Why Shakedown Hikes Are So Important for New Backpackers

When people ask what they can do to prepare for a (first) thru-hike, they get a wide variety of advice.  Buy this piece of gear, save up at least that amount of money, use a particular set of maps and guidebook, etc.

One idea that experienced hikers sometimes suggest is a shakedown hike. In this article, I want to extol the virtues of this idea, explore how best to do it, and tell you what you might expect to get out of it.

What Is a Shakedown Hike?

Photo courtesy Zach Davis

First off, what is a “shakedown hike?” The details can vary a lot, but at its core, it’s just a longish backpacking trip where you try out your gear and any associated processes to find out if there are things you can improve before your thru-hike.

Hopefully, it will also confirm that hiking somewhat longer distances is something you really want to do.

Dialing in Your Gear

Some would-be thru-hikers spend large amounts of time and money trying to get their gear and clothing just right.  They’re looking for that perfect balance of weight and functionality — and maybe cost — and they build a spreadsheet showing the weight of each item.

This can certainly help, but there’s just nothing like trying all of this stuff out in real life as a complete set.  You would ideally test your gear in a mix of conditions: hot and sunny, cold and wet, snowy (if snow is expected on your trip), buggy, with significant creek crossings — the works.

You don’t need to wait until you have all of your gear exactly “right” to start long-distance backpacking, but it’s worth getting it as dialed in as possible before a long trip.

If you’re really the diligent planning type, you might consider doing two shakedown hikes: one to get your gear, process, and expectations in the right ballpark, and then the second a bit later to confirm and fine-tune things.

Gear and Process Are Related

Photo courtesy Zach Davis

The gear you carry and the way you use it are very related. Of course, there isn’t just one approach to long-distance hiking, but there are trends. Long-distance hikers tend to carry lighter packs and fewer in-camp comforts, anticipating more time spent on the trail and less in camp.

When you make significant changes to the contents of your backpack, you must also consider adjusting how you use those contents, and how you spend your time on the trail. This is definitely something to be thinking of when you do your shakedown hike(s).

For example, perhaps you’re debating cold soaking your breakfasts, but in the past you’ve always started the day with hot oatmeal and cocoa for breakfast as that’s just “how it’s done” for you. So try out the cold breakfast idea on your shakedown hike.

Maybe you’re used to carrying sandals for creek crossings, but you would like to make do with just your trail runners. What you do at a creek crossing — the process — changes when the associated gear changes. 

Figuring out a lot of this stuff ahead of a thru-hike attempt is extremely helpful. Take time before you’re deep in the backcountry to confirm that this new approach works for you. If not, go back to the drawing board and reconsider.  It’s a whole lot easier to adjust your gear mix at home than it will be in the midst of a multi-month hike.

There are exceptions, of course. If the Appalachian Trail is your first thru-hike and you’re hiking northbound, Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap — about 30 miles into your trip — is an excellent right-on-the-trail outfitter that can sell you replacement gear and mail home whatever you don’t need. But it’s still a whole lot better to figure this stuff out in advance.

Go Solo

Photo courtesy Zach Davis

When you do this shakedown hike, I urge you to do it alone. If this makes you nervous, pick a well-traveled trail, but do it alone if you can. Or find one or more good friends and agree to hike “together but alone,” i.e., hike as if you’re out there by yourself but with a support team nearby. Sort of like training wheels when learning to ride a bike.

Why a solo shakedown hike? Whether or not you start a long-distance hike with a partner, you could easily end up hiking long chunks of it by yourself.

This has happened to me; on the Continental Divide Trail I hiked most of the state of Montana with a good friend, but an injury put him off trail, and I subsequently hiked all of Wyoming and Colorado alone, connecting up to hike the rest with another fellow in northern New Mexico.

Your alone times likely won’t be as extensive, but I’ve hiked long chunks of the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails alone as well. I quite like hiking alone for days or weeks on end, and then I also really enjoy connecting with one or more others to have some company for the next several hundred miles. It’s all good.

But whether you intend to go it alone or not, you should at least be comfortable with it.

How Long Should a Shakedown Hike Be?

There’s certainly not a magic distance to hike for a shakedown trip.  I suggest that you go for about 50 miles.  For many people that will be farther than they’ve ever hiked in a single trip.  It’s short enough as to not be too much of a challenge and a burden, but long enough to give you time and distance for stuff to happen.

And you want stuff to happen! Every problem, every question that arises on a shakedown trip is one less thing that you’ll have to grapple with when your “real” trip begins.

