Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review

Are You an Ultimate Hiker? Andy Skurka’s approach to backpacking.

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by Luke Schmidt | 2012-02-27 00:00:00-07

Andrew Skurkas The Ultimate Hikers Gear Guide – Book Review  - 1

Introduction

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.

Clothing Systems

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.

Footwear

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.

Sleep Systems

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.

Shelters

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.

Trekking Poles

Skurka is a big fan of trekking poles and devotes an entire chapter to picking the right poles and using them properly.

Food

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.

Cooking Systems

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.

Water

This chapter explains the basics of hydration, finding and purifying water and ways of carrying it.

Small Essentials

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).

Packing

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.

Andrew Skurkas The Ultimate Hikers Gear Guide – Book Review  - 2
When his pack is light and well balanced, Andrew barely notices that it’s on. (Photo courtesy Andrew Skurka.)

Part Three

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.

Conclusion

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).

What’s Good

  • 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.


Citation

"Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review," by Luke Schmidt. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/book_review_andrew_skurka_ultimate_hiker_gear_guide.html, 2012-02-27 00:00:00-07.

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Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review
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Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Book signings, slideshows & clinics on 03/01/2012 16:02:44 MST Print View

There's another thread about this, but I should point out that next week I start a 50-presentation nationwide speaking and book tour. It kicks off on Monday with presentations at Google HQ and Sunrise Mountain Sports.

Complete schedule: http://www.andrewskurka.com/slideshows-clinics/current-schedule

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
Nicely written. Format sub-optimal on 03/02/2012 10:09:26 MST Print View

I find the writing very nice to read. It has some very good information for almost anyone.

Here are my suggestions for a second edition:

The narrow soft bound printing is not so good. Leave that for field guides. A book like this should have wider pages and be hard bound to lie open on a table or lap as you read, obscuring less of the page in the fold.

It could use more structured parts on how-to techniques with more illustrations and more detailed step-by-step instructions.

More info on the winter systems.

More, period! It is a very small and cheap book, I would gladly pay more for a more substantial version.


Thanks Andrew,

I really enjoyed it!

Robin McKay
(rlmckay) - M

Locale: Auckland NZ
Andrew's Book on 03/03/2012 00:22:21 MST Print View

I am an experienced ultra light weight hiker in NZ. Got my copy of Andrew's book last week. Good advice, great layout. Would have like more "brand" suggestions on gear. But understand this can date. Well worth the investment - great job Andrew!

Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
WP/B fabrics, eVent on 03/04/2012 00:36:51 MST Print View

As for the section of the book addressing WP/B fabrics, is eVent included in any analyses or comparisons? (Sorry, haven't read the book, but seriously considering.)

Charles Stephen Lee
(charllee) - MLife

Locale: Fort Smith, Arkansas
eVent on 03/04/2012 07:12:44 MST Print View

Hey Chris, eVent is covered... Take Care

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Re: eVent on 03/04/2012 12:07:18 MST Print View

Yes, eVent is covered in the book, as part of the discussion about WP/B fabrics. I spent a lot of time researching this topic and spent many pages discussing it, but of all the things I said, I think there are two sentences that summarize my thoughts best:

"In my opinion, the performance of WP/B shells has been greatly oversold -- the product category name, "waterproof-breathable", is itself an oxymoron. My real-world experience is that they fail to keep me dry during prolong storms, or even during short storms if the fabric has been compromised by dirt, body oils, and /or abrasion, which is unavoidable on a long trip."

So while eVent may be marginally more breathable and/or waterproof than other fabrics such as Gore-Tex, I would still encourage you to be realistic about its limitations. When it's when outside, expect to get wet, and find other tools and techniques (e.g. fleece and fire-starting) that will enable you to thrive in those conditions.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: eVent on 03/04/2012 13:36:41 MST Print View

It seems like eVent has a better DWR coating - water beads up on the outside surface better than other fabrics

All of the focus is on the membrane, but maybe the DWR coating is what people should look at

Dave U
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Rockies
Re: Re: Re: eVent on 03/04/2012 13:44:22 MST Print View

No - EVent breathes much better than any other WP fabric out there. My experience is from using it on tents, bivvies, gaiters, and jackets.

