How can I survive a night in the Alaskan wilderness?

Alaska Image Gallery Night descends on Mount McKinley in Alaska. See more pictures of Alaska.
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The sun is setting, and you're alone -- really alone. You look around and take in your surroundings -- shrubby Alaskan tundra with stumpy bushes, velvety moss that adds punches of green to the view. No streetlights or man-made sounds puncture the setting. It's just you and the Alaskan wilderness, and somehow you'll have to make it through the night.

Often, if you get lost outdoors, search and rescue teams will find you within 72 hours. In that brief window of time, getting through the night can be most challenging. Your stomach moans from hunger as you try to make yourself comfortable on an earthen bed. Strange noises rattle your mind, preventing you from falling asleep. But solid rest plays an important role in your survival since it helps you preserve energy when you're likely not ingesting enough food to fuel energy.

Before you attempt sleep, create a mental plan of how to fulfill your immediate needs before night falls. Unless you're in immediate danger, stick close to where you first lost your way to increase your chance of being found. Then, after taking care of any physical injuries, shelter is your first priority. Secure a safe location and build a shelter that will provide adequate protection from predators and the elements but doesn't take too much of your energy to build.

In Alaska, your next task would likely be making a fire. Whatever the season or location, fire is essential, warming you, allowing you to cook and boil water and serving as a signal for search parties. For many outdoor enthusiasts, fire also supplies a much-needed morale boost that helps clear the mind.

Shelter and fire top any survival priority list, but staying overnight in the Alaskan wilderness presents unique challenges for meeting those needs. Because of its distinctive geography and climate, Alaskan survival involves special considerations. For instance, how could you live through a night in sub-zero temperatures? And how do you avoid getting eaten by a bear?

Head to the next page to learn how you'll last through the night in a wintery Alaskan wilderness.

Surviving a Winter Night in Alaska

By spending a night in the Alaskan wilderness, you could catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the fall and spring.
By spending a night in the Alaskan wilderness, you could catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the fall and spring.
Theo Allofs/Getty Images

The first thing that comes to many people's minds when they think of Alaska is the cold. The top of the state slices into the Arctic Circle, so Alaskan winters cool down the vast wilderness regions. Temperatures in the interior of the state can drop as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34.4 degrees Celsius). On top of that, a 5 mile-per-hour (8 kilometer-per-hour) wind will make it feel like minus 46 degrees (minus 43 degrees Celsius).

Cold weather conditions are perilous to your health, making it essential to keep your body covered and warm. Since our bodies lose heat most rapidly from our head, neck, wrists and ankles, try to insulate those areas in particular.

Even if snow and ice cover the surrounding land, many handmade shelters offer protection from the cold and wind. Snow structures, such as igloos or snow caves, will prove surprisingly warm compared to outside. If possible, camp in woods that will supply firewood and trees that block the wind. When constructing your overnight bedroom, watch out that you don't work up a sweat in the process because wet plus cold equals hypothermia, as you'll learn in How to Avoid Hypothermia.

To maximize warmth, design tight living quarters to trap body heat inside. When possible, dig out your shelter floor down to the earth to take advantage of radiant heat from the ground. For more insulation put some sort of barrier, such as pine needles, between you and the ground to conserve warmth. For more information on how to make temporary lodgings in the wild, read How to Build a Shelter.

You'll need fire to stay physically protected for a night in Alaska. You'll need fire to stay physically protected for a night in Alaska.
You'll need fire to stay physically protected for a night in Alaska.
Fredrik Broman/Getty Images

Whe­n searching for an acceptable camp location, use a knife, stick or ice axe to check for weak ice underneath you before walking on it. Rivers, streams and lakes dot the Alaskan landscape, and you could easily trek onto one of these. Also, avoid building a shelter on or at the base of an incline because of risk of snow drifts and avalanches.

In frigid temperatures, staying dry is a must to defend you from frostbite, hypothermia and other cold weather nemeses. The smoke from fire can also help rescuers pinpoint your location. When building a fire, choose a spot away from snow-laden branches that could drip and extinguish your fire. Then, stack dry rocks or branches on the ground as a platform to prevent kindling from falling on wet ground and going out. If you decide to build a fire inside your shelter to accumulate more heat, first poke through the walls or carve out a door or window to ventilate and prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Since the far north region of Alaska becomes shrouded in 24-hour darkness during the peak winter months of December and January, fire could be your only light source. In fact, Barrow, the northernmost settlement in the state, stays dark for 84 days from mid-November to late January [source: Alaska Office of Economic Development]. Even in southern parts of the state, daylight hours shrink to fewer than four hours, so you should set up camp early. For more detailed information on making fire in the wilderness, read How to Start a Fire Without a Match.

