The Andrew Skurka Interview – A shift of Interests?
If you’re into hiking, especially long distance, actually that should be more ridiculous distances, then you may have heard of Andrew Skurka. He’s renowned for his lightweight, fast and long distance approach to hiking but recently we have seen a shift of interests. Whilst his eye is still firmly focused on his two feet blazing away below him, he has incorporated other aspects of moving over terrain in remote and difficult landscapes. Is Andrew becoming more of an explorer than a hiker?
He’s a classic example of those amongst us who have shunned stereotype expectations on life plans and veered sharply of course to a direction he feels drawn to, and more importantly, is not afraid to take. A direction that many frown upon and would be uncomfortable experiencing themselves. I’m talking dream chasing here, if you feel a call to the wild, open spaces of this planet and are prepared to forsake a career and convention for it then perhaps this option, and this man, may resonate with you.
Andrew Skurka – A man with good tastes in backpacks (Image: andrewskurka.com)
Or, as Andrew put it:
When my parents grew up there were certain expectations of them that went along the lines of get a college degree, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire at sixty five and maybe have a little bit of fun. I bought into that mentality as well through my teenage years and even into my early college years but it was certainly this desire on my part to have some fun. I’m on this planet for seventy or eighty years, I want to do the things that make me happy in this life.
In 2007 he was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.He has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, on TV, radio and countless other areas. A lot of accolades suggesting he’s an outdoor celebrity but after researching a few of this man’s videos and reading what he has to say about his exploits, he accepts that all this praise is merely a by-product of a man who has decided to experience life from a different angle, to not be afraid of going for it.
No doubt with his parent’s words ringing in his ears, he ventured towards a potentially lucrative career in Wall Street before working briefly at a summer camp. That camp appeared to have pulled Andrew off in the direction that he is now still following.
Postholing in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Photo credit: Michael Brown, National Geographic Society
In 2002 he took on the 2,185 mile Appalachian trail, his first long distance walk. He completed it in an admirable 95 days at an average of 23 miles a day. A first long distance thu-hike always whets the adventurous appetite so he then took on the Sea to Sea Route, a whopping 7,800 mile amble from Quebec on the eastern shores of Canada to Washington State on the North West coast of America. The 6,875 mile Great Western Loop also fell under his shoes.
His mantra at the time of ‘Further, faster, lighter’ was put to the test on all of these trails but then he reached a plateau where he felt that hiking on marked trails, as wonderful as they are, had been exhausted. He wanted more, felt the desire to get off the beaten track, visit areas that are more remote, which don’t have direction signs and convenient town stops every few days.
In 2008 / 2009 he went on a series of smaller trips to learn a new set of skills that would enable him to get out into the true wilderness such as map reading, skiing and packrafting.
In 2009 he spent 2 months in Alaska ‘scoping it out’ with a view to collecting some information and planning an extended trip. A full traverse of the Brooks Range, a 1,000 mile section in the north caught his eye as well as the Alaska Range further south, arguably the finest area of Alaska and home to America’s highest peak Mount McKinley. With both these routes at opposing ends of Alaska, his mind then started to work overtime. He noticed The Iditarod Route in the west which could join The Brooks Range with the Alaska Range. Casting a now very excited eye over to the East, his idea was to move into the Yukon Territory in Canada and follow a series of mountains and rivers.
He was now aware that with a little more map reading he could make the whole expedition into a loop. Or, as he put it:
When I worked out the schedule I saw that I had some additional time.
About as remote as it gets (Photo: andrewskurka.com)
He extended into The Wrangell St. Elias National Park, The Chugach Range and the Lost Coast. The net result was a remarkable 4,679 mile loop through predominantly remote wilderness, with at best, nothing but unmarked winter dog sled routes and animal tracks. It involved such hazards as snow, river crossings, bush whacking, a strong measure of navigation and route planning, wild animals such as Grizzly Bears and swarms of mosquitos so merciless that he somehow managed to take a tent with no bug net. It would have to be traversed not only by hiking, but also skiing and rafting as well.
