Introduction: How to Survive a Backpacking Trip in Alaska
Your new college friends just invited you to go on an awesome backpacking trip in Alaska. It sounds great and you totally want to go, but you’re embarrassed because you have no idea what to do. Just hang on, you got this! Here you will find everything you need to know about backpacking so you can impress those friends and have an amazing trip.
Step 1: Choosing Your Location
The first thing you will need to do is identify the experience of each member in your group. You will need to determine their strength and physical capabilities, expectations, and also their experience level. This can easily be done by having an open conversation with your group. Ask each other these kinds of questions:
- Is anyone a first-timer?
- Does everyone partake in regular physical activity?
- Will everyone be able to carry equal shares of weight?
Once you have determined the experience level of your group, you can begin looking for a location. We recommend using the online trail database www.alltrails.com to find the best option according to your group’s capability. Make sure to choose a backpacking area that meets the standard experience of everyone. Don’t choose a location that is recommended only for advanced hikers; be realistic so you and your group have an enjoyable trip to remember for a lifetime! Understandably though, it can be difficult to actually find a good place for everyone, so here are a few more things to consider:
- What is the weather forecast? Knowing what weather to expect will largely determine what type of terrain you will want to be travelling in and will play a role in what you pack.
- Is the trail well marked and well-travelled? If it is, it’s probably a fairly good choice.
- Does the route offer any amenities such as campsites, garbage bins or food stashes?
- Is the trail in a National Park? If it is, are there parking and hiking permits associated with travel there?
Once you have chosen your location, create a travel plan. Not only will this plan help you organize your activities and give everyone an understanding of the expedition’s details, it can save you in case of an emergency. We recommend writing a list of all the important details of the trip to give to at least one trustworthy adult who is not accompanying you on your backpacking trip. If something should happen and you fail to make it back on time, that person will be responsible for taking action. In such a case, they will need to know where you are going, who is in your group, and how long you expect to be gone. If your plans change before you leave, make sure you check back with that person and inform them of any and all changes!
Step 2: Moving in the Mountains
Day hiking and backpacking may seem similar enough in their basic principles, however, there are actually a few factors that separate the two. When you are backpacking, you will most likely be isolated from civilization because you are covering a much larger distance than you would on a hike. This increases your chances of experiencing a bit more fatigue as well. That being said, some of Alaska’s most beautiful scenery can only be found on adventures that take you deep into the heart of the state. If you just prepare yourself for it, you will experience the splendor of backpacking in a way you never thought you could.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about the physical aspects of backpacking that go a bit beyond hiking:
- Pace yourself - Hike at a slower but consistent pace. The extra gear and weight in your pack will lead to accelerated fatigue, so you will want to preserve your energy.
- Be aware - Pay close attention to the hazards surrounding you, such as loose rocks, steep slopes, cliffs, and animals.
- Manage how much you sweat - If you feel like your shirt is getting wet, layer down.
- Stay hydrated - Even if you don’t feel overly thirsty, remember to take small breaks for drinking water. Nagging headaches are the last thing you want on your trip.
If you’ve gone hiking before, you know how important it is to ascend and descend slopes carefully. Alaska’s mountain ranges are no exception. Remember to keep your feet close together, walk with your toes pointed slightly outwards, and traverse the slope in a sort of zig zag instead of going straight up or down. Tighten your core to get your shoulders over your toes, especially when descending, and distribute your weight as much as you can. These strategies will keep you firmly on your feet and help reduce the chance of you slipping.
Step 3: Choosing a Campsite
If you decide to go backpacking in a location without designated campsites, you will have to find your own. This can be a really fun part of your trip, but you want to make sure you settle on a safe spot. We highly suggest scouting out possible locations on your map prior to your trip so you have a better idea of where to look for one. Once you are out on your backpacking trip, some important things to look for in a perfect site are:
- Flat grass, sand or gravel patches - You want to find level ground.
- Shade and wind protection - Finding a flat spot in a patch of trees will provide protection from the elements and add the possibility of stringing up a tarp.
- Space - Take into consideration the size of your group. You will want to have enough room around your tent to allow for cooking and other camp activities.
- Recently used camps - Look for places where other campers have stayed in order to minimize your impact on the environment.
