I’ve never gone hiking in Alaska! What should I bring?
Hiking in Alaska is tricky business. It might be a hot, sun-shining clear day when you start up a trail, a great day to travel light and just leave the pack in the car. Then, halfway up a trail on, say, Lazy Mountain, everything will change. Suddenly thick clouds rapidly waft in, a chill wind escalates and sleet falls—in June! Some of my friends are just beginning to discover hiking. The first words I heard from each of them before our first time out were variations of “What do I bring? I don’t know what to bring!”
The short answer: Wear comfortable shoes appropriate for the terrain. Wear layers you can add or subtract as needed. Carry an appropriately sized backpack with a fully charged cell (or a satellite phone if you’ll be out on a longer trip in remote areas), first-aid supplies, water, food, map and compass or GPS, bug dope, toilet paper, sunglasses and sunscreen, bear spray, bear bells, whistle, a small garbage bag and whatever else you need if you’re bringing kids who are too small to carry their own pack.
Now, here is the long answer. Gotta warn you, this will be a pretty lengthy post!
The first thing to figure out is the most appropriate footwear for the place you want to go. If you’ll be hiking on a trail that’s level and developed, or even heading up a trail at a place like Eagle River’s Baldy or (Palmer’s) Bodenburg Butte, a pair of running shoes or sneakers would probably be fine. Tackling a longer, steeper, uneven, rocky or slippery trail up mountains like Bird Ridge, Flattop, Bear Mountain, Matanuska Peak, Pioneer Ridge or any of the many mountains tucked back in Hatcher Pass, however, usually requires a shoe or boot with deeper tread and more support around the foot and ankle. Wearing a more flimsy shoe puts you at risk for turning your ankle, or worse.
If you have a limited budget for hiking gear, don’t skimp on hiking boots. It’s critical to find a pair that is sturdy and fits correctly, especially in the heels. I bought a pair of boots several years ago at a gear sale. They were a good brand, new, and looked beefy and terrific. At REI, they would have cost me around $200. They felt good, though not perfect, because they were just a little loose in the heel. They’ll be fine after they’re broken in, I thought. Maybe a different pair of socks would help.
Wrong! Those boots turned out to be torture devices when I wore them up Lazy Mountain that year. My feet moved around in them and blisters rose on the backs of my heels. Downhill, since nothing was securing my heels, my toes slammed painfully into the inside front of the boot. Changing socks didn’t help. We took a very long way back to the Lazy trailhead—dipping into the grassy area just below Matanuska Peak before hiking down the McRoberts Creek trail and across, via a path known to Palmer locals as the Morgan Horse Trail—and my feet looked like hamburger by the time I limped to the car at the end of the day. My tale of woe doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find great boots at a gear sale or thrift store, it just means you should be very careful to get a pair that fits PERFECTLY.
What else should you bring when you go hiking? A frugal friend used to bring her food and an extra shirt in a Carrs plastic grocery bag—not the recyclable kind, the kind the cashier uses at the checkout counter. Usually there wasn’t a problem with it on Hatcher Pass’s Gold Mint trail and other trails through gentle terrain, but the bag became difficult and even dangerous for her to handle at times when she needed to use her hands to help herself up a steep slope, steady herself, climb a rock or help her kids. So, a properly fitting backpack or daypack is nice, preferably with a hip belt and chest buckle. Elastic cords on the outside are handy when you want to shed a shirt or jacket but keep it securely tucked close by in case Alaska’s fickle weather shifts. My friend with the Carrs bag eventually ended up with a really nice blue Cordura rucksack we discovered at Bishop’s Attic thrift store in Palmer.
You should always bring plenty of water along on a hike, kept either in BPA-free Nalgene bottles or in Camelbak or similar water reservoir packs. On a longer trip, bring along a container and something you can use to purify water you find while on the trail. DO NOT drink water from a stream, lake or other body of water without purifying it with a water filter, iodine or other purifier tablets or by boiling the water. Even the most sparkling, clear-looking water can contain enough vicious giardia parasites and other nasties to make you violently ill. The spectacular rush of water over rocks at the entrance to Hatcher Pass, for instance, looks immaculate…but if you drive or hike upstream a while you’ll see the water passes through a series of beaver dams that aren’t so immaculate.
Of course, carry food with you. My daughter and I customarily pack a couple of peanut butter sandwiches (with strawberry jam for her and banana slices for me), perhaps some trail mix, a couple of oranges, several Clif bars (chocolate brownie for her, chocolate chip for me and the yummy Clif Mojo bars that have coconut in them), and a larger-size bottle of orange Gatorade. Packing our sandwiches in Ziplocs results in smashed sandwiches by lunch, so we usually pack them in sandwich-sized Tupperware containers. My friend Lisa takes along strips of smoked salmon from her commercial fishing outings—a delicious snack after a couple of hours of hiking. If you don’t have your own self-caught salmon at home, REI carries smoked salmon in small, easy-to-pack, recloseable bags. I’ve also seen similar bags of smoked salmon at Fred Meyer in the section of the store that caters to tourists.
