Backcountry Safety

Dynamic Landscape

The landscape of Wrangell-St. Elias is constantly changing. Glaciers recede, landslides re-arrange mountainsides, and rivers flood. Outside resources, such as guide books, are a great starting place to plan your trip, but don’t assume these resources are correct. Guide books, blog posts, and maps that are just a few years old may no longer reflect what is actually on the ground. Always pay careful attention when navigating a route and never unquestioningly follow maps, GPS devices or advice.

Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains. Be prepared for varying weather and trail conditions. This is a dynamic landscape that changes without warning. You may find missing foot bridges, uneven trail surfaces, unstable slopes, falling trees, rutted trails, damaged water bars and steps, standing water, difficult water crossings, and missing directional signs could be encountered. Most of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is designated wilderness or remote, where self-reliance and adventure are expected. Visitors should be prepared to take responsibility for their own actions; search and rescue may be delayed. Be prepared to stay overnight even if you are a day user. Route finding skills may be required. Carry a map and compass and other backcountry travel essentials. Hike at your own risk.

 
Turquoise colored, alpine Soda Lake with mountains in the background.

The landscape of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve is extreme. River crossings, glacier travel, thick brush, extreme weather (cold and hot), rock fall, mudslides, avalanches and bugs are just some of the hazards to be aware of. In addition, remember that bear safety is an important part of backcountry safety.

Backcountry Accountability & Emergency Contacts

Leave your route and expected time of return with a friend or family member, along with directions for what to do if you do not return at the expected time. A search will not be initiated until a specific request from a friend or family member is made. If you are flying in or out of a remote airstrip, your pilot will be your main communication link to safety. Be sure to discuss "what if" scenarios with your pilot before you are dropped off.

To report a life and safety emergency in the park, call 907-683-2276. DO NOT call this emergency number for park information or trip planning questions.

Consider Your Experience

There are no maintained trails in the Wrangell-St. Elias backcountry. To improve your experience, honestly assess the following questions.

  • Can you read a topographic map?

  • Have you hiked off-trail before?

  • Have you camped in difficult weather (such as snow, high winds, and heavy rain)?

After thinking about these questions, you may want to consider hiring a guide to help you experience all that the park has to offer.

Satellite Communications

Satellite phones and texting devices are the only way to communicate from the backcountry of Wrangell-St. Elias. We recommend bringing a satellite communication device, as it can help you make and maintain contact with family, friends, and if needed, emergency responders. Don’t let a satellite communication device give you a false sense of security though! In an emergency, help will not be immediate and will depend on many factors. You are still responsible for your own safety.

River Crossings

River crossings can be deadly. Make sure you are aware of all crossings on your route. Be prepared to turn around if the river appears too high or too swift to cross safely. Many rivers are impassable, even for experts. Small, unnamed creeks can become raging torrents under certain conditions. You can take training on river crossing techniques and there are many resources online about how to safely cross rivers.

Things to remember:

  • Cross at the widest and/or most braided area. This is usually where the water is shallowest. A long, shallow crossing is preferable over a short, deep one.

  • Unbuckle your backpack. If you slip and fall into the current, you need to jettison your pack so it does not fill with water and drag you down.

  • Cross early in the day. Water levels of glacial rivers are lowest right after the coldest temperatures of the day, which is usually during the night.

Always err on the side of caution when it comes to rivers!

Gear

Make sure you know how to use your gear and have the proper equipment. Even if your trip is in the summer, be prepared for cold temperatures and snow. Use dry bags or garbage bags to keep your sleeping bag dry, along with a change of clothes. Bring 2-3 days of extra food if you are using an air taxi to access the park, in case weather delays your scheduled pick up. Do not count on acquiring or renting gear once you arrive at the park.

Remember to practice leave no trace so future visitors can also have the opportunity for a wilderness experience.

 

Open Transcript

Transcript

My name is Courtney Eberhardy, and I'm a park ranger here at Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Wrangell-St. Elias is a truly vast and wild place offering an amazing opportunity for adventure.

Hiking here in Wrangell-St. Elias requires significant skill and experience. Here, there are very few maintained trails, but backcountry adventures abound. Venturing into the Alaskan backcountry, you will find a variety of risks, such as unmarked terrain and the possibility of bear or other wildlife encounters.

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The likelihood of meeting another person traveling through the backcountry is highly unlikely. The remote nature of the park means access is difficult, and rescue can be hours or even days away. Proper preparation, as well as knowledge of safe backcountry travel techniques, is a must. With enough preparation and vigilance in the field, you will be rewarded with an utterly unforgettable experience.

Packing. The weather here in Alaska is ever-changing, so prepare for rain, cold, and even heat. As the saying goes in Alaska, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Dress in layers, and choose fabrics that will not absorb water and will keep you warm when wet, such as wool and synthetic materials.

Bear-resistant food containers are required in Wrangell-St. Elias. You may provide your own. But if you do not have one, they can be checked out for free from Park Service Visitor Centers. Note that a deposit is required.

We recommend the following items when headed out into the backcountry. Sturdy boots, rain gear, tent, sleeping bag, hat, sunglasses, gloves, sunscreen, layered clothing, map, compass, knife, communication device, signal mirror, light, firestarter, a GPS with extra batteries, first aid kit, water purification, stove and cookware, a pack cover for your backpack, and dry bags or garbage bags to protect items inside the pack from becoming wet.

