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 will sometimes suggest is to do a “shakedown hike”, and in this article I want to extol the virtues of this idea, exploring how best to do it, and what you might expect to get out of it.

What Is It?

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 associated process to find out if there are things you can improve (in either) before your thru-hike. And 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 quite large amounts of both 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 as a complete set.  You would ideally try it out in a mix of conditions: hot and sunny, cold and wet, in snow if snow is expected on your trip, in buggy conditions, with significant creek crossings — the works.

You don’t need to wait until you have all of your gear exactly ‘right’, but it’s worth waiting until it’s at least close.   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 to sort of fine tune things.

Gear and Process are Related

The gear you carry and the way in which you use it are very related.  Of course there isn’t just one single long distance hiking approach, but there are trends; long distance hikers do tend to go for lighter packs and less in-camp comforts, and less time spent 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’ve considered eating a cold breakfast, but you’ve always had hot oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast before, it’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 time is extremely helpful before a thru-hike attempt, to confirm that this new approach works for you, or to 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 a few days into the start of a several month hike.

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

Go Solo

When you do this shakedown hike, I urge you to do it alone.   If this makes you nervous, pick a well-travelled trail, but do it alone if you can.  Or find one or more good friends and agree to hike “together but alone”, i.e., that you hike as if you’re out there by yourself, but with a sort of nearby support team.  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 you should be comfortable doing it alone.

How Far?

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-o 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 adjust for when your ‘real’ trip begins.

Get the Most out of it

In order to maximize the benefits of a shakedown hike, in addition to getting your “thru-hiker” gear (and clothing) mostly together, you also want to think in advance about on-trail process.   Talk to people, read trail journals or online discussion forums to get a sense for how thru-hikers do things.   Read up a bit on challenges specific to your trail.  For example, if you plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail northbound, read up on hiking in dry country where water sources can be far apart and sometimes questionable.  Read up on ‘cowboy camping’ and decide whether a more minimal shelter might be enough for the first 700 miles (the ‘desert’).  Read about strategies for dealing with continuous heat and sunshine with little shade.   Read about snow in the Sierra Nevadas, and use of an ice axe & possibly crampons, and using “just” trail runners in lots of snow, and, and … you get the idea.

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 some sort of notepad and pen/pencil, and a thermometer.   Take notes as you go, perhaps just in camp each evening, but maybe also at lunchtime and even at breaks.   Jot down any thoughts you have about changing gear or process, 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 if you wake up during the night, check the temperature, and make a note of 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 temps could get down as low as you expect to have to deal with on your thru-hike.

If you want to really geek out on this, 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 to be useful.

Targeted Goals

It’s good to keep in mind exactly what your biggest issues are on a shakedown trip.  Mind you, the shakedown might educate you on what your actual big issue is (!), but just when, where, and how you structure a shakedown hike might be based on anticipated concerns.  For example, I had an issue with how to best carry a bear can with a particular backpack, so I tried that out on a shakedown trip.   It turned out that a foot issue I have only starts to be a problem after something like 50 miles of hiking — so it helped me to be not too-o far out of cell tower range to bail out, as I found this out on an attempted 100 mile stretch!   I also found it helpful to try to load my pack up with maximal expected combination of gear and food; for the PCT this was preparation for the Sierras, when I had something like an 8-day supply of food (and that’s at a thru-hikers caloric demand, so more food per day) along with an ice axe and warmer clothing.   Picking a higher elevation hike allowed me to test low overnight temperatures for my sleep system.

Summary

I strongly encourage first-time thru-hikers to go on 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.   I think that you’ll measurably improve your odds of success if you do this.

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Comments 3

  • George Turner : Aug 31st

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

    Reply
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