How to Survive Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite

So I want to begin by saying that Half Dome is no walk in the park. I mean, technically it is walking in one of the most gorgeous national parks, but it’s a trail that requires preparation. And sure, plenty of people jump into the hike without preparation, but then their bodies ache with soreness for days and have likely picked up a couple injuries along the way. I can successfully say that I felt totally fine the next day, had zero injuries, and you can too if you prepare beforehand.

What makes me the expert? I’m that overplanning fitness trainer who loves adventure and being able to hop into the gym the next day no problem. You will not only get the fitness preparation tips from me, but also all of the logistical info too. I did a ton of research before doing this trip – both online and asking friends who’ve done it before – and have compiled what I know in this blog post for you.

And if you found any of this helpful, please help a girl out and share this with friends. If you’re really feeling appreciative – check out some of the Amazon products I’ve linked to in this post (a tiny tiny percentage goes to me and helps keep this website up and running). And if you’re interested in learning how to prepare for other intense hikes, I’ve also done a post on How to Prepare for Hiking Machu Picchu. Okay, let’s begin!

What You Should Know About Yosemite Before Going:

  • This park is BIG and a bit of a drive to get to. It’s about a 4-5 hour drive from San Francisco (depending on traffic) and about 1.5 hours from Fresno (the closest major city with an airport).
  • Campsites book up quickly so plan ahead. You might be able to find last minute openings if you’re lucky or flexible enough to do a standby option. Camping in Yosemite is such a treat and I highly recommend doing it to get a true taste of Yosemite’s magic. To make campsite reservations, start here as your first resource.
  • If you’re planning on hiking Half Dome, you need a permit. There is no way getting around this and the fine for hiking it without a permit can be up to $5,000. Not worth it. I was chatting with the ranger at the top (mostly because I’m that chatty person who talks to everyone) and he was saying that when they arrest people, they escort them down with handcuffs THE ENTIRE WAY. Don’t be that idiot. It’s embarrassing and sounds very uncomfortable. I talk more about getting a permit below in the next section.
  • This is a challenging hike. It takes about 12-13 hours, and totals about 16-20 miles depending on the route you take. While some people just jump into it, I highly recommend conditioning your body with the following:
    • For cardio endurance: incline walks and sprints on the treadmill
    • For dominating the cables: developing grip strength (hanging leg raises/pull ups) and upper body strength (heavy dumbbell hammer curls, TRX rows). The incline is so steep that you’re essentially pulling your body up so having strong arms is key.
    • For strong legs: compound exercises focusing on major muscle groups like deadlifts, squats, and lunges are going to help the most. I’d avoid doing anything super heavy 1-3 days before so that you’re not recovering from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) on your hike. Your body has bigger things to focus on.
    • For core strength: pilates/yoga should help with body awareness to engage your abs while carrying a heavy backpack to avoid lower back pain.
  • Please respect nature. This should be a given, but still worth saying. Bring your own trash bags and observe the “leave no trace” principle – not leaving behind any wrappers, waste, or even toilet paper used on the trail. I packed a separate plastic bag to carry back my used toilet paper in my backpack (ah, the joys of being a woman). There’s toilets at all campsites and bathrooms at the base of most trailheads, but after that it’s just you and nature so please preserve its beauty ūüôā

How to Get a Permit to Hike Half Dome:

how to hike half dome yosemite safely prepare survive sunrise permit

Hiking to the top of Half Dome is possible only during the summer/early fall season (typically late May to mid October), but the dates are subject to change based on conditions. For the most up to date schedule, check out the official website. A total maximum of 300 hikers are allowed daily to summit past the base of the subdome up the cables (about 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers).

There are two ways to acquire a permit –

  • Option 1: Preseason lottery. Application period during the month of March, with results revealed in mid-April.¬†Again, the website I listed above has the most up to date information, but it’s helpful to know how far in advance this is to mark your calendar.
  • Option 2: Daily lottery. This is during the hiking season, based on the estimated rate of under-use and cancellation of permits. You apply for it 2 days before the date you want to go, with the application period from midnight to 1 pm Pacific time. This option is best suited for those who are more local to Yosemite (or have the flexibility to do a last minute trip).

