Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide

Rate me unimpressed.

This book was my biggest disappointment since I bought Lightweight Backpacking & Camping (LB&C) by Ryan Jordan, etc. (The "etc." being George Cole, Lee Van Horn, Alan Dixon, Rick Dreher, Dave Schultz, Stephanie Jordan, Alison Simon, Bill Thorneloe, and Ellen Zaslaw)

Both books are losers but in different ways. LB&C is pompous, attempting to be academic in tone, and goes on forever while introducing little of value, and without even covering all aspects of the subject. It makes backpacking sound insipid.

Ray Jardine, whatever one thinks of him and his huge ego problems, is a better writer, and can at least hold a reader's interest for the duration of a book. (I've read The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook and Beyond Backpacking, but not Trail Life. He does have gaps in his work, though the last volume might be better.)

But saying that The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide (TUHGG) was a disappointment isn't quite right. I bought it only to fill out my Amazon order so I'd get free shipping. Sounds odd, but rather than paying for shipping and getting only shipping, I paid for an extra book and got shipping added on at no extra cost.

Hey. I was curious. How bad could it be?

Pretty bad.

Or, more succinctly, crap.

TUHGG contains no useful information. It is so bad that it could have been written by Karen Berger, a successful and (in my opinion) talentless outdoor-writing hack.

Once upon a time, when Backpacker Magazine online had a "jargon file" section, I came across a hint that said Ms Berger had written it.

There were gems in it such as these:

  • Loop Trail: As the name suggests, loop trails start at point A and returns back to point A without repeating any section of the trail (or at least, not much of it).
  • Shoulder Straps: Curved anatomically so they don't slide or pinch neck.
  • Whitewater: This term is used to describe stretches of rivers that are considered technical for boating purposes. The turbulent aerated water is recognizable by the steep drops it pours over and the loud roaring noise created in the process.

Presumably, all the foaming white water is not a clue to the presence of white water.

Gladly, for me at least, Mr Skurka can write gooder. But his book needs an editor. Really. He writes too bloodlessly, using "and/or" on almost every page. (Make up your mind, eh?) And he assumes too much knowledge on the reader's part by not being explicit enough, especially about equipment, mentioning many things in passing without explaining what they are, where one can find information, or where they can be bought.

The good: This book had a great art director. The book is visually appealing and easy to surf around in. It has a consistent color scheme and great typography. It is well laid out. It gave me ideas I can apply to my upcoming work.

Some other stuff:

Goofy terminology.

Where did this Ultimate Hiker phrase come from? Mr Skurka bills his style as "ultimate hiking", as opposed to "ultimate camping", or other outdoor pursuits such as birdwatching, which might also involve carrying a pack and moving one's feet in an organized way for part of the day.

By "ultimate hiking" he means only that he likes to walk, mostly. Dopey.

And worse, "ultimate" found its way into the title, which, in case anyone has forgotten, is The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide, which leads a person to believe that this book is the final and last word about hiking gear, which it ain't. Gear talk is tossed off casually, and everything else in the book is almost incidental as well. Which leaves lots of time to appreciate the art direction, but that wasn't what I was hoping for.

Fuzzy thinking.

And there is loose gear talk too.

Take the "Cooking Systems" section. In it Mr Skurka describes how to make an alcohol-burning stove from a cat food can. Having written a book on ultralight stoves, I've put a lot of time into thinking about them and how they work, so I know a bit.

OK so far, but Mr Skurka's book provides no step-by-step illustrations. Well, not too bad – any mostly-normal person can figure out the steps. But there's more.

He describes a wind screen but doesn't show one, or how to make it. I can guess what it looks like and how it's used, having seen lots of pictures elsewhere, but a noob probably can't. And it's a crappy sort of windscreen once you've got it made, especially crappy for someone soloing hundreds of miles across Alaska and northern Canada, when one needs the most efficient wind screen possible. Even I figured this out years ago, and have published plans for the style I use. Because it's awesome (i.e., it works).

And then there are a couple of worse things. For one, there is no reflector under Mr Skurka's stove. This is huge.

