The John Muir Trail is basically THE premier mid-distance hiking trail in America, and for some very good reasons.
The JMT is stunningly gorgeous, for one, and satisfyingly rugged. Yet the well-marked trail is accessible even to intermediate backpackers looking to level up their hiking.
And then the practical part: unlike full-season endeavors like the PCT or AT, the JMT can just barely be squeezed into the typical amount of vacation time most Americans can take off from work.
Which is probably why so many prospective JMT hikers begin their daydreaming with the question: how long does it take to hike the John Muir Trail?
The short answer is usually somewhere around 3 weeks. However, it’s not uncommon for fast hikers to breeze through the JMT in 10 days, or for slower folks to spend 4 weeks or longer. That’s a big difference!
If you’re trying to decide how long it will actually take YOU to hike the JMT, with your body, your gear, and your hiking style, read on to understand the factors to consider.
How long is the JMT?
The official JMT length is 210 miles, starting at Yosemite Valley’s Happy Isles Trailhead and finishing at the summit of Mount Whitney.
However, unless you plan to live on Mount Whitney, you still need to hike another 11 miles down to the trailhead at Whitney Portal to finish your hike. So the total distance covered by official JMT hikers is usually 221 miles.
Permits for the official southbound JMT are notoriously hard to get, and only a small number are available for the official Happy Isles start. This means many hikers start in slightly different places such as Sunrise Lake or Lyell Canyon, leading to slightly different total mileage. For this reason, it makes sense to talk about average miles per day when discussing how long it takes to hike the JMT.
Factors Impacting Time to Hike the JMT
Though people hike the JMT in everything from a few days to over a month, you don’t want to just choose your own hiking pace at random and hope it works out. Your ideal JMT hiking pace depends on who you are, how you like to hike, and what kind of experience you’re looking for.
Here are the biggest factors to consider.
Your JMT resupply strategy turns out to be a major factor when deciding how fast to hike the JMT. Specifically, the crux is the southern section from Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney Portal.
Resupply on the northern half is fairly flexible with options every 60 miles or less. But south of Muir Trail Ranch at mile 110, there are no further on-trail resupply options for the last 111 miles. Your choices are therefore:
- Hike and hitch out to Onion Valley over Kearsarge Pass, adding an extra 15 miles and at least 1 day to your hike.
- Hire a mule pack service to meet you on the trail with your resupply package (or beg or bribe a friend).
- Carry ALL the food you need for the last 111 miles from Muir Trail Ranch.
When I hiked the JMT in 2016 I chose option 3, and though I would do it again the same way, I can tell you my pack was HEAVY coming out of Muir Trail Ranch. We carried 9 days of food each – 8 planned hiking days plus one extra in case of emergency – and hiked an average of 13.75 miles per day through the hardest and highest half of the JMT in order to finish the hike within the time dictated by our food capacity.
If you can’t or don’t want to carry 9+ days of food, and you can’t or don’t want to hike more than 14 miles per day, you’ll have to either hike out or arrange an on-trail pack service (or bribe a dear friend to hike in and meet you). If hiking out over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley, the 70 mile stretch from MTR to Onion Valley will be your longest section and you’ll need to plan food capacity accordingly.
On the other hand, if you do want to try and make MTR your last resupply due to cost, convenience, or both, here’s how to do it.
How much food from Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney Portal?
Aside from the weight of all that food, the big consideration is how much food you can fit in your bear canister. Since canisters are required on nearly all of the JMT, you will have to plan and pack your meals very carefully, and/or use an extra-large bear can, in order to fit enough food for even a moderate daily pace.
There are 111 miles between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney Portal. This means, if you make forward progress every day after leaving MTR (no rest days or side trips on this super-scenic section of trail), here’s how many days of food you’ll need to fit in your bear can if MTR is your last resupply.
|Average miles per day||Days of food needed from MTR to Whitney (including 1 day emergency extra)|
|8 miles per day||15 days of food|
|9 miles per day||13 days of food|
|10 miles per day||12 days of food|
|11 miles per day||11 days of food|
|12 miles per day||10 days of food|
|13 miles per day||10 days of food|
|14 miles per day||9 days of food|
|15 miles per day||8 days of food|
|16 miles per day||8 days of food|
|17 miles per day||8 days of food|
|18 miles per day||7 days of food|
So at a moderate pace of 13-14 miles per day, this means you’ll be cramming 9-10 days of food into your bear canister! Is this even possible?
How much food fits in a bear canister?
