Q&A: Ultrahiker Andrew Skurka

In 2002, Andrew Skurka, then an undergraduate at Duke University, set off to hike the full 2,184 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. He had no idea what he was getting into—the first few weeks, he says, were "pure, utter suffering." But by the end of the trip he'd figured out exactly how he wanted to spend his life.

Since then, Skurka, now 30, has logged an additional 28,000 miles of long-distance hiking, including the 6,800-mile Great Western Loop through 10 western states, a traverse of North America, and a six-month, 4,700-mile off-trail hiking/rafting/skiing trek through Alaska and the Yukon. Skurka routinely travels 30-plus miles a day on these adventures, and has refined walking in the woods to a science. (He's also acquired sufficient sponsorship from gear manufacturers that he is essentially a full-time professional hiker.) Skurka has distilled his hard-earned outdoor skills and insight into the recently published book The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide (National Geographic).

Hiking is pretty much all you've done since graduating from Duke, right?

As a lifestyle, yes. I used to be basically backpacking's equivalent of a hiking bum or dirtbag, where I would make a little money for a while and then go backpacking, come back and make a little more money, and then go hiking again. Now my focus is transitioning a little bit. I think a lot of athletes fall into the problem of being only as good as their last trip or their last climb or their last ski descent. There are things that you can do, if you want to work hard, to give yourself a little more longevity than that.

What kind of outdoors experience had you had when you started on the Appalachian Trail?

Very little backpacking experience. I had spent a lot of time in the outdoors—mountain biking and rock climbing, trail running—so I had decent outdoor senses. But backpacking, specifically long-distance backpacking, is a very different beast.

Your experience during the first few weeks of that trip was pretty common, right?

All too common. It wasn't fun to do, and it's not fun to talk about now, either. It was just suffering. There's no other way to describe it. It was just pure, utter suffering. I had no idea about the backpacking supplies and skills that I needed. I was carrying all the wrong stuff, and I didn't know how to use it, or how to rely on the stuff between my ears for my safety and comfort. I didn't know how to select good campsites or to take care of my feet or to prevent overuse injuries or to start a fire, none of that, so it was a real challenge.

How many nights a year do you average out on the trail?

It depends on the year. Last year was probably maybe in the neighborhood of 60 or 70. The year before that was 180, 190, something like that. It comes in waves. If I'm on a big trip, it's a lot. If it's a year to be hunkered down and working, it's less.

What's next?

The path for me has been, go on a big trip, come back, try to get my life back together a little bit, take a year or two and do some solid trips, build up some new skills, see some different areas. Then year three, go out and do something big again. Even though this is year two, it's kind of been two years of year one. There are a few variables that have affected that. One is, looking at the Alaska/Yukon expedition—what can you do that's bigger than that? You start running out of ideas. And, like I mentioned before, I've really gotten into the entrepreneurship of what I do. Writing a book's a big deal—thousands of hours of work.

In your book you don't sound sentimental about gear at all.

I'm not. I see it in a purely utilitarian sense. It's something that allows me to be safe and comfortable out there. It's designed to enhance my trip, and that's it. I'd say everything in my pack, I carry for one reason or another. I don't carry anything extra, with the exception of my camera. It serves no purely useful function, as opposed to, say, my fire-starting kit or my foot-care kit or my shelter. Those are more critical items.

There's been a revolution in ultralightweight gear over the last 20 years. Do you think more people are hiking long distances because the gear is lighter, or that the gear is lighter because people are hiking longer distances?

They go hand in hand. I'm not even going to say that gear's getting lighter. You have a lot of small cottage companies that cater to the long-distance hiking crowd that are making some really ultralight stuff. But for every cottage company there's still some company that's been around since the Colin Fletcher days, still making stuff that would hold up in the event a bomb blew up inside of it. It's hard to say. I think there's this balance between light and stupid-light—I try not to go in the direction of stupid-light, because chasing lightweight gear because it's lighter isn't something that I think makes sense.

In the book you don't sound like an ideologue.

No, I'm purely practical.