Shakedown Lessons & Experiments
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, and for any aspiring thru-hiker, it’s fantastic advice: don’t just order gear that seems like a good idea.
Get out there on a shakedown hike and actually test it.
I’ve been doing this slowly, as my schedule and injuries allow, since August. I’d done a fair amount of gear research before my first shakedown, and I continue to do more, but nothing has been nearly as valuable as getting out there and actually trying/using things. Every hike I do now involves a gear test of some kind, even if it’s just a day hike (as today’s was). It’s cool in a mad scientist kind of way, though perhaps not as pyrotechnic as mixing chemicals together.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far from these experiments:
1: I prefer camping in a hammock.
Yup. I said it. I’ve been a lifelong tent camper, but the truth is, I’ve never slept particularly well in a tent. When I did my shakedown on the AT here in Maine in August, I chatted with a bunch of thru-hikers and all of them said the same two things: good sleep is important, and they switched to a hammock and loved it.
So, I ordered a hammock and I tried it, despite misgivings that I’d get motion sick or be uncomfortable. I’m still getting the hang of it, but I have to say: it IS more comfortable than I’ve ever been in a tent, and on the AT it feels like it gives me so many more options.
2: I actually care about weight
I haven’t owned a scale for my entire adult life. And now I own two. Why? Well, because when I did my first shakedown, I felt smothered by my pack weight. (I was carrying 40 pounds, which for me was miserable.) When I got off the trail, I immediately started looking at ways to strip weight. I’d already been tracking weight based on online spec sheets for my gear, but I got the scales anyway, because posted specs vs. real specs aren’t always the same. I took an afternoon and weighed every piece of gear on my kitchen scale, meticulously recording it in my spreadsheet.
That audit has helped me make more informed decisions about where/how I can trim more base weight. I am not fanatical UL, but I am happier carrying less weight. Nearly all my shakedowns now are an experiment with lighter gear or going without something.
3: I may not be all about the boots
I’ve hiked in mid-height hiking boots my entire life. But a few factors prompted me to try out trail runners recently:
- Weight. A pound on your feet feels like 5-6 pounds on your back. I thought this was an insane stat until I actually tried hiking with trail runners on, and yes: there is a noticeable difference. I felt leaner, faster, more flexible.
- Wetness. My feet sweat a lot while I hike, so they’re pretty much always wet. Hiking boots, especially, don’t ventilate particularly well. Trail runners do. They also dry a lot faster once they’ve become wet.
- Injuries. I’m a triathlete, and I have been injury-prone since I took up running 13 months ago, nursing calf injuries, knee injuries, and—most recently—Achilles tendonitis. I assumed boots provided more support for these injuries, but it seems like trail runners give me more flexibility to compensate for them by allowing better flexion.
- Touch. I really like being able to feel more of the texture and irregularity of the trail wearing trail runners. I’m so used to the thick soles of hiking boots and the trail runners feel lighter and more responsive. Like touching something with a glove liner on rather than a heavy-duty mitten.
I’m well aware that there’s some terrain that just shreds trail runners. I’m going to continue testing them through this fall and winter before I fully decide, but so far I like them.
4: Wool for the win
I never understood the fascination with merino wool or Smartwool gear. I’ve had merino wool base leggings for a while and loved them, but I figured that’s as far as it would go. But the longer I thought about days and days without showering, and the more shakedowns I’ve done in the rain, the more the wicking/moisture-handling and odor control of wool appealed to me. I got a Smartwool sports bra and tested it on a couple day hikes. I liked that when it was super sweaty I didn’t feel chilled to the bone.
Then, on my 100-mile bike ride last month, I talked to a guy who’s cycled across the United States. He very proudly pointed to his jersey and said he’d worn that jersey doing the crossing and had only had to wash it 4 times. Biking long distances, like thru-hiking, is stinky work. So I took this as high praise indeed.
I did my first hike with a Smartwool t-shirt on today, and I intentionally overlayered a little at the start of my hike so I’d get it really sweaty. I wanted to see how it would do. It didn’t disappoint. Good wicking, quick drying, and it didn’t stink at all by the end of the day. I don’t think I’ll give up my polyester long sleeve base layer, but I’m all about these t-shirts, as this smile can attest!
5: Plan for phone failures
My very first multi-day shakedown hike, halfway through my second day on the trail, my phone mysteriously factory reset itself. I have an Android phone, so it ties to my Google account. But I’d recently changed my Gmail password after suspicious activity, and I had no idea what my password was. Without my Google password, my phone literally could not finish re-configuring itself after the reset. I was totally locked out of my phone. Without a communication device or even access to anyone’s phone numbers, I felt dead in the water. I used a fellow hiker’s phone to Facebook message friends nearby to pick me up, and I used their home computer to work my way through the complex web of verifying my password without being on a trusted device.
In the 2 years I’d had my phone, it had never once factory reset. It had never crossed my mind to plan for that contingency. Now, I’ll be keeping a small laminated card with key emergency contacts’ phone numbers on it in my pack, I have my major passwords memorized, and I will keep using a GPS beacon. (I also bought a new phone…)
I could beat myself up for this, somehow hold it against myself that I haven’t anticipated these problems, or I didn’t research gear well enough, or I didn’t know my own likes or needs well enough. But I don’t.
The key to shakedowns, for me, is to approach them as a series of experiments.
No matter how much research you do and how many recommendations you read, everybody is different and you won’t really know how well something works until you get out and try it. So: like a good scientist, accept that you can’t know the outcome and you’re just testing a bunch of hypotheses. Make observations. Take notes. Intentionally try to push things to their limits. And then adjust and try it all over again.
My shakedowns have helped me strip weight and find gear combinations that make me more comfortable.
Every shakedown hike is an opportunity to learn something now, when it’s easier and often less expensive (both physically and financially) to correct. So I try to treat each of these discoveries as a gift—one less thing I’ll have to learn the hard way on my thru-hike. I’m sure I won’t be perfect when I hit the trailhead in Georgia in March, but I look forward to seeing what that experiment teaches me, too.
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