Since the end of the Alaska-Yukon Expedition over four years ago, hundreds of times I’ve been asked, “So what’s your next big adventure?”
Relative to what I had just done, and relative to some of my other big efforts like the Sea-to-Sea Route, Great Western Loop, or even Leadville 100, my answers always felt lame. “I’m writing a book.” “I’m planning a nationwide speaking tour.” “I’m guiding backpacking trips.” “I’m buying a house and getting married.”
I know, these endeavors were not lame, and in some respects their success is even more impressive than the wanderlust of my 20’s. Nonetheless, I feel as if for too long that nesting and career development have trumped a vital part of me: backpacking. While I’ve developed tremendously as a backpacking instructor, a backpacking writer, a backpacking speaker, and even a backpack hunter, my continued development as a pure backpacker has been far less satisfying.
This year that will change — or, perhaps more accurately, revert. But my next “big” adventure won’t be a single long one, but a series of short ones. That’s right, short is the new long.
Why short? As a practical matter, short trips — by which I mean about a week in duration — are less disruptive to the remainder of my life, notably my marriage. For others, vacation time is presumably a big constraint, too.
Equally important, however, on short trips I can maintain a level of overall awesomeness that cannot be rivaled by a longer itinerary. As an example, consider the 100-mile Wind River High Route, which features 60 miles of off-trail travel and two 13’ers, hovers usually between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, and never crosses a road. From start to finish, it’s simply world-class.
But after about week (at my pace), the topography has been exhausted. To the south lies the Great Divide Basin, a vast sagebrush-covered high desert crisscrossed by mind-numbingly boring dirt roads. The terrain to the north is more inviting, but days or weeks of relatively unspectacular “transition” miles (not to mention roads and towns) still stand between the Winds and other highlights of the northern Rockies like the Tetons and Beartooth Plateau. At least in the lower 48, the same is true of every other 5-star backcountry location. Go ahead, try to think of an exception.
I’m quite capable of hiking through such terrain, but at least for now I no longer choose to. Instead, I plan to dedicate all of the time I have available to other Wind River High Route-like efforts in the Escalante, Sangres, Front Range, Sequoia-Kings, Yosemite, and possibly even the Whites. Collectively, this list represents the “best of” — physically intense, mentally engaging backpacking routes that encompass a defined topographic feature (e.g. range, watershed) and that mile-for-mile offer an unrivaled wilderness experience.
Stay tuned for details, which I’ve intentionally kept minimal. It’s going to be an exciting year.
This is a very good post and reflective of stuff I’ve been thinking about for awhile. While there’s a lot to be said for the transformative nature of a long long hike, its hard to fit with the realities of most people lives. A big focus for me, especially as I’ve transitioned to my 30s and had to grapple with the exigencies of marriage and a career I can’t easily up and walk away from, has been finding ways to have that same kind of intense wilderness experience, but fit into shorter periods of time away from civilization, wife and job.
Partially I’ve tried to accomplish that through doing shorter (e.g. weeklong) trips through truly exemplary wilderness areas like you describe here, including a route that was very similar to yours in the Winds, as well as (in the last few years) the Sawtooths, the Canadian Rockies, the Maroon Bells, the Grand Canyon, Zion, and the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. This has been a big focus for me the past few years.
I’ve also found it helpful to step up the technical difficulty of the trips I take, with trips that incorporate difficult cross-country hiking and scrambling with mountain biking, packrafting and technical canyoneering sometimes all on the same trip. On the PCT I could “cruise” almost mindlessly up the trail sometimes for days. More technical demanding trips like these force you to deal with your wilderness with an immediacy and urgency that is sometimes lacking from straightforward on-trail hiking, even in the context of a thru-hike.
The result of all this has been some of the best wilderness experiences I’ve had the privilege of having, every bit as satisfying as an extended long-distance hike but much easier to integrate into a “normal” life. Anyway, what you’re saying here resonates a lot with me and I’ll be very interested to read what you have to say/write on this topic
Exactly. Ironically, the backpacking community worships the long-distance trails despite being impractical. If you will, this “short is the new long” series are a new sort of bucket list for the rest of us.
Week-ish long trips that are technically challenging and multi-mode not only are compatible with a “normal” life, but the time involved in planning them is fairly reasonable, too. Because trips of this intensity are so much more involved, it’s extremely time-consuming to plan really long ones. For example, it took me 6 months to plan the route on my Alaska-Yukon Expedition. As a result, most individuals who wish to spend multiple months backpacking are forced onto established routes and/or the road system. And I’m kind of over that.
