By Sam Prien, Guide
Whether you’ve been backpacking for years or are looking to lace up your boots and don a heavy pack for the first time, if you’re planning on backpacking in Alaska (specifically the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park), there are some things you should know.
Bush planes and route finding and bears – Oh My!
One of the main reasons that people are drawn to Alaska is the wildness and remoteness that it promises. For backpackers familiar with hiking in the Lower 48, you’re probably accustomed to driving to a trailhead and setting foot on a very well-marked and clearly defined trail. Let me stop you right there. That is one of the leading differences between backpacking in Alaska vs. the Lower 48. (For our friends across the pond, the “Lower 48” we refer to is the rest of the United States – the 48 states that are all contiguous to our south). In the Wrangell Mountains, there are rarely cars involved in backpacking. The best way to access the remote wilderness Alaska has to offer is by bush plane! These small aircraft are expertly piloted to get you and your gear to the farthest reaches of the park. Landing on gravel bars, high alpine plateaus, and exposed dirt strips, these isolated airstrips serve as our trailheads. As the pilot takes off and the droning of the engine fades away, you’ll soon be enveloped by the silence of the true wilderness.
So what’s next?
At this point, you’ll have your fully loaded pack ready to go, including your food all nicely packed away in a bear canister. Don’t forget the extra food! Weather can be unpredictable, and bush planes can get grounded due to low cloud ceilings. If planes aren’t flying on the day you’re scheduled to be picked up, having extra food is essential. As you put your pack on – doing the normal backpack shimmy to get comfortable – you start scanning the area for wildlife. While bears can be a concern in many parks in the Lower 48, the main difference is that here in Alaska, we have not only black bears but grizzly bears too! Carrying bear spray can give you peace of mind, and knowing what to do when you see a bear (or knowing ways to decrease your chance of running into one while bushwhacking) will be important things to learn before setting out on your trip. If you’d like a little extra training before departing on your self-guided trip, we encourage you to sign up for one of our one-day Backcountry Skills Seminars!
Speaking of bushwhacking, that may be an unfamiliar concept if you’ve spent most of your hiking time on very well-groomed trails in the Lower 48 (thank you trail workers!). But out here in the true Alaskan wilderness, there are no trails. This means that if you’re hiking along and you come across a wall of brush, you’re going to need to start whacking your way right through it. It takes persistence, determination, and a lot of yelling, but when you break through the last few feet of brush and come out on the other side, you really appreciate the openness that the tundra of Alaska usually brings. When the brush isn’t obstructing your views, the rolling tundra gives way to expansive alpine views that are sure to take your breath away. Just don’t lose sight of your route!
As you hike, you’ll want to check your map or GPS device to ensure that you’re staying on the predetermined route that you researched while planning your trip. While there may not be many trails in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, there are popular routes people travel that link one airstrip to another.
Route finding is possibly one of the biggest obstacles that backpackers new to Alaska face when planning a trip. With no trails to show you where to go, you’ve got to rely on your navigational skills and experience. And if that’s new to you, Alaska may not be the place to test it out. Take navigation courses or consider hiring a guide to ensure that you can make it from point A to point B without any major mishaps. Keep in mind that open tundra and bushwhacking aren’t the only obstacles along the way. Many routes include river crossings and glacial travel as well. To navigate terrain that varies so greatly, it’s important to be ready for anything. This means traveling ‘ultralight’ isn’t easily achievable in Alaska if you’re planning on being prepared.
Your gear list for Alaska will almost certainly be bigger than the one you have for a backpacking trip in the Lower 48. In addition to your typical camping set up, you’ll usually need bear spray, bear canisters, extra food, crampons, a satellite phone or GPS device, and a bigger first aid kit than you’re used to carrying. And if you’re looking to make your pack a little lighter, skimping on your first aid supplies is not the place to do it. With the remoteness and isolation of the Alaskan wilderness comes increased risk. On many trails in the Lower 48 you can rely on the assistance or supplies of nearby hikers, but in Alaska, there is a chance that you won’t see another person for your entire trip. This means that the supplies you and your group have are what you must rely on in the event of a medical emergency. Be prepared and stay flexible!
One of the most important things to keep in mind while on a backpacking trip in Alaska is that things can and will change. “If you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.” Sometimes the day will start off sunny and warm, but end cold and rainy. Just put on your rain gear, make a warm meal, and burrow into your sleeping bag, because tomorrow is another day and you never know what Alaska will bring.