A Crash Course in Wilderness Medical Training

18 Jul

In early June, I took my biannual Wilderness First Responder (WFR) and CPR recertification courses. Between refreshers of the patient-assessment system and rescue breaths, I thought about the instances over the past eight years when I’ve had to apply my training.

As a new WFR in 2011, I remember being intimidated by the number of medical scenarios for which I’d been “trained.” For those who feel similarly, or those interested in the operations of an organization like mine, which has guided a cumulative 625 clients on 85 trips, I thought I would share my experiences.

I guide backpacking trips and specialize in high routes and long-distance trails. My clients tend to be between 30 and 60 years old and of above-average fitness, and they skew male by a two-to-one margin. My trips are three to seven days long, and I run them mostly in the Mountain West, though sometimes in Alaska and the eastern woodlands.

If you will were leading, say, monthlong canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with at-risk teens, your experiences would probably be different.

For the sake of confidentiality, I have changed the names of clients in the following text. 

I offer three-to-seven-day backpacking trips, mostly in the Mountain West. (Andrew Skurka)


I’ve had to organize four medical evacuations.

Ethan strained his knee while crossing a wet, rocky moraine in Alaska. We self-evacuated by pack-rafting down the Little Delta River.

Jennifer experienced an intestinal blockage, which had happened to her six months earlier, too. We slowly walked her out to a nearby trailhead, and her partner drove them to a nearby hospital.

Paul suffered a deep cut on his heel when a nearby boulder shifted, wedging his foot. I thought I could see his Achilles tendon. He heroically self-evacuated, which involved a 25-mile hike with 5,000 vertical feet of gain, and then drove himself to the hospital.

Finally, Vic severely strained his lateral collateral ligament (LCL) when he stumbled on a washed-out trail and hyperextended his knee. A helicopter evacuation was necessary, due to our location on California’s Upper Kern River, where we were separated from the nearest trailhead by 20 miles and a 13,000-foot pass.

The prospect of another evacuation (or worse) makes me anxious, sometimes to the degree that I think about closing my program. Thankfully, they’re the exception, and most of our medical issues are easily manageable.

Run-of-the-Mill Injuries

Most scenarious I deal with are relatively simple and fall into four categories.

Foot Issues

The worst blisters I’ve ever seen belong to Guy. He developed hot spots on the first afternoon, but we didn’t address them until camp. There, I found deep quarter-size blisters on both forefeet and swore to never make that mistake again. Guy was remarkably tough, though, and still managed to finish a seven-day John Muir Trail thru-hike.

Maceration is common on wet trips. Most clients are familiar with my recommended treatment, and guides are good about forcing clients to stay on top of it.

Guy developed bad forefoot blisters on day one. We should have stopped to address them earlier but instead waited until camp. (Andrew Skurka)

Aches, Pains, and Overuse 

Few of my clients arrive already trail hardened. Most are professionals, have families, and are involved in their community, so their training time is limited and thus mostly restricted to short but intense exercise (e.g., running, HIIT workouts). They’re unaccustomed to spending long days on their feet and carrying an overnight kit.

To prevent and address ensuing aches and overuse injuries, I recommend carrying a personal supply of ibuprofen, and I moderate a client’s efforts early on so they don’t fall apart after the turnaround. Sometimes I ask each client to specify their biggest physical complaint and assign a pain rating (out of ten) to it, which gets better results than simply asking, “How does everyone feel?”

Hydration and Nutrition

I have no notable stories about dehydration. My best prevention tactic is periodically asking clients when they last peed. When seven clients report peeing at lunch or even more recently, but one person reports last peeing at the trailhead, it’s clear who needs to drink more.

Nutrition seems best managed by watching for changes in a client’s personality or performance. A lack of calories could explain why, say, a normally pleasant client seems slightly agitated or why a front-of-the-pack client drops behind on a climb.

Two clients of mine have tried to follow strict keto diets, and both bonked hard after a few days on the trail. It seemed as if their bodies lacked the necessary fuel for full functionality, so they were shadows of themselves. The solution was having them trade their jerky and pork rinds for the chocolate and Fritos that other clients had.

Insect Bites

Five years ago, Bob, Samantha, and Adam all contracted Lyme disease after a May trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thankfully, they were quickly treated. On our more recent West Virginia trips, we alerted clients of this risk, recommended precautions (e.g., repellents and permethrin-treated clothing), and tried to steer clear of tick-infested areas like meadows. We didn’t find a single tick, but I can’t say whether these measures made a difference, as it was unseasonably cold and wet.

Alan warms himself over our campfire in Alaska. We’d intentionally camped on the open gravel braids, where the wind kept the mosquitoes at bay. (Andrew Skurka)

Strains, Sprains, Breaks, and Cuts

Rhett hyperextended his knee slightly on Stanton Pass, in the Sierra, when we tried to push over it just before dinner. To further illustrate our erred judgement, an hour later Bill scraped his shin on sharp talus. We should have just saved the pass for the next morning when we wouldn’t have been tired.

On an off-trail descent, Matt badly sprained his ankle, which we taped for extra support. Interestingly, the incident occurred after the most difficult section.

Thirty-six hours after Matt sprained his ankle on an off-trail descent, it had become very bruised. With supportive tape and caution, he finished the trip. (Andrew Skurka)

After Paul (mentioned above, who cut his heel) was badly injured we divvied up his gear and rapidly began descending a tight canyon that involved multiple crossings of a small creek. One client, Bill, was carrying his own backpack as well as Paul’s nearly empty pack, which made for an unwieldy load. He slipped during one of these crossings and landed hard on his hand. We splinted it later that day, when it became clear to Bill that he could not just simply walk off the pain. A post-trip X-ray revealed that he’d broken two or three metatarsals.

There’s a lesson here: after an emergency, check your own level of panic and that of the group, and bring it back to near normal to avoid a subsequent emergency.

Altitude Sickness

On our Mountain West trips, trailheads are often at 7,000 to 8,500 feet, and all the trails climb higher. I learned quickly that clients often need to acclimate more cautiously, especially if they live at sea level. In 2011, on two of my three trips, clients developed acute mountain sickness. The number of altitude-related issues has declined, because most clients now arrive at least two days early, giving them more time to acclimate and work through the initial symptoms (e.g., headache, fatigue, restless sleep). But such instances still occur—last year, Rick from Seattle responded badly and had to be walked out, despite having acclimated properly.

Giardia and GI Distress

My guides and I carry a group supply of Aquamira water-treatment drops, which in my program have achieved excellent results. Only five clients have developed giardiasis, always after returning home and always after drinking unpurified water (intentionally or accidentally).

Katie and Elizabeth developed flu-like symptoms, presumably contracted from another client or another traveler. The solution was over-the-counter medications and rest—and a day hike for everyone else—which gave them an opportunity to recover and finish the trip.


