Beyond The Gear: 9 Questions With Andrew Skurka

Long-distance backpacker Andrew Skurka divulges on favorite gear, his next big adventure, and a stint as a camp counselor in our exclusive interview series, Beyond The Gear.

grand canyon andrew skurka

Born in Seekonk Mass., Andrew Skurka has spent a life in the outdoors, including as a professional backpacker (one of the only on the planet), an accomplished ultra runner, and an explorer who pioneered massive wilderness routes, often solo and far off-trail. National Geographic named him an “Adventurer Of The Year” in 2007.

Today, Skurka, 35, continues to push limits and grow the sport of backpacking and distance hiking, emphasizing the merits of packing light. He develops gear and authors a comprehensive blog for backpackers.

GearJunkie: Looking back, who first got you into the outdoors?

Skurka: While in college I spent two summers as a counselor at a high adventure camp in western North Carolina. The “work” was a blast, and I was surrounded by mostly 20- and 30-somethings who felt no obligation to follow the traditional track: degree, job, house, spouse, children. During my second summer I decided that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail, and things took off from there.

Skurka navigates Denali National Park, Alaska
Skurka navigates Denali National Park, Alaska

What would you tell someone new getting into backpacking and the outdoors?

You learn from your own mistakes or from the mistakes that others have made. One strategy results in really firm lessons, while the other is faster, less expensive, and less uncomfortable. Take your pick.

What would you be doing if you weren’t pursuing your current passion?

I’m very analytical, so no doubt I would be doing something involving numbers: accounting, tax services, investing banking, policy research, etc.

What has made you successful in your discipline?

Selfie at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Without good endurance genes, many of my trips would have been impossible — I’m able to get in and out quickly, which allows me to be choosier about the conditions. Most people don’t think of backpackers as being “endurance athletes,” but I think we can all agree that someone who averages, say, 33 miles for day for 208 days is absolutely one of them.

Tell me a quick story of a time when you were afraid?

Hmm, how about every single day during the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, which was a 6-month, 4,700-mile loop around the Arctic? It was the best trip I’ve ever done, but also the scariest. Too much uncertainty: tides, bears, glaciers and glacier-fed rivers, stormy weather, etc. And I was off-trail most of the time, and thus subject to the intricacies of the ground cover and snowpack. I was very, very happy to finish that trip and go home.

High Routes: Backpacking's Exciting Next Level
High Routes: Backpacking's Exciting Next Level
'High routes' are concentrated adventure. Go high, and stay as high as possible without any technical climbing. Renowned backpacker Andrew Skurka explains how. Read more…

What’s the “next big thing” in your area of passion/your sport?

Personally, I’m into high routes. I can’t get out like I used to, so I try to squeeze as much awesomeness into 1-2 week trips as the topography allows. Last summer I did the Wind River High Route and Kings Canyon High Basin Route, and this summer I have a few others planned.

What is your favorite piece of gear? Name brands.

Packing as light as possible in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

I’ve been working with Sierra Designs for nearly two years as a product consultant and brand ambassador. We’ve developed two-products — the High Route Tent 1 FL and the Flex Capacitor Pack 60 — and they both hit the market in spring 2017.

Weird question: If you could be any animal… what would it be, and why?

Oden rules the roost at Skurka's house
Oden rules the roost at Skurka’s house

My cat, Oden. I’m sure he’s not the most spoiled cat, but he’s definitely a one-percenter. My wife dotes on him much more than on me. Well, I suppose she could say the same about me.

What is your next adventure? What are you currently excited about?

The summer is my peak season. I finished a 50-mile ultra a few weeks ago, and have a 100- and 50-miler still to go. I leave for Glacier National Park next week, for a trip with Dave Chenault. August and September are open-ended, partly to see how I recover from the ultras, but I have some good plans.

Keep up with Andrew Skurka on his blog, or follow @andrewskurka on Facebook and Twitter.