A few weeks ago, someone posted a YouTube video to the /r/ultralight subreddit of Andrew Skurka’s “Ultimate Hiking Gear & Skills Clinic.” The video, from a talk he gave at Google’s HQ in 2012 has been seen over 150,000 times.
Here are the notes that I took as I was watching his presentation. I also include some takeaways and lessons I learned at the end.
I picked up quite a few tips and tricks from watching it, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking to take their backpacking to the next level.
The video starts out with a bit of background on Skurka and some of the epic trips he’s done. He’s known for doing “really, long, really, light, really fast backpacking trips” including:
- The Sea-to-Sea Route: 7800 miles in 11 months across North America
- The Great Western Loop: 6875 miles in 7 months, averaging 33 miles per day for 208 days
- Alaska Yukon Expedition: 4700 miles in 6 months, by skis, foot and packraft
Needless to say, Andrew is one of the most accomplished backpackers of our generation and has a ton of experience to share.
Questions to Ask Before a Trip
He begins the presentation by going over the 3 questions he always asks himself before he begins any trip:
- What are my objectives?
- What are the environmental & route conditions I’ll face?
- What are the gear, supplies and skills I’ll need to help me meet those objectives, safely and comfortably for the expected environmental & route conditions
3 Types of Backpackers
He then talks about how, based on the answers to those questions, you can break most backpackers down into roughly three types, depending on whether their focus is more on the hiking aspects of the trip, or more on the time spent doing activities in camp.
- Ultimate Camper
- objective is to camp, hiking is just to get from one campsite to the next
- carry lots of gear, don’t go far, spend lots of time lounging around camp
- don’t need to worry too much about trail conditions because lots of supplies, not long on trail
- Ultimate Hiker
- objective is to hike
- optimize gear choice for the on-trail experience, not the in-camp experience
- much more focus on gear, supplies and skills
- Camper by Default
- doesn’t know whether they’re optimizing for hiking or camping
- brings everything they can think of, “just in case”
- gear is easy-to-use (requires little skill) and heavy
- examples might include scouts, children at overnight camp, newer people
His goal for the presentation is to make you more of an “ultimate hiker” – someone who enjoys the hiking experience more.
Gear Purchasing Considerations
In order to optimize for the hiking experience, you need to be smart about what gear you bring, and know enough skills to use simpler or more primitive tools.
When deciding what gear to bring – and what to buy – consider how every item ranks along each of these criteria:
- Easy to use
- Good value:cost ratio
- Lightweight (but not “stupid light”)
He gave an example of “stupid light” – the time he tried an 11-day speed record trip with no sleeping bag. He didn’t sleep well the first few nights, and his performance obviously suffered as a result. That was a “stupid” way to cut weight.
Skills are important to help you drop gear weight, as they allow you to be more resourceful and better utilize gear that can serve multiple functions. Skills and knowledge also allow you to use gear that might be more primitive and less “user friendly” or obvious how to use. This usually means it’s lighter.
Environmental and Route Conditions
Before you start packing for a trip, you need to know what conditions you’ll be facing. Don’t just throw the same stuff in your bag every time, do some planning and research to see what you’re heading out into. Specifically, consider:
- Ground cover
- Sun Exposure
- Water availability
- Wildlife & insects
- Natural Hazards (lightning risk, river crossings, etc)
Spend time looking up these conditions and understanding them so you know what you’re up against and can make sure you’re bringing the right gear.
His Gear Systems
This was the fun part! Andrew has covered tens of thousands of miles and has put all sorts of gear through its paces. He’s also a smart ultralight hiker, so I was really curious to hear his gear tips.
He went through each of his gear systems, talking about what he carries and why. The example trip he was “planning for” was a 3-day trip on Mt. Whiteny in the High Sierra in July.
- active layer
- manage moisture
- protect skin from sun and brush (long sleeves and pants)
- bugs (woven material better than knit)
- fleece (pretty heavy for warmth it gives, but better when you’re expecting wet weather)
- “puffies” (shell w either synthetic or down fill) gets wet from humidity moreso than getting dunked in river
- “water resistant” or “softshell” (ie more breathable, not really water resistant)
- “waterproof breathable” or “hard shells” (ie barely breathable, you’ll eventually still get wet)
- umbrellas if you don’t expect wind or need to use trekking poles
He talks about the inevitability of getting wet if you’re in heavy rain for a few hours. No matter how expensive your shell is, you’re going to wet it out eventually, and it’s better to face that reality than hope you’ll somehow stay dry.
- trail running shoes, not boots
- comfortable immediately, no break in period
- breathe really well, lets your foot’s sweat out
- they dry much fast than boots
- much lighter weight than boots (1lb on foot = 6lb on back)
- he gets non-waterproof, since waterproof doesn’t breath or dry out well (need to deal w wet feet)
- better to focus on minimizing affects of wet feet, than keeping feet dry
- foot care
- preemptively treat feet, pay attention to hotspots
- wash them, air them out every day
- keep them warm and toasty at night
- switch socks during the middle of the day (wash earlier pair, hang on outside of pack)
- he prefers merino wool over polyester for dealing w “funk”
- gaiters keep feet dryer and cleaner
When someone asked him a question about wearing heavier boots instead of trail runners, he emphasized that it’s not his-way-or-the-highway. You should feel free to experiment with what works for you. If you prefer taller boots with more ankle support, that’s cool.
