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Andrew Skurka unpacks The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide

Andrew Skurka unpacks The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide

The greatest adventures are always more about the journey than the destination, but that truism can be easy to forget when you can't wait to get that heavy pack off your back. If the actual hiking isn't the most enjoyable part of your backpacking trips, then you just might be going about the whole thing the wrong way, according to Boulder-based athlete Andrew Skurka, whose new National Geographic book The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide hits the shelves at local bookstores and gear shops this week.

Skurka is best known for epic human-powered adventures, including his 4,700-mile Alaska-Yukon Expedition in 2010 and the 6,875-mile Great Western Loop journey through the American West in 2007 that earned him "Adventurer of the Year" nods from National Geographic and Outside Magazine. He's also known for traveling light -- very light -- and giving good gear talks at local mountaineering shops. In his new book, Skurka draws this distinction between the "Ultimate Hiker" and the "Ultimate Camper":

"I wrote this book from the perspective of an unapologetic Ultimate Hiker, which I define as a backpacker who simply loves to walk. We maximize our on-trail comfort by packing light; we move efficiently from dawn to dusk; and we consider the physical and mental challenges inherent in this style as part of our backcountry experience. Our antithesis is the Ultimate Camper, who hikes only a very short distance in order to do something else, like fishing, journaling, or birding. Neither approach is superior to the other--it's simply personal preference--but our contrasting styles have major consequences for our gear, supplies, and skills."

We caught up with Skurka for more on how to make the most of getting from one place to another.

Hiking in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Hiking in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Photo courtesy Andrew Skurka

Westword: I've seen you give one of your gear talks at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder and have followed some of your adventures through various magazines and through your website. What was it like to go from giving your slideshow presentations and clinics to working with National Geographic on this book?

Skurka: National Geographic gave me a surprisingly long leash on editorial content. My style of backpacking is not conventional and I use a lot of products that you can't always just walk into a local retailer and find -- I'm not sure if they were aware of that from the beginning, but they sort of just went with it -- and I feel pretty strongly that the conventional, modern backpacking equipment that most people use is outdated versus what else is actually available. But in the end they let me write the book I wanted to write, and then they took my manuscript and made it into this awesome, reader-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing book. It's got a great combination of consistent, comprehensive, credible text, combined with informative captions, call-out boxes, and quick tips.

Andrew Skurka explores the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near Brooks Range, AK during his 2010 Alaska-Yukon Expedition
Andrew Skurka explores the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near Brooks Range, AK during his 2010 Alaska-Yukon Expedition
Photo courtesy Andrew Skurka

Westword: You've made some very long trips, so there's plenty of reason to trust you when it comes to packing. But I'm curious what you've learned from some of those extremely long trips and how it applies to shorter trips for weekend warriors and backpackers who might be packing for a couple of nights, versus a couple of weeks or months.

Skurka: It's true that some of my trips aren't necessarily relatable to others, but the way I've presented the book is that I have become a master at learning how to enjoy hiking. On a backpacking trip there are two very separate activities: There's hiking, and then there's camping. When you're hiking you're putting one foot in front of the other and the less you have to interfere with that activity, the better. When you're camping you could be sitting in camp, birding or journaling, taking photos, cooking food, sleeping, or whatnot, and it's nice to have everything you need. But they're two very distinct activities, and when I'm on a trip I try to optimize what I call my "on-trail ecstasy." I've learned how to pack right to move more efficiently, and to rely more on what's between my ears than what's on my back.

Westword: Did you have a specific audience in mind as you were writing?

Skurka: The book is written for people who want to enjoy hiking more and not have it just be an arduous activity that they have to do between campsites, which, I think, is what it becomes if you carry conventional equipment. Anybody who wants to enjoy hiking more, this is the book that they should pick up.

Westword: What do you personally enjoy most about hiking, having done quite a lot of it?

Skurka: For me it's about seeing new places and covering broad swaths of remote lands that really allow me to understand a place. I also find, when I'm on a group trip and we're hiking hard, that we bond over that because we're depending on each other for both morale and safety. And, finally, I personally love the aspects of it that can be off-putting to others, the physical and mental part of putting in long days hiking. I approach a backpacking trip as an athlete would: I see it, to some degree, as an opportunity to push my mental and physical limits, and I find learn a lot more about myself and the places I'm visiting when I do that than if I just go out and casually camp.

Westword: On the camping side of things are there any items you love to bring that are hard to justify in terms of weight and practicality but that you like to pack anyway?

Denali National Park, Alaska Range, AK
Denali National Park, Alaska Range, AK
Photo courtesy Andrew Skurka

Skurka: Not necessarily, but just because I like to enjoy hiking doesn't mean I need to suffer in camp, and there's definitely a point where super-light travel becomes stupid-light, where you're sacrificing other important qualities just for the sake of going lighter. For example, if I went out there without a sleeping bag or sleeping pad, that would be a stupid-light decision because I would probably not sleep very well and I'm not going to enjoy my hiking tomorrow if I don't get a good night's rest. But to maximize my comfort in camp I do little tricks that don't require me to take any extra weight with me. When I select a campsite I'll select a site that is well-protected by vegetation so that I can carry a lighter-weight shelter so I'm not relying entirely on my shelter for things that can be provided by the natural world around me. I'll select an area that has a thick layer of pine needles or moss or sand or leaves, and I'll landscape it a bit to create a little pillow and a divot for my butt and a little roll for the back of my knees -- I'm a back sleeper -- and that allows me to get away with taking a pretty thin sleeping pad. Some of those little tricks allow me to be much more comfortable in camp without actually having to carry any luxury items.

Westword: Can you tell me about some of the Colorado companies that made the cut when you were looking at gear for this book?

Skurka: Boulder obviously is the mecca of outdoor companies. If you're in the outdoor industry here and you want to change jobs, you'll have no problems: You'll never have to leave the city! I've been working with a handful of Boulder companies for a long time: GoLite, La Sportiva, and Headsweats are all based here in Boulder and they've each treated me very well, and there are products from other local companies in the book. I definitely don't use all of their products, but they each make a handful of products that are perfect for what I do.

Westword: What's next on your agenda? Do you have any big trips planned?

Skurka: No big personal trips, but I'm offering thirteen guided trips this summer and fall, and in two weeks I'm also starting a 43-event speaking and book tour, so my year's going to be pretty full this year even without big personal trips. I'm also trying to spend some quality time with a girl I've been dating for over a year now, and trying to figure that all out.

For more on Skurka's guided three-day Ultimate Hiking Courses -- including local trips in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Colorado Plateau -- and seven-day Wilderness Adventures, visit www.AndrewSkurka.com. Catch him in person on Saturday, March 3 at the new GoLite store in Boulder, 1222 Pearl Street, for the opening date of his 43-stop book tour.

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