Half Dome is something you cannot simply just do. You’ve got to train and make sure you go into the day of your hike as prepared as humanly possible. Thinking about studying up on what you need to know for the day of your hike? Well, look no further! Here are my top, unmissable tips for hiking Half Dome.
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15 ESSENTIAL HALF DOME TIPS FOR HIKE DAY
The Half Dome hike round-trip distance is ~18 miles or longer.
Of course, this depends on where your start point is, but you shouldn’t be expecting a hike shorter than 17 miles. My last hike equated to about 48,000 steps. Get your feet ready for all the walking you’ll do in one day!
Bring an extra pair of socks just in case.
If you’re hiking in the early summer, the mist from Vernal Fall might be spraying like crazy and could soak your feet. Having an extra pair of socks in this scenario could save you from a day of miserable hiking. (This is not an issue in July, usually no mist at all.) You might also consider changing socks when you’re at the top of Half Dome, depending on the sweatiness of your feet. I brought an extra pair of sock liners / toe socks in case my main hiking socks caused blisters. Luckily, I didn’t need them, but it doesn’t hurt to have a pair handy!
Make sure you bring enough water.
3.5 to 4 liters of water per person is perfect, especially if you’re hiking on a hot day. You might think this amount is too heavy or that this is way too much water, and you might find yourself summiting Half Dome with a lot of water left. This is good–you’re going to need it on the way down as it gets warmer in the day. From the top of Half Dome, the nearest filtered water is at the bridge below Vernal Falls, six miles away. I’d go with a 3L water reservoir as well as 2 extra 500mL bottles of water.
There are mosquitos in the summertime and it can get very, very hot.
Such an unfortunate combination! Be mindful that if you’re going to wear shorts and short-sleeved clothing when hiking Half Dome in the summer, you’ll have to use bug repellent. Now, onto the heat. I did Half Dome in early July on a day where Yosemite Valley clocked in at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat was not a big deal when I started hiking since I started at 5:30am (the top of Half Dome was also slightly cooler–it was ~80-85 degrees up there at around 12pm). However, on the way down—the heat was something I was not mentally prepared for.
So, you should mentally and physically prepare for it. Especially on the Mist Trail (last 3 miles), where you’ll be surrounded by hot stones radiating heat all around you. If you can’t take the heat like I can’t, make sure to wear shorts and a lightweight shirt or tank, and don’t forget that bug spray. A cooling towel also works wonders in situations like this.
There are four bathroom opportunities on the way up.
The first bathroom is after the first mile, by the footbridge where you can also fill up with water. The second is near the Emerald Pool above Vernal Fall. The third is located around mile 3 at the Joh Muir Trail junction above Nevada Fall. The last bathroom area is at mile 5-6, at the Yosemite Valley Backpacker’s Campground.
Make sure you have a copy of your permit.
Have it pulled up on your phone via offline mode, and print a copy out just in case. The park ranger will check your permits right before the subdome switchbacks. He or she will check you in electronically with an iPad, then give you a talk on safety and you’ll be on your merry way. There is no sneaking by him/her.
Mentally prepare for the subdome switchbacks.
Since this was my second time doing Half Dome, I knew how brutal this portion of the hike was. Many hikers have to take breaks throughout this section and many think this is the worst part of the hike (this is exactly how I felt a few years back).
But since I had mentally prepared for the difficulty this time around, I was able to complete this section in nearly five minutes with zero breaks and honestly, it wasn’t bad at all. If uphill is not your thing, throw on some music, take breaks if needed, stay hydrated, and grind it out. You’re almost there!
Wear gloves with as much grip as possible.
When you’re ascending and descending the cables, you’re literally holding on for your life, so make sure your grip (gloves and shoes) is as sturdy as possible. Gardening gloves or cheap nitrile work gloves with grip from the hardware store work perfectly. Avoid fingerless gloves, because your fingers will likely be shredded without the protection.
Don’t hang out below the cables for too long before ascending.
When you first approach the cables, try to spend as little time at the bottom of the cables as possible (especially if you got an early start on hiking). The more you wait, the more hikers and foot traffic you’re going to have to deal with on the way up and down the cables. Traffic jams could add 30 minutes to an hour to your overall hike time. Take a few moments to take a breather, get your gloves ready, tuck all of your gear into your pack, and go! You can take pictures and lollygag on your way down.