Bear deterrent, such as bear spray is highly recommended. Please note. If you are carrying bear spray or a firearm, you must inform your air taxi operator prior to your flight. Make a list of your necessary items and be sure that nothing is left behind. Prior to departure, be sure to check for an updated weather forecast and current conditions of the area you will be traveling in. Be prepared to be flexible, in case weather and conditions call for a change of plans. Inform others of your departure. You are now set for adventure.

When traveling in the backcountry, questions such as where am I? What direction am I going? What is the best and safest route? Should be considered on a regular basis. Take time frequently to consult your map to identify landmarks in your area and choose the best and safest routes.

We were right there. And eventually, we'll keep kind of cut ahead of the trail and across the Root glacier. So that's the big glacier that forms the staircase icefall up there.

Open spaces are best. In general, the areas above treeline, 3,000 feet or above, afford the easiest hiking and best views. Gravel bars along stream and river beds are also a good, durable surface and a great place for hiking. Traveling in those open spaces helps you to keep landmarks in sight and also lessens the chances of disturbing wildlife, especially startling a bear. If you have to hike in an area with thick brush, travel cautiously, being sure to make plenty of noise.

[YELLING]

Coming out.

Call out frequently.

Coming through.

Coming through.

Making noise will alert bears of your presence, lessening the chances of a surprise encounter. If this is your first time traveling in bear country or you have any questions at all, prior to your departure, inquire with Park Service Visitor Center staff. Or watch the bear safety video available on the internet at www.nps.gov/wrst, or you can watch it in person at the Visitor Center.

While hiking in the wilds of Wrangell-St. Elias, help to preserve the pristine character of the place by practicing a leave-no-trace hiking ethic. Choose durable surfaces for hiking. And when traveling in fragile areas, such as alpine tundra or dryas flats, spread out so as not to make social trails. Observe wildlife at a distance for the sake of the animal and for your own safety.

Here at Wrangell-St. Elias, there are many parcels of private property found within the public lands. Always respect the rights of these property owners, and never cross private property without prior permission. Consult your map frequently for land status.

When setting up camp for the evening, continue to observe the leave-no-trace ethic. Choose a durable surface for camping, and camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. Here at Wrangell-St. Elias, we ask that you set up your camp in a triangular fashion, with your tent, cook site, and food storage site each 100 yards apart.

[FOOTSTEPS]

If you packed it in, you must pack it out. Inspect your campsite for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. For a low-Impact campsite, using a cookstove is best. However, if you decide to build a fire, choose an area of low impact, such as gravel bars along riverbeds. Never leave your fire unattended. And all firewood must come from dead and downed trees.

Because there are very few maintained trails within the park, travel through dense brush along steep scree slopes and across fast and cold glacial streams and rivers should be expected. GPS devices are a wonderful navigation tool, but remember that technology always can fail. Batteries die, and devices can get wet or ruined. Because of this, possession of a map and compass, and the skills to read them, are essential.

If a stream or river crossing seems too risky, it probably is. Remember, always be willing to turn back or wait for a more suitable time if a crossing appears too dangerous. Choose the safest place and method to cross.

The widest or most graded portion of the channel is usually the most shallow. Straight channels usually exhibit uniform flow, while bends often reveal deep cut banks and swift water on the outside edge. Water has less momentum on level ground than when flowing down an incline. If you cannot see the bottom, toss rocks into the stream and listen to the sound that they make. This will help you to estimate the depth of water in the area where you hope to cross.

If hiking solo, use a hiking stick or a sturdy tree branch held upstream to create a more stable three-point stance. Move only one point of contact at a time. Two or more hikers should cross as a team to help support one another. Face upstream, with the upstream person supported by those behind. Hold onto one another and move in unison, with the person in front communicating to those behind. Have a plan in place for a retreat if the crossing proves too difficult.

In deep water, techniques such as the triangle method or V method work well. These hikers are demonstrating the V method. Have the largest, strongest member take the lead, while other people in the group grip each other's shoulders or packs and work their way across in unison. Protect your feet. Never cross in bare feet. Wear boots or bring extra shoes for crossings.

Move one foot at a time, sliding it across the bottom. Unclip waist and sternum straps on packs to expedite removal in the event of a fall. Never cross upstream of swift water or hazards in the river, such as debris, waterfalls, or downed logs or branches.

Choose a place to cross where, if you fall, the current will take you to a shallow gravel bar. Should you accidentally fall, try to control the fall to land on your back and not your knees to avoid injury. Quickly remove your pack and hold it out in front of you, and work your way to a shallow area out of the current.

Proper planning, preparedness, safe hiking techniques, and a leave-no-trace land ethic are essential components of a safe and enjoyable time in the backcountry. However, there are times where true emergencies occur. In the case of a real emergency, have the following information prepared before calling. Have your exact location, the nature of the incident, and what kind of help you need.

Help can be reached by calling the National Park Service Alaska Regional Communication Center at 907-683-9555 or the Alaska State Troopers at 907-352-5401. We here at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve wish you a wonderful and safe experience in one of the last great wilderness areas in North America.

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Duration:
10 minutes, 51 seconds

Tips for travelling safely in the Alaskan backcountry.

Last updated: June 24, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
PO Box 439
Mile 106.8 Richardson Highway

Copper Center, AK 99573

Phone:

(907) 822-5234

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