Pack Shakedowns

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”.


A more delicious version of this concept. From Newport Creamery. I’m true to my roots. 🙂

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.


PCO ALDHA-W. Notice the coffee mug. I’m not kidding.

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”.
  • 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.

More scenic than looking at a spreadsheet or forum, too.

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 online 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.

Taken by a five-year-old niece this past summer in Rhode Island. The short, bald, goofy-looking guy obviously loves his coffee (black please) however…

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.

I took this photo in Arcadia while on a family visit. Not a bad place for a quick overnight so many years ago.

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 downpour 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.

How best to get ready to hike a trail? Go hiking on a trail as often as you can. Prettier than a spreadsheet, too.

Best way to learn what works outdoors for you? Go outdoors.


22 Replies to “Pack Shakedowns”

  1. Yep, totally 100% agree.

    To many people spend too much time thinking about what others are using, instead of getting out there and actually using what they already have.

  2. Pmags,
    I am in total agreement here. I am getting questions frequently from people who are asking me what is the best item to get. I only talk about what works for me and like you recommend they get out there and find out first hand. I recommend renting or borrowing gear if they can. I love my gear and do keep track of it in spreadsheet as a way of keeping organized. I mostly look at my gear a spend time dreaming of my next trip and how I will use it!!!

  3. I like cruising the forums, for three reasons.

    First, I can make a short list of things that have worked for many people. That way I know what to try on, or experiment with, rather than walking in to REI or wherever, and being overwhelmed by choices.

    Second, I have gear that I’ve used over time, in a variety of circumstances, and which has worked well for me. Because of this, I can add my voice to “what might work for you” list, for another hiker.

    And third, I’m a gearhead. I just love talking and learning about the stuff, especially when I’m unable to get out on the trail.

  4. I’m pretty sure when the Americans asked their new German counterparts how to improve the rocket program, the response was, “Wir müssen den Gang zu bekommen !”

    1. There was a famous propaganda movie put out by the US in the 1950s featuring Wernher Von Braun. It was titled “I aim at the stars”. Mort Sahl suggested an alternate title: “I aim at the stars but I sometimes hit London”…

      1. Tom Lehrer had many funny songs including Wernher Von Braun

        “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down; that’s not my department says Wernher Von Braun.”

    1. To put it politely, I saw a “discussion” of this very subject on the Yahoo JMT group last year when I was looking for info before hiking the JMT. I neglected to bring any with me on my hike, but fortunately for me, someone had left six starbuck via French roast packets in the hiker bucket at Reds Meadow. I always bring some form of coffee with me ever since. It really starts the day right for me and is well worth an extra 20 minutes in camp. Wait a second, what was this article about?

  5. I totally agree that the only way you know what to bring on a hike is to bring it on a hike. I did an 80 mile section of the PCT late last June as a final shakedown before hitting the JMT in July. I confirmed my thought about leaving out some gear and found that the trail runners I had chosen were likely not durable enough to last the JMT. I always note what went right and what went wrong and adjust my pack based on those observations and what I expect to find during my next trip. I suspect I will continue to refine my gear selections for as long as I continue to hike. While you can speak in generalities, and I have no problem sharing a couple of backpacking recipes and my dislike for those freeze dried backpacking meals in a pouch, for the most part the right gear for you is the right gear for you not for everyone. And, the only way to find out what that right gear is, is to get on the trail!

  6. I don’t see anything wrong with something along the lines of “Here’s what I took and why it did or didn’t work for me. Bearing in mind that some of the things that work for you won’t work for me ant the other way around. BTW, if you haven’t already tried them, you might try the “Coffee Thins”. They are a thin candy resembling chocolate, but made from coffee beans and can be found in major retail stores. Some are branded “Eight O’Clock”. I don’t see them as a replacement for coffee, but they may have a place in your pack.

  7. I’m an old lady hiking from Springer to Harper’s Ferry this April, with essentially zero camping and hiking experience. I started gear collecting and exercising last fall, including half day hikes in the Ouichitas.

    We boomers have been programmed that study is paramount. For any interest, I collect info, and lots of it. It’s a great way to get lift off into practice. Hands on will integrate and organize what’s in the head and offer reality checks.

    For me, I need to step away from the info a bit and get out there, because I’m second guessing my choices. Online backpacking surfing is a fun reward after exercise or working with gear.

    1. I don’t think it is a generational thing per se, but a cultural thing as far as “study is paramount”.

      I come from a working class background. Practical and hands on knowledge was emphasized by the previous generations. Not saying it is better or not (as it does have its limitations, of course), but for some endeavors nothing can beat getting some sweat equity and actually learning by doing. And I think outdoor pursuits is one of them. Online discourse helps to fine tune or even go off into a new direction, but “boots on the ground” is what really brings it all together I find.

      Having said all that, have fun on your trip! Sounds wonderful.

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