Erin McKittrick
(mckittre) - MLife

Locale: Seldovia, Alaska
WPB fabrics, minimalist shoes on 03/04/2012 15:48:28 MST Print View

Andrew, have you ever tried the Dermizax fabric? Only place I've ever seen it is from Alpacka raft, where Sheri was playing around with experimental hiking drysuits. I agree with you about raingear in general (and the fleece - we've been wearing powerstretch fleece suits as a baselayer in wet conditions for many years), but Dermizax really is better than most shells. Like any WPB fabric, it'll wear out and you'll get wet, but we've found it to be light years better in maintaining waterproofness than GoreTex, eVent, and other similar fabrics. Not that that helps anyone, really, since it's impossible to get a hold of.

Minimalist shoes. Hig and I did try that experiment on our 2-month Malaspina Glacier expedition with some Merrel trail gloves and some Innov8 shoes. Our feet did fine. The shoes were constantly getting torn. They felt nice to wear, but we'd never have made it to the end of the trip if Hig hadn't darned the shoes several times where they were getting giant holes.

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: Re: eVent on 03/04/2012 16:13:31 MST Print View

"It seems like eVent has a better DWR coating - water beads up on the outside surface better than other fabrics"

eVent and Goretex have an outer layer of Nylon typically. This layer protects the membrane and the DWR is applied to that. So eVent doesn't have a better DWR coating, that's up to the maker of the final garment and what DWR they apply to the exterior face fabric.

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Re: WPB fabrics, minimalist shoes on 03/04/2012 16:13:45 MST Print View

The spraydeck on my Alaska-Yukon raft was WP/B, so perhaps it was the Dermizax fabric, not sure. It performed well in that application, but I would be reluctant to extrapolate that to other applications where the fabric is subject to more abrasion, sweat, body oils, etc. As an earlier poster said, the problem is not so much with the membranes of WP/B fabrics but with the DWR finish, which is the Achilles heel. The DWR craps out quickly and, once it does, I find that breathability completely stops (because the exterior shell fabric is soaked, so there is no where for the water inside the shell to go) and water may actually start moving into the fabric (because it more humid outside the shell than inside).

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: WPB fabrics, minimalist shoes on 03/04/2012 16:22:23 MST Print View

"DWR finish, which is the Achilles heel."

Is there anything you can do to restore DWR

Isn't the DWR applied by the fabric manufacturer, not the clothing sewer

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Re: Re: Re: WPB fabrics, minimalist shoes on 03/04/2012 16:27:59 MST Print View

Use Revivex. Put it in the dryer. Take an iron to it. All that helps but it is a bandaid solution.

I would think that the fabric supplier would deliver the entire fabric with its exterior fabric and DWR, but maybe someone else can confirm.

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: Re: WPB fabrics, minimalist shoes on 03/04/2012 16:44:47 MST Print View

"DWR finish, which is the Achilles heel." Is there anything you can do to restore DWR
Isn't the DWR applied by the fabric manufacturer, not the clothing sewer

The manufacturer does initially provide a DWR finish which is normally good for a number of washes. Grangers and others make DWR products you can apply yourself aftermarket. You need to wash your garments periodically using a product specified for technical garments (Grangers makes one). The DWR is typically re-applied right after washing but before drying. It is sprayed on.

Andrew is right on in his criticism of WPB garments in general. If the DWR is compromised then the sweat vapor cannot pass through the saturated outer layer, however, the membrane will still prevent water penetration from the outside. That, however, doesn't help much if you are working hard and sweating (I.e. wet from the inside).

I would also add that the relative humidity is an important element. Outside the Rockies the Relative Humidity tends to be so high already that evaporation is greatly compromised and further degrades performance of these garments. In those cases, if it's not too cold then you are probably better off to have a quick drying layer on and just deal with being wet knowing you will dry out quickly.

