Ask a Thru-Hiker: What's the Biggest Mistake Beginners Make?

Master the shakedown for a smoother trek.
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Master the shakedown for a smoother trek.
Gallatin National Forest

Crossing a bridge in the Gallatin National Forest. (Photo by Adam Roy)

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Dear Snorkel,

I have a lot of backpacking experience, but I'm tackling my first thru-hike this summer. What’s the number one mistake that you see first-time thru-hikers make?

Marianne T.

Hi Marianne,

Most first-time thru-hikers know that they have some homework before they go: getting the maps, gear, and food ready, and physical training. Just like a normal backpacking trip, if you skip those steps on a thru-hike, you’re SOL. But the biggest mistake I see newbies make is not doing what thru-hikers call a “shakedown.”

In nautical terms, a “shakedown cruise” is a testing period for traveling vessels before they’re declared operational. Likewise, there are two kinds of shakedowns for thru-hikers: the pack shakedown and the shakedown hike.

A pack shakedown is when an experienced thru-hiker examines your pack item-by-item to help you shed weight. You’ll be forced to be honest about what you’re carrying, and why. Hikers tend to carry their fears, and by examining your gear, the pack shakedown allows you to dump what you won’t use and pack the lightest possible version of what you will. The lighter your pack, the less impact you will feel on your feet and knees and smaller your chance of injury—and since injuries are one of the main reasons that thru-hikers quit early, this is key to your success.

Of course, paring down your gear to the essentials assumes you have the ability to use those essentials effectively. That’s where the shakedown hike—an overnight or short multiday trip with your thru-hiking kit—can help you. On a shakedown hike, first-timers get a low-risk chance to learn how to use their gear and figure out if their setup meets their needs. Don’t like your sleeping bag after a cold night out? Guess what? You’re not stuck with it for weeks. Can’t figure out how to set up your tarp? No problem! Do your best and Google it when you get home tomorrow. That preview trip helps you get in the right mindset and prepares you for the reality a lot of first-time thru-hikers aren’t ready to swallow: thru-hiking involves a lot more walking than camping or hanging out.

Here’s a big secret: experienced thru-hikers do shakedowns, too. Every season, we’ll show our gear to others who already have done whatever trail or route we’re planning to do. Then, we’ll take that gear out into a similar climate just to refamiliarize ourselves with it.

Between making gear spreadsheets and posting your pre-hike prep on Instagram, thru-hike planning can take up a lot of time. But if you do no other thing before heading off on your thru-hike, go the shakedown route. After all, that gear spreadsheet won’t do you any good when you can’t figure out how to set up your tent, and those Instagram pics won’t mean anything if you quit after a week.

Snorkel