Depends on the can, the food, and how it’s packed, but a good rule of thumb is: one day of food for one person takes 100 cubic inches of space. So for many common models of bear canister, that’s only 5-7 days of food! As you can see from the table above, unless you’re hiking 18+ miles per day, that’s not going to be enough. For a thorough rundown of bear canister options, sizes, and packing tips, see my more detailed guide to bear canisters.
If you want MTR to be your last resupply and you’re hiking a moderate pace of 13-14 miles per day, it’s helpful to use a large bear canister like the Bearikade Expedition from Wild Ideas. The Wild Ideas bear cans are the lightest available, but they’re expensive. However, they are easy to sell for good value after your hike, and they can also be rented from Wild Ideas.
Some moderately-paced hikers do manage to make a regular-size bear can work for the MTR to Whitney section. I’ve seen discussions on the JMT Facebook group claiming anywhere from 7 days of food up to 11 days in a BV 500. (Note: 11 days is very unusual!) If you’re trying to make this work, you’ll need to plan and pack very carefully: choose foods with high calorie-to-weight ratio, crush anything with lots of air pockets (like macaroni) into small pieces, remove all extra packaging, and repackage into flexible, stuffable containers like ziplock bags.
Also note that it’s legal to hang your food (via counterbalance method only) between MTR and Pinchot Pass, which can buy you an extra day or two of space, but hanging food is harder than you might think and it’s important to do it right.
Definitely test-pack your bear can in advance, because the tetris game of fitting everything in can be harder than expected. The trail is no place to find out your food doesn’t fit and will now become bear bait.
Tip from personal experience: If hiking as a pair, consider sharing a large bear can like the Expedition up until Muir Trail Ranch (distribute other gear as needed to keep weight and space even). Then ship a second regular-size canister to MTR and each carry your own from there. Keep in mind your hikes will be closely linked, since you’re carrying each other’s food and gear, so you should make sure you intend to stay together.
I’m sure you can see by now that your resupply and bear can choices have a big impact on how many days it takes to hike the John Muir Trail. Here are some other factors to consider as well.
The JMT Hiker Survey has published some cool graphs showing how backpack weight correlates with daily mileage. While it’s not exact, there is definitely a trend toward higher daily mileage with lower pack weight.
This is likely both cause and effect: those with heavier gear need to expend more effort hoofing it over all those tall mountain passes. And those who hike longer days have likely prioritized lighter gear to help them hike in the faster style they prefer.
You certainly don’t need to go out and buy all new gear to hike the JMT at a reasonable pace. But you do need to consider it as a factor. If the average JMT hiker covers 13 miles a day and has a max pack weight of 35 pounds, and you want to cover 13 miles a day but have a max pack weight of 50 pounds, you’re going to be working a LOT harder.
The JMT Hiker Survey found that average maximum pack weight was around 36 pounds for women and 40 pounds for men. This is in line with a moderately lightweight, but not ultralight, gear strategy, considering that many peoples’ max pack weight likely came while heading out of Muir Trail Ranch with 8+ days of food.
This amounts to a base weight (gear only, without food and water) of around 20 – 25 pounds. That’s not ultralight, but it does take some planning. To get your pack weight down, consider these ideas for cutting weight from your pack.
Rest Days and Side Trips
The John Muir Trail is beautiful in itself, but it’s also only a tiny slice of a vast wilderness that is equally beautiful and, in many cases, even more remote and peaceful. On the JMT you’ll be passing right by stunning, gorgeous backcountry locations that are literally impossible to day hike to. When is the next time you’ll be here?
The 2014 JMT hiker survey showed that 40% of hikers took at least one rest day, and 50% took at least one side trip.
The JMT is just packed with pristine lakes and peaceful valleys, exactly the types of places you’d LOVE to spend a day enjoying. Rest days definitely help tired bodies fend off nagging aches and pains from back-to-back tough days, and they also help the mind recharge.
If staying in one place isn’t your thing, there are many dozens of rewarding side trips that can be done in a day or less from different points on the JMT. Especially if you’re planning to resupply between Muir Trail Ranch and the end, buying you extra time to spend on the most remote section of the trail, I would highly recommend making the most of the effort you put into getting there to enjoy a bit more of the beautiful area.
Popular side trips include iconic Half Dome in Yosemite, and I can personally recommend Ediza Lake and Tawny Point. You can bag non-technical Split Mountain, one of the California 14ers, with a short out-and-back from the JMT, and those comfortable on 3rd class terrain can tackle others. For more ideas, here’s a list of common side trips from the JMT Hiker Survey.
