Home / Trip Reports / Andrew Skurka’s White Mountains Backpacking Fundamentals Trip, 2013

Andrew Skurka’s White Mountains Backpacking Fundamentals Trip, 2013

Andrew Skurka Teaches Map and Compass NavigationAndrew Skurka Teaches Map and Compass Navigation
Andrew Skurka Teaches Map and Compass Navigation

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.

Hiking Along the Three Ponds Trail
Hiking Along the Three Ponds Trail

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A word of warning – the AMC and Topo maps for this area are out of date and don’t account for all the paths and roads we encountered, so you need to be on your toes if you decide to hike in this area.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. 

Three Ponds - Mt Kineo - Hubbard Brook Trail Loop
Three Ponds – Mt Kineo – Hubbard Brook Trail Loop

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.

Hiking on top of a beaver damn to get to the other side of a dammed pond
Hiking on top of a beaver dam to get to the other side of a beaver pond

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.

Bushwhacking and practicing terrain association skills at the Donkey Hill Cut-off
Bushwhacking and practicing terrain association skills at the Donkey Hill Cut-off

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!

Students get to try a wide variety of different ultralight shelters during the course of the weekend
Students get to try a wide variety of different ultralight shelters during the course of the weekend

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.

First Aid Tutorial
First Aid Tutorial

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.

Footcare Demonstration with real blisters!
Foot care demonstration with real blisters!

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.

Hubbard Brook Trail
Hubbard Brook Trail

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.

Autumn in the White Mountains
Autumn in the White Mountains

Disclaimer: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) is a former guide and part-time employee of Skurka Adventures. 


  1. Nice article Philip – one question though, and please pardon my ignorance. Why are almost all the attendants using trekking poles. I understand they are helpful when putting up your tarp, but seeing as they are detrimental to balance and muscular stability, I would assume that they were only used by people having issues with the two?

    • We instructed students in there proper use, since so many people do use them incorrectly.I have been using poles for over a decade and find they help my hiking cadence and propulsion uphill. I can also stand on one leg for 10 minutes (tree pose) without tipping over.

    • Trekkingpoles are detrimental to balance and muscular stability? Where is that coming from? Review the photo of a hiker on the beaver dam, and imagine doing that without poles. Since I started using poles, I’m confidently crossing streams on rocks and logs which previously I would have waded.

    • As someone who’s hiked thousands of miles without them and now many hundreds of miles with them, I’m never going back to not using poles. Before I ever heard of trekking poles a decade ago, I thought I had ten good years of backpacking left. Five years ago, and about three or four years into using them, I thought I had ten good years of backpacking left. Today, at age 61, I think I still have ten good years of backpacking left.

      I just got back from a 42 mile hiking trip in the Buffalo National River area of NW Arkansas, with many thousands feet of elevation gain and loss, bushwhacks, innumerable stream crossings, slippery, wet and moss covered rocks, canyon climbs, etc. There’s no way I could have accomplished what I did without poles. By the way, I had surgery on my foot in late August and am sporting several pins in bones there. My foot was swollen and painful the whole time but no more so than it was sitting in my desk chair before the hike or now while I’m back at work.

      I’ve had numerous fractures in my life, quite a few surgeries to fix injuries and arthritic conditions, arthritis in my hands and feet, scoliosis, back and neck problems, and much more. Using trekking poles allows me to backpack confidently and safely with my health conditions. Yes, I do burn a bit more energy because I’m carrying the poles and working my arms along with my legs but I get farther faster and my legs aren’t nearly as tired and my knees don’t hurt since my arms are carrying part of the load.

      Before I ever tried poles, I thought they were a marketing gimmick. My brother talked me into trying a pair of his on a long hike about nine years ago and I have not been without them since.

  2. I first read about Andrew in National Geographic while getting my oil changed a few years ago. This was before I ever started reading SectionHiker, so the connection was one of those “small world” moments.

    I can’t imagine there are many people more qualified to lead this type of course than the two of you. For those not familiar with Andrew, I would highly recommend checking out his website and reading some of the articles on him. He certainly has credentials in this field.

