One of the best ways to prepare for a backpacking trip is to do a shakedown trip or two. Especially if you will be tackling a lot of miles with a group. Shakedowns give you time to hone your personal and group gear down to what you really need. It offers the chance to learn what your daily routine will be like. For a group it starts showing the potential challenges and synergies among group members, working through them before you decide it’s best to feed a hiking companion to the bears. Not really, but group dynamics work so much better on trail when you understand each others idosyncranies.
I’m digging in the way-back machine here. My first experience with a shakedown was with our Troop’s Philmont Crew. We were prepping for our Philmont Scout Ranch trip and had been doing a lot of hiking together in the city. But that didn’t mean we knew what it would be like as a group to set up camp, make meals, sleep and break camp the next day, and again the day after that. All with miles under our feet in between.
So we decided to start with a weekend camping trip at Wild River State Park. The plan was to set up camp near the rest of the Troop the first evening. The next morning after our group had made breakfast, we’d break camp, “ruck up” and set out on trail for the day, only returning to our same campsite that evening to set up camp again and make dinner.
It was a chilly spring morning when we set off from our campsite. All of us bundled up and carrying about 45lbs of gear each. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were overdressed. We had to stop to take off layers and shove them into our already overpacked packs.
Shakedown Lesson: Wear just enough when you start hiking to have a bit of a chill. If you’re all toasty warm when you start, you’re going to get hot quickly.
Our route seemed simple enough. About six to eight miles on what we expected would be pretty flat terrain. Part of it across prairie and part along the St. Croix River. What the Scouts hadn’t planned on was that most of the trial they’d selected was combined hiking and horse trail. Minnesota State Parks lay sand for these trails because it’s easier on the horses homes. Humans, or more specifically human calves, will get a solid workout hiking with a fully loaded pack on sand. It slows your speed too.
And there is also the potential for blisters. So really paying attention to your feet becomes important. I remember distinctly the blisters that I got, no matter what I tried. Wicking liner socks, moleskin and rest. Even still, by the end I had blisters. So I knew I’d need to keep looking for a solution or the longer hikes of my future would only be miserable.
Shakedown Lesson: Sometimes you’ll be miserable with blisters. Or mosquito bites. Or a cold. Come prepared with your first aid kit.
I also learned helpful things. Like that I definitely overpacked clothing. That the trekking poles I’d decided to by in the months leading up to the weekend were a solid investment. And that we would fall into a routine as a group, that while there would be challenges, we were better prepared to handle. Best of all that I would really enjoy being on trail with this group of young men and the other two adult leaders.
At the end, we learned a lot about the type of equipment we needed as a group, what we had duplicated between all of our individual gear and what would be better left behind on our next, longer trip. That a shakedown is a step into realizing that you don’t need all that stuff you think you do.
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