Some more notes:

  • There is an application fee to apply and an additional fee once you get the permit. It’s not a huge amount of money (about $10 to apply) but it does add up if you keep applying for the daily lottery. Something to keep in mind.
  • Apply with friends and try to avoid holiday weekends if you want to better your chances.
  • Don’t get discouraged. I’ve applied for the preseason lottery five years in a row and got denied each time. And only on my second try with the daily lottery did I get the permit. My friend got denied twice when he applied with me.
  • I heard 4th of July weekend can be hit or miss. Either people are spending it elsewhere or taking advantage of the time off at Yosemite. Could be worth a shot.
  • I’m not sure if it matters, but I applied right at midnight for the daily lottery that got me the permit.

What Not to Do If You’re Hiking Half Dome:

how to hike half dome yosemite safely prepare survive sunrise permit

(and maybe also not do this pose if you’re afraid of heights or lose balance easily)

So my friend (who’s also a yoga teacher) and I got the daily lottery permit on our second try. He got denied twice and I miraculously got it. Fortunately we already got our classes covered for that week so we had a flexible schedule to make quick moves. Our plan was to start the hike in the evening to make it to the top at sunrise and hike back in the early morning, finishing right around lunch time. Pretty magical, right? You bet.

What wasn’t the smartest idea was driving there same day, hiking 20 miles on no sleep, and then driving back that same day in absolute exhaustion. That I would never do again. It’s the worst feeling when you feel nervous driving on winding roads because your eyes could shut closed at any moment. We had to pull over frequently on the 5 hour drive back to get me candy and make me do jumping jacks to keep me awake. It was worse than any jetlag I’ve ever felt because it was sleep deprivation paired with physical exhaustion.

You must be thinking why would be so crazy. Well, my friend was on a budget and this saved us money on lodging (which I won’t complain about because they are quite expensive last minute). Plus, he had an 8am yoga sculpt class to teach the next morning and I was tempted by the idea of sleeping in my own bed that night than in a rented sleeping bag. Lesson learned to splurge on nearby lodging or find a last minute campsite and sleep under the stars for a night if you have a 5 hour drive back home.

TL;DR: don’t drive 5 hours into Yosemite, pull an all nighter hiking 20 miles, and then drive back home right after. You will feel like vomiting and crying simultaneously like I did.

The Best Hiking Tips We Accidentally Stumbled Upon:

  • Leave early. Doing a sunrise hike was worth it for us. We started it around 11:40pm (super early considering most people start at 5am). While we didn’t get to see much because we were walking in darkness, it was nice to walk in 60 degree weather without the hot sun beating down on us.¬†We had never done this hike before so we budgeted in time for getting lost (which we did a little) and taking breaks. We both went into this hike on the same page that we weren’t trying to sprint it and wanted it to be a steady, enjoyable pace. Thank god.
    • Note: If I had the luxury of camping the night before, I would actually start this hike at 4:30-5am so I can still avoid the crowds, be able to actually see my surroundings, and get back early afternoon just as it’s becoming the hottest.
  • Pick a trail of least resistance.¬†The trailhead starts at the Mist trail, with the closest parking about a half-mile walk away from Curry Village. About 1.5 miles in, you’ll hit a water fountain at Vernal Falls(last time to fill up!) and be given the option with two separate routes. Option 1 is to go left and continue up the Mist Trail (it’s steep and you’ll get wet from the waterfall). Option 2 is to go right continuing down the John Muir adding a couple miles to your route, but it’s a more paved route with low impact switchbacks. Since it was dark and we were down a headlamp, we were happy to add mileage for a drier, safer path. On our way back down, we took the Mist Trail and the water was refreshing and pleasant. We knew we made the smarter choice avoiding having to take a slippery, steep staircase in the dark.
    • Note: f you are starting your hike in the early morning and will have light for this part, I actually would do the Mist Trail coming up – it’s more scenic, less miles, and the waterfalls are absolutely amazing.
  • Be Prepared. I’ll get into this more in the section below on what to pack, but everything from the clothes you wear to the gear you pack matters. This is a long hike in an area with high altitude and varying climates. While we were budget about our lodgings, we were not budget about our gear and so glad we packed smart.

What to Pack for Half Dome:

how to hike half dome yosemite safely prepare survive sunrise permit

treated to this refreshing mist on the way back down.