I don’t keep a detailed record of every blister, sprain, and evacuation. Anecdotally, at least, I think our safety record has steadily improved, which I attribute mostly to:

  • More stringent vetting of clients, to ensure that we have groups of similarly abled people and that every client is reasonably qualified for their trip
  • More experience around clients, enabling us to recognize telltale warning signs and to know the limits of our clients better than they do
  • Greater familiarity with the terrain, conditions, hazards, and common itineraries of our go-to locations

What do these factors have in common? They’re all preventative. Unforgivably, in my opinion, the NOLS WFR curriculum omits any discussion about ways in which medical situations can be avoided—it’s entirely reactive.

How to Navigate Hazardous Sierra Creeks This Season

13 Jul

Every spring, creeks in the High Sierra rage with snowmelt. For one to two months, they are a grave danger, especially after wet winters like 2018–19. Backpackers can still hike, camp, and explore safely, but they should be aware of and respect this hazard.

Swift and deep creek crossings will be found throughout the range, including but not limited to:

  • Yosemite National Park
  • Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Park
  • The John Muir Trail
  • The Pacific Crest Trail
  • The High Sierra Trail
  • The Rae Lakes Loop
  • The Yosemite High Route
  • The Kings Canyon High Basin Route

On this page, you’ll find a list and a map of known creek hazards. It’s designed to keep backcountry users safer by highlighting problem spots and identifying wiser alternatives.

A swollen Tuolumne River as it plummets from Tuolumne Meadows into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (Andrew Skurka)

About Peak Runoff

Creek crossings in the High Sierra warrant your attention. This hazard is caused by a unique set of circumstances:

  • Significant wintertime snowfall
  • The arrival of hot and sunny weather in late spring
  • Steep gradients
  • Few bridges
  • Recreational use miles downstream from a creek’s headwaters 
  • Nonporous granite substrate 

Water levels normally peak in late May and June. But after wet winters and cool springs (like we just had), they can be delayed or remain elevated into July. On a typical warm and sunny day, creeks rise and fall considerably. They are highest in the early evening, swollen with an entire day of melt, and lowest in the morning, after a night of near-freezing temperatures.

I’ve already written an in-depth tutorial about valuable gear and skills to have for creek crossings. In short, it’s helpful to use trekking poles and to cross in your hiking shoes. But the following are even more important:

  • Plan crossings in the morning, when flows are relatively low.
  • Identify and use safer crossing points.
  • Cross larger creeks where they are braided, or take on their tributaries independently further upstream.
  • Find snow bridges and log bridges and jams.
  • Cross with other hikers, as matter of safety and sometimes stability.

For current stream flows, refer to the California gauges linked below. Even if they are not on your route, they’ll give you a sense of real-time conditions.

  • Kern River (at Kernville), which drains the southernmost High Sierra
  • Kaweah River (at Three Rivers), which originates upstream of Lodgepole Campground and Kaweah Pass (on the High Sierra Trail)
  • Kings River (at Road’s End), which is downstream of Forester Pass, Rae Lakes, and Muir Pass
  • Merced River (at Happy Isles), which captures melt in the southern half of Yosemite
  • Tuolumne River (at Tuolumne Meadows), downstream of Lyell Canyon and Donohue Pass


The following list and map of creek hazards are increasingly comprehensive and accurate, but they are not perfect. Some dangerous creeks are not included, and some information may be incorrect or out of date.

I am providing these resources for the public good, but ultimately, you are responsible for your decisions and safety.

List of Creek Hazards

To make this list most useful to the largest number of backpackers—who overwhelmingly start and finish at the same trailhead, stay within one land-management jurisdiction, and follow unbranded routes—I have decided to organize it by agency.

But in recognition of the popularity of trade routes like the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails, and as an additional resource for my Yosemite High Route Guide and Kings Canyon High Basin Route Guide, I have included dedicated columns for these trails and routes, to allow for quick filtering of applicable crossings.

To open this list in a new window, click here.

Map of Creek Hazards

To open this map in a new window, click here.

The default layer is the USGS 7.5-minute map series. But I recommend using the more updated FSTopo 2016 layer for trips in or through national forests.

How to Use These Resources in the Field

This list and map were updated on July 10 and will be again before the 2020 season.


For a PDF of the list that you can print or download to your smartphone, click here.

To create your own copy of the spreadsheet that you can tailor to your itinerary and then print or download, either:

  • Sign into your Google account, click here, and then select File > Make a copy; or
  • Download it as an Excel file.

Note: After creating your own copy of this file, additional updates to my master spreadsheet will not automatically download to yours.


To bring this map (or its data) into the field:

  • Click here to start, which will open the map in a new window.
  • Under Export, select Download GPX file.

This downloaded GPX file can be:

  • Opened on your smartphone, with an app like GaiaGPS
  • Loaded onto a handheld GPS unit
  • Uploaded to an online mapping platform (I highly recommend CalTopo), where you can edit and print it

As with the list, your GPX copy will not update with changes that are made to my master map.

Contribute to This Resource

This resource needs your help. While I have hiked extensively in the High Sierra, I cannot speak confidently about every creek crossing.

Please share your experience to help make this a more accurate and thorough document, ultimately helping to keep hikers safer.

Contact me here and please include:

  • The creek name
  • A description of or GPS coordinates for the location
  • Its jurisdiction (e.g., Yosemite National Park, Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Park, Inyo National Forest)
  • A description of the crossing, including its watershed size, swiftness, underlying bed surface, and overall risk level
  • Potential safe alternatives, including GPS points if they’re available

50 Days Hiking with the Osprey Aether Pro 70

26 Jun

Recently, I looked through the photos of my Great Western Loop trip in 2007. My, my—I had such a small and light pack. But the trend has been moving in the wrong direction ever since, and for about a year I’ve been using the Osprey Aether Pro 70, a pack that has more volume and weighs more than anything I’ve worn since 2002.

I’ve used the Aether Pro for about 50 days, including on most of my guided trips for the past year, to an elk hunt in the Colorado Rockies in November, and on weighted training hikes in Boulder’s foothills. 

For women, Osprey offers the Ariel Pro 65, which has identical features and materials but a women’s-specific fit. Nearly all of my comments about the Aether are applicable to the Ariel as well.

Long-Term Review: Osprey Aether Pro 70 and Ariel Pro 65

The Aether/Ariel Pro will appeal most to backpackers who carry large or heavy loads that exceed the volume or load-carrying capacity of lightweight packs. These hikers want to be able to do this with a pack that weighs three to four pounds, rather than the normal five to seven. When I’m leading clients, hauling out elk quarters, or carrying most of the food and gear on a group trip, the Aether Pro has become my go-to backpack. I think Osprey also imagined it being used for mountaineering expeditions and adventurous long-distance hikes (think: thru-hiking Alaska’s Brooks Range), and I’d agree with that thinking.  

My sole criticism of the Aether/Ariel Pro is its external storage. Instead of having the removable compartments located in the wedge between the hipbelt and main compartment, I’d rather have conventional side and hipbelt pockets, plus a shoulder-strap pocket. But I’ve overlooked this shortcoming because of its performance otherwise.

