Interview: ‘Ultimate Hiker’ Andrew Skurka
Since his “first backpacking trip” thru-hiking the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail in 95 days (thru-hikers normally take five to six months) in 2002, Andrew Skurka, 31, has put his own indelible stamp on ultra hiking and long-distance backpacking. His many adventures include:
• Thru-hiking the California section of the Pacific Crest Trail at an average pace of about 40 miles per day;
• An 800-mile trek across the Colorado Plateau from Arches National Park to the Grand Canyon;
• A 42-mile Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim jaunt in just over eight hours;
• Trekking the Sea to Sea Route across North America from Quebec to Washington, 7,775 miles in 11 months, including going straight through the winter;
• Trail running 48 miles across Zion National Park in nine hours, 27 minutes;
• A 4,700-mile, six-month journey by foot, skis and packraft through Alaska and the Yukon.
That’s an impressive wilderness CV, and it’s only partial. Over the past decade, Andrew has honed his systems for traveling as light as possible in the wilderness, in order to see more wild country. Now he shares what he’s learned in a new book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide—Tools & Techniques to Hit the Trail ($19.95, National Geographic, andrewskurka.com). In it, this self-described “ultimate hiker” explains his philosophy and trail strategies and offers detailed tutorials on how to pack and travel smarter, right down to suggested gear lists for a variety of environments.
As an adherent of this approach to dayhiking and backpacking—though not at Andrew’s level—I’m intrigued over how his book offers a fresh, learned perspective on widely known truths, and throws some conventional wisdom out the window while making a compelling case for why he does so.
I recently got Andrew to sit still long enough for an interview about his adventures, his book, and his passion for wilderness.
The Big Outside: For starters, given all of the how-to-backpack books out there, why did you want to write your own?
AS: I wrote The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide because I didn’t think any existing how-to book effectively taught its readers how to experience the joys of hiking. Backpacking desperately needs to be revolutionized. On the fringes, there have been tremendous advances in product design and materials, as well as in backcountry technique, but the masses still backpack like it’s 1970. It’d be like mountain bikers still using non-suspension bikes or alpine skiers still using skinny skis—it makes no sense in light of the modern alternatives.
The Big Outside: You begin your book explaining that you approach preparing for each trip differently, depending on your objectives and the environment. Can you explain your thinking in a nutshell, and suggest how other hikers might tailor your approach to their own abilities and desires?
AS: A backpacking trip consists of two distinct activities: hiking and camping. Most of my trips are hiking-centric; the only reason I camp is so that I can recharge for another full day of hiking. In general, I rely on minimal gear and supplies, plus extensive backcountry know-how, in order to be safe and comfortable, and to have fun, on this kind of trip. But when I determine exactly what gear, supplies and skills I “need” for these trips, it’s in the context of environmental and route conditions, i.e. I consider climate, bugs, sun exposure, problematic wildlife, and natural hazards, among other factors.
The Big Outside: Among your tricks for knocking off 30-mile days are hiking “20 by 12” (20 miles by noon) to give yourself more flexibility for the rest of the day—as well as, ah, peeing while walking. The latter aside, do you think that ticking off much of the day’s mileage in the morning—before what are often the hottest hours of day—is critical to averaging 30 miles per day? What do you suggest for hikers who are aiming to bump up their daily mileage from, say, 10 to 20?
AS: There are two ways to increase your daily mileage. Hiking faster helps, and that’s most easily achieved by shedding pounds, either from your pack or your body. Once you are traveling as light as you can, though, the key becomes hiking more, or hiking efficiently. Think about it this way: if you hike for 10 hours in a day, and you can average just 2 miles per hour, that’s a 20-mile day. But to hike for 10 hours, you need to be disciplined—you have to get up early, get out of camp quickly, and put in a few multi-hour efforts without long breaks.
The Big Outside: Like you, I’ve heard the occasional criticism that hiking 30 or even 20 miles a day is “too fast to smell the roses.” How do you respond to that?
AS: I’m completely unapologetic on this matter. I embrace the ensuing mental and physical challenge of long days as a valuable and rewarding part of my backpacking experience—this is one of my “roses,” so to speak. If you are looking for a different kind of “fun,” that’s fine, but please don’t tell me how I—or others—should backpack.
