Many of us have dreamed of being able to complete a thru-hike or to hike 30 miles a day or more.
In his book The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide Andy Skurka offers tips to help people do just that. The book covers not just the gear but the techniques of becoming an “Ultimate Hiker.”
Part One: Are You an Ultimate Hiker?
Part One introduces Skurka’s approach to hiking, which he calls “Ultimate Hiking.” The Ultimate Hiker is someone whose objectives for a trip involve hiking long distances by perfecting their gear, hiking style, and knowledge of the conditions. An Ultimate Hiker is someone who wants to hike and explore, not make camp and laze around.
The “Ultimate Camper” is on the other end of the spectrum. The Ultimate Camper, on the other hand, is someone whose main focus is on activities such as bird watching, photography, hunting, fishing, hanging out with friends - in other words, anything other than hiking. Such campers have a different set of goals, where lightweight packing and advanced camping skills are less crucial to their success.
Skurka's target audience is the hiker who would like to hike with lighter gear and more efficiency, like an Ultimate Hiker, but who does not have the knowledge to do so. Such hikers are called "Campers by Default" - they may want to hike farther into the wilderness or complete thru-hikes, but they are limited by improper gear and a lack of knowledge about backpacking.
Know Before You Go - Skurka’s Approach to Pre-trip Planning
Once an Ultimate Hiker has settled on an objective for a trip, the next step is learning what conditions will be like along the route of travel. Skurka discusses ways of finding relevant information for planning a trip and a gear list. He looks at weather information, likely vegetation density (for off trail travel), trail conditions (for shoe choices), likely snow conditions, remoteness of the route, water availability, and sun exposure among other things. All this information is used to pick the right gear for a given trip.
Part Two: Gear and Techniques
Part Two covers gear and techniques and takes up the majority of the book. Skurka put some thought into making the guide detailed enough to be useful, but not too “nerdy.” One way he does this is by breaking up the text frequently with charts, side bars, and special sections devoted to different topics. For example, he discusses different types of packs in the main text, then has a “Skurka’s Pick” sidebar listing his favorite packs for different conditions. The “Tried and True” pages focus more on techniques that go along with the gear being discussed. This approach makes the book more focused and readable.
Below is an overview of the different chapters with a few highlights.
Skurka actually goes into a lot of detail about what clothes to wear and bring along. He’s hiking in his clothes more than he is resting in his tent, so a good clothing system that helps to regulate his body temperature is worth thinking about.
I was hoping after all his trekking Skurka would have an answer to the search for better rain gear. Unfortunately, he does not. According to a “Skurka’s Picks” section, all rain gear fails given enough time. I agree with this, but shoes fail too, and Skurka discusses how to deal with that event. He doesn’t give any advice for how often a raincoat should be replaced or how it should be maintained to prolong its life.
On the other hand he has a couple tips for maximizing comfort in the rain. For example, he suggests fleece insulation in cold, wet weather. Assuming you’ll get somewhat soggy no matter what, he found fleece insulated better when wet than synthetic puffy insulation like Polar Guard.
There's a good discussion of shoes. Skurka explains why trail runners are appropriate for most wilderness treks (snow being the main exception) and how to choose a good pair. Although he likes trail runners, he doesn’t really address the issue of minimalist shoes, which are becoming more popular. He does say he feels the Five Finger-type shoes are too minimal for most hikers, but doesn’t say much more, which is unfortunate. The minimalist shoe debate is not just a question of how much protection your feet need, but of how you should be planting your feet and the importance of zero drop shoes as well.
Beyond the basic shoe choices there are also a number of tips for maintaining foot health on a long trip. Skurka suggests protecting your feet by washing socks daily to prevent blisters from grit. He also uses low gaiters so grit stays out his shoes and socks to begin with.
Will This Book Help if You are Already an Ultralight Backpacker?
A lot of BPL readers already know plenty about light hiking gear. If that’s you, the question you might ask is “Will this book help longtime BPL readers?” I think the answer is definitely “Yes.”
I tested this theory by comparing my experiences on a Colorado thru-hiking attempt (I had to bail out towards the end due to an injury). I hiked with a relatively good set of gear, but a number of small changes suggested in the book could have made my hike less painful, more efficient, and possibly gotten me all the way to Durango.
First, I had dirty socks, which led to blisters. This isn’t a problem on weekend hikes, but it is on longer hikes. Skurka suggests washing socks daily to prevent this and is a big fan of preventative first aid on any hot spots. If I’d washed my socks and watched my feet more carefully, I probably could have hiked a bit further. Also, if I’d been wearing gators, my socks would not have gotten so dirty to begin with.
I was chronically hungry, and I lost a noticeable amount of weight on the trip. If I’d considered how much more food Skurka uses on his long hikes and his recommendations for calories per day, I might have packed more food and been happier.
I hiked at night several times, but my light was too dim to work well; night hiking was slow and felt claustrophobic because I couldn’t see much. One night I had to stop early because I just couldn’t see well enough to be sure I wasn’t wandering onto a game trail instead of following the faint foot trail. Skurka’s solution for this is to wear one headlamp on the head and one on the waist for night hiking. The light on the head can be a focused spotlight for seeing landmarks at long distances while the waist light is a diffused floodlight close to the ground. This does a better job of lighting the path for his feet. This two-light strategy gives the advantages of both a floodlight and a spotlight without having to switch between lights. This trick would have made my evening hikes a lot more pleasant.
