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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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Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Re: WP/B performance failure on 03/05/2012 04:39:26 MST Print View

Chris, what you mention may help but it's not a solution, I don't think there's such thing other than what Andrew says about accepting getting somewhat wet. I take is as fact: backpacking in long-lasting rain, a membrane will leave you wet. Humidity source (inside or outside) is not that important; I guess it's mostly from inside but I also think water has this ability to find its way if you give it time so at the end of the non-stop rainy day you're wet and it's probably coming both ways.

Membranes are diverse: there are monolithic (ie, solid) membranes where what Andrew said about reversed moisture transfer probably happens, maybe not, but those membranes anyway are the most resistant to transfer (breath little) so it's probably more about inside humidity. Porous membranes breath better and are also more prone to water penetration from outside with use (dirt, body oils) having a known effect on this.

Whatever the membrane, there's a wide area that's not gonna breathe because it's covered by the pack and we get wet there. Pit zips may help but I don't think they can do much. Adjusting the pace helps too, as it does stopping under cover, if at all possible, and try to vent internal moisture for a few minutes. Or using an umbrella, if at all possible, to allow for much more direct ventilation than pit zips would allow (front torso and head).

Sometimes everything is dripping wet. We cannot expect to be the only dry thing around. Getting wet is part of the deal.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review on 03/05/2012 07:09:38 MST Print View

I believe that Andrew has this correct. All of the WP/B fabrics are designed to withstand light moisture at the expense of breathability. The materials involve will all work in BOTH directions, soo, they don't really work. Wet from rain, wet from perspiration. Either way, you get wet. And forget anything that involves a high degree of external moisture. Trying to use a WP/B shell in fairly cold conditions with 100% humidity means you WILL get wet. They simply do not vent quickly enough. Water builds up quickly, from the inside, while you hike.

I have tried a few, they never worked for me. Here in the ADK's they always get me wet after a few hours...good for a quick day hike. Or, maybe for shedding snow. Fleece works almost as well and stays warmer when you do start wetting out. It does not prevent moisture from prenetrating, but the fabric "body" is better protected from mist and rain. Once that fabric is wet, the WP/B stops. But there is enough stiffness to the fleece to still maintain insulation, wet or dry. And, because of the PET base fabric, it does not absorb moisture, soo, it dryes a bit quicker when given the chance. I've hung my fleece and watched water run out of it when wet and fairly clean. The biggest down side is it doesn't last a long time. One, maybe two seasons is about it. But, hey...they are cheeep. One trick is to stretch them out on a table and brush one side for a couple minutes with a stiffer hair brush. Then turn them inside out and repeat the process. This will hold the fleeciness out and keep the fleece (combed and pulled at the factory) from getting tangled and matted.

Andrew, Good Book, Thanks!

Pete Garcia
(pgjgarcia) - MLife

Locale: SE PA
LOVE IT! on 03/08/2012 16:15:49 MST Print View

Great book, but ironically heavy, thinking about trimming off the covers & table of contents!

Edited by pgjgarcia on 03/15/2012 21:07:46 MDT.

Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
Any mention of bivy bags? on 03/17/2012 20:45:52 MDT Print View

I was wondering, is there any mention of the usage of bivy bags in the book? I know that the review stated that Andrew prefers tarps, but still I would like to know if this particular gear item is mentioned/addressed as a shelter option.

Also, given light of the performance (well, failure) of WP/B jackets, and considering that many bivys are constructed from the same fabrics as jackets (Gore-Tex, eVent, etc.), I would be interested in reading/hearing Andrew's insight on the subject.

Edited by NightMarcher on 03/17/2012 20:46:49 MDT.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Any Mention of Bivy Bags? on 03/17/2012 20:50:21 MDT Print View

He likes to use water resistant (but not WP/B) bivies under his tarps. He does not care for stand alone WP/B bivies (too muggy, not comfortable in rainy weather etc). Come to think of it I dont' think very many people here ever use WP/B bivies.

