I had the opportunity to lead a late season Half Dome hike yesterday with a new friend, David from Singapore. While discussing what led David to Yosemite on his first visit to the United States, his story immediately impressed and inspired me. David comes from an island nation whose highest elevation is 163.63 metres (537 ft.). Like most of us, David likes adventure gear. One particular company (Salomon) struck his fancy. I also really like Salomon footwear, and I am currently enjoying my latest pair of Eskape Aeros. David likes to run and never really trekked before he visited the Salomon website. While surfing the site, he noticed a lot of people enjoying themselves on various trails. That piqued his interest. Knowing he was to arrive in the United States for a conference and training, he decided to purchase a pair of trail runners. Since he would be in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, he decided he would also like to explore one of the crown jewels of the American National Park system. Ultimately, he chose Yosemite National Park, and that leads us to our story.
We began our morning early and made our way up the Mist Trail ahead of the sun. We started fast, but our pace wasn’t sustainable. David had hit a wall and was struggling as much as any first time Half Dome hiker. I assured him we would continue at his own pace and his safety was my number one priority. We were less than one mile from the summit when we reached a vista I like to call Motivation Point. David was certainly motivated and he began to take each step with more confidence. From this point he shared one of the most memorable quotes I have ever heard on this trail. His legs were starting to hurt and he apologized once more for his slow pace. After I wouldn’t accept his apology (like I need an excuse to spend extra time up there), he saw the cables for the first time. He had been telling me his story about how he made it to Yosemite and took another break. At that moment he gazed at the summit turned to me and with excitement,
“Forget the conference, I’m here for Half Dome!”
We continued and were soon at the top. From there he was overjoyed and a bit overtired. It was a great day full of lasting memories and interesting photographs. David knew he was going to the conference but his decision to extend the trip into Yosemite helped make a positive change in his life. He concluded this was his greatest adventure.
Here are a few panoramas I collected from the trail.
What’s in My Pack to Help me Reach the Half Dome Summit By John P. DeGrazio
As we embark on the summer season, many Yosemite hikers are preparing for their upcoming Half Dome summit attempt. Roughly 225 people per day will be starting their journey at Happy Isles with hopes of reaching the 8,842′ summit. As someone who has made this trip many times, I am often asked what I bring in my pack on my Half Dome hikes and would like to take the time to share this information with anyone preparing for this epic day hike. I would like to note that although I believe in my methodology (the way that I prepare and the products I use for this hike), there are many other alternatives that will also give you an excellent chance to be successful.
In the week building up to the hike, I like to make sure to maintain a healthy diet and stay well hydrated the entire day prior to the hike. I try to avoid any greasy fried foods that could potentially slow me down on the 16+ mile trek. I also try to avoid red meats, but that is just my preference. For dinner I normally try to eat pasta or a piece of grilled chicken or fish and make sure to eat a good amount of carbohydrates on the eve of the hike. I also tend to be constantly drinking water and try to consume about one gallon throughout the day.
Upon waking up, I eat a bowl of cereal or oatmeal with berries and drink about 20 ounces of water. I typically bring at least 120 ounces of water on a summer hike as well as my Katadyn Hiker water filter. I will say that how much water you bring is probably the most controversial topic on the Half Dome hike. My preference is to carry more to save time without having to stop to filter water as we approach the summit. I believe the time lost gathering water near the halfway point of the ascent is not worth the trade off. Some people do not like to carry more water, but I believe that your pack becomes lighter if you drink regularly as the day goes by. So many people run out of water before they even make the cables, and I have seen many people have negative physical reactions because of their lack of preparation. It is so vital to stay hydrated on this hike that I recommend at least 150 oz of fluids for the day. When you bring a water filter, it gives you a good opportunity to rest and soak your tired feet in the Merced River while you pump before you make it down to the Valley.