Andrew Skurka
Spousal trip in Utah’s Cedar Mesa, when I carried just about everything for the two of us—plus what seemed liked a lot more. (Andrew Skurka)

Key Specs

  • Volume: 70 liters in size medium for the Aether, 65 liters for the Ariel
  • Strong and durable fabrics throughout
  • Stiff aluminum peripheral frame and a single aluminum center stay
  • Mesh-covered aerated foam back panel
  • Heat-moldable foam hipbelt
  • Two front compression or attachment straps
  • Attachment points for trekking poles, two ice tools, a hydration reservoir, and a sleeping pad
  • $375 MSRP
  • More information (men’s, women’s)

The spec weight of the Aether Pro is 3 pounds 15 ounces. Mine weighs 4 pounds 1.9 ounces. Its weight can be further reduced by removing features, such as:

  • The floating top lid (5.1 ounces)
  • Two side compression straps (0.5 ounces each, or 1.0 ounce total)
  • A zippered side pocket (2.7 ounces)
  • A cinchable side pocket (2.6 ounces)

The total weight of these removable items is 11.4 ounces, which would reduce the spec pack weight to 3 pounds 3.6 ounces, but at the cost of some functionality.


To help you decide if the Aether/Ariel Pro is right for you, comparing it to other packs is probably useful.

The Aether Pro Versus the Aether AG

The Aether/Ariel Pro was new for spring 2018 and is essentially a stripped-down version of the Aether AG (Anti-Gravity).

Compared to the AG, the Pro:

  • Uses more premium fabrics
  • Has a simpler harness system that’s lighter and probably carries better but is less ventilated
  • Weighs 1.3 pounds less, with an opportunity to shed extra weight by removing features
  • Costs $65 more ($375 versus $310 for the 70-liter version of the AG)

Overall, I think the Pro is the better value. The only feature of the AG’s that I wish it had are the external pockets.

The Aether Pro Versus “Sweet Spot” Packs

My pack recommendation for most backpackers is a 2.5-pound framed pack that is nicely featured, made of durable materials, and costs $200 to $300, like the Osprey Exos, Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor, and ULA Circuit. Such models are ideal for standard thru-hikes and high routes and for backcountry trips of up to ten days.

If your plans are more exceptional and require a pack with more volume or greater load-carrying capabilities, plus some additional durability, the Aether/Ariel is worth a look.

The Aether Pro Versus Deuter, Gregory, and Mystery Ranch

Other packs match (and may exceed) the volume and load-carrying capacity of the Aether Pro, including the Deuter Aircontact 65 + 10, Gregory Denali 75, and Mystery Ranch Glacier. But none of them rival its sub-four-pound weight. In size medium, the Denali weighs six pounds three ounces; the Aircontact, five pounds six ounces; the Glacier, five pounds ten ounces.

The Aether Pro Versus Seek Outside’s Divide and Unaweep

The most direct comparisons to the Osprey Aether/Ariel Pro may come from the backpack-hunting industry, which is presented with similar volume and load demands. I’m specifically thinking of the Divide 4500 and Unaweep 4800 from Seek Outside. Both packs weigh in the low to mid three pounds and approach $400. 

Andrew Skurka
This pack display from a guided trip in Rocky Mountain National Park puts the Osprey Aether Pro in perfect context. From left to right: I’m carrying it, but my clients have the Flex Capacitor, MTC Jam, and Osprey Levity. Note that all of our packs are nearly empty in this photo, since we did a day hike from a base camp on day two to help acclimatize. (Andrew Manalo)

Suspension and Harness

The standout feature of the Aether/Ariel is its suspension. Simply put, this pack is designed to haul weight. It’s light-years better than the Exos and even in a different league than the Flex Capacitor, which is considered to carry weight better than most sub-three-pound packs.

The peripheral frame, made of 7075 tubular aluminum, is extremely stiff, so it efficiently transfers weight. As I’ve come to expect of Osprey, the harness system is masterfully fitted, and the weight is distributed well across the hipbelt, shoulder straps, and back panel, which have generous yet firm cushioning.

On overnight trips, I regularly have carried loads in the 40-pound range, and on recent training hikes I’ve carried exactly 50 pounds. I will never say that carrying 50 pounds is comfortable, but some packs do it more gracefully than others, and the Aether/Ariel is among them.

Andrew Skurka
On a recent training hike in Boulder’s foothills, wearing the Black Diamond Rhythm Tee and carrying the Osprey Aether Pro 70 pack, loaded with 50 pounds. (Andrew Skurka)

To achieve this load-carrying performance in a sub-four-pound pack, Osprey gave the Aether Pro a more conventional back panel, abandoning the ventilated trampoline that you’ll find on the Aether AG and Exos. The mesh-covered aerated foam (branded as AirScape) provides relatively little ventilation in reality, so you should expect perspiration to build up on warm days and during hard efforts.

Andrew Skurka
The aerated back panel does little to reduce perspiration buildup in warmer conditions and during hard efforts, as evidenced by the sweat line. But a more ventilated back panel would add weight and expense and compromise the load stability. (Andrew Skurka)


The Aether Pro is is made with four types of fabric:

  • The main body is 210-denier nylon and 200-denier ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE)
  • The bottom is 200-denier UHMWPE
  • The accent is 315hd oxford
  • The trim isn’t specified but appears to be a 200-denier-ish nylon

UHMWPE is the source material for Dyneema and Spectra fibers. Osprey chose nonbranded UHMWPE fabrics presumably as a cost-savings measure. Sierra Designs made the same decision with the Flex Capacitor.

While writing this review, I inspected my pack for wear and found no abrasions or tears. The Aether/Ariel seems like it’s built for a lifetime of use. If this proves not to be the case, it’s covered under Osprey’s All Mighty Guarantee.

Andrew Skurka
The four fabrics: 210×200 [[is this dimension referring to inches?]] gridstop body, 200-denier Chineema bottom, 315-denier oxford accent, and an unspecified 200-denier-ish trim. (Andrew Skurka)


The main compartment is tall and narrow, even before the extension collar is utilized. I believe this shape leads to better load stability, but it’s disappointing that a full-size bear canister cannot be stored horizontally in the Aether. Shelters and hammocks without intentionally short pole sets will have to be placed vertically, too.

External Storage

The floating top lid is nicely sized and is convenient for items that you occasionally need during the day, such as toiletries, snacks, extra water, and even a wind shirt or minimalist rainjacket. If you don’t need its volume or wish to pare five ounces from the pack, the lid can be easily removed.

As I mentioned above, the hipbelt and side pockets are underwhelming, and I consider them to be the Aether’s most notable imperfection. I believe it’s essential to have quick access to oft-needed items like water, a camera or phone, maps, lip balm, sunscreen, insect repellent, a head net, water purification, and other items. The design of hipbelt pockets and side pockets is vitally important—they must be accessible, secure, and generous.

