Here’s What It Takes to Hike the John Muir Trail

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Just a few months in the past, I summed up the teachings from a study of mountain hikers in the Austrian Alps. In a nutshell, individuals are inclined to fall after they’re descending, even in good climate and good path circumstances, and particularly after they’re male. That’s helpful to know (even when a few of these danger components are unchangeable), however it’s principally relevant to day-hikers. Strap on a giant pack, set out for per week or extra, and the whole lot adjustments.
 
A new paper in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine takes a take a look at this different finish of the spectrum. Over the previous couple of years, a retired San Francisco lawyer named John Ladd has run an annual online survey of people that hike the John Muir Trail, a well-known route by way of the Sierra Nevadas that usually takes about 3 weeks to finish (by way of the quickest identified time is 2 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes, set last year by François D’Haene).
 
In 2014, 771 individuals crammed out the survey, all of whom deliberate a visit of no less than 5 days alongside the path—a fairly cheap pattern from the whole of roughly 3,500 permits issued that yr. A bunch of researchers led by Susanne Spano of the University of California San Francisco Fresno analyzed the information to search for patterns and insights.
 
Some primary knowledge: 30 of the hikers needed to go away the path sooner than deliberate. Four required emergency evacuations, 3 by helicopter: 1 particular person with stress fractures in each toes, 1 who had a severe fall, and 1 who had a extreme abdomen bug and couldn’t maintain any fluids down. On that notice, the incidence of diarrhea was simply 17 p.c, far under estimates for the Appalachian Trail (68 p.c in 1988; 56 p.c in 1997). That’s probably as a result of the water is quite a bit cleaner excessive within the Sierra Nevadas than alongside the Appalachian Trail, however may additionally mirror elevated use of light-weight water filters. (Yes, as Wes Siler argued earlier this year, you actually ought to filter your water.)
 
Overall, the highest well being issues reported have been blisters (57 p.c), sleep issues (57 p.c), pack strap ache (46 p.c), knee/ankle ache (44 p.c), and again/hip ache (43 p.c). Another 37 p.c reported altitude illness. Given that the path is nearly fully above 8,000 toes, and finishes at 14,505 toes on the summit of Mount Whitney, altitude points are usually not shocking, and in addition probably contributed to the sleep issues. That’s an excellent purpose to hike north-to-south, as most individuals do, so that you just regularly modify to the altitude.
 
The attention-grabbing half is taking a look at which components predicted success alongside the path. For occasion, two-thirds of people that reported getting greater than 4 hours per week of vigorous train within the month earlier than their hike rated the route as between “somewhat difficult” and “not at all difficult.” In distinction, half of of those that received lower than that quantity of pre-trip train rated it as between “fairly difficult” and “felt like a death march.” So getting extra train affected how onerous the journey felt—however, maybe surprisingly, a separate evaluation discovered that it didn’t predict danger of damage or evacuation. Instead, a a lot stronger predictor of damage or evacuation was BMI. One month of pre-trip exercises, in different phrases, isn’t sufficient.
 
Another key issue—and one which’s extra simply modifiable—is how a lot weight you haul in your again. As our interactive backpacking calculator demonstrates, the load you carry (as a fraction of your general weight) has a powerful affect on how a lot vitality you burn. It additionally impacts issues like pack-strap ache, in addition to steadiness and gait that will contribute to the danger of falls. Sure sufficient, rising “base pack weight” was considerably linked to much less distance lined per day (the typical within the examine was about 12 miles), and to elevated probability of sickness or damage.
 
This base pack weight metric is a little bit complicated for me, although. It’s outlined as the burden of your pack and tools, not together with any meals or water. The common within the examine was 22.4 kilos; a “traditional” backpacking set-up is outlined as having a base weight of between 20 and 30 kilos, whereas much less is light-weight and extra is heavy. For me, although, the burden of meals and water is mostly the defining limitation in my journeys.
 
The final backpacking journey the place I had a very dependable estimate of my pack weight was along the South Coast Track in Tasmania, since they weighed your pack fastidiously earlier than permitting you onto the single-engine Cessna that takes you to the far finish of the path. I needed to empty out my water bottles and shove some meals in my pockets to hit the 60-pound restrict for our 10-day journey. But I do not know what my base weight was, so I’m undecided methods to examine right here. The John Muir Trail has a bunch of potential resupply factors alongside the route, so I’m undecided whether or not the everyday hiker was carrying 30, or 50, or 70 kilos. It can be attention-grabbing to know.
 
There is 1 different element that I used to be glad to see. The common age of those that accomplished the survey was 43, which I’m happy to now proclaim because the Prime Backpacking Age. (I’ll flip 43 later this yr.) Better but, regardless that older hikers lined a bit much less floor per day, they have been barely much less more likely to get unwell or injured. Youth is sweet, in fact, however hard-earned knowledge has its perks too.


My new e book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now out there. For extra, be part of me on Twitter and Facebook, and join the Sweat Science email newsletter.


(Editor references)

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