Last weekend, I participated in another fantastic three-day backpacking fundamentals trip with hiker extraordinaire Andrew Skurka and nine students.
This year, we hiked in the remote and little used Stinson-Carr-Kineo region of the White Mountains which proved to be absolutely delightful in crisp, late autumn weather. Southeast of Mount Moosilauke, the terrain here is varied with open forest, marshy beaver ponds, and moderate elevation gains making it challenging without overly taxing for the less experienced hikers in our group. We didn’t see anyone else outside of our group for the entire 3 days, which is pretty unusual in the White Mountains any time of year, and heightened the wilderness experience for everyone on the trip.
The White Mountain Guide describes the trails in this area as “lightly used and possibly not easy to follow” which is pretty accurate. Signage and trail marking are very sparse, the footway is frequently indistinct, and sections of the trails are drowned by beaver ponds. This suited our educational purposes well because it helped reinforce the need to closely pay attention to topographic map contours, perform periodic bearing checks, and track other navigational cues in order to “stay found” in unfamiliar territory.
A word of warning – the AMC and Topo maps for this area are out of date and don’t account for all the paths and roads we encountered, so you need to be on your toes if you decide to hike in this area. Cell phone access is also non-existent.
The format of Andrew’s Backpacking Fundamentals instructional trips covers both basic and more advanced skills for on-trail or off-trail adventures including gear selection, route planning, map and compass navigation skills, off-trail bushwhacking, campsite selection, backcountry cooking and meal planning, fire building, leave no trace, gear repair and maintenance, foot-care, first-aid, and personal hygiene.
Students can also try out all kinds of backpacks, tents, and hammocks during the trip from different lightweight gear manufacturers and have access to deep product discounts from companies like Gossamer Gear, ULA Equipment, Six Moon Designs, Warbonnet Outdoors, Mountain Laurel Designs, and others when they sign up for Andrew’s courses which can significantly offset most of the cost of Andrew’s class with if they purchase new lightweight gear.
This is the second consecutive year I’ve helped Andrew out as an assistant guide based on my local experience in the White Mountains as an Appalachian Mountain Club Leader and an experienced lightweight backpacker. I really enjoy working with him because he puts a lot of himself into the class and has a real passion for teaching the material in a practical field setting. I’ve taught and taken a lot of backpacking and mountaineering classes over the years and Andrew is definitely one of the top 1 or 2 instructors I’ve ever encountered. You absolutely will learn the material presented in the class, get a chance to practice it repeatedly, and have fun doing it – and that’s what its all about!
The biggest thrill I get from leading these classes is the fact that we can take a novice day hiker or backpacker with relatively little experience and significantly elevate their self-sufficiency skills and confidence during the course of a 3-day weekend. While that’s still no substitute for doing lots of trips, it gives hikers new to the material a hands-on introduction so they know what they have to learn to become more experienced going forward. It’s also by far the most efficient way and effective way I’ve seen anyone teach these skills, which most people have to piece together from a variety of different sources and classes over a span of a few years.
Andrew’s classes are not luxury vacations where students are pampered, but real backpacking trips with a mixture of brief talks and hands-on practice. There’s also up-front homework, research, and teamwork that students are required to complete before the students arrive for the trip – everything from completing an environmental conditions assessment to gear list preparation and critique. These assignments are completed as a group via shared Google documents, so everyone in the class can complete their assignment and share in each others’ experience. Andrew’s really got this down to a science.
On the trip itself, students are responsible for setting up their own shelters, cooking their own meals, and packing and carrying their own gear and supplies, although all breakfasts and dinners are supplied by Andrew. It’s basically like any group backpacking trip, but with frequent teaching stops to give students a chance to apply what they’ve learned, particularly map and compass skills.
On this past trip, we had male and females students ranging in age from their mid twenties to their mid-fifties, including several day hikers who’d never backpacked before, two AT thru-hikers who wanted to learn compass navigation and bushwhacking, ultralight backpackers who wanted to learn about low-impact campsite selection and hammock camping, and a trail runner who wants to add a backpacking component to his adventures. Despite their different backgrounds, they all got along famously and we had a lot of laughs together. Definitely a great group of people and one of the best backpacking trips I’ve taken this year.
Disclaimer: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) is a former guide and part-time employee of Skurka Adventures.