Half Dome Packing List, Tips, Route, Permits, etc.

I, along with 3 other friends, climbed one of the most beautiful hikes California has to offer - Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley. Standing at 8848ft above the sea level and watching the valley below is quite an amazing feeling. The 14-16 mile hike has an elevation gain of 4800ft and require some preparation, including obtaining a permit.

Here is a typical packing list for the hike:

  1. High energy foods such as Bars & Nuts
  2. About 1 gallon (3.8 l) of water/Gatorade (2l worked for me)
  3. Sun screen
  4. Flash light (head mounted or hand held)
  5. Layered clothing (based upon weather)
  6. Hiking shoes or Trail running shoes (more below)
  7. First aid kit
  8. Backpack (more below)
  9. Rain gear (based upon weather)
  10. Hat (preferably with a wider brim)
  11. Sun glasses
  12. Chapstick
  13. Working gloves with good grips
  14. Camera

And now some detailed notes ...

  • The Hike
    1. What is the hike ? The typical hike is from Trailhead -> The Mist Trail -> The Vernal Falls -> The Nevada Falls -> Sub Dome -> Half Dome. You can skip The Mist Trail and The Vernal Falls both ways (more on this below). The total distance is anywhere between 14-16 miles round trip depending upon the route with an elevation gain of 4800 ft and 8800 ft above sea level. The hike is mostly fire trail with gravel at some places. and rocks exclusively at sub dome and half dome.
    2. Recommended hike route ? Follow the signs for The Mist Trail/Half Dome from the Trail Head. After about 1.5 mile, the trail splits with one sign saying "To the top of Nevada Falls 1.5" and another one "Nevada Falls 2.5 miles" and "Half Dome 7.2". Taking the first route goes through The Mist Trail and The Vernal Falls and reaches to the top of The Nevada Falls. However you might get wet (depending upon time of the year) at The Mist Trail which may not be very exciting that early in the morning. Also the climb along this trail is rocky steps and require constant attention which would make it more difficult for an early morning hike where you rely upon a flash light for visibility. The second route is a fire trail and allow you to maintain a consistent pace. The first route might get you up earlier but will be more exhausting. We took the second route by accident and glad it happened that way. However its definitely recommended to come back via The Vernal Falls and The Mist Trail because you want to finish the hike, climbing down the steps is much easier, getting wet in the afternoon is much more comforting, fun, and you dry up much faster. Gets hot after noon so will need lot more water, not able to touch the rock for support etc.

      Some folks backpack to Little Yosemite Valley, camp there over night, and then hike to Half Dome the next morning, so that's an option as well.
    3. How to reach the trailhead ? - Complimentary shuttle services start at 7am and can drop you at the trailhead. Or you can walk approx 1 mile from the Curry Village to the trail head as well. 7am is anyway a really late start for an out-and-back hike.
    4. The Sub Dome - There is a mini dome before the main dome which needs to hiked using switch backs. It is much much more grueling than the final dome because there are no cables, mostly stepped stones, and plain rocks at some places.
    5. The Dome - The final dome is about 400 ft granite at an average incline of about 45 degrees. It has two metal cables raised on about 4 ft high posts every 6-10 ft. The chains are about 4 ft apart with wooden planks on most of the poles. You need to pull yourself up using the rubberized gloves on the cables and then take rest on the planks as needed. Coming down, the first few planks are typically covered facing forward and then most of it is rappling. The climb looks extremely daunting but fortunately is easier than it looks. And coming down is definitely much easier than going up.

    6. When to start ? Start as early as you can. We started 4:30ish and there were several folks who started way before us. We met hikers around 1.5 mile from the dome coming down already. This allows you to cover significant part of the uphill climb in the morning chill. It took us about 5 hrs to reach the Sub Dome after taking a few breaks, enjoying the nature, and taking pictures.
    7. Restrooms ? There are flush toilets at the Vernal Fall footbridge and porta potties near the top of Nevada Fall and the last one in the Little Yosemite Valley. Feed the nature after that if you really really have to ;-)
  • How to prepare ?
    1. Permits - The cables are placed mid-May and are removed mid-October from the Half Dome. Permits are required when the cables are in place and are issued a few months in advance, check the calendar here. They sell out fast, really fast. I booked the permits for August on April 1st and permits for the entire month were gone within the first 3 minutes. Make sure to create a login before hand and be ready for alternative dates. However the ranger (who checks the permit) stays in the Little Yosemite Valley when the cables are up, hikes up to the base of sub dome, and reaches there between 8-9am. So you may not need a permit if you beat him ;-)

      400 permits are issued/day online but there are several no shows. Additional permits are issued online at 7am the day before the hike, so check that for a last minute plan.
    2. The total hike is about 14-16 miles with an elevation gain of about 4800 ft and takes anywhere between 10-12 hours. Make sure you can hike at least half that distance/elevation gain without much trouble. There are several peaks in the San Francisco Bay Area (Mt Diablo, Rancho San Antonio, Mission Peak, Black Mountain, Mt Tamalpais) that can give you that experience.

