Summer: Denali/ Wrangell-St. Elias 2016
July in the interior of Alaska can be tough to gauge. The weather at this time of year fluctuates greatly depending upon a variety of factors. The average daily temperature usually hovers between the mid 50s F and low 70s, though it can sometimes reach 85 F and plummet to the 30s. During the summer of 2013 we did not have a day under 90 F for over two weeks (this was NOT normal, but then global weather has become more unpredictable). Generally, by July the spring rains have abated, but you should always be prepared for wet weather. The variability of Alaskan weather demands that you give some serious thought to your gear and organize your clothing by layers.
Preparation for wilderness trekking begins with proper equipment planning. This gear list should answer many of your questions. First rule of thumb: DO NOT OVER-PACK! You should not have more than a single backpack (and perhaps a small day-pack for the flight). Economize and leave the extras at home. Choose your clothing wisely. If you have any questions about equipment, please ask one of our guides. Alaskans are masters of making due with what they have. It is not important that you have expensive equipment, but it is important that you have the proper equipment.
IMPORTANT: remember that you will also be carrying group gear and food, so leave enough space in your main cargo space to add a large bear canister.
PLAN ON: wearing one complete outfit on the flight to Anchorage, INCLUDING your hiking boots (you can always remove them during the flight). This frees up some space in your pack.
While Hiking: Your clothing provides you with a system of heat and moisture control that may be altered according to the weather conditions. My own preference is to wear wool socks over light-weight synthetic socks, quik-dry synthetic hiking pants, a light-weight Polartec undershirt under a synthetic long-sleeve shirt. Insulating and waterproof layers are added as trail conditions dictate. Second rule of thumb: AVOID COTTON CLOTHING (that means NO JEANS on the trail). Cotton does not provide insulation and does not dry easily. The only exceptions to this rule are maybe flannel shirt/pants and t-shirts to wear around camp. Corduroy is also unsatisfactory as camp clothing, as it tears easily in the bush and drys slowly.
- Hiking pants – A pair of durable synthetic pants; make sure they are comfortable as you will be wearing these for the majority of your time in the bush.
- Long Underwear – A pair of light-weight synthetic long-johns (tops and bottoms). This is the layer that you wear next to your skin when at higher elevations; they also are good to sleep in when you need an extra layer, and can be worn under your wind pants as an alternative to your regular trousers if they get wet.
- Mid-Layer – this is the first layer you will pull over your underwear. It can be light wool, capilene, a light fleece, etc. During the summer, this will most often be a t-shirt, but may be a long-sleeve shirt or light expedition jacket.
- Wool shirt – A heavier long sleeve shirt to add insulation over your synthetic layer (long underwear top or polypro shirt). You could substitute or add a synthetic soft shell jacket or a favorite flannel shirt, but I prefer 100% wool. A long-sleeve t-shirt is NOT the best option here – you are looking for warmth.
- Wind Jacket/Shirt – this is a light-weight wind break that is distinct from your rain gear. The wind breaker is perfect to wear as an outer layer when it isn’t raining; especially good for backpacking in higher elevations, which are generally quite windy in Alaska.
- Rain jacket – proper rain gear is essential in Alaska; it is important that you have a jacket that is WATERPROOF, not simply a wind breaker. I suggest a lightweight shell with a hood similar to the Patagonia Torrentshell, Mountain Hardware Epic Jacket, or the Marmot Essence jacket – Cloudveil and Moonstone also make good precip jackets. Your rain jacket should be comfortable to wear with a backpack on AND SHOULD HAVE A HOOD. It is not necessary to invest in the pricier gear such as Gore-Tex XCR unless you know it will get a good deal of usage. If your rain jacket is light enough, it can stand in for your wind jacket as well. Third rule of thumb: take your rain gear seriously! It may stand between you and misery.
- Rain pants – DO NOT FORGET THE BOTTOM HALF OF YOUR RAIN GEAR! These should be waterproof, light-weight, and easy to slip on over your hiking pants (add an inch to your regular waist size) and boots (side-zips help getting them over boots). Even low, knee-high brush will get you soaked even if it is not raining. A good pair of rain pants is necessary to help you stay dry. Remember: you will often have to put these on without taking off your boots.
- Waterproof Backpack cover – This is the third part of proper rain gear. Make sure it’s seam-sealed and that the size is correct for your pack. Both Outdoor Research and REI make good pack covers.
- Underwear – 3 or 4 pair of synthetic (NO cotton!) boxers will get you through two weeks in the back country. You can always do a rinse at camp along the way.
