Released last spring, Andrew Skurka provides an exceptional introduction to backpacking, or “ultimate hiking,” in a relatively short book. Those who subscribe to Nat Geo might remember him as the Adventurer of the Year a few years back, for his 4680 mile expedition through Alaska and the Yukon, by ski, by foot, and by pack-raft. He has clocked well over 30,000 miles as a hiker in the last 11 years (I am 6 years younger than him, but began backpacking in 2002 as well…I have clocked just short of 500 miles in my 11 years…). I hope to post more about this guy, because I draw a significant amount of inspiration from him, and while I’ll probably never be able to disappear for 5 months and traipse around Alaska, and I’ll probably never be this awesome (profanity warning) in the face of a grizzly bear, I still hope to get out into the true wilderness for at least a couple of days sometime soon.
Back to the book: he divides things up into three sections. First, he gives some basic principles behind what he calls “ultimate hiking.” The idea is that hiking is the main purpose of one’s outing, not camping or birding or photography. For an ultimate hiker the principal aim is getting from A to B, and so you want to pack light and avoid unnecessary weight. I had thought for years that so-called “ultralight” backpackers were crazy, having read articles and books by a few of them. Skurka is unique in being able to make the case in a convincing way to a skeptic, in part because he deliberately avoids using the term “ultralight” (more on this here). In this section he also goes over some key questions whose answers will differ for each trip: hours of daylight, terrain, climate, etc. These questions, not rigid weight measures, should determine what you bring, according to Skurka. I’m inclined to trust his judgment!
In the second section (the bulk of the book) Skurka details the various parts of your kit: clothing, shelter, footwear, navigation, cooking systems, food, etc. In each section he gives the gear alternatives and the conditions under which each variation might be useful. At the end of each sub-section he gives his gear recommendations. One concern about the book, perhaps my only reservation, is that his specific gear recommendations will become dated very quickly.
Finally, he gives sample gear lists. This is a big selling point of the book in terms of practicality. The gear lists are not just checklists of items to bring on any given trip — no, these gear lists are very trip specific, giving seasons and locations for which the list would be applicable as well as precise weights for each item. He offers five samples: Eastern Forest (summer), Mountain West (early fall), Desert Southwest Packrafting (early summer), Northern Winter, and Philmont Scout Ranch. The Philmont list makes this a particularly good resource for scouts, since his list conforms to the Boy Scouts’ minimum gear requirements for the reservation.
Andrew Skurka does not neglect the scouts!
Once you finish reading the book, you realize three things very quickly:
(1) I need to plan a trip soon. Where will I go and when? So you’ll spend some time putzing around for maps and eventually you’ll be at the FedEx printing off your own USGS quadrangles etc. In short, you’ll be encouraged to develop your own itineraries and work with your own navigation tools…in Excel.
(2) I need to update (or start developing) my gear kit. His sample lists offer a great starting point for developing one’s own gear lists…in Excel…especially once you’ve caught the “ultralight” bug and want to track the weight of items in your kit. I’ll be sharing my own gear lists in a future post!
And finally (3) I need to be much more deliberate about food. One advantage to the book is that it gives you principles and tools, but not necessarily all the answers. I originally thought this was a drawback, particularly in the food chapter, but then I realized that even Skurka can’t do this work for me. People’s caloric needs and tastes differ, and from trip to trip food types can vary for lots of reasons (temperatures, whether you bring a stove, water availability, etc). I haven’t gone crazy with extensive planning on this front yet, but my old friend here, God rest his soul, knows just what I need to get the job done!
Looks like you’re planning an adventure…may I open a new Excel spreadsheet?
All in all, this is a great introduction to ultralight backpacking, even for those who are skeptical. Practicality is the author’s main concern, and he delivers. It is well worth taking a look!