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The Shakedown

The shakedown hike: when a backpacker, in preparation for a thru hike takes their selection of equipment on a shorter backpacking trip with the intention of testing its trail worthiness.

My thru hike of the Colorado trail is fast approaching so last week I set out on a four day backpacking trip to shake down my gear, my nutrition plan and my mindset. I wanted to simulate and sample my future trail life.

As a mindset coach, one of the main tools I teach my clients and help them implement is the skill of becoming aware of what they are thinking. Thoughts are the soundtracks for our lives. They set the mood (seriously, they cause our emotions) and tone for what we are experiencing. Sometimes, especially in stressful or uncomfortable situations, we don’t realize that we’ve chosen a dark and ominous soundtrack that’s actually amplifying our discomfort. Remember the shark scenes from Jaws? Watch those on mute vs with the music. Which one do you have a stronger fear response to? When you can learn to check in with yourself (there are lots of ways to practice this habit) you can observe the soundtrack your brain is playing, decide if it’s a good one and pick a new one as needed. It sounds simple, and it is, but it takes repetition.

Since I made the decision last July to thru hike the CT, I’ve been collecting information, gear, tips, strength, and confidence for this adventure. Because I’m not new to hiking and backpacking I certainly had a jump on equipment, but plenty of things needed an upgrade. Each new piece required tedious consideration, research and decision. Slowly, I chipped away at my list, deciding between ultralight gear and average backpacking weight (average), boots or trail runners (boots), shorts or pants (shorts) fleece or puffy (puffy) and so on. The pack, as well as each article that made it into my pack, was chosen with care.

All of that went out the window when I hit the trail last weekend.

I was listening to a podcast about training for thru hiking on my drive to the trailhead. According to the expert PT on the show, I should’ve been doing much lower rep, higher weight workouts for the last six months. Forget that I’ve felt great working out and hiking all spring, I’ve been doing it wrong.

Next, I pulled my pack out of my car and buckled it onto my body. Certainly this is too heavy, I thought, paying no mind to the fact that I am moving just fine under its weight. I should get a (another) new, lighter tent. I should look for a lighter sleep system. I should ditch the backpacking cot (my must have luxury item), perhaps the pack itself is too heavy. I was convinced I needed to rethink my whole kit.

The “You must be doing it wrong, change everything” soundtrack played in my head until I set up camp that evening. I almost didn’t notice all of the second guessing and criticism running in the background. As I snuggled down in my sleeping bag, my cot suspending me above the rocks that would otherwise be digging into my back and listened to the rain beat down on the roof of my tent, I got out my journal and wrote the words: what am I thinking?

I should’ve trained differently.

I won’t be strong enough.

Everyone else will have a lighter setup than me.

I will be miserable on the trail.

I can’t do this.

Maybe I don’t want to do this.

I’m scared.

Then I wrote. This is the part where you freak out and think you should change everything. This is your brain thinking it’s protecting you. You don’t have to listen. Change the soundtrack.

My pack is nowhere near ultralight, why would it be? I made the decision early on that ultralight wasn’t my style. And my tent? I shopped around for weeks. I made a list of my priorities and found the best match. I spent hours last year reading sleeping bag reviews before committing to mine, and I LOVE IT.

I was trying to make decisions that have already been made. When I asked myself is this really the right tent? Instead of turning up the volume on “I’m not sure, better do more research” I answered myself with “Yes. How do I know? Because I chose it.”

After my shakedown weekend I did come away with ideas for adjustments. I suspected that my nutrition plan would reed some refining and I was right about that. My food plan was too much what I thought I should eat rather than what I actually want and like and ultimately will eat. I know myself well enough to know that I will skip meals if they are too time consuming to prepare, and my threshold for that is low.

As it turns out, the shakedown was less about testing the gear and more about letting all the brain chatter come to the surface. I was able to hear the doom and gloom soundtrack my brain offered to play, turn the volume down and eventually change the playlist.

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