Alaska truly is the “Last Frontier” in more ways than one. With its unprecedented wilderness, mindblowing scenery, rich history and culture, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, it is arguably THE outdoor enthusiast’s mecca. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it was all of these things that enticed me to pack up my life and move across the country as soon as I graduated college several years ago. Something about the exceptionalism of the state has continued to draw me – and of course thousands of others – back to Alaska year after year.
Throughout my time in Alaska, I’ve come to find that there are some essential rules of thumb to live by, when you’re living in a land of unpredictable weather, predatory wildlife, challenging terrain, and often, isolation. Of everything I’ve learned here, the most important is to ALWAYS be prepared, while expecting the unexpected. This can be a little hard to wrap your head around, but not impossible.
Coming from Florida, the concept of wearing layers was totally foreign to me during my first trip to Alaska, but it didn’t take me long to catch on. If you’re not familiar, here’s the quick and dirty: any time of year in Alaska, have at least 3 layers ready. This should include a thin, synthetic or wool base-layer (long johns); a cozy mid-layer (usually a fleece or other synthetic sweater, and whatever pants you’d normally wear, like jeans or synthetic trousers), and a thicker outer-layer (down jacket and/or windbreaker). In addition to these, you should also have a waterproof layer of rain pants and a rain jacket if you’re going to be spending a lot of time outside.
Even when I go on short day hikes over the summer when I know it’s going to be dry and sunny all day, I usually throw in a pair of long johns, extra socks, and a rain jacket at the bottom of my pack, in the unlikely event that something happens and I get stuck out in the wilderness overnight. These items are pretty compressible and can make for a much more comfortable survival situation if the need arises.
Speaking of survival situations, I consider packing extra food to be vital for any Alaskan excursion. Again, even though you may not plan on being out that long, anything can happen and you’ll be glad you brought those extra granola bars, or trail mix, or other snacks when you find that your 2 hour stroll has turned into a 10 hour trek when you lost the trail or took a wrong turn.
Some good guidelines to follow when considering what extra foods to bring: Ideally bring foods with good packaging, or bring them in ziplocs or other sealable containers to reduce odors that might attract wildlife. Obviously if you’re camping overnight in Alaska, you should always keep your food in a bear resistant food container (a.k.a. a bear can) and store it away from your campsite, but you certainly wouldn’t be expected to haul one around for a day trip. In addition, your extra food supply should be something light, easy to pack, and nutritious that would give you energy. Personally, I usually try bring a bag of trail mix, a couple protein bars, or jerky as my “survival food.”
Finding proper footwear for outdoor recreation in Alaska is not always an easy feat (no pun intended!). One of the worst mistakes you can make is to buy brand new hiking boots with the intent to break them in on your trip – and I am ashamed to admit that I have done this before! Several years ago I bought my first hiking footwear, a pair of supposedly-waterproof name-brand boots. They were great for the first few times I wore them, but it turned out that these trips were child’s play compared to what I would encounter in Alaska. It wasn’t until I moved to the Last Frontier and found myself hiking in them every day over wet, soggy, uneven terrain that they destroyed my feet and their waterproof rating went out the window. Lesson learned!
The point is, make sure you break in your boots well before you try hiking in Alaska, and definitely test their actual water resistance. The most fun hiking in Alaska tends to be in mountainous terrain, so expect to have sore feet almost regardless of your footwear, but you can certainly mitigate a lot of discomfort by having properly-sized, waterproof boots that will give you good traction and hopefully not give you blisters on those steep trails.
Alaska is known for its remoteness and isolation, and of course this means that communications can be one of the biggest challenges of outdoor recreation in the state. Even just a few minutes outside a town in Alaska, you could find yourself out of cell phone range, and even out of radio range in some places. Knowing this though, there are some simple tricks you can do to make sure that even when you go off the radar, you can still be found in an emergency.
One of the easiest and most effective methods is to ALWAYS tell other people where you’re going. This can be as basic as telling a friend, “Hey, I’m headed out to hike the Mountainview Trail. I should be back no later than 5.” Or, as I often do if no one else is around, leave a note detailing your plan: “I’m hiking off-trail around mile 5, south side of the road. I have bear spray, snacks and 2L water. Left at 10am, expect to be back around 5pm unless I get eaten by a bear. My number is.” I would just leave this note in my bedroom or a common room in my house where someone would see it if they came looking for me. It’s best to always include when you left, the absolute latest you might be back, where you’re going, and how to contact you. I usually like to include what supplies I have too.
