The pack “shakedown” is a popular activity where newbie hikers are made to feel like just that, and the contents of their pack are scrutinized. It’s somewhat of a rite of passage. You empty your pack and spread all of your gear and clothing out on the ground, while an experienced thru hiker looks at each item and says whether it’s good, or bad; too heavy or ok.
In practice, it’s a lot friendlier than it seems and can be incredibly helpful to people struggling with what to bring, but it all starts from the assumption that beginning thru hikers don’t know how to pack light and are going to kill themselves with their packs.
Sometimes this is true. A hiker we met by the name of Thin Mint (he’s quite thin) has no problem proclaiming the 50 pound weight of his pack. He says he can’t even feel it. The first time we heard this, we thought, “Man, this guy is in denial.” but almost 400 miles later, he’s still trucking around that 50 pound pack, and he moves pretty good miles.
We hit Mount Laguna on the morning of our 3rd day. After ramping up mileage quickly, I was having knee pain and happy to head into the local outfitter to grab a compression knee sleeve for the coming days.
The staff were friendly, they let us hang out in front of the shop, listened to our woes and even spread out a tarp in the parking lot on which we could unload our gear and decide what to send home. It was an unofficial pack shakedown.
Ever a product of our generation, our thru hiking journey didn’t begin on the trail, but on the couch with a laptop, through months of research. We learned what thru hikers take on the trail, what most of them gave up, couldn’t live without and which products got the seal of approval. So when it came to our shakedown, we were less ready to be told that our choices were shit or that we were bringing too much.
Our pack shakedown was more tame than tradition would have. As we assessed our gear, it became increasingly clear that the advice we were receiving was a strong sales pitch, steering us towards high margin items.
Beware Mount Laguna
Many hikers hit Mount Laguna on day 3 or 4 of the PCT. They’ve had a hellish first day getting to Lake Morena, and the next 20 miles aren’t much better. By the time they reach the small, mountain community, many new hikers are tired and in pain. They’re starting to realize what all this hiking stuff is about and they’ve probably got at least 3 new blisters on their feet, chafing somewhere else and their pack feels about 1 million pounds overweight.
Mount Laguna is the first place they can really relax, get some relief and shed a few pounds of pack weight. Maybe they’ll send some stuff home, or find an alternative at the first outfitter location on the trail.
Sure, some hikers didn’t prepare enough, or they thought they had great shoes before the trail, but now feel like they’re walking on soles of spikes. In that case, it can be time to make a change, and the outfitter will hook you up.
But that’s the beauty of a pack shakedown right in front of an outfitter. If you’re shaking down to lighten up your pack, a lightweight alternative is just a credit card swipe away.
The Cult of the Ultralight
20 years ago, 30 pounds was a reasonable base pack weight, according to older hikers that we’ve talked to. If you take a look at vintage gear, you’ll come to the same conclusion. Hikers still hiked the PCT and the AT back then, before the obsession with ultralight everything.
What was a reasonable base pack weight at the outfitter? “15 pounds or less,” I remember hearing pretty clearly.
Every couple of years, the number for a reasonable base pack weight climbs down just a little lower, as new technology is introduced and gear manufacturers figure out how to churn out new, lighter products. The outdoors may be pure, but the outdoor industry is just as capitalistic as the rest.
Most people never factor in the extra weight on their bodies; weight they are still carrying around with them, and their ultralight packs. There are definitely some rail thin, ultralight hikers who clock major miles everyday, but the average thru hiker has some extra weight they maybe put on in anticipation of the hike. Of course with the strenuousness of getting used to constant hiking, you inevitably lose weight, but you feel fitter, and everything feels easier.
So did your pack get lighter, or did you?
It’s All Pain… For a While
Our very first day on the trail (the day I got heat exhaustion), we met a hiker who was having as rough a time as I was, if not more. He was unprepared for the terrain, exhausted and close to heat exhaustion. By mile 5 he was distraught and second guessing everything he’d brought with him. It was as if he could not believe it was so hard, he must have made a mistake.
We haven’t seen him since, but as I’m writing this, I know that if he had made it to Mount Laguna along with the rest of the pack, there’s no telling the amount of money he would have handed over to the outfitter. He was the ideal customer.
Everyone hurts everywhere during the first 4 days. During the first 4 weeks, even! Newbie thru hikers watch speed freaks, athletes and experienced ATers fly by them and think there’s something wrong, instead of giving their body the time it needs to adjust. It’s completely human to try and fix the problem, and completely 21st century to throw money at it.
Thru hiking is near the limit of insane physical activity, and it’s not going to feel good, not at the beginning. Of course your pack full of gear, food, water and fuel feels heavy- you don’t walk around at home or work all day with it on! You’re going to hike for about 5 months anyway, at least give your situation a few weeks to improve before you make big changes.
Don’t Throw Money at Your Thru Hike
Why are we going on so much about this? Because as we wrapped up our shakedown, eager to move on from the awkward advice and sales pitch, another hiker’s had just begun. By the time we were leaving the outfitter, he had an enormous box full of gear to send home, but had also decided to replace his big 3: his tent, sleeping bag and backpack. The three most expensive items to a hiker.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and while his pack full of new gear was amazingly light, I knew his wallet would be too.
“But he was really struggling,” other hikers said, as we lamented how he was being taken for a ride. It’s one thing to have a shakedown and send extraneous supplies and unnecessary items home, it’s another to shakedown in the name of upgrading and replacing with all new stuff.
In the two weeks after Mount Laguna, we watched that hiker outpace us and felt that perhaps we had been completely wrong. Maybe he did just buy all the wrong stuff. Maybe the upgrade was all he needed to really feel good and actually enjoy his hike.
But we eventually caught up with him. He was heading off the trail, out of money. He had blown through a big part of his budget in Mount Laguna.
For better or for worse, gear plays a big part of the thru hiking experience, especially in this day and age. Don’t forget though, that your gear isn’t taking you out there, you are. You will adapt, get stronger and reach your hiking potential. No amount of money will make the pain and discomfort go away. Patience and perseverance will, as incredibly corny as it feels to say.