The Power of the Backyard Shakedown “Hike”
Before embarking on a long hiking adventure, many people like to do what is called a “shakedown hike”. This is a hike, usually including at least one night, which serves to test all of a hiker’s equipment. This way they know if everything is working out for them before they are in the woods, thousands of miles from home and at least dozens of miles from the nearest small town.
The general consensus seems to be that shakedown hikes, while not absolutely necessary, are very helpful and can help minimize the difficulty when things get real on the trail. I was lucky enough to be able to do several trips that could probably be considered shakedown hikes in the Whites over the summer, although I mostly did these trips primarily because I wanted to sleep outside in the mountains and weren’t necessarily meant just to test my hardware. However, now that it’s completely winter in whites and my hiking setup isn’t meant for the constantly sub-freezing temperatures and howling winds of the New Hampshire mountains at this time of year, my options of shakedown are somewhat limited.
Enter the backyard shakedown hike.
You don’t need to drive anywhere. You don’t need to take time off from work. You can even do it on a work night! And then you can tell your co-workers that you slept in a tent the night before and laugh maniacally as they look at you like you’re completely off your ass. All of this means you can easily do as many shakedowns as you want before you start your walk from Georgia to Maine, Mexico to Canada, or wherever you’re headed.
Put it all in your bag
This gives you the ability to make sure everything is what you want it to be. Put on your backpack and take a few laps of your garden. If you’re already comfortable after that short amount of time, that’s a problem. Recently I did this and found that one of my earliest strategies for packing everything into my bag was leaving hard, lumpy items pressed against my back, so I had to come up with something different.
Set up your tent
Take your bag off and put it on the floor. You can now set up your tent. This gives you a chance to practice pitching your tent. Work out what order you need to stake things out to get the best location, because that’s not something you want to think about since it’s pouring rain and you’re just trying to get into your tent as soon as possible. After setting up my tent a few times in my yard, I quickly figured out the best order of operations to set it up efficiently and effectively.
How many piles do you really need? Chances are it’s probably less than the number that came with your tent (hello, shave a few ounces off your base pack weight). Probably throw an extra in there, just in case you lose one.
You also want to make sure you can get everything out of your bag in the order you need it. Again, I can’t help but imagine the situation where it’s raining and somehow your sleeping bag is on top of your tent in your backpack. Then you will have to get your bag out and risk getting it wet before you can access your tent. Not ideal.
If you go the stove route, it gives you the chance to make sure you know how to use your stove with the added bonus of having internet access in case you’re not really sure what you’re doing as well. like the benefit of a proper hand washing sink if you end up with large amounts of isobutane-propane on your hands like I once did. You can also test what types of hiking foods you like and what the best cooking strategy is.
Hang your food bag
This one really only works if you have at least one pruning tree nearby. But if you do, you can practice throwing a rock or a bag of dirt on a high branch, carrying your bag of food to a reasonable height, and tying it down.
Recently, I filled up some Nalgenes with water, put them in my food bag and took a walk in the woods near my house. I spent about 45 minutes looking for promising branches and casting my bear line (rope, paracord, whatever) on them. I had originally thought rock bags, which you can fill with rocks or dirt and tie to the end of your bear line to help throw the end over branches, were dumb. Why not just tie the line to a rock? I quickly understood why. It is quite annoying to tie paracord to an irregularly shaped rock. And even if you succeed, there’s a good chance something will come loose while it’s all up in the air, you’ll lose the rock, and the bear line won’t even cross the branch. I quickly decided this was an inconvenience I just wouldn’t want to deal with after a long day of hiking and dropped $5 on a bag of rocks.
Go to bed
I don’t think I really appreciated the importance of a good sleep system until I tried sleeping at 24 degrees (Fahrenheit) with a 20 degree comforter and a sleeping pad with an R value of 1 ,3. Safe to say there hasn’t been much sleep, and I’m currently working on how I can be warmer in my tent without breaking the bank or my back. The good news is that if things really start to go downhill at this point, you can always retire to your warm bed.
As well as making sure you’ll be warm enough (if you live somewhere that gets a bit chilly, anyway), it also gives you the chance to make sure you’ll be comfortable when trying to sleep. . Does your sleeping pad slip and slide on the floor of your tent? Does the rustle of your inflatable mattress wake you up every time you move? Does the smallest rock under your tent feel like a huge boulder shoving into your back like some sort of “princess and pea” situation?
It’s also a chance to make sure you have a good system in place to keep your water filter, electronics and maybe your fuel canister securely in place in your sleeping bag so nothing gets too much. cold. I have a small drawstring bag that everything fits in, then I stick it all in the foot of my duvet. If you live in an area with creatures active at night, this at least gives you the chance to try to get used to unfamiliar nighttime sounds outdoors. The slightest crackle of leaves makes it seem like there’s an elephant outside your tent when you’re alone in the dark outside.
Pack it all up again
It’s kind of the opposite of “Pitch your tent” above. Determine which order of operations makes the most sense for this process. I sound like a broken record at this point, but try to imagine the scenario where it’s pouring rain and you want to keep as much of it as dry as possible. (Can you tell I emphasized how much rain the AT usually gets?)
The first time you do all of this, it probably makes sense to do it in fairly mild weather. This gives you the chance to make sure you more or less know how to do everything you need to do to successfully complete your first backyard hike.
Once you’ve gotten at least a little familiar with what you’re doing, it’s time to test it all out. If it’s going to rain, get out. If the temperature is going to approach the lowest temperature you expect to see on the trail, spend a night in your backyard. This helps you understand the limits of your gear so that when the going gets tough, you know if you should try to get to town or the nearest inn to stay safe.
It’s not perfect
Walking in your garden with your backpack for less than an hour is not the same as a day or multi-day hike. Nor is it about spending a night outside in your garden and then returning to your cozy bed for the rest of the week. However, the sad truth about hiking a 1000+ mile trail in the USA is that more likely than not, winter is directly before you start your hike, so head out into the mountains for a more rugged hike. and more thorough may not be the most realistic choice.
Also, I recognize that not everyone has a garden. The good news is that you can do most of these things (probably all besides spending the night in your tent) in any local park, hiking trail, or outdoor space you have access to.
Get out of here
So this is it. The backyard shakedown hike. While it’s not 100% representative of what things will be like on your next long-distance backpacking trip, it’s definitely better than nothing, so get out there!
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