I always eat a banana before I begin this hike and have a protein bar within the first hour of walking. I have tried many but really have come to enjoy Power Crunch Bars by BNRG. The bars I enjoy most are the peanut butter fudge. Each bar contains 13 grams of protein and only 5 grams of sugar. This is only a fraction of the sugar used by all the major manufacturers. Other sources of protein I bring are 2 hard boiled eggs and a trail mix with any type of nuts. I like cashews, peanuts, walnuts, almonds along with sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
On this day, you need a good balance of protein and carbohydrates so I also like to bring some fruit like an apple or orange. Pretzels and crackers are also staples of my lunch sack as they also provide much needed salt. Remember, you will be sweating a lot and drinking only water can be harmful to you. With sweat, you lose a lot of salt so it is extremely important to replenish your body with electrolytes. Although everyone knows the big named energy drinks, I often try to avoid them because they are loaded with sugar and other potentially harmful ingredients. One is known as tartrazine. Other ingredients I try to avoid are high fructose corn syrup and crystallized fructose. I have found Alacer’s Emergen-C and Electro Mix to be pretty effective but it’s lack of salt has me trying others. My friend David is an Iron Man competitor, and he really likes the EFS products. I tasted them and they are pretty good, but can’t quite commit to a recommendation. I would need more time to sample them. Natural electrolytes from beets are also intriguing. Red Ace Organics makes a a supplement that includes 3 beets in one tiny bottle that is easy to take along on this hike. I like to drink one right before I begin the Sub Dome portion of the hike.
I normally bring one sandwich with me and it is usually turkey or peanut butter. I have noticed that some cheeses don’t hold up well on this hike in the hot summer so I normally omit the dairy. I also stay away from mayonnaise and stick with mustard or even some red wine vinegar. I bought a lunch sack from REI that has a slot for a small ice pack. I know it’s extra weight, but I am willing to carry it in summer months to prevent my lunch from spoiling in the hot sun. I have tried some cold pizza on the top (the cheese held up) and have also had leftover burrito which was also quite good. Be sure to bring a lunch you really enjoy because sometimes you will not want to eat, but it will be essential to have the energy to make the long 8+ mile descent. It is such a demanding day so it is nice to have some comfort foods with you (gummy bears, jelly beans, etc.) along the way. I personally like dark chocolate at the top of any summit, especially Half Dome. That is a hint, by the way, if you plan on ever joining me. I prefer Belgian or Swiss but will be happy with just about anything. This is one day you really don’t need to worry about calories. Most people will burn over 3000 on this adventure.
Moving along to the gear, I bring a day pack that is relatively light, but I often hear people ask “why do you carry a backpack with you on the cables?” My standard answer is to carry my food, water, and first aid kit. Some people leave their packs on the ground below the cables and often come back to bags that have holes chewed in them from hungry squirrels. Yosemite National Park strongly discourages leaving your pack unattended, and I believe you can receive a citation for it. Some people bring fanny packs to minimize what they carry, but I have seen people eliminate packing essentials just because they did not have any space left. This is a preference call, but I would go with a light day pack. I prefer brands like Lowe Alpine and Gregory, to name a couple. You don’t have to fill your entire pack, and it’s nice to have that extra room.
Inside my pack are essentials including a headlamp, light rain jacket (with a hood) for the Mist Trail, camera, sunscreen, insect repellent, and my first aid kit. Although you don’t need to carry a full kit, some items that you may need would be band aids, tissue, hand sanitizer, and blister care. There are 5 toilet areas along this hike but none after Little Yosemite Valley. If you do need to make a pit stop outside of these areas, please be sure to be 100 feet from the trail or any water source and remember to pack out any tissue or toilet paper you use. Wag bags are required on Mt. Whitney and it would also be a good idea to bring one with you on Half Dome. If you don’t, it is required to dig a hole 6 inches deep for solid human waste. Remember, that’s only what comes out of your body. You will need a trash bag to pack out all other waste, including fruit peels, nut shells, etc. Although they may be biodegradable, they will decompose at a much slower rate at higher elevations and become very unsightly. The main reason not to leave any trash or give any food to the wildlife is to prevent them from being accustomed to human food. This can be very bad for the health of the animals and discourages them from finding their own food which causes them to starve in winter.
Other notable items to bring for the hike would be a pair of sunglasses and a good hat to protect you from the sun. Mosquito repellent is a must in summer and I like to use a non deet formula. Burt’s Bees herbal insect repellent is not as effective as deet, but I do not like putting anything on my skin that melts plastic. It sometimes takes a second application but the oil based spray I use is normally strong enough for the Half Dome corridor. As a general rule, I only use deet a couple of times per year in some areas of Yosemite when the mosquitoes become too unbearable.