Alaskan summers bring more temperate climates, but that doesn't mean lasting the night will be a cakewalk. On the next page, we'll discuss tips for overnight success when Alaska heats up.

Surviving a Summer Night in Alaska

Don't camp out by a salmon stream because these are feeding grounds for bears in Alaska.
Don't camp out by a salmon stream because these are feeding grounds for bears in Alaska.
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images

While the winter cold and wet chill to the bone, the summer season in Alaska offers its own menu of obstacles for surviving the night. When the snow begins to disappear, bears emerge from hibernation, glacier melts causes water levels to rise and the air thickens with black swarms of airborne pests.

Sleeping through a summer night in Alaska poses a challenge simply because the darkness lasts only four to six hours in the south. The northernmost region runs on a never-ending light bulb with daylight illuminating the land in 24-hours cycles. This continuous light can throw off your internal clock, or circadian rhythm, that naturally responds to nighttime darkness by inducing the desire to sleep. Adequate shelter that blocks out sunlight and protects you from harmful rays will help you catch a few winks and save energy.

If you're spending the night in areas where you've seen bears or bear tracks, take special care selecting a shelter location so you don't wake up to the furry face of a grizzly or black bear. Around 40,000 bears roam Alaska. Most live in the southern areas of the state. Chances are, bears won't seek you out, but you may accidentally attract them.

First, set up shelter in an open area, not dense woods, to give you visibility. Don't camp out by a salmon stream since bears feed on them. Also, if you're lucky enough to have food along for your wilderness slumber party, keep it away from your shelter and from a bear's reach. Try to hang it about 100 yards (30 meters) away from your sleeping quarters at least 30 feet (9 meters) high. In case you have extra clothing, pack the ones you wore while cooking with the food, since the lingering scent may draw bears to you as well.

As the Alaskan summer climaxes in June, so do buzzing clouds of black flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums. You'll find the highest concentrations of these in wooded areas. They are less prevalent in higher, dry land. To guard against these nuisances, tuck pants into socks, wear a hat and stay dry. No-see-ums in particular can drive people wild with discomfort, since the flies are good at finding open flesh and leaving you with an itch that lasts for a week.

Regarding the weather, the farther south you are in Alaska, the wetter it gets. The southeastern region receives an average 54 inches (137 centimeters) of rain annually. When building a summer shelter near a river or stream, stay aware of the water level. Melting glaciers during the summer cause these waters to rise, meaning that you could be flooded out of your temporary home. If it rains, this could contribute to flash flooding, and you don't want to wake up to that.

Surviving a night in the Alaskan wilderness involves special considerations. But remember that you'll likely be found in a few days. To learn more about how to tough it out in the wild, investigate the links below.

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Sources

  • Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. "Bear Watching." (April 14, 2008)http://www.dced.state.ak.us/oed/student_info/learn/bearwatching.htm
  • Barnes, Scottie; Jacobson, Cliff; Churchill, James. "The Ultimate Guide to Wilderness Navigation." Globe Pequot. 2002. (April 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=rg9EKTulrB4C
  • DuFresne, Jim; Spitzer, Aaron. "Lonely Planet Alaska." Lonely Planet. 2006. (April 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=b-JDesZWm5gC
  • Kinney, Aaron. "Survivalist offers advice on staying alive." McClatchy - Tribune Business News. Jan. 11, 2008.
  • Stilwell, Alexander. "The Encyclopedia of Survival Techniques." The Lyons Press. 2000.
  • Tawrell, Paul. "Camping & Wilderness Survival: The Ultimate Outdoors Book." Outdoor life. 2006. (April 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=deRKF5kv5wwC
  • TravelAlaska.com. "Explore Alaska's Regions." The State of Alaska. (April 14, 2008)http://www.travelalaska.com/Regions/StateRegions.aspx
  • University of Alaska Risk Management Team. "Remote Travel Planning & Resource Guide." University of Alaska. June 9, 2003. (April 8, 2008)http://www.alaska.edu/swrisk/download/TravPlan.pdf
  • Wise, Jeff. "How to Survive in the Wild for 72 Hours: I'll Try Anything." Popular Mechanics. Jan. 24, 2008. (April 14, 2008)http://www.popularmechanics.com/outdoors/adventures/4246201.html?page=1