This is a review of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail, by Andrew Skurka, published by National Geographic. I don’t do many book reviews. I have uploaded close to 700 posts and pages to this site and I think there are only 5 or 6 book reviews.
There was a time when book reviews were the domain of newspapers and magazines with full time writers who reviewed books for their readership. The purpose of the reviews was to recommend good books and to warn readers about the poor ones, while at the same time providing feedback to the author.
Today this has changed. Retail websites, especially Amazon, allow their customers to post reviews and then the website calculates an overall rating base on customer feedback (i.e. 4.2 out of 5). Unfortunately on these websites, it is the rare reviewer who has any stated qualifications to provide a book review of value or worthy of consideration.
The other thing that has changed is the blogs (like this one) that post book reviews. How this usually works, is the publisher or author offers a free book in exchange for a review. There is no requirement for a positive review, but in my opinion a free item in exchange for a review makes an objective review very difficult for most people; although there are some folks who are completely truthful in their reviews.
Last month I received an email that National Geographic was looking to provide advance copies of The Ultimate Hiker’s Guide to some bloggers in exchange for a review and would I be interested. Well, I don’t do quid pro quo. So I wasn’t interested in a free advance copy. The book won’t be available until March 7th. However, I was planning on purchasing the book, having read the first edition several years ago. Based of this offer for a review, I was able to purchase a copy in advance, and I paid the full retail price. So let’s get on with the review.
The first edition I bought a few years ago is a Kindle version. Nowadays most of my book purchases are e-books and mostly in Kindle format. The nice thing about the Kindle version of Skurka’s first edition is you can move around the book via hyperlinks. However, I found that the paper version I just bought is better formatted and at times much easier to read.
You may be wondering why I didn’t review the first edition. I felt Skurka’s point of view or perspective was somewhat limited in the first edition. The new edition has a bit different perspective and the book will probably be of interest to a larger audience. I’ll discuss this in more detail later.
When reviewing a work of non-fiction we probably want to ask two questions:
- Is the author a qualified and credible expert on the subject presented?
- How does the work compare against some standard?
Regarding credibility – I have never met or talked with Skurka, so we’ll just have to use the “blurb” from Amazon to start the conversation:
Skurka recounts what he’s learned from more than 30,000 miles of long-distance hikes, including the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails, and the 4,700-mile Alaska-Yukon Expedition.
I should probably point out that long trails like the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest don’t require a lot of skill to complete. Both of these trails are over 2,000 miles long and only a small percentage of people who start to thru-hike these trails each year actually finish them. Completion of these two trails requires tenacity, desire, and perseverance; but not much in the way of skill. Skurka himself hiked the Appalachian Trail as a backpacking novice and did it without a map. If you read the book you will find out about several long backpacking trips he has done, often off trail in really crappy weather, requiring exceptional skills, knowledge, and experience. And this is what the author is sharing; his knowledge. Or as he puts it:
guide to backpacking gear, supplies, and skills that will save you time and money by helping you determine what you need, both on your back and between your ears.
Skurka passes the credibility test.
The standard for books about backpacking gear and techniques is Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker. Known as the “Father of Modern Backpacking” Fletcher sold several hundred thousand copies of his book and few writers since have come close to this standard. Most backpacking books are faux versions of Fletcher.
So, you may ask, “Why not just buy Fletcher’s books? Ah… things change and they often change quickly. Fletcher wrote four editions of his famous book. A quick summary of the editions
- 1968 – 353 pages
- 1974 – 470 pages
- 1984 – 632 pages
- 2002 – 845 pages
Complete Walker IV is a herky-jerky dissonance of two voices. Fletcher was nearly 80 and in poor health after being run over by a SUV, so he enlisted the help of a co-author, which really diminished the work in my opinion. What set Fletcher apart from others (aside from his subject matter expertise) was his eloquent use of words along with a witty and crusty personality that permeated his writing. Also, Fletcher was a published writer before he became a backpacker.
Another thing that we need to keep in mind is that there was no Internet when Fletcher’s first three editions were published and gear information was sparse. Fletcher’s books were more than techniques and tools, they were also a state of the gear market. For example, he tested and documented the performance of dozens of stoves that were on the market and reported on the best of what was available. Today, in our information age, this kind of detailed gear information is not needed in a book.
Over the past 20 years or so there has been a bunch of “lightweight” backpacking books published, where the goal is assembling a backpacking kit to meet some arbitrary weight threshold. This seems to be the new standard, and is not a standard I would want an author to try and meet.
Does Skurka pass the Comparative Standard test? Let’s do the review and then summarize and conclude.
The Ultimate Hiker
The book states that the target audience is beginning and intermediate backpackers. I’ve been backpacking for over 50 years and learned a few new things reading it, so the book should appeal to almost any backpacker.
Skurka takes a somewhat unique approach and classifies backpacking into two styles; Ultimate Hikers and Ultimate Campers. Fletcher considered everyone just backpackers, although in the 3rd edition of the Complete Walker he hesitantly talked about the “lightweight” backpackers, who he called the New Wave.