The difficult part I think if you come from a long-distance hiking background is giving yourself mental permission to be satisfied with shorter trips. If you have an experience like the PCT or CDT in your background, it can feel a little lame when you realize”once upon a time an awesome trip was spending 6+ months on the trail, these days I’m lucky to get out for a week.” The key to dealing with this, as you explain pretty well in your post, is to realize that by limiting the scope of the trip, you can focus on truly stellar wilderness areas and trips with very high fun factor. The trips end up being better for the time constraint, with all meat and very little fat. Unlike a longer hike where you are stringing together 5 star spots with lots of connector trudging. But that said it does take some mental adjustment to learn to be happy within constraints, if you’re used to being footloose and free in the wilderness for months at a time.
Andrew, have you considered backpacking in the Canadian Rockies or British Columbia Coast Mountains? Both feature awesome alpine terrain and few established high-level trails. They’re ripe for someone to pioneer a new, medium distance (~100 miles) off-trail route.
Outside of some initial map recon, no, I have not. But clearly the potential is there.
One of the challenges of creating these routes is that I must intimately know the area. Only through extensive first-hand experience can I learn where the best scenery is, what factors make for the best off-trail travel (e.g. elevation, slope aspect, vegetation), and where there exist manmade use trails and game trails. Efforts to “on-sight” a route of this caliber almost always feature imperfections. So to plot a route in BC, I’d first have to go up there on a pure exploratory mission, and hopefully I would come back with enough information to piece together a continuous route that is worthy. Alternatively, I could combine forces with someone who knows the area already, as I have done with Philip Werner because he knows the Whites so well.
Indeed. The level of glaciation along the crest of the Coast Mountains will also make it challenging to stay high and avoid having to rope up (and all the additional gear/weight that would require). I strongly recommend that you visit BC, and although access by road is often impossible, there are excellent opportunities to combine packrafting with hiking or mountaineering in a very complementary fashion.
The coast mountains are indeed filled with potential. It’s semi-overwhelming planning cool trips in this area. I’ve put together a 60 mile alpine route that I hope to attempt shortly. If I had longer time windows opportunities exist to make it 2-5x as long.
My Finnish girlfriend has this fantasy of doing the Canadian half of the Great Divide. She bought a few books on the subject and started following this blog to help with the planning. You might like it:
It won’t be as long as your past adventures, but it’s might be worth doing for you.
I feel like British Columbia and Alberta would be awesome places to do some hiking. Also, have you ever considered a backpacking trip in New Zealand? It looks like it would be a great place to explore.
This is great! I found being a distance hiker, I started to become jaded to smaller adventures. For lack of a better word, I found that comparitive thinking was keeping me from appreciating the smaller adventures. Similar to a big wave surfer not being able to enjoy as much a junky little wave. What got me out of the funk, was an article by Alastair Humphreys similar concept of a microadventure. Fascinated, with the concept, I found taking part in his challenge (a once a month adventure) to be just as rewarding if not more! I too recently got married and because I choose to spend more time with my wife, I found these smaller trips to be just right. Some may call it a compromise and maybe it is but not so if your goal is to spend more time outdoors with a companion. I currently live in Alaska and in fact, we are planning a fun 10 day packraft trip to Gates of the Arctic. So small is the new big! I’m in! Thanks for the inspiration!
HEY SKURKS! (Can I call you that? 😉
I still cannot thank you enough for all of the inspiration. I was just telling someone last night about how much of a beast you are with respect to the looooong hikes.
Thanks to your maps, I completed the SHR late 2013. I hope to go back soon, but, I’ve also been thinking about shorter trips or just how to pack in the same amount of experience for others who cannot get away for as long. I hope to guide people on such adventures myself.
For the fun of it, I walked about 30 miles around Raleigh, NC yesterday. While not as “EPIC” as some of my High Sierra exploits, it was definitely a talking point and gave me a wonderful overview of this town. I guess my point is that it satisfied my legs and I learned a lot in a small window of time.
Great blog post and it raises a lot of food for thought. Check out the website and you’ll love some of the photos of places you’ve been to in that magical Range of Light.
JAH ~*~ aka
Great Post Andrew. I hiked 1100 miles of the PCT in 1981 when I was 19 and for years after that would not bother with a hike of less than a couple weeks because I felt like they were not worth bothering with. Then I got into bicycle racing and got to the point where I would not bother to go out for rides less than a couple hours.
It was a long transition (and often a struggle) for me to get to the point where I will now go out on 1 hour rides and single day or long weekend hikes, but I get a lot out of things these days that I would have missed in my younger days.
