Anyone who has ever attempted a thru-hike can attest to the fact that the 1 to 2 months leading up to your departure can be nerve-wrecking and hectic. We thru-hikers scramble over last-minute gear purchases, resupply boxes, and dialing in our kits … daydreaming of the moment we can finally step foot on trail.
Whether this is your first-ever backpacking trip or your 10th thru-hike, feeling comfortable with everything you plan on bringing is vital for a safe and successful trip. One way hikers prepare for an upcoming adventure is through what is often referred to as a 'shakedown hike'.
What Exactly is a Shakedown Hike?
As I just mentioned, dialing in your gear before a thru-hike is important, to say the least. Even more important is feeling comfortable using all of your gear, and feeling knowledgeable about each gear item you choose to bring.
After all, everything you bring must be carried on your back, as you make your way through mountains and across deserts. If this is your first thru-hike, then how do you know which gear works for you, and which gear falls under the ‘not necessary to bring’ category?
This is where the shakedown hike comes in. A shakedown hike is no different than any other backpacking trip; you load up your backpack, hit the trails, and get to walking.
But hikers who choose to partake in a shakedown hike should do so with one specific goal in mind (other than having fun, of course): bring EVERYTHING with you that you plan to bring on your thru-hike.
Whether you choose to embark on a 2-day shakedown hike or an 8-day shakedown hike, you’ll benefit from testing your gear and skills in the backcountry.
Consider your shakedown hike your dress rehearsal. You want to treat this as real deal; load your pack the exact same way you plan on doing so during your thru-hike; wear the same (or very similar) clothes; and eat the same/ similar foods.
A shakedown hike can vary in length and style. Some people might want to do a simple and quick overnight on their local trail to get a feel for sleeping outside for the first time. Others might choose a week (or longer) backpacking expedition to really get a feel for life on trail.
No matter the length/ duration/ style of your shakedown hike, I strongly feel that choosing to partake on a shakedown hike in some way, shape or form in the months leading up to your departure will greatly benefit you.
3 Benefits of a Shakedown Hike
1) Testing Your Gear
This, for me, is the main priority of any shakedown hike, regardless of duration. One important element of a successful thru-hike is having the gear that works best for you, and feeling very comfortable in using/ wearing each item.
This one is especially important for first-time thru-hikers. Even more so, if you have never been on a backpacking trip before. First and foremost, it is important to log some trail miles with a fully loaded pack.
This way you can start to understand how your pack feels when you're ascending a steep hill or downclimbing technical terrain. You don’t want to find out on Day 1 of your thru-hike that your pack actually feels too bulky or digs too much into your shoulders.
Pack weight and comfort is probably the most important factor in having an enjoyable and successful thru-hike.
Please, don’t be that person who shows up to hike a long trail with a 50-pound pack and no clue how to pitch a tent. You’d learn very quickly that you are indeed carrying too much weight, and can indeed live without a massive cooking pot.
The trial-and-error lessons gained through a shakedown hike will have you feeling much more confident going into your first day on trail, and your shoulders/ back will thank you for showing mercy on them.
I gained a ton of insight and knowledge on my shakedown hike before leaving for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I had been on several backpacking trips before, but this was my first real test with everything I planned on bringing and using for my thru-hike.
I had always used a rather bulky 60L pack, which weighed just over 4.5 pounds. I was able to get my base weight to about 18 pounds, which I thought was a decent weight.
On the second day of my shakedown hike, I was really feeling the burn on my shoulders, and my pack wasn’t riding on my back quite as nicely as I had hoped. I just knew if I was able to shed a couple of pounds, it would make a huge difference.
After returning home, I made the decision to purchase an ultralight backpack, Hyperlite’s Southwest 3400, weighing in at just over 1 pound. Had I not gone on my shakedown hike, I wouldn’t have noticed these pack issues until I was already on trail, which would’ve made life so much more difficult.
Save yourself the stress and test!
2) Practicing backcountry skills
This is mostly for the beginner backpackers out there, but honing in backcountry skills is important. Shakedown hikes give us the opportunity to practice skills such as filtering water, pitching a shelter, choosing proper campsites, and following Leave No Trace (LNT) policies. This, in turn, can go a long way in ensuring a successful hike.
This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point of testing your equipment. It takes time to get used to new gear; the more you know before hitting the trail, the better.
Most new hikers underestimate the skill sets that are required to enjoy a long-distance backpacking trip like a thru-hike. Just like with anything in life; practice makes perfect, or at least better. The more you use your gear and practice your backcountry skills, the better off you will be. Shakedown hikes provide the opportunities to do just that.
3) Training, Both Physically and Mentally
Embarking on an adventure like a thru-hike will test you physically and mentally, like never before. It certainly isn’t a requirement to be in shape before your thru-hike, but it can really help.
Hiking with a fully loaded backpack is much different than with a light day pack, or nothing at all. Shakedown hikes give our bodies the opportunity to get used to carrying heavy loads for hours on end, days at a time.
Even if you can’t get out for an overnight, load up your pack with all your gear just for day hikes and walks around the block. This will best simulate beginning your thru-hike. The more times you can hike around with your fully loaded pack, the better off you will be in the long run.
We want to be mentally prepared as well for thru-hikes. It’s mostly a mental game, afterall. Each time we go out for a shakedown hike, regardless of how long, we become more self-reliant and adaptable to the ever-changing conditions in the backcountry.
If at all possible, you want to go out for shakedown hikes in terrain and weather that mirror what you will encounter on trail. If thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, get your body used to climbing and descending technical terrain with a full pack. Even get used to setting up and breaking down camp in the rain, if you can.
Things will go wrong at some point during your thru-hike; it’s almost a given. But it’s about how we respond to the unexpected that helps us persevere and move forward. Backcountry training and experience means we’re better suited to respond to adversity.
Shakedown hikes are vital for a successful thru-hike, in my opinion.
Shakedown hikes give us the opportunity to get comfortable using our gear, sharpen our backcountry skills, and provide some great physical and mental training.
Use the time before you leave for a thru-hike to make sure you have everything you need, and nothing you don’t!
Plus, we’re all hikers here! It doesn’t typically take a whole lot of convincing to get out there and have some fun in the backcountry!