10 April 2012

What I Learned From Andrew Skurka

When a "superman among trekkers" visits your town for not one but TWO nights, you'd better get your butt planted in a seat and listen to this guy. And that's what I did this weekend, even missing out on the last fish fry Friday (with hush puppies!!) to hear the what and why and how of being an ultimate hiker (in hopes that it will help me become an ultimate adventure racer).

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Brooks Range, AK
Andrew gave two presentations while in St. Louis, both at the Alpine Shop. Friday night was about his incredible Alaska-Yukon Expedition where he shared photos and videos and stories from the trip. Saturday night was a gear-and-skills focused presentation where we learned how Andrew would put together a lightweight kit for a hypothetical trip on the (audience-chosen) Ozark Trail.
Andrew billed Friday night as "movie night"; it was meant to be an entertaining and thought-provoking review of his Alaska-Yukon Expedition. The stats on this trip are amazing: 4,700 miles total miles covered in 176 days, with over 2,000 of those being off-trail. IN ALASKA. This isn't your run-of-the-mill long hike, folks, with the nearest road "just" a safety bearing away. This is full-on big wilderness, with an immensity I can only start to imagine. In addition to photos, Andrew shared several videos which I thought added a lot to the presentation. I was impressed with his bravery in including several clips of himself in highly emotional moments, especially his poignant thoughts about the migration of caribou (alluded to here but you'll have to go to a presentation to see the video). I don't have much to say about Friday night since it is really Andrew's story to tell, but it was very inspirational and grounding, a tour de force.

The book! Yes, I have an autographed copy!
I returned Saturday night for the “Ultimate Hiking Gear & Skills” clinic, intended as a live-and-in-person demonstration of the material contained in Andrew's new book, The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide. There's no way he could fit 223 pages of detailed material into 120 minutes. But he managed to convey several underlying principals of gear selection and self-education, which I've tried to highlight below.
  • Gear is a commodity. This clinic is not an infomercial. Sure, Andrew brings the exact gear you see in the photos all over his website, but he won't mention brand names unless you specifically prod him for it. He's more interested in educating the audience about the type and purpose of each piece. I really appreciated this approach to his clinic because I feel that adventure athletes often fall into the trap of purchasing fancy gear to make them faster when really all they need to do is train (and learn how to nav!). Here, the emphasis was on learning why the properties of each material/item make it suitable for certain conditions.
  • There is no such thing as waterproof/breathable. Further: there is no such thing as waterproof, period (as it relates to outdoor gear). Andrew has written about this previously, but he's even more adamant in person. I was first keyed into this fact by Jill Homer, but hearing Andrew speak really drove things home. Basically, even if a material can keep 100% external water off of your skin, you will still get wet from internal water...sweat. Marketing copy promises otherwise, but it's wrong. More nerdy detail here and here.
  • The lightest gear is the stuff you don't carry. Andrew brought a full kit of gear to each presentation to show the audience exactly which items he uses regularly. I was rather surprised - there wasn't anything fancy (well...except the custom packraft). Sure, his A-frame tarp was lightweight, and his cooking pot was titanium, but in general everything was pretty normal. Where Andrew really excels is not bringing things he doesn't need. Which brings me to my next observation... 
  • The more you know, the less you carry. Sure, it's fun to throw a bunch of stuff in a car, drive to the nearest state park, and have a good ol-fashioned sleepover under the stars. But for trips on the magnitude of thousands of miles, "I might need this in case..." will not cut it. Andrew uses extensive pre-trip research to whittle down his kit to exactly the items he will definitely need, and nothing more. He then further augments this pre-trip research with on-the-trail skills, such as campsite selection and route choice, to compliment the gear he is carrying.
  • The things you carry should have more than one purpose. For example...Andrew's soft-sided water bottles serve as water storage, pillows, PFD-inserts, sleeping pads, and probably 6 other uses he didn't mention. Packrafts can double as shelter. Trekking poles are tarp/tent supports. Foot salve is also lip balm and body lube. There are no one-trick ponies in a Skurka pack.
Kenai Fjords National Park, AK
Another huge thing I learned on Saturday came from the audience. Early on in the presentation, Andrew asked the crowd to develop a hypothetical trip which he would use throughout the evening to illustrate gear selection. Being in St. Louis, we picked a 2-week hike of the Ozark Trail in November. Being from Colorado, Andrew wanted to know environmental conditions we were likely to encounter (temperatures, precipitation, useful daylight, ground cover, vegetation, sun exposure, water availability, wildlife & insects, remoteness, & natural hazards), so he asked us, the "locals". The answers he got back from the crowd were incredible in their variation. One person claimed temperatures in the 10s to 40s. Another claimed it could be 30s-60s. When asked about remoteness, one audience member said "it's pretty remote, the closest roads are at least 4 miles away" (the look on Andrew's face here was priceless). The disturbingly large variation in these responses underscored the necessity of proper research before packing for a trip, instead of relying on vague memories. In short, do your homework! (For the record, here is a link with historical highs/lows for November in Centerville, MO which is near the mid-point of the OT.)

If your city or surrounding area are close to a stop on Andrew's book tour, I highly recommend getting your butt in a seat and learning a thing or two. Even better, read his book beforehand so you know some non-redundant questions to ask!
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  1. Very cool. I wanted to to hear him, but too much family stuff going on. Sounds like I definitely missed out. BTW, I love reading Jill's blog!

  2. Great insights! I took a "bushcraft" class ("how to thrive in the wilderness, not just survive") with a similar ethic. The more you know the less you carry.

    I think it is quite an American impulse to buy our way out of insecurities and lack of skill. E.g., GPS vs Compass.



  3. I lied about not having read your blog recently, I read this post after you posted it. That dude digs alone time!