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Logo bar of the Alaska Public Lands Information Center which are located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok and Ketchikan
Sand hill cranes gather on a field in Fairbanks, Alaska
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Backcountry Trip Planning Guide
 
Backcountry hikers in the Central Alaska Range
Photo by Josh Spice
Backcountry Trip Planning Guide
Download the PDF version

Your trip in Alaska will be very different than any trip in the Lower 48, as services are less developed and infrequent, trails are non-existent in many regions, the land is wilder and often very remote, help, if needed, is farther away and sometimes unreachable, and available information about the area may be lacking, while the complexity may be high.

Are you ready?!?!

Planning a Trip
The methods of selecting or designing a backcountry adventure can be broken down into the following four factors:
1. Where?      2. What type of recreation?
3. How long?  4. Goal or desired experience?

These four individual views of planning a trip could lead you to any combination of backcountry trips, but when combined, will certainly guide you to an appropriate trip for you and your fellow adventurers.

To most effectively select an appropriate adventure:
1. Choose where would you like to go on an adventure? Do you have a specific place or region in mind? Are there qualities of a landscape that would direct you towards a certain place or area? Let’s say you’ve always wanted to see the Brooks Range, north of the Arctic Circle.
2. Select the type of recreation or methods of travel you would like to use. Ex: you’re a highly experienced canoeist.
3. Establish how much time you have available. Maybe you’re in between jobs and you have a month off in the fall.
4. Determine what your goal is or the experience you would like to have on the trip. You might want to see thousands of migrating caribou.

For example, by answering each of the above questions individually, you determined the best trip may be a 30 day float on the Noatak River in the fall, to see thousands of caribou on their annual fall migration in the western Brooks Range. This is an excellent trip, as very few regions of Alaska or Alaskan rivers would allow 30 continuous days of floating on the same river, with such great potential for viewing high numbers of migrating caribou on a daily basis. This specific trip was planned by answering each question individually. Changing one answer might lead to an entirely different adventure. If the cost of the trip, season, or other factors, render the adventure impossible, start over and place a heavier emphasis on the other less-limiting factors that went into the creation of the adventure.

Are you up for the challenge?
Make sure the adventure is appropriate for the person/group in the following ways:

Experience
Assess the level of the trip you are considering. Past experience provides you the opportunity to develop outdoor skills and hone your decision-making process, to be ready for whatever conditions and situations you may encounter on a backcountry trip. Make sure your level of experience is on par with the trip you are planning and that you are comfortable with what you may experience. Challenging yourself is excellent, but be responsible and realistic.

Skill
Based upon your experience, have you developed the skills necessary to complete the backcountry trip you have planned? Do you possess the knowledge and ability to perform under adverse conditions or in emergencies?
Base what is realistic to undertake or accomplish on what you know, the skills you have obtained, and past experience.

Physical ability
Are you up for the physical challenge of:
- carrying a heavy pack over rough terrain?
- paddling a canoe all day for a week straight?
- lugging around a heavy raft?
- sleeping on the ground?
- eating freeze-dried food, snacks, and sweets?
It is best to try these things and more in a controlled environment or on a preparatory trip of shorter duration and distance, before the big adventure, to see what works and what doesn’t.


Kobuk River in fall
NPS Photo by Josh Spice
Gear
Durability and performance are paramount in regards to handling the extreme weather, physical environment, and heavy abuse that it will experience on your trip. 1970s-era or department store gear is probably not up to the challenge of Alaskan conditions. If the weather is so bad that it breaks your shelter or renders it unusable, what will you do? Choose your shelter & gear appropriately. Most important in your gear, is a reliable set of waterproof jacket & pants. You must be able to stay dry in order to be comfortable and warm. Many people have become needlessly uncomfortable, hypothermic, or even died because they could not stay dry, and therefore, warm. If your gear does break or fail, it is important to have a back-up plan and know what to do.

Financial constraints
Bush flights can be very expensive. Prices depend on the length of the flight, how many flights are required to get all the gear in or out, and how many people are on the trip. Rented or purchased gear, or any shuttles or transportation services, can escalate the trip cost quickly.

