Offtrail backpacking in Alaska

October 13th, 2021 by Carl D
Offtrail backpacking in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Alaska.
Backpacking off-trail in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Hey Folks

Offtrail backpacking

It doesn’t mean what you might think it means.

What do we mean, here in Alaska, when we say “offtrail’?

Well, what we mean is “no trail”. It’s not the same thing as backpacking through the mountains for a few days on a nice trail, hitting the open alpine terrain where the trail disperses and you flit over the green alpine grasses the von Trapps.

When we talk about “offtrail backpacking” travel we mean when the terrain is challenging, you have no trail. We mean when the terrain is easy, there is no trail. We mean when the terrain gets really, really hard and downright nasty, we have no trail.

We could be backpacking across a glacial moraine that is 5 miles wide. Rocks piled upon rocks. Boulders the size of small cars jumbled together. That’s what we scramble over (sometimes). Dense alder and willow thickets may be a small grove, 25 yards abreast, or they may be a mile or 2 long. We pick our way through. A steep scree-covered pass to go up, we make our own way higher. We nasty talus-covered descent, such as Satan’s Staircase in Wrangell St. Elias, we carefully step our way down.

All day.

And the next day.

And the next.

And so on.

This is immeasurably different to having walked a couple hours on the tundra above treeline.

It looks like this

Point here is that you might have several hours of any of these situations or all of them consecutively. You can certainly and likely will have easier stretches too. Just know that off-trail doesn’t mean you go “off the trail”. it means there is no trail. And it’s more challenging than you think it will be.

The primary point here is to not underestimate the difference between backpacking areas where there are no trails and backpacking “off the trail”; they’re not the same thing.

If you’re not familiar with hiking on rugged and challenging terrains, my suggestion is to find a location where you CAN go off the trail when the trail is clearly the better option (LNT and impact-issue permitting, of course). Don’t wander around on the tundra in the alpine and think you’re getting a sense of what “offtrail” travel really is.

Offtrail backpacking isn’t always so much this …

Offtrail Backpacking in alpine terrain, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.
Hiking on some sweet tundra.

but this …

Backpacking through willow and alder, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.
Backpacking through some Not-So-Sweet brush

You can see life is about to get pretty gross for young Jon … hence I called him back and re-routed us to a better option.

And I don’t mean this insensitively. I mean it to be helpful. Make an effort to find some burly terrain to carry your pack across, and see how you do. You may crush it. You may find out it’s not for you. But you won’t know, and we won’t know, until you try it. And it’s much better to find that out before you fly all the way to Alaska and venture into some territory where things can get way harder than you expect.

Jon (above) was about to literally be “in over his head”. That said, Jon’s prolly one of the best balanced walkers I’ve hiked with. He would’ve been fine. You’re not Jon. Trust me, you’re not. We don’t want you to end up in over your head either; get some experience backpacking through the wilderness, over moraines and talus and scree, sidehills and through dense brush. You’ll learn a lot from it.

And it DOES get easier with practice. So do some practice. You’ll be happy you did, and we’ll be better able to discern which of our backpacking trips is a good match for you. That’s ultimately what we want to do.



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