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Reviews > Books > Field Guides > The Ultimate Hikers Gear Guide > Owner Review by Richard Lyon

The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide
by Andrew Sturka

Owner Review by Richard Lyon
May 21, 2012

BACKPACKING BACKGROUND

Male, 65 years old
; 6' 4" (1.91 m)
, 200 lb (91 kg)

Email address: montana DOT angler AT gmail DOT com
Home: Bozeman, Montana USA

I've been backpacking for nearly half a century, and regularly in the Rocky Mountains since 1986.  I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13,000 ft (1500 - 4000 m). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp. Though always looking at ways of reducing my pack weight, I still sleep in a floored tent, like hot meals, and often include my favorite camp conveniences.  By this book’s author’s reckoning I am a camper not a hiker.

Book coverPRODUCT DETAILS

Title: The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide – Tools & Techniques To Hit The Trail
Author: Andrew Sturka
Publisher: National Geographic Society (www.nationalgeographic.com) Book cover photograph from this website.
MSRP: $19.95 US (paperback only)
Details: Published 2012; 223 pages, ISBN 978-1-4262-0920-8

THE AUTHOR

For Andrew Sturka, ultimate hiker extraordinary, the Appalachian Trial, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, all of which he has completed end-to-end, are intermediate hikes; his latest major expedition was a 4700-mile (7600 km) trek across Alaska and the Yukon Territory on foot, ski, and packraft.  According to this book’s publisher Mr. Sturka has logged more than 30,000 trail miles (48,000 km) of long distance hikes.  He contributes often to online and print media on hiking and backpacking, particularly those that promote lightweight gear and packing.

THE TARGET AUDIENCE

Mr. Sturka states early on that he’s written this book for The Ultimate Hiker, or someone who wants to be one – a person “who simply loves to walk” and who develops skills to maximize on-trail time and comfort.  At the other end of his spectrum is The Ultimate Camper, “who hikes only a short distance in order to do something else, like fishing, journaling, or birding.”

But for two reasons I might have stopped reading right there, on page 6, as I’m far closer to the latter than the former extreme.  Often I plan backpacking trips around fishing opportunities or ski descents, and I really like the variety and amenities of base camp backpacking.  However, the author’s next sentence after describing his objective begins “Neither approach is superior to the other – it’s simply personal preference,” a refreshingly non-judgmental attitude for an ultralighter.  Also I had met the author in a packrafting course a couple of years ago.  From talking with him then I knew that his experience and knowledge would benefit any hiker, that he did not impose his own preferences and backpacking style upon others, and that he was thorough and articulate.  I expected to pick up some tips and tricks for my more relaxed backpacking (ultimate camping?) adventures.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

BOOK DESCRIPTION

Thorough Mr. Sturka certainly is; this book covers everything an explorer should consider, from pre-trip research and planning through every type of clothing, gear, food and beverages, to post-trip gear maintenance.  There are chapters on clothing, sleeping gear, shelters, food, water, cooking systems, and just about everything else down to “small essentials.”  Each chapter includes a detailed description of what the category under discussion should accomplish, comparisons among various alternatives (for example, tarps, bivies, mids, and single- and double-wall tents in the “shelters” chapter), and the advantages and disadvantages of each in various hiking situations. 

Interspersed through each chapter are useful tips, general questions and answers (“Hiking for weight loss?”), brief “how2” sections (“how2 make a deadman anchor”), and “sturka’s picks,” with the author’s own preferences.  Each such aside is set off from the text with the topic (“tip” or “how2,” say) in large bold and colored type to catch the reader’s eye.  Occasionally there’s a longer “Tried & True” aside on a topic related to the chapter’s subject - such as “how to find a good campsite” in the chapter on shelters.  I really like this approach, which held my interest without being distracting.  Photos are used often to illustrate a piece of gear or camping technique.

The final section of the book is a set of five “sample gear kits,” each for a different season, climate, and activity.  (Each of these, by the way, is a journey suitable for mere mortals, not a monster trek in a distant land.)  The quoted title is accurate but not complete, as the author begins each chapter with a discussion of his pre-trip planning for the particular challenges of the upcoming hike and how he designs his kit to meet them.  Then there’s a chart of what he carries and what he packs, with weights and explanatory notes.

Taking a different approach from many gear guide authors at the acknowledged risk of making the book outdated in relatively short order, Mr. Sturka includes among his picks and examples the names of the brands and models he has tried or examined.  He says that this is often necessary to illustrate exactly why he does or does not recommend something, especially because he often opts for unconventional or cottage manufacturer gear.  He hopes that his explanations will survive the shelf life of the particular products.  In my opinion that’s a near certainty.

WHY I LIKED THIS BOOK

I can think of many good things to say about this book, but I believe its best characteristic is Mr. Sturka’s straightforward writing style.  Perhaps it’s trite to put it this way, but this book is very easy to read and its author’s thinking very easy to follow.  That’s not because his subject matter is simple or his reasoning elementary, or because of deliberate oversimplification.  On the contrary, another striking aspect of this book is the author’s logical approach to gear choice and sound reasons for choosing one approach over another, almost always supported by scientific data and explanations.  I especially recommend the chapter on footwear in this regard.  I cannot recall a better discussion of what to consider when buying boots or hiking shoes.  What’s especially praiseworthy is a dearth of arcane ratios and scientist’s argot that, for this layman at least, confuse more than they educate.  Mr. Sturka is remarkably good at making his scientific points in plain English.

I have mentioned already another noteworthy aspect of this book: the author’s non-judgmental approach to his two extremes of hiking and camping.  This is illustrated throughout the book, from his frank acknowledgment that the SUL (super ultralight) crowd can pack “stupid light,” sacrificing substantial functionality for a meager weight saving, to his own choices in the gear kits section that reflect thought, care, and a recognition that a hiker should select the right tool for the job at hand, not always the same item even if the owner usually prefers it.
 
I also like the emphasis on trip planning.  His sensible and economical approach will save me money and worry: Think before you buy.  It’s easy to save weight without sacrificing utility.  Take only what you really need.  Safety first always, and safety begins weeks before the first step down the trail.  Mr. Sturka doesn’t preach; these points are made in the same matter-of-fact, logical manner as his analyses of different types of gear.  He’s humble enough to illustrate many of them with his own mistakes.

While perhaps written primarily for The Ultimate Hiker, I consider this book a valuable resource for anyone who likes to backpack, at either end of Mr. Sturka’s two poles or anywhere in between.  I’ve already applied some of his tips to my packrafting and winter ski kits – and I have no plans to packraft the Yukon or ski-descend the Grand Teton.  Though my style (and age and fitness level) differ greatly from his, since reading this book I doubt I’ll make a gear purchase or plan a trip without going back to this book for some reason or other.  I think Andrew Sturka has given all of us who walk in the woods a classic reference book.
 








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