A few weeks ago, five of us pulled up to a dusty, pitch black parking lot at the base of a mountain at 3am. A big, huge, bucket list mountain, that is. Twelve hours later, we were pulling off our hiking boots in that same dusty parking lot in the mid-afternoon sun. Oh Half Dome, I hate that I love you.
If you’re one of the chosen few with a permit to hike Half Dome, you’re in for a treat. Who doesn’t want to hike 9 miles straight up into the oxygen-starved atmosphere with a few mosquitos and a bear or two? I kid.
In reality, summiting Half Dome was a check off my bucket list and a new top 5 memory to (hiking)boot.
When doing my own research to prepare for the trip, I found rather lackluster sites with more scare tactics than helpful tips (especially when it came to the cables.) The best advice I received was word of mouth from pals who conquered the trail before. After schooling my coworker on what to expect just a few weeks later on her own climb, I decided to compile all of our tips here, so you can be one prepared hiker when your turn comes.
So here we go–from me to you, the Real, Any-Level-Hiker’s Guide to Half Dome. Here’s everything you need to know (and pack!) before heading out to conquer the great granite summit.
GET YOUR PERMIT
Half Dome isn’t just a wake-up-let’s-do-this kinda adventure. Because of its popularity, the National Park Service limits the amount of visitors allowed up every day. While a few permits are released day-of, most hikers opt for the lottery in March for better luck. Applications are open from March 1-31 and results are posted in mid-April. When submitting, try for Sundays and less popular days, too–it’ll give you better odds.
PUMP SOME IRON
Get lucky with permits? Good. Start working those arms. Yes, arms. Along with getting your booty in gear with long walks or day hikes, squats on squats, or the stair master, get those biceps and triceps working. The cable portion of the hike uses much more upper body strength than expected! The better shape you’re in, the more enjoyable your hike will be–and the days following the hike.
GATHER YOUR GEAR
First of all–gloves are absolutely necessary to tackle the cables. Unless you want slippery, sweaty and scraped up hands, grab a set. Make sure they’ve got a good fit and a solid rubberized grip. We got these and they were perfect. Some hikers leave their discarded pairs in a basket at the bottom just in case, but don’t trust there will be a good set there when you go.
Invest in a Camelbak backpack (or off-brand similar pack with a water bladder) to hold layers, snacks, and plenty of water–you need more than you think. As for what to wear? I opted for my breathable, quick dry lululemon crops tucked into hiking socks, a tank top, a long sleeve layered over for the morning, and a rain jacket (for the Mist Trail). Check the weather before you go and be prepared for changing conditions!
Your footwear is everything, and a sturdy set of hiking boots is certainly recommended. Make sure you break them in well before the hike to avoid blisters. While some may opt to hike in tennis shoes, it is not advised because the trail can be slippery–especially at the cables. If you do hike in sneaks, make sure they have a grippy, tough tread. No Nike Frees, please.
Half Dome takes longer to conquer than you think it will. If you choose the route beginning at the Mist Trail, which we did, plan on about 12 hours round-trip including breaks and a pause on the top. (We hung out at the summit for just over an hour).
Starting way before the sun gives you a better chance of tackling the cables without a crowd and avoiding any super hot summer afternoons or dangerous thunderstorms. It is pretty darn breathtaking to see the beauty of Yosemite gradually lighten in the morning light–and you’ll hit the summit before most people even wake up.
PACK PLENTY OF FOOD & WATER
Stock up on snacks on snacks to fuel you to the top. Give yourself a hearty variety, but a balanced one. I made the mistake of eating too many nuts and RX Bars… My tummy was in a world of hurt (and extremely bloated) trying to digest all the fiber AND keep me upright.
Pack some PB, honey and banana sandwiches, a package of salami, apples and Justin’s almond butter single serve packets, fresh fruit, and most importantly, a treat for the top. My sweet friend and veteran climber Amie passed on this tip. When we summited, I was never more excited to unwrap a Pop Tart in my life.
As for water? Bring lots of it. Drink it. We each carried a 3 liter Camelbak and multiple water bottles. I picked up some Nuun electrolyte tabs and a coconut water to switch up the flavor and replace lost minerals from sweat, as well. I drank it all and would’ve sipped more. I gave my past self a big thank you for leaving a few S’well bottles in the car for a cold drink of water post-hike.
If you’re lucky enough to snag a permit to hike this legendary peak, do it. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a nature person, do it. I was bursting with pride at my very new to hiking pal Kumar tackling the trail like a superstar.
And while they may seem like the scariest, most impossible things in the world to some, don’t be intimidated by the cables–just stare at the rock in front of you and move foot-over-foot, hand-over-hand to the top (and don’t hang around at the base and stare them down… you will psych yourself out, as we saw happen with numerous hikers.)
There’s a reason Half Dome is a bucket list peak with hundreds of thousands of hikers eagerly vying for a chance to climb it year after year. Like the Grand Canyon, its beauty is so stunning, it almost looks fake–like you’ve fallen into a painting or another world.
Half Dome is a challenge and a reward you will never forget (and your legs won’t let you either, for about three weeks or so after…ouch)–and it is worth every step. All 55,000 of them.
The last tip? Be sure to pack along your best pals– the ones down for adventure, who keep their spirits high in the face of long days and little sleep, that can laugh through the blisters and get you up the heights and keep the conversation going mile after mile, yet know when peace is needed and make a mean PB banana sandwich. These pals? They’re as necessary as water.