To their credit, the hipbelt and side pockets are easily accessible, and one can be zippered shut. But their total volume is marginally acceptable, and the cinchable pocket is only deep enough for a one-liter Nalgene. Using a one-liter Smartwater bottle (which weighs 2.4 ounces less) is impractical—it immediately slips out if you lean forward to pick up a trekking pole or step under a downed tree.

I appreciate that Osprey tried something different here, but personally, I would have preferred the Aether AG design, which includes two permanent side pockets and two permanent hipbelt pockets.

Andrew Skurka
Only a one-liter Nalgene can be used with the cinchable side pocket. A one-liter Smartwater bottle slips out easily. (Andrew Skurka)

Compression and Utility

The Aether/Ariel Pro has two sets of compression straps:

  • Two horizontal straps across the front
  • One Z-style removable strap on each side

In addition to stabilizing the load, these straps are useful for securing trekking poles, an umbrella, ice tools, and long tent poles. Skis could be attached, too, but I’d want to protect the pack fabric from the metal edges first.

The side compression straps photograph well, but the webbing does not slide easily through the rectangular sliders. O-rings would have been a better choice.

Andrew Skurka
External attachments and utility is mostly excellent. I would only recommend that the hardware on the removeable side straps be changed to an O-ring, to improve glide. (Andrew Skurka)

Aether Pro 70 Ariel Pro 65

Crampons and an Ice Ax: High Sierra Recommendations

12 Jun

In July, I’m running six trips in Yosemite National Park: two intro-level three-day courses and four more advanced five- and seven-day trips. We’ll be hiking sections of the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra High Route, and Yosemite High Route, in addition to other trails and off-trail routes.

Because of the exceptional 2018–19 snowfall and a stormy spring, we expect to encounter more lingering snowpack than normal. Which means that each client and guide will likely need to bring crampons and an ice ax. 

A boot track across a steep snowfield during the ascent to Muir Pass in late June of 2006 (Andrew Skurka)


Do you need crampons and an ice ax? And what specific model should you buy?

Well, it depends. I know that’s not the answer you wanted, but it’s a nuanced topic.

My general advice is to purchase what you are most likely to need now and exchange or return the items later if your needs change. This approach has two benefits. It allows you to take advantage of start-of-summer sales (usually about 20 percent off) and move on to other aspects of your trip planning.

In determining whether you need crampons and an ax, and which products to purchase, here are four considerations to inform your decision.

1. Current Conditions

We know that the High Sierra got whacked this winter. But what do conditions look like right now? Nowadays, the most current information and images are shared online by hikers after they leave the trail or while they resupply.

Start your search with the name of the bigger trail that transects the High Sierra and receives heavy backcountry use; e.g., #JohnMuirTrail, r/PacificCrestTrailJohn Muir Trail Group. Then narrow your search for more specific results (e.g., #RaeLakesLoop), or start following specific hikers to observe trends.

2. Time of Day

Throughout the spring and summer, the snowpack is in a general state of melt. The seasonal trend line is interrupted most nights, however, when radiant heat loss and colder ambient air temperatures cause the snow to firm up or crust over. This can make even low-angle snow problematic for early risers and dawn-to-dusk hikers. 

3. Individual Comfort and Skills

If you have prior relevant experience (e.g., in early-season backpacking, mountaineering, or climbing) or if you’re fit and athletic, you may need less equipment than others. For example, on steep but soft snow, you may feel comfortable with just an ax, whereas another hiker would want an ax and crampons.

4. Route

What challenges should you expect? For example:

  • How often will you hike on snow (which is a function of elevation)?
  • What steep pitches along your route are unavoidable? Pour over those maps!
  • Might you encounter a cornice on the leeward sides of some passes or ridges?
  • Will a boot track or glissade track have been formed by hikers ahead of you?

Prior experience—with map reading, early-season conditions, and the High Sierra in general—is really helpful in accurately predicting the likely conditions.

For a thru-hike of a high route in July 2017, after a snowy winter, I carried an ice ax for steep slopes and Pocket Cleats as just-in-case insurance. (Andrew Skurka)

Ice Axes

An ax is used to:

  • Self-arrest a fall
  • Self-belay up or down a snowfield
  • Control movement on a glissade
  • Cut steps in or cut through a small cornice

On most backpacking routes, axes are needed only occasionally, usually to ascend or descend a pass or to contour across a steep snowfield or avalanche chute below a pass.

I recognize that it’s difficult to justify a roughly $100 expense and 12 ounces of extra pack weight for an item that you don’t need often. But it can be a vital safety tool. I’m requiring that every client in my five- and seven-day trips carry an ax, since we’ll be hiking over several steep off-trail passes like Don’t Be a Smart, Stanton, and Matterhorn. Generally, I’d recommend an ax for backpackers who will:

  1. Travel on or across steep slopes in June and July without the aid of a boot track. This includes low-traffic trails and off-trail routes. By August, most snowfields will have melted and most cornices will have lost volume and steepness.
  2. Follow a major trail (e.g., the Pacific Crest Trail or High Sierra Trail) in June and early July. After that, the increase in summer backcountry traffic will form a boot track on the trade routes, helping take the edge off steep slopes and chutes that are holding snow. The consequences of a fall could still be very bad, but the risk of falling will be lower.

Specific Ice Axes

Shopping for an ice ax is fairly simple, because options are limited and the styling and technologies are mostly the same. The entry-level Black Diamond Raven ($85, 16.1 ounces) is cheap but heavy. A performance ax like the Petzl Glacier ($100, 12.5 ounces) is more appropriate if you plan to use the ax often and/or need a longer length. Ultralight axes like the CAMP Corsa ($120, 8.9 ounces) won’t weigh you down but are expensive. Personally, I own an ultralight ax. Its performance has been sufficient for the occasional instances I want it, and I don’t curse its weight during the miles in between.


Conventional wisdom says that when standing upright, with the pick in your hand and your arm at your side, the spike should fall between your ankle and midcalf. For early-season backpacking, I think midcalf is better, because you probably will use it only on steep slopes. Mountaineers use their ax like a cane and thus prefer a longer shaft.


I installed a wrist leash on my ax, believing that the risk of losing it on a steep slope is greater than the leash’s fussiness.

The relationship between traction and weight is inverse: the heavier the device, the better the purchase (with a rate of diminishing returns). From left to right: Pocket Cleats, MicroSpikes, and the original aluminum-spiked Kahtoola KTS crampon. (Andrew Skurka)


On slick and steep snowfields, boot rubber alone will probably not cut it. And on low-angle and slushy slopes, hours of slip and slide can be tedious and energy sapping. The solution is to increase your purchase with crampons or shoe chains.