  3. I participated on this trip last year. I have to say that as much research and gear purchasing I had done on lightweight hiking, I learned more in these 3 days than I ever had. Philip and Andrew really cover common sense backpacking skills. Navigation and trip planning is a huge part of this course. Most backpackers don’t have proper map and compass skills and this course hammers into you head the right way to do it. Highly recommended and worth every penny.

  4. Mike, I have my info from a physiotherapist – you will of course get added stability, but I am talking about the fact that using trekking poles will be working against the bodys own internal gyro. Also you will be supporting instead of actively using some muscle groups especially around the knees and ankles. It is the same with high ankle boots – they provide stability but are detrimental to the build up of muscle strength.

    Each to his own of course :-)

    • Erik – my physiotherapist is Heather Rhodes, owner and inventor of Pacerpoles, so there’s obviously some disagreement about the benefits of poles in within that discipline.

      • There is definately good grounds for discussion here. But I do believe that there is not a lot of unbiased, double blind test, non commercial interest, healthy male/female, research having been done of a large enough selection og people, long term. A quick google search shows some results from commercial interests – which I would disregard instantly. I’m a born skeptic I’m afraid….

        Again – I am not saying that they will not help or aid with stabilization/balance, I am saying that it would be counter-productive for anyone wanting to get better balance and stronger muscles to use trekking poles as they will work against the bodys own gyro and not help strengthen the lower muscle groups. Upper muscle groups however is a different story. Sorry for perhaps being unclear about that and both our physios might even agree on the above statement both of them :-)

        So – great article Philip, I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog – keep up the good work!

      • Do you mean “counter-productive” as in hiking with trekking poles will make you weaker and/or detract from the balance that you had before hiking? I don’t think you need a double-blind test to know this is false.

        Or do you mean merely to say that you can strengthen certain muscles and balance-abilities more if you don’t use trekking poles than if you don’t. I’m sure this true, but again, I don’t think you need a double-blind test to know that. I can guarantee you that not using trekking poles for descents will work muscles around your knee much more than using trekking poles will. But that (i.e., avoiding knee joint issues by allowing my arms and upper body to cushion descents) is one reason trekking poles are desirable.

        Skurka likens a hiker’s use of trekking poles to a cross-country skier’s use of ski poles, saying neither hiker nor xc-skier should want to be without poles.

  5. When we teach our kids to ski, one trainingmethod is to tell them to leave the poles behind and just concentrate on using the skis with focus on technic and balance. The poles add forward momentum, and are not ment to be sideways support (thou that is what they often are).

    Same applies to walking, which is why I agree that if you start hiking relying on poles as support, the natural stability of the human body is not maintained as it should be.

    I have tried walking with poles, it helps in way of speed upwards and can have positive effect on my knees going down, bit going flat or of the path they are more in my way than of help.

    If poles are effective, egen why are they not used by runners?

  6. “but seeing as they are detrimental to balance and muscular stability”

    Scientific Sources, please.

    Many PT’s have very little real world experience. They treat injuries and generally don’t have a grasp of how to train effectively for strength. You don’t build strength backpacking; you demonstrate it.

  7. A source of the effectiveness of trekking poles:


    I encourage your PT to read it. ;)

  8. As a participant on this trip, I totally concur with all that Philip wrote about Andrew as a teacher, and also want to say how lucky we were to have Philip as a co-guide. Philip’ love of bushwhacking is infectious–I know I caught the bug–and as the students cycled through leading the group in bush whacking, Philip was right there offering encouragement and tips for effective movement an orientation. His knowledge of the White mountains is vast and I really appreciated his sharing of the history of the forest. Thanks Philip for such a great experience!

  9. I have been wanting to take one of his classes for a while. Maybe it will be in the budget next year.

  10. I’m interested in taking one of his classes too. I only dayhike, but I could use much stronger navigation skills. We are working on the Catskill 3500 list, which has a lot of bushwhacks.

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