There are always terrain features to avoid. Here are a few you will definitely want to be aware of:
- Exposed ridge lines - It might not be windy near a ridge line at first, but weather can change suddenly and could expose you to some very high winds. This would be devastating for your camp.
- Meadows - Though meadows look nice and flat, you and your gear can cause a bit of compression and leave your camp in a puddle.
- Shorelines - Flooding is a possibility near the shoreline, however, if you make sure you have at least one foot of elevation above the water’s surface, you should be okay.
- Overhead exposure - Rock falls can happen at any time, so it is best to avoid camping under a cliff or near loose rock.
- Rocks and roots - Much like the princess and the pea, sleeping on the stones can lead to a very uncomfortable night’s sleep, so look for ground that is pretty even whenever possible.
When you leave your campsite, remember: leave no trace. Pack out what you pack in and collect any garbage you might see left over from other groups. To preserve the trail and ecosystems in the area, we have to be aware of our impact. For most people, backpacking is an adventure, and it’s just lame coming across trash when you are exploring something new and seemingly undiscovered. Be considerate, and help others enjoy their time by leaving no trace!
Step 4: What to Bring
Having the right kind of gear for a backpacking trip is crucial. Even if the forecast promises sunshine, it’s important to be prepared for any and all weather. This is Alaska after all! Not only is weather unpredictable, temperature and climate are likely to change the higher you climb into the mountains. If you’re unprepared, you put yourself at risk of possibly getting sick or hurt. To avoid that, here is a list of appropriate clothes to wear to keep you warm and safe.
- Durable and stretchy pants - Find a pair that does not restrict movement. For this reason, DO NOT wear jeans!
- Whisk away t-shirt - Sport or hiking shirts are great for backpacking because they whisk away the sweat and help keep your body at a good constant temperature. Wool works well too; it keeps you warm even if you get wet.
- Fleece or warm sweater - On a backpacking trip, you will experience many changes in temperature, whether you’re on top of a mountain, in a valley or just waking up in the morning at camp. You’ll want something soft and warm.
- Rain jacket - Always bring a rain jacket, as rain and wind are likely to present themselves on an overnight backpacking trip.
- Wool socks - These thick socks will help prevent blisters, provide a little extra comfort, and keep your feet warm. We recommend bringing an extra pair in your pack, as too much moisture will likely cause unwanted blisters.
- Hiking shoes - You will want to avoid wearing sneakers and sandals, as they have minimal traction. Having a good pair of hiking shoes will make a huge difference in your backpacking experience. That being said, do not wear brand new hiking shoes on your trip. Make sure you break them in beforehand by wearing them at home or around town.
- Sandals - It’s nice to have the option of wearing something other than your hiking shoes at camp when the weather permits it. Leave them in your backpack during the hike.
- Gloves and Cap - These will help keep you warm and protect you from the wind.
Your equipment is just as important as your clothing. If you take a moment to think of everything you use on a normal day, you begin to realize just how much you actually use. This is a backpacking trip though, and since you have to pack everything into your bag, you can only bring the important things, such as food, cooking utensils, camping gear, and safety gear. Attached is a checklist of everything you need to bring with you on your adventure. If you have daily necessities to bring also, such as an inhaler or contact solution, make an additional list so you don’t forget to pack those items too! Here is a list of everything you are going to want to bring:
- Sleeping bag - Blankets won't keep you warm enough at night. We recommend using a sleeping bag that can withstand at least 10 degrees colder than the temperature you expect at night.
- *Sleeping mat - This provides both cushioning and insulation.
- Tent - Stay dry!
- Head lamp or flashlight- Make sure to bring extra batteries! (Cold drains them of power.)
- *Jetboil or travel stove - Having something to heat water or cook food is a good idea in case you can’t start a fire. This is optional, but very helpful.
- Water - Stay hydrated by bringing a big bottle of water. Water tablets or a water purifier are suggested too in case you run out.
- First-Aid kit - Make sure you have a good kit complete with gauze, bandages, alcohol wipes, tweezers, and something for pain.
- Safety tools - You should always carry a whistle, knife, compass, map and bear spray.