OK, so now you have suitable footwear, a backpack, food and water.
Next, you need to be sure you’ll be dressed appropriately for ever-shifting Alaska temperatures and weather conditions. You don’t have to look stylish, you just need to be sure you’ll be warm and dry when you’re out exploring. Dress in layers, which means to wear (or carry with you) a thin set of wool or polypropylene long underwear. The next layer would be a not-cotton shirt and a pair of not-cotton pants—shorts aren’t a great idea because many of the trails in our area are rimmed with irritating or prickly plants like devil’s club and cow parsnip. Cotton jeans or shirts aren’t a good choice because when dewy vegetation or rain make them wet; you feel cold and could become hypothermic. The next layer is a lightweight fleece of some kind and the final layer is a raincoat and pants. A windproof layer—pants and jacket—is usually pretty light and easily tucked into a pack. Bring along a wool or polyester hat and gloves, maybe a neck gaiter as well. An extra pair of socks secured in a Ziploc-type plastic bag is great for feet that get wet during a stream crossing.
My hiking clothes come from a combination of sources: REI, Mountain View Sports, Adventure Apparel and Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking in Anchorage, a variety of thrift and consignment stores, Patagonia’s web specials, Campmor, ski and hiking gear swaps and sales (the National Outdoor Leadership School near Palmer has terrific sales of clothing and equipment every year, so do ski clubs in the Valley and Anchorage) and last but not least, clothes I’ve inherited from friends and family members—I still wear a decades-old gray wool turtleneck that belonged to my late father-in-law.
Other ideas for what to bring include cell or sat phone; sunglasses; sunscreen; lip balm; mosquito repellent with DEET in it; a small recloseable bag of wet wipes; bandana (makeshift face mask if it gets dusty the way it routinely does on the south side of the Butte, something to use as a bandage or to blow your nose or carry lunch in); toilet paper in a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag; in another small Ziploc bag: first aid supplies, including bandaids, Neosporin and moleskin for cuts, scrapes and blister relief and a needle or tweezers, with a lighter or matches to sterilize the needle with, in case someone gets a splinter or has a close encounter with devil’s club; a GPS and/or a compass and waterproofed topographic map of the areas where you’ll be hiking (learn how to use them first); a whistle for you and each child you have with you, just in case you get separated; bear bells and bear spray; a couple of medium-size garbage bags, which are useful to sit on when the ground is wet, to use as a makeshift poncho or (with larger bags) shelter, cover your backpack if it starts raining, protect the seats of your car when you return wearing muddy or wet clothes or simply to put garbage in, and chemical hand and foot warmer packets, in case the weather turns very chilly.
The list looks long, but the items easily fit into a daypack.
Other things I have in the car aren’t critical but they do make hiking easier.
A pair of adjustable hiking poles is so great, especially if you have children along. You can use them to brace yourself while going down a steep slope with small children behind you, providing a stable barrier for the kids in case one of them falls. They are terrific if you’ll be crossing streams — providing a way to test the depth of the water or the stability of a rock someone is about to step on. An adult with a hiking pole can extend it to a child, to provide something stable to hold onto when necessary. Poles give you something to lean on while heading uphill and relieve the stress on your knees as you head downhill.
You’ll need to park your vehicle somewhere while you’re hiking and that means you might have to pay a parking fee. Keep a pen and some parking money in your car — $3 a day for Mat-Su Borough parking lots; $5 to $10 a day for state parks. Or, you can buy an annual day-use parking sticker. An Alaska State Parks day-use parking pass window sticker provides a calendar year’s worth of parking at state facilities for $40. A second sticker for the same address costs $20. State parks in the Mat-Su area include popular hiking destinations like Hatcher Pass East Management Area (which includes Archangel, Fishhook and Gold Mint trailheads, Government Peak Campground, Independence Mine State Historic Park and Summit Lake State Recreation Site) and Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area (located just off the Glenn Highway east of the Parks Highway interchange). The Mat-Su Borough also sells annual day-use parking passes for $30, with the second day-use parking pass in the same family going for $20. Mat-Su parks include hiking hotspots like Pioneer Ridge, West Butte, Lazy Mountain, Matanuska Peak and Crevasse Moraine, as well as trails in Talkeetna.
Last, I keep in my car a clean pair of socks, a change of shoes, a few plastic grocery bags in which to put muddy boots and socks after returning from a long hike and a couple of big bottles of orange Gatorade, since we’re usually extremely thirsty by the time we get back to the trailhead.