A "shakedown" is when an experienced backpacker goes through another's backpack (with the owners permission) and offers advice on what to keep and (more importantly) what to take out.
I have performed dozens of shakedowns and while each is unique, often I find myself saying the same things. Here are a few of them:
"A thruhike (or long section hike) is NOT a multi-week expedition. Logistically, it is a series of three-four day hikes, repeated over-and-over."
This means that you should pack only what you need NOW. I often see people heading to GA, but packing things for "when they get to the Smoky Mountains." The beginning of a long distance hike is often the hardest, save yourself some anxiety and pack weight and deal with the immediate future. If you don't need it this week, mail it to yourself next week.
Similarly, you don't need to "stock-up" on staples (toilet paper, food, toiletries...) Carry what you need, plus one extra day, to get you to your next resupply.
Finally, don't stress-out and don't overthink it. You will almost never be more than three days from town in either direction! Be safe, but do not "psych yourself out."
"Rain gear is for hypothermia, not comfort."
I often see hikers (in mid-summer) hauling heavy rain jackets, rain pants, gaiters and water-proof boots. During my shakedowns, I ask these hikers a simple question.
"If you put on all your rain gear and walked up and down ONE mountain, how wet would you be from sweat?"
The answer is "really wet."
This is a delicate, but important point and it requires a bit of experience in the backcountry. Rain gear should not be seen as comfort items. It is safety gear. By itself, getting wet is uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. In conjunction with lower temperatures and/or wind, however, getting wet is a serious matter.
Rain gear is my first defense against hypothermia in the Spring and Fall. Remember the majority of hypothermia cases occur between the temperatures of 45-65 degrees F. Getting wet at these temperatures can be vary dangerous and proper protection can make a big difference.
With that said, if it's mid-summer and you are thinking, "I'm going to bring rain gear so that I don't get wet," think again. You will sweat and sweat is less comfortable than rain water.
The phrase I am intentionally avoiding is "NEVER bring your rain jacket in the summer." I AM NOT SAYING THIS. Weather is fickle and so is hypothermia. I am suggesting that you change how you think about equipment and gain some experience. You might just find yourself leaving three pounds of rain gear at home next time.
"If you pack it, you will invent reasons to use it. If you invent reasons to use it, you will think you need it."
Like #2, I think it's important to offer a disclaimer. There is no substitute for experience. Special care should be taken (especially in the fall, winter and spring) to ensure that you always pack "what you need." The fine line between "need" and "want" takes experience to find.
With that out of the way, it's important to understand that we are creatures of habit. This means that it's easier to avoid new, bad habits than it is to fix established ones. The upside being that beginners have the upper-hand when it comes to getting things right!
When I shakedown a backpack, I often make three piles of gear: needed gear, unneeded gear and questionable gear to mail ahead. Let's ignore the needed stuff (water purification and sleeping bags) and the unneeded stuff (hatchets and camp chairs.) We are left with questionable items (light down jackets in July and pocket knives.)
I have noticed that if you take these questionable items with you, you find yourself opening easy-tear packages with your knife or walking around camp wearing a down jacket fully-unzipped. In other words you will use these items, get attached to them and eventually think you need them.
My advice is to bump (mail to the next town) these items. You just might find that you don't miss them. After all, you can always open your Mountain House meal by hand and hop in your sleeping bag if you get chilly. If you follow this advice properly, the worst thing that can happen is that you have an uncomfortable night or two. The best outcome is that you will change the way you pack for years to come!
MAX MISHKIN is...
a conservation photographer. Max's passion is to show the intimate and majestic moments that define great outdoor spaces.