You may have seen the likes of Alaska: Surviving the Last Frontier or Bear Grylls: Born Survivor, but have you ever considered how you’d cope in the wild?
Escaping to the mountains and dense forests of Alaska may sound idyllic, but away from the comfort of a cruise ship, the landscape can be very unforgiving. At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell St. Elias is Alaska’s largest national park and with mountains, glaciers, forests and deep valleys, it’s easy to get lost here. The jagged landscape and vast space in Alaska’s national parks make life difficult for rescue teams and volunteers, so it’s important to learn the basics of survival until you either find help or help finds you.
Carl Donahue of Expeditions Alaska said: “The vast majority of incidents in the backcountry are not a function of a single large event unfolding, but typically a number of scenarios that unfold together.”
In this guide, with the help of survival experts, ROL Cruise gives you an insight into what it takes to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.
Basic survival skills
If you find yourself lost in Alaska, be it in the Wrangell Mountains or the dense forests at the south of Glacier Bay, there are four main things you need to focus on: shelter, water, fire and food.
Andy Moderow, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, an organisation fighting to protect Alaska’s landscape and wildlife, said: “Alaska is a state full of wild public lands, and it’s easy to get away from people and out into wilderness. Whether it’s the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska, or some of the most remote national parks in the country, the choices are endless.
“The state is also a land of extremes. In winter, temperatures dip below -40 degrees, and in some parts of the state, the sun never rises. On the other end of the spectrum, the sun hardly sets in much of Alaska during the summer months.
“It’s important to be prepared for extreme weather, wildlife encounters, and the remoteness you can find in Alaska. This means knowing about the region you are visiting and bringing ample food and clothing along with you as you explore the wilderness.”
So if you do find yourself lost in the wild, what should you do first? Take a moment to gather your thoughts and do not walk any further, as you may end up wandering even further from a road or a town. Tim MacWelch, survival instructor at Advanced Survival Training and regular contributor for Outdoor Life, said: “The extremes of the wilderness are still just as deadly to us as they were to our remote ancestors. Death from exposure, dehydration, injury or a predator can still strike in wild places – especially off the grid. Sometimes emergencies are your fault – sometimes not. But it is your fault if you don’t prepare."
“Your thoughts and plans for survival should always begin with the survival priorities. This is essentially a to-do list of all the chores you need to handle, and the list starts with the most pressing threat to your survival.
“For most scenarios we start with shelter, because a lack of shelter could kill within hours in a dire situation. Once shelter is secured, then water becomes the next priority, as we could only last a few days without it. With a water source secured, we then build fire. Then we start thinking about food and signalling for help. Yes, there are odd situations where the list must be re-sequenced, but items are never dropped from this life-saving list.
“Each one of these items is there to protect you, and to assist you with your survival and rescue. You can add in items like first aid and defence to the list as needed, but the basic rundown should almost always go: shelter, water, fire, food and then signalling.”
As shelter is the first priority, Tim recommends utilising whatever you have with you and looking to the environment for building materials: “You can use your space blanket from your survival kit to stay warm, or turn the trash bag into a sleeping bag by filling it with leaves, but you’ll probably need more shelter than that.”
While many survival programmes show contestants with knives, rope and other equipment, Tim says you don’t need these to build small insulated “nests” to keep warm: “Think of the nests you have seen in nature, and create a small one which you can just barely squeeze into. Make it open and breezy for hot weather and make it thick and furry to fight the colder weather.
“Your clothing is a big help in the shelter department, too. If your clothes are inadequate for the cold, you can add insulating materials. Stuff your clothes with leaves, grasses or any other material that can trap your body heat.”
Regardless of whether you’re stranded in thick woodland or snowy mountains, you can utilise your surroundings to build a shelter to at least keep you out of the wind and rain. An article by survivalist and author Tim MacWelch, written for Outdoor Life, recommends a range of shelters for all conditions. In Alaska, staying dry and warm are the main priorities.
