Is it Better to Day Hike or Backpack for Mt. Whitney?

Mount Whitney 14,505 ft — It’s the tallest mountain in the contiguous US and I’ve been fortunate to summit it 5 times now as both day hikes and an overnight backpacking trip. I have been asked which one is better… so let me break it down for you.

2023 Permits: click to apply for the lotto from 2/1 until 3/1 – learn how to get a Mt Whitney permit here.

Quick background on when I've hiked Mt. Whitney:

August 24-25, 2015 [1st time at Whitney] - backpacked one night, slept at Trail camp
August 25, 2016 [2nd time at Whitney] - day hike (click to read on page 2)
August 24, 2017 [3rd time at Whitney] - day hike
April 24, 2021 - climbed Mountaineers Route
August 14-15, 2021 - backpacked one night at Consultation Lake
Is it better to hike Mt Whitney in a day hike or overnight?

That really depends on your level and training. Neither is better but having done both, if it’s your first time hiking Mt. Whitney, I’d strongly recommend doing it as an overnight hike because you get to enjoy the trail and views as well as acclimate better. Keep reading for more details.

Is Mt Whitney an easy hike for beginners?

Only if you train for it! I wasn’t much of a hiker until I got my Whitney permits the first time and trained for it. Then my first ascent was a piece of cake. I’ve run into completely novice hikers on the Whitney trail a few times and although some made it… they had a miserable time. Please consider you’re hiking partner too and what you may be putting them through

Do I need a permit to hike Mt Whitney?

Yes, you need a permit for both day hikes and overnight hikes! The pre-season lotto ends on March 1

Backpacking Mount Whitney in One Night

If you didn't already read my backpacking trail write up, you can read it here.

Click for Mt Whitney Overnight Hike Video from my first trip, 2015

If you’ve been following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know I got very into hiking when I decided to do Mt. Whitney – a mountain I’d never even heard of before. I trained with the Six Pack of Peaks, doing one peak per month leading up to Whitney, so I honestly didn’t think Whitney was any harder than a previous training hike. I suffered through my training as I threw myself into strenuous hikes right off the bat, but when it came time to tackle this beast, my body was well-prepared, and breaking up the trail into two days helped a lot for my first summit.

You get to enjoy the views going up! If you day hike Whitney, it will be dark for the first half, and you’ll be on a mission to summit that you don’t get to stop and smell the roses. Then on the way down, you’ll be too exhausted to enjoy the views or you’ll lose daylight and just want to get back to the car
⛰ You’ll be well-rested
and better acclimated to summit day 2 and going up the 99 switchbacks in the dark is a really unique experience – seeing all the headlamps move higher makes it look like stars! Plus catching the sunrise from Trail Crest is simply breathtaking
⛰ Lone Pine Lake – you really get to enjoy spending time here on the trek up!
⛰ On your way down after summiting, you can rest/ take a nap back at camp before heading down
⛰ You can start day 1 at 10 am…. or even noon, instead of 12-2 am.
⛰ Lighter summit pack
⛰ When you wake up on summit day, you’re halfway done with the whole uphill already


⛰ Overnight pack + Bear canister + wag bag💩… However, if you’re ultralight hiking, it’s a very pleasant experience! Need tips on how to drop your weight? Check out my ultralight backpacking gear guide.

Day Hiking Mt. Whitney

I had two very different experiences day hiking Mount Whitney. I never wrote about either one but have put together a quick trail report on the next page. The first was definitely more memorable and pleasant and the second was more miserable – I almost decided not to summit. These experiences have led me to believe that mind over matter is a powerful mindset/tool and your stress level and current circumstances in life can affect you on the trails.

22 miles total, 6200+ ft elevation gain in 11 miles topping out at 14500 ft can take a toll on your body.

⛰ Finish the hike in one long day = probably take less time off away from work
⛰ No overnight pack and camping gear weight

⛰ Time expectancy: 12-14 hours. Most hikers start at 12 – 2 am but plan to summit by late morning to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms which are common in the Sierra in summer. Personally, I cannot hike with little to no sleep.
⛰ Trailhead is at 8300 ft… some people need time to acclimate to that
⛰ Summit is at 14500 ft… your body may not adjust well to 6200 ft elevation gain in one day so plan for that
⛰Your entire pack with all your layers and food goes all 22 miles with you… don’t overpack

Remember, it’s ok to not summit – the mountain will always be there. If you’re not trained for it, I really wouldn’t recommend just going for it. If you’ve never hiked before, think about the danger that you can put yourself and others in – also, try not to ask a newbie hiker to accompany you without training (I used to think anyone athletic can handle strenuous hikes, but I feel very strongly towards newbie hikers & Whitney after my day hike experiences now – read next page).

Also, don’t forget – LEAVE NO TRACE. They provide you with a poop bag – it’s not pleasant to carry it down the mountain but they do the best to shield off the odor so don’t hide it and leave it in the mountains!!! Do your part to keep the wilderness pristine so we can all return and enjoy it, please 🙂

15 thoughts on “Is it Better to Day Hike or Backpack for Mt. Whitney?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences with Whitney!

    I have an overnight scheduled for mid September. Question: would it make sense to summit Whitney first, then go to trail camp for the overnight? I know most people camp and summit the next day but I want the challenge of summitting in a day but relaxing a bit afterwards. I live at 6500 feet and haven’t had problems as high as 12-16000 so I don’t think acclimating at trail camp will be necessary.

    Your thoughts On this idea?


    1. Hi Brian, Aside from the purpose of acclimating, I think most people do the overnight hike where they camp and summit the next day because hiking Mt. Whitney as a full day hike is very strenuous, and although you wouldn’t be hiking all 22 miles in one day, you would still have to start as early as a day hiker so you can summit at a decent hour. It would be a nice break for your feet to camp on your way down because it’s still a long way. Either way, I feel like you’ll have time to enjoy the trail as an overnight hike, it just depends how vigorous you are I guess.

  2. Brian Dougherty

    Are all California’s 14er’s on a permit basis? We don’t have that in Colorado except for 1 know of because it’s on private property. I am in Cali trying to explore and had Mt Whitney on the plan.

  3. I tried doing Whitney back in 2019 but my friend and I started to get really bad altitude sickness right around 13,500. We were both in shape but I guess needed to train a higher altitudes.

    Do you think altitude sickness pills would help or maybe carry one of those small disposable oxygen canisters for a pick me up?

    1. Hi Bill, sorry to hear about the altitude sickness. I don’t get very bad altitude sickness so I can’t personally speak to it, but I’ve heard the pills work for some people, oxygen canisters can help if you really struggle with it, and even nose strips can help just to allow more oxygen into your body… but again, I haven’t personally tested any of those. Hope you find a solution that works for you!

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  5. Done it several times. this year we didn’t get picked for lottery so we (3 of us) are doing it all in one day with no permits…of the 5 times we’ve been up there we have never seen a ranger. any news of this lately?

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