Here Andrew Skurka answers your questions about his 4,700-mile Alaska-Yukon Expedition.
See a photo gallery from the expedition and watch for the article in National Geographic Magazine in spring 2011.
1. What would you do without your mother? -- George Eichman III
My mother is certainly an integral and critical part of my trips, though my father should get some credit, too. My mom’s most functional role is serving as my logistics coordinator: She ships me food, supplies, and fresh gear; acts as a messenger for sponsors and media; and resolves things that I can’t from the field (e.g. purchasing my flight home). Over time I have learned how to reduce her workload. I do more things before I leave, e.g. box up my maildrops; I do more things from the field, e.g. blog; and I have plugged her into simple systems for tasks that need to get done, e.g. USPS home shipping. On short trips (less than a month), I can coordinate my own logistics. But on longer trips it’s definitely helpful to have someone else involved. My parents play two other important roles, besides coordinating logistics. First, they are my safety check. I call them every opportunity I get, in order to update them about where I am, where I’m going (if it’s different than the itinerary I left them), and when I’ll call next. Second, they serve as emotional outlet for me, since as a solo traveler I don’t have a regular opportunity (i.e. a travel partner) to talk through my stresses and feelings.
2. Do you have another job or do you do this for a living? If this is your job, then how did you get to do it? They never tell us about this sort of thing in school career days and it looks a lot more fun than being stuck in a boring office. -- Alex
I’m fortunate that my adventuring lifestyle has also become my “job.” I didn’t plan it that way -- in fact, when I arrived on Duke University’s campus in 1999 I was fast-tracking towards a lucrative Wall Street career. But my passions changed and I headed down a very different track: summer camp counselor, Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, GoLite intern, then graduation. I first had hiking-related income opportunities after the Sea-to-Sea Route in 2004-05, and since 2008 this career has been fully sustainable, so long as I keep my expenses low. My primary income sources today come from public speaking, guiding & instructing individuals and groups, and developing content (e.g. articles and mapsets); a few long-term sponsors help to minimize my gear costs.
3. Is hiking the "Triple Crown" a goal for you. I know you hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Is trail walking still an adventure for you or are you over that? -- Matthias
I am solidly over long-distance trail-hiking -- it is no longer acceptably challenging or engaging -- so I doubt that I will ever be a “Triple Crowner.” I think I maxed out my trail-hiking potential with the Great Western Loop -- I went about as fast, as far, and as light as I could go -- and I knew that if I wanted to continue learning and growing, I would need to find new challenges. Thus, I began traveling off-trail in bigger wilderness areas; I bought skis and a packraft; and I started instructing others in wilderness travel.
4. How did you avoid encounters with grizzly bears, especially since you often had quite a bit of food with you? -- Alan R
I will share with you what I do to avoid bear encounters, but I’ll encourage you to follow the recommendations of the agency that manages the area through which you are traveling, instead of listening to me. First, I take pre-emptive measures to avoid bears: I don’t camp near animal trails, on natural wildlife travel corridors (e.g. beaches and sandbars), or in good bear habitat (e.g. huckleberry patches). Second, I remain “bear aware,” especially in certain areas (see the previous sentence) and during certain times of the day (morning and night, when they are most active). I keep my food in odorproof Aloksak bags, and I don’t bring food items with strong odors, e.g. bacon. Completely contrary to widespread practices, I sleep next to my food inside my shelter, often using my food sack as a pillow; and I cook inside or near my tent. In Alaska, at least, most bears are nervous around humans -- because they are hunted -- and they won’t mess with a strange-looking bright-yellow pyramid tarp that wreaks of human and couscous.