      Generally the thumb rule is that if you are a half- or a full- marathon runner then you are ready to hike.
    3. The typical time to break in your hiking boots is 15-20 hrs so make sure you have tried them on multiple preparatory hikes and are comfortable wearing them.
    4. Hike with about a 5-10lb backpack to assess yourself.
  • What to carry on the hike ? - The complete list is given above and here are detailed notes.
    1. How much water ? The recommended water to the top of Half Dome is 1 Gallon (3.78 litres). The 2L Camelbak bladder was good enough for me. Drank most of it during the downhill hike when it started to get hot. Other hikers carried about 3L and had some remaining in their bladder. Also took the water filtering kit but didn't really had to use it at all. There are water fountains at The Mist Trail and The Vernal Falls.
    2. Gloves - Get either workman or backyard gloves with rubber grip from the Home Depot or rope climbing gloves from REI or a similar store. These would be required for climbing up/down the cables at the Half Dome. There is typically a pile of gloves at base of the cables. So if you forgot then you can try to pick one from there.
    3. First aid kit - Carry Moleskin or some blister first aid kit at the least. You may want to carry a pain-killer or any personal medications.
    4. Hiking Sticks - Some hikers used walking or hiking sticks. These are particularly useful to spread the weight between the lower and upper body. They are more useful for hiking down to avoid straining your knees and hips. But be careful when hiking up/down the dome so that they are not hanging loose from the backpack otherwise there is a risk of them swinging down and hitting other climbers. I saw several hikers using the sticks and only one of us used a walking stick.
    5. Food - About 2000+ calories are burned during the hike so carry enough food to stay fueled. I consumed 4 Odwalla bars (150-200 calories each) + 1 55gm e-Gel + 1 banana + 1 pear + some nuts (almonds + cashew + cranberries) + 1 walnut bread slice + 1 gatorade.
    6. Backpack - Get a good backpack with lower waist and upper chest sternum strap buckle. The water bladder might have an accessory that allow it to be attached to a magnetized buckle on your backpack which makes sure the mouth piece is not hanging loose. Pack light. My backpack had a rainfly which can be handy for The Mist Trail or those unexpected rain. Make sure to remove everything from the outside pockets and zip them inside before climbing the Half Dome.
    7. Trash bags - Carry your own trash bags to clean up banana or orange peals, apple/pear leftovers, or anything else. No leftovers please!
    8. Jacket - May (not) be required depending upon the weather. You anyway warm up in the first 1/2 hr and will have to lug it around for the entire hike so see if you can brave it.
    9. Carabiners - Some hikers use carabiners on the cables for additional safety. You need to to unlock/lock them from the cables every 6-10 feet because of the resting posts. They do provide additional safety but seem like an extra work and more of a hassle frankly. However if you do intend to use carabiners then get a proper harness.
    10. Hiking Boots - Make sure to buy hiking boots with good traction. Try them on an incline (going up and down) because toes will be hitting front of the shoe for pretty much all the hike down. No sneakers absolutely but trail running shoes might work.
    11. Socks - Long thermolon socks turned out very helpful, helped absorb sweat and also protect lower legs with dust etc.
    12. Camera - The hike offers some breath taking view of the valley. A digital SLR would be nice but an overkill, mostly from the weight and carrying perspective, but a point-and-shoot camera is highly recommended.
  • Where to stay ? The Curry Village is the closest accommodation to the trailhead (about 1mile). There are about 180 cabins, 427 tent cabins, and a handful of motel rooms available but typically are sold out much in advance so make sure to reserve on time. The rooms are comfortable and provide different configurations of single/double beds. We stayed in tent cabin where each bed had a mattress, couple of blankets, pillow, and a hand towel. The room is well lit with a bulb hanging in the center but no outlets for chargers. There are ample restrooms which are clean and well maintained and also have outlets if you really need one. There are also a few shared showers but didn't try them.  Each room comes with a bear locker that gets latched and provides safety from the bear. You can also carry padlocks for additional safety. Registration desk also provide bear-safe complimentary lockers after you check out.
  • Dinner the night before - There are several dining options at the Curry Village Dining. The buffet (at approx $16/person) particularly is very good and provide good variety for vegetarians as well. It had salad bar, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, enchilada, rice, chicken tender, fish nuggets, drinks, and desserts.
  • What to avoid ?
    1. Route tracking - Garmin 305 Forerunner could not get a satellite signal even after repeated boots so don't plan to carry one unless you want to have extra weight in your backpack.
    2. Cell phone - AT&T cell phone coverage is minimal to none all around the trail so don't rely upon them at all. Carry 2-way radios if you really have to communicate otherwise hike together as a group which is anyway more fun.
    3. Don't try to be adventurous or do something stupid as it may cause injuries, and fatal in some cases, to you and others. Some specific examples are:
      1. There are clear signs to not cross the steel barriers and swim at Vernal falls but some folks still do.
      2. If you accidentally drop a bottle or something in the fall, let go. Your life (and others) is more precious than that bottle.
      3. Stay inside the cables when climbing up/down the dome.
      4. Do not rush the slow hikers and be patient with them.
      5. Stay on the well marked trails and don't try short cuts.
      6. Be prepared to have a bear encounter and read the tips.
  • Parking - There is ample free parking available through out the park. Park anywhere and take the shuttle (which starts at 7am) to the trailhead.

Last but not the least, the folks at REI and Sports Basement are just wonderful. Several of them have done the hike, know exactly what it takes, and guide you accordingly. Go talk to them and ask your questions. The associates at Sports Authority were not that knowledgeable and experienced in all my discussions.

Other links ...

Make sure to enjoy the hike because its lot of fun and take some good pictures:

Half Dome is a California landmark and behind the state quarter. Why have you not done it yet if you live in California ? :-)

What is your tip for making this hike enjoyable and safe ?


Nice review of your trip.

Note that the trail you took up is the John Muir Trail. In fact it is the very very end (begin) of the JMT which winds 211 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Posted by Byron Nevins on September 15, 2011 at 08:34 AM PDT #

Thanks for the great post -- a very helpful read in preparation for tomorrow's hike!

Posted by Terry on September 04, 2013 at 06:50 AM PDT #

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Arun Gupta is a technology enthusiast, a passionate runner, author, and a community guy who works for Oracle Corp.

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