Hiking poles help many people protect their knees on this long journey. They can be most beneficial on the descent. I understand their value for added confidence but also know you exert more energy using them. It is completely your call, but if you use them, you may want to consider stowing them under a rock on the Sub Dome. Many careless cable climbers improperly strap them to their packs and poke people along the way. I have been prodded and almost impaled by these protruding poles. While we are on the subject of the cables, please keep all loose items inside your pack. I have seen hundreds of water bottles, cell phones, cameras, and other items take the 400+ foot fall because people thought the side pockets of their pack were secure. The only way to make sure these pieces of your property will remain protected is to zip them inside your pack.
As for clothing, I normally wear Patagonia Capilene t shirts and underwear. I know their products are more expensive than others but they are of such high quality and last a significant amount of time longer than most. The main thing to realize is that you do not want to wear any cotton on this or any other strenuous hike. Cotton holds water and can make for an uncomfortable afternoon. Columbia makes a lot of trail gear and can be a more affordable alternative. I will also bring a long sleeve layer to start the hike in the early hours which will also be good to protect against wind/sun later in the afternoon. I mentioned before that I bring a light packable rain jacket and I currently use the Marmot Precip jacket which can be found at many outdoor shops. To save space in my pack, I will wear my rain jacket to start the hike instead of an extra layer if it is a cold morning. I like to wear synthetic pants as well, and convertible hiking pants are just about one of the best inventions of the late 20th century. Several brands work well including Columbia, Mountain Hardwear and Ex Officio. I also bring rain pants on heavy snow years. The only socks I wear are Smartwool. Some will bring an extra pair of socks in their pack to have a fresh one to hike down in. Footwear is also a debatable topic as many people criticize others for wearing flip flops etc. I hike in low top light hikers by Salomon. I like to wear the hiking shoes because they provide better stability and protection against rocks. I no longer wear hiking boots on day hikes but still backpack in them. They have become much lighter, but I enjoy the versatility of the light hikers. Some sandal type shoes like Tevas and Chacos have very good gripping soles. I personally don’t want the bare skin on my foot to be exposed on this long day so that is why I will not recommend them. Others like to use the Vibram Five Finger shoes, but I have heard mixed results on them. I have heard they are great for going up hills but there is little support for the pounding your feet take on the descent. Regular tennis shoes will work on the hike but do not have good grip on granite that can be slick in some areas of this hike so I strongly urge others not to wear them. Running shoes would be more efficient and trail runners would be even better. I also know some people will argue to do it barefoot, but that is not something I would recommend.
For the cables, it is important to have good gripping gloves, and I like to use nitrile coated sticky work gloves from any hardware store. These are great and very cheap. I don’t think leather works well because hands slip pretty often. Suede is an ok alternative. I would recommend full fingered gloves but also know that is just a preference. I definitely would not recommend bike gloves or workout gloves as they normally are not made of tough enough material for the friction involved and may disintegrate on the way down. I also like to be equipped with some sort of a safety belt/harness to clip into the cables. There are many types you can buy. Just be sure to purchase a sturdy carabiner you know will be reliable. We use Black Diamond carabiners.
I am humble enough to know that although I may have summited this peak more than most people, I am not the only “expert voice” on Half Dome. That type of talk is pure hubris, and I would question myself if I thought I knew more about it than anyone else just because I’ve been to the top a few times. There are people that may disagree with some of my choices, but they are only suggestions. Being prepared should be your main focus of this and any other trip into the wilderness. My list should get you well prepared for an epic day that will be sure to change your life forever as it did for me one hot day back in July 2003. Best of luck and Happy trails.
John DeGrazio is the lead adventure guide for YExplore Yosemite Adventures and regularly leads trips up Half Dome. YExplore offers Guided Half Dome hikes in Yosemite and can work with you to acquire permits in the preseason lottery in March of every year or the 48 hour lottery. We will also accommodate any group that already has acquired a permit for the hike and wishes to experience the added benefits of a guided adventure.
What’s more important to you on a hike, saving weight or time? This is currently one of the biggest debates raging on the trail circuit and the question every Half Dome hiker asks themselves at the advent of their 16 mile journey. To say that hikers in higher altitude need to stay hydrated is an understatement, but the real question is how much is too much water. How much water you need differs from person to person. It depends on many factors including body mass, physical activity levels, conditioning, and climate. The general rule is to drink a liter an hour during high levels of activity, but it would be absurd to think a hiker should carry close to 3 gallons of water for a typical 12 hour Half Dome hike. You would like to stay a little closer to that model on a backpacking trip when you can easily update your water supply at nearby streams and lakes.
