So, you’re considering climbing to the top of Half Dome? Here’s the gear that worked for us on our hike, and hopefully it works for you, too!
You’ll need something to carry all of your gear, so find a good one! The options are endless so we won’t dive too deep, but you’ll probably want something in the 20-35L range to fit everything. It should at least have a sturdy hip belt to distribute weight (water is heavy!) and several pockets that organize your gear for easy access. I use a Gregory Z30. This thing has everything I need: hydration sleeve, easily accessible water bottle pockets, large main compartment, stuff pocket for my shell, slash pocket for the smaller items, hip belt pockets for my camera and trail trash, ties for trekking poles (or ice axes if necessary) and plenty of room to spare if I need to carry anything extra.
Arguably the most important thing you will bring on your hike (aside from water and food), the footwear you choose will have a direct impact on how much you enjoy your hike. The key is in the support and the sole. You will be stepping on countless rocks on the trail. These rocks will start to wear your feet out after a while. For this, make sure you have a stiff and sturdy sole that will withstand the constant battering from the rocks. I prefer a shoe, the Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX, while Jacquie likes a boot for ankle support, the Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX. It was also helpful that our shoes are waterproof, since the trail can get pretty wet near the waterfalls. Whatever you choose, make sure it will be comfortable for the whole trip. You will be on your feet for 9-12 hours, after all.
The Ten Essentials:
Start every hike packing list with these items designed to get you through your journey comfortably and safely. Admittedly, we may omit an item or two depending on the hike, but the list is a darn good place to start. REI has a good overview here.
Map and compass: I haven’t found a better map than the Tom Harrison Yosemite Valley Map. It’s well laid out with great informational detail (topography, trails, etc.). For a compass/GPS, I use a Suunto Ambit3 Peak, and Jacquie uses her iPhone. Because batteries and technology in general can fail, we also carry a good old fashioned Suunto manual compass as a backup.
Sunscreen: We are in love with the Ultra-Sheer Dry-Touch sunscreen from Neutrogena. Feels like lotion going on and doesn’t leave you with that nasty, greasy sunscreen residue, even after multiple applications.
Sunglasses: Any pair will do. The last 1000 feet of the hike are completely exposed, so you will not want to forget these.
Clothing: For base layers, dress for the weather and whatever makes you comfortable. The two recommendations I have are to start the hike slightly cold (you don’t want to be shedding a layer 15 minutes in) and to wear quick-drying and breathable material (e.g. NOT cotton). You will either be wet from the mist trail or from your own sweat, so you want something that will wick that away as fast as possible. Can you climb Half Dome in jeans and an Iron Maiden shirt? Sure, but you’ll probably be pretty uncomfortable. For rain and wind protection, I have the Outdoor Research Helium HD shell, and Jacquie sports an Arc’teryx Theta SL shell (discontinued, but this is similar). The summit can get chilly and windy, so I also brought a Mountain Hardwear fleece. You might also consider a long sleeve shirt like Jacquie’s Patagonia Midweight Capliene zip neck, a light insulating soft shell jacket, or convertible/shell pants.
Light: My Petzl Reactik worked great for this trip as it automatically adjusts the lamp based on ambient light. Jacquie has an older Black Diamond Spot. These come in handy when your hike takes longer than you expected and you’re caught coming home after dark, like us. If you don’t feel like dropping money on a headlamp, a basic flashlight will work for your return (or start, depending on how early you begin).
First Aid: I take my medical kit with me any time I’m doing something active. It’s just a Victorinox toiletry bag with medical supplies. You don’t need anything fancy, but you should at least have the following in your kit:
-Cuts & scrapes: Basic band-aids and antiseptic/alcohol pads
-Wilderness first aid guide
-Instruments: Tweezers, Tick Remover (a document clamp works fine), and safety pin(s)
-Medication: Sting relief, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and antihistamine
-Wounds/Burns/Blisters: Butterfly bandages, gauze, and medical tape
Fire: I carry a butane lighter. Simple, lightweight, and withstands wind well. If you need fire starter, dryer lint with some petroleum jelly works great and is lightweight.
Repair items: We usually carry some duct tape and a knife/multitool with us for small repairs. You shouldn’t need much more, but can also carry some extra webbing, buckle for your backpack, or shoe repair substance.
Nutrition: We usually like to bring one larger item (usually a PB&J sandwich) to be consumed around the mid-point of the hike (or if you’re Jacquie, 20% into the hike) and a small snack for every 1-2 hours we’re going to be on the trail. We usually like Clif Bars (nut butter filled – om nom), Larabars, Honey Stinger waffles, trail mix, Justin’s nut butter, fruit, and Quest protein bars (towards the end of the hike). We took about 11.5 hours, so we had 5 small snacks each. Everyone is different when it comes to food, so just make sure you pack enough, as you most likely will need more than you might think.
Hydration: Yosemite recommends a gallon (~4L) of water per person for the hike, which I think is just about right. The bridge at the base of Vernal Falls (1 mile into the hike) has a water filling station, so you can keep most of your hydration vessels (near) empty until you get to that point. That’s a mile you don’t have to be carrying up to 8 lbs. of water with you! It will also help on the way back if you have run out of water earlier than planned. We each have a hydration bladder along with a couple of Nalgenes, which work well in combination. When you empty the bladder, you can pour one of your full bottles into it, keeping your water easy to access and spread across your pack for even weight distribution. **Don’t forget: you will most likely be sweating a lot, which means you will be losing salt/electrolytes. Whether it’s tablets, powder, gels, or Brawndo, bring electrolytes!!**
Emergency Shelter: We brought an emergency blanket, and you should not need much more than that. The trail his heavily trafficked and there is a resident ranger in Little Yosemite valley that can radio back in case of an emergency.
Non-Ten Essentials in our bags:
Plastic baggies: Helpful for organizing gear or as trash bags on the trail.
Bear bell: While black bears are normally scarce and docile, you still may cross paths with them in Yosemite. A bear bell helps alert them and other critters to your presence, helping to avoid an encounter.
Camera: I have a compact Canon S95 that I bring on the trail, because it allows me to still shoot in manual mode and doesn’t weigh me down. Newer smart phones like the iPhone 7 Plus and Google Pixel would also do a great job capturing the beauty of the surroundings. If you feel naked without your superzoom or DSLR, just know that extra weight starts to wear on you after many miles. Either way, the entire hike is quite photogenic, and you’ll want to stop and capture scenes along the way. Our friend Matt brought his Nikon D800 full-frame DSLR with him, and while he wished it were lighter weight by the end he also captured some amazing photos. If your camera isn’t weather sealed, just make sure you have some place to stow it on the Mist Trail or if there is a storm.
Gloves: The cables on Half Dome see a lot of traffic every year. For protection, grip, and sanitation, bring gloves. Not only will they make climbing the cables easier, they will keep your delicate digits safe. I use a basic set of slip-on Mechanix gloves, and Jacquie used a simple pair of rubber-coated work gloves she got on a work trip to an Amazon Fulfillment Center (frugality!).
And last, but not least…
BEER: There’s nothing quite like a summit beer, although I recommend waiting until after you descend the cables. We drank Dale’s Pale Ale, which comes in a durable can and still manages to taste good even after it inevitably warms up throughout the hike.