The question is how much – and we won’t know until melting starts (but ski resorts have said they’ll be open until July so…). Here are some things I’ll need to think about.

1. Snow on the ground: having a coating of snow over the trail will mean navigation will be different. I can’t just follow markers and hope for the best. Although there might be an obvious track in the snow from lines of footprints, I’ll definitely need my wits about me more than in summer. Alongside this is potential avalanche risk. If the snow is melting it could come down and the JMT is often at the bottom of the terrain trap, not above it. So avalanches from above could be a factor. Similarly, I hear there are some traverses with a long steep run out, so an ice axe will probably be necessary.

2. Rivers: Depending on how advanced the melt is, this could work one of two ways. There might be snow bridges over the streams, which will make crossing easier, but also potentially mean needing to boil snow for water. If there are no snow bridges, the rivers will be very swollen because of the snow melt, so harder to cross. The same will be the case once I get out of the high mountains towards Tuolumne Meadows.

3. The Kit I Take: Obviously all this means I need to consider appropriate equipment for the hike. Which I imagine will feel more alpine than anything else. It will affect how warm my sleeping kit is, what kind of boots I go for, whether I take an ice axe and crampons etc. At the moment, I’m thinking a long ice axe and a pair of micro-spike crampons. The rationale being I’d rather not wear very still boots and proper crampons because they’ll be a (literal) pain when I get out of the snow. I’ll go fairly aggressive on the micro spikes but that means I can take softer shoes so my feet don’t ache. It’s tempting to take a short, super lightweight axe, but personally I think if you’re going to bring safety equipment, you’d better take good stuff. And if I do something stupid and get into a situation at least I can still cut steps. Let’s hope not.

4. Damage and Closures: Some of the roads in California have been broken due to snow or snow-melt. I’ll need to check it’s still possible for me to get to my start point as intended. The high snow means that many resupply points aren’t opening until much later in the season and some on-trail huts like the Muir Ranch will be closed. Again, a shame for the experience, but I think I’d rather go earlier when the snow is likely more stable.

Planning – Funding

I have finally had some success with grants (4 applied for, 2 nos, 1 success). HI USA have awarded me one of their Explore America Travel Scholarships – which is a small grant in dollars and some free hostel accommodation at the end of the trip. What’s brilliant though is that I thought I was being cheeky by applying – it’s designed for Americans to explore the US further, but it requires citizenship not residency. So we’ll see if they change the rules next year. Either way, the moral of this story is: apply!

Obviously I’ll keep applying for more grants too in the run up to the trip. But I’m also going to need to find funding from elsewhere. There are two main ways to make an adventure more affordable:

  1. reduce the overall cost
  2. get funding

Reducing Costs

For me, there are a few main avenues I can go down. To reduce costs, I can try to get some comped kit: tent, tracker subscription, boots, bear barrel, dehydrated meals etc etc. Some of those I might be able to get in for a review (either on this blog or in other publications I freelance for) or a feature (although my SEO is currently much stronger than my social). If I do manage to get review kit and a commission then I might get paid for that too, which will reduce costs again.

The other cost cutter would be to try to get free or reduced rates on transport and accommodation: flights, in country travel etc. I’ll have to contact local and national tourist boards and see. I’m unlikely to have the clout required from my blog to get anything, no matter how good the story, so I’d need to use my journalism to get a media rate. That means I’ll need commissions from big publications like national newspapers. So basically, get pitching asap. I probably should have done this already, honestly.

Finding Sponsorship

Which leads onto the other side of things: money. I’m currently a full time freelancer so not only does the trip need to pay for itself somehow, it’s also entirely unpaid holiday unless I get commissions. The more commissions I can get, the more likely I am to pay the bills that month. We’ve talked about grants and awards for covering trip costs too.

The other way of finding funding is approaching brands for partnerships. I hear the water’s quite icy at the moment for this kind of thing, but I want to at least try. I’ve already been in touch with a few brands who’ve been like, “Oh, you want money? No sorry we don’t do that even for our ambassadors.” So again, I think this is going to be about choosing carefully but also pure volume of attempts. It’s always more complex to get actual money than kit, but I’ve got a strong premise for this trip. I’m also going to think outside the box in terms of who to try. And let’s not forget about soul selling here: because you’ll have to actually wear that kit, so you’d better believe in it.

Other things to do

There are quite a few other little things that I need to do. My kit list needs a fine tune, by which I mean I ought to at least write it down. I need to give navigation some consideration – like which maps to buy. Plus I’d like to map out a vague itinerary. I don’t want to have a strict set of rules and distances for each day, but I can’t be in the country longer than 35 days, so I need to make sure that happens. Which, slightly related, reminds me that I need to file my US tax return before I go too.

Finally, I need to look into insurance properly. I’ve got AAC insurance for rescue cover but need to check how that works in the States. Plus I need to check I’m happy with the travel insurance I have for this year (so far so not because it’s proving impossible to claim on a camera I lost in the snow halfway to Toubkal basecamp). Aaaand that’s all – as if it isn’t enough! Let’s see how things go.

If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. I’m a female adventurer based in the UK but born in California. This year I’m hiking the John Muir Trail to find out what is means to be American. You can keep up to date with what I’m up to on my Adventure Squad newsletter (a monthly catch up email).