Photo diary: Inaugural Ultimate Hiking Course in Yosemite National Park

The inaugural Ultimate Hiking Course was held last weekend in Yosemite National Park. If you missed this one, don’t worry: I’m offering this same course in five other locations this year:

  • Pisgah National Forest (June 2-4)
  • Shenandoah National Park (June 9-11)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park (August 17-19)
  • White Mountain National Forest (August 24-26)
  • Porcupine Mountains State Park (August 31 through September 2)
  • See the complete 2012 trip schedule and locations

Ultimate Hiking courses are billed as learning-intensive trips for beginners and “curious intermediates” (i.e. veteran backpackers in need of formal instruction or a refresh) who want to rapidly develop their backpacking know-how. The learning starts weeks before the trip, when we assess likely environmental & route conditions, discuss and select gear, plan food, and arrange logistics. Once we are in the field, we focus on hiking efficiency, on-trail and off-trail navigation and route-finding, campsite selection, water quality and purification, and much more. See the full curriculum. The trip is also an excellent opportunity to test out different gear — I have a closet of packs, shelters, quilts, and cooksets available for loan.

My goal with these trips is to save you time and money by helping you avoid “learning the hard way” through trial-and-error. In three days you will learn what takes most backpackers thousands of miles, thousands of dollars (in the form of regrettable gear purchases), and many trips that should have been more enjoyable and less difficult.

//Learn more and register for an Ultimate Hiking Course

Below are a series of images that are representative of our trip. Special thanks to Rob Timko and Doak Jones for taking many of these images.

A screenshot of my gear list. Download the gear list as a PDF. In the weeks before the trip, all members of the group fill out a similar list using a shared Google Docs spreadsheet.

The group met at 8:30am at the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. There, we distributed group food and performed a gear check, to make sure everyone had everything they needed and nothing they didn’t. Most kits are nearly flawless, thanks to the Google Docs gear list, but a few refinements are usually in order — for example, Bill didn’t take his camp shoes (bottom center) and he only took three liters of water capacity (not five), among other small changes.

After  hiking a short distance south from Tioga Road we had a map and compass clinic. Each group member received a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map for Yosemite National Park (1:80,000 scale), which we used as an overview map, plus a custom mapset I created using National Geographic TOPO! software (1:24,000 scale), which we used for navigating. Map skills are some of the most important to develop and I’m regularly surprised how even experienced backpackers don’t have a solid understanding of contour lines, map scales, and the difference between true north and magnet north.

Near the natural arch on Indian Ridge we got our first good view of several Yosemite Valley landmarks, including Half Dome. While the primary objective of this this course is to learn, I think everyone really enjoyed the spectacular scenery too.

It’d been an early-morning for many members of the group –for example, “Flyin’ Brian” Robinson, the other guide, had departed his home in Monterrey at about 3:30am — and everyone was happy to take an hour-long break near North Dome. In general, this was not a physically intense trip: everyone was there primarily to learn, not necessarily to hike, and our daily mileages were only about 5, 10, and 5 miles, including some off-trail travel.

We intentionally arrived at camp early on Day 1 in order to discuss campsite selection (tip: find soft, porous, and flat ground that is next to a natural windbreak and under a natural radiant barrier) and to practice pitching different shelters and using different cooksets. Among our group, we had two tarp + bivy systems, two tarp + nest systems, one hammock, two poncho-tarps, and two double-wall tents. This diversity allowed everyone to see first-hand the pros, cons, limitations and tradeoffs of possible shelter options.

Brian was almost done with his pasta & pesto (BTW, yum!) by the time I had boiling water. His original Cat Stove (made by his father, Trail Dad) clearly was faster and lighter than my wood stove, and he wasn’t covered in soot after each meal either. But, if we’d been on a multi-week trip, my stove might get the upper-hand. Again, this was a great opportunity for group members to see different systems in action and to determine the options that work best for their typical trips, without having to buy anything too.

Yosemite Creek was already down from its Spring peak flow and wasn’t a difficult ford, but it gave the group an opportunity to read the currents, select a fording spot, and to practice technique (e.g. using trekking poles for support and walking downstream on a diagonal in order to reduce drag).

After just a few miles on Day 2 Jason noticed a developing hot spot on his forefoot, which is a very common blister point and a very hard spot to treat. A moleskin donut and a few strips of Luekotape solved the problem completely.

Jason, Frank and Flyin’ Brian look over the 1:24,000-scale maps prior to a 4-hour off-trail segment, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Off-trail navigation and route-finding is very different than on-trail hiking: you need to consider likely vegetation, to use backstops and handrails, to take bearings in low-visibility areas, and to rely more heavily on your watch in order to dead-reckon and check your elevation. Off-trail travel makes for a more taxing, but ultimately more rewarding, backcountry experience, IMHO, and it’s comforting to learn how to do it in the company of more experienced navigators.

Posted in on May 23, 2012


  1. Paul Osborn on May 23, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I’ve been wanting to see more about what you cover in your course. Really enjoyed the book btw. I’ll have to look into attending when I get back from Bolivia.

  2. Sebastian Bönner on May 23, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Thanks for this short insight into your course. Ever thought about offering one in Europe?
    Guess there are more than enough hikers over here that would like to join one.

    By the way, how was your experience with your new hammock shelter?

    Greetings from Germany,


    • Andrew Skurka on May 24, 2012 at 9:05 am

      I’ve considered doing something in Europe but haven’t looked into any of the details. I think it’s pretty likely that I will do the TGO Challenge next year, in which case I’d probably extend my trip in order to give some slideshows/clinics and/or offer some guided trips. Have no idea what that would look like though.

      The hammock had mixed reviews. In the East, where there is much more undergrowth and where the summer nights are usually hot and humid, I think the hammock could make a lot of sense. In the West, good campsites are a dime a dozen and the nights are usually cool or cold, so one advantage of the hammock is negated and one of its characteristics (full-body convection) becomes a liability.

  3. Dianne G on May 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Quick question: your gear list says the weight for a pair of La Sportiva Raptors would be 14 oz, but the company lists approximately 1 lb 4 oz for them. Do you modify them to lose 3 oz each?

    Fabulous photos! Thanks for offering these trips.


    • Andrew Skurka on May 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      I estimated the weight of the shoes (which you should never do but my scale was not handy), and I accidentally included the weight only for one. Even if I had weighed the shoes, there’s a good chance that the weight would be different than the manufacturer’s weight because the weight they provide is for a standard size (e.g. men’s size 9) and most people’s feet are not size 9.

  4. Scott Sivola on July 31, 2020 at 8:15 am

    I was wondering if you would be open to sharing the general route you used in the porcupine mountains? I just moved to Milwaukee and would love to see what epic ridge-lines the UP has to offer. By the way I really enjoy the content you put out, when I was gearing up for my AT SOBO thru hike your google talk was extremely helpful and your recipes have really hit the spot on many a multi day backpacking trip. No worries if it’s too much of a hassle, just had to ask!

    • Andrew Skurka on July 31, 2020 at 9:29 am

      I don’t remember the route very well, but it’s not a huge place and you can probably pull together something good without a lot of work.

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