Backpacking advice from explorer Andrew Skurka

Prepare for your next adventure with the advice in Andrew Skurka’s new book Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trail ($20). Click here to read an exclusive excerpt from his book about how to find a good campsite.


Here’s what the world’s best-known long‑distance hiker, Andrew Skurka, can teach you about leading your Scouts on a day hike—or a 100-miler.

Does Andrew Skurka ever stay still? Sure, but not to rest. When he isn’t traveling, Skurka hosts backpacking clinics, speaking in packed auditoriums and cramped church basements. He especially likes addressing Scouts and Scouters, which he did recently in Escondido, Calif. (above). Photo by Nadia Borowski Scott.

THE AUDACITY OF Andrew Skurka struck the outdoors world with full force late in the summer of 2005. It was then, with Skurka fresh off what had amounted to a nearly 8,000-mile hike, that reports began circulating about a “kid” who had backpacked solo across the entire continent.

Starting in Quebec, Skurka—just 23 years old, a former Scout, and a recent graduate of Duke University—filled a small flask with water from the Atlantic Ocean. He then shouldered a backpack and walked west. A transcontinental wilderness route sketched on a series of maps served as his sole guide into the unknown journey ahead.

Eleven months later, at a misty beach in Washington State, Skurka emerged from the trees skinny and wet. He marched into the ocean shallows. He uncapped his flask and dumped its contents over his head, the briny waters of the Atlantic from months back mingling with the Pacific Ocean below. It was a symbolic closure to a feat Skurka would later refer to as his “coming-of-age hike.”

Andrew Skurka was born in 1981, and he grew up in Seekonk, Mass., an area with “very limited outdoor recreation opportunities.” As a boy, he rode his mountain bike and explored swamps near his home. He joined Scouting. During college, Skurka spent summers as a camp counselor in North Carolina.

Skurka, who turns 31 this March, has a dozen significant expeditions under his backpacking belt. In a rare trajectory, during just a few years, Skurka ascended from workaday backpacker to bona fide explorer status, including the coronation as “Adventurer of the Year” by no less than the National Geographic Society in 2007.

The Quebec-to-Washington walk—dubbed the “Sea-to-Sea Route”—followed trail systems and pathless stretches in a serpentine line across the country. It required ultralight backpacking technique and months with 30-plus mile days strung one after the next. “I need the challenge of a long trip, the physical and athletic component,” Skurka says. “I push the limits to see what my limits are.”

His latest feat—the 4,680-mile “Alaska-Yukon Expedition,” which entailed traveling by foot, ski, and packraft alone for 176 days straight—pushed Skurka to the edge. Scouting caught up with the backpacking superstar on a rare hiatus from hiking to talk about Alaska, wilderness techniques, gear, and how knowledge from his extreme feats can apply to the average Scout troop or crew heading into the woods on a weekend trip.

Scouting: Congrats on your Alaska trek. Quite an accomplishment.

Andrew Skurka: Thanks. The trip was exceptional. There was so much daylight that I didn’t need to be as regimented. I also mixed it up, with skiing and packrafting as a big part of the journey.

Scouting: What was your pack weight in Alaska? 

AS: During the summer, my pack weighed 18.6 pounds without food and water, and I had 22.9 pounds of gear in total. This was including my clothing, footwear, and trekking poles plus my 5-pound packraft and 1-pound satellite phone.

Scouting: How fast are you moving each day to complete a big trip like the “Alaska-Yukon Expedition”? 

Skurka, on a "warm-up" for his Sea-to-Sea exploration, covers 462 miles on the Colorado Trail in June 2004.

AS: The key is not moving fast, but making constant forward progress. My days are long. I might be moving for 15-plus hours per day. But at a steady 2 miles per hour, that’s still 30 miles.

Scouting: What is the appeal of backpacking, and how do you motivate kids or adults to get “into the wild?”

AS: I point initially to a couple things: The true natural beauty of a place I find most of the time is often seen far from the trailhead. Backpacking is the only way to get there. It’s also more rewarding to get somewhere by your own power rather than driving there. That adds something to the experience.

Scouting: Tell us about your background and involvement with Scouting.

AS: I actually have more involvement with the Scouts today. As a kid, I started young as a Cub Scout. I was involved for a couple of years, but unfortunately we didn’t have a super-active pack. Now, I work with Scouts and give clinics and presentations throughout the year, from 15-member troops up to fundraisers where there are 300-plus people in the audience. Scouts and their parents tell me the most important part of what they learn is the technical info—the “how-to” information that helps them when they go backpacking and hiking.

Scouting: We want to dig in to that “how-to” information. Let’s start with eating and nutrition on the trail. Any general advice?

AS: I see a lot of people over-packing on the food and bringing the wrong stuff. Cheap, processed stuff does not have sticking power. Pop-Tarts are bad! For snacks, I like chocolate, beef jerky, energy bars, and trail mix. For dinner, I combine just-add-water meals, such as instant potatoes, instant rice, instant beans, couscous, and ramen with butter, olive oil, cheese, and spices.

Scouting: Go into calories and nutritional breakdowns a bit, both from your trips and for the general hiker.

AS: I eat small meals. I skip lunch and instead have a 400- to 500-calorie snack every two hours while hiking. Breakfast is about 600 calories, and dinner is about 1,000 calories. This gets me to about 4,500 to 5,000 calories a day, which is much more food than most backpackers need. Most people will want about 3,000 calories a day. If you choose right, that’s often about 1.5 pounds of food per person per day.