  • Permit. This is absolutely necessary. Tip: take a screenshot of the e-mail confirmation and make sure other people have it on their phones in case your phone battery dies. I lost reception as soon as I got to Curry Village (thanks T-mobile!) so I had my phone on airplane mode the entire time.
  • Camelbak Hydration Pack.¬†The most important thing you must be aware of is staying hydrated. It can make or break your hike (and you) so I cannot stress the importance of carrying enough water with you. This is the exact one I used and it’s on sale with Amazon! I spent $110 on this last year at REI because I had no idea what was good and had to buy in store to be sure it was what I wanted. I loved the magnetic clasp that instantly hooked the tube to my pack without it flinging around (convenient when you’re hiking in darkness) and loved all the little pockets and compartments to hold my other belongings safely. Plus, at 3L it provides a solid amount of water. I threw in an extra 1L water bottle on the outside pocket and had more than enough water for the hike.
  • Comfortable, broken in hiking boots. If you don’t already have hiking boots, you want to invest in sturdy shoes with good traction for this hike. You will encounter uneven terrain, slipper steps, and even more slippery granite climbing the cables. I’ve linked to the ones I personally used (again, I overpaid at REI lol) for the ladies, and for the men I recommend getting Merril brands for yours as well because they last forever. A good tip my friend Jacob told me is to throw new shoes in the dryer to help “wear” them out so that you’re not breaking them in on your hike and at the mercy of blisters.
  • Liquid Chlorophyll.¬†This natural remedy¬†helps your red blood cells use oxygen more efficiently and boost energy levels. Chlorophyll is my secret weapon for altitude hiking and high intensity, anaerobic workouts. I prefer liquid over capsule form because it‚Äôs easier to digest, but pick whatever works for you. Mix one dropper into a half-full water bottle, shake, and drink first thing in the morning a couple days before and throughout your hike.
  • Hat and Sunscreen.¬†The summer heat is no joke and with a higher altitude, you’re skin is more susceptible to burns. I finally found a zinc oxide sunscreen that doesn’t make my face look like a ghost and blends will into my skin. You get better protection and avoid the chemicals with this brand.
  • Your Most Comfortable Activewear. I sweat a lot so I need clothes that can handle¬†high intensity workouts but also be comfortable to wear for 13 hours. I’m not a brand loyalist, so I wore black compression Lululemon leggings, a Fabletics sportsbra, a Gapfit longsleeve, and a Patagonia vest and everything was PERFECT. This was the right amount of layers to handle the chilly parts of our night walk, but also handle the heat without walking back with a ton layers in my backpack. Keep in mind, I’m used to chilly SF weather at this point so 60 degrees is a pleasant walking temperature for me. Walking back down I wore my sports bra only, tied my long sleeve around my waist, and clipped my vest to the outside of my backpack. For guys, my friend wore leggings underneath his shorts, a long sleeve, and a light jacket. We wore thick socks and packed an extra clean pair to change into for the hike down.
  • A Solid Headlamp: Make sure you use a strong headlamp and double check your batteries (mine died within the first 5 minutes and somebody *cough* brought the wrong type of backup batteries). If my friend didn’t have a solid headlamp, we wouldn’t have been able to do the hike at all. This is the one he used. And double check your batteries please.
  • Hiking Poles/Stick. Wow. These were an unexpected MVP. I used to think these were just for old people, but my friend brought a pair and graciously shared one of his with me and this made¬†such a difference. They help take the weight off your legs and I can imagine we would’ve been in a lot of pain without these. There’s no shame in using assistance if it allows you to hike safer and smarter.
  • Work gloves or lifting gloves: I didn’t have the time to buy legitimate work gloves so I makeshifted my own with my lifting gloves (which worked just fine). Make sure they aren’t fingerless gloves because they can still burn your fingers. I slid light gloves underneath my fingerless lifting gloves and they worked perfectly.
  • Healthy Snacks. We had a solid dinner before the hike (sweet potatoes, chicken, and eggs) so I wasn’t very hungry for the first half, but it was nice to get a little sugar boost on our breaks with a Lara bar. On the top, I had more protein with my collagen protein bar (coming soon guys!) and turkey sticks, and on the way down it was so hot, all I wanted was water to stay hydrated.
  • Toilet Paper + Plastic Bags to Pack Out. Don’t leave your trash behind in this beautiful park, especially toilet paper. I already mentioned this above, but if you’re a woman who prefers to not have to air dry, packing a ziploc bag with clean TP and another bag for dirty TP are lifesavers with all that water you’re drinking. Pro tip: label them with a sharpie so you know which is which.

***

Those are my essential tips! This was hands down my favorite and most challenging hike (and I’ve done some pretty insane ones) and going in prepared really made the difference in my ability to quickly recover and bounce back into my active lifestyle with no soreness or injuries. I love the gym, but it’s accomplishing hikes like these in nature that not only make you feel strong, but also appreciate the beauty in our world. And that’s the greatest feeling ever.

If you have any additional questions, leave a comment below and I’d be happy to answer with what I know! Happy hiking and be safe!

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