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!


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.

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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


(907) 822-5234

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