May 16, 2012

Andrew Skurka's Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide

I just finished reading Andrew Skurka's new book about backpacking, The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide. He should know a bit about that, he's hiked 30,000 miles in the last ten years. I highly recommend the book.

Buy an autographed copy directly from Andrew Skurka.

He focuses on hiking rather than camping. He gives specific examples from his experience, talks about kinds of equipment, and then the specific gear he uses for various conditions. Most of his gear is functional and not particularly expensive.

He emphasizes hiking because he feels that camping has been emphasized to the detriment of hiking. Most of us are pretty good at camping, but when we try to carry all that stuff it makes for terrible hiking.

Three things are covered in detail that I have not seen adequately addressed in other books. Other books have chapters on these, but after reading Skurka, I feel like I could really do it.

  1. How to manage heat and moisture while walking all day in all kinds of weather. He talks about insulation and shells for wet or dry, and for hot, cold, or arctic. Some days, you can't get dry or even particularly comfortable, but you can still be safe and cover trail.

  2. How to take care of your feet in all kinds of conditions, including trips where your feet are wet all day. For example, he has two sock rotation systems, one for wet weather, one for dry.

  3. A lightweight packing list specifically for Philmont. This list is a huge improvement over the one in the official Philmont Guidebook to Adventure. He achieves a trailhead weight of 21 pounds, with food and water. There are plenty of people who start a Philmont trek with triple that weight on their backs. The only exotic things on the list are a top-quality down sleeping bag and a frameless pack. A good synthetic bag would add less than a pound. A few Philmont-supplied items are under-estimated, but a trailhead weight under 25 pounds is just not that hard to do. I wrote a detailed analysis of Skurka's Philmont list for Clarke Green's Scoutmaster blog.

The main weakness of the book comes from its main strength—this is a deep dive into Skurka's personal style, so it doesn't cover things he doesn't do. Like reading Colin Fletcher, this lets you see the fine-grained decision making that goes into a well-tuned kit. As Horace Kephart said in 1906, "An old campaigner is known by the simplicity and fitness of his equipment." But his kit might not be fit for you.

If you have questions different than the ones he has solved, you will have to figure it out yourself. Luckily, there are good comprehensive books to get you started. I recommend The Backpacker's Field Manual and the NOLS Wilderness Guide. For more about light and ultralight backpacking, read Lighten Up! by Don Ladigan.

Andrew Skurka had a very high standard for this book, to write The Complete Walker for his generation. He's nailed it. Instead of Fletcher's diversions, anecdotes, and line drawings, Skurka has extreme adventures, sidebars, and color photos, but there are echos of the same authentic voice, someone who's made more mistakes than you can imagine and is taking the time to pass on that practical wisdom. But this time, the gear weighs less. A lot less.

Posted by Walter Underwood (wunder@wunderwood.org) at May 16, 2012 06:10 AM
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