Before a trip like this one, I spend a lot of time thinking about the gear and supplies I need, plus the skills I’ll need to use them. Below I’ve shared in-depth thoughts on some of my major selections.
Vapor Barrier Liners (VBL’s)
A VBL is made out of a non-breathable fabric (e.g. silicone-impregnated nylon) that does not allow moisture to pass through it. In cold conditions, VBL’s are critical to preserving the long-term warmth of insulated garments, which are adversely affected by moisture, namely perspiration that cannot move through outer layers and evaporate because it reaches the dew point beforehand, and hence transforms from water vapor into water droplets, wetting the insulation.
Given the amount of snow I will encounter, I need some type of floatation. Snowshoes are versatile but very slow, and bicycles are fast on packed trails but useless otherwise—so skis are the right choice here. Which skis to choose, however, is a different matter. After a lot of research I went with a lightweight “Nordic mountaineering” setup that at times will be “too much” and at times “too little,” but normally “just right.” The 205 cm-length and 67-57-62 sidecut will offer better glide and comparable float versus a pair of shorter-but-fatter skis; the waxable base is pickier but ultimately faster and more versatile; the full-length metal edges add weight but will be very helpful on wind-sculpted sastrugi, windswept river ice, and steep headwalls. I chose 3-pin telemark bindings because the Crispi Mountain boots fit me better than any NNN-BC boot. And I went with carbon fiber poles because swing weight is hugely important; they are well worth the added cost.
I will use the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid, a 13-oz floorless pyramid-shaped tarp, from start to finish. This type of shelter offers excellent storm protection for very little weight—it is more than enough even for the Arctic’s 3-season conditions. Just before the bugs hatch, I will have the InnerNet mailed to me, which basically turns the SoloMid into a conventional double-wall tent, but at a fraction of the weight. I am slightly concerned about the SoloMid’s performance for winter conditions, though I think it will be up to the task. Normally I will be able to find protected campsites, which will help to offset its lack of storm-resistance versus a true 4-season tent. When I can’t, I will have to plan to overnight in an emergency shelter constructed by the locals, or wait out the storm in a town.
I will carry a GPS for at least the first 300 miles (and perhaps for the first 800 miles, depending on how useful I find it) because it will make navigating along the coastline, which is generally flat and monotonous, and prone to whiteouts. Once I have more bearings, I am sufficiently comfortable with my map & compass skills to send the GPS back. The best way to avoid being lost is to always track your progress.
For trips in the lower 48 I normally just carry a SPOT Satellite Messenger, with which I can send very simple messages, like OK, Help, and 911. A satellite phone is a much more powerful communications device and I much prefer it for the remote regions of Alaska and Yukon, where search and rescue will probably be both slow and difficult.
Like my skis, my packraft enables me to travel through the wilderness with much greater efficiency. I can float effortlessly down fast-flowing rivers; I can paddle across large saltwater bays; I can ferry across dangerous rivers; and I can rest my feet and conserve calories for another time. My packraft for the AYE is a skinnier version of the popular Alpacka Yukon Yak. The builders narrowed the hull, eliminated the backrest (and cut 2″ off the boat’s length), and used their lightest fabrics. It is not as whitewater-worthy as their standard designs, but I shouldn’t be pushing my whitewater skills on this expedition anyway.
Synthetic insulations versus down
I prefer using goose down when I can: it is warmer for its weight (i.e. more thermally efficient), it compresses more, and it has a longer lifespan. But down is more susceptible to moisture than synthetic insulations, so when I expect to frequently encounter wet/humid/damp/overcast conditions and to have limited opportunities to dry everything out, I tend to favor synthetic insulations despite their shortcomings. During the AYE I will begin to encounter such conditions starting in May, which explains why I transition towards synthetic insulations at that point.
I will encounter a lot of bears on this trip, no doubt. And they do demand attention and respect, though probably not the fear that many people have of them. I will carry bear deterrent starting in April, when the first bears emerge from hibernation. My preferred deterrent is pepper spray but the canisters are very difficult to ship, so I may have to settle for marine flares if pepper spray is not locally available. I should be able to pick up pepper spray when I reach the Parks Highway in late-April. More important than carrying bear spray, however, is taking preemptive actions to avoid bad bear encounters: I make noise when my visibility is limited by trees or brush, especially if I’m following a bear trail; I never camp where I cook or close to bear trails; I do not cook foods with h3 odors; and I keep my food in odor-proof Aloksak bags. If I take preemptive actions like these, I think I can greatly reduce the likelihood that I will discharge a pepper spray canister.
First Aid & Emergency
The contents of my first aid & emergency kit is based on what I have needed during past trips, with extra consideration to the remoteness and inaccessibility of this particular route. Based on past experience I think it is “unlikely” that I will injure myself seriously and I therefore don’t think it’s worth the additional weight to treat such injuries. If something serious does happen, one of three things may happen: (1) ideally, I will “self rescue” by leaving my intended route for a safe zone; (2) less preferably, I can call for a direct rescue via a sat phone or SPOT; or finally, (3) my support crew (which has all of my route information) will call in the emergency because I’m overdue. The more likely application for my First Aid & Emergency kit is inconsequential cuts and bruises, blisters on my fingers, and perhaps an overuse injury (e.g. shin splints) that I can nurse back to health with special care and ibuprofen.