WHEN A TRIP RELIES ON SMART DECISIONS, THERE ISN’T LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE ROOM FOR FLUFF
By the time this article of American Survival Guide releases, I’ll be deep in the Alaskan backcountry on a float trip with Mark Knapp of Mark Knapp Custom Knives. We will be floating the Sagavanirktok River deep within the Arctic Circle while hunting caribou, wolf, sheep and ptarmigan. I have been meticulously planning this trip for months.
Bound by a strict gear weight limit, every item carried has purpose; many are multipurpose. This blog is part one of a two-part series. Part one features the gear I will be using, and part two will focus on the gear lessons I learned. If you decide to retrace my tracks or make new tracks of your own, you won’t have to reinvent the wheel as you decide what to carry. The gear I chose is important. Even more important are the reasons I decided on these items.
“Your gear limit is 150 pounds.” With these words, my friend, Alaskan knife maker Mark Knapp, established the confines of what I could carry.
What’s at stake if that limitation isn’t met? The DeHavilland Beaver pilot could refuse service or force me to nix a vital item at the last minute, delaying the flight into the bush.
To the avid backpacker, this 150-pound number seems like a free pass to carry an excess of gear. Even to the canoe camper, 150 pounds is a lot to portage/carry. Mark would provide the raft, tent and camp kitchen gear, and I would pack for just me. To me, these 150 pounds became a sentence—almost a curse.
It is one thing to carry gear for one type of outing. Any reader of this magazine could likely put together a fishing kit, for example, and be well within the limitations set by this number. The difficulty comes when clothing, equipment and provisions for multiple pursuits must fit within this strict limitation. It’s simply a task, done many times in the past, to pack for one trip, but it becomes an endeavor, an obsession, to pack for a multi-week trip comprising hunting, fishing, camping, rafting and photography. One hundred fifty pounds might seem like a lot of leeway, but it isn’t when individual item weights add up quickly.
There have been countless articles that incorporate gear lists. This article is just as much about what to carry as it is why I chose to carry an item. Up in the wilds of Alaska, it could be days before help can arrive. There is no walking back to the car (or bush plane, in this case) to grab something you forgot.
What follows is a selection of gear I carried and the logical reasons for packing what I did. (A complete list of what I carried will be discussed in the follow-up article.)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: THE PLANNER’S MINDSET
Part of any effective readiness plan is awareness. Alaskan readiness involves reaching out to local experts, studying the maps of the area of operations, understanding what the weight of a fully loaded pack will feel like and the effects it will have on the body.
Awareness includes understanding the temperature extremes and swings encountered during a given day, as well as historical highs and lows. It also includes knowing what animals can be found where you are traveling beyond those you wish to hunt and fish for.
One of the worst feelings experienced on a trip is regret. Traveling days to reach a destination deep in the Alaskan bush, no one wants to think or say out loud, “I wish I had … ” in the moment.
Fortunately for the outdoorsman, there are many seasoned Alaskan guides willing to share their love of the backcountry and their understanding of how to coexist in it with those seeking out the information.
As with medical advice, it is important to seek out second and third opinions and find out where the commonalities intersect. Books can be purchased, online forums browsed and opinions collected. This should provide a good starting point for gathering intel on what to pack.
Some advice I was given that put this trip into perspective: An acquaintance who was a former Kodiak Island military survival instructor told me to be prepared in case my guide goes down. While we want to plan for success, we must be prepared for failure.
One cannot rely on the guide being there to address all problems if the guide’s absence or injury is the problem. Mark is a reliable and competent outdoorsman who gives me no reason to be concerned, but accidents happen; and, just in case, I am prepared to pull my own weight … and his, if need be.
Traveling to Alaska, or any place for that matter, requires being ready for Mother Nature to throw her worst at you. As long as you know before you go, you can always fall back on your preparedness if your trip takes a turn for the worse.
When I met Mark Knapp at the BLADE show in 2015, he told me he had always wanted to take a writer/photographer into Alaska on a hunt to test out one of his 1911 Combat Survivor Bowie knives in the field. It took mere seconds for me to throw my hat in the ring.
For this reason, the camp knife I am bringing to Alaska is one of Mark’s patented 1911 blades with a hollow-handle magazine survival kit in it. This knife is being carried for all camp knife duties, including processing wood, preparing game and the testing this trip was intended for.
