In the second half of June I’m running four 7-day guided trips in Gates of the Arctic National Park, split between two guide teams. Gates encompass the western half of the famed Brooks Range, which spans 1,000 miles across Alaska and which arguably offers the greatest wilderness trekking in North America. The terrain and conditions in the range’s eastern half, which is managed as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are very comparable.
What’s in my pack for these trips?
Objectives + conditions
There is a right way to backpack: prepare yourself with the gear, supplies, and skills that are appropriate for your trip objectives and the conditions.
If your trip to the Brooks Range adheres to a different backpacking style, or if you are visiting during another season, deviations from my gear list are warranted and recommended.
These are hiking-oriented trips. We enjoy camp, but see it mostly as an opportunity to recharge for more hiking. A typical day runs from 8 AM to 5 PM, with breaks for lunch and instructional tutorials, and when we simply want to take it all in. (With 24 hours of daylight, we may adjust our schedules to take advantage of good weather windows.)
If our clients were cut loose on a rolling section of the Appalachian Trail, their mileage would range from 15-20 or 20-25 miles per day (“High” and “Very High” on my intensity scale). On the John Muir Trail, it’d be more like 15 and 20 miles per day.
As part of the Planning Curriculum, we researched the likely environmental and route conditions. We consulted government data, backcountry rangers, bush pilots, and trip reports and guide books.
Temperatures and precipitation. Monthly climate normals are available from two nearby NOAA weather stations. During the second half of June at:
- Chandalar Shelf (3,250 feet near the Continental Divide), average high temperatures are in the high-50’s, and average low temperatures are in the low-40’s. Average monthly rainfall is 1.8 inches.
- Wiseman (1,200 feet along the Koyukuk River), average high temperatures are around 70 degrees, and average low temperatures are in the low-40’s. Average monthly rainfall is 1.9 inches.
Daylight. In the town of Bettles, our launch point into the park, the sun sets for just two hours in late-June; there is 24 hours of daylight. Along our route further north, the sun will not set. Bring a sleep mask, not a headlamp.
Footing. Not a single mile of man-made hiking trail exists in the Brooks Range. These trips are 100 percent off-trail. The travel can be joyous, like across firm alpine tundra or on open gravel bars; but it an also suck, with ankle-twisting tussocks, energy-sapping “sponga,” and water-logged muskeg.
Vegetation. The lower elevations on the south side of the range, including near a likely drop-off/pick-up point at Circle Lake along the Alatna River, are covered in spruce. The forest transitions to a “brush zone” before alpine tundra takes over. On the north side of the range, there are no trees. The hardiest plant is willow, which can be found at high elevations in wet areas like creek bottoms.
Navigational aids. The park has no trails or signage, so we will be navigating entirely with map, compass, altimeter watches, and GPS. The topography is distinct, but the huge landscape and 1:62,500 maps with 100-foot contour lines will take some getting used to. The weather is generally stable, but storms can obscure visibility.
Sun exposure. The sun will never go below the horizon, but it’s never particularly strong — it’s low in the sky, and we’re at low elevations. However, the cumulative solar exposure can add up, especially for those who are fair-skinned.
Water availability. There is no shortage of high quality water, due to melting snowpack, recent rainfall, and groundwater aquifers.
Problematic wildlife. The park is inhabited by grizzly and black bears, as well as wolverines and wolves. Attacks are rare, especially in groups of four or more. With such light recreational traffic, rodents have not become fearless around humans.
Biting insects. The peak mosquito season is in July, coinciding with summer’s greenery and warm temperatures. Normally early-June is reliably bug-free; in late-June, pockets of bugs should be expected. But this year, we are prepared for an early hatch due to a scarily warm and dry winter throughout Alaska.
Remoteness. There are no towns, roads, or hiking trails nearby. We must get dropped off and picked up by bush planes, and can communicate with the outside world only with satellite phones and messengers. It’s unlikely that we will see other people.
Natural hazards. Without packrafts, major rivers cannot be crossed safely. And after heavy rains, tributary streams rise quickly due to the relative dearth of top soil, almost akin to the Four Corners region.
Gear List: Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska in early-summer
This gear list is specifically applicable to the Brooks Range in early-summer, roughly late-June to mid-August, when temperatures are relatively mild and bug pressure is expected. It would also be a good template for other seasons in the Brooks Range, and for similar Arctic environments like northern Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, and northern Russia.
My pack weight is virtually unchanged from my last trip in the Brooks in 2010, when I traversed the range with a 15-pound base weight (sometimes plus seven pounds of packrafting gear).
The total cost is completely inflated. Shop the holiday sales (usually 20 percent off a full-price item), and find similar items on clearance that are even more steeply discounted.
If you like the look and organization of my gear list, consider using my 3-season gear list template.
Questions about my selections, or what you should bring? Leave a comment.
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