Shakedowns And Learning Experiences

This time last year, I had never been on an overnight backpacking trip.

It was about that time that I also decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, so going backpacking became a priority this past summer. When I told my boyfriend I was thinking about doing a thru-hike, he helpfully suggested that it would be a good idea to try out backpacking before committing to doing it for six months straight. Since he has a lot of backpacking experience, I volunteered him to come on some shakedown trips with me.

Ready for backpacking.

Shakedown No. 1

Section of the Ice Age Trail in Chequamagon National Forest, Wisconsin. 14ish miles total, out and back. Early June.

Shakedown No. 2

Section of the Cumberland Trail, near Chattanooga, Tenn. 16ish miles total, out and back. Late October.

Pros Of Both Trips

I got a chance to test out a good portion of my gear, although there were some things I didn’t acquire until after the second trip. So far I’m happy with my gear choices. The weather for both trips was excellent – highs in the 60s and 70s, lows in the 50s, and perfectly sunny. It was super pleasant, but unfortunately did not give me a chance to experience the misery of endless rain or test out my rain gear. Still have that to look forward to. The hiking in Wisconsin was quite a bit flatter and easier, although glaciers do create a few ridges to climb up. We had no trouble covering seven or eight miles in about half a day on both trips.

On top of an esker. Glaciers flatten some hills, but create others.

Ice Age Trail Lessons

  • Bugs are bad. We went into the north woods in early June, which is prime mosquito and tick season. I only ended up with one tick attached, but we brushed a few off our clothes basically every time we stopped moving. I also counted around 80 mosquito bites on me when the weekend was over. I’ll definitely be treating my clothes with permethrin when it starts getting buggy on the AT, and carrying 100 percent DEET.
  • We forgot headlamps, so our night ended with us going to bed real early. That plus the fear of ticks made peeing in the middle of the night an adventure. Double check your gear before you leave. A checklist might be a good idea.
  • Pack less food. We definitely had more than we needed, mostly in snacks. Part of this was because after a while I didn’t want to stand in one place long enough to eat. Mosquitoes really are the worst.

Way too much food for a one-night trip.

  • We brought a bottle of what we thought was gin, but actually turned out to be vanilla extract. A mistake anyone could make, right? Long story short, my friend gave me some homemade vanilla in a cute little gin bottle, I forgot about it, and we didn’t bother to open it before we left. Oops. Good for oatmeal in the morning though.


Cumberland Trail Lessons

  • This trip was much nicer. No bugs to deal with this time. The trail was definitely more challenging to hike, but I never felt like it was too much, despite being pretty sore on day two. I felt much more competent using my water filter and stove.

This trip also had waterfalls, thus making it better by default.

  • The biggest problem on this trip was that we forgot to bring a lighter. Obviously that was going to make cooking and building a fire difficult. We knew it was about two miles from camp to a road crossing, and Brian heroically hiked an extra four miles to bum a lighter off a guy on a four-wheeler while I set up camp. Again, I should make a checklist.
  • I got cold at night, despite it not being that cold outside. I was using a super-old 20 degree bag, and I’ve since gotten the sleeping bag I’ll actually be using on the AT so I’m hoping this won’t be too much of an issue. It felt like once I was asleep I produced all this heat, but the getting to sleep part was hard if I felt cold.
  • This time we brought whiskey. Everything is more fun with whiskey.

We were just a little too early for fall colors in Tennessee. Of course, by this point in October, fall is basically over in Wisconsin, and we’re transitioning into winter.

  • My pack has a tendency to bruise my hips after a while, and I noticed this on both trips. I’m hoping this isn’t a consistent problem. I also worry that if I lose much weight on the AT, I won’t be able to tighten my hip belt enough, since I’m already pulling it pretty much all the way. My pack is my heaviest piece of gear – Osprey Aura 65L – so if I have consistent pack problems I may swap it out for something lighter.

Overall, Enjoyable Trips

Which is great, because I’m planning on backpacking for six months straight. In addition to these trips, I also spent a few nights car camping and doing day hikes this summer. But this was my first experience with carrying everything I needed in a backpack, and I definitely feel a little more prepared for the AT.

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