Denali: Exploring Alaskan Backcountry

Savage River, Denali National Park and Preserve

The Savage River at 11:30 p.m. in Denali NPP (Szalay)

For those of us lucky enough to visit Denali National Park and Preserve, the pure backcountry experience can be found away from the parking lots and picnic benches (which are available too, for those that travel with friends and family in need of a tether to civilization) that sometimes breakup our hikes through state parks, or (ahem) Shenandoah.  To make the most of the opportunity in Denali NPP, we have to know some things unique to navigating it and the far north in general.

We’ll assume that we all read the last post, “Denali: Planning for a Summer Visit,” so that we’ve already determined that hiking into the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve will suit us and our companions.  If our companions are not on the same page, the backpacking trip by misery through association with irritating hiking buddies with annoying habits that only come out on the trail, or buddies that say, “what do you mean we have to camp outside?”  It’s best to find out these things well ahead of time.

Guide References. We should familiarize ourselves with the park’s layout and major features before we go.   Start by getting oriented through the park’s website, in particular its page on the backcountry.  These days, it is the best resource.  For guide books on the backcountry, the two books that were readily available until relatively recently were Denali: The Complete Guide by Bill Sherwonit or Denali: A Backcountry Companion by Jon Niernberg.  Both are not currently in print but used copies may be obtained through Barnes & Noble’s website.  I suspect that they are out of print due to technology trends and because the Denali’s backcountry is difficult to quantify in writing.  By contrast, covering the Adirondacks, which has an elaborate network of maintained trails, is a subject ready for a guide book since it covers fixed trails rather than areas of tract that is subject to change.

Maps. Maps are always king, especially in trail-less Denali.  For general park orientation, my favorite is map 222 from National Geographic, which covers Denali National Park and Preserve.  It provides a general lay out of the entire park and wilderness backcountry units (into which the park is divided for management purposes) as well.  But when actually traversing cross country, nothing beats the square maps from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS).

Permits. The first thing we need to know is that the National Park Rangers manage the backcountry of Denali through a permit and a quota system for each backcountry unit on the park map.  Day hikers do not need backcountry permits.  All trips start, essentially, at the Park Headquarters, where we file what amounts to our “flight plan.”  Permits are issued by the Rangers for specific backcountry units on a first-come-first-served basis.  Because each backcountry unit has a maximum number of hikers permitted each day (around eight, depending on the unit), the unit we may have preferred to go through may be closed to us on our arrival.  So it is good to have plan Bravo and even Charlie ready.

Bears. Before the Rangers allow us to go in-country, we are given BRFCs, for Bear Resistant Food Container, also known as a food canister.  These are necessary, especially if we plan to camp on the open tundra where a place to hang our food bag out of reach from bears is impossible.  The canister closes flush without a handle, with the help of a little screw head-like notch, so the bear cannot get in no matter how much he or she hits it, squeezes or punts it.  It is great that the National Park Service issues them to backcountry hikers, but if we plan to backpack elsewhere in the far north, we should invest in one to take with us.  They run about $70.  In addition, we should make noise when we travel – human conversation is a unique sound and simply saying “Stay away, bear” repeatedly should do the trick.  Bear spray is also popular and might be good to keep accessible on the hip belt of our packs.

Cross Country Travel. If we have backpacked in the lower forty-eight, we probably have the basic skills necessary for hiking Denali.  But in addition to the basics – such as camping, protecting food from animals, packing, basic map and compass skills, and general physical fitness – we need to acquire additional skills for the Alaskan backcountry.  For example our expectation for our anticipated rate of travel needs to be tweaked.  This is because in the far north, sometimes the ground feels spongy.  Still, other terrain may feel like it is falling out from under us, particularly on a scree field or sometimes on a gravel bar.  While wildernesses like this make for slow going, it is just part of the challenge of negotiating routes in the far north, where there are no established trails or maintained trails.

River Crossings. There are numerous rivers throughout the park and finding the safest and proper place to cross them can take a great deal of time.  Preferably, cross at the widest braids where the river runs shallow.  We should get advice on the rivers we expect to cross from the Rangers before setting out.  Also, while some hikers are comfortable crossing in their boots, I remove mine despite the temperature of the water and wear old sneakers or Teva sandals – whichever I brought to wear in camp.

Campfires. Unfortunately, for backcountry travelers in Denali NPP, campfires are prohibited.   So plan to cook on a camp stove and stay warm in our fleece jackets or sleeping bags.  Most of us respect (as we should) the rule and know that an absurd portion of forest and brush fires are cause by people, but the satisfaction of light and warmth of a fire is the chill on the beer.  It may not be a bad idea to spend a night at a car camping site along the park access road before leaving just to use one of the permanent fire rings.

In a later post I will talk about some recommended day hikes and overnighters in Denali NPP. As well as what gear to bring.


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