Thru-Hiking Success Starts With a Smart Shakedown Hike
A “shakedown hike” is a term often tossed around in backpacking forums. By definition, it’s a short backpacking trip that a hiker takes before embarking on a longer hike, like the Appalachian Trail. On a shakedown hike, you have two goals: to test your gear and test yourself.
Shakedown hikes are the best way to prepare for a thru: because nothing can prepare you for hiking like hiking. In the months before setting out on my 2022 thru-hike of the AT, I backpacked as much as I could. Shakedowns were instrumental in conditioning myself to the physical demands of thru-hiking.
These shorter trips helped me learn what pieces of gear belonged in my thru-hiking kit and, moreover, gave me a bead on how the rigors of trail life would impact my mood. Most thru-hikers will tell you that the main challenge of the trail is the mental game. A few days in the backcountry can give you a preview of what those challenges will feel like.
There are a few crucial elements you want to make sure are part of your shakedown hike. You want these practice runs to be fun but also challenging enough to really put your gear (and you) to the test.
The following considerations will help make your next shakedown hike a success.
Embrace Bad Conditions
When you’re planning your shakedown hike, it might be tempting to postpone your trip if the weather looks bad: but this is exactly what you shouldn’t do. When you’re thru-hiking, you don’t get the liberty of choosing an ideal weather forecast for your days in the woods.
So to truly replicate the rigors of a long trail, you should put your gear, and yourself, to the test by choosing the worst possible weather to backpack in. Yes, really.
For instance, one of my shakedowns included hiking into a freak snowstorm in the Ouachita Mountains. That experience taught me that I had the right layers but needed a warmer quilt. I also learned the hard way why you should keep your water filter tucked into your quilt to prevent it from freezing overnight. The experience directly prepared me for an early April snowstorm that hit as I was walking into the Smokies on my AT thru-hike.
Need To Bail? That’s OK.
One of the many benefits of shakedown hikes is that, due to their shorter lengths, you can usually bail if you have to. If your gear fails in a way that makes continuing unsafe, you have the option to hike out. This isn’t a failure: it’s an important opportunity to regroup and reconsider.
My very first backpacking trip was a comedy of errors: someone in my group got heat sickness, I contracted Giardia, and we ended up night-hiking back to our cars and bailing out before the punishing sun rose on us again.
We had hiked into a swamp in July in the searing Louisiana summer heat. I was carrying a backpack that definitely did not fit. I walked through that extremely flat, not-challenging-at-all terrain wearing unnecessarily rugged boots that also did not fit. And I learned (the hard way) that the cheapest water filter you can find on Amazon probably won’t actually work.
By some miracle, I decided after that trip that I wanted to experience more of that catastrophe. I returned to the woods a few months later with a much better kit that included, notably, a proven-to-be-effective water filter.
Because we had picked a trail for that early shakedown that was easy to escape when trouble arose, I was able to test my limits and walk away from that hike with a better understanding of backpacking. This brings us to the next factor you should consider when planning your shakedown: choosing your route.
Choosing the Right Trail for Your Shakedown
Think about the trail you’re about to attempt and choose terrain that is as similar to it as possible. If feasible, tackle short sections of the trail you’re going to thru-hike.
Finding an appropriate training trail was pretty difficult for me as a Louisiana native: there are no mountains where my people come from. But I learned it could be done with the right opportunities and determination.
I often had to drive eight-plus hours north to reach hiking terrain with adequate variability for my shakedowns. Most Friday evenings, I would clock out of work, hop into the car with my already-packed bag, and start driving. I would then either night hike once I arrived or sleep in my car and start hiking early Saturday morning.
I always recommend hiking a shakedown along a loop trail if it’s possible. If you’re running on a time or budget crunch, organizing shuttles to accommodate a point-to-point trail can be a hassle. Plus, there’s no better feeling than seeing your car at a trailhead after a few challenging days on trail. Doing a loop trail also gets you back to your car faster, making it easy to start a long drive home.
Eagle Rock Loop in Arkansas was one of my favorite training hikes when I was preparing for the AT. While this trail is only 26 miles long, it features some surprisingly challenging terrain and water crossings you have to be mindful of.
How Many Days Should Your Shakedown Hike Last?
