Andrew Skurka on hiking the Great Western Loop

Andrew Skurka has logged his share of time on the road—most recently seven months worth, across 6,875 miles of the western US, consistently hiking an amazing 35 miles per day. The 26-year-old just finished hiking the Great Western Loop, which covers 12 National Parks, 75 Wilderness Areas, five major mountain ranges, and nine states. The feat has garnered him National Geographic Adventure’s 2007 “Adventurer of the Year” award.

Just as fascinating to me as understanding the inspiration for the trip are the day-to-day practicalities. While reading the feature article about him in the December/January magazine, I learned that his pack weighed a mere seven and a half pounds, he supplemented his basic diet of Balance bars and potato burritos with eggs, bacon, and cookies whenever he’d reach a town, and he wore through 17 pairs of shoes over the seven months.

Not your typical trip, that’s for sure. But I’d bet that beneath it all, his planning process, leaps of faith, and growth experiences aren’t too far removed from those in any of our extended travels.

I got the chance to ask Andrew about this accomplishment. He kindly fit in his answers while on the move—this time during a road trip to Colorado.

How long had you considered hiking the Great Western Loop? Was it an easy decision?
I first thought of the hike a little more than a year before I started, and I began planning almost immediately—at first, on a big scale (Is it possible? How long will it take? What direction should I go, clockwise or counterclockwise? What will be the biggest challenges? Etc.) and then increasingly detail-oriented as the start date approached (e.g. packing supply boxes, organizing maps, making last-minute gear modifications, etc.). Deciding to the do the trip was fairly easy—I had been on the lookout for another big hike since I had finished a transcontinental hike in July 2005, and the Great Western Loop was irresistibly appealing for many reasons: foremost, its scenery; secondary, it had never been done before and it would very challenging.

Is there anything that you would’ve changed, looking back? What advice would you pass on to someone else wanting to start a similarly ambitious trek?
You can never plan enough for an undertaking like this, but I feel like both the planning and the execution were near-flawless. And they had to be—if I did not maintain an average pace of ~33 miles/day I would not have exited Colorado before the winter storms rolled in and put an end to the hiking season. I attribute much of my success to the thousands of miles I had hiked before that had taught me many valuable lessons, including why carrying lightweight gear is better than heavy gear and why it’s important to eat nutritious food instead of over-processed granola, toaster pastries, and candy bars.

What came as the biggest surprise during the hike?
Part of my purpose in this hike was to assess first-hand the current and future impacts of global warming on backcountry areas in the West. Because they indicate long-term trends, I was at least expecting to see significantly smaller (or all together non-existent) glaciers in the Cascades and northern Rockies, which I certainly did. But I was surprised at the number and intensity of other forecasted effects of global warming: drought in the Southwest, significantly reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, record-breaking heat in the Northwest, horrible wildfires in Montana, and devastating pine beetle outbreaks in Colorado. While these events from 2007 might each independently be attributed to cyclical patterns—not global warming—the shared timing is perhaps not coincidental, and if nothing else 2007 at least provides a glimpse of the West’s future.

What does “adventure” mean to you?
An “adventure” is an undertaking that has unknowns about it, be they regarding the terrain, weather, wildlife, local cultures, rule of law, etc. Throughout history, and accelerating since the advent of the internet, it’s become harder to find adventure—the world has become much smaller thanks to satellites, airplanes, travel books, and online travelogues. My trip had some adventurous elements to it: I pioneered a new route across the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, hiked through the Sierra Nevada and Cascades unconventionally early in the season, and maintained a hiking pace that sheds light on the limits of human endurance. However, in many other respects it was merely a “journey,” which I’d define as an undertaking that will not necessarily turn “unknowns” into “knowns,” but that will teach you things about yourself and your surroundings that you personally did not know or personally had not experienced before. For example, I used established trails that had guidebooks and mapsets but that I had never personally hiked before.

Are you already planning for your next route?
Big trips have to come from within—if you personally do not want it, no fame or fortune can make it worthwhile. So far, I have no specific plans, but I’m sure something will come to me when I start looking at maps and reading books again. For now, I’m focused on starting to write a book and scheduling some speaking engagements.

To read about Andrew’s observations on global warming, see photos from his trip, or follow his latest news, check out

Posted by | Comments (1)  | November 28, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

One Response to “Andrew Skurka on hiking the Great Western Loop”

  1. Tom Says:

    Inspiring! He is my hero.