There were days I pushed myself really hard to make a mileage goal and ended up feeling beat up and sore in the evening. While working hard is part of long distance hiking, I was probably pushing myself too hard in a couple of cases. Whether this caused my injury or not, I’ll never know, but it certainly didn’t help. In a section entitled “How to Hike Fast,” Skurka recommends hiking longer rather than trying to hike faster and injuring yourself. I could have hiked longer if I’d taken his advice on lights (see above), so I could have ultimately hiked farther into the evening.
Skurka prefers quilts to mummy bags except for temperatures under 20F/-7C. Interestingly most hikers seem to pick quilts for the weight savings. Skurka mentions that, but focuses just as much on the flexibility of a quilt. Because of their variable girth, it is possible to layer more clothes under a quilt. He prefers down most of the time, but occasionally uses synthetic for prolonged bad weather. A “How 2” section covers how to deal with the drafts in a quilt. Sleeping pads are also discussed.
Skurka prefers a tarp for many situations both for weight savings and simplicity. If the weather is quite poor, he uses a Mountain Laurel Designs “Mid” with a bug net as necessary. A “Tried & True” tells how to spot likely camping areas on a map and how to pick a specific spot once you find a good area.
Maps and Navigation
Skurka prefers maps to GPS. He emphasizes the importance of “staying found,” which basically means you should consult the map often enough to know where you are at all times. He suggests the best types of maps to use for navigating and lists a variety of resources for finding good maps of one’s route.
Skurka is a big fan of trekking poles and devotes an entire chapter to picking the right poles and using them properly.
This chapter covers both food choices and the nutritional needs of long distance hikers. Skurka doesn’t eat significantly differently from other hikers, but he sometimes carries a lot more food as his trips get longer. A “How 2” gives a couple of his favorite recipes for meals. He also gives tips for choosing food, such as how to make sure food is edible in cold temperatures or won’t melt in warmer temperatures.
Although he prefers alcohol stoves, Skurka has used every type of backpacking stove available. This experience helps him summarize their advantages and disadvantages for travel in different seasons and situations. A “How 2” shows how to make a simple alcohol burning stove.
This chapter explains the basics of hydration, finding and purifying water and ways of carrying it.
This chapter covers all the little odds and ends a hiker carries, like pocket knives, blister care, sunscreen, bear spray, etc. One gem in this chapter was Skurka's guide to LED headlamps (see sidebar).
Skurka saves packs for last because pack choice depends on the gear and food being carried. Assuming you have lightweight gear, he suggests frameless packs. His summer pack is a GoLite Jam; for winter he sizes up to the Pinnacle. He only uses a framed pack when he’s carrying more than 30-35 pounds. A “Tried & True” section describes how to pack gear properly. Skurka’s choice in packs is really the only area I’d argue with him. He says when he’s between torso sizes, he goes down rather than up. I prefer the opposite. My opinion is shared by Will Rietveld in his detailed study of frameless packs. Rietveld suggests erring on the side of longer torso length and folding the sleeping pad rather than rolling it as Skurka does. The method Will describes is considered the best way to keep most of the weight off the wearer’s shoulders. From the pictures in the book, it looks like Skurka’s pack is a size small, and like he’s carrying a lot of the pack weight on his shoulders.
When his pack is light and well balanced, Andrew barely notices that it’s on. (Photo courtesy Andrew Skurka.)
Part Three is a series of sample gear lists for hiking in a variety of U.S. locations from the eastern forest to pack rafting in the desert southwest. A final page gives a few tips for finding gear more affordably.
This book was not written to please “Gear Geeks” or to answer every question about hiking gear. It was written for hikers who need advice on becoming Ultimate Hikers. Judged by that standard I think it does quite well.
On the one hand it provides new hikers with an easy to use guide to gear. If you have no idea what “internal frame packs,” or “shaped tarps” mean that’s fine. This book will explain all that and be readable enough you’ll actually read the whole thing. If you think you’d like to try some lighter weight gear or more ambitious backpacking but aren’t sure where to start, there’s plenty of solid advice.
If you already have a good gear kit and are familiar with ultralight backpacking this is a book that can help you learn techniques to take your hiking to the next level (see my Colorado Trail experience sidebar for an example of this).
- Covers all the basics in a way that beginners can understand.
- Includes good ideas for seasoned hikers.
- Format encourages hikers to actually read it, rather than skim.
- Lots of great photos.
- Teaches ultralight techniques without sounding extreme.
What’s Not So Good
- Pack fitting and packing methods are debatable.
- Doesn’t address current issues relating to minimalist shoes.
Recommendations for Improvement
- A few diagrams would be nice, especially in the sections dealing with techniques like pitching a tarp, or packing a backpack.
- Answering the questions raised by the book, such as “If raincoats wear out, how often should we replace them?”
In spite of these gripes, it’s still a solid book. My hope is that Skurka will fix these on a future edition, but for now, I also hope he'll get down to business writing a book about the Alaska Yukon Expedition.