The Shakedown Squeezer: Starting Cold

The Point of No Return

Preparing for a thru-hike is daunting. It feels like readying for a trip that will go on forever. The list of questions and tasks is endless. Even now, days before departure, I don’t quite feel ready. From buying gear to figuring out insurance, there are TONS of options. There are terminologies to learn, important dates to earmark, and deep breaths to take. That doesn’t even touch on getting yourself physically and mentally prepared for the beating you’re about to take.

I’ve put many hours into prep at this point. I reserved eight weeks between my last day of work and my departure date, and I thought I would be comfortably ready for takeoff… which is hardly the case. Every last minute has become valuable. That said, let me tell you about the most beneficial thing I’ve done to prepare: shakedown #2 by the Lemon Squeezer in Harriman Park.

Taking a snack break over the Lemon Squeezer in Harriman Park. It’s a lot tighter than it looks!

The Expert: Lotus

I took two shakedowns with my dad, who has been invaluable for my prep. He goes by Lotus, and he completed his NOBO AT thru in 2018 at the ripe old age of 64. Seeing his methods of learning about thru-hiking and physically preparing himself really helped me hold confidence that I could do the same. I mean, if the old man can do it, then I damn well better be able to!

A picture of Lotus during his 2018 thru when I joined him in Shenandoah National Park.

Well, it turns out there are some things that didn’t quite translate through his writing and stories. We headed out for a three-day, two-night run with our packs fully loaded for low single-digit nights on our second shakedown. We chose Harriman because the Lemon Squeezer is one of Lotus’s favorite spots. Those are the two coldest nights I’ve ever camped, with lows at 5 degrees and 11 degrees, and man was it cold. I woke up the first morning with a cone of ice on my sleeping bag in the front where my breath had been hitting it.

I was truly concerned about the cold. Nearly afraid, even, of bailing out and heading for the car. It was the type of cold that had me planning and rehashing my moves for maximum efficiency. On that first morning as I lay in the sleeping bag, I thought about the order of changing clothes and whether I should eat first, warm up with some exercises, or just pack everything up and get moving right off the bat. The urgency of managing my heat and time was compounded by unnerving questions about the cold. Would my sleeping bag get colder over time if I had ice in my tent every night during the thru? Would my Sawyer freeze during the day while I was hiking (side note: turns out the move is to just boil the water when it’s that cold)? I had to get past the mental discomfort of those questions while I focused on matters at hand during the day.

It was great to work through that challenge of the cold with my dad. He kept me calm and focused at points when I was almost overwhelmed. As I was alluding to before, I gained a new appreciation for his mental toughness, and the mental toughness required for all thru-hikers, during that trip. That’s what I really found valuable about the experience–more than any particular research, workout plan, or anecdotal learning during my prep.

I think the most important preparation for a journey like this is the mental part. With all of the twists and turns, irritants small and large, the key is to be mentally resilient and have faith in your ability to overcome intimidating moments. Surviving those cold nights by the Lemon Squeezer showed me how we can push through with smart heat management and a little bit of faith.


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Comments 2

  • Daniel Merly : Mar 7th

    I have been lucky enough to be Luke’s roommate throughout most of college and we have been friends ever since. I have always admired his social skills and the breath of knowledge he has. When he mentioned he was going to do this trail, I was surprised! …. surprised he didn’t think of it sooner hahaha. Luke is a tenacious, warm-hearted, driven person who can tackle any task at hand. A measly 2,200 miles is nothing but a brisk morning walk for the man! Haha in all seriousness, I can’t begin to imagine the prep work mentally and physically needed to embark on such a journey. What I do know for sure is that Luke has got in him to complete the trail in full, and most importantly, do it with style and pizzaz. Luke, proud of you brotha! I don’t think people know what kind of treat they are in for with your blog!

    • Luke Howard : Mar 16th

      Dan – thanks for the heartfelt message brother. I appreciate the vote of confidence and I’ll make sure to live up to your high esteem!


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