- T-shirt – limit yourself to 2 t-shirts please. Cotton T-shirts are not especially good for backpacking as they easily get wet with perspiration, but they come in handy around camp or when going into town on the 4th of July.
- Inner socks – 2 pair of light-weight synthetic socks
- Outer socks – 3 or 4 pair of medium-weight wool or smartwool hiking socks
- Boots – A pair of medium to heavy leather boots are the best for Alaska. Low-cut, light boots are NOT suitable for the rugged and damp terrain. There are many good boots on the market; generally the best ones are the ones that fit you comfortably. In my opinion, though, you can’t go wrong with Danner (old school!) or Asolo leather boots. A good pair of hiking boots requires a significant investment, you may wish to be sure that your foot has stopped growing before going top-end with boots.
- Camp shoes – you will need a pair of lighter-weight shoes (moccasins, light hikers, or sneakers are best) to wear around camp. Avoid Tevas or sandals that expose your foot to injury. Your camp shoes should allow you to fetch water, scramble over boulders, walk a rocky coastline, wade into streams, and generally pad about camp.
- Hat with a brim (this can be a baseball cap or rain hat)
- Cold weather hat (fleece or wool): This is an important item for trekking in Alaska at all times, and yet something often overlooked by summer campers.
- Wool or fleece gloves – you won’t usually need these for hiking, but they are a necessity in camp. US Army wool glove liners are my favorites. I bring two pair – one with the fingers cut off so I can work around camp with my fingers free.
- Bandana: good for many uses in the bush, esp useful if you don’t bring a mosquito head net
- Trekking poles – for most regular hiking these would be optional, but for the off-trail terrain of Alaska they are a necessity. They do not have to be fancy.
- Sleeping bag – this, along with your boots, is one of the most important items you carry. Your bag should be relatively compact and light (so you can carry it in your backpack), and rated for 40 degree weather; though even a 32 degree rating would be alright for summer in Alaska. Don’t overdo it here and get a zero rated bag as you will then be too warm at night. If it gets especially cold, you will have your long-johns (see above). And when in camp, we have a supply of Hudson Bay wool blankets to throw on your cot if you require a little extra warmth.
- Lightweight dry sack – Even if your rain gear fails and you end up soaking wet and cold, you absolutely must have dry change of clothes and sleeping bag as final refuge. You do not want a heavy-weight sea-bag here. The easiest (and lightest) set-up includes a simple stuff-sack and/or a plastic garbage bag.
- Backpack – backpacks have become quite complex and can be expensive; you do not need the top-of-the-line trekking pack. What you need is an internal-frame pack that will hold your gear and a bear canister, one with specs that allow for extended trips (five days +) and can hold at least 50lbs of gear. Pack selection is rather subjective and you should look for what works right for you; it is always better to try a pack on before spending the money on something that just doesn’t feel right. You will also have the advantage of questioning a knowledgeable salesperson about adjustments. Having an ill-fitting backpack can be as ugly as having badly fitting boots when you’re on a week long trip in the mountains. Learn the best order to tighten up the various straps, Learn whether your pack carries better if it’s tighter, looser, or snug. Learn how to pack the backpack, where gear fits inside it, etc, so as to get the most out of your backpack. There’s an awful lot of technical ‘know-how’ in a high end backpack, and it really can make a difference to how much you enjoy your trip. Seek input from a salesperson about the features and adjusting straps on packs. Here is some advise from Carl of Alaska Alpine treks: I think the main thing here is, just to reiterate, that you understand a modern backpack is a piece of technical equipment, and having the technical knowledge of its construction, and fitting techniques, can make a HUGE difference to how comfortable the pack feels on your back. When you test it out in the store, have them load 50 pounds in it… it may seem like a lot, but I don’t see too many people who arrive for a trip with less than 45 pounds in their backpack – particularly novice hikers. So put 50 pounds in the pack, and walk around the store, for at least 10 minutes. Not 2 minutes, not 30 seconds, but at least 10 minutes, around and around .. you’ll notice a big difference between the first minute and the last! Next, when you DO make a decision and buy a pack, take it out for an overnight hike, or a weekend trip. See how it feels on the trail, loaded with camping gear, etc. If you have any issues, go back to the store, and have them adjust the fit, pay special attention to WHERE it doesn’t feel right, often a simple strap adjustment can make that work properly, if someone knows what they’re doing with the backpack. If the salesperson does NOT know what they’re doing, ask for someone else to assist.
- Mess kit – plastic bowl, fork, spoon and mug. This doesn’t have to be fancy – a tupperwear container with lid works just fine. We recommend plastic/synthetic, but you may bring metal mess kits if you prefer.
