When it comes to hiking, Alaska is like nowhere else in the world. That’s usually a good thing — but even if you have lots of experience hiking in other places, there are a few things you should know about Alaska before you hit the trail.
1. Some of the usual tricks won’t work
In some heavily populated places, you really can follow a stream downhill (or just going downhill, period) to get back to civilization. But here in Alaska, doing that could leave you wandering in the mountains for years. Think about it: If you set out due east from Anchorage, the biggest city in the entire state, there’s only one road between you and Canada. If you were to head west from anywhere in Denali National Park, you’d probably never hit any roads at all.
In other words, even when you’re traipsing around in Anchorage’s semi-urban back yard, there’s no substitute for being competent with some navigation tool — whether it’s sight navigating off a topo map, using a GPS or a compass — and staying aware of where you are. Oh, and speaking of compasses, make sure you’ve corrected for magnetic declination.
2. The weather can be savage — even during the summer
Anchorage sits in a protected bowl, right next to an inlet that further moderates the weather… usually. But once you hit the mountains, anything can happen and has, from snow in July to 60-degree weather in January. Thick, long-lasting fog and driving winds with gusts up to hurricane force are both Alaskan specialties, and can crop up anywhere with no warning. You’re particularly vulnerable when hiking or camping on exposed mountain ridges — so if you go, make sure you’re ready to weather the storm.
3. Cell phone service is a rare gift
I’m constantly surprised by how cell service is proliferating on the trail, especially near coastal communities where you can reach cell towers across the water, or cell towers meant to serve boats on the water. However, there are still more places in Alaska without cell service than with, and it’s very easy to stumble into those areas. Sometimes satellite phones won’t work either, if you end up with a big mountain between you and the satellite — so any time you hit the trail, plan to be completely self-sufficient. 99.9% of the time, things will be just fine — but for that last .1%, you and any people with you will be really glad you came prepared.
4. Rescues can take a while
As with any backcountry area, rescues are never guaranteed — and when they do come, it can take a while to muster the appropriate resources, locate you, and actually get to you. Alaskan backcountry users are incredibly lucky that our state is home to the Alaska Air Guard’s 212th rescue squadron, AKA pararescue jumpers or PJs, who routinely help out with civic rescue missions that can’t be completed by other resources — but even these elite military search and rescue forces can be delayed by bad weather, poor visibility, or simply not knowing where you are.
5. DO run from moose; DON’T run from bears
Most of the time, neither bears nor moose will want to have anything to do with you. All you have to do is make enough noise that they can hear you coming, travel slowly enough that they have time to get out of your way, and give them plenty of space if you see them — especially if you suspect there is a baby nearby. Never get between a mother of any species and her babies. With that said, if you do see a bear, stand your ground, stay calm, group together with others if possible, and follow this excellent bear safety advice from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Moose? Most locals will tell you that these giant, cantankerous deer are scarier than bears. If a moose charges you, do run for it, get behind a tree, or climb a tree. Unlike bears, moose don’t have a predator’s prey drive — so running won’t trigger them to chase you out of pure reflex. It just gives you a chance to get outside of their threat radius more quickly.
6. The water is COLD… and silty
Many Alaska streams, rivers and lakes are fueled by glacier runoff or snowmelt. That means they’re often downright frigid, even on a hot summer day. Streams also tend to be fast-running and silty, which makes for very poor visibility… and water levels can vary dramatically depending on time of day and how fast things are melting. Keep all of that in mind before setting out to cross any body of water.
Also: The high silt content can be a problem when filtering water or using a UV purifier. If you’re using a mechanical filter, periodically backflushing it can help reduce silt build-up. If you’re using a UV purifier, always prefilter the water to remove as much sediment as possible; otherwise, the silt can reduce the UV light’s efficacy.