Surviving a Winter Night in Alaska
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.
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.