Hiking: Tips from pro Andrew Skurka

Courtesy Andrew Skurka
Hiking tips from long-distance adventurer Andrew Skurka

Andrew Skurka often hikes 30 miles a day. His monumental long-distance hikes have earned him cover-story tributes by Backpacker and National Geographic Adventure. Who better to ask for some tips on how to enjoy our national parks? We recently caught up with him in-between hikes to ask a few questions.

Your job title is "long-distance adventurer." How does that pay?

Well, I have sponsors, I do a lot of public speaking, and I do private guiding. I also keep my expenses pretty low and avoid owning a lot of possessions. It helps that I'm only 28 and don't have a mortgage to pay.

In 2007, you invented and then completed the Great Western Loop, a 6,875-mile trek that linked parts of the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Continental Divide, Grand Enchantment, and Arizona trails. Tell us about that, please.

It was an excellent opportunity to learn about these places. You learn a lot about the places and yourself when you walk. I passed through 12 national parks and more than 75 wilderness areas, the Rockies and the Cascades, the Pacific Northwest and the desert Southwest. It was 208 days of hiking about 33 miles day. I could have extended that for maybe another month before winter.

What are the days like when you're hiking 30-plus miles?

I wake up at 5:45, get hiking by 6, take a midday 30-minute break to stretch and cat nap (no eating during this break, though—I do that while hiking), find a campsite around 9 p.m., and then stretch, have dinner, and look at tomorrow's maps before going to bed. While I usually only take one designated break, I end up getting some other breaks during the day, too—to go to the bathroom, take a photo, study my maps, get water, etc. Every five days or so I go into a town in order to resupply. While my schedule needs to be flexible, I try to maintain consistency, which I find is really important for long-term success and progress.

That's pretty intense. How can newcomers get into camping and backpacking?

I don't advise people to start out trying to do what I do. Start small. Just get out there—sink or swim. Or you can do a guided trip. If a company takes people out in a context they're comfortable with, with good instructors and people of similar background (for example, who are all pretty new to backpacking), they'll be able to ease into the trip and really enjoy it.

Anything to say to people who don't camp?

The most important thing is to get out there and appreciate the beauty. If people are skeptical about hiking or camping, I just try to be encouraging. I recommend that they try camping. If it's not for them, that's OK. Not everyone will love the outdoors, but most will if they are properly exposed to it.

I grew up in suburb outside Providence, R.I., and day hikes in the White Mountains were the extent of my experience. But then in college I worked as a camp counselor in western North Carolina, and I started learning more about camping and hiking. It's a learning process. Most people don't grow up in Boulder, where a lot kids have climbed a fourteener, one of Colorado's highest peaks.

What's your favorite or most valued piece of gear?

That's like asking who your favorite child is. There's nothing in my pack that doesn't perform a significant function every day. But my camera is important, because photos help me relive the experience. Or any piece of homemade gear, especially my stove. I made it from a Fancy Feast cat food can. It weighs three tenths of an ounce and cost 39 cents plus tax. It burns alcohol. It cranks out hot meals night after night.

What do you eat on your hikes?

Food is very personal. Some people can survive on Pop-Tarts and others need gourmet meals. What works for me: When I'm hiking 15 hours a day, I can just boil water and eat something instant. I look at food as calories. It's my energy. I'm not a stickler for fancy food.

You can check out my most recent menu on my site. For long hikes, I think the most important points are that food has to be conducive to mass, pre-hike purchasing and assembly, that each meal has to fit in one Ziploc bag, and that diversity of flavors and textures is needed to avoid excessive boredom. But hunger is the best seasoning, and a long-distance hiker is always hungry.

I do bring candy. Candy bars are cheap, easy to find, and delicious when eaten on a limited basis. They are heavy in fat, which helps to mitigate the crash-and-burn effect of their simple sugars; and some contain a fair amount of protein, particularly those that contain peanuts or peanut butter. My favorites are Fast Break, Kit Kat (but only the Big Kat bar), Nutrageous, Baby Ruth, Payday, and Snickers.

I began instructing last year for Backpacking Light magazine's Wilderness Trekking School, which started up last year and currently does not offer full-time seasonal work that other schools like the National Outdoor Leadership School or Outward Bound can. In 2010 and beyond, I expect to do more private guiding.

What's your next big adventure?

I haven't settled on my next big trip yet, but I'm in the process of assessing a few possibilities, all in Alaska. One of my purposes in doing the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic this past summer was to scout things out; I didn't feel as if I knew the state well enough to do something really big this year. In 2010, I plan to do a trip that's of comparable length and time to my big Lower 48 hikes while having an adventure component similar to my Four-Range trip.

Any gear recommendations?

When I'm trekking in the wilderness, I always bring a camera. I stash it in an aLoksak (loksak.com, $6) an ultra-durable waterproof bag. It will keep the camera dry in rain or if it becomes submerged in a river or lake.

Get more inspiration at Andrew's website.


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