Because Mark’s knife is quite large, it will be carried in my pack. I’ll have my Bark River Knife and Tool Bushcrafter with me at all times, and a Leatherman and a collection of smaller-neck knives and game-processing blades will serve as support knives. These knives are smaller, proven in the field and will always be on me … not far from reach.
In general, the “rule of threes” helps dictate what I carry into the backcountry. Exposure, according to this rule, means a person can live approximately three hours exposed to the elements without proper shelter. Shelter starts with clothing and extends to the temporary home we make out of tarps and tents. Around water, my shelter needs to include waders for getting in and out of the raft, as well as hunting and fishing along the riverbank.
My shelter starts with my clothing. Simms Waders and a Kryptek Koldo Jacket work to keep me dry. Because I will be wearing the waders while rafting and hunting, I will not need to bring rain pants. The insulating and base layers worn underneath were all chosen for water-resistance or the insulation value when wet.
In general, if separated from my gear, I want the ability to spend the night only in my clothes. Layering is key, and lightweight layers are my priority for clothing.
Mark told me I didn’t need to worry about the tent, but I did want an emergency personal shelter for any unexpected bivouacs. The Kifaru Sheep tarp weighs very little and takes up about as much space as a soda can. It was the perfect choice for my bailout kit. While in the shelter Mark provided, I am sleeping in a Kifaru 0-degree, center-zip slick bag atop a standard RidgeRest closed-cell sleeping pad.
“IN GENERAL, THE ‘RULE OF THREES’ HELPS DICTATE WHAT I CARRY INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY.”
It was an obvious decision to carry an emergency personal locator beacon (EPLB). Cell phone service is not a guarantee, and beyond the Storm whistle, emergency signal mirror and rescue strobe, this device will ensure a distress signal would be sent. A former survival student and good friend recommended one that uses a frequency picked up by commercial airlines. For $425 and a free registration with SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking), I purchased the MicroPLB from Wireless Concepts.
This EPLB is slightly larger than a cell phone and operates in extreme temperatures. Should I be separated from my guide, or if my guide goes down and I’m unable to move him, this device will provide added insurance. For even more insurance, I have two whistles of different pitches, as well as signal mirrors of various sizes and a signal panel. In doing research for this trip, I was told that fires, even the signal variety, are often disregarded, because many smoke plumes are spotted in the backcountry. Signaling is not something you do half-baked—especially not in Alaska.
FOOD AND WATER
Alaska certainly has picturesque bodies of water, but the water should not be trusted as safe to drink untreated. I will use a simple water bottle filter while I am on the river, and a Heavy Cover Titanium Canteen set carried in a Centerline Systems Mother Canteen Carrier will be my primary hydration kit. Supplementing this will be collapsible Platypus and Hideaway flask bladders. I do not want to burden myself with extra weight or space of carrying additional metal canteens when the bladders will work just fine. I will fill these with treated water each day before we strike out from the spike camp.
Mountain House foods supplied Mark and me with freeze-dried provisions for our stay in the backcountry. We planned to supplement these with fresh fish, ptarmigan and caribou meat taken from the land. This combination of lightweight backpacking food, along with what can be acquired fresh in the backcountry, will help keep packing weights well below the 150 pounds allotted.
Summers in the Arctic Circle offer very little nighttime. When the sun sets around 11:00 at night and rises around 3:00 in the morning, there really isn’t much darkness. The sun lingers on the horizon, and it’s possible to see what is around you in the twilight.
For this reason, aside from general convenience, I carry a small Streamlight Protac AAA single-cell-battery flashlight, as well as an AAA Petzl Tactikka headlamp for hands-free convenience. LED technology has improved greatly over the years, and even a small light such as this one will cast a spotlight a considerable distance. This headlamp uses the same AAA batteries, thereby minimizing the need to carry multiple types of spares.
FIRST AID AND HYGIENE
An often-overlooked area of survival comprises first aid and hygiene. For this trip, I’m carrying an individual first aid kit (IFAK) with an accessory “boo-boo” kit. This will cover the vast majority of accidental cuts, scrapes and burns. Meds are kept simple: pain, anti-diarrhea, anti-histamine and Tylenol.
Because this is a float trip, staying clean isn’t an issue; there will obviously be an abundance of water that can be heated up for a “bird bath.” I am packing a simple section of pack towel to dry off. Nail clippers, foot powder and basic toothcare products will also be included, in addition to biodegradable Dr. Bronner’s Soap. Toilet paper and wet wipes, along with a small polymer Fiskars spade, will also be included.