The “lightweight” backpacking books that have appeared on the market the past few years are almost a religion, where the author preaches lightweight and its iterations of ultralight and super ultralight, and often embarks on an evangelical mission to convert other backpackers to this new truth, way, and life. Skurka doesn’t do this, which is refreshing.
For Skurka, Ultimate Hikers walk from dawn to dusk, eat dinner and go to sleep. The next day the Ultimate Hiker repeats the dawn to dusk walking. Long trips for the Ultimate Hiker are a series of days and nights that are comprised of walking all day and sleeping each night.
He defines the Ultimate Camper as someone who walks to get to a campsite and spends most of their time doing things such as fishing, day hiking, picture taking, bird watching, socializing, etc.
In the first edition he writes from the perspective of an Ultimate Hiker, acknowledging that most backpackers fall somewhere between the Ultimate Hiker or Camper, and his book is written for those who strive to become more of an Ultimate Hiker, however he doesn’t claim that either is superior. I tend to be an Ultimate Hiker type of walker. This is mostly because I usually hike alone, just as Skurka did on most of his trips prior to the publication of his first edition. I would venture to guess that most solo backpackers tend to spend their full days hiking from point A to point B. This is why I didn’t do a book review after reading the first edition of the Ultimate Hiker. Most of my readers rarely hike solo or walk from dawn to dusk.
After publishing his first edition, Skurka started a guiding business, got married, bought a house, and generally became a “normal” person, instead of an adventurer who spent most of his life doing epic walks. This normality meant most of his hikes were with clients or his wife, and more often than not his backpacking was more like Ultimate Camping, which he found was an okay thing for him to do – although he did and continues to do a few Ultimate Hikes each year. Given this change, his voice or perspective, is not about striving to be an Ultimate Hiker, but how to make the walking part of backpacking more fun to do.
Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail
According to Skurka, the Goal of the Ultimate Hiker is to stay safe and comfortable with a constant focus on
1) What are my objectives, in terms of the time I will spend hiking relative to camping? 2) What environmental and route conditions will I likely encounter, such as temperatures, precipitation, and biting insects? 3) What gear, supplies, and skills will best help me achieve my objectives and keep me safe and comfortable in those conditions?
Going forward, I will refer to The Goal, which will be the above quoted piece.
I see this all the time on the Internet – a backpacker posts a question like this, “I am going to hike XYZ trail this summer. What kind of weather should I expect?” And they get all kinds of answers from “it might rain occasionally in the afternoon” to “I got caught in a blizzard on that trail in August.” Skurka provides a plethora of resources, mostly online, where the backpacker can find historical and current environmental information. No longer will the backpacker need to rely on someone’s opinion for information, they can do their own research and obtain highly accurate information.
It Weighs What It Weighs
Skurka advocates that the backpacker should use the lightest equipment they can afford, but the gear must fulfill The Goal of the trip. The less your backpack weighs the more you will enjoy the waking part of your trip. He doesn’t advocate trying to get your kit down to some specific weight. In fact, he coined a term that has become part of the Internet backpacking language – “Stupid Light” – meaning the backpacker skimped on gear and equipment to lighten their backpack weight and ended up in a position where their kit did not or could not meet The Goal of the trip.
What Underwear Should I Wear On The John Muir Trail?
I just go bonkers when I see people asking these kinds of questions. Name a piece of clothing and someone has asked which brand or model should they wear on the JMT.
Skurka does an excellent job explaining the fabrics that are used in clothing, sleeping bags and quilts, shelters, and backpacks. How the fabrics work and which fabrics are appropriate for specific conditions. No longer will you need to ask, “What underwear should I wear?” because given the expected environmental conditions, you will now know what fabric you want, and you can shop accordingly if you don’t already own it.
Base Layers, Insulation, and Shells
This is the basic backpacker’s active wardrobe and it has been in use for decades. The problem with the 3 layer system is most authors don’t explain it well, and most backpackers truly don’t understand how it works.
In the first edition of the Ultimate Hiker, Skurka did the typical base layer, insulation and shell explanation. But in the second edition, he does something completely new, and in a sense revolutionary. He created a list of 13 core clothing items. Rarely would you bring all 13 with you on a trip. Skurka explains which ones you would bring for specific environmental conditions, and he explains how you would mix and match items when hiking, resting, doing camp chores, and sleeping. It is a simple to understand and effective system, which is really the 3 layer system that has been around for a long time. And the system is flexible. I substitute a couple items that are not on his Core 13 list, but he has covered those items in his system discussion and discusses why he does not use them (e.g., wind shirts and ponchos), but does not dismiss them as ineffective.
Waterproof Breathable Rain Gear
Just about every backpacking book I have ever read, to include Colin Fletcher’s, has sung the praises of waterproof breathable rainwear. Guess what? If you hike all day from dawn to dusk in the rain, your waterproof breathable rain wear is going to leak or not breath – you will get wet from the outside or from the inside. If you are an Ultimate Camper you will probably be okay. Skurka calls out the manufacturers’ marketing hype with an eye of criticism. He also talks about other options, such as umbrellas and ponchos that have other limitations. His honesty on the subject is again refreshing.