Think of the quinzhee as an easier igloo. According to Tim, while the snow must be just right to construct an igloo, a quinzhee can be made from almost all types of snow. Start by piling up some gear under a tarp, such as your backpack if you have one. This will act as a temporary base. Pile snow over the tarp and gear and pack it down, estimating when it is two feet thick all the way around. Then insert two 12-inch long sticks around the dome. Use three or four dozen of these guide sticks. Next, burrow into the side of the quinzhee and pull out the gear you used originally to start the structure. Finally, excavate the snow inside of the mound until you reach the base of every stick. Make a fist-sized ventilation hole in the roof of the quinzhee and you’re good to go.
If you’re stranded in wet and windy weather, the leaf hut is an excellent option, says Tim. This two-sided structure needs one long, sturdy pole (thick branch), at around 9 to 12 feet long. Prop it up in the fork of a tree, or between two forked propped sticks. Cover the sides of the pole with smaller sticks and branches to create the “ribs”. Place them close together to avoid the shelter collapsing. Heap vegetation over the frame; Tim recommends adding around two to three feet of vegetation covering all sides to make sure you stay dry. Fill the inside of the hut with leaves for bedding.
A wicki-up resembles a small tipi made from branches and vegetation. According to Tim, this structure can be adapted to climates with occasional rain. Collect several dozen poles and try to find some with forks at the top. Lock a few of those branches together to create the base of the structure and lay the others around it to make the tipi shape. Finally, gather some vegetation to cover the roof and sides. If well-ventilated, it’s even possible to light a fire inside the wicki-up.
The lean-to is the simplest of all shelters. If you need some emergency protection from the wind and rain, the lean-to can be built by securing a long, tough pole between two trees. Cover one side with branches then heap leaves, grass and other vegetation on top. This is by no means a permanent solution, as Tim says: “The shelter has two main flaws: it doesn’t hold heat well and if the wind or rain changes direction you’ll no longer be sheltered.” But it’s a temporary solution.
After you have found or built a suitable shelter to keep you free of rain or wind, sourcing water should be your next concern. “You can use your trash bag (or other materials) to catch water from precipitation,” says Tim. “You can also look for natural springs, which is a common way to get reasonably safe drinking water without any tools or materials. But don’t start drinking water out of puddles and streams without disinfecting it.”
If you set out on your hike or venture with a survival kit, Tim recommends using a metal container to boil the water first: “Drinking directly out of puddles and natural waterways is the fast track to dysentery, which can kill a healthy person in a short time.” Alternatively, look for discarded bottles and cans which can be used as boiling vessels.
Fire is key to surviving in the wild. It provides not only a source of warmth, but also the opportunity to boil water and in turn purify it, and offers light and heat for cooking. According to Tim, no matter what you’re doing out in the wild, you should carry various fire-starting tools: “By the end of the first day, that fire-starting gear in your survival kit will be worth its weight in gold to you. It makes sense to carry multiple fire-starting methods in your kit. And even these can be inadequate in cold, wet and windy weather. Keep some fire-starting tinder or fuels in your survival kit for these frigid and damp occasions.
“Cotton balls, drier lint, curls of birch bark and even greasy snack chips can turn the small flame of a match into the roaring flame of a campfire. This fire is your friend out there, and it’s also a great signal for help.”
Understanding the risks of the landscape
Learning how to navigate the landscape is one of the most crucial aspects of survival. According to Carl Donohue of Expeditions Alaska, there are many risks associated with hiking across the state, including rapidly changing weather and extreme temperatures, as well as crossing rivers.
Carl has been guiding adventurers across the Alaskan wilderness for over 15 years and offers backpacking, sea kayaking and rafting trips as well as photo tours, showshoe and ski tours and packrafting trips. With a wealth of knowledge about Alaska and the biggest dangers posed to those heading out into the wild, Carl shared some sound advice: “Wilderness adventure in Alaska requires the visitor to understand how wilderness travel here differs from that in most other places.
“We need to know navigation, how to read the landscape and find a safe way to traverse it. Sometimes that’s extremely easy and sometimes that can be far more difficult.
“Context is everything. Oftentimes the nature of the terrain makes a section more challenging, sometimes simply a change in weather can increase the difficulty factor tenfold. A simple dense fog in the mountains can make picking your way across a ridge or down a slope or finding a campsite, nearly impossible.”
While quick-changing weather poses a huge risk, Carl advises adventurers to remain vigilant when crossing water: “The feature of the Alaskan wilderness that concerns me the most when I’m guiding is rivers. Whether it’s floating down a river, or backpacking across a river, the safety factor changes immeasurably.
