Disclaimer: Mr. Skurka gave me this copy at a book signing during the winter OR show.
First, the rationale behind the obnoxious title must be dealt with. Skurka’s “ultimate hiker” is one who tailors every aspect of her trip to serve walking, while the “ultimate camper” would maximize camping. It’s an intelligible distinction, one which is the core of Skurka’s recent second edition, and a point which (as he admits in the text) will far outlast many of the specifics which make up the bulk of the text. Ultimate is also a bit of unfortunate editorial hyperbole, as many if not most passers-by will assume it applies primarily to gear guide, rather than hiker. This and the unintentionally ironic allusion to Nietszche are my main quarrels with the book.
Otherwise, it is a superb example of a non-illustrious genre. The ideal audience for lengthy how-to tracts is the among the groups least likely to read them, they’re too busy out learning by doing. With this in mind one must weigh detail and a fair balance of the inherently subjective with paragraphs and pages that don’t strain the readers attention span too far. Skurka’s book is rife with bullet points, sidebars (unfortunately titled “How 2…”), and short paragraphs largely bereft of compound sentences. It also features terse but detailed discussions of vapor barrier liners, the limitations of WPB laminates, minimizing drafts in quilts, fighting condensation in single wall shelters, layering in cool wet weather, and many other topics that are difficult to discuss both clearly and well. The way in which Skurka deals with complex subjects quickly, but without being reductive, is the books second greatest strength.
The greatest strength is laid out flat in the introduction”…one tenet remains timeless: Carry on your back and between your ears what is appropriate for your trip objectives and the conditions.” Skurka returns to this point time and time again, never scolding, and often using his own catalogue of foibles for example and levity, but always being firm that skill development is the only path to doing it right. And it is possible, as he has said more firmly elsewhere, to do backpacking wrong. Having ones approach and preparation not in concert with ones skills and equipment is doing backpacking, or anything else outside, wrong. And as Skurka points out in the two pages devoted to “Why I’m a Hiker” the process of refining exactly what and why one enjoys backpacking is generally a pleasureable process marked by intrapersonal discovery and growth. Being able to clearly define what one wants out of given thing, and how to go about directly pursuing that, is quite applicable to other quarters of life, too.
I think I’d be hard pressed to find any reader, no matter how experienced, who won’t learn things from Skurka’s book. If nothing else, reading an elegant summation and restatement of things known will help focus one’s thinking on a given subject, but I think most people will learn new subject knowledge, as well. I got a great primer on hammocks, something I had previously ignored almost entirely, and was reminded of more rigorous and effective ways to macro-navigate (Skurka had role modeled his data sheets this past summer, a level of trip planning detail I’d never before been involved in). If you’re a serious backpacker the book is worth a read. And if you know a serious-minded aspiring backpacker, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide is the ideal starting point.