Andrew Skurka went to Duke University with intentions of ending up on Wall Street. Then, the summer before his senior year, he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, his first ever backpacking trip, alone and in only 95 days (that’s 23 miles a day). He had caught the bug. He returned to Duke for his senior year, knowing that finance was no longer in his future. Soon after graduating, he became the first person to hike the 7,775 miles from Quebec to Washington in 11 months, carrying with him a vial of water from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, he set another first by hiking the Great Western Loop — which links five long distance trails together over 6,875 miles — a feat that has yet to be repeated. He was named the 2005 “Person of the Year” by Backpacker Magazine and the 2007 “Adventurer of the Year” by National Geographic Adventure. We managed to catch him between guiding hikers through the canyons of Utah and jetting off to the Appalachians Mountains for a talk about success and failure on the trail.
MORE EXTREME PEOPLE: Ben Sanders, Polar Explorer | Fabien Cousteau, Underwater Explorer | Michael Wardian, Ultra Long-Distance Runner
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. How to navigate. With this skill, you can leave the established trails and crowds behind.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. My most recent big trip — a 6-month 4,700-mile solo effort around Alaska and Yukon — was no easy feat.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I just returned from guiding trips in the canyons of southern Utah, and in a few weeks I head east to guide a series of intro-level trips in the Appalachians.
I generally do what I want. And if others want to find value or inspiration in that, great.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. On average I travel for nearly half of the year. It can be exhausting, and I’ve come to adore my home as a place of stability and recovery.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: I’m still enthralled by stories of long expeditions, both historic and modern. There’s no other experience that allows you to get so connected with a landscape and to have such a singular life purpose.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Finding Everett Ruess, by David Roberts, coinciding with my recent trips to same area in southern Utah where he ultimately disappeared.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I placed second at the Leadville 100, my first and only 100-mile run, with a time of 18 hours 17 minutes. And I’ve run from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to its North Rim and back to its South Rim (42 miles total with 11,000 feet of vertical gain) in 8 hours and 2 minutes.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. A half-pound burger loaded with all the fixings, and a hearty IPA.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Always have a goal and always be ambitious, but expect your focus to subtly change every few years.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. It’s worked well for me so far to not ponder such questions. I generally do what I want. And if others want to find value or inspiration in that, great.
Q. Your first extended backpacking trip was thru hiking the Appalachian Trail the summer before your senior year of college. What motivated you to attempt the entire trail and why’d you go solo?
A. I calculated that I probably had just enough time to hike the entire thing, and that seemed more inspiring to me than only hiking a portion of it. I went solo because I didn’t have any friends who were willing or able to join me.
Q. Judging from the differences in your gear list from the start and finish of the Appalachian Trail, it seems you learned a lot. What was your biggest and most unexpected realization?
A. The most successful thru-hikers have a laser-like focus on hiking. Camping is simply an 8-hour opportunity to recharge.
Q. What was your lowest moment on the trail and how did you push forward?
A. The first month was plagued by overuse injuries caused by the combination of hiking 20+ miles per day with an excessively heavy pack. Once I fixed that situation, the experience improved dramatically.
Q. During your time in the Alaska Range, you came within a few days hike of where Chris McCandless — the vagabond popularized in the book Into the Wild — spent the last few months of his life. What do you think about Chris and the life he chose?
A. I’m the anti-McCandless. I appreciate his exuberance and spontaneity, but I find it better to plan everything that’s plan-able so that I can react fully to the unexpected, rather than be hobbled by situations that seemed pretty obvious.
Q. What will be your next big adventure?
A. Given the demands of being married and a small business owner, I’ve shifted my focus to short but classic backpacking routes. I have several planned throughout the West this summer.
Q. What is your favorite hike in the lower 48 that a typical hiker could accomplish?
A. I avoid the John Muir Trail at all costs, as its the most crowded and industrial part of the High Sierra. But for the “typical hiker,” the scenery is hard to beat.
Q. Will you ever get a 9-to-5 job?
A. I don’t see that happening in my foreseeable future.
Read more about Andrew Skurka’s hiking tips and guided trips.