“Rivers in Alaska can vary dramatically within the summer, sometimes even within the day. Glacial melt and river flow can change rapidly, drastically altering the water level and safety of river travel. Rivers are a trigger for various different safety factors. Hypothermia becomes a more significant risk when we do river crossings. Drowning is another obvious risk factor, but so are injuries that come from physical trauma. Even a stumble in a river crossing is not uncommon and can easily cause unstable injuries to hikers.”
Throughout Alaska, particularly in the north, glaciers form a large part of the state’s mountain ranges and must be approached with caution. Carl said: “Glacial travel is another concern because of the various risk factors it can trigger. These risks escalate exponentially when various factors combine.
“A thick low fog rolls over in a glacier, or a storm comes in just as we begin a river crossing. Now we have to deal with various potential triggers, and as risk factor rises, the consequences can rise even more dramatically.”
Understanding Alaska’s freak weather is also crucial to surviving in the wild, according to Carl: “We often get fooled into considering averages, such as average temperatures, and plan accordingly. But in Alaska, the extremes can be so far from the average and are common enough that we have to plan for those.
“The temperature for our hike may be 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but it may well drop below 35 as well. In winter travel, those variances can be even wider. I’ve seen temperatures go from 40 degrees to 40+ degrees Fahrenheit in 36 hours.”
While it’s important to be aware of the most extreme dangers of navigating the wilderness, Carl shared his key advice to hikers and adventurers: “Take care of the little things. Tend to those little things such as potential blisters and hypothermia while they’re still just ‘little things’. Left unattended they can become problematic, especially if you encounter some sort of shift of environmental factors such as weather or terrain.
“A person can quickly become far more vulnerable than they thought they were. The vast majority of incidents in the backcountry are not a function of a single large event unfolding, but typically a number of scenarios that unfold together.”
Along with strong navigational skills, Carl praises technology as a means of staying safe while out hiking or exploring in Alaska: “A GPS unit, a Garmin inReach or a satellite phone, are invaluable. And the knowledge of how to use them correctly is indispensable.”
Coping with cold water
While taking a dip in icy water may not be the first thing on your mind when you’re stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, you may encounter situations in which you need to get into the water. Whether this means crossing rivers or tackling lakes, Alaska’s waters are pretty cold, so you need to be prepared.
Dr Mark Harper Bsc MBBS FRCA PhD, expert advisor and contributor to the Outdoor Swimming Society warned of the risks of cold water immersion: “While there are very small risks of heart problems and hypothermia, the main immediate risk is of water aspiration. By this I mean inhalation of water into the lungs.
“This is only really a risk for the un-adapted as, when you’re not used to the cold water, the body’s immediate reaction is to take a really big breath in and then hyperventilate. You have no control over this. Therefore if a wave breaks over you or you are underwater, it’s very easy to take a volume of water into the lungs which is sufficient to drown you.”
But, as Mark explains, there are warning signs you can look out for if you find yourself in a cold water situation while in the wild: “The simplest early warning sign of cold is the ‘claw hand’, this is when you can’t pull your fingers together to take a swimming stroke. Loss of power in your muscles comes later and is critical.”
So, how can you better prepare for a dip in Alaska’s glacial waters? According to Mark, there are two key factors: “Adaptation to the cold: this requires around six dips into water of 14 degrees or less. You need to stay in as long as it takes for your breathing to come under voluntary control. When you can hold your breath as you get in, you are adapted. Get in warm but warm up actively rather than passively, i.e. through exercise, not sitting in front of a fire.”
Once you get out of the water, it’s important to warm up properly. According to the Outdoor Swimming Society: “It’s important not to rush the warming-up process. Your body has reacted to the cold by constricting blood vessels in the skin and peripheries. This makes skin and sub-cutaneous fat into a thermal layer, similar to a natural wetsuit – hence the wild swimmers’ term bioprene for fat.
“Dry yourself off and don layers of warm clothing, including a woolly hat and gloves (if you have them). Sip a warm drink and walk around to generate body heat.”
Foraging in Alaska
Foraging is key to surviving the Alaskan wilderness. Whether you’re seeking out the state’s abundance of blueberries or looking out for something more obscure, it’s important to stay safe and, pardon the pun, trust your gut.