As someone who personally set Mt Rainier National Park on fire one summer day, I know from bottom reflectors. Using an alcohol stove with an adequate wind screen almost guarantees shooting mass quantities of reflected heat back down toward the ground, so you definitely need a ground reflector. But Mr Skurka didn't mention one. I don't think he knows about the idea.

The other thing is more subtle. It's his fuel bottle. The photo at the top of page 142 shows Mr Skurka fueling his stove from a hard-sided plastic bottle. Again, dopey. This is a true beginner's mistake and is crazy stupid.

Leave air in a bottle and ascend, and then what? Pressure builds inside. It could be enough to split a bottle, or to force fuel to leak out around the cap. Alcohol is fugitive enough, as anyone who has ever used a push-pull type cap knows. (Yep – I made that mistake too.)

Leave air in a bottle and descend, and then what? Pressure builds outside and the bottle crumples. Also not good.

So, then what, Mr Smarty-Pants?

Simple. Just use a 16-ounce/half liter Platypus bladder for fuel. Squeeze out excess air before replacing the cap, and you have a slim fuel container that is impervious to altitude changes and fits into even the tightest pack pocket. Somehow Mr Skurka, in all his thousands of miles and years of tramping around, has never figured this out.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

No sources of information.

Dig for them and you can find them, but Mr Skurka doesn't help.

Example – stakes. Mr Skurka likes the "REI Tri-Stake", and he mentions it as being one of his picks, but provides no picture or URL, and does not even say what "REI" is (not everyone knows). So, obviously, do a web search, Dumbnuts. Which I do, and find...nothing. Much. A couple of reviews, but not even a link to REI.

So I go to REI (Recreational Equipment, Incorporated) and search for "Tri-Stake". And the results are: "Tri-Stake (0 matches) Sorry, we couldn't find any matches."


So now what? Dunno. With an image a person could get an idea, and probably buy something similar, or go hunting around on the web and so on, and find something similar, but without a URL or an image in the book, you don't know. And TUHGG is full of these references. In fact, there is no appendix or supplement or table of URLs for the reader to start with. A person has to guess, and that ain't good.

Poop on it.

Half-baked anecdotes.

There is too much of this:

The forest was dense and the side of the abandoned logging road was filled with brush and slash piles, so I'd wound up pitching my poncho-tarp directly on the road...A particularly strong gust at around 5 a.m. yanked a stake from its mooring and my poncho-tarp fell on top of me like a wet blanket...After about two hours of hiking I was sipping hot cocoa while my clothes tumbled in the dryer, and being entertained in the home of 85-year old Elizabeth Barlow.

And that's about it.

Mr Skurka set up camp, got rousted by a storm, ended up in someones' house for a while (no telling how) and then wanders into a discussion about shelter functionality. The reader never knows how he found Ms Barlow's house, why he was let in, or invited in or whatever, who she was, or anything interesting about her or the whole situation. Sure, hey, he got pooped on by the rainstorm, but hasn't that happened to him about 8000 times in his hiking life? What was it, then, about this particular rainstorm or this location, or this person that is relevant?

Dunno, 'cause Mr Skurka don't say.

Crap on it. There's too much of this in the book. Way too much.

Strange gear choices.

OK then, on to titanium.

On page 147, under material that cookware can be made from, we get back to the canard about titanium being the absolute lightest material available, which is so wrong it hurts my head: "Titanium pots are the lightest...".

Ah, no. The "AntiGravity Gear Non-Stick Pot" (a.k.a. "Evernew Titanium Non-Stick .9L Pot", which is the closest item that AntiGravityGear is selling now) is not $10 but $65, and weighs 4.8 oz or 136 g.

I use an 18-fluid-ounce / 0.53L aluminum cup that weighs 1.8 ounces or 51 g, and cost me $5.95 (please note where the decimal point is). Even an empty steel tomato can is lighter by 1.8 ounces than the above titanium pot, and costs (with original contents intact) less than $2.

Titanium, as a material, is nearly the weight of steel, and much more expensive than either steel or aluminum, but it is almost corrosion-proof, and tough (it doesn't dent easily). It all depends on how it's made, and most titanium cups and pots are not whisper-thin, which means that they weigh a lot.