Dave U
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Rockies
Re: Re Any Mention of Bivy Bags? on 03/17/2012 23:52:45 MDT Print View

"Come to think of it I dont' think very many people here ever use WP/B bivies."

I do and Ryan Jordan does. Otherwise, you may be correct.

Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
WP/B Bivies on 03/17/2012 23:55:36 MDT Print View

"Come to think of it I dont' think very many people here ever use WP/B bivies."

I think the Integral Designs' eVent bivies, Mountain Laurel Designs' eVent bivies, as well as some non-eVent bivies (Mont-Bell) have a loyal following here. As for whether they are used strictly as stand-alone bivies, I am not too sure...

Edited by NightMarcher on 03/17/2012 23:56:34 MDT.

Richard Scruggs
(JRScruggs) - MLife

Locale: Oregon
Re: Book signings, slideshows & clinics on 03/18/2012 01:31:40 MDT Print View

The locations shown on the linked map don't show date/time for the clinics, and not all locations are included in the list of scheduled events below the map.

Wonder if those clinics/events without dates and times on the map are "yet to be scheduled" --- or have they already been held? For example, Portland, OR.

Thanks.

John Jensen
(JohnJ) - F

Locale: Orange County, CA
My Quick Review on 03/18/2012 07:23:30 MDT Print View

I'm a relative newbie to backpacking. I'm the sort who when deciding packs or sleeping bags or stoves will burn four or five hours non-stop in google searches. I joined here last year and worked the search button pretty seriously. At this point I have a lot of web learnin' but just a half dozen nights out (hundreds of day hikes/mtbs though).

I got The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide from the library yesterday and gave it a fast skim. I like it. It represents a lot of the same information you find in a forum like this, but nicely organized. No four hour searches required. It has those "Skurka's picks" which save time and cut across a lot of discussion.

It is a great introduction and survey for non-obsessives.

From there you can go on to multi-hour searches on aluminum versus titanium Caldera Cones ... or not, at your preference.

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
My Quick Review on 03/29/2012 10:31:49 MDT Print View

I finished it recently, and it was a good read. I'd recommend it over Chris Townsend's latest edition of his Backpacker's Handbook. There were only a few things that stuck out at me as odd (or wrong IMHO). The torso length issue was already addressed and Andrew explained why he goes smaller if given the choice. Perhaps I missed these others:

1. "Don't be tempted to use a Walmart grease pot or a Foster's beer can - neither is durable enough for a week-long trip, and the Foster's can has horrible efficiency..." Seems like thru-hikers have used these before. I certainly haven't had any trouble with a Heineken can. I'll admit the Foster's would not be as robust as a Heineken unless you add your own ridges to it (or buy one from zelph). I can't imagine why one wouldn't last for at least a year. As for efficiency, the loss from wide and tall shape is mostly offset by the gain from the very thin metal. Works great on my Super Cat.

2. "Viruses are the second most common pathogen in North American water sources. Bacteria are the least common." Everything I've read indicates this is wrong - it's reversed. Viruses are a non-issue here.

3. "My first aid kit grew markedly bigger after I took an 80-hour, ten-day Wilderness First Responder course..." I recall a thread here where the majority claimed exactly the opposite effect (myself included) though most had taken the shorter WFA course. Even if I was in a group, I would not take a CPR mask.

There may have been a few other questionable things but those stuck out so much to me that I dogearred the pages. Great job overall though. Much better than the sample chapter he had originally posted a year ago. The more mainstream distribution for this should help educate more newbies into going lightweight.

Chris Jones
(NightMarcher) - F
Re: Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review on 08/02/2012 13:20:50 MDT Print View

I finally got around to purchasing the book, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I would recommend it for anyone starting out in any sort of self-propelled outdoor pursuit (not only hiking), as the smart lightweight philosophy transfers over to those activities fairly well.

