The Power of the Backyard Shakedown “Hike”
Prior to embarking on an extended backpacking adventure, many people like to do what is called a “shakedown hike.” This is a hiking trip, usually including at least one night, that is used to test out all of a hiker’s gear. That way they know if everything works well for them before they’re out in the woods, thousands of miles of home, and at least tens of miles from the nearest small town.
The general consensus seems to be that shakedown hikes, while not absolutely necessary, are quite helpful and can help minimize difficulties when things get real on the trail. I was lucky to be able to do several trips that could probably be considered shakedown hikes in the Whites over the summer, though I mainly went on these trips mainly happened because I wanted to sleep outside in the mountains and weren’t necessarily intended just for testing out my gear. However, now that it is fully winter in the Whites and my thru-hiking setup is not intended for the consistently below-zero temps and howling winds of New Hampshire’s mountains this time of year, my shakedown options are somewhat limited.
Enter the backyard shakedown hike.
You don’t need to drive anywhere. You don’t need to take time off work. You can even do it on a work night! And then you get to tell your coworkers that you slept in a tent the night before and laugh maniacally as they look at you like you are completely off your rocker. This all means that you can easily do as many backyard shakedowns as you want before starting your walk from Georgia to Maine, Mexico to Canada, or wherever you may be headed.
Put everything in your pack
This gives you the opportunity to make sure that everything fits how you want it to. Put your pack on and walk a couple laps of your yard. If you’re already uncomfortable after that short period of time, that’s a problem. Recently I did this and discovered that one of my early strategies for fitting everything into my pack left some hard and lumpy items pressed against my back, so I had to figure out something different.
Set up your tent
Take your pack off and plop it on the ground. Now you can go about setting up your tent. This gives you a chance to practice setting up your tent. Figure out what order you need to stake things out in to get the best pitch, since this is not something you want to be pondering as it’s pouring rain and you’re just trying to get into your tent asap. After setting up my tent a few times in my yard, I quickly figured out the best order of operations to efficiently and effectively set it up.
How many stakes do you actually need? Chances are it’s probably fewer than the number that came with your tent (hello, shaving a couple ounces off of your pack base weight). Probably throw one extra in there though just in case you lose one.
You also want to make sure that you’re able to get everything out of your pack in the order you need it. Again, I can’t help but imagine the situation where it’s raining and somehow your sleeping bag is above your tent in your pack. Then you’d have to take your bag out and risk getting it wet before you can get at your tent. Not ideal.
Make some food
If you’re going the stove route, this gives you the chance to make sure you know how to use your stove with the added benefit of having access to the internet in case you’re not really sure what you’re doing, as well as the benefit of a real sink to wash your hands off if you somehow end up with copious amounts of isobutane-propane on your hands like I did one time. You can also test out what sorts of hiking foods you like and what the best cooking strategy is.
Hang your food bag
This one only really works if you have at least one sizeable tree nearby. But if you do, you can practice chucking a rock or sack of dirt over a high branch, hauling your food bag to a reasonable height, and tying it off.
Recently I filled a couple Nalgenes with water, stuck them in my food bag, and wandered into the woods near my house. I spent 45 minutes or so looking for promising branches and throwing my bear line (rope, paracord, whatever) over them. I had initially thought that rock sacks, which you can fill with rocks or dirt and tie to the end of your bear line to help throw the end over branches, were dumb. Why don’t you just tie the line right to a rock? I quickly learned why. It is pretty annoying to tie paracord to an irregularly shaped rock. And even if you succeed, chances are pretty high that something will get untied while everything is mid-air, you’ll lose the rock, and the bear line won’t even get over the branch. I quickly decided that this was an annoyance that I simply would not want to deal with after a long day of hiking and dropped $5 on a rock sack.
Go to sleep
I don’t think I truly appreciated how important a good sleep system is until I tried to sleep in 24-degree (Fahrenheit) weather with a 20-degree quilt and a sleeping pad with an R-value of 1.3. Safe to say not a lot of sleeping happened, and I’m currently working on how I can be warmer in my tent without breaking the bank or my back. The good news is that if things start to really go downhill at this point, you can always retreat to your warm bed.
In addition to making sure you’ll be warm enough (if you live somewhere where it gets kinda cold, anyway), this also gives you the chance to make sure you’ll be comfortable when you’re trying to sleep. Is your sleeping pad slipping and sliding around the floor of your tent? Does the crinkling of your inflatable sleeping pad wake you up every time you move? Does the tiniest rock under your tent feel like a huge boulder jabbing into your back like some kind of “Princess and the Pea” situation?
This is also an opportunity to make sure you have a good system for keeping your water filter, electronics, and maybe your fuel canister secured warmly with you in your sleeping bag so that nothing gets too cold. I have a small drawstring bag that everything fits in nicely, and then I stick the whole thing into the foot of my quilt. If you live an area with critters who are active at night, this gives you the chance to at least attempt to get used to unfamiliar outdoors nighttime sounds. The smallest crunch of a leaf sounds like there’s an elephant outside your tent when you’re alone in the dark outside.
Pack everything up again
This is somewhat the opposite of “Set up your tent” above. Figure out what order of operations makes the most sense for this process. I sound like a broken record at this point, but try to imagine the scenario where it’s pouring rain and you want to keep as many things as dry as you can. (Can you tell I’ve been stressing about how much rain the AT usually gets?)
The first time you’re doing all of this, it probably makes sense to do it in somewhat mild weather. This gives you the opportunity to make sure you know more or less how to do everything you need to do to have a successful first backyard shakedown hike.
Once you get at least somewhat familiar and comfortable with what you’re doing, it’s time to stress-test everything. If it’s going to rain, get out there. If the temperature is going to dip close to the lowest temperature you think you’ll see out on the trail, spend a night in your yard. This helps you understand the limits of your gear so that when push comes to shove, you’ll know if you need to try to get to the nearest town or hostel to stay safe.
It’s not perfect
Wandering around your backyard with your pack on for less than an hour is not the same as going on a hike that lasts a day or several days. Neither is just spending one night outside in your yard and then returning to your cozy bed for the rest of the week. However, the unfortunate truth about hiking a trail over 1,000 miles in the U.S. is that more likely than not, winter directly precedes the start to your hike, so heading out into the mountains for a more rugged and thorough shakedown hike might not be the most realistic option.
Also, I recognize that not everyone has a backyard. The good news is that you can do most of this stuff (probably all of it aside from spending the night in your tent) in whatever local park, hiking trail, or outdoor area you have access to.
Get out there
So there you have it. The backyard shakedown hike. While it may not be 100% representative of what things will be like on your upcoming long-distance backpacking trip, it’s certainly better than nothing, so get out there!
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