I told my groups to skip the crampons. By mid-July more ground will be melted out than still covered with snow, and the snow will be soft enough to kick steps. Generally, I’d recommend:

  1. Hiking crampons in June and for aggressive or steep routes in July
  2. Shoe chains for high-traffic trails in July to maintain traction in the boot track, which can get packed out and sometimes slick

Specific Products

Traction devices fall into three categories:

  1. Just-in-case crampons, like the Vargo V3 Pocket Cleats Titanium ($60, 2.4 ounces), which are better than nothing and weigh very little. If there’s a low chance of needing traction, or if there’s just one token problem spot, this is a good option.
  2. Shoe chains like the Kahoola MicroSpikes ($70, 11 ounces), good for packed-out trails and boot tracks. They’re lightweight, relatively inexpensive, easy to put on and take off, and bite well into firm surfaces.
  3. Hiking crampons like the Hillsound Trail Pro ($80, 23.5 ounces), best for icy, crusty, and deep snow and steep slopes. For backpackers, these are the most robust option.

Gear for Cold and Wet Conditions in the Appalachians

8 Jun

Last week my guiding season kicked off in the beautiful—but soggy and unseasonably cold—mountains of West Virginia, with four three-day, two-night, learning-intensive courses on backpacking fundamentals.

Based on the conditions assessment that we performed during the planning curriculum, we expected rain and cool temperatures. But I was hoping for better weather than what we got: five consecutive days of precipitation and temperatures in the thirties and forties for the second trip.

Despite the adverse conditions, these trips went spectacularly. Here are some of the things that made the biggest difference.

Group Tarps

Having dinner together under group tarps (Andrew Skurka)

At each campsite, we created large protected spaces using oversize tarps. These had the same magnetic pull as a campfire—they allowed clients to eat, relax, and converse as a group instead of being stuck in individual shelters.

I carried two flat tarps for my ten-person groups: the Mountain Laurel Designs SuperTarp ($380), made of Dyneema composite fabric, and a Warbonnet Mamajamba ($115), made of silicone-impregnated nylon. Each weighs 12 ounces. I used ten-foot guylines on the six tie-outs; where possible, I anchored the tarps to tree trunks, sturdy branches, and exposed roots rather than stakes (per my recommended guyline system).


This campsite had been in the clouds for several days, and everything was soaked. Starting a fire required skill, patience, and a few tricks. (Andrew Skurka)

In some locations and during some seasons, campfires are rightfully pooh-poohed. But fire restrictions where we were in the Spruce Knob–Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area are relatively lax, since there’s ample combustible fuel and normally a low wildfire risk. 

We had campfires each night during the colder second session to warm up, dry out, and boost morale. It was also an opportunity to conduct a master class in fire starting. Unfortunately, fires are needed most in the same conditions when they’re most difficult to start—when it’s cold, wet, and windy.

On the first night, I successfully used my standard method, with a Bic lighter and Mylar food wrapper. But on the second night, we needed more help, since it’d rained most of the day and we had camped at 4,200 feet atop Spruce Knob, which had been in the clouds for days. Coghlan’s Fire Sticks ($5, two ounces) proved enormously helpful, giving us a long-burning flame that dried out and eventually ignited our kindling.

Shell Jacket and Umbrella

In a downpour, would you rather be relying on just a rain shell, or a rain shell plus an umbrella? (Andrew Skurka)

When it became apparent that we’d see rain, I was excited that I’d be able to test the Gore H5 Gore-Tex Shakedry jacket ($400, eight ounces). But I also wisely packed a My Trail Company Chrome umbrella ($40, eight ounces), which I’ve been wanting to thoroughly test as well.

In cool and wet conditions at least, I found the combination of these products to be stellar; they are not mutually exclusive. The umbrella kept me mostly dry—it shielded me from a lot of rain, including most of the the heaviest downpours. But the jacket was also essential; it protected my arms from driving rain, which translated into warmer hands, and I relied on it exclusively when the umbrella became impractcal, like on overgrown trails, during brushy bushwhacks, in high winds, and when the muddy trail demanded two trekking poles.

Showa Gloves

Matt stayed relatively warm and dry by using the Showa gloves and Packa poncho-jacket-pack cover. (Andrew Skurka)

The Showa 282 gloves are among the best $20 purchases that I’ve ever made, a sentiment now shared by many of my clients and other guides. My hands used to struggle badly in cold and wet conditions, but they’ve done much better since I discovered the 282’s. On this trip, they were ideal for hiking during the day, collecting firewood in camp, and packing cold, wet tarps into stuffsacks in the morning.

These gloves feature a waterproof-breathable polyurethane shell and an acrylic liner. The shell is very tough and mildly textured (for enhanced grip). The acrylic liner is cheap and should be removed completely after it starts to delaminate. I now pair the 282 shells with Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor gloves. If your hands are small enough, you might be able to simply buy the linerless Showa 281 version—but size way up, since they’re not designed with the expectation that you’ll wear liners with them.

Bread Bags

To keep our feet warm in camp, we wore bread bags between our dry sleeping socks and our wet shoes. (Andrew Skurka)

On the first day of each trip, my shoes were dry for about a mile—until reaching an unbridged creek, an unavoidable bog, or tall rain-soaked grass. For the rest of the trip, my shoes were at least damp and often soaked. So-called waterproof shoes would not have helped. Water would have entered from the top or just quickly overwhelmed the waterproof-breathable fabric. So instead I was left managing the effects and aftermath of wet feet.

In camp this meant having dedicated camp footwear so that we could avoid wearing cold, wet shoes for several hours before bed. Some clients brought lightweight slide sandals, but most of us packed bread bags. After arriving in camp, we removed our wet shoes and hiking socks and briefly let our feet dry. Then we’d put on our dry sleeping socks followed by bread bags, before sliding our feet back into our wet shoes. This system is remarkably effective and comfortable, in addition to being free and lightweight (about one ounce).

Fantastic Groups

OK, this is where I will get mushy.

Even with all the right gear (and the oversight of a world-class guide roster), these trips still could have been a bust. Understandably, it’s difficult to get excited about spending three days outside in inclement weather and whiteout conditions.

But our groups rocked it. For the entirety, they were positive, cheery, and engaged. They were undeterred by the cold and rain, generous with each other, and asked questions and undertook the voluntary challenges that will make them better backpackers.

Since 2011, I have guided over 80 groups. Most have been great, but not all groups would have handled themselves as well. I hope to see many of these alumni again—they are all-stars.

6 Things I’m Bringing to Hike the Appalachian Mountains

15 May

This month I am guiding two three-day overnight backpacking trips in West Virginia’s beautiful and uncrowded Appalachian Mountains. Here are six important—and maybe slightly odd —items that I’m taking with me.

Brute Super Tuff Compactor Bags ($20)

An NOAA weather station near the trailhead where I’ll be starting reports that the average rainfall in May is 6.1 inches. Over the course of six days, I’m almost certain that it’ll rain, and it could rain the entire time. To keep my gear dry, I’ll line my pack with two 20-gallon Brute Super Tuff Compactor bags, which are made of two-millimeter plastic and last about a month before developing holes (which can be covered with duct tape for a time).

