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Reviews > Books > Field Guides > The Ultimate Hikers Gear Guide > Owner Review by Bob Dorenfeld



The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques To Hit the Trail
Andrew Skurka
Owner Review By Bob Dorenfeld
November 13, 2014

Tester Bio
Name: Bob Dorenfeld

 

I'm an active hiker, snowshoer, skier, and backpacker.  Home base is the Southern Colorado Rockies, where I'll hike from 7000 ft (2100 m) to alpine tundra, with desert trips at lower altitudes.  Six to 12 miles (10 to 20 km) daily is my norm, with elevation gains up to 4000 ft (1200 m).  Many of my backpack trips are two or three nights, other trips are longer, and I usually carry about 30 lb (14 kg).  My style is lightweight but not obsessively so - extras like binoculars, camera, and notebook make my trips more enjoyable.

Email: geartest(at)sageandspruce(dot)net
Age: 56
Location: Central Colorado, USA
Gender: M
Height: 5' 6" (1.68 m)
Weight: 140 lb (64 kg)


Product Overview

Publisher:    National Geographic Society
Website:  www.nationalgeographic.com
MSRP:    US$19.95
ISBN:  ISBN: 1426209207, 9781426209208
Published: 2012
Format:  Softcover, 224 pp, 150 color photographs, 5 1/4 x 8 3/8 in (13 x 21 cm)


 cover


I really wanted to like all of this book, but in the end I was disappointed.  It seems to me that just about any guidebook to hiking gear, but especially one calling itself "Ultimate", is going to have a very high bar to jump compared to two of the classics in the arena.  In my opinion both "Backpacking One Step At A Time" by Harvey Manning and "The Complete Walker" by Colin Fletcher have never been surpassed in their readability, humor, and general usefulness for a broad audience of hikers and backpackers.  Of course, some of their technical content is now outdated but their style is not.  Andrew Skurka's Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide would have benefited greatly by incorporating Fletcher's or Manning's objective, fair, and more comprehensive treatment of walking and camping gear.  I was an excited and enthusiastic reader of Skurka's introduction and first section, but became increasingly disappointed and dismayed by his opinionated and skewed treatments of most of the specific gear topics in the rest of his book.  Indeed, Skurka hopes his Guide will "become the go-to manual for backpacking how-to" à la Fletcher's classic (which he counts as inspiration) - but alas, I have serious doubts about that, for reasons I'll explain below.

Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide is aimed at beginning to intermediate hikers and backpackers.  Here is Skurka's first sentence in the Introduction: "My most successful backpacking trips have been those for which I had honest, accurate, and correct answers to three critical questions: 1) What are my objectives? 2) What are the environmental and route conditions that I will likely encounter during my trip, such as temperatures, precipitation, and water availability? and 3) What gear, supplies, and skills will best help me achieve my objectives and keep me safe and comfortable in those conditions?"  Hurray!  That's my kind of analysis, although I think that most of us do it less formally than is implied by Skurka's statement.  But his excellent advice to the reader stands: think about what you're planning to do, prepare for expected conditions, then carry out your plan.  Skurka's target reader is a hiker who "at least sometimes wants to be more like an Ultimate Hiker".  What is an Ultimate Hiker?  It's a "backpacker who simply loves to walk" - not a very helpful definition, and much too broad to hang a hat on, let alone an entire practical guide book.  Later in the text Skurka does help us out by expanding his definition of Ultimate Hiker to include "relationships with nature, with others, and with myself".   Ah, to the heart of the matter...as with any activity, we learn what motivates us to push on and discover whatever it was that made us trek the trail, scale the peak, flee the madding crowd.  But more practically, Skurka manages to work in lots of useful information in the first part of his guide.

Part 1 of Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide expands on "What are my objectives" and "What are the environmental and route conditions that I will likely encounter during my trip", while Part 2 discusses the gear, supplies and skills that will help the hiker enjoy his trip comfortably and safely.  Part 3 consists of gear lists and "trip-specific kits" that readers can consult during trip planning.  I won't spend too much time reviewing Part 1.  I enjoyed this section and found Skurka's advice eminently practical and applicable to my own hiking and backpacking style.  His easy style is very readable, and the text throughout Part 1 (and indeed all of Gear Guide) is well-edited and structured.  Typesetting and illustrations are pleasant to read and look at, and I found it easy to find topics using the Table of Contents.  Unfortunately, there is no index, which would have made finding specific areas of interest easier.