I don't know if Andrew is still following this thread, but I was curious as to what mummy bag he pairs with his MLD Spirit quilt. He mentions the technique in "Skurka's Picks" (p 86), but doesn't mention which specific brand/model of mummy bag he uses in this approach.

Of course, YMMV, "it's not a gear guide..." etc. But still, I would like to know.

I hope that Andrew does decide to publish a book on his Alaska-Yukon Expedition. That would make for a good read...

Dena Kelley
(EagleRiverDee) - M

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
Re: Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review on 08/02/2012 17:09:15 MDT Print View

This round table has convinced me to buy the book. Thanks.

I also appreciate that I am not the only person to think WPB materials are over-hyped and don't do a good job of keeping you dry. I frankly get frustrated that nearly everything being sold now is some version of WPB membrane. I would love to get a light shell that is 100% impermeable but has features like pit zips, zipper pockets, removable (or stow-in-collar) hood, and a durable material that can take a bit of bushwhacking. I have an old WPB shell that I'm tempted to figure out how to fully waterproof because it meets everything I want except that it's not waterproof.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Re: Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review on 08/02/2012 18:16:42 MDT Print View

"I have an old WPB shell that I'm tempted to figure out how to fully waterproof because it meets everything I want except that it's not waterproof."

I have an old wind jacket that is nylon. I sealed it into a rain jacket using diluted calk. Sort'of like a glorified tent. It works....

Dena Kelley
(EagleRiverDee) - M

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
Sealing w. diluted caulk... on 08/03/2012 12:55:56 MDT Print View

James-

Can you elaborate? How did you seal the jacket with diluted caulk? What did you dilute with and what method did you use to apply it to the jacket? Thanks-

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Sealing w. diluted caulk... on 08/03/2012 13:38:13 MDT Print View

Standard stuff, mostly. Mineral spirits and high quality silcone caulk (or calk...same word, different spelling.) About 10:1 mineral spirits:calk. Stretch it out and do both sides working it in well. Not a real heavy coat after it it worked in, it adds about .4oz per yard...more is probably overkill and cause peeling.

I did a plain old wind breaker. Inside, then propped it open with some sticks and outside. This was untreated fabric, though. If you start with silnylon or the like, then a light coat, say about 20:1, should work. Frankly, DWR never worked all that well in storms for me. I get about 6 hours of fairly dry time, then it starts wetting out. A fully waterproof jacket does as well, but it wets out from the inside, due to sweat in about 6 hours. Soo, generally, I don't use any. Just quick drying clothing in summer. Later in fall, I use it, though. Hiking cold means I don't perspire much. Better to be cool all day than wet at camp and at night. Often, a light T shirt and rain jacket is all I use for temps down to about 35-40F. 50F it gets too warm, so I just use a nylon or poly long sleeved shirt. They will dry in about 15-20 minutes after a rain. Again, this means hiking a bit cool, allowing my exertion to regulate my heat. Faster/harder if I feel cold. But, this is mostly solo hiking for me the past few years. Shivering cold is OK as long as you recognize the danger of loosing energy and going into hypothermia. At that point I add something else to get wet. Wet clothing is far better than no clothing. Keep your cloths ON, even if they are soaked, untill you can get them off and change in a dry area.

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Re: Re: Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Book Review on 08/03/2012 17:56:44 MDT Print View

Chris -

I have, but don't recommend, pairing a quilt with a mummy. If you need a winter-worthy sleep system but don't have the cash to buy one, that's the time to do it. But having just one bag is better than having two -- simpler and warmer for its weight.

The 0-deg mummy bag I intentionally left unmentioned. It was a GoLite mummy bag. Unless they have changed the dimensions, you have to be very lean to fit inside of it while wearing additional clothing. Part of the reason I took it down to -25F without zipping it up was because I might have suffocated.

Glad you liked the book. I agree that it's not a "gear guide" and I argued hard with NG on this point, but they had final say over the title.

Andrew