In one bag, I’ll keep my overnight gear and supplies, which I don’t need during the day (e.g., the sleeping bag, pad, stove, insulated clothing, sleeping clothes, and food for later in the trip). Items I’ll use more frequently, I’ll keep in the other bag. If any of my things get wet (e.g., the shelter, raingear), I’ll put them in an outside pocket or inside the main compartment but on the outside of the Brute liners.

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REI Quarter Dome Air Hammock ($200)

(Andrew Skurka)

Most backpackers still sleep in tents, but for the eastern woodlands (and for some high-use areas in the West) I’m completely sold on the virtues of hammocks, which are phenomenally comfortable. A hammock allows you to set up camp away from crowded and often rocky established campsites. It’s also a nice place to hang out when it’s raining.

Backpacking hammock systems are pretty niche, and cottage brands like Warbonnet Outdoors and Hammock Gear dominate the market. But I plan to use a more widely accessible model, the REI Quarter Dome Air hammock, which I used last summer for two weeks in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Quarter Dome Air is user-friendly, very comfortable, and just $200 (which includes the hammock with suspension and a tarp with guylines). To complete the kit and avoid CBS (a.k.a. “cold-butt syndrome”), add a traditional sleeping pad or the $100 underquilt accessory (recommended). My only criticism is its weight: three pounds eight ounces. To keep the Quarter Dome Air at this price, the company eschewed lighter (and more expensive) fabrics.

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Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Lotion ($9)

(Andrew Skurka)

I’m expecting some mosquitoes, but I’m more concerned about ticks—May is prime time for them, and the mid-Atlantic is the epicenter for Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most effective method to repel ticks is full-coverage clothing treated with permethrin, which may be branded as BugsAway, Insect Blocker, or Insect Shield. I’m going to risk it some with a more customary hiking outfit, consisting of shorts and a T-shirt, but I plan to regularly apply Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent lotion to my arms and legs and around (but not directly on) sensitive areas where ticks are most likely to burrow, like my armpits and crotch.

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Gore H5 Gore-Tex Shakedry Hooded Jacket ($400)

(Andrew Skurka)

Did I mention it will probably rain? When it does, I’m excited to test the new H5 Hooded jacket from Gore Wear, which is Gore’s internal design group, tasked with trying to push the limits of its fabrics.

The H5 is made of Gore-Tex Active fabric, with Shakedry technology. Unlike a conventional waterproof-breathable fabric, where the membrane is in a 2.5- or three-layer sandwich, protected on both sides with face fabrics and/or coatings, the Shakedry membrane is on the outside. Theoretically, this should prevent wetting out (when the face fabric becomes saturated with water and hinders breathability). Conceptually, it’s similar to Outdry Extreme from Columbia. I don’t yet know how the fabrics compare in their performance.

Shakedry technology has been out for several years, but the original fabric was not sufficiently durable for use with a backpack, at least according to Gore’s guidelines. The H5 is made with a heavier fabric that should better withstand abrasion. It’s still very light—my size large (which fits more like a medium from most other brands) weighs just 8.2 ounces. It’s a minimalist and well-executed design, featuring a hood adjustment, two front pockets, elasticized wrist cuffs, and a waist drawcord with a waist gaiter.

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Sleeping Clothes (Stuff Already in the Closet)

(Andrew Skurka)

If the forecasted low temperatures are in the forties, as they normally are this time of year, I’ll bring a long-sleeved polyester top and some lightweight running tights. The eight-ounce weight penalty will be entirely justified by the enhanced nights of sleeping comfort. These items have no performance threshold—I’ll take a top and bottom that I already own, even if they fit poorly, have holes, or are last decade’s hot color.

Osprey Aether Pro 70 ($375)

As the guide, my pack is always the largest and heaviest of the group. I carry the first-aid kit and satellite messenger and usually a disproportionate share of the food. Plus, I like having the extra capacity, in case a client needs to be relieved of some weight. (Most clients will start these intro-level three-day trips with only about 20 pounds of gear, food, and water. But if someone is struggling with altitude, fitness, or a travel bug, every pound makes a difference.)

Since last year, I’ve been using the Osprey Aether Pro as my guide pack. I also used it on a two-night trip with my wife and during an elk-hunting trip in the Colorado Rockies in November. I wouldn’t recommend the Aether Pro for normal backpacking trips—it’s a little heavy—but it is ideal for larger loads. Weighing about four pounds, the Aether Pro is about 1.5 pounds heavier than sweet-spot backpacks like the Hanchor Marl, Osprey Exos, and Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor. But it offers more volume, more durability, and much more load capacity than lighter packs. This spring in the Aether Pro I’ve been carrying 50 pounds up the foothills peaks of Boulder, Colorado, and I’m not at its maximum comfort weight.

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Long-Term Review: Black Diamond’s Rhythm Tee

14 May

At the end of a Black Diamond media lunch at Outdoor Retailer in November, I was given a new gray T-shirt. I’m notoriously particular about my athletic clothing, and I expected I’d drop off this Black Diamond Rhythm tee at my local Goodwill before Christmas. Each year I receive mountains of new clothing, but I own only about a dozen go-to tops and bottoms—like an airy Smartwool long-sleeve from 2008, a wispy Salomon wind shirt from 2013, and a pair of versatile Road Runner Sports short tights from 2014—that fit and perform exactly how I want.

To my surprise, the Rhythm tee worked its way into my system. I’ve run in it over 50 times, including multiple long outings in the two-to-two-and-a-half-hour range, and this spring I’ve been wearing it on training hikes with a 50-pound pack in the foothills in advance of a busy summer-guiding schedule.

The Rhythm tee is a simple pocketless crew-neck short-sleeved shirt. At $75, it shares the uppermost price bracket with T-shirts from Arc’teryx, Salomon S/Lab, and Smartwool. 

Optimal Uses

I’ve found the Rhythm tee ideal for road and trail runs in cooler temperatures (the upper forties through the sixties, at which point I switch to a singlet or go shirtless) and for hikes and backpacking trips in summertime conditions with low sun exposure (or with regular applications of sunscreen). It could certainly be used for other outdoor activities, like climbing and cycling, but I haven’t used it for other sports.

black diamond
(Courtesy Black Diamond)

Key Specs

  • Pocketless, short-sleeved crew neck
  • Size medium weighs exactly 100 grams 
  • 57 percent nylon and 43 percent merino
  • Available in men’s and women’s versions
  • $75 


The Rhythm tee is most unique for its NuYarn fabric, a product of the Merino Company. NuYarn, made by wrapping merino fibers around a nylon core, is 57 percent nylon and 43 percent merino. I’d describe it as soft, airy, slightly textured, and lofty for its weight. After testing merino fibers between 17 and 19.1 microns, Black Diamond says it settled on 18.5 microns for the Rhythm tee, because this fiber weight seemed to have the best balance of comfort and durability.