- Fire starters - Flint and steel, waterproof matches or lighters will do. Make sure you or a person in your group is comfortable using at least one of these. We recommend bringing a backup as well, just in case the first doesn't work.
- Toiletries - Don’t forget the simple things in life! In case you missed it, there’s no plumbing in the boonies. You may want to bring toilet paper and a shovel for the times nature calls.
- Eating utensils - Pack a fork, spoon, bowl and cup for meals at camp. If you are living on campus, you can usually find disposable forks and spoons in the cafeteria. As long as you bring a bag to collect your trash, this will work great.
- Plastic bag - To make sure you leave no trace, bring along a couple bags or sacks to collect your trash. Remember you will also need a seal-able bag to keep your map dry.
Since this is your first backpacking trip, you might not have all of the equipment listed. If that is the case - don’t worry! You can still do this. First, if you don’t have the optional items, don’t worry about them. Focus on the necessary items. We recommend visiting local businesses such as REI, AMH and Cabela’s for gear. There you can collect all the gear you need and find knowledgeable employees to help you with any questions you might have on backpacking equipment. Honestly though, we know that it can be expensive renting or purchasing things right from the store, especially when you’re already on a college budget. We also recommend checking with your friends to see if they have any extra gear to spare. Other options could be looking for deals online, checking the college for rentals, or even stopping by garage sales.
Step 5: Packing
When you’re backpacking with friends, it’s a good idea to distribute the weight equally among the packs. For example, one person can carry the tent, while another person carries the dinner. This will make it easier on you and your team.
There is an art to packing your backpack. First, strap your sleeping mat to the bottom of your pack, and place your water bottles in the pockets on the side. From the bottom up, pack your sleeping bag first, followed by your tent, the cooking gear, food, clothes, and then your safety equipment on the the very top.
Note - The picture above displaying a collection of gear is just an example of how you should pack. It does not include everything on the list.
Step 6: Food for the Trip
Nutrition is a key ingredient to a successful backpacking trip. The beauty around you can certainly be drowned out if the roar of your stomach is loud enough. Here are some things to keep in mind to help you be able to rid yourself of potential hunger and have enough energy to complete the trip successfully:
- Bring enough, but do not go overboard - It is suggested that a person should pack approximately 2,500-4,500 calories worth of food for each day. The actual amount needed will be based on exertion level and body weight. Pack enough, but remember, you have to carry it all.
- Bear bin - Keep yourself safe and take precautions, such as having a bear-proof container in which to store all of your food. Nothing spoils a trip faster than having to run for your life simply because you inadvertently invite a huge furry guest, complete with claws - particularly when you may end up being his main course. We highly suggest not sleeping with your food close by if it can be helped.
- Water - Bring one or two full water bottles.
- Snacks - When you are backpacking, you probably won’t stop often to set up camp and have a meal; you will want to bring a few snack choices to keep your energy levels up. A few we recommend are: protein and granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, tuna packets and even candy bars are a great options, as they can add a quick boost of energy if you start dragging.
- Meals - Having a simple hot meal to look forward to at the end of the day can really make a difference in how much you enjoy your experience. We suggest packets that you can just add water to such as Mountain House and Mrs. Grass. Whatever choice you make, it is a good idea to look at the nutrition in your choice, and make sure it has what you need.
- Hot drink mixes - While water is refreshing, it is really nice to be able to have a warm cup of coffee or tea to stave off the cold.
Step 7: Safety
A group of friends are bound to have an incredible time on a backpacking trip through the wilderness. That being said, certain actions must be taken to ensure everyone is safe. There are three main points to follow to guarantee safety on the adventure: preparation, communication and precaution.
The focus on safety must start before you step out the door to begin your adventure. Once you have decided on a location, you must look at these two aspects of the trip:
Weather: The weather in most northern regions will change frequently, so you must be prepared for any temperature and precipitation conditions. Having a general idea of the history and severity of the weather dangers in the area, such as avalanches, hurricane force winds, and dangerously high water levels will help determine the right type of clothing to bring.
Mapping: There are a few simple things you and your group can do to avoid getting lost on the trail.
- Research - Know the area you will be hiking in by viewing maps of the area prior to leaving.