If you want titanium for its particular physical and chemical qualities, then go for it, but no one with even the attention span and intelligence of a mouse can really claim that titanium is inherently light. So if Mr Skurka, with his mega-mileage trips, is buying titanium because it's the lightest, then again. You have to wonder.

And what's with the link anyway. Oh, right. There is none. You say "AntiGravity Gear Non-Stick Pot", and hope for the best. Well, there is no such thing as of right now, and no picture or supplemental information in the book, or on a supporting web site, so the best guess is the Evernew pot, which is a long, long way from $10.

OK fine.

What about really cheap solutions? "...don't be tempted to use a Wal-Mart Grease Pot or a Foster's beer can – neither is durable enough for a week-long trip...." WTF?

They evaporate? Break into shards when you look at them? Explode?

I've used both, and it's true that the giant beer cans are thermodynamically inefficient, and not terribly durable, but both that and the grease pot are easily as durable as Mr Skurka's home-made alcohol stove, let alone the tarp he sleeps under, so I don't get this part either.

Is anyone home?

Dangerous omissions.

Well, sure. This is the part where a person has to use common sense. But a real noob might take things literally, and get into trouble.

Mr Skurka does not carry an extra shirt, or backup footwear. Or so he says.

This is nuts.

I truly cannot comprehend how a person can go on a 4700-mile trip on foot, taking only one shirt and one pair of shoes. Mr Skurka doesn't say so, but it is implied here and there throughout TUHGG that on his trips he frequently receives supplies on roughly a weekly basis. This would mean at worst that he's getting a new, clean shirt weekly or thereabouts, but the shoes!

What happens if you need to cross a stream, or simply want to strip down, wade in, and bathe? You have one pair of shoes, which you either leave on (and soak) or take off (and risk ripping up your feet). This is nuts.

I'm a lightweight-er but I've come up with several rules over the years, and carrying some kind of backup foot protection is one. Even if it's shoe insoles that I swap out for something more helpful from the after-market, like Superfeet insoles, at least I have something, and I'm not stuck with nothing.

Likewise for socks and shirts. I normally carry three sets of socks because the washed pair takes roughly 24 hours to dry (where I live), so with three pair I can have one pair to wear, one pair dry and clean switch to, and one pair not quite dry yet after having been washed.

And with shirts, I can wash my dirty one and still have a clean and dry shirt to sleep in.

Easy, simple, still light, and redundant enough to increase both comfort and safety.

I don't get the no-backup position at all.

Other stuff.

There's lots.

If it weren't for the fact that Mr Skurka had company on some of his trips, and had the rest of his trips documented one way or another, I'd be guessin' that he really didn't know crap, and was a beginner like the rest of us, and hasn't gone that far in actual fact.

I first heard of him when he sent me a query about publishing a story proposing his first-ever thru-hike of the Sea-to-Sea Route. I was editor of the ALDHA-West newsletter at the time. Since then I attended a post-Sea-to-Sea presentation he gave at the Seattle REI, and I heard him speak one year at an ALDHA-West Gathering near Mt Hood. So I know he actually exists, and has worked on his technique and equipment, and is young and strong and smart, but I don't understand this book.

And I'm not jealous. I did write a book on backpacking stoves, and in the last half-dozen years it has sold around 12 copies. I'm sure that Mr Skurka's book has sold enough to buy him more than one light beer. Go for it, Andy. He has a name, and he has National Geographic behind him, and those things count. His book is beautiful. His sales will be good. This is all fine. It is how life works.

But TUHGG would be so much better if it actually said something. Right on page 7 in the introduction Mr Skurka mentions Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker (1968 edition), which, dated as it now is, is better than Mr Skurka's book. Because it tells a story, and has personality, and teaches techniques that transcend random equipment mentions.

Andrew Skurka is a person whose name appears in several record books. Colin Fletcher was a mensch.

One will be remembered.


If you want better from Andrew Skurka, see his web site.

Lightweight Backpacking & Camping

Karen Berger, Writer

Sea-to-Sea Route

Super Duper Ultralight Windscreen

Low Tech Cooking Pottery

Occasional Definitions: Titanium

Cherry Picking A Pot