This tee is made of 95 grams per square meter of NuYarn, which is about one-third lighter than standard lightweight merino fabrics, which are usually 150 grams per square meter. It’s actually not much heavier than a pure synthetic—my size medium weighs exactly 3.5 ounces, versus 3.1 ounces for my favorite polyester running T-shirt (made from Columbia’s Omni-Freeze Zero).

I’ve long thought that synthetic-merino blends could offer the best of both worlds, and NuYarn seems to validate this. The Rhythm tee rivals the weight, moisture management, and durability of a pure synthetic knit top, like Patagonia Capilene, but it also has the odor resistance and temperature regulation of a pure merino shirt, like the discontinued Ibex Indie hoodie, making it suitable for long trips and wetter climates. I’ve yet to find any downsides.

black diamond
(Courtesy Black Diamond)


The Rhythm tee has an athletic silhouette that, thankfully, fits me perfectly. I appreciate the extra inch or so in torso length, too, especially while wearing a pack. For context, with most tops I prefer a slim fit in a size medium; I can fit a relaxed size small, but the sleeves and length are usually too short.

If you have a more muscular or thicker build, do not be deterred. NuYarn is absurdly stretchy—about one-third stretchier than normal merino, per data from the supplier—so it’s more forgiving of different body types than more static fabrics.


My initial concern about the Rhythm tee was its stretch. With extensive use, I feared its fit would be lost, as happens with elasticized fabrics. But it fits me the same now as when it was new, because the stretch is inherent to the fabric knit. I should note that I rarely wash it as recommended—after a run or a hike, I usually bring my clothing into the shower, where I hand-wash it in a bucket with water and mild detergent.

The sole durability issue I have found is abrasion-related pilling of the NuYarn. So far it’s superficial. In my case, the pilling is most notable on the chest and shoulders underneath my pack straps.

In-house Martindale abrasion testing suggests that the 95 grams per square meter of NuYarn fabric is more durable than the standard 150 grams per square meter of wool, which has endured many normal thru-hikes. I’m not yet sure that I’d recommend it for extensive bushwhacking, though. Feedback from harder-wearing readers would be insightful.

black diamond
Where the fabric has been abraded by pack straps, there is noticeable pilling. So far it seems only superficial. (Andrew Skurka)

Future Products

Black Diamond will expand its use of NuYarn in the growing SolutionWool collection. This fall, expect a base layer, long-sleeved crew shirt, tights, and three-quarter-length tights (as well as some midlayers and an insulated parka). And for fall 2020, Black Diamond is considering a long-sleeved crew and long-sleeved hoodie.

These final products have me more interested. A NuYarn long-sleeve would be ideal for running in cooler weather. And a NuYarn long-sleeved hoodie would be perfect for backpacking in the sun-blessed Mountain West. I’d give Black Diamond bonus points if it treats the fabric with permethrin so that I can wear it in the High Sierra during peak mosquito season.

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Long-Term Review: Saxx Kinetic Boxer Briefs

3 May

After my first trip last spring, I cut out the boxer-brief liner of my favorite hiking attire, a pair of running shorts I’d scored at Marshalls for $15 a few years earlier. The elasticized liner had stretched out, resulting in an imperfect fit and insufficient support.

The shell was still in good shape, however, so I thought I’d try pairing it with performance underwear before I shopped for a full replacement. I took this opportunity to thoroughly test the Saxx Kinetic boxer briefs.

Last summer I hiked in the Kinetic for about 50 days, including two-week blocks in both the Rockies and High Sierra. The boxer briefs cost $37, and I probably should save them for important days and outings, but I reach for them whenever they’re clean, so casual, everyday use has at least doubled my time in them.

For hiking and backpacking, I have found the Kinetic to be just about perfect, and I have no suggestions for improvement (aside from working on the steep price tag). The fabrics are breathable and dry quickly. They fit very well, and the legs don’t ride up. The BallPark pouch provides support without being constrictive. And after extensive wear, they show few signs of use.

Kinetic Collection

Saxx divides its underwear into seven collections. The Kinetic is the most suitable for athletic activities, due to its moisture management and semicompressive fit. The boxer briefs are available with a five-inch or eight-inch inseam. 


Saxx launched its brand on the power of the BallPark pouch, a hammock-like cup that keeps the male anatomy nicely organized and supported. Other brands have tried tweaking their fits to similar effect, but it should not have taken until now for someone to develop underwear that keeps your bits separated from your legs.

The BallPark pouch is not hype. I wish all my underwear had it.


The Kinetic is made of a meshy, four-way-stretch blend of 90 percent nylon and 10 percent spandex. The BallPark pouch has two layers, providing additional support.

The fabric is highly breathable and dries quickly. Heat and moisture will build up during high exertion, but the Kinetic performs at least as well as any other underwear I own.

Despite its anti-odor treatment, the Kinetic will get ripe, as underwear do. When backpacking, I wash and wear-dry my pair every day or every other day. Saxx also makes odor-resistant merino underwear, the Blacksheep ($25), which I’ve owned for three years. But I’d recommend the Blacksheep for casual use only—it doesn’t breathe or dry as well, and, with only 5 percent spandex, it doesn’t fit snugly enough for prolonged athletic activity.

The Kinetic waistband is quite wide, at 1.75 inches. This helps the briefs stay put and distribute pressure. 

Fit and Sizing

The Kinetic briefs fit as if they were tailored. They’re snug all around, without ever pulling or constricting, and the legs don’t ride up. 

Pay attention to the sizing chart. For me it feels odd to be considered a XS/S with a 30-inch waist. 


After more than 100 uses, my Kinetics are still in excellent shape. The spandex in the main fabric, waistband, and BallPark pouch has lost some rebound but not yet enough to affect fit or performance. The seams are entirely intact.

I’ve noticed some odd spotting in the mesh—areas where the fabric is thinning. I can’t explain it, but I suspect it’s either a quality issue, or was either exposed to stove fuel or abraded against something like Velcro.

Spotting in the mesh, which I can’t explain. I’m unsure if it’s a quality issue or if I happened to spill something on them. (Andrew Skurka)

Budget Option: Jockey Sport Cooling Mesh Trunk

If you’re on a stricter budget, or balk at $37 underwear, I recommend the Jockey Sport Cooling Mesh Performance Trunk ($18) as a more economical option.

I’ve worn these for years and would consider them a reasonable runner-up. The fabrics, fit, and durability are as good as the Kinetic’s. For all-day use, however, they’re not as comfortable; they support well, but without the BallPark pouch, the anatomy does not stay reliably in place.

Book Reviews: ‘Thirst’ and ‘The Sun Is a Compass’

28 Apr

My wife thinks I should read more fiction, and she’s right. But I don’t read enough as is, so I’ll stick with what interests me—nonfiction adventure narratives. Recently I burned through two new books, Thirst by Heather “Anish” Anderson ($25; Mountaineers Press), and Sun is a Compass by Caroline van Hemert ($27; Little, Brown), both of which I’d recommend to people who hike or backpack or anyone looking to get motivated for big summer adventures. 

andrew skurka
(Andrew Skurka)

Review: ‘Thirst’ by Heather “Anish” Anderson 

Anish was most recently in the news for being the sixth person and first woman to complete the Calendar Triple Crown, which involves thru-hiking the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide National Scenic Trails within a calendar year. The 7,900-mile odyssey took her 252 days.