- Pocket Knife – Swiss Army type works just fine.
- Nalgene water bottle – wide-mouth bottle for personal use. It isn’t bad to have an extra one of these in a side pocket.
- Sleeping pad – optional (but not really), but definitely makes a difference. This is not just an item for comfort, but keeps your body off the ground and, therefore, warmer. Even the cheap army surplus pad works well.
- Pack towel – a lightweight synthetic towel is best, but a medium sized bathroom towel works fine as well. You WILL use this for stream crossings.
- Personal toiletries – Toothbrush and paste; wash cloth; sunscreen (NO SCENT!); a small bottle of biodegradable soap (liquid or gel not a bar). AVOID SOAPS THAT HAVE ODORS. Forth Rule of Thumb: If you can smell it, you can be darn sure that a bear can too. Specifically formulated camp soaps are best. Please DO NOT bring anything with Citronella in it (such as some soaps produced by ‘Sea to Summit’) as Citronella apparently smells quite a bit like a certain ant that bears love to eat. Some good options include: Dr. Bronner’s Baby Mild, No-Rinse Body Wash. You will notice that I do not list sun screen. Insect repellent neutralizes most sun screens (and you will definitely want to wear insect repellent!). If you are sun sensitive, you might look for ‘Bug&Sun’ lotion.
- DEET-based insect repellent – DEET remains the most effective and longest lasting repellent. Early July can get pretty nasty with regard to bug. Wearing lighter colored clothing may also help to minimize bug attraction. Clothing with a very tight weave will keep bugs from biting.
- Sunglasses – durable and cheap are your best bet here – something you won’t mind if you sit on them accidentally. It is important for fishing that your glasses have UV-ray filtering.
Fifth rule of thumb: Multiply the use of a single item. Think about all the ways you can lighten your pack load with multi-use items. For example, shorts or even boxers may be used for swimming, so there’s no need to carry a separate swimsuit.
Optional (but extremely useful):
- Mosquito Head Net/Jacket – I include this item on both the mandatory and optional lists to make a point: The bugs in Alaska can be somewhat overwhelming depending on the season and tolerance-level of the hiker. To a certain extent we just have to put up with them as part of the natural environment. But if you are particularly bothered by them in your face, a head net/jacket is not an option and should be on your mandatory gear list. This is another reason to stick with long-sleeve shirts. For most of us, spending the $35 or so on a bug jacket is well worth the cost. Sea-to-Summit makes a particularly good product. For what it’s worth, blue seems to be the color least attractive to Alaskan mosquitoes.
- Rain hat with brim – this is an option because your precip jacket should have a hood
- Fleece pants – A pair of light-weight fleece (or flannel or even khaki -yes, this is the exception to the no cotton rule) long pants is certainly nice to change into after settling into camp in the evenings.
- LED flashlight or headlamp – the summer nights are short, real short, in Alaska, but a small light comes in handy if you need to find something in your pack at 2am.
- Gaiters – these are optional but do help keep the muck out of your hiking boots.
- Waterproof stuff sack (dry-sack) – it’s a good chance you will be rained on while hiking, so it is always good to know you will have dry clothes to change into for the evening. Do not bring the heavy-duty waterproof sacks; these are designed for water sports and tend to be bulky and heavy. Even a kitchen trash bag works as good dry-sack.
- Hiking/Running Shorts – while the summer temperature rarely climbs above 75°F in the Alaskan mountains, and the terrain regularly prohibits one from hiking in shorts, you may wish to have a pair along for fishing or swimming. Make sure they are quick drying and easy to carry.
- A paperback book! (Personally, this is not an optional item.) You might be amazed how welcomed this can be. AWOC keeps a good selection of wilderness-appropriate books on hand in base-camp, but you may wish to bring something of your own.
- A camera: AWOC guides are camera-equipped, so if you are a person that doesn’t particularly like to lug around cameras or you have expensive equipment, you may opt to leave yours at home. But for those who like to take their own shots, probably a good idea to bring yours.
- fishing equipment: If you’re an avid fly fisher or just want to try your luck then you’re coming to the right spot. There are some opportunities , dependent upon or particular routes, for dropping your line and trying your luck against the Alaskan trout or dolly-varden, so if you own a rod that can be broken down and easily carried on your pack, then by all means bring it along. You may also consider a smaller, deconstructed version of your tackle box: the essential tools and lures/flies. Of course all fishing equipment will be provided when we join our Alaskan fishing guides.
AWOC supplies all gear that is used by the entire group, such as tents, cook stoves, fuel canisters, cooking gear, first aid kits, emergency radio and phone, bear resistant containers, and water treatment kits.