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Ultrahiker Andrew Skurka’s Nine Skills to Help You Pack Lighter

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When it comes to hiking lighter, we get our advice from the guy so serious about going fast and light that he uses a catfood can for a cooking stove—the master himself, Andrew Skurka. Skurka, our 2008 Adventurer of the Year, has covered more than 30,000 miles of long-distance trails, including the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide. Here Skurka shares nine skills you can learn right now to safely carry less and lighter gear on your next trip. These kinds of tips, plus much more, are covered in his comprehensive new book The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide (National Geographic Books), which comes out later this month. You can pre-order a signed copy from Andrew here.

Ultrahiker Andrew Skurka’s Nine Skills to Help You Pack Lighter

1. Assess your true needs.
Where, when, and for how long you are going are the primary determinants of the conditions you will encounter. Research the temperatures, precipitation, sun exposure, water availability, snow coverage, hours of daylight, bugs, wildlife, and remoteness you will encounter. If you know the conditions you can realistically expect, you can pack accordingly. Uninformed backpackers justify poor gear choices on the grounds of unfounded “What if…” and “Just in case…” scenarios.

2. Select a good campsite.
I avoid established campsites whenever possible. Instead I look for a virgin site that:
• has a soft bed (pine needles, leaves, moss, tundra)
• is not in the bottom of a drainage where the air will be colder, more humid, and the bugs will be more intense
• is not near a wildlife travel corridor

By selecting this type of campsite, I can take a thinner sleeping pad, a lighter sleeping bag, less bug protection, and less robust food protection (such as odorproof sacks instead of a bear canister).

3. Minimize food weight.
As a long-distance hiker with a ravenous appetite, I love coming up on overloaded backpackers who are delighted to give me some of their extra food. But for your own sake, please don’t feed the thru-hikers! I recommend 3,000 calories per person per day; this equates to about 1.5 pounds, assuming a caloric density of 125 calories/ounce. Some backpackers need more and others need less, but this is a good starting point. To minimize the weight of these 3,000 calories, eat fatty foods (chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, cheese, Fritos, cookies). Fat is 2.4 times as calorically dense as carbs or protein.

4. Minimize water weight.
In arid environments, water is sometimes worth its weight in gold. Unfortunately it is almost as heavy—it weighs two pounds per quart—so don’t carry more than you need. How much do you need? First, determine the distance to your next water source and the time it will take you to reach it. Then, recall how much water you’ve needed in the past for similar stretches. For example, if it will take me three hours to reach the next water source six miles away, and I’ve been needing one liter every two hours, then I will need to carry 1.5 liters with me.

5. Keep insulation dry.
I generally prefer goose down instead of synthetic insulation. It’s warmer for its weight, compresses better, and has a longer lifespan. While synthetics are not “warm when wet” like they are sometimes marketed (no outdoor gear is warm when wet, sorry), down is more adversely affected by moisture. It is easy to protect down against rain and river fords—simply line your pack with a plastic trash compactor bag. Avoid pack covers, (which don’t work) and waterproof stuff sacks (which wear out and are expensive). Protecting down against ambient humidity is more challenging. You can use a shelter that has good airflow (such as a tarp instead of a stuffy tent) and dry it regularly in the sun or near a fire, but in consistently wet environments like the East and Alaska synthetics are probably a better choice.

6. Use map and compass.
People often seem shocked that I don’t carry a GPS and rely instead on old-school paper maps and (sometimes) a $12 baseplate compass. I’m equally shocked that GPS units are so popular. A GPS might tell me exactly where I am, but I can do the same thing by tracking my progress on my maps. And a GPS might tell me the direction and distance to my next waypoint, but I can use my map to figure this out, too. And, more important, with the map I can identify a route that will avoid thick brush, canyons, extra elevation gain and loss, unpassable passes, and steep side-hilling. A GPS may take me across all of that.

7. Make an alcohol stove.
My Fancy Feast cat food can alcohol stove weighs just .3 oz (10 grams); it has no moving parts; it will never clog; if I step on it, I can bend it back into place and keep using it. And it costs just $1.50 to make—$.50 for the can and $1.00 for the hole punch (Use a plastic bottle from the recycling bin for fuel storage.) Alcohol stoves are best for one to two people since they do not produce the heat of a canister stove, which is my preferred setup for group and/or winter use, with some exceptions. To use this stove successfully, you will need a windscreen made from aluminum foil and a wide-and-short pot, which is more fuel-efficient than a tall-and-skinny one.

8. Applying first aid.
There are two categories of first aid situations: those that are realistically treatable in the field (blisters, headaches, mild diarrhea, small cuts, anaphylaxis); and those that are not (broken bones, HAPE and HACE, and cardiac arrest). My first-aid kit is designed to treat the former. I carry ibuprofen and loperamide, Luekotape and duct tape, Krazy Glue, Hydropel, and callus cushions (to take pressure off blisters). In the very unlikely event something more serious happens, I get resourceful with what I have (closed-cell foam pad, guylines, extra clothing, pen knife, etc.) and make a call for help with my SPOT messenger or satellite phone. Even if I carried 50 pounds of medical equipment and was a certified EMT, I’m still not equipped to treat serious medical problems in the field over the long-term.

9. Pitch a tarp.
I love tarps. They are ultralight and versatile, and they are less prone to condensation build-up because they have better airflow than conventional double-wall tents or tarptents. I use tarps year-round, even last winter during the Alaska-Yukon Expedition when I was 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Tarps have two main drawbacks: they do not offer full protection; and pitching them is not foolproof. For protection against groundwater and bugs, I compliment my tarp with a groundsheet, water-resistant bivy, or bug nest—making a “modular tarp” system. Setting it up requires some practice, which I do in the backyard before a trip. To achieve a taut pitch, I use two simple knots (the bowline and the trucker’s hitch) and adjust the shelter two to three times after its initial pitch to get it perfect.

Photograph by Murfy Kristiadi, My Shot