But Thirst is about her record-breaking thru-hike of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2013. On this 61-day effort she averaged an astounding 43 miles per day, and did so without the help of a support crew—like most other thru-hikers, she resupplied and picked up self-addressed packages along the way.

For critics of speed-hiking, Thirst will become Exhibit A in their argument that you should slow down to smell the roses. Anish is often sleep-deprived, hungry, and overwhelmed (and as a function of those things, emotionally raw). She’s obsessed with the details of her locomotion: hours moving, pack weight, remaining calories, water supply, foot health, headlamp brightness. And the glorified diary remains centered on her trip and her goal; it deviates from the main story only occasionally, to provide insight about the who and why, and to give cursory attention to the landscapes that blur by. 

andrew skurka
At the finish line, the US-Canada border at the terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather Anderson)

Thirst will not be mentioned in the same sentence as Muir or Strayed, but I think it accurately and honestly depicts a record-setting experience. Fastest known times (especially the multi-month variety) are inward journeys, and their prevailing themes—like setting goals, believing in oneself, overcoming odds, and pushing through adversity—share more in common with the bios of Olympians and survivors.

Thirst reads quickly and is well written, although its diary structure limits introspection and forces dedication of pages to uneventful and non-pivotal days. It’s personal, with open discussions of Anish’s failed marriage, unfulfilling attempt at conventional life, and her struggles as an overweight child. Finally, it’s a unique book—Anish’s experiences put her in rare company.

andrew skurka
(Andrew Skurka)

Review: ‘The Sun is a Compass’ by Caroline Van Hemert

If Thirst sounds too inside baseball, The Sun is a Compass will probably appeal to you more. In 2012 Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat rowed, skied, canoed, hiked, and rafted about 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington, to Kotzebue, a small Arctic city in northwest Alaska.

The journey was legitimately epic, as trips tend to be in that part of the world—big storms and surf along the Inside Passage, two-week hauls between resupplies in the Yukon, sightings of thousands of caribou in the Brooks Range, more than 50 bear encounters, and four days stuck in a tent rationing one granola bar and a tablespoon of olive oil per day (shared between them).

andrew skurka
Caroline and husband Pat journeyed 4,000 miles from Bellingham to Kotzebue through some of the wildest terrain in North America. (Caroline Van Hamert)

The Sun is a Compass is personal and frequently harrowing. It’s not a day-by-day diary. Instead, it’s almost as if Caroline answered FAQ for 150 pages—“Why did you do this? How did you and Pat meet? What did your family think of your plans? What was the scariest part? How many bears did you encounter? What was the largest caribou herd that you saw? What it like to not eat for four days? Did you ever think of quitting, or think you might be unable to finish?" Then, she added plot for another 100 pages so that the story is coherent and chronological, not disjointed.

But The Sun is a Compass is more than just an adventurous tale. Van Hemert softens the story with widely relatable themes, stories, and issues, like the migration of birds and caribou, her professional conflict as a new Ph.D. in ornithology, the development of Section 1002 on the North Slope, and of course the love and partnership with Pat. The couple now split their time between Haines and Anchorage, Alaska, and are raising two young boys. It’s another example of a mega Alaskan expedition that was the end of an era, not the beginning. Those adventures are hard to top.

5 Concerns Beginner Backpackers Should Consider

16 Apr

In a recent podcast interview, I was asked, “What advice or tips do you have for beginner backpackers?” You can imagine the difficulty of encapsulating nearly 20 years of experience into a sound bite, so instead I resorted to five process-oriented questions that steer new backpackers in the right direction.

1. What backpacking style appeals to you most?

Backpacking consists of two distinct activities: hiking and camping. On some trips, I hike all day and camp only long enough so that I’m recharged for another long day of hiking. On other trips, I spend most of my time in and around camp so that I can fish, take photos, journal, nap, and eat like a king. Occasionally, it’s an even mix of these two activities. There’s no right way to backpack, but there is a right way to prepare for trips with different objectives.

On most of my trips, a pack as large and heavy as the one I’m carrying in the photo above would be a showstopper. But for a relaxed overnight with my wife, it was perfect.

2. What are the conditions you will likely encounter?

To prepare properly for your trip, you must know the temperatures, precipitation, ground cover, vegetation, sun exposure, water availability, biting insects, problematic wildlife, and natural hazards (e.g., river fords, lightning, remoteness) that you will likely encounter. By knowing exactly what you’re up against—which you can do by looking at climate data, reading trip reports, looking at photos, and calling backcountry rangers—you can pack purposely and avoid filling your pack with items justified on the grounds of “what if” or “just in case.”

Andrew Skurka
Know what you’ll be up against so you can prepare accordingly. (Andrew Skurka)

3. What clothing and equipment is best for you?

Your gear should be appropriate for your trip objective (see question one) and the conditions (question two). If your itinerary includes moderate or intense hiking, you must be comfortable on the trail, which means having a lightweight kit. If you plan to camp more, you can afford to carry more camp comforts.

A high-quality backpacking kit will cost about as much as a nice bicycle, between $2,000 and $4,000. To avoid spending more than necessary, buy the right stuff the first time by getting advice from  backpacking websites, r/Ultralight, and books (including my own, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guidewhich I’ll buy back from you if it doesn’t pay for itself many times over). Sales associates at your local outdoor retail store can also be helpful, but I feel like some still backpack like it’s 1980.

4. How much and what types of food should you carry?

Last year I wrote an in-depth article about backpacking food, so I’ll just summarize it here. Most backpackers need about 2,250 to 2,750 calories per day, which equates to 18 to 22 ounces of food, assuming a caloric density of 125 calories per ounce. (For context, a pure carbohydrate has 100 calories per ounce, a pure fat, 240 calories per ounce.) This is a time-tested estimate, based on having guided nearly 500 clients over the past eight years.

Food is highly personal, so I’m wary of making specific recommendations. In general, foods that require chewing and that are less easily digestible seem to work better than sugary gels, mixes, and candies. For dinners, try my world-famous beans and rice or peanut noodles.

Andrew Skurka
Instead of buying freeze-dried dinners, try DIY recipes instead. This meal has four ingredients: instant rice, dehydrated beans, cheddar cheese, and Fritos, plus some spices. (Andrew Skurka)

5. What backcountry skills do you need or need to develop?

The difference between a beginner and an expert backpacker is not necessarily what each carries on their backs; rather, it’s the knowledge they have between their ears. Expert backpackers can navigate on- and off-trail, care for battered feet, start campfires in the least favorable conditions, find better campsites, effectively protect their food from bears and rodents, and more. If you do not yet have these skills, study up before you go by reading tutorials and watching how-to videos, so that doing things in the field is less foreign.