With a couple of exceptions, I didn’t want to make walking speeds, distances, pack weights and equipment the crux of this Q&A. Firstly, because they’re worn out questions, secondly because I’m sure he’s been asked them countless times before. The Alaskan Wild North route was such a mammoth undertaking involving not just hiking, even the planning must have been monumental. So, that trip is the primary focus, amongst other questions, of this Q&A.
Me: The Appalachian Trail clearly gave you the hiking bug and confirmed your decision to get out into the wilds. Why did you pick the AT as your testing ground?
Andrew: Since I grew up on the East Coast and since I had spent more time in the Appalachian Mountains than any other range, the AT was the obvious choice. But at the time I didn’t think of it as a testing ground — I just wanted to do it, with little consideration about its impact on my future.
Me: After the AT, you went straight into The Sea to Sea Route and The Great Western Loop. Did you at any point consider the Pacific Crest Trail and / or the Continental Divide Trails? Too obvious perhaps or was the desire to get away from marked trails kicking in already?
Andrew: Both routes were made possible by linking existing long-distance trails, including the PCT and CDT, plus other less known ones like the North Country Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail, and I was not yet interested in blazing my own routes. My motivation for both routes was to complete a trip that hadn’t been done before, not so I could say I was “first” but because the experience is inherently more challenging and uncertain than a conventional thru-hike.
Me: Pack weights are a major talking point these days whilst thru-hiking. I don’t want to get into this area deeply but briefly, with skies, a packraft and several days’ worth of food that must have been a pretty heavy pack?
Andrew: My pack weight varies significantly depending on the location, time of year, and route. Base weight for a conventional thru-hike would be a bit less than 10 lbs; for a thru-hike with a packraft or for a winter trip, a bit less than 20 lbs. Add about 2 lbs of food per day, and usually no more than 2 lbs of water unless I’m in the desert.
Deploying that packraft (photo: andrewskurka.com)
Me: You regularly put in 30 mile plus days and once said that ’25 miles by lunch is a good day’.
To achieve these targets do you simply walk fast or do you just put in the hours?
Andrew: Each day boils down to a simple equation: Distance = Rate * Time. You can achieve big distances, then, by hiking fast (Rate) or hiking more (Time), and I find that hiking more is the more effective of the two methods. When I’m in peak form I find that I can hike at a sustained pace for about 15 hours per day, leaving an hour for camp and 8 hours for sleep.
Me: A 4,679 mile route in just less than 6 months, according to my calculator, means you were knocking out 25 – 26 mile days. In good conditions with a lighter pack this is an admirable day’s walk. How difficult was it to achieve these distances on this trip taking into account the aspects that take a little time such navigation, difficult ground such as the tussocks you mention and water crossings?
Andrew: Again, Distance = Rate * Time. If I can stay moving for 13 hours per day at 2 mph, I have my 26-mile day. And 2 mph isn’t implausible for someone who is super fit and who has superb navigation and route-finding skills.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Brooks Range (photo: andrewskurka.com)
Me: You say in your ‘National Geographic – Trekking the Wild North Video’ (see link to this below), that your mantra USED to be ‘Further, faster, lighter ‘and this is what most people know you for – big miles, big distance with light packs.
I’m curious as to why you used the past tense in the video, is the mantra now history?
Andrew: There is little for me to learn if I continued to pursue that mantra. I’d have to plan hikes across marginal terrain for the sake of adding distance (e.g. a thru-hike across the South); I’d have to stay on trails for the sake of maintaining speed; and I’d have to reduce my pack weight more, entering the realm of a “stupid light” kit.
Me: With your desire to get off the beaten track more and incorporating other aspects of travel such as the packraft and skis, do you think you’re becoming less of a thru hiker and more of an explorer?
Andrew: It’s difficult to consider myself an explorer given the information I can obtain while sitting at my desk. “Adventurer” is a notch lower and probably more appropriate. I’d consider consider myself an adventurer with a thru-hiking background.
Denali National Park, Alaska Range, AK (photo: andrewskurka.com)
Me: Will we see more of these sorts of remote, off trail, little used routes and expeditions from you in the future? What’s the next big one? Polar? Mountains? Oceans?