Of course one of the biggest concerns for hiking in Alaska is wildlife safety, and usually this means bears. As mentioned earlier, you should always keep your food (and toiletries) in a bear can when you’re camping overnight, and store the can at least 100 feet from your campsite. You should also make sure you cook and eat at least 100 feet from your campsite, though not in the same place you’re storing your food. It really works too: during my first backcountry trip in Alaska, I woke up the first morning to find bear tracks leading right up to the cook tent, but they never went anywhere near where I was sleeping! No damage was done, fortunately – probably just a curious bear following its nose, and didn’t find anything of interest.
So, food storage is one wildlife safety essential, but what about wildlife encounters? It is generally recommended to stay at least 300 yards from bears – that’s the length of 3 football fields, or for those of us who have no concept of how far THAT is, it’s also the distance at which you cannot make out the facial features of the bear. If you can clearly see its eyes, nose, or mouth, you’re too close. Another important rule of thumb is that if the animal changes its behavior because of your presence – either to look over at you, put its ears back, move towards or away from you, or stop what it’s doing – you’re also too close. If the animal is not attacking, move slowly away and speak calmly to it, giving it lots of distance.
If it’s a moose you’ve just encountered, keep giving it distance and change your course of travel to go way around it. If it does charge, please run. Find a tree, boulder, or other large structure to hide behind. If there is nothing to put between you and the moose, run and keep changing direction, as they usually won’t chase too far. If it does knock you down, curl up in a ball and protect your head and neck.
Now, if we’re talking grizzlies here, absolutely do NOT run. Just like with moose, if you see a non-aggressive brown bear, just give it a wide berth and continue on your way as far from it as possible. If the bear does notice you and becomes confrontational, make yourself as large as possible by waving your arms over your head and talking calmly to it. If you’re wearing a backpack, do NOT take it off, as it can actually protect your spine in the event that the bear does attack. This would also be a good time to take out your bear spray if you have it, remove the safety, and be ready to discharge it if the bear comes within range. Oftentimes, if a bear charges it is just a bluff charge and the bear will pull up short a few feet away. At this point, you should still stand your ground. If contact is made, this is when you curl up into a ball with your backpack on, and protect the back of your head and neck with your hands. If the bear continues attacking at this point, this is when you’ll want to start fighting back.
I’m not saying all this to dissuade you from getting outdoors, but it’s important to go over the course of action in your head as often as you can, so it becomes intuitive and instinctive if you do encounter a bear.
Leave No Trace
Consider this: if it weren’t for the vast wilderness of Alaska, we wouldn’t have to give a second thought to what we’d do in the case of a grizzly or moose attack! But it’s precisely this vast wilderness that most of us seek, and it will be up to all of us who spend time in said wilderness to keep it as vast and pristine as it is. The best way to do this is to follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles. The principles are listed below, but check out the Leave No Trace website for further explanations of each point.
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
My final piece of advice for your Alaskan outdoor adventure is one that I learned from an Alaskan bush pilot during my first year here: be positive. Your attitude really is everything, and can make or break a trip. It can be the hardest thing in the world to have a smile on your face when you’re freezing cold, soaking wet, lost, hungry, or thirsty (though hopefully you won’t be all those things at once!). As long as you can keep your hopes up, your chances of improving your situation are vastly better.
One thing you can do to help yourself stay positive is to pack some small comforts. This can be a little treat for yourself (I usually stash a package of Reese’s Pieces!), a small memento from home, a book, or any other special item that you know will make you feel better if your spirits get down.
Staying positive doesn’t necessarily have to be for a survival situation either; even on a day hike or camping trip, keeping your attitude in check will always make for a better experience. Take a moment to look at the scenery before you, the microcosms of life below your feet, the soundscapes you can hear, and the aromas you can smell.
Amazing things are happening all around us, and Alaska is one of the best places in the world to experience the wonders of the wild. So pack your layers and extra food, lace up those broken-in boots, tell a friend where you’re going, keep your eyes and mind open, and get out there for your Alaskan outdoor adventure!
Andrea Willingham is a seasonal park ranger and full-time adventurer, writer, and photographer, who has spent the last 4 summers and a winter working in Alaska’s National Parks. Her passion lies in finding new ways to utilize visual, social, and multimedia to inspire others to connect with the natural environment. Follow her adventures on her website at www.trailmixedmedia.com, and @TrekkingAlaska on Twitter and Instagram!