I’ve given presentations over the years, be it for long trails or for backpacking in general.
I’m also pretty active on backpacking forums.
But there is one thing I really do not enjoy doing. Something that seems to be popular, but I tend to not like participating in: “The Pack Shakedown”.
People will post their exquisite spreadsheet typed up in Excel or posted on a website that is made for people to go over the gear.
On-line, there will be pages on which rain gear is better and why this particular model should be taken. Or why the XYZ sleeping bag is crap and that person should really take a quilt… I usually see not so much advice given, but rather discussion of why one person’s gear advice is superior to another.
And in person, the eager-beaver upcoming thru-hiker will bring their entire kit packed and ready to go; presenting it to people who’ve walked the walk and hoping for some insight from trail veterans.
I am not keen being asked to do this task. I prefer drinking my coffee and letting someone else do it while I politely look on.
Here’s why I don’t enjoy performing or participating in a pack shakedown. These are just my thoughts and other people may feel differently:
- Discussing the minutiae of gear, as opposed to a broad overview, is simply something I do not enjoy. And I am arguably not good at, either. History is my first love. I enjoy the broad sweeps, trends and ideas that make up the collective story of humanity. Knowing the US space program came out of German rocket research and weapon production is of more interest to me than knowing how much thrust a V2 rocket put out or how many were produced (Google it..I truly don’t know the answer). In the same way, I can tell you why I love a 100 wt fleece, but I’d be the wrong person to tell you which 100 wt fleece is the “best” or discuss polar tech vs grid vs a generic fleece with any strong enthusiasm. (You can Google those differences, too.)
- Giving general advice about gear BEFORE the gear is assembled is far more useful. An example would be telling people that a simple alcohol stove to boil two cups of water a day rather than lugging a white gas stove in the summer may be prudent.
- A person wanting the pack shakedown is often not looking for advice on what to swap out, or what not to take or even possibly be told to consider taking something additional. I find, the person presenting the pack for a shakedown usually wants reassurance their gear is adequate and will do the job for their upcoming hike. By the time the person is ready for a pack shakedown, their gear is assembled for what they think will work. It is past the point of real and valid gear advice in many, if not most, cases. The few times I’ve been an active participant in that type of specific gear discussion, often the person presenting the pack (be it online or in person) will be told something and then the reply will be “Well, I like this because…”
So are pack shakedowns pointless?
Not at all.
But, I think the best way to perform a pack shakedown is to do it for yourself.
Take your gear, go out, backpack and see what works.
Simple. Easy. And it is, hopefully, fun.
I’ve seen too many people advocate “You don’t have to go out hiking before a long hike”. This is not a sentiment I share.
People will spend hours putting together the perfect gear list , posting on-line and cruising websites for gear “research” but not actually using it before a long hike? Insane.
Going out and using gear is the best way to see if the gear works for *you*. A simple tarp is not for everyone, one pack may fit differently or a shoe may not work well for you. It does not matter which shoe, pack, stove or shelter Andrew Skurka, Cam Honan, Liz Thomas or a short, bald goofy looking guy who people call “p mags” uses if it does not fit your backpacking style or needs.
Cruise websites , forums and possibly workshops for ideas and advice. It can save some time and money on the learning curve.
But ultimately to really learn what works, use the gear. That is what is really important. It is really the only way to know if something works for you. Not just putting numbers down on a spreadsheet.
You don’t even have to go far or even into very mountainous terrain to get practical experience.
Before my first Long Trail hike, I tested out a new tent by going into the “wilds” of Rhode Island in the Arcadia Management Area. I hiked in the rain for perhaps five miles or so, camped, heard the torrential down pour on my new and weatherproof tent and then hiked out the following day. Instructive and very useful.
Do yourself a favor and do what I did myself: Go out and use the gear and see if it works.
If you want a gear shakedown, the most effective way is to do it yourself.
You’ll learn more in one weekend trip than from what any online posting or by a person doing a gear shakedown can give you.
And then repeat. Tweak if needed. And enjoy. And then do it some more.
Best way to learn what works outdoors for you? Go outdoors.