The Big Outside: You suggest gear lists with base pack weights (without food and water) of about 15 pounds. How would you persuade someone to achieve that by replacing a tent with a tarp or an inflatable mattress with a foam pad? How do you find that balance between comfort on the trail and comfort off it?
AS: Actually, with a 15-lb. base weight, you can still have a fully enclosed shelter and air mattress, plus a canister stove, and a set of sleeping clothes, among other “luxuries.” Depending on the environmental and route conditions, to get below about 15 pounds you have to start using skills in order to maintain your comfort level. For example, if I’m willing to seek out soft campsites, I can use a foam pad. If I know how and where to pitch a modular tarp, I can carry one instead of a pop-up tent. If I can stay relatively warm and dry despite it being cold and wet, I can carry less clothing. My intention is never to be uncomfortable, but rather to take the minimal items I need in order to maintain my required comfort.
The Big Outside: Wearing non-waterproof, trail-running shoes on multi-day trips where you might see heavy rain or cross snow at high elevations, even in summer, will strike many backpackers are heretical. Why do you go with non-waterproof shoes?
AS: “Waterproof” shoes don’t work, period. The manufacturers and the retailers are being very disingenuous with this label. In prolonged wet conditions, your feet are going to get wet. Water will trickle (or pour) in the top of the shoe, or the “waterproof” shoe fabric will fail, or your feet will get wet from the inside because of trapped perspiration. I tried many systems in an effort to keep to keep my feet dry, and eventually I embraced the reality of wet feet and learned how to mitigate the resulting effects. Dry out your feet at breaks and at night, and apply a waxy balm at night to help partially seal your skin against moisture. I go into this in more depth in my book, clinics, and courses.
The Big Outside: Seriously, your “chocolate-centric” diet—you don’t hit the wall on sweets at some point on a long day?
AS: Just because the majority of my daytime food is chocolate, I don’t mean to imply that it will work for everyone. In fact, food and footwear are probably the two most personal selections in backpacking. That said, it seems to work just fine for me, mixed in with protein-heavy snacks like beef jerky, protein bars, and nuts, combined with boil-only dinners that combine a carbohydrate with cheese, butter and spices.
The Big Outside: Some Twitter followers wanted me to ask a few questions:
What are the three pieces of gear that you always take, no matter where you’re going or for how long? Are there three things or even one thing that never changes?
AS: I’m not wedded to any piece of gear. The gear, supplies, and skills I “need” for each trip are entirely dictated by my objectives and the conditions. That said, a core part of my kit is usually survival-inspired: a Victorinox Classic knife, fire starter, a map, and (maybe) a compass.
Biggest gear mishaps?
AS: I’ve made many and learned from them all, though not always after the first time. This is why I encourage backpackers to learn from others, like through books or courses—mistakes cost money, time, and sometimes trips. One of my “favorite” mistakes was hiking through southern California on the Pacific Crest Trail in June with an East Coast-inspired clothing system of short-sleeve shirt, short running shorts, and visor. Even though I slathered on sunscreen, my skin got baked.
What gear innovations would you like to see?
AS: Modern gear is excellent; it’s come a very long way since I started backpacking about 10 years ago, thanks to innovation driven by the cottage gear companies. What I’d really like to see is the larger manufacturers and retailers stop selling outdated gear—they’re missing a major opportunity to demonstrate that backpacking can be fun and enjoyable, not work.
Has the Internet changed backpacking?
AS: Absolutely. Information is much easier to share, and I’ve been able to learn a tremendous amount from online forums, gear lists, blog posts, etc. Also, the Internet has given cottage companies—which have driven most of the product innovation for the past decade—a marketplace. Thank heavens, because I struggle to find backpacks, shelters, sleep systems and other hard goods from large manufacturers and retailers that I actually want to use. (Their selection of soft goods is usually better.)
The Big Outside: What big adventure are you planning next?
AS: I’m investigating a few different things, but right now I’m mostly focused on continuing to develop excellent content (like The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide), to guide world-class backcountry trips for beginners and intermediates, and to take my stories and how-to information on the road through my slideshows and clinics.
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