Even if you’re planning to haul all your food after Muir Trail Ranch, you can still likely fit in one rest or side trip day past MTR if you’re hiking 14 miles per day or faster (and/or have a large bear can). If you’re hiking 12-13 mile days or have constrained food space, plan your rest day or side trip for before MTR.
Fitness and Experience
Obviously, our physical capabilities come into play. A super-fit young athlete with no nagging injuries might be able to power through long days with a heavy pack and still find some joy in the process. But a retiree with a finicky knee, or even a young person who just began their fitness journey, would be miserable in the same situation.
It’s smart to train for the JMT as much as possible, including both aerobic (running or uphill hiking) and strength training (weight lifting, resistance bands). But you also need to be realistic about your current level of fitness going in.
Fitness isn’t everything though, and experience counts for a lot. Knowing how to prevent blisters can save a day spent dealing with the carnage after it’s too late. Knowing when your finicky knee needs a short break (or some on-trail therapy and sleeping bag stretching) can save you from needing a full rest day down the road. And a streamlined camp chores process will save minutes or even hours in the morning as the newbie in the next campsite fumbles through the gear explosion so common to inexperienced backpackers.
Weather and Conditions
There are a lot of factors to scheduling a JMT hike. Once you choose the time that works for your work and personal life, and somehow manage to get a permit through the lottery, now you have to consider the time of year.
Early September can be a lovely time to hike the JMT, but those starting this late will have to factor weather into their plans. By mid-September, nights on the JMT are getting mighty chilly, and early snow is known to fall. If choosing to start in late August or early September you might want to push for a slightly faster pace than you would have with an earlier start.
At the risk of oversimplifying it, backpacking can be described along a spectrum from camping to hiking.
For you, is it all about covering a few miles so you can break out the camp chair and the fishing rod and spend the afternoon enjoying camp?
Or do you carry shelter simply so you can cover more miles of beautiful backcountry without having to go home to sleep?
Both are fine, but if you want one and find yourself with the other, it’s not going to be pretty. Just be honest with yourself about the experience you want to have. Is it a chance for challenge, or for relaxation, or some of both?
How many miles per day on the JMT?
So, with all those factors in mind, let’s do the math. If you know roughly how many miles you can hike on average each day, and how many rest or side trip days you want to allow, the chart below will tell you how many days your John Muir Trail hike will take.
A few things to keep in mind:
- This table is based on the full 221 mile length of the official trail. If starting from a different trailhead, your numbers will be a little different.
- Miles per day means trail hiking miles on days that aren’t devoted to rest or side trips. So, the more rest or side trip days you take, the higher your average daily mileage needs to be for the same overall trip length.
- Miles per day are rounded to the nearest mile to make the table easier to read.
|Total days||Miles per day (0 rest or side trip days)||Miles per day (1 rest or side trip day)||Miles per day (2 rest or side trip days)|
Let’s bucket these into a few groups:
4 weeks / 28 days
This is a leisurely pace that allows plenty of time for rest days and side trips. It also accounts for time spent hiking out to off-trail resupply locations or meeting a pack service, which will be a necessity at this pace south of Muir Trail Ranch.
Folks in this category might take even more than 2 rest or side trip days, making their average daily mileage a bit higher.
3 weeks / 21 days
This is a pretty typical pace for hiking the JMT. Most people with reasonable fitness, light-ish weight gear, and no physical issues will be able to make this pace work.
If you have a big bear can and are willing to carry 8-10 days of food out of Muir Trail Ranch, you can just barely avoid having to leave the trail or arrange a pack service for resupply on the final 110 miles. And, if you plan carefully you can still squeeze in a rest day or side trip or maybe even both, especially if one is before Muir Trail Ranch.
2 weeks / 14 days
This is a bit rushed for many people, but within reach, especially if you don’t plan to take any rest days or side trips. There won’t be much wiggle room if things go wrong, and hopefully your gear is at least moderately lightweight and very familiar to you.
One big advantage is that folks in this category won’t have to worry about finding alternate resupply options south of Muir Trail Ranch. Even with a standard size bear can, they’ll be able to carry all the food they need until Whitney Portal.
It’s not uncommon for ultralight hikers to blaze through the JMT in 10 days or less, provided they have lightweight gear and a strong base of fitness. These folks need to be very comfortable hiking back-to-back-to-back (…to back…) 20+ mile days, at high elevation and on sometimes steep terrain.
And what about the fastest of the fast? The fastest known time for unsupported “hikers” on the JMT is hovering around 3 days. This is mountain ultrarunning territory, impressive to read about, but not within reach for most of us.
