Andrew Skurka is an accomplished adventure athlete, speaker, guide, and writer. His notable adventures include a 7,775 mile Sea-to-Sea hike from Quebec to Washington, an 800-mile trek across the Colorado Plateau from Arches to Grand Canyon National Park, a 6,875 mile Great Western Loop, and a 4,700 mile six month journey circling Alaska. Andrew has been named ‘Adventurer of the Year’ by both National Geographic Adventure and Outside Magazine, ‘Person of the Year’ by Backpacker, and been named to the ‘Adventurer Hall of Fame’ by Men’s Journal.
Andrew recently published a book called The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide in which he gives tips and tricks that will help you on the trail. He sat down with me to discuss his adventures, gear and more. Be sure to read through the end as I’m offering up a pretty sweet giveaway.
How/ when did you first discover your love of hiking and backpacking?
My first real backpacking trip was my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2002. Up to that point, I had car-camped and day-hiked but never backpacked, which is related but distinctly different. It was no surprise that I took specifically to long-distance backpacking: I am a lifelong runner and have always enjoyed pushing myself; and I had always loved the outdoors, even though I had limited access growing up in southwestern Massachusetts.
Most people would consider your adventures to be quite extreme. Why do you choose to put yourself through such long and physically demanding hikes?
My civilian life is enviable: I am my own boss; I live in Boulder, Colorado; and I have great friends, a great girlfriend, and come from a great family. But for many reasons I feel like I’m experiencing life at its fullest when I’m on a trip — the risk, the uncertainty, the hardship, and the uniqueness make me feel as if I’m really taking advantage of the 80-ish years that I have on this planet.
What inspires you to do these adventures?
When I first started, and still now, I’m motivated by the experience of these adventures, i.e. what happens between the start and the finish. Typically there is a tremendous amount of personal growth and discovery that happens along the way. My experience is that the hardest trips always provide the richest experiences.
When you did the great western loop you averaged over 33 miles per day for 204 days. How did you stay motivated to get up each morning and cover so much ground?
I am a very goal-driven person and this carries over to my adventures. When I begin a trip, I have a very clear destination in mind and I have envisioned my eventual arrival there. I firmly believe that “it’s the journey, not the destination,” but I’ve always felt that it’s helpful to have a “motional excuse” for a journey, especially one that I expect to be incredibly difficult, and a clear destination serves in that role.
You say that on your first long trip, hiking the Appalachian Trail, you had no real skills or experience. What do you most wish you knew? What recommendations do you have for someone just getting started with Backpacking?
I wish that I had known that there are two ways to learn to backpack: through trial-and-error or through others’ experience. The former technique is ultimately more costly, in terms of both time and financial resources. The latter may have some upfront costs but in the long-term it is more time- and cost-effective. I unfortunately chose to “learn the hard way” and my trip ended up being more expensive and more difficult than it should have been — it took me two or three rounds of gear purchases to find items I actually liked, and I made mistakes that I could have been warned about by any backpacker who had some prior experience.
You choose not to use a GPS and instead rely on maps and a compass for your adventures. Can you share your thoughts on GPS units?
GPS units are heavy, require batteries, are subject to electronic failure, and have relatively small “windows” of geographic information. In contrast, maps are much more reliable and user-friendly. I’m never concerned about “getting lost” without a GPS because I always “stay found” by noting my progress on my maps — creeks I cross, trail junctions I reach, passes I go over, etc. Finally, when traveling off-trail a GPS can’t tell me the line of least resistance between Point A and Point B — only a thorough understanding of topographical data can let me do that.
In your new book “The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide”, you give a lot of tips and recommendations about gear. What one piece of gear do you think is most important on the trail?
The one most important thing I take with me on a backpacking trip is not a piece of gear — it’s my brain. I identify hazards, know my limits, calculate risks, and make conservative decisions. No piece of gear will save me if I do something stupid, and I don’t use it as a crutch to do something I shouldn’t be doing. When people get hurt or lost outdoors, it is usually not because they lacked a vital piece of gear — it was because they were not being smart.
You are known for being a part of the “Lighter, Further, Faster” crowd. How important is weight to you when picking one product over another?
Gear weight is important, but unlike some others who share my approach to backpacking I am not in a blind pursuit of weight-savings. I also really value my hiking efficiency — i.e. my ability to sustainably put one foot in front of the other — and this can be undermined by going “stupid light,” whereby I intentionally leave behind gear or supplies I needed, or take gear and supplies that are too light and lacking adequate durability, reliability, ease of use, versatility, and time-effectiveness.
What is next? Do you have another huge adventure that you are planning?
I receive this question often and, actually, I’m extremely proud of what I’ve done since the end of my last big adventure in 2010. I wrote a superb book that is packed with backpacking know-how and that has been selling very well. I have been giving 50-60 slideshows and clinics per year all over the country. And I started a guiding business; this year I offered eleven trips, eight of which have or will sell-out. All this “work” though has me motivated to get out again for more personal trips in 2013 and probably another big trip in 2014.
I’d like to thank Andrew Skurka for taking the time for this interview for the SocialHub. I hope you’ve been inspired to try your own adventures.