Best known for his monster-mile mega walks, including the Sea-To-Sea Trail (Quebec to Washington State), the Great Western Loop (linking the PCT with the Continental Divide Trail), and his circumnavigation of the state of Alaska, professional backpacker Andrew Skurka has taken his expertise to the gear design world.
Sierra Designs announced in January that it will partner with Skurka to innovate a new line of backpacking gear. We caught up with Skurka to ask about his new role and get a peek at what this new relationship might bring.
GearJunkie: Can you share a bit about your role with Sierra Designs?
Andrew Skurka: Sierra Designs and I have been discussing a public and long-term relationship since 2012, but until recently the timing wasn’t right. There are many attractive features about Sierra Designs. The team is small and fun, and everyone has joined within the last 3-4 years. It may be a 50-year-old brand, but it acts like a startup.
The other big draw is that Sierra Designs describes itself as a backpacking-focused company — it’s not a mountain brand that makes backpacking gear, or an athletic brand with products applicable to backpackers. We think and talk about backpacking every day at the office.
What about SD inspires you?
They are not afraid of offering innovative solutions to old problems. Look at the Backcountry Bed, Tensegrity shelters, and the Cagoule and Chaps. Some of these new products work wonderfully, while others have been total busts or have been axed during the design and development phase. Either way, I give credit to Sierra Designs — and specifically Michael Glavin, who took over as brand manager a few years ago — for trying.
You are most known for epic distance solo hikes, leveraging ultra-light principles…which, can we say…don’t always embrace the comforts of mainstream outdoor enthusiasts. How will this affect gear design?
Actually, I don’t consider myself an “ultralight backpacker.” I describe myself as a backpacker who loves to hike and who only camps to recharge for 8 hours before another long day of hiking. To backpack in this style, weight is obviously critical, but so too is “efficiency” or my ability to maintain constant forward progress.
So I invest ounces where it counts — for example, enough nighttime warmth and comfort that I sleep well and fully recover; a backpack that will withstand hundreds of days of intense use; and ankle gaiters to prevent blister-causing debris in my shoes. Sierra Designs is in the same place as I am — very aware of the importance of weight, but unwilling to sacrifice all other performance metrics for the sake of saving a few grams.
Sierra Designs has long put out innovative gear. What opportunities do you see in design?
We are working on two exciting projects right now: a double-wall tent and a backpack. The tent will be light enough for 3-season use (around 24 oz.) and modular so that components can be packed or left behind depending on the conditions. It will also be very storm-worthy, perfectly suitable for most winter conditions.
The backpack will have a full frame, 60L volume, durable fabric, and a weight of about 32-36 oz. We have put a lot of thought into making water bottles easily accessible, which seems to be an oddly ignored design consideration. I’m hoping that both products will be available in spring 2016.
What is your favorite piece of SD gear that we can find on the market?
The Backcountry Quilt. There are lighter quilts out there, but none that are as versatile or effective. The Hide-Away Hood is brilliant, and the extra wide width and the arm sleeves help minimize drafts.
I think I read that you are hanging up the distance poles in exchange for shorter trips. Has this new perspective/direction inspired any new gear ideas?
“Shorter” is relative — most of the routes I’m eyeing are still 100 miles or so. It’s just that they’re world-class from start-to-finish, unlike most long-distance trails which have hundreds of miles of uninspiring transition terrain between the good stuff. Also, these routes are largely off-trail and feature exorbitant vertical gain and loss, making them some of the hardest “short” routes around.
For instance, I have mapped out a 125-mile route in the High Sierra that is two-thirds off-trail and that has 725 vertical feet of gain or loss per mile, which is about 2x versus the John Muir Trail. I’ve been doing these kind of routes for a while — the Alaska-Yukon Expedition was essentially a 4,700-mile network of them — so I don’t expect them to inspire revolutionary gear ideas.
Finally, you’ve been posting a lot of recipes on your blog. They look delicious! Has the Food Network reached out yet?
Hunger is the best seasoning. I’ve had a few clients report very disappointing results when they tried my recipes on their families at home — “Dad, what is this slop?” But they are fantastic dishes in the backcountry — of the recipes I’ve posted, my favorite is the Beans + Rice with Fritos and Cheese. More recipes are on the way.
Thanks for your time. We look forward to following your new direction.
–Read more about Andrew Skurka at www.andrewskurka.com.