HUNTING AND FISHING
Firearms selection is very personal, and caliber debates are an ever-present part of the gun world. For this trip, I took the advice of others in choosing my rifle, handgun and small-game-getter. The Remington 700 Alaskan Wilderness Rifle chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum will be my hunting rifle for caribou; the Tactical Solutions X-Ring rifle chambered in .22 Long Rifle will be used on ptarmigan; and the SIG Sauer P220 10mm will be carried around town and in a chest rig … just in case.
Considering that Alaska’s waters are home to fish that range in size from fingerlings to king salmon and larger, narrowing down practical fishing rod/reel combinations wasn’t easy. The decision came down to what was most likely to help supplement our Mountain House freeze-dried meals, rather than what would have the greatest “wow” factor when uploaded to social media and shown around the office.
For these reasons, I opted for two rod-and-reel combinations: An ultralight combo (St. Croix 7-foot Ultralight Premier Spinning) will be used for smaller fish—such as grayling that, according to Mark, would average 2 pounds—and the other will be a medium action rod (St. Croix 9-foot Medium Light Wild River) for the larger fish (trout, char and salmon—all around 5 pounds average) found in bigger bodies of water.
After speaking to Butch Whiting from Kryptek and reading Float Dragging Alaska, by Larry Bartlett, it became pretty clear the only dry bags I want to trust my equipment to are those from Watershed Bags. These bags have a special seal, unlike the common, “big-box store” variety sold to hobbyist canoers and kayakers. These bags have numerous tie-down points and are extremely durable.
I will have one packed with my bailout gear (see the sidebar on this page), one with camping gear/clothes and the other with equipment for hunting and fishing. A special Watershed Bag, the Torpedo Gun Case, was chosen to transport my Remington 700 rifle while I am paddling down the river. These bags are packed, but there is room to spare. This “room” traps air to allow the bags to float, should they go into the drink.
CAMERAS AND OPTICS
As a writer/photographer, I have to carry additional equipment just to document my experience for upcoming articles. After having a camera go down in Costa Rican humidity a couple years before, having a backup to my primary camera is critical. This backup is sealed in a Foodsaver bag with desiccant packets. As a last resort, my cell phone is also packed as a third camera option.
While hunting and within reach during the non-hunting days, I will carry a Maven Optics binocular. This 11×45 B.2 bino has the power and light transmission capability to provide the user with a clear view at great distances. For part of the trip, I will assist Mark on his sheep hunt, and this binocular is my choice for that role.
In Float Draggin’ Alaska, Larry Bartlett advocates carrying a small, personal-sized survival kit that never leaves your side. Should you be separated from your larger kit, this bailout bag will have what is necessary to successfully spend an emergency bivouac afield. It should provide for basic shelter, fire, signaling and water and have room to spare for other personal effects with psychological and physical survival value. After planning the clothes I would wear, this kit was designed first. Keep the kit light enough so it will always be on you. The total weight of the kit below is 5 pounds, 12 ounces.
- Solkoa FastStrike ferrocerium rod
- Ziptop bag with petroleum cotton balls
- Exotac fire sleeve (Bic lighter)
- ECCO wind/rain storm matches
- Kifaru Sheep Tarp
- Six (6) MSR Groundhog Stakes
- 50-foot Type IA cordage
- Solkoa MIL-SPEC heavy-duty emergency blanket
- PFD (while not included in the pack, it is worn most of the time and can be used as an insulative seat on the ground)
- Wireless Concepts MicroPLB
- UST Jetscream whistle
- 2×3-inch signal mirror
- Best Glide 36×20-inch blaze orange signal panel
- Heavy Cover canteen, cup and lid
- Aquamira Frontier emergency drinking straw
- Hideaway flask collapsible water bladder
- Leatherman Supertool 300
- Petzl TacTikka headlamp
- Cell phone (for camera feature)
- Vacuum-sealed energy bars
- Suunto MC2G compass
- C.A.T. Tourniquet
A follow-up to this article will appear in the coming months to present the equipment that worked, the equipment I wished I had brought and the equipment that could have been omitted or replaced. (If I had included the decision-making process for all the other gear I carried—boots, gloves, lures, cordage, cleaning kits, etc.—this article would have been really long.)
Gear selection is always mission specific, and the process of determining the pros/cons, is ongoing. The only way of knowing what should be carried is by doing your research, using it and reflecting on its performance in the field.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide.