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How to Prepare for Hiking Mount Whitney
Health & Fitness

How to Prepare for Hiking Mount Whitney

With the right preparation, hiking Mount Whitney will not only be a totally doable experience, but also the most gratifying one.

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5 min read

November 24, 2021

So you’re planning on hiking Mount Whitney? 

The highest peak in the contiguous United States and an entry on every hiker’s bucket list—Mount Whitney is a gem every adventurer should experience. While it’s admittedly grueling, the Mount Whitney hike is one of the most highly rewarding experiences you’ll have with nature. You’ll be met with scenic mountain views and incredible flora and fauna, and share one of the most physically demanding adventures of your life. 

With the right preparation and a little bit of motivation and friendly nudging from us, hiking Mount Whitney will not only be a totally doable experience, but also the most gratifying one.

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 14,505 feet.

Everything You Need To Know About Hiking Mount Whitney

The secret to successfully hiking Mount Whitney is preparation. While the hike itself requires you to put in a lot of physical effort, what you really need to do is acclimate to Mt. Whitney elevation and secure the Mt. Whitney permits; these quite literally can make or break your trip.

Get your body in shape, spend time at higher altitudes, know the signs of altitude sickness, pack all the travel essentials, and try to find a Mount Whitney hike buddy. With the right support system and necessities under your belt, there’s no such thing as an impossible hike!

Mount Whitney's summit is on the Sierra Crest and the Great Basin Divide. It lies near many of the Sierra Nevada's highest peaks.

When is the Best Time To Hike Mt. Whitney

The Mt. Whitney Trailhead is very well maintained and doesn’t require any technical mountaineering experience or gear during the late summer and early fall seasons—these also happen to be the most popular seasons to hike. However, come late October and all the way through early July, portions of the trail are likely to be covered in snow and ice. If you’re planning on hiking Mount Whitney during this time, it’s crucial to be equipped with an ice axe and spikes and know how to use them properly.

So, while there isn’t a quote-unquote best time to hike Mt. Whitney, your experience will greatly differ depending on what time you choose to trek to the summit. In any case, there most certainly is a worst time to hike, and that is during the peak winter months. The snow increases the difficulty to an already strenuous hike, and that can lead to many complications and unfortunate incidents. 

If you’re a first-timer finding your way along the Mount Whitney trail map, you’d be better off hiking between late summer to early fall. And, even if you are a highly experienced hiker, you should avoid hiking Mount Whitney when it’s snow-capped, empty, and a big old safety hazard.

The mountain is partially dome-shaped, with its famously jagged ridges extending to the sides, featuring an alpine climate and ecology.

What Are The Mt. Whitney Trail Conditions

Mount Whitney stands at a whopping 14,505 feet in length. Its most popular trail, which is around 20 miles, involves an over 6000-foot elevation gain—it's intense, to say the least. 

If you’ve had altitude sickness before, your chances of developing it reduce greatly with proper acclimatization. This means spending time at higher elevations prior to the trek is crucial. Should you still end up developing signs of altitude sickness, it’s important to recognize them immediately by listening to your body and stopping. Common symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.

Another rather unpleasant factoid you should be aware of is the lack of toilets along your Mount Whitney hike. Take care of your business before you start the ascent at the restrooms across the Mt. Whitney Trailhead and make sure to carry enough WAG bags in your backpack—remember to leave no trace of anything anywhere. Don’t be the person that stuffs bags behind rocks and between crevices, not cool.

The Mount Whitney Trailhead is also free of potable drinking water. While you can’t carry enough water to last for the entirety of the Mount Whitney hike, what you can do is bring a water purification system with you. You’ll come across ample streams and water crossings along the trail, and you’ll be able to use the water for drinking with a portable filter.

Lastly, marmots and other animals are quite common near the trail and surrounding boulders. Yes, they’re super cute, but they are not your friends. When you’re taking a break from hiking Mount Whitney or camping somewhere overnight, make sure your stuff (and especially your snacks) is secured in a place the sneaky animals can’t reach.

The estimated elevation of Mount Whitney's summit has changed over the years. The peak was commonly said to be at 14,494 feet.

What's The Mt. Whitney Hike Length

There are several trails you can choose when hiking Mount Whitney. The most popular trail is the namesake Mount Whitney Trail, which is an out-and-back hike that leads past rocky switchbacks, sheer cliffs, and flowing waterfalls all the way to the summit.

There are two ways you can go about trekking the Mt. Whitney Trailhead. You can either complete it as a day hike, which requires starting before sunrise and hiking for 12–16 hours straight. Or, you can divide the hike into smaller chunks to be completed across two days. This way, you can acclimatize, take it slower, admire the views during the daytime, and spend a beautiful night under the stars. However, getting an overnight permit is way harder than a one-day permit.

Besides the go-to Mt. Whitney Trailhead, there are about a dozen other routes that require mountaineering. It’s important to note that these trails are much harder, require different footwear and gear, and absolutely shouldn’t be tried by amateur hikers.

Permits are required year-round, and to prevent overuse the Forest Service issues a limited number of permits between May 1 and November 1.

How to Get A Mount Whitney Permit

Last but not least, you’ll need Mt. Whitney permits. Securing a permit to hike the mountain is almost as grueling as the hiking process itself. Generally, up to 100,000 hikers apply to trek Mt. Whitney between May and November. So, the parks service enforces a quota system to keep the numbers in check. Only 100 day hikers and 60 overnight hikers are allowed on the Mt. Whitney Trailhead per day from May to November. These quota-controlled slots are awarded in a lottery that gets announced on March 24 every year.

You can sign up for the lottery on Recreation.gov and pick up to 16 dates that you’d like to hike Mt. Whitney. The permit lottery lets you choose one main day and 15 alternates. Then, you decide on your group size. You can sign up a group of up to 15 people for the main Mount Whitney Trail, but the more people you have in your group, the tougher your chances are to score a permit. Ideally, aim for a three-four people group. This way, you can have enough people on your team to be safe and still get a good enough chance to score a lottery win.

If you miss the deadline to sign up, don’t give up. The park service releases all of the unclaimed permits for sale after a certain deadline. In case you’re hiking between November and April, you can claim a permit at the visitor center without signing up beforehand.

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