Make sure you have hiking shoes or hiking boots with good grip.
My friend wore a pair of everyday trail runners and found himself slipping on some of the rock during the cable ascent. Don’t be that guy and make sure you hike with something with lots of traction. My hiking boot recommendation: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boots for men and women.
Ascending the cables are about 50-75% upper body strength.
Some portions of the cables such as the very beginning and end are less steep, which means they’re easier to ascend with the use of mostly your legs. Other portions, though, are a lot steeper (or the rock is slicker and has less grip) which means you’re going to need to muscle it to get yourself to the next wooden plank. So don’t forget to incorporate those arm workouts when training for Half Dome.
Coming down the cables can be a piece of cake or nerve-wracking depending on if you’re an uphill or downhill person.
Coming down, you can choose to face the rock or face outward. I tried both methods and or personally, I found facing out to be a lot less terrifying since I could see where I was stepping and where other people below me were. However, I don’t think this is a popular opinion! For some context: out of our group of six, two of us faced out and four of us faced the rock. Do whatever feels right and most secure for you!
Be mindful that the descent can be tiring and painful too.
Getting to the top of Half Dome is only half of the journey. At this point, you’re probably already tired. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but there are another 8-9 miles to go! If you know you have bad knees or your other muscles are in a lot of pain by the time you’ve made it to the top of Half Dome, take some ibuprofen. I do not condone of drugs, but wow, this was a game-changer for me.
Typically, downhills are the hardest part of a hike for me and I’d usually begin feeling pain and discomfort in my knees by the first 2-3 miles of downhill. During my last Half Dome hike, I took ibuprofen as soon as I got to the top and was able to descend with little to no knee pain at all until about the last mile. If you have knee pain, you can also try KT Tape to stabilize your joints. And don’t forget, always practice proper hiking mechanics.
You have a less steep trail option for the hike down.
You can take the John Muir Trail on the way down if you don’t want to deal with coming down on the Mist Trail, which is way steeper and sometimes wet/slippery from the mist of Vernal Fall. The JMT is a longer, more gradual descent which is less taxing on the knees.
I’d recommend making a game-time decision depending on how you feel when you reach that junction. After all, you’ll have hiked over 12 miles at this point, and you could be completely exhausted or still have enough energy to go a lot longer. After passing Nevada Fall, you’ll have the option to finish in 2.5 miles (via the Mist Trail) or in ~4 miles (via the JMT). Both times I’ve hiked Half Dome, I had intended to descend via the JMT but out of pure exhaustion, I chose the shorter, steeper Mist Trail.
Pro Tip: In late spring/early summer, the Mist Trail can be difficult to descend because it can be very slippery from the waterfall mist. In July (and onward), the waterfall is smaller, drier, and less “misty”, so the rocks are actually dry and less of a slip hazard. This makes the Mist Trail an easier descent.
If there are thunderclouds around, get off the dome as quickly as possible.
If lightning decides to strike, you better believe Half Dome is the first place it will hit. There is literally no worse place to be during a thunderstorm than on top of Half Dome. On top of that, the rain that usually comes with thunderstorms is a huge danger since your slip risk increases exponentially. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in Yosemite, so it’s recommended to get an early start on hiking if you’re starting from Yosemite Valley. Starting at or before 6am is ideal so that you can be finished with the cables by 12-1pm.
Don’t try to climb the cables if it’s been raining.
The granite is slippery to begin with, and rain will turn this bucket list activity into a potentially deadly activity. Your life is precious, just don’t do it.
HALF DOME PACKING LIST
America the Beautiful National Parks Pass | Yosemite National Park costs $35 for a 7-day pass. However, the national parks annual pass is a great way to save on entrance fees. If you intend to visit three or more NPS parks or sites in a year, the American the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself. This pass can be purchased at the park entrances or online here. [Example: 3 National Parks x $30 parking each = $90. Savings with the annual pass = $10.]