Andrew: I have no current interest in more “long” trips, but I do have a list of shorter, intense, ambitious routes that I plan to start working on this year. Stay tuned.
Me: The planning, maps, food, mail and equipment drops must all have been monumental? Is this area one you enjoy?
Andrew: In short, yes. My father is a banker and my younger sister is an accountant, and I have those same genes, though the application is very different.
Me: Thru-Hiking, exploring, sailing around the world, any adventure of several months is very hard to fit into a conventional life. Which is why many people such as yourself, decide to pursue the dream full time, take risks financially and make other sacrifices to experience our great outdoors. If we can carve a career from it then so much the better.
I’ve always thrown caution to the wind to follow a similar course with the belief that everything will come right. This type of life is not for the majority, most are happy, quite rightly, with a 9 to 5 job and a mortgage. However, a lot of people are also scared to chase what they really want. As I read on social media recently:-
‘Miracles start to happen when you give as much energy to your dreams as you do to your fears’.
Do you agree with this and do you feel your decision to follow a life you really want has been validated?
Andrew: I’m a very goal-oriented person. I set my sights on what I want and pursue it relentlessly. My fears/concerns about the endeavor have always worked themselves out, which I think is a very common experience for those who live life this way.
Me: Despite your lightweight background, you’re the only thru-hiker I know of that carries bear spray. Why is this? Did you just use it on the Wild North trip?
Andrew: When walking among grizzly bears, it’d be foolish not to have bear spray. When in areas without bears or with just black bears, it’s unnecessary.
Bear Spray and those Grizzlies . . . (photo: andrewskurka.com)
Me: I have to ask you about your tent! Once you hit the summer on the Wild North trek we see footage of swarms of mosquitos which Alaska is renowned for. However, I was amazed to see no mesh on your tent. Why?
Andrew: Actually, I had a bug nest shipped out just before the mosquitoes hatched, and it was worth its 8 ounces many times over.
Mosquito Season (Photo: andrew.skurka.com)
How bad were they? It’s all relative, of course, but they were certainly the thickest and most aggressive that I’ve ever experienced. For many consecutive days my ears were filled with a constant high-pitched whine, to the point where I took notice of the rare moments it was absent. I had a string of “worst bugs ever” situations–I thought my campsite had been bad until I dropped into a creek the following day, and I thought the creek was bad until I tried taking a break near a lake, etc. There were nights I stayed moving until 2 a.m., just so I didn’t have to stop and make camp. And I took many impractical routes (i.e. not the path of least resistance) just to minimize them.
Me: There are two sections in the footage where we really see you get quite emotional. One showed you sitting in your tent on a pretty wet day talking about true wilderness and it illustrated a little loneliness as you talked about not seeing even a road, let alone another person in days. I think not sadness as such but more comprehension and respect, humbleness if you like, for where you were. Such realisations can be emotional.
The other is when you come across Caribou tracks and realise, or perhaps have confirmed, that we are a small part of a much larger picture. To have made a navigational decision based on what you thought was the wisest route and then to realise that countless thousands of wild animals had made the same choice clearly affected you quite deeply.
This appeared to have been the turning point of your trip where you finally achieved what perhaps you had set out to achieve – experience pure and remote wilderness.
Why do you think experiences, confirmations and realisations such as these affect us this deeply and why does wilderness, or indeed any outdoor spaces make us feel this way?
Andrew: I feel like I’m most alive when I’m out there, with all my senses elevated and with a strong believe that I’m making good use of my time. In the Land of Soft, that meaning is more difficult to find.
Take the time to watch the YouTube video below where Andrew talks to an audience about this trip; it puts the whole adventure into perspective. There are several very humbling moments he captures on camera,especially when he reaches the point where he realises his main goal of getting out into true wilderness was achieved. Or, as he put it:
Big wilderness is a place where you come to get humbled. It’s a place where for one of the few times in your life you’re put back in your place and realise you’re just another animal on this planet. You are as vulnerable as exposed to nature as the creatures around you. You are no different, you are not special, that there is a bigger power at play than you can ever imagine.
In case you missed all the photo credits, Andrews website and blog can be found here: