*Skip to the very bottom for the video review*
Disclaimer: The author sent me this book to review. I have no affiliations with the author nor do I have any obligations to publish a review.
As you may know (or will quickly find), most backpackers are concerned about the weight of their pack. This book weighs 13.6oz, which is almost a pound — so you’ll probably want to read this book from the comfort of your home rather than bringing it on the trail.
The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide by Andrew Skurka is not a book on “ultralight” backpacking. It espouses some of the same concepts and motivations of UL backpacking but the focus is on the process of gear selection rather than the final weight of your pack. I think it’s a fun exercise to see how light you can get your pack to be but there’s a practical difference between minimizing your pack weight at all costs versus picking the appropriate gear for the conditions first and letting the rest follow suit.
With that said, let me highlight the things that I enjoyed in this book:
- A framework for backpackers: Section 1, which is 25 pages long, is the single most valuable part of the book. In this section, Andrew explains what he thinks about as he prepares for a successful hike. I’ve come to notice that many people are too quick to jump into the nitty gritty details about gear selection and forget to first consider the broader goal. It’s understandable — we have access to such a wide variety of gear that it can be overwhelming. Sometimes, we’re misguided by fear and marketing. In this book, Andrew helps accelerate your development by teaching you his thought process, which is centered around answering three questions. In my opinion, the true masters of any pursuit are not those who necessarily have the best achievements (or the lightest packs), but those who have really honed their framework and process in that pursuit.
- Sample gear lists: Those who are short on time can just emulate Andrew’s gear lists with a reasonable chance of success. Andrew outlines the types of gear you’ll want for various North American climates in Section 3; for specific recommendations, you can look for “Skurka’s Picks” which are spread throughout Section 2. Obviously you’ll still need to acquire some of that “stuff that goes between the ears” but this gives you a good starting point that works even for those with much more experience than you.
- Stories: Who doesn’t like a good story? Fortunately, Andrew includes lots of short stories to start the gear discussions, which makes for a more exciting and fun read. Otherwise, gear talk can be dry and pedantic — even for the nerds. Andrew also gives examples of when he has regretted his gear choices. He uses the term “stupid light” to describe decisions he made to save weight at the expense of safety and comfort. It’s something to consider for those who want to avoid the pains of trial-and-error.
- Writing style: I never read the first edition of this book but I understand that the book came off as “my way or the highway”. In this second edition, Andrew deliberately separates his own preferences and experiences from what he recommends to his intended reader. This means that if your intent is to become more of an “ultimate hiker” like Andrew, then his tools and techniques will be of more value to you. However, he won’t disparage you for wanting to bring along a pair of camp shoes.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the shortcomings of this book.
- Written to be outdated: This is just what happens when you give specific recommendations about gear. As technology and science continue to evolve, so too will the tools and techniques that are available to us. However, I think that the 3-question framework will stand the test of time, and that’s really the most important takeaway from this book.
- Lack of sourcing: A bigger issue that I have with the book is that the author presents many pieces of information as factual when, in fact, there is still uncertainty or debate about it. With science, the conclusion is subject to change but the data and processes are made available to others so that it can be repeated, verified, and taken a step further. The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide was not intended to be a scientific publication but there should be some minimum standard of fact verification as there are errors in this book.
After reading this book, I reviewed all of my own backpacking trips and found Andrew to be spot on with the gear and techniques that he uses in any given condition. However, I think there’s room for improvement, both in the book and in the hiking community, regarding our understanding of the science and engineering that goes into making and using gear. I want to encourage those who are doing their own independent testing to keep sharing information and keep up the good work. For those who practice pseudoscience, I would ask that you lower your voices and reexamine your own approach.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to become a better backpacker. For only $20, you get tips and insights from an expert backpacker that may help you avoid poor gear decisions. Knowledge is a better purchase than any single piece of gear that you can buy. Although a significant amount of the content is available throughout Andrew’s website, I find it much more digestible in book format, where it is already arranged for you to read from cover to cover. And besides, we should support an author who is willing to make his content available for free.