It would be wrong to say that berries are a safe bet due to the prevalence of baneberries and snowberries, which can be fatal. But Alaska does offer a bounty of berries that, if found, will provide key nutrients wherever you are in the Last Frontier. Edible berries in Alaska include: lowbush cranberry, thimbleberry, strawberry, salmonberry, bunchberry, huckleberry, highbush cranberry, gooseberry, elderberry, cloudberry, twisted stalk/wild cucumber/watermelon berry and the Alaskan blueberry.
Misidentifying plants can have devastating effects on your health, as seen in the part-biographical film Into The Wild, about a young man, Christopher McCandless, who left his life and career behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness. In the book by Jon Krakauer, it is suggested that McCandless may have died as a result of ingesting a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine, found in some seeds. There has been much debate on whether this was the cause of his death, or whether he was simply ill-equipped for surviving in the wild and starved. In his final written journey entry, marked ‘day 107’, McCandless simply wrote: “beautiful blue berries”.
There are hundreds of edible plants in Alaska, unfortunately there are also a number of plants with potentially harmful effects. In the event that you do become lost in the Alaskan wilderness, it’s helpful to know some of the key poisonous plants to look out for. The Alaska Public Lands Information Centers lists some of the most dangerous flora and fauna:
- Baneberries: These red or white berries are poisonous and can cause cardiac arrest.
- Devil’s Club: This plant has numerous spines that can break off easily and the plant is toxic to humans if consumed.
- Snowberry: Often consumed by birds, this berry is unfortunately poisonous to humans. The berries contain alkaloids that cause vomiting and dizziness.
- Cow parsnip/hogweed: Skin contact with the various phototoxic chemicals found in this plant can cause dermatitis, which can range from a mild red rash to severe blistering.
To help you in your search for natural ingredients, this article references the U.S Army Survival Handbook, which contains some rules to live by for choosing plants to eat. The guide recommends not eating a plant if it has:
- Beans, bulbs or seeds inside pods
- A bitter or soapy taste
- Spines, fine hairs or thorns
- Dill, carrot, parsnip or parsley-like foliage
- Almond scent in woody parts and leaves
- Grain heads with pink, purplish or black spurs
- Three-leafed growth patterns
If you’re planning a long hike or trip, it’s worth picking up one of many guidebooks on the plants of Alaska and how to forage safely.
It’s important to note that although Alaska is home to some frightful foliage, a lot of the state’s plant life can actually help you if you’re stuck in the wild. Aloe Vera, commonly found in Alaska, is used to treat and protect the skin. It can work wonders on sunburn and other burns as well as preventing wounds from infection. Plantain has also been used on snake and insect bites for many years.
A few words of advice
While you may have the basic skills to survive in the wild, it’s equally important to prepare for any ventures into Alaska’s rugged terrain. Here are a few tips to make sure that if you do get lost, you can get help, instead of living off cloudberries and caribou:
Always tell someone where you are going – Whether you’re just going for a day-hike or a week-long expedition, tell people where you are going or your planned route. This way, if you do get lost, someone will notice and will be able to guide a team of rescuers.
Pack a survival kit – Carry basic tools including a map, compass, extra food and water, a headlamp or torch, rain gear, first aid kit, whistle, knife, matches/lighter and a fire starter. Also consider purchasing a personal locator beacon (PLB) or a mobile phone.
Don’t forget to bring a space blanket – Space blankets have multiple uses if you’re stranded in the wilderness. They offer potential shelter if fashioned into a tarp or tent, they’re waterproof so you can sleep on them to avoid damp ground, you can use them to catch rain water, keep sprained/bruised wrists and ankles warm, signal for help, protect yourself from the sun and keep your tent warmer inside by directing heat.
Now you’re prepared to deal with anything the Alaskan wilderness throws at you, why not brave an adventure to the Last Frontier? Of course if hiking, climbing or kayaking your way through the landscape doesn’t appeal to you, we have a range of luxurious Alaskan cruises on offer, meaning you can experience the wilderness in total comfort.
Image credits: J Brew, Delta WSR, Alan & Flora Botting, Sam/Olai Ose/Skajervoy, ChrisDag, Paxson Woelber