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.