Ask Me: What Gear Do You Suggest For Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail?

Ask Me: What Gear Do You Suggest For Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail?

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Hello Michael,

I read your article about ultra-backpacking and how you did the John Muir Trail in seven days. I am planning on doing it, but would like to know, for an ultralight backpacker, what items did you use for tent, sleeping bag, etc.? And any feedback or thoughts that you have that would be beneficial for me would be much appreciated.

Thank you.

Covina, CA

Hi Joei,

Very cool that you’re making a John Muir Trail thru-hike. (The lead photo above shows the view of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall from the JMT in Yosemite National Park.) I did it in late August, and I think late August through mid-September is the best time of year to hike the JMT, because you’ll find a largely snow-free trail, the voracious mosquitoes of mid-summer are just about gone, and the afternoons aren’t as blazing hot as mid-summer.

My suggestions would, of course, apply to almost any backpacker who wants to go lighter and hike more comfortably in most mid-latitude mountain ranges in summer (although the choice of shelter would depend on typical weather and bugs). You should also read my tips on ultralight backpacking, which includes my ultralight gear checklist, and see my standard checklist for backpacking.


Mark Fenton passing Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail.

Mark Fenton passing Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail.

You may want to start by reading 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 advice on buying a pack, tent, boots, and sleeping bag.

You sound most interested in the major gear items. In late summer, outside the buggy season in the High Sierra, I prefer using a tarp, like the Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp (read my review), which I used on an ultralight, 86-mile, four-day, September hike in northern Yosemite. 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 full tent, look for a solo or two-person tent that’s well under three pounds, like the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 mtnGLO (read my review) or MSR FlyLite (read my review); or if you’re willing to carry a little more weight for the convenience of two doors and vestibules, check out the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 (read my review) or Exped Mira II Hyperlite (read my review). See all of my backpacking tent/shelter reviews and my “5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent,” which is not specific to ultralight travel but still useful for your purposes.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Descending south on the John Muir Trail from Forester Pass, Sequoia National Park.

On the JMT below Forester Pass, Sequoia National Park.

For most three-season backpacking, I carry a down sleeping bag rated at or near 30 degrees F. It’s warm enough for me on nights above freezing, as most nights are in summer, and on an unusually cold night, I can supplement by wearing my clothing. Down bags are generally warmer, lighter, and more compact and durable than synthetic, if also more expensive. See my sleeping bag reviews, especially my reviews of two bags that convert to a long down parka, negating the need to carry a puffy jacket: the Exped Dreamwalker 450 (read my review) and the Sierra Designs Mobile Mummy 800 (read my review). For a well-made, warm, ultralight bag, you can’t do better than the Western Mountaineering Summerlite (read my review).

If you prefer having a puffy jacket and you expect nighttime lows generally above freezing, take a lightweight or ultralight insulation piece like the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody (read my review), the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer (read my review), or the L.L. Bean PrimaLoft Packaway Fuse Jacket (read my review). See my story “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”, my “Review: 6 Super Versatile Layering Pieces” all of my puffy jacket reviews.

For a backpack, see my picks for the best thru-hiking backpack.


Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”


The Big Outside is proud to partner with sponsors and Visit North Carolina, who support the stories you read at this blog. Find out more about them and how to sponsor my blog at my sponsors page at The Big Outside. Click on the ad below for the best prices on great gear.



Lastly, if all of your gear is light, you should get lightweight hiking shoes or boots. You may want something waterproof-breathable that’s still relatively light, like the Scarpa Proton GTX (read my review), Arc’teryx Acrux2 FL GTX (read my review), Oboz Crest Low BDry (read my review), Keen Aphlex Mid WP (read my review), The North Face Ultra Gore-Tex Surround Mid (read my review), or Aku Mio Surround GTX (read my review).

For hiking the JMT at a time when it will be largely snow-free, I’d go with non-waterproof, mid-cut or low-cut hiking shoes for maximum breathability, as my friends and I did in late summer because we didn’t have to worry much about getting wet. Shoes I like include the La Sportiva TX3 (read my review), Scarpa Epic Lite (read my review), Oboz Scapegoat Mid (read my review), Vasque Inhaler II Low (read my review), and Arc’teryx Acrux FL (read my review). See all of my reviews of hiking shoes.L

See my advice to another reader about thru-hiking the JMT in early summer and all of my stories about the John Muir Trail.

Good luck, it’s a wonderful trip.



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I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Got a question about any trip or topic I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at For just $40, I’ll answer your questions via email to help ensure your trip is a success. I will also provide a telephone consult for $50. Write to me and I will first tell you whether I can answer your question (I usually can). First scroll through my Ask Me page and All Trips page, skills stories, and gear reviews for answers to your questions before writing to me.

I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.

—Michael Lanza

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