Andrew, I’m excited about this and even more about your writing a book that might include your possible “short” trip ideas. Dave and I love the possibility of trying some of your favorite “short” trips which, for sure, will be longer for us but are about the perfect length as far as we are concerned. Can’t wait for more, Debbie and Dave
Let me know if you ever come through Escalante or Boulder, UT. My passion is off trail route finding through the canyons. 7 – 10 days being the best although I went out for 27 last year.
Love to meet up someday,
I think this is an excellent and inspiring plan! In trying to make my own tough decisions about where to walk this year and how best to use my precious vacation time – whether to go for one long thru-hike, or several smaller trips, I have also come to appreciate that several smaller treks also allow so much possibility for exploring so many different corners of the planet within a calendar year using the limited vacation time most usually have. And there’s something to be said for perhaps cumulatively hiking for 500 miles though Utah, the cascades, New England, and the Sierras and getting to experience such a huge variety of places……vs. thru-hiking the CT and spending all of that time on terrain that (in general) isn’t going to vary spectacularly.
But that being said – it is tough to break away from the idea of one long walk when you’re used to having one big one to plan for!
Andrew: Brilliant! As a guy with a job (and a house payment) This sounds priceless. Let me know when your book (or routes) are published!
BTW: It took four months, but as of last week my foot is healed and I’m back on the road. Thanks to you and Brian.
So glad to hear that you’re healed Peter! My friends and family have been inspired by your story.
[…] Only to Andrew Skurka, does a “short adventure” mean “about a week.“ […]
Your street credit will always be intact, no matter what you do! 🙂
Mr. Skurka as always eager to hear more of your adventures. Will all of these routes follow the philosophy of Roper’s SHR I.e. Stay as close to the ridge as possible without technical means? It seems that in your Wind Rive HR you also note the importance of the wilderness factor (no roads crossed). Will your other proposed routes achieve this as well? Are they all straight backpacking trips, no pack rafting plans? Really looking forward to your addition to the SEKI area.
The Sierra High Route is definitely a core inspiration for this “short is the new long” series. But Roper’s main parameter for the SHR is not always possible or advisable to follow elsewhere.
The Wind River High Route (our version of it, at least) adheres to it pretty closely. A few of the routes I have planned in Colorado do, too.
But there is no “crest” to follow in the Escalante. Yet there is certainly a worthy route there.
And another route I have developed in the Sierra, to be released sometime this month, is finer than the SHR mile-for-mile (70% off trail!) but it cedes the main Sierra crest when they run parallel.
My general philosophy in developing these routes is to, “Work with what you got.” In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the route will entail a handful of 4,000-foot peaks and extensive bushwhacking. In Colorado, they are mostly high ridgewalks with views of ski resorts and highways far below. In the High Sierra, I’ve stitched together circumnavigations of famed watersheds.
I’ve long been a proponent of the 1-2 week trips for the very same reasons; job, kids, school, et c. I’ve never gone out > 15 days (I mistakenly carried ALL the food for that entire trip too – a mistake only a teenager can recover from).
I am returning to backpacking after a layoff of 25 yrs. during which I raised two kids, several dogs, and survived a pretty bad MTB crash (resulting in one blind eye). Ultimately my goals are a through of the AT (bucket list item), and a Tour Divide ride. Both of these may have to wait until I can retire, but the weekish long trips in central PA and midatlantic states await.
Highly recommend the UK for short trips,
It is small compared to the U.S. (Which is really really large btw)
Because of this, you cannot walk too far!
If you never get to hike in Scotland, you will miss out, it has it all.
I have just done a 2.5 day 79 mile national trial, the sheer variety
Of environments, habitats and species was amazing!
Come to the UK! Not very big, lots of short hikes, no bears or snakes!
[…] 2015 tagline of Andrew Skurka, the renowned long distance hiker, is short is the new long. Instead of adventures traversing 1000s and miles and many months, he recommends measured in […]
First off, HYOH, but I see no reason to be out for more than a month anywhere. I did several sections of the long trails between 1-4 weeks at a time and had a blast. If you’re not able to extract the wilderness, backpacking, or adventure experiences from a location in a month, maybe you should have planned better. That’s enough time to go just about anywhere and do anything except thru-hike. IMO, bragging rights for thru-hiking are overrated, and in reality it takes as much out of you, if not more, than it puts into you. The opportunity cost is absurd, and for the same price you could have had several potent shorter adventures in amazing places. The demographics speak for themselves.. most people who have time for a 6-month trek are young with no real responsibilities like a wife, kids, mortgage, or a job OR older, retired, kids grown, paid off home, and are tired of their wife.