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Shakedown Hikes Aren’t Just for Backpacking Beginners

Shakedown backpacking trip where I simulated carrying 21 days of food by hauling bags of charcoal in my backpack.
Shakedown backpacking trip where I simulated carrying 21 days of food by hauling bags of charcoal in my backpack.

Shakedown hikes and backpacking trips are the best way you can train yourself to become a confident backpacker or day hiker. They provide a low pressure setting for you to practice new skills, learn how to use your gear, plan a hike, and develop the physical fitness required to hike all day with a backpack.

But shakedown hikes aren’t the sole province of beginner backpackers. I go on many shakedown hikes each year to figure out the best way to use a new piece of gear, to work out any fit and function issues before a big trip, and to test my fitness level. There’s nothing worse than having to bail out early or dramatically change your plans on a big trip, when a few practice sessions would have alerted you to a problem and given you time to develop a workaround. The longer and more exotic the trip, the more important shakedown hikes become.

When you’re first getting started, shakedown hikes don’t have to be overnight backpacking trips, although you’ll probably want to work up to that at some point. They can be more limited day hikes where you practice pitching your tent, cooking a meal with your stove, hanging a bear bag, wearing a heavy backpack, using your water filter, and so forth. Start small and master these techniques so you can go on a few solo backpacking trip and integrate them all together.

Why solo? It’s less embarrassing when you do something idiotic and helps you develop your self-sufficiency faster. I’ve done some pretty idiotic things on shakedown trips…

What are some examples of things I’ve learned on solo shakedown trips:

  • That I really don’t like the food I thought I’d like to eat
  • That the backpack I bought didn’t actually fit me very well
  • That it’s easy to lose your campsite in the dark
  • That my tent was a lot draftier and uncomfortable than I expected
  • That I get painful blisters on the top of my right foot with a particular pair of boots
  • That I get painful chafing when I wear short briefs
  • That I need more salt in my diet to make up for what I sweat out
  • That my waterproof boots aren’t very waterproof
  • That I didn’t have a way to start my stove when the piezo igniter broke
  • That I want a head net in June to ward off black flies
  • That carrying 21 days of food is really unpleasant and blows my backpack’s suspension out of the water
  • That there’s a lot more snow lingering than I expected in late May
  • That I need to pack my pack the same way every time so I know where to find it gear quickly
  • And on and on…

You can read about this stuff, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing it on a shakedown hike to drive home the lessons. They become a part of you.

Long Shakedown Hikes

If you plan on going on a multi-week backpacking trip or a thru-hike, I’d recommend taking at least two 3-4 night trips covering about 50 miles of trail. These trips will be a good test of your preparedness while giving you a lot of insight into the deficiencies of your gear, the routines you’ve developed for using it, and your current fitness level. Going out for 3-4 nights at a time is long enough for you to encounter all kinds of unexpected circumstances that will test your resilience and adaptability.

My advice: be kind to yourself and work up to these longer shakedown hikes. It takes practice and experimentation to gain the experience to become a confident and skilled backpacker. Realize that you’re not learning a well-defined skill set, but learning how to use your gear and the different skills you’ve acquired to remain safe and comfortable as unexpected situations arise on your journeys.

The destination is the journey, as they say. Treat every backpacking trip and day hike you take as a shakedown hike and you’ll get where you want to go much faster.

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11 comments

  1. Gheehee, carrying way too much food and not liking food I liked before sound very familiar! And the chafing… Damn that chafing >_<

  2. Love the charcoal-as-proxy-for-food idea! I have been struggling to find a good way to represent the weight and a realistic representation of the volume.

  3. I consider shakedown hikes one of the fun sides of hiking–well, you learn a lot during such hikes.

  4. Your “learning” list looks a like like mine! Those lessons taught me how to adapt to certain situations, situations to avoid, measures to take to improve my comfort while on the trail. Its been a fun learning experience. As a hiker, every hike is a different experience. Must be why keep doing it, why I poor over hiking books and trail maps and my job is what I do to support my leisure habit.

  5. I’ve made my share of those mistakes… and a few originals. One nice thing about shake downs is that you’re generally just inconvenienced a day or two but what you learn may prevent the inconvenience from becoming a disaster on a longer hike.

  6. I find a shakedown trip a good way to highlight unnecessary gear you may be carrying. I’m sure we all experience “packing drift” where we chuck “…just one more small item…’ into our packs as we fill them, hey it only weighs 100gms so it wont matter…..next minute you are carrying half a kilo or more of gear that wont get used….

  7. I’ve done a few of these with excellent results. My first “shakedown” hike was all the way from my car to about 10′ away where I setup my tent. I learned my cooking setup needed a shakedown of it’s own and my sleeping bag was too chilly!

    My next shakedown was a 50k, one-night hike to test out a new tent and some boots I hadn’t worn much. After two giant blisters on both heels, I had a brand new pair of boots before leaving town! The tent worked perfectly on that hike and on a 168km, 6-day hike a month later.

  8. Just did 60+ miles of the Ice Age trail over 3 days. Tried out a new sleep system and only had to deal with two uncomfortable nights :-) Back to the drawing board!

  9. Ho Ho! Shake-down trips for the big adventure are absolutely a must I do agree.
    I live in New Zealand and we have the whole gambit of weather, terrain, dense rain forest and open mountain tops. I regard a similar shake-down trip to the one intended very desirable. e.g. The Doubtful Track in Fiordland 250 mm rain in one day tests gear waterproofing, Thigh deep mud tests boots ability to stay attached to feet and durability (6 days wrecked a pair of unsuitable boots} Sand flies by day and mosquitoes by night necessitates a very good bug net. Then there are alpine trips with 30C deg heat plus in the valleys and negative temperatures on the high tops and passes.
    I take minimal gear and where possible multi use which is tried and well tested before any trip of 4 days plus. Food is another topic, whatever is taken has to cater for a few extra days to allow for flooded river crossing waits etc. and it certainly has to be nutritious and tasty and of minimal weight.
    Planning for the biggie? Test your gear before finding out the hard way!

  10. Absolutely essential! I failed to camp multiday before a long section hike on the JMT. After 3 days I could not stand the slipping waist belt on a new pack and shoulder straps digging In with full pack weight. I expensively aborted the trip by calling for pickup at a remote trsilhread. Food drops had to be mailed home, unused. And this pack had seemed OK on day hikes! A painful lesson for me.

    Always carry exactly what’s going on your long trips. 2 trips of 50 miles is not overkill. Need training hikes anyway. Just do them with full load out and camp and eat just as you will on the big one.

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