If you have time, money to pay for pack-in resupplies (or lots of friends who owe you favors), and a laid-back attitude, you can enjoy spending 4+ weeks along the JMT. Likely this will involve some leisurely lakeside rest days, side trips, time spent hiking and hitching out to towns for resupply, coordination with mule pack services, or all of the above.
Terrain and Elevation Challenges
For hikers trying to estimate the daily mileage they’ll be happy with, I want to point out one more important factor: the JMT is difficult terrain. If you already do a lot of backpacking at high elevation (say between 8000 – 12000 feet, where a lot of the JMT lies), you’ll have an easier time estimating what you can do.
But if you do most of your training and recreational hiking on trails closer to home where the hills aren’t as steep and the air doesn’t feel as thin, then you need to be conservative with your time estimate for the JMT. While the trail is well maintained and usually reasonably graded, it can be rocky and there is a lot of elevation gain. Your 13 mile day might include a few thousand feet of non-stop elevation gain, over rocky ground and at 10,000 feet, and that’s just before lunch.
If you want to hike 13 miles per day, day after day, on the JMT, you should make sure you’re comfortable with a single day at 15-17 miles with loaded pack on easier terrain.
Consistent Pace, or Faster Over Time?
Some people wonder, should they start with shorter days and then increase them as they “get in shape on the trail?” Or is it better to keep an even pace throughout? The answer depends on a few factors, but in general I believe it’s best to shoot for a roughly even pace throughout the trip. Those not resupplying after Muir Trail Ranch might want to pick up the pace ever so slightly after that point so they can fit all their food.
Yes, you’ll get stronger as you hike, but the effect doesn’t really kick in until you’re almost done, and the southern half of the trail is more challenging. Yes, you’ll gradually acclimate to the altitude as you hike (especially heading southbound), but the JMT gradually gets higher as it goes south. Yes, the section south of Muir Trail Ranch is ideal for rest days and side trips, but if you don’t plan an extra resupply you’ll have to keep moving or run out of food.
On my JMT hike these factors balanced out to a roughly even pace from beginning to end. Some days were closer to 10 miles, and some were 15 or higher, depending on resupply and camping locations. From Muir Trail Ranch (our last resupply) south, we averaged about 1 mile per day more than before, because we were constrained by the amount of food we could carry.
What does a moderately paced JMT hike feel like?
In 2014 I hiked the JMT from Lyell Canyon, which is 195 miles. It took 17 days total, including one side trip day on day 3, and one zero/rest day on day 8 (both before Muir Trail Ranch). Here’s my detailed itinerary.
That’s 13 miles average per trail hiking day, which is pretty much spot-on average according to the JMT hiker survey.
How does 13 miles per day feel on the JMT? Not too hard, not too easy. We didn’t have to start at the crack of dawn (I am NOT a morning person), but we couldn’t dawdle at camp all morning either. We usually arrived at camp before sunset, but not before the sun had dropped behind the mountains and an early September chill settled in. For most of the hike my goal was to reach camp in time to rinse off in cool stream or lake water and have it actually feel refreshing instead of cold; this only happened once.
We were sometimes tired and hungry, but not so much that we couldn’t enjoy the mind-blowing scenery. We had time for meal breaks and soaking our feet in the occasional creek. But we also had a schedule to keep, and couldn’t afford to just hunker down if it rained or take a long afternoon nap if we felt like it.
Of course, it all depends on your background. We were decently fit at the time, mid-pack ultrarunners in our late 20’s. But we didn’t actually have much experience backpacking, so we were often disorganized and slow in the mornings, at least for the first few days. We lived at sea level, so it took a few days to adjust to the elevation. Our gear was lightweight, but not ultralight; my pack weighted 35 pounds at the heaviest, coming out of Muir Trail Ranch with 9 days of food.
Hike it fast or hike it slow, the John Muir Trail will be a hike to remember. You’ll probably only do it once, so try your best to choose a pace that will be both rewarding and enjoyable.
If possible, don’t let your “real life” pressures squeeze your hike into a death march itinerary. Take those extra few days off from work, if at all possible, because they can really make a difference in the tone of the experience.
To get the most out of your JMT thru-hike, make an effort to cut down your pack weight, plan a compact and efficient food strategy, and train in advance. Then, when the day finally comes, enjoy the trail!
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re planning a JMT thru-hike, be sure to check out these related posts:
- How to choose your backpacking water filter
- Hiking in trail running shoes: is it right for you?
- Best high calorie protein bars for backpacking
- More hiking and backpacking resources right here!
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