- down insulated sleeping quilt
- different than mummy bag, has an open back
- more versatile
- sleep system isn’t the only thing he relies on for warmth at night, also factor in clothing/layers
- sleeping pad
- usually recommends closed-cell foam, unless sleeping on really hard surface
- uses torso-length pad, and backpack to pad under feet
- tries to sleep on padded surfaces that have more comfort and thermal isolation (moss, pine needles, leaves, etc)
I’ve noticed a movement towards quilts instead of sleeping bags among hikers in the know. He listed a number of reasons he prefers a quilt and I may invest in one soon myself to try it out.
- classic A-frame tarp design (9oz)
- very light, good coverage for size/weight
- good ventilation, no condensation issues
- but, no protection from bugs, winds, ground (pitch one end near bush to help)
- add a bivvy sack for better protection from ground and bugs
- pyramid-shaped tarp (13oz)
- add an inner mesh to help w bugs
- for adding sleeping warmth, focus on sleeping bag + clothing, not shelter
- traditional tents are easier, require less planning/skills to setup (knots, choosing a spot), but weigh 3-4x as much
Shelters are another big place he deviates from what you see a more conventional, mainstream backpacker carrying. This ties into his point about how knowing skills can save you weight in your bag.
In this case, having good site selection skills and knowing the necessary knots to rig a tarp can save you tons of weight over a more user-friendly, conventional option, like a freestanding double-wall tent.
Maps and Navigation
- map and compass is just as good as GPS for navigation
- more reliable (no screens/batteries)
- 11x14” map has way more information to look at than a tiny screen, even in HD, helpful when navigating
- map gives you better understanding of route between points, instead of straight line from A to B
- propel you forward and upward (and save weight on knees for downhills)
- add traction and stability
- useful for setting up shelter, and fending off grizzlies :) (story at 51:00)
Food and Cooking
- nutritional density
- 1oz of carb or protein has 100 calories
- 1oz of fat has 240 calories
- most backpackers need 3,000 calories/day
- aim for 125-150 calories per ounce = 20-24oz of food/day
- lots of chocolate in his diet
- for meat, stuff that’s already cooked (jerky, salami, etc)
- warm dinner
- potatos, beans, rice, couscous, ramen
- add in butters, oils, cheese and spices
- made out of fancy feast cat food tin (0.3oz, won’t clog or break, used in Alaska Yukon trip)
- burns “denatured alcohol” which you can get in paint dept at hardware store
- takes 7-8m to boil water with windscreen wrapped tight
- uses squishy, roll-up platypus bottle (weighs 1/6th of nalgene)
- collapsable so they disappear in pack when not using
- can be “inflated” and used as pillow at night
- uses Aqua Mira drops for water purification
- puts it in smaller container since retail packaging contains enough for ~30 gallons
- mix a few drops of A with B and add to water, wait 15m for clean water
- UV lights good for larger groups
- much faster (45 seconds)
- but, doesn’t work w narrow mouth bottles, has electronics that can fail
- need to carry a backup
- core principles for all of his first aid kit items:
- isn’t something that can be easily improvised
- multi functional (roll gauze instead of square gauze)
- relevant for trip and environment
- know how to use it
- first aid situations are either
- field-treatable - small cuts, burns, scrapes, minor infections
- real emergencies - broken femur (use spot tracker to call for help)
- backpacks have 2 roles:
- carry all your stuff (fit it)
- support it (hold it together, comfortably)
- choose all of your other gear first, pick bag last
- different types of frames, necessary for transferring weight to hips >20lbs
While the video is chock full of useful advice, here were some of the most salient lessons I took away
Don’t expect to stay dry, manage being wet instead
I always sort of knew this was true, but Andrew really clarified this message. In wet conditions – either rain or a wet, muddy trail – you will eventually get wet. It’s better to have quick drying, warm-when-wet, lightweight gear than it is to spend more money on hard, heavy, expensive shells.
Big box stores cater to Ultimate Campers, not Ultimate Hikers
Most of the gear you see in REI or other big retailers caters to “ultimate campers” and “campers by default.” Being an Ultimate Camper has much lower barriers to entry and is much more romanticized in western culture. The average American would much rather go on a “camping trip” than a multi-day “hiking trip.”
Becoming an Ultimate Hiker requires more research to understand all of the skills and knowledge you’ll need to let you drop weight. It’s far less mainstream and requires you to learn about cottage industries to find the minimalistic gear you need.
Everyone has a different balance between enjoying camp and enjoying the hike
While I learned a lot from someone who is arguably one of the world’s best “Ultimate Hikers,” it wasn’t all for me. I really like the comfort of a tent, the ease-of-use of freeze dried meals, having a full-sized sleeping pad, and the peace of mind of having a substantial first aid kit.
Everyone will likely find their own balance between comforts on the trail versus comforts in camp. But in a world that strongly leans towards being Ultimate Campers, it was great to hear more from the other side.
Andrew Skurka has written a book called “The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools & Techniques to Hit the Trail” that goes into much more detail on this topic.