On a normal day hike, I tend to consume about 10-12 ounces per hour of hiking so I bring 40 oz. on a 4 hour hiker and 100 oz. on a typical 10 hour hike. It’s always important to bring a little extra because you never know exactly how long a hike will take. If you don’t know how long it will take, you can estimate hiking about 3 mph on flat ground, 2.5 mph with some hills and closer to 1.5 mph with steep elevation gains.
Backpacking is a different ballgame. You should always use maps to find where water supplies are on your route and prepare accordingly. It’s never a good idea to drink untreated water in the wilderness so I carry a Katadyn Hiker water filter and 1-3 Platypus 2 liter water bottles depending on the size of the group I am leading.
Back to the Half Dome hike. We typically recommend carrying 120-140 oz. of water on this hike. Some people will say that is too heavy because the trail follows the Merced River, and there are a few ideal spots to treat water; but I like to save that valuable time to reach the summit. Pumping water is a time consuming process. It’s my opinion that time is better spent reaching the summit. I always carry my filter and can always pump in an emergency. A good alternative is to wait until the return trip where it can be beneficial to cool sore feet in the river before making the final descent to Yosemite Valley. Another important way to prepare for this and any other Yosemite adventure is to pre-hydrate. I like to drink about a gallon of water the day before the hike and about a liter in the morning before I hit the trail.
Other things to consider in terms of hydration are salty foods and electrolytes. Many of my snacks for any trip will contain salts which are valuable to replenish electrolytes in your body, and I also ingest electrolyte capsules. I used to recommend sports drinks but feel they add too many sugars and sugar substitutes as well as unnecessary dyes.
Every person is different and comfort factors will help determine which method works for you. But as I state to everyone who attempts Half Dome or other strenuous summit attempts with YExplore, you will have to move outside your comfort zone on these strenuous challenge so it’s ok to sacrifice a little comfort to add that extra layer of preparedness.
YExplore has a new partner! Nature’s Bakery, a company that makes an energy snack called Fig Bars, has agreed to provide these tasty treats to our clients for our Yosemite Tours. I am now officially an ambassador for Nature’s Bakery and you can follow my blog for them here. I have been bringing the Fig Bars on my trips for the past few months, and I really do enjoy them. Many of our clients agree and have stated that they are hearty and not nearly as sweet as other brands. They are all natural, and there are several different flavors. My favorite is Vanilla Raspberry. My children also love them which is an important reason I decided to enter into this agreement. It’s very difficult to find suitable snacks for kids in a market flooded with high fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients.
Last week I took some Fig Bars up to the summit of Half Dome, and they provided us with some good energy for the long day. In retrospect, maybe I should have offered a bar to the tired hiker behind me in this photo.
We are excited to introduce this new gear review feature for all our readers. From time to time, we will review products we feel are helpful on hikes and backpacking trips. Many of the reviews will be of products we purchase on our own, but some will be from companies who sponsor us. Either way, we will be providing you with information we hope will be useful when preparing for your next trip to Yosemite or any other global adventure. Please also refer to our Gear Guide which provides specific information for how to prepare for your outdoor excursions.
Gear Guide Disclaimer
I often receive a lot of questions about what gear is required on certain hikes or what I bring along on my treks. I have decided to review some products to provide assistance for travelers preparing for a hike in Yosemite or anywhere else they may be. Whether you are a recreational hiker or a seasoned backpacker, I will try to provide insightful information to help you choose your gear. I am making this initial post as a disclaimer for any companies who wish to have us review their products.
Product Review Disclaimer:
YExplore will not under any circumstances review any products for any company without an agreement to the policies and procedures stated within this disclaimer.
YExplore will accept items from companies for review without prior notice. YExplore will not pay for any item that a company asked to be reviewed. The Company is responsible for all shipping and product costs necessary for YExplore to receive the item. YExplore will also accept items from companies for review with prior notice. An email letting us know you wish to send a product to review will be adequate. No product reviewed by YExplore will be returned under any circumstances.
For all readers, YExplore does not receive any monetary compensation for the reviews written. All reviews are from products paid for by staff of YExplore or sent free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. The only compensation received is the use of the product reviewed if not purchased. This is to offer a reading audience an objective review, so you can make an informed decision before buying.
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