Backpacking the Arctic Refuge

A Trail of Glory. Backpacking the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


  • Cross the Continental Divide
  • Arctic Journey of the Soul
  • Travel the Tundra
  • A Unique Wilderness Experience
  • Solitude
  • Caribou and Muskox
  • America's Largest Wildlife Refuge
  • Protect The Arctic

You are gunna LOVE this backpacking trip!

Of course you’ll love it; it’s the ARCTIC.

Few places in Alaska, in all America, stir my heart like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There is no better way to enjoy that stirring than to backpack across its rugged, enduring mountains? Camp on the tundra and feel the world move before you.

I’m celebrating my first ever adventure to ANWR with a return to backpack again in this amazing place.

Twenty years later it’s still wild, still undrilled, and still what we need it to be. Enduring. Wild. And Gorgeous.

Introduce Yourself to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A walk in the wild. An expedition exploring the inexplicable. A backpacking trip for the ages.

Caribou begin to edge their way north for the summer. They move toward the arctic coast and the cool breezes that will keep the bugs at bay for their calving season. Bears and wolves roam the tundra here. Undaunted and adventurous backpackers join them for a walk in the wild.

The climb over the pass is a highlight. We post-holed through a little leftover snow, then moved down the north slope to a high plateau. Here we rest in the arctic silence.

Backpacking Trip in Brief

35 miles of backpacking, No brush. No moraine. No big river crossings. No crazy steep scree slopes. Good, healthy walking and walking over the miles.

Clamber up the southside of the continental divide. Stand abreast the continent and look across America. Venture down the north slope toward the Arctic.

Caribou herds in good numbers come up the river valley here, and we can expect to see plenty throughout the trip. Last summer we even had the good fortune to see a lone muskox bull, 50 yards away. A primordial beast, for sure, alone in his wilderness that we got to experience. Definitely a treat.

Bears roam these hills. Brown bears and black bears, moose, caribou, sheep and muskox. Wolves saunter the valleys, nose to the ground, looking for prey.

I love this place.

About Your Trip

Brooks Range landscape photo ANWR backpacking trip, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
I love the Brooks Range.

Duration

8 days works great here. We can run it a day or 2 shorter if need be, or add a day or 2 to the end of it. There is so much to explore here. But 8 days feels right.

Adding a day adds weight with additional food, and I find 7-8 days is a good load for most people. But if you’re up for a little longer time in the wilderness, let me know.

Logistics

We travel from Fairbanks to Coldfoot and fly into the Arctic Refuge from there. We camp and backpack our way toward our pickup spot, moving without urgency. There’s SO much to see and touch along the way. To listen for, to experience. Up and down we travel the tundra. Over the Continental Divide. Continuing westward. Investigate and examine this wild land. This wilderness is a wonderful exploration and discovery.

Our pickup flight brings us back to Coldfoot. Eat a hot meal at an actual table and chairs, we overnight, and travel back to Fairbanks on the final day.

Backpacking Trip

Bring yourself to the tundra and explore the Arctic. Nothing like it exists anywhere else on earth.

The wilderness of ANWR is larger than the State of South Carolina. The caribou herds are larger than any other herds on the continent. Their migration is the longest of any land mammal alive, ours is a few short miles by comparison.

The mystique of the Refuge. We often talk of this here in Alaska. It’s as real as it is inexplicable.

The indigenous people of the area call this place “The place where life begins”.

We aim to hit the good spots. We crest the Continental Divide at one of the wildest places I’ve followed my hiking boots to. As far as the eye can see it’s mountains piled upon tundra upon mountains. Indescribable.

Spring comes to the slopes here and brings new life. We join it for a spring saunter in the arctic to remember.

Itinerary

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge backpacking trip is a classic Arctic Alaska backpacking trip; just the right amount of hard.

The walking is good and there are a lot of ways to run this route. Like all the trips I run, the itinerary is somewhat fluid. Weather, hiker experience, and many other factors determine the actual trip. But to give the web visitor a basic outline of how this trip might typically unfold, here’s a loose look at the route: for simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume the trip dates are Aug 1 – Aug