One type of rainwear he just touches on briefly, the Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule and Chaps, which mostly relies on air flow for breathability. Given that Skurka works part time as a consultant and designer for Sierra Designs (he discloses this in the book), I was somewhat surprised he didn’t go into more detail about these new items. Perhaps he hasn’t used them long enough to merit discussion. But the stuff looks promising and I bought a set on sale last month to experiment with.
Of course he covers shoes, boots, shelters, sleeping systems, stoves, cooking utensils, and all the other odds and ends needed to backpack. I’m not going to review these in detail other than to say that his comments are always done with an eye to The Goal. You won’t need what Skurka or someone else uses, you will be able to figure out what will work best for you.
What Stuff Does Andrew Use?
Readers of backpacking books should resist any urge to emulate an author like Skurka or Fletcher when it come to choosing specific brands of clothing or equipment.
Here are a couple anecdotal stories about Fletcher. In The Complete Walker II he sang the praises of Pivetta boots. Guess what? The sales of these boots when through the roof. I bought a pair and they were just okay. How about external frame backpacks? People often wonder why they went out of favor or just assume that internal frame packs work better. What really happened was in Complete Walker III, Fletcher revealed to the Fletcher minions that he had retired his beloved Trailwise external frame pack, and was now using a new-fangled internal backpack made by a small startup company, Gregory Packs. Oh, how he loved that Gregory pack! The Fletcher faithful dumped their external frames and Wayne Gregory got rich. That was pretty much the end of the external frame backpack. Fortunately I kept my external and didn’t join the Faithful.
For each category of gear in the Ultimate Hiker, Skurka does share what he uses and usually there are a couple of different choices for each type. But the focus is on how it fits into The Goal and how it works (i.e. one of the 13 core clothing items). As a reader, concentrate on how each piece works and you may find you already have a perfect piece in your gear closet that you rarely use. Don’t try to copy his gear choices verbatim. You won’t need to after reading the book.
The last section of the book contains numerous gear lists for geographic locations and corresponding seasons. It’s a nice touch. Want to hike in the Desert Southwest in spring, summer of fall? There is a clothing list for each season and the items are generic, such as long sleeve shirt for sun protection for all seasons or you don’t need insulated pants for any season.
Remember I said that a review should also include feedback for the author? Here is some things I feel are lacking.
First of all the book is too short at 235 pages. Fletcher’s first edition had 353 pages. But keep in mind that The Complete Walker was also a state of the market in terms of gear and equipment. The other thing is National Geographic probably had some strict limits on the number of pages, photos, drawings, charts, etc.
I feel there are several areas where Skurka just didn’t provide enough information – but in his defense, a lot more information can be found on his website. Let’s take maps, compasses, and navigation. The book is pretty high level and you aren’t going to learn how to use these tools from reading the book. However there is some pretty comprehensive navigation information on his website. He also provides a lot of resources for map acquisition. Today many backpackers rely on electronic apps to plan routes and print maps. I still use the USGS 7.5 quads that can be downloaded for free. Skurka mentioned that the contour lines on 7.5 quads are in 40 foot increments. However, the USGS now creates some maps with metric measurements and the contour lines are in 10 meter increments or about 32 feet. Doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it is a 20% difference. A few years ago I was navigating some desert canyons and half my maps were in feet the other in meters and things got kind of confusing until I figured out what was going on. I was shocked when I saw the metric information at the bottom of one of the maps.
He is a big advocate of trekking poles. I don’t use them. Not saying they are good or bad, but it might have been a nice touch to go into more detail on how to properly use trekking poles because I suspect many if most pole users don’t use them properly.
Often the Achilles heel of a shelter is the stakes. Use the wrong stake or the drive them in the wrong angle and you can end up with a collapsed shelter during a weather event. In the first edition Skurka linked to an outstanding article at backpackinglight.com, which could be problematic. First you cannot read it unless you are a paying member. Plus if the website deletes the article or goes out of business, the link becomes useless. In the second edition he simply lists the kinds of stakes that are on the market – I would have like to have seen more detailed information on stakes.
Another one is on the knots he uses to adjust his shelter guylines. No instructions or pictures on how to tie these knots. But again, I suspect the publisher limited what went into the book. And of course today Google is your friend.
Summary and Conclusions
The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide is really not about the gear per se, but how to choose gear and how to use it so you can accomplish The Goal and enjoy the walking part too. Skurka has impacted the language of backpackers. I already mentioned “Stupid Light.” Although he didn’t come up with the definitions, he has made Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 fun a popular way to describe backpacking trips. So the book provides valuable information and is influential.
The book is well laid out, presents a ton of solid and useful information, is easy to read and understand.
So does Skurka pass the Comparative Standard test? Yes, and with flying colors.
If you want to buy the book, right now there are two ways. You can order it directly from Andrew for $19.95 at www.andrewskurka.com, but it won’t ship until March 7th. Andrew will sign your copy. Or you can pre-order it from Amazon for a little less money and it also won’t ship until March 7th.