Planning an epic backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail is not only essential to a successful trip; it’s also part of the fun. Learning about where and how to ship resupply packages; planning your itinerary; poring over the maps and elevation charts all add to the sense of adventure and excitement.
In my research, I ran across The John Muir Trail Through the Californian Sierra Nevada by Alan Castle and published by UK-based Cicerone. You might think that a “foreign” guidebook would be an odd choice for a trail in my own state, but I found the detail and insight to be not only extremely useful, but entertaining as well. Written from the perspective of someone traveling from the UK to hike the JMT, they leave no details out. As it turned out, we closely modeled our itinerary after that in this book. The book itself is sturdy, vinyl-clad and compact. It’s not feather-light, but I did carry a copy on our JMT trek.
On the trail, there were two references that we found indispensable. The first was the Tom Harrison John Muir Trail Map Pack. These detailed topographic maps are durable and water-resistant. The entire trail is clearly marked across a set of 8.5″ x 11″ map sheets, each one quite light. Because they are individual sheets, you don’t need to carry them all — pack the sheets you’ll need for each segment in with your resupply box.
The other reference we used regularly was Erik the Black’s John Muir Trail Pocket Atlas. This 3-ounce book packs a ton of useful information into a tiny package. There is no narrative or description of the trail — just maps, elevation profiles and distance tables, with a guide to resupply points and other useful info. Some people have taken issue with the Atlas, but it is beautiful, convenient and really handy. Joan carried a copy as well as Jeffrey, and we found that its convenient form factor made it our go-to resource when checking our position.
If possible, I would recommend getting all four of these resources. Each provides a different bit of information, from a different perspective. If your JMT crew includes several people, spread the joy around. One person gets the Cicerone guide, another the Harrison Maps, and so on.
A Few Words About Digital Resources
Some of these books are now available digitally, for display on a Kindle or a smartphone. I love e-books, and most of the books I purchase are downloaded to my iPad (my preferred reading device). But you should not rely on this as your sole means of navigating the John Muir Trail. Get a digital copy of the Cicerone or Wilderness Press guides, but bring physical maps and the Atlas. If your phone goes dead on the trail (it’s happened), you won’t have to worry — IF you have real maps with you.
On our JMT thru-hike I did bring along my iPhone, and had installed the John Muir Trail iPhone app. This app includes all of the Harrison JMT map sheets, but provides integration with the iPhone’s GPS to show you where you are on the trail. I never relied solely on this, and there were only a few times when I actually consulted the app to verify our location (and there was that one time when I should have checked it). The rest of the time, the iPhone was completely powered off. I didn’t bring a solar charger or other means of charging, so other than at the resupply points, I had no way to recharge. So I used it very sparingly. Would I bring it again? Probably, but I’d never count on it as my sole means of navigation.
There are other resources that could prove useful. It’s good to have a good picture of your bail-out points on the JMT, should something go wrong. That’s one area where the Atlas definitely falls short. The topo maps in the Atlas follow the narrow JMT corridor, and not much beyond that. The Harrison maps do a bit better in this regard, but even they won’t take you clear over Kearsarge Pass.
To fill the gaps, study the maps online or supplement by printing your own. For this, I used National Geographic’s TOPO! software. It’s a pricey solution, but lets you create precisely the maps you need.
These are the resources we used to plan our itinerary and as reference on a day-to-day basis while hiking the John Muir Trail, but as I always say, you have to hike your own hike.
If you’ve discovered other resources that you think should be included here, please leave a comment and let me know.