- Map - Print out a map and carry it in a plastic bag for protection. This will be a useful reference if the trail is not well marked or has many forks and variations along the way.
- Cell Phone - You might be able to find cell reception on your trip. Though this is unlikely, bringing your phone might be a helpful tool in case of an emergency. Even so, do not rely on your phone if you can help it!
In addition to having a safety plan as mentioned in the previous section, it is also important to communicate with your fellow travelers throughout your trip.
Stay Connected: It is important to stay within earshot of the other members of your group so you are able to respond quickly to any kind danger that may present itself. Talk about the trip while you’re hiking, and speak up if you see any potential threat.
Make Noise: Keeping the noise level loud enough to keep bears and other large animals away will increase overall safety of your group. Remember, they are more scared of you than you are of them, so do not give them a reason to hurt you.
Out in the wilderness, your group won’t have immediate access to emergency services, so in case of injury, you will have to be able to work together. With this in mind, take these precautions before venturing out into the unknown:
- Firearms - Carrying a firearm is the best way to defend yourself against angry wild animals. However, the person handling it must have their firearm legally registered, know how to shoot it, and be comfortable carrying it on the trip. If no one in your group feels comfortable handling firearms or being in the company of one who does, it’s okay. There are other options.
- Bear Spray - While it is not as effective as a firearm, bear spray can temporarily hinder a bear from attacking you. Know how to use it!
- Awareness - Regardless of which option you choose to defend yourself, you must be very aware of your surroundings. This is crucial so you are ready to act the instant there is potential danger.
Bears are one the most dangerous animals you can encounter in Alaska, and also one of the most common animals to see on a trail. We recommend checking online to find information on the bear sightings in the area you plan on backpacking in to see if you still feel comfortable in that specific area. Here are some important facts about bears that you should be aware of when backpacking anywhere in Alaska.
- Mother Bears - Bears generally have their cubs in January and stay with them until late May or early June of the next year. If you are going to backpack, you will definitely want to avoid bears with cubs because they are very territorial.
- Black vs. Brown Bears - Your response will be much different depending on whether you run into a black or brown bear. Usually black bears have black fur, and brown bears have brown fur, but their size is really what distinguishes them. Some brown bears are also called grizzly bears, and are much larger than their counterparts.
- Encountering Bears - If you stumble upon a brown bear, do not not run. Stand very still or play dead. With black bears, do the opposite. Get big, loud and ready to fight! For both though, drop any food you may have in your hands or anything else that may slow you down or off set your balance. Whatever you do, DO NOT RUN!! The bear is faster than you and will catch you if you (with the possible exception of going downhill). For more information on black and brown bears, visit http://abcnews.go.com/US/survive-bear-attack/stor...
Step 8: Constructing a Fire
Out in the wilderness, it gets cold at night. You are going to want to have a fire at some point to warm up or maybe cook a meal, so its important to know how to build one.
As a general rule, clear brush and any hanging branches within two yards of the farthest reach of the flame. Also, make sure you don’t use any living part of a plant or plastic to feed your fire. If you do add them, you will create excessive smoke.
To begin building your fire, you will need to gather three different fuel types:
- Tinder - This is what starts your fire; it needs to light easily and stay lit long enough to catch your kindling on fire. Some easily attainable sources of tinder are tree bark, dead weeds or leaves, or any paper trash from your trip. If none of these are available, shave off small pieces of your kindling with your knife.
- Kindling - This the stage between the tinder and the logs. The kindling needs to be small enough so the tinder can light it but last long enough to light the main fuel source. Remember, a fire needs three things: oxygen, fuel, and heat. This step will begin determining the airflow within your fire, so make sure oxygen can get to the heart of it.
- Logs - The first thing you need to do is decide the purpose of your fire. This will determine the size of the logs you need, as well as how you will lay them. A teepee shaped fire will provide maximum warmth and create great coals for cooking marshmallows, hot dogs, or potatoes. If you want to use cookware in the fire, you will want to create a “log cabin” shape out of your logs so you can place pots on the inside and it will cook better because the heat is coming from all sides, not just the bottom.
Step 9: Have Fun!
With that, we hope you have an amazing backpacking adventure. Get out there, and have some fun!