12 Questions: Andrew Skurka

Andrew Skurka, age 29, is something of a god in the world of ultra-light backpacking and long-distance solo treks. His latest feat — a 4,680-mile trip that entailed traveling by foot, ski and pack-raft for 176 days straight — was called the “Alaska-Yukon Expedition,” and it began and ended near the Arctic Circle in Alaska. For almost six months, Skurka traveled alone in a humongous geographical circle in land so wild that the route crossed only eight major roads. The trip was supported by National Geographic and coverage of it appears in the March issue of the magazine, on newsstands now. Gear Junkie caught up with Skurka for a dozen quick questions on dirty socks, food drops, and the best and worst equipment used on his latest long trek into the wild. —Stephen Regenold

1. How often do you change socks?
In wet environments like Alaska, I change my socks once at the end of the day. I swap my hiking socks, which are usually damp or wet, for my dry sleeping socks.

2. Where were the food drops throughout the Alaska-Yukon Expedition?
I shipped most of my supplies to post offices along my route. But I also had two packages dropped off by air and another by dogsled (in Denali National Park) where otherwise the logistics were too challenging.

Andrew Skurka trek.jpg

Stream crossing (with ski boots on!) during Alaska-Yukon Expedition

3. Let’s talk footwear. How did you choose the La Sportiva Fireblade shoes?
It fits my foot really well — secure heel cup, form-fitting mid-section, and just enough room in the toebox. It’s also lightweight, low to the ground, and very durable for a trail-running shoe.

4. How many pair did you go through?
Only six pairs, though there were only 2,100 miles of walking. Otherwise I was wearing my leather three-pin Telemark boots (for 1,300 miles of skiing) or I was in my pack-raft in water.

5. What gear broke or needed to be replaced on the expedition?
There were no catastrophic gear failures. This didn’t surprise me at all. But many people struggle to believe that a two-pound backpack or a 13-ounce, fully-enclosed tarp can be durable enough for a mega trip like this. It can be. Obviously, I needed to swap out gear due to changes in the seasons (e.g., my sleeping bag and insulated clothing) and to wearing stuff out (e.g., socks, base-layer shirts, even a camera).

Alaska-Yukon Expedition map.jpg

Map of Alaska-Yukon Expedition route

6. How heavy was your pack without food and water and fuel (during the non-winter trek portion)?
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). This weight includes my 5-pound pack-raft, 2-pound paddle, 1-pound satellite phone, plus standard three-season gear (clothing, shelter, kitchen, etc.).

7. Your No. 1 favorite piece of gear on the trip, or most crucial was. . .
In Alaska, my inflatable Alpacka pack-raft is critical for three-season conditions. It allows me to get across rivers, fjords, and bays that are in my way, and I can float rivers that go in my desired direction of travel rather than bushwhacking for days along the river banks.

8. Your No. 1 favorite food on the trip overall (and least favorite food)?
Anything with chocolate in it. Least? Anything lacking chocolate.

9. Least favorite gear piece.
Waterproof/breathable fabrics are not very waterproof, at least in real-world conditions. And they’re not very breathable, either. Unfortunately, the alternatives aren’t any better: Waterproof/non-breathable fabrics cause excessive sweating; a wind-shell with more clothing is not as warm; and ponchos and umbrellas are not good in wind or when bushwhacking.

10. What surprises you about gear in the outdoors world?
Lightweight gear has come a long way in the last 10 years. I was able to get every piece of gear I wanted from a manufacturer, save for my homemade stove. The largest retailers and manufacturers are doing their customers a disservice by not embracing this equipment revolution. It’d be equivalent to a bike company like Trek or Specialized ignoring carbon-fiber bike frames and suspension forks, or like Volkl and K2 insisting that long, skinny skis with no sidecut are still best for downhill skiing. Wake up!

Andrew Skurka photo.jpg

Sleep deprived, mentally spent, “beat up by a blizzard” — Skurka at a low moment

11. Why did you use a trash compactor bag as a pack liner?
Most importantly, it’s effective in keeping my gear dry. It is also cheap and ultralight, and it lasts longer than a sil-nylon pack liner.

12. Any other unconventional gear used on the trip?
I made my three-season stove out of a Fancy Feast cat food can. And by wearing my clothing to bed I was able to use a much lighter sleeping bag — I used a 0-degree bag in temperatures down to -24F, and a 30-degree sleeping quilt down to 15F.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. Photos by Michael Christopher Brown / © National Geographic. See more photos from Skurka’s expedition at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/alaska-trek.

Posted by John - 03/05/2011 10:56 PM

What an interesting and tough journey he had. I just have to say WOW.!Is this really true what I’m reading now? A total of 4,680 miles journey which included 2100 miles of walking and six months of duration? He have used only 6 Trail Running shoes ? I don’t think this journey is doable a second time for any one else. Andrew Skurka rocks!!

Posted by Buzz - 03/08/2011 09:16 AM

Excellent interview, with Andrew providing as always, outstanding information.

Posted by Patricia B Smith - 03/08/2011 11:37 AM

Andy is one of the most amazing athletes of our time. Often we focus on the vertical (“X” axis of mountaineering athleticism). Andy owns the “Y” axis of overland muscle-powered travel…and the phenomenal mental fortitude which is required.

Posted by GJ - 03/08/2011 01:08 PM

Patricia — I like your X/Y axis analogy. Cool way to put it. I used to be a full-time “X man” but now 90% doing things on Y-axis venues.

Posted by Daniel - 03/09/2011 09:38 AM

If you’re interested to know more, have a read of this interview with Andrew Skurka which is about Andrew’s route, training and the challenge of the AYE expedition.

There is also another good article about the emotional side of the expedition on National Geographic

Posted by Fred Behr - 03/09/2011 12:04 PM

Truly amazing feat and major congratulations to Andrew. Not surprising that on such an active trip WPB fabrics were the biggest let down. I’m wondering if this year’s crop (Gore-Tex Active Shell, Polartec NeoShell or some of the in-house developments) of fabrics would have fared any better or if it is back to animal hides? Also fine looking stove and great to read your gear post trip follow-ups. Holy mosquitoes!

Posted by Jim Morrison - 05/02/2011 04:50 PM

I like what Skurka says about so-called waterproof/breathable fabrics. The advertising on these is hyperbole. Wp/B seem to work walking around town in a rainstorm, but hiking up hill with a backpack? Forget it. I highly value Skurka’s word because has tested methods, preparation, clothing, and gear to the extreme. Rock on Andrew.

Posted by Randy Martin - 05/15/2011 08:45 AM

There is certainly a wide variation in the degree of breath-ability in fabrics. I think the combination of high aerobic output combined with a high relative humidity in Alaska make it virtually impossible to achieve the perfection of being waterproof with breathable enough to avoid sweat on the inside.

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