5. I may be more astonished by your planning process than by the actual trip. How detailed was your route before you left? How long did it take you (in hours)? And with what tools did you plan it? How were you able to accurately predict your schedule, and your gear and food needs, for such a long trip, given all the potential variables? -- Fred
I plan my trips obsessively, and I think this obsession is a fundamental factor in why I have safely and successfully finished mega-trips like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition and Great Western Loop. I could not have winged these trips -- the pace was too fast and the logistics were too complicated. It took me about 6 months to plan the entire trip, working ~40 hours a week. I planned the route using several software packages: National Geographic TOPO! for Alaska, Memory Map for Yukon, and Google Maps and Microsoft Excel. I also communicated extensively with knowledgeable Alaskans (e.g. Roman Dial, and Erin McKittrick and Brentwood Higman) to get their suggestions and route beta. Certainly, it’s difficult to accurately predict a schedule, and gear and food needs, for such a long trip, but thankfully I have a lot of data from previous trips to inform my assumptions. Any unexpected needs can be resolved from the field without a huge disturbance.
6. How do you calculate the quantity of food you will need between resupply points? I know how you do it and I think others would be interested. -- Karen Skurka
This process is pretty simple -- I just need some data and a spreadsheet. First, I need to know how many miles it is between the resupply points. Then, I need to determine how many days it will take to cover that distance. Finally, I need to know how much food my body will require each day. The equation is simple: Total_quantity_of_food_needed = Days_between_resupply_points X Food_consumption_per_day. The challenge is that it takes time to learn what pace you can maintain in certain conditions (on-trail or off-trail, mountainous or flat, extensive bushwhacking or none, skis or packraft or foot, etc.) and how much food your body requires to maintain that pace. There is more food information on my website and in a previous NG blog post. When I instruct 1-week courses during which we hike 10-15 miles per day, we strive for 3,000 calories per person per day (PPPD), or about 1.5 lbs of food at a caloric density of 125 calories/ounce. This is probably a good starting point for most hikers.
7. What do you say to a girlfriend? "Hey, I'm going on a hike, back in 6 months?" -- Buzz
I don’t think that springing it on them last-minute would go over very well -- and frankly it shouldn’t -- and I prefer instead to be upfront at the start. My history doesn’t really suggest I’m a long-term commitment kind of guy, at least not at this point in my life Thankfully I’m not the only person in this situation and I’ve had some great relationships that have amicably ended just before leaving on another trip. Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan wrote a very funny article two years ago on this subject.
8. It's cold out, it's day 155, it's dark, you are warm in your sleeping bag. How do you get your ass out of the bliss of dream land and back on the trail? I know running out of food can be a great motivator, but it seems you are driven by something beyond food stress. -- Sage
I’m a goal-oriented person. When I started the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, my goal was to return to Kotzebue, and anything short of that would be a failure, from my perspective -- it would indicate a lack of will or physical strength, inadequate or poor planning, wrong risk calculations, etc. I woke up everyday with the sub-goal of making at least some progress towards my overall goal, ideally equal to or faster than my goal pace. Of course, this trip proved once again that the journey is more important than the destination. AYE was never about Kotzeube -- it was about all the miles in between. But having a laser focus on the goal generates the motivation to keep pushing through all of the adversity.
9. If you had to recommend ONE long distance hike in the American West, which one would it be? -- Brian
There are pros and cons to every long-distance trail, and you need to do find the trail that best suits your objectives. For example, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the thru-hiking culture, hike the Appalachian Trail; if you’re looking for a rugged and lonesome journey, consider the Continental Divide or Pacific Northwest Trail. I’ll also offer two unconventional long-distance trips. The Sierra High Route is the burly cousin of the John Muir Trail -- about half its 200-mile length is off-trail, and it accesses some remote basins and goes over some attention-getting passes. The Hayduke Trail meanders around the Lower 48’s least inhabited region, the Colorado Plateau, in southern Utah and northern Arizona (think “canyon country”). The 812-mile route starts in Arches National Park and finishes in Zion National Park; notable landmarks in between include The Needles District of Canyonlands, Buckskin Gulch (the longest slot canyon in the world) and Grand Canyon National Park.