The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide

Hiking gear explained

My first backpacking trip was a hike to a trail shelter in Shenandoah National Park in the early seventies. My brother and I carried frame-less canvas backpacks with webbing shoulder straps that my dad padded with upholstery foam. I don’t recall the sleeping bags or much else about the gear we used because my brother and I were much more interested in the creek near the shelter.

Dad poured over Colin Fletcher’s new book, The Complete Walker, and so did I. We studied his techniques and emulated them. We wrote away for catalogs and made a few pilgrimages to Vienna Virginia from our home in Fall’s Church to a backpacking and camping gear shop (what was the name of that place?) to buy what we could afford and that wasn’t much.

Forty years later we are inundated with a torrential stream of gear and advice making the “right” choice nearly impossible. Colin Fletcher’s simple gospel has fractured into dogmatic schisms, each with their holy book, magazine or website. Now there are backpackers, lightweight backpackers, ultralight backpackers and many flavors in between. I’ve read many backpacking books, tons of articles and blog posts and have grown tired of their often circular logic, rehashed advice and wondered if advertising dollars skewed their opinions.

Andrew Skurka’s new book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, will change the way we sling a pack on our backs and hoof it into the wild just as Fletcher’s Complete Walker once did. Fletcher’s first books recorded his monumental treks (The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time) and these expeditions resulted in The Complete Walker. Skurka’s stunning 30,000 miles of trekking over the past decade have resulted in The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. His writing is as focused, practical and essential as his twenty pound pack – there’s nothing in it you don’t need.

My most successful backpacking trips have been those for which I had honest, accurate, and correct answers to three critical questions: 1. What are my objectives? 2. What are the environmental and route conditions that I will likely encounter during my trip, such as temperatures, precipitation, and water availability? and 3. What gear, supplies, and skills will best help me achieve my objectives and keep me safe and comfortable in those conditions?

Skurka’s writing may lack Fletcher’s prosaic warmth but is at least as effective. It’s a great counterpoint to a lot of outdoor how-to books that, in their attempt at warmth, become cloying and unfocused.

The first section of the book asks and answers the questions that many don’t think to ask until they are out on the trail with too much and/or too little gear, blistered feet, and soaking wet with no hope of getting dry; why am I doing this? Skurka uses his first real backpacking experience (a through hike of the Appalachian trail!) to explain what you are getting yourself into. He offers direction and advice that, if heeded, will save readers a great deal of discomfort.

An extensive analysis of the construction, function and use of gear follows. Skurka explains why and how things ought to work in a way that makes choosing gear relatively painless. While he does mention specific models and manufacturers, he goes well beyond the model number. The final section of the book offers gear lists for several different environments.

If you don’t think this sounds like anything new in one way you are right; there isn’t much new information in the guide because you don’t really need new information. When The Complete Walker was published forty plus years ago there were only a handful of books on the subject; now the amount of information out there can bring your trip planning and gear research to a standstill of indecision.

In this age of limitless information I value expert advice and observation presented between the covers a book. Those covers ward off distractions and focus our attention on information that really matters.

The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide is my new go-to resource for backpacking gear information that’s truly useful.

-- Clarke Green 04/13/12

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