I Feel AT-Ready Thanks to My Perfect Shakedown Hike

After a full summer of short prep hikes to ramp up my backpacking IQ, I’d head to Vermont for a 90-mile shakedown hike in early fall 2021. I was about to take the final exam for AT-Readiness 101.

Surviving the mud was goal #1 … I had a few others too

My shakedown hike goals were simple:

  • Ensuring my gear and routine were AT-ready
  • Completing the route in 7 +/- 2 days
  • Learning more things I didn’t know yet.  This included two biggies I’d not yet attempted:
       1. Sleeping in a shelter structure, and
       2. Sleeping solo in the woods

You’ll note the word “perfect” in the title. Don’t take that in the “not a single thing went wrong” sense. That’s why you embark on a shakedown hike! (And yes, things will go wrong on a multi-day trip outdoors!) No, the term “perfect” refers to the fact that this shakedown hike would meet all of my goals.

I’d start my journey from North Adams, MA on a damp September morning. With fifteen inches of rainfall since late July, Vermont had lots of mud and water in store for my boots.  I’d cover a 90+ mile stretch of the AT/Long Trail.

“Maine or Canada?”

Very early on I learned that about 90% of my hiker brethren on this busy trail were thru-hiking. Many were tackling the Vermont-length Long Trail. Others were (surprisingly!) completing highly unconventional AT flip-flop or SOBO hikes. I must have looked the part because at my first three hiker encounters I was asked “Maine or Canada?”

Was this some kind of a running poll on vacation spots? Seafood cuisine? (If it’s a beer poll, my answer’s “Maine Beer Company’s Lunch IPA”.) So I caught on, expecting the question in advance – but my awkward “Neither – I’m doing a 90-mile shakedown” felt like a lame response. After a couple of days I started using the quick, confident reply: “AT flip-flop next year!” That response brought instant trail cred! Now I was being warmly welcomed as thru-hiker brethren!

A whale of a storm and … Def Leppard?

From the first trail day onward I soaked in the joys of fall hiking:

  • Cool, clean air
  • Leaves of varying color – which increased in orange and red hues as I went north
  • A minimum of bugs

As nasty rainstorms were moving in on the second night I’d keep my hammock packed, favoring the solid walls and roof of the Goddard Shelter at a 3600-foot elevation. It’d be a memorable night as driving rain and wind roared like a freight train around us. I’d survive the weather and the “sleeping pad on wood” experience to check off another goal.

Back on the trail, music buzzed through my head on a loop as I crushed the miles. No headphones necessary for me – it just plays when I’m not ultra-focused on something. By day four I just couldn’t shake the Black Crowes “Seeing Things” out of my brain! I’d heard them perform an epic gospel-like version in concert a couple weeks prior.  Great song, but I wanted to be DONE mind-looping that tune!

And so I made up my own trail game: pick a band, try to name a dozen songs. Soon enough it was me and some Def Leppard riffs mud-hopping near Stratton Pond Shelter. I rattled off seven quick titles, then squeezed four more out over the next mile. And then absolute bliss when “Armageddon It” popped into my head 2 hours later!

(Something tells me that I’ll be playing that trail game on the AT this year a bit more. You’ll all be invited to play along, of course.)

Checking Off the Goals

So how was I doing on my shakedown hike goals?

  • Newer boots, tarp, and top quilt were all doing fantastic!
  • I had quickly found a rhythm to my overnight setup/eat/sleep/pack process.
  • Mileage was great at about 14 per day with an extremely heavy pack. I’d ultimately finish the route in 6 1/2 days feeling great physically.
  • And I was gaining useful “tertiary learning” about solo backpacking.

What do I mean by the nerdy term tertiary learning? All of those so important little things that you learn THIRD after nailing your:

  1. Gear selection and usage
  2. Trail processes

Here’s some of the tertiary learning that I took away from my shakedown hike:

  • 16 ounces of chunky peanut butter might last up to nine trail days.
  • Put your rain gear on at the first hint of drops! I waited too long on day five and dealt with a cold wet layer for hours.
  • My phone/battery combo lasted the whole seven days. But use airplane mode when possible and keep the cell warm at night!
  • The next day’s clothes in a stuff sack make a wonderful hammock pillow!
  • I needed to learn no-cook meals so I could speed up evenings and mornings a bit.

A Final Twist to Perfection …. And Some Reflection

I’d hoped to set up my hammock on a couple of trees near a river to meet my solo camping goal. But as I reached my final trail night, the opportunity had eluded me.

Very late in the day, I set off down a side trail to Greenwall Shelter. Not only did I find it gloomy and isolated, it was also empty! The trail gods had gifted me my final goal of a solo sleep! Perfect!

Lying in my hammock I was filled with pride at how far I’d come as a solo backpacker since May 2021. From a mistake-filled, anxious first overnight, I’d survived mind-melting heat and weekend-long soaking rains to bring me to this place of confidence. With a short hike out in the morning, I’d complete my perfect shakedown hike to prepare me for the full AT in 2022.

I feel the success of this shakedown hike was due to my earlier discipline in planning overnights for spring and summer. Those hikes allowed me to iterate on the big stuff before embarking on a full shakedown. I’d highly recommend this approach to you, future thru-hiker reader!

Thru-hiking? Yes, Joe Elliott, Armageddon It!

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