The more time you can spend on trail, the better. Ideally, you should aim to spend about a week on trail. There are several reasons for this.
First, you’ll get a chance to learn your gear. If you’re popping tags on the first night of your thru-hike, you’re going to have a bad time—and a one-night shakedown won’t leave you much better prepared. A multi-night training hike gives you time to really practice and start to develop mastery with your gear.
Second, you’ll be more likely to experience changes in weather or temperature over a longer shakedown. You’ll learn what layering system works best for you and how waterproof your waterproof layers actually are.
And finally, packing for a week-long trip will give you an idea of how much weight you’ll actually be carrying on a thru. A series of one-night hikes might be enough to familiarize yourself with camp chores and pitching your tent. But climbing out of town with a full (and heavy) resupply—and hefting that weight, footsore, for days on end—is a harsher reality of thru-hiking. A longer shakedown can help prepare you for that.
If you can’t get away for a full week, don’t worry: I wasn’t able to either. The longest backpacking trip I took before I completed the AT was three days. Even this short amount of time will give you a sense of what thru-hiking will feel like. On many long trails, it’s often possible to resupply as often as every three days, so this is a realistic interval to spend on trail for a test.
So, if you can’t make it on trail for a week, try to at least give yourself a three-day weekend. For those who do have some extra time to devote to their shakedowns, consider this:
Prepare for a Thru-Hike—With a Thru-Hike
I regret that I never had a chance to complete a shorter thru-hike before the AT. Doing this can give you a sense of accomplishment that will help you walk onto the next trail with confidence. Here are a few options I’d choose if I had to do it again:
The Foothills Trail, which covers a distance of about 76 miles and runs along the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, is a solid distance to cover in about five to six days. It has a couple good climbs, including an infamous set of stairs called the “Stairway to Heaven” that will get your trail legs under you. Once you’re done, you’ll feel prepared to tackle whatever’s next on your thru-hike bucket list.
The Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood is a great bite-sized thru at about 41 miles long.
The Uinta Highline Trail in Utah is another great option at just over 100 miles long.
Or you could go for an even longer trail if you have time for a multi-week effort. These longer trails will give you practice navigating typical thru-hiker tasks like hitches and resupplies.
Depending on which one you choose, you might even get a direct experience on your chosen thru-hike. The AT shares some miles with the Benton Mackaye Trail and the PCT shares miles with the John Muir Trail, so on these hikes, you would also get a little taste of what’s to come if you’re planning a thru of the AT or PCT.
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Trails like the Superior Hiking Trail (310 miles, Minnesota), Benton MacKaye Trail (300 miles, Georgia/Tennessee/North Carolina), Pinhoti Trail (335 miles, Alabama/Georgia), and John Muir Trail (210 miles, California) are all long enough to give you a sense of what covering a distance of several thousand miles will feel like.
That being said, there are some things a shakedown hike simply won’t prepare you for.
What a Shakedown Hike Won’t Prepare You For
If I could only give you one piece of advice, it would be this: practice your ability to accept change.
Generally, life will throw you curveballs–but none like what you’ll experience when you’re on trail. You’ll be peacefully setting up to filter water at a stream crossing, only to realize that the O-ring for your Sawyer fell out 15 miles ago. The moment you crest an exposed ridgeline on what was forecasted to be a clear day, a thunderstorm will roll in. You’ll trust a wooden plank when traversing an alpine bog in New Hampshire, then suddenly find yourself hip-deep in mud—and you’ll probably also lose a shoe (or both) in the struggle to pull yourself free.
Tent poles snap, shuttles don’t show, and hostels book up fast. These are all things that are beyond your control—but you can control the way you respond to sudden pitfalls. No amount of shakedowns or even full-on thru-hiking experience will prepare you for this.
I’ve known experienced thru-hikers with 4,000-plus miles under their belts who were blindsided by wildfires along the PCT corridor last year. They then had to spend weeks or months piecing together a continuous footpath amid trail closures.
Being adaptable to change is the single most important quality any prospective thru-hiker can have.
The good news is this: you won’t have to go out of your way to challenge your ability to adapt. The next trail you’re on will do that for you.
What are some of your favorite hikes for a shakedown? Tell us in the comments below.
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