Getting the Most out of Your Shakedown

Photo courtesy Zach Davis

To maximize the benefits of a shakedown hike, don’t solely focus on gear and clothing — you want to think about on-trail processes as well. Talk to people or read trail journals or forums to get a sense of how thru-hikers do things. Read up a bit on challenges specific to your trail. Then you can tailor your shakedown hike so you can experience these challenges and practice the routines of daily life on your chosen trail.

For example, if you plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail northbound, read up on hiking in dry, sunny country where both shade and water are scarce. Read up on cowboy camping. Read up on snow in the Sierra Nevadas and the use of an ice axe and possibly crampons. Then take yourself on a shakedown hike that will replicate (as near as possible) some of those challenges so you can get some real-world experience in dealing with them.

The more you have your gear and process dialed in to handle things you can reasonably expect, the better your odds of success and happiness.

Keeping Book

On your shakedown hike(s) I suggest that you bring along a notepad and pen/pencil, as well as a thermometer. Take notes as you go, perhaps just in camp each evening, but maybe also at lunchtime and breaks.

Jot down any thoughts you have about changing gear or processes or issues to investigate when you get back home. Your thoughts about how to prepare for a thru-hike will be different when actually on-trail versus when you’re sitting in a comfy chair at home.

When you wake in the morning and anytime you wake up overnight, check the temperature and note how warm you feel in your whatever-rated sleeping bag or quilt. And if possible, try to do your shakedown hike at a time or place where overnight lows are comparable to or colder than what you expect to encounter during your thru-hike.

Even a simple keychain thermometer will suffice for this. But if you want to really geek out, you can buy a moderately priced “memory thermometer,” i.e., something that will tell you how low the temperature got overnight regardless of how late you wake up. Not really necessary, but I’ve occasionally found mine useful.

Ed. note: A lightweight indoor-outdoor thermometer can also be fun to play with on a shakedown hike, as it will show you the difference in temperature inside and outside your tent.

Targeted Goals

Photo courtesy Zach Davis

It’s good to keep in mind exactly what your biggest issues are on a shakedown trip.  Mind you, the shakedown itself might teach you that your actual biggest issues aren’t what you expected. Still, your initial concerns will dictate when, where, and how you structure your first shakedown hike.

For example, when I wasn’t sure how best to carry a bear canister within a particular backpack, I made sure to test that out on a shakedown trip.

Likewise, I learned that a recurring foot issue only starts bothering me after about 50 miles of hiking — so it helped me to stay not too far out of cell tower range to bail out. I found this out on an attempted 100-mile stretch!

I’ve also found it helpful on my shakedowns to load my pack with the maximum amount of gear and food I expected to carry at any point on my thru-hike. This was especially useful when prepping for the PCT, where I anticipated eight-day food carries along with an ice axe and warmer clothing.

Similarly, picking a higher elevation trail for my shakedown allowed me to test my sleep system’s ability to withstand low overnight temperatures.


Photo courtesy Zach Davis

I strongly encourage first-time thru-hikers to go on at least a 50-mile solo shakedown hike, well in advance of their thru-hike attempt. Take notes along the way and expect (even hope) for issues to arise, then adjust things accordingly when you get back home. You will measurably improve your odds of success if you do this.

Featured image by Zack Goldmann.

This article was originally published on 30 August 2015. It was updated by The Trek’s editorial staff on 30 May 2024.

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Comments 5

  • George Turner : Aug 31st

    Amen… I did what will be the first 16 days of my thru hike this summer. Learned a lot

  • GB : Jun 3rd

    Shake down hikes are good for everybody. First one this year, forgot to test my Sawyer squeeze. Learned my tap water is so mineral rich that when I put it up last year after flushing it with tap water that when the water dried up, it crystallized and totally clogged up my filter. Caused me to beg and borrow and boil water. Decided get off trail early because I did not want to be a pest always asking for help.

    Things to take for granted when you think you know what you are doing. I learned to rinse your Sawyers with vinegar and then distilled water!

    • Walter Bates : Jun 7th

      👍 great point.

  • Scribbles : Jun 8th

    I totally agree that taking the time to do a shake down hike is a huge advantage. Neel Gap has awesome folks who have been around forever and know their gear and how to match that to people. I am also an advocate of solo-hiking. I’ve hiked thousands of miles, the majority of which have been solo. Only when I am alone can my mind be free and the world opens. Our bodies were made for walking and, once we get in a a rhythm, we can go forever and loose ourselves in the experience. So, go on that (or those) shake-down hikes. Socialize when you need to. Be sure to allow time for yourself. Hike on!


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