We hope you enjoyed Part 1 of "28 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking Half Dome", where we chronicled the challenges and sheer joy of climbing thousands upon thousands of feet to the crest of one of the world's most spectacular sights.
This week’s notes are a little less philosophical and a little more prep and gear oriented.
They're also more upbeat.
Last week may have seemed a bit scary or even discouraging (sorry!), but I needed to get the hard stuff out there first for a reason.
There are a whole lot of blogs and trail reviews out there that make Half Dome sound like any other trail that can be easily tackled by anyone with enough fitness to walk around a theme park for a day. When researching our trip, we made the rookie mistake of taking all this accrued internet knowledge at face value, and we had woefully unrealistic expectations. When we hit the second steeply uphill section of trail—which for us was around 4:30am on day 2—it was rough going. Seriously rough. It wasn't even the trail itself (or the large animal encounters in the dark (it happens, and we'll talk about how to handle it later)) but just that we were mentally unprepared by all those online accounts of how easy it is. For me, the cables at the top presented a similar issue, although Nelson rocked those like a pro.
We decided to write this article for you, and any other Half Dome first-timers, so that you'll know all the things we wished we had known, and have all the tools and preparation to have the best possible trip right out of the gate.
From here on it’s all about making every facet of your trip the most fun possible and avoiding a few of the pitfalls that might get in the way of that happy adventure.
The theme of this week is pretty simple:
7) Go lighter than you think you should.
Can you spot Nelson somewhere behind that massive pack?
We took three days to get up and back from Half Dome. We decided to take our time and spend two nights at the Little Yosemite Valley backpackers’ camp, rather than hoofing all 16.5 miles in one go. Thank goodness. We were not prepared for the endurance such a trek would have required, and the weather that week would not have been our friend.
We hiked up from the valley floor to Little Yosemite Valley on day one, from Little Yosemite up to the summit and back on day two, and back down to the valley floor on day three.
We took WAY too much stuff, mostly food, partially water, and a bit of clothing.
Everything extra we lugged around was a just-in-case item.
That extra pair of socks, a clean shirt, and 3000 calories a day worth of food. We didn’t eat a third of the food we brought in those three days, but we carried every ounce.
If you're doing Half Dome as a day hike, you don't need much. Even if you’re backpacking, give serious thought to lightening EVERYTHING.
It’s the ounces that quickly add up to pounds.
The day before, put every single thing you're taking into your pack and carry it around. Remember your 10 essentials, but take out anything you possibly can. You won’t regret it.
8) During the day, take only snacks, no meals.
Eat hearty before and after.
Think light on food. Bring things that pack a lot of calories for the weight, like Clif Bars, chocolate covered almonds or snack mix. You'll be expending a lot of calories, but you'll also be lugging around the weight and it's only a day. You don't really need that multi-course meal.
If you like doing the math on this sort of thing, aim for 100+ calories per ounce in your snacks.
That ratio will give you the most energy for the least weight. Also, anything you’re carrying in your stomach doesn’t really count as weight on your back. So, breakfast before you start (or while waiting for the shuttle) is like free energy!
Having a satisfying meal waiting for you back at camp is also a great motivator and trick to lighten your spirits and quicken your step. Just try to keep that celebration meal to something that can be pulled together pretty quickly and easily, because the last thing you want to do after dark at the end of a long day of hiking is have to prep a complicated meal before you can eat and collapse into your bed.
Now, if you do the hike over multiple days, like we did, the routine is a little different. You'll still want to stick to snacks for during the periods that you're hiking, but there is not much better than a hot meal in camp as the sun sets. For this, we recommend MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that only require some hot water to become a warm, tasty treat at the end of your day.
There is an argument to be made for forgoing hot food—and the gear it requires—entirely on any hike of a few days or less, and you can definitely get by on bars and other cold, packaged, energy-dense food. Not having to carry a stove, fuel or metal mug definitely lightens the load. However, we really enjoyed our hot dinners before bed.
Know your options, and you can make the best choice for your own trip.
9) Dress light and in layers.
You will be climbing and working as you hike. As experienced hikers know, this will keep you very warm and also make you sweat. In high altitude and dry air you don’t always realize you’re sweating because any moisture evaporates before you notice it on your skin, but your body is still expelling heat and moisture.
