Shakin’ It Down in Illinois
I know, I know, everyone else is posting about their awesome shakedown hikes, but stick with me here. My brother and I were supposed to have done our shakedown hike on a section of the Ozark Trail in Missouri (we were originally thinking of the stretch between Taum Sauk and Johnson’s Shut-Ins) but life foiled that plan really quick in the name of Jury Duty. My permanent address is still with my parents (since I’ve spent the better part of my adult life moving around a lot) and it finally caught up with me. Instead, my brother was gracious enough to do our shakedown at our local county preserve.
Forest Glen in Vermilion County, Illinois, isn’t exactly rough terrain. It’s definitely not Appalachian Trail material, but it does have some steep inclines and challenging paths. The 11 mile River Ridge backpacking trail was our intended hike, and we decided to register for two nights and try to complete the trail twice in three days. My brother has been hiking consistently every weekend (and tracking his weight loss goals to prep for the trail) but this would be the first major backpacking trip he’s completed in awhile, and I haven’t backpacked since I finished college in Florida about 3 years ago.
So, ya know, we’re a bit rusty. And out of shape.
Even if not the most challenging hike one could endure, it would still provide plenty of information to gauge what we needed to do to prepare for “the real thing”. Here’s what we learned.
Taking Pictures of your gear is a lot of fun
I love to prepare. I love knowing EXACTLY what to expect and I couldn’t wait to do one of those “this is all the stuff that I have!” and the “this is how it fits in my bag!” picture. Unfortunately, when I took the pictures I was actually leaving out gear that hadn’t arrived yet – namely my sleeping bag liner, sleeping pad, and my headlamp ( things that easily fit anyway). Also not shown were hygienic products that also didn’t have a problem fitting in my pack. Everything else though packed exactly how it was supposed to. Those Sea to Summit Ultrasil dry sacks were also organizational lifesavers! My pack weighed 27 lbs with food and water, but I didn’t bring my camera along for practical reasons.
Testing out the Gear
This would be the first time I’d used my Jetboil Zip, my Black Diamond Distance FL z-poles, and my hydration system (Sawyer Mini Squeeze, bladders, and pop bottle). Once we arrived at Forest Glen and parked our car, I was so pumped to get ready for the trail. We were only hiking 3 miles in to the group campground where we would spend the night (we had planned in the event that I get called into Jury Duty that we could hike after I was released). As such, I didn’t get called in and we started our hike around 3:00 p.m.
About 5 minutes into the hike I noticed a problem with my hiking poles. I’m about 5’8, and I chose the BD zpoles because of their weight and compactibility. They look a bit short, don’t they? I ordered the “tallest” size they came in, which is 105-125 cm. I figured that since they came up to my natural waist at their tallest it wouldn’t be a problem, but now I’m having second thoughts. Especially since THIS kept happening:
The poles kept sliding apart. There didn’t seem to be a way to keep this from happening – it happened if I was ascending a hill, if I was walking on flat terrain, if I so much as looked at them wrong. On one occasion I was hiking along a creek bank and the pole failed on me and I nearly toppled about 6 feet below into the creek. Needless to say, the poles are going back. Bill at Backcountry.com has already helped me out a lot and has agreed to let me exchange the poles despite the fact that it has been over 30 days since I purchased them and they are now used.
The straps on my pack may be problematic OR I’ve got my straps wrong, but the pack strap started rubbing my right collar bone about 2 miles in. Otherwise, my pack feels fabulous.
My only other complaint while hiking was my awkward placement of items – my sleeping pad kept falling out of the straps on the bottom of the pack, so I had to lash it to the side of the pack. That worked out well and opens up a whole bunch of possibilities for using the bottom straps. If I can fit my tent in those straps then that leaves more space for my camera on the inside of the bag. My camelback bladder has got to go – it was unweildly and leaked so I may go with my platypus bottle and the bag that came with the mini squeeze for dirty water (plus a nalgene). The pop bottle I was going to use for my dirty water didn’t work out too well as it was too sturdy in the end.
Only a fool does their shakedown after Daylight Savings ends
It was 5:15 and the sun was mostly set. I had set up my tent and sleeping bag in the waning light and didn’t feel the least bit tired. The air was getting chillier and I knew this would be a rough night – I have never slept well in the cold – and I wished we had had a couple more hours to hike.
I set up my Jetboil Zip and was pleased at how easy it was to put together, light, and start boiling water for my ramen and jerky dinner. The Zip doesn’t have an igniter, so carrying a lighter is a necessity. It took only a minute or so for my cup and a half of water to boil, and although I’ve heard people complain that it is a hard item to clean for being so “small” I didn’t have any problems scraping down the sides with my fingernails. After eating my fill of various dehydrated goodies (I made jerky and apple slices), I decided to try my hand at hanging a bear bag.
Of course we don’t have bears in Illinois but there was a mouse living in the tree at our campsite. There were also no suitable trees with 12′ high branches, so this 8′ branch had to do for practice. I’m pretty proud of getting it…on my third try.
At 6:30 I was getting cold and bored so I decided to try to sleep. I have a Montbell Super Spiral 30 degree down bag, a Thermarest prolite pad, and a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme liner. I even had an emergency blanket to help get me through the 30 degree night….and I was still freezing. You see, I have NEVER had luck getting the down in my bag to distribute properly. Large patches of uncovered areas prevail, but I keep using the bag because I love the shape of it. I’ve thrown it in the dryer, shaken the bejesus out of it, everything you can think of to get the down to cover evenly and I’ve never been able to do it. After another night of chilly sleeping, I decided to finally contact Montbell. It may be user error, but maybe their warranty department can help me out.
Smooth Sailing for 8 miles
The next day we finished up the loop. Remember when I said we were out of shape? Yeah, we vastly underestimated how much. With steep declines and slippery leaves there was lots of falling, which I didn’t mind, but as Andrew put it “I’d rather be overly cautious now – it’s one thing to break a leg on the Trail, but not on the shakedown.” We decided not to push it since my knee had just been cleared last month for the hike as well, and decided only one trip around was worth it. We’ll be taking it slow that first month on the trail, hopefully doing 8-10 miles a day. From there, I hope our pace quickens, I’d like to not be the last thru-hikers…it’s hard to make friends that way, I’d imagine!
We have a long way to go to get ready still but the good news is most of our work is purely physical. Most of the gear still needed is odds and ends (except for maybe a zero degree bag for me). All in all I still have questions (where do I store my laundry change? what will my trail nickname be?) but those will be answered in time. I’m still really pumped about the prospect of getting into the mountains and giving the AT a go for real!
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