Water Bottle | No matter what you decide to do in Yosemite, every trip into the park warrants that you bring water. If you plan on being in the park for an entire day, you should plan on bringing a few liters of water per person. This is especially true in the summer when temperatures rise to the 90’s and even the 100’s. For shorter hikes, packing a lightweight 1L water bottle such as the Nalgene water bottle will suffice. On hotter days, consider bringing an insulated Hydro Flask packed with ice and water so that your water stays cold all day. For longer hikes, I recommend a 3-liter hydration reservoir. For Half Dome specifically, 3-4 liters is crucial.
Daypack | Bring a daypack to carry your gloves, camera/phone, snacks, water, and other gear while climbing Half Dome. For a more traditional style daypack with more room, the Osprey Daylite is sturdy, comfortable, and has never let me down on long day hikes. For regular park use, I like bringing my Camelbak Rogue 2.5L on hot days since the shape of the backpack minimizes sweaty back issues and doubles as a water reservoir.
Gloves with grip | A must-have if you plan on ascending the cables. Make sure your gloves provide enough grip to ascend the Half Dome cables. This 6-pack of gloves on Amazon will be enough for you and your entire group.
Trekking Poles | Trekking poles are essential for the Half Dome hike, especially if you don’t have the best knees. Walking sticks and trekking poles contribute to your stability and will greatly reduce the impact/stress on your lower body (especially helpful for the knees while hiking downhill). I like the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles.
Snacks | You’re going to need a lot of sustenance for the uphill climb to Half Dome. Make sure you have enough quick-energy options to feed your body.
- If you plan on bringing fruits/vegetables, pick harder options such as apples, pears, cucumbers, and carrots since these do better in heat and backpacks compared to more delicate produce.
- Go for energy bars that don’t contain chocolate to avoid the melted chocolate messes. Stinger Waffles are loved by outdoor enthusiasts and are delicious and easy to eat. Shot Bloks Energy Chews are also a great source of quick energy and super easy to pop in your mouth on those shorter breaks. Other snacks to consider include dried fruit, nuts, and trail mix.
- Sandwiches: Pick up some sandwiches and carry them all the way to the top for an ultra special meal at the top of Half Dome. Thinking it’s too much trouble to pick up sandwiches the night before? Trust me, having some real food once you summit as you enjoy your view is so, so worth it.
- Lunchables: super easy to pack and always a great option regardless of how old you are.
Sunscreen | Even though there are plenty of trees in Yosemite, there are many areas or parts of hikes that are exposed and shadeless. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen. Make sure you have a face sunscreen or a hat as well. Hiking down Half Dome in the summer is known to be brutally hot and exposed to the sun. Protect yourself!
Bug Spray | Summertime in Yosemite means the bugs come out to play. Sawyer carries the best insect repellent on the market.
Hat | A wide-brimmed sun hat can double as sun protection to your face and neck. Here are a few stylish yet effective options for men and women. For added protection, I’d recommend a sun hat with a neck cape.
Sunglasses | Similar to sunscreen, you should bring a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun.
Hiking Boots | Hiking boots are the way to go with Half Dome. Instead of simply wearing sneakers, consider hiking boots. They not only provide better protection for stepping on all of the rocks at Yosemite, but you’ll find yourself slipping a lot less on waterfall mist, dirt, and loose gravel. Trust me, it’s easier to hop around and walk on rocks with the extra traction provided by hiking boots as opposed to running shoes. Lowa Renegades are my go-to pair for life, I highly recommend.
Sandals | Birkenstocks make for the best sandals for the car ride home. It’ll be great to have these in the car after a long day of hiking.
First Aid Kit | A compact first aid kit is essential for any national park trip. You can pack it with you in your daypack and it won’t take up too much space. It’s better to be prepared in case you have any mishaps on your adventures. This one is as compact as it gets and is super easy to carry.
Flashlight | Pack a flashlight or headlamp in case it’s still pitch black when you start hiking. Check out my favorite tried and trusted all-weather flashlight.
Permit | Don’t forget to bring your permit for the park ranger to check off! Otherwise, you will not be able to climb the cables and summit Half Dome.
And there you have it, my top tips for hiking Half Dome. If you adhere to these recommendations and tips, I’m sure you’ll be super prepared on the day of your hike and have quite an enjoyable time. Happy hiking!
What are some of your tried and true Half Dome hiking tips?
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