Duration & Weather
Each person’s psyche and personality plays a huge part in the outcome of the trip and will greatly influence the lasting memories of the experience. The following are some questions to ask yourself and others in your group:
- Have I ever hiked alone for a week? What about off-trail? In bear country? In the ‘middle-of-nowhere?’
- How do I handle stress, decision making, and perform in uncontrollable situations?
- Can I handle being self-sufficient or any emergency that might arise?
- How about psychologically? Do I break under pressure or stress?
High winds, heavy & incessant rains, or even prolonged & intense sun, coupled with swarming mosquitoes and dangerous wildlife encounters, can create challenging psychological experiences, as well. For example, two weeks of rain can ‘ruin’ a trip for some people. Make sure your mind & gear are up for the potential pressures of time & weather.

Goals or Experience
For some, it’s about the journey. For others, it can be about the destination. Make sure your group shares the same goals for the trip. If this is not the case, some people may have very different decision making factors or become unsatisfied with the outcome of the trip.

Region of Alaska
The five geographic areas of Alaska will provide extremely different experiences, in regards to vegetation, recreation type, accessibility, scenery, weather, animal inhabitance, culture, etc. Use the following as a general guide to what type of experience you would like to have, which will help direct you to the right destination or region of Alaska.
- Forest (Int, SC, SE) or open tundra (Nor, SW)?
- Boreal forest (Int) or coastal temperate rainforest (SC, SE)?
- Rugged mountains (Nor, SC, SE) or lower elevation river valleys and hilly terrain (Int, SW)?
- River float or on land-based hiking?
- Whitewater rapids or flatwater rivers and lakes?
- Trail hiking (Int, SC, SE) or off-trail wilderness trekking (All)?
- Remote destination (All) or quick & easy access (Int, SC, SE)?
- Is the weather important? Certain regions and seasons can have unpleasant temperatures, wind, or precipiation.
- Are you looking for specific plants, birds, or animals? Bloom, migration, or seasonal salmon runs or gatherings?
- Would you like to experience a specific culture or historical atmosphere?


Bush plane drop-off in Gates of the Arctic National Park
NPS Photo by Josh Spice

Accessibility
Alaska can be complicated in terms of accessibility to specific places or areas. How you begin your trip or access the area is a critical part of trip planning.
How many days or miles will it take to get to your destination?
Will you…
- Be driving, flying, hiking, boating, etc?
- Put in or take out on a river or along a road?
- Fly or boat in or out? Do you need to charter transportation?

Get the Appropriate Maps
Having a map that is too large of scale omits necessary detail for most trips, while having too many maps for a trip can make navigating challenging, as you’ll have to go back and forth between maps. Find the appropriate scale for each trip.

1:63,360 scale maps (Alaska specific) are one inch to one mile, while 1:250,000 scale maps are one inch to six miles. Other options include the National Parks Trails Illustrated maps by National Geographic or creating a custom map by using MapSource, TOPO! Software, or a National Geographic map kiosk.
Before you go, understand land ownership and use regulations, as each land agency or owner may have requirements for access or specific uses. Land ownership maps may be obtained at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Land Sales Office.

Logistics
Assess the logistics for the entire trip. As many seasoned-Alaskans are well aware, the only thing you can plan on, is for the plan to change! Be ready for the unexpected.
Departing Fairbanks:
- Is the start of your trip the same as the ending location? If not, how will you get back to the vehicle? One car or two?
- By plane, train, boat, or tour company?
- What is the destination and how long will it take to get there?
- Will you have to sleep upon arrival? Camping or lodging?
You might want to consider boating upriver so that if something happens, you can float back down. Or, get flown in and hike/float back out, as to not get stranded far from civilization due to weather or scheduling of the pick-up flight.

During the Trip:
- How many days will the trip take?
- What if the route or miles per day has to change? How will you alter your plan to compensate?
- Are there other pick up or pull out spots?
- Methods of emergency communication – satellite phone, radio, beacon, etc?
- Is the plan or itinerary realistic, all things considered?