Scouting: Secrets to trail eating? What do you do differently? 

AS: At dinnertime, I eat my dessert first. I eat it right when I get to camp. I find it’s easier to brush my teeth after potatoes rather than chocolate, and also a little sugar rush is good to motivate yourself while making dinner and setting up camp.

Scouting: Any suggestions on tents and shelters?

AS: The standard backpacking gear is a tent. But for many conditions, a tent is not needed. Tarps actually provide better coverage and are less expensive. They weigh less, and they’re cooler in the summer. Plus, there are fewer condensation problems with a tarp. One caveat: Bugs can be a problem, especially if you’re in an area with West Nile. In those cases, use a tent or add a “bug nest” net product to your tarp setup.

Scouting: Let’s talk about packs. How much should a kid’s or adult’s pack weigh? 

AS: For three-season conditions anywhere in the Lower 48 states, 15 pounds of equipment is a good goal. This is not counting food and water weight you’ll have. With groups you can often go less in each pack, as you can divide up the shelter and cook gear.

Scouting: Is ultralight gear affordable for the average Scout? 

Skurka traveled 4,680 miles by ski, foot, and pack raft around Alaska and the Yukon in his "Alaska-Yukon Expedition" from March to September 2010.

AS: Lightweight gear can be extremely affordable. Tarps, foam pads, frameless packs—all those items are more affordable than the heavy-gear alternative. You don’t need gear made of carbon fiber and titanium. That stuff is pricey. But simple gear is often inexpensive and lightweight as well. One thing I often recommend to kids: Buy used ski poles for $10 or $15. They can stand in fine for trekking poles that would cost 10 times as much.

Scouting: If you could instill one thing to make backpacking easier or better for people, what would it be? 

AS: Backpackers often simply take too much and there’s a lot of redundancy. I audited one kid on a trip, and he had five T-shirts packed along. The key thing is to think about your entire gear kit. Break it down to kitchen, sleep, clothing, and shelter components, and then eliminate any redundancies between these categories. You can also use some items in two ways, like sleeping in your clothes or a jacket for added warmth, or using your trekking poles as a part of your shelter system instead of tent poles.

Scouting: Any final random camp or gear advice?

AS: Hand sanitizer is a great idea for groups. Make kids wash with it every time after they go to the bathroom and before meals. I am a believer that poor hygiene, not bad water or food, is how lots of kids get sick outdoors.

Scouting: Switching gears, can you talk about motivating young people to get outside? 

AS: Kids need to see your passion for a place. If you expose kids, they will get addicted to it. I was a little kid fascinated by a swamp in my neighborhood—it doesn’t take much. Kids don’t need to go to the Grand Canyon or Alaska to be wowed.

Scouting: What are the stepping stones to jumping from car camping to wilderness camping or backpacking?

AS: Not many stepping stones; just jump in. Really, backpacking has two components: camping and hiking. If you can turn a kid onto one of these, you’re halfway there. Take them car camping and they will like that part of it. Then take them hiking one day. Then later combine the two. Just make sure not to try walking with all of your camping gear—forcing a kid to carry a refrigerator-size load will not turn him on to backpacking.

Scouting: Advice for guaranteeing a successful trip? 

AS: Ideally, parents and troop leaders should do their homework before they take the kids out and know the route is good and feasible for the Scouts. They should know the conditions and the expected weather. Will there be bugs? Prepare for it. Get the right maps. Very important: Do not overload the kids on their first trip. As I said, too much weight is a common turnoff to backpacking. I have heard Scouting horror stories of little kids with 50-pound packs. It’s hard to enjoy a trip when you have blisters on your feet and your shoulders are sore.

Scouting: Final question. How can you encourage kids to push themselves and go that extra mile on the trail?

AS: Stay enthusiastic yourself. It carries over to the kids. If you are stoked on being outside and hiking, then they will be stoked as well.

Stephen Regenold writes about the outdoors and gear at GearJunkie.com.

9 thoughts on “Backpacking advice from explorer Andrew Skurka

  1. Pingback: Backpacking advice from explorer Andrew Skurka – Scouting Magazine | emedicalnews.net

  2. Pingback: Backpacking advice from explorer Andrew Skurka – Scouting Magazine

  3. Great article. A few Scouters in our troop have been learning, using and teaching ultra light backpacking for about ten years now. I has really help put the outdoors back in our Troop (410, Northport, NY) both for the Scouts and Scouters. We have had many great trips as a result. This has lead to adventures in Baxter State Forest in Maine (the knife edge), Yosemite back country, a Himilayas trip and for we Scouters, the Adirondaks, Sierras and Tetons. One scout even had the germ of an idea to improve solar panels on a backpacking trip to the Catskills in NY. GOOD STUFF!

  4. If ur by Rhode island stop into camp yawgoog webelos program. Help me teach the outdoorsman pin with our overnight!

  5. Troop 54 in Worcester, MA logged a personal best for a 2 day/1 night trip this past weekend — 17 miles. We hiked a section of the Airline Trail in Hampton and Pomfret, CT.

  6. Unfortunately, because of bears and the fact that it is the first trek for most participants, Philmont does not typically allow ultralight packing. Now, some people minimize the clothes and the weight of crew gear, but they still pack standard tents as per policy at Philmont.

  7. Plus, Philmont could really improve the menu; while the high calorie, high carb and protein diet is necessary, it’s not a healthy combination…

  8. Pingback: After conquering America’s summits, teen Eagle Scout sets sights on Everest « Bryan on Scouting

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