Nonetheless, some of the interesting topics Skurka covers in Part 1 include:  Why, When & Where, Are You a Hiker Or a Camper, and Know Before You Go.  Here is where the reader finally gets a useful definition of an Ultimate Hiker, which includes, among other things, that: they are knowledgeable about environmental and route conditions, they scrutinize each item in their pack to minimize pack weight, their skill level is extremely high enabling them to remain safe and comfortable, and they walk efficiently but not necessarily fast.  "Ultimate Campers", according to Skurka, have other interests, such as photography or hunting, are willing to backpack more weight than is strictly necessary but don't mind, and, interestingly, they can be content to just "nap and hang out".  I'm not sure I agree with Skurka's somewhat too facile distinctions between Ultimate Hikers and Campers, but I take his point that Hikers are more focused on the technicalities of gear and on making miles on the trail.  I think it's a disservice to the outdoor community to create artificial divisions such as these instead of concentrating on what activities and types of gear backpackers can agree on.  Skurka includes any number of practical tips for staying motivated on trail.  Proper conditioning before the trip starts, "hike like a tortoise" with slow and steady progress to prevent burn-out, start hiking early in the day to allow some down time later, and last but not least, "expect a challenge".  "A 'fast' hike is rewarding and satisfying, but it’s not a vacation. It can be very taxing mentally and exhausting physically. I embrace these additional difficulties as an integral part of my trip, on a par with wildlife encounters and scenic vistas."  Well, it depends on how one defines "vacation", but I agree that it's best to go with the flow and "embrace" whatever obstacles one encounters.  Finally, in Know Before You Go Skurka details some of the facts about the physical world that every hiker ought to have at least a passing knowledge of, such as temperature, precipitation, vegetation, sun exposure, water availability, and natural hazards.  These are only summaries, though, and the reader is advised to consult more comprehensive sources for more detail.

Part 2, Tools & Techniques, is the section promised by the book's title, and here is where I think that Skurka fails to deliver on his goal that his Guide will "become the go-to manual for backpacking how-to".   The major problem is a subtle form of "projection": using you, the reader, as a proxy for his own experience and preferences without making it clear that he's doing so.  Skurka's treatment of hiking shoes and boots is typical of most of Part 2.  He repeats the same contemporary mantras about footwear that I read both online and in print. I'm referring to the trend today to ever-lighter-weight hiking "boots" and shoes, and the move away from the use of leather.  This reminds me of the 1970s when just the opposite (and equally misleading) trend was for heavy mountaineering-style boots.  Skurka, like so many authors, loves to quote the old saw about "one pound on the feet is four pounds on the back", or in his case, five on the back.  I could find only one scientific study of this effect, and its conclusions were interesting but not decisive.  Subjectively, of course, every hiker has his own comfort level.  Hiking boots (or shoes) are so much more than just weight on the feet: they protect soles, sides of the feet, toes, ankles, etc. 

In his shoe section Skurka strongly promotes only lightweight and plastic-component boots and shoes without fairly discussing why leather and heavier boots might be appropriate for some hikers.  The most egregious instance of this is a triplet of illustrations:  (top) a leather medium-high boot with the caption "HIKING BOOTS The conventional choice, despite their discomfort and excessive weight", (middle) a low-cut shoe captioned "TRAIL RUNNER An increasingly popular choice because of their weight and comfort", (bottom) another low-cut shoe with the caption "HIKING SHOES A happy medium - lighter than boots, more supportive than running shoes".  Let me see if I've got this right: "HIKING BOOTS The conventional choice" is uncomfortable and too heavy for... whom?  Certainly not me.  I like mid-weight to heavy boots for certain kinds of hiking, and Skurka is projecting his preferences onto me by assuming that my hiking style is his style.  Here is Skurka's evaluation of boots:

best use : Mountaineering, backpacking in dry snow
comfort: Uncomfortable until “broken in”
breathability: Poor; leather prevents escape of moisture
dry time: Once wet, very difficult to get dry
durability: 1,000+ miles
underfoot protection: Excellent
sensitivity/agility: Poor
weight per pair: 3 to 4 lb
ideal temperature range: Cool or cold
water resistance: Best, but foot will get soaked in prolonged wet conditions
sole stiffness: Very stiff
support: Maximum, but overkill for most applications and users
cost: $150+

There are far too many generalizations, half-truths, assumptions, and projections of his own opinions in just this one listing of boot characteristics to go into here.

Finally, it turns out that one of Skurka's own choices for hiking is a boot I have much experience of my own with: La Sportiva FC 3.0 GTX.  My second pair of these boots is almost at the end of its life at less then 350 mi (560 km) and I'm quite disappointed in them.  The first pair came apart at about 300 mi (480 km).  Unfortunately it took some time (and miles) for me to see why these favorite boots of Andrew Skurka were poorly designed, and I don't see any discussion of these kinds of details here.  Any guidebook aspiring to the level of The Complete Walker is going to require a much more comprehensive treatment of its subject than Skurka gives in his book.


Concluding Thoughts    

Andrew Skurka's Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques To Hit the Trail is an interesting entry in the hiker's and backpacker's guidebook category, but a flawed one at best.  His hiking and gear philosophy seems a bit muddied and could use some clarity and an effort to avoid typecasting, especially in the so-called differences between Ultimate Hikers and Campers.  Who is Skurka's intended audience for Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide?  Is it overnight hikers or through hikers?  Strictly stay-on-groomed-trail hikers or bushwhackers?  I think he needs to better clarify his audience, and by doing so he may have avoided some of his opinionated mistakes.

After finishing his book, I better understand what the "Ultimate" in the title refers to: not the guidebook itself (it falls well short of that goal for reasons discussed above), but to his philosophy of what an "Ultimate Hiker" is.  There is much to be admired in Skurka's description of how to approach hiking and backpacking (Part 1), both in the general selection of gear and in being mindful about planning, respecting nature, and respecting one's own abilities and limitations.  The Introduction and Part 1 of Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide are worth keeping and I'll want to peruse these sections in the future.  The treatment in Parts 2 and 3 of specific gear is unfortunately too biased and incomplete to be of much use.


 Reviewed By
Bob Dorenfeld
Southern Colorado Mountains





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