Edited by randalmartin on 03/04/2012 16:53:20 MST.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
ventilation on 03/04/2012 17:08:43 MST Print View

the only way to fly ...

look up OR's torso flo system ... youll never go back to anything else ;)

that and a light fleece ...

Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
WP/B performance failure on 03/04/2012 23:28:28 MST Print View

"In my opinion, the performance of WP/B shells has been greatly oversold -- the product category name, "waterproof-breathable", is itself an oxymoron. My real-world experience is that they fail to keep me dry during prolong storms, or even during short storms if the fabric has been compromised by dirt, body oils, and /or abrasion, which is unavoidable on a long trip."

So, if I am to correctly understand what you are saying, it's the "B" of the WP/B equation that is failing, not necessarily the "WP". In other words, it's your own perspiration that is making you wet, as opposed to any direct outside precipitation.

"As an earlier poster said, the problem is not so much with the membranes of WP/B fabrics but with the DWR finish, which is the Achilles heel. The DWR craps out quickly and, once it does, I find that breathability completely stops (because the exterior shell fabric is soaked, so there is no where for the water inside the shell to go) and water may actually start moving into the fabric (because it more humid outside the shell than inside)."

By "moving into the fabric" you mean, wetted out, correct? Or are you saying that the water actually moves past the WP membrane? I assume that it's not the membrane that is failing, but would like to clairify.

"Andrew is right on in his criticism of WPB garments in general. If the DWR is compromised then the sweat vapor cannot pass through the saturated outer layer, however, the membrane will still prevent water penetration from the outside. That, however, doesn't help much if you are working hard and sweating (I.e. wet from the inside)."

If it's true that it's just the DWR failing and not the membrane, then I guess that's where pit zips come in handy. Of course everyone hikes their own hike, but personally I would also adjust my pace to prevent overheating. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying the solution. I've only done a week at most with tens of miles, not months at a time with hundreds, thousands of miles.

Edited by NightMarcher on 03/04/2012 23:40:44 MST.

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Re: WP/B performance failure on 03/04/2012 23:36:26 MST Print View

I think it's a failure of the WP and the B. Here's how:

The functionality of the fabric is dependent on relative humidity levels. Moisture will move from the side of higher humidity towards the side of lower humidity. For example, if it's really humid inside the jacket and it's really dry outside the jacket, then moisture will pass through the fabric from inside to outside.

Once the DWR craps out, which is will, then my experience is that the fabric stops being both WP or B.

B. Moisture saturates the exterior fabric, creating an effective outside humidity level of 100%. The moisture inside the jacket will not pass through the fabric, so it builds up inside.

WP. If it's 100% humidity outside, and less than 100% inside, moisture will move through the membrane inside the jacket. There is nothing special about the fabric that prevents two-way movement of moisture.

Nick Brown
(ojsglove)

Locale: Highland Park
VR and Paramo on 03/05/2012 00:51:48 MST Print View

Andrew,

What are your thoughts about Paramo fabrics and something like Rab's Vapour Rise? They have a dwr and will obviously wet out in heavier conditions but, if I understand correctly, will act to pump the moisture out as there is no membrane. It seems these might be better than a wpb because they are actively trying to remove moisture rather than containing it through condensation build up?

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Re: VR and Paramo on 03/05/2012 00:55:29 MST Print View

Haven't tried either material but I would like to. Chris Townsend has great things to say about Paramo.

wander lust
(sol)
paramo and dermizax on 03/05/2012 04:38:21 MST Print View

there are quite a few threads about it on bpl.

note that paramo is usually too warm for anything warmer than 40 F.
And it can also wet out in heavy rain if the jacket hasn't been washed and or reproofed in a while. it can keep you warm in those conditions though. so, it might not be the best choice for really long trips in wet conditions. a lot of people love it and it should work brilliantly on long trips when you only encounter snow.


I would really like to hear more about dermizax, it has been improved over the last few years and it works in a different way. Not many people use it though.

I started a new thread about Dermizax here, so let's not get too off topic here.