The saying “cotton kills” that can be heard around outdoors sites comes from this scenario. Cotton traps and holds moisture, so if you sweat while you’re hiking in cold weather, then stop for a break, the moisture that has been absorbed by your clothes can quickly chill you.
One tip is to avoid wearing any cotton (save for a bandana) when you venture out, but the more universal solution is to wear layers. If you’re wearing several thin layers instead of one bulky one, you can take bits off as you warm up, stash them in your pack or around your waste as you walk, and then when you need them again, they’re dry and ready to pull back on for warmth.
Few things feel as disheartening as having to struggle into a wet shirt or pair of socks when you’re trying to get warm.
In extreme conditions it can be deadly.
Don’t forego a rain layer, just in case.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to let yourself get a little chilly in the morning as you start. It may take 15 minutes to warm up as your body eases its way into the exercise of the day, and I find it’s better to accept the early chill (as a plus, it acts as a great motivator to get sluggish legs moving before dawn) instead of piling on more layers that I’m going to strip off within the first hour and have to carry around for the rest of the day. Coats always seem bulkier, heavier and more awkward when you’re not wearing them.
Notice the puffy green coat that's hanging off my pack in the photo above?
This picture was taken about a half hour after dawn and I'm already dragging it around instead of wearing it.
Now, the caveat I feel compelled to add is to use your own common sense and pay attention to the season and the forecast weather. I am not advocating shorts in the snow. Be smart.
10) Bring six liters of water, or a water filter for the Merced River.
The sign at the bridge below Vernal Falls, which is the last spigot with potable water from here on, suggests carrying at least four liters of water up the hill with you. Minimum. Per person.
That is 8.8 pounds to lug up and part-way back down (though I really hope you’ve consumed most of it by the time you’re back at the bottom) and that is the MINIMUM amount suggested.
Due to a previous and rotten personal experience where we underestimated the amount of water needed for a long hike (we actually ended up on the wrong loop of a trail that was over three times as long as our planned route) we are now overly cautious about water. We brought nearly eight liters for the two of us. Which sounds right for a one day hike, but we did it over three days. We didn’t drink all that water each day, but we refilled our bottles each night, just in case, so we lugged all 18 pounds all the way up to the top of the sub-dome. Huge regrets.
Everyone knows that dehydration can be deadly. The general trope is that a person can only go for three days without water, but that is three days before DEATH (cue dramatic music, please). You're feeling horrible and possibly incapacitated long before that. Also, that three day average doesn’t account for high altitude, desert climate or strenuous activity, all of which apply in Yosemite. I can also promise that though you may manage to stay alive for three days, without water you’ll be miserable within two hours.
You’re in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Don’t waste the time dreaming of a water fountain.
So, since every other tip so far has been about lightening your load, how does that work with water?
Our very favorite solution is to carry a small, hiker’s water filter. We use a Katadyn HikerPro. It is several years old and not nearly the smallest thing on the market, but it is WAY lighter than a single liter of water and allows us (when we do it right) to cut the water we carry by half or more.
The trail from the valley up to Half Dome parallels the path of the Merced River between Nevada Falls and the Little Yosemite Valley backpackers camp, before cutting north for the last 3.5 miles to the top. So, there IS water, it’s just that you have to treat it before you can drink it. No exceptions. Either with a filter or chemical tablets.
No matter how pretty the Merced is, you can’t just stick your face in there.
Next time we plan to carry two one-liter pouches, plus an extra squeeze bottle that is easier to drink from, and that we can use to mix in powders or drink mixes.
You NEVER want to put anything but clean water in your pouches or bladders. They’re impossible to clean properly. Just trust me. Ick.
Refilling all our pouches and bottles—with the filter—from the river above Nevada Falls (but not too close to the actual falls, because that’s just dangerous!) will give us enough water to make it up to the top of Half Dome and back down to the same point, where we can refill again for the last stretch down to the valley floor. We never drank more than two liters on a dry portion of trail and refilling twice accounts for six-plus liters total. This is WAY better than lugging all that water up and down.
Go lightly, be smart, and you’ve got this hike. Just keep at it and the Dome is yours for the taking!
Here is Part 1—Take it Seriously, in case you missed it,
And Part 3 is on its way, so keep dreaming of those trails, and be sure to check back frequently. Or just go head and sign up for our no-spam newsletter and also get cool stuff!