Returning to Fairbanks:
- Is a shuttle of vehicles required?
- Is a pick up by an outside party necessary?
- How long will it take to return and is camping or lodging necessary?
- What about food for the return trip or after having returned?



The Dalton Highway in winter. Mt Dillon & Mt Sukakpak
Photo by Josh Spice
Research & Seek More Information
There is no such thing as too much information. Ask and answer as many questions as you can about your trip.
- How many miles per day will you hike or float?
- How steep, flat, smooth, bumpy is the terrain?
- How much will your pace change with changing conditions?
- How big are the tussocks?
- How fast does the river flow?
- Is the water clear or glacial?
- Are there good camping areas – gravel bars, dry ground, open vegetation, etc?
- How thick is the vegetation?
- When does the snow melt in spring or when is leaf-out?
- When is first frost or snow?
- When do the mosquitoes appear?
- When do the salmon run and berries ripen? Will there be high bear concentrations or seasonal animal closures?
- What are the seasonal or historic weather trends?
- What is the current weather and recent weather conditions – flooding, etc?
- Are there limiting factors to completing the trip, such as amount of gear/weight or unexpected conditions?
- What are the land use trends during that season, in both type of recreation and amount?

 



River crossing in the backcountry
NPS Photo by J.R. Lafleur
Safety
Making safe choices is important to every aspect of the planning & implementation of a trip.
- Assess gear and go through a gear checklist.
- Bring the appropriate safety gear for the trip, conditions, and wildlife
- Water safety requires PFDs & appropriate rescue gear, filtration or purification, & executing safe river crossings
- On any adventure, whether it is on the road or in the backcountry, make sure to store your food in a bear-safe  
manner. Bear-resistant food containers can be rented free of charge for trips in National Parks & Preserves. Keep the
bears safe by protecting them from your food, as a bear that learns that human food tastes good & is easy to acquire,
will most likely have to be destroyed. Remember, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear.’
- Airplanes: almost all pilots make safe decisions, but remember that they are under high stress & working long days to  
get as many people in & out of the wilderness as they can. Make safety a priority & if something isn’t right, speak up!
- Set up a contingency plan for dealing with changes in the destination, recreation type, duration, transportation,
itinerary, weather, and emergencies. Having back-up plans increases your flexibility.
- File a backcountry trip plan with a friend or family member and tell others where you are going & when you’ll return.
Make sure to contact these parties when you get back, so they don’t send out a search party looking for you.

Steps You Can Take To Prepare Yourself:
Search for classes and training opportunities that can be taken locally, in order to gain skill and hands-on experience, plus gain local knowledge. Join clubs of your recreational interest to meet others who enjoy the outdoors. Meeting the right people is often the most difficult and most crucial step of advancing your skill, experience, and level of comfort for many types of recreation. Meeting people offers opportunities for many outings with more experienced enthusiasts.
Start small and work up to bigger adventures, more nights out, longer distances, etc. Go with others who are experienced and ask many questions. Research before you go, have fun, and learn from even the smallest of mistakes.


Hiker in the Brooks Range
Photo by Josh Spice
General Gear Checklist
[ ] Hiking footwear
[ ] Rain jacket & pants
[ ] Warm jacket
[ ] Shelter
[ ] Sleeping bag
[ ] Sleeping pad
[ ] Stove & fuel
[ ] Pot & spoon
[ ] Bear-resistant food container
[ ] Food
[ ] Water bottle
[ ] Water filter
[ ] Trowel & toilet paper
[ ] Insect repellent & headnet
[ ] Fire starter
[ ] Knife
[ ] Map & compass
[ ] Camera
[ ] Trip itinerary left with friend

Download the PDF version of this Planning Guide




 
Arial view of Mount St Elias rising above the clouds. The landscape is the deep blues and blush pinks of an early morning sunrise. Did You Know?
Wrangell-St Elias National Park & Preserve is part of the world's largest internationally protected area and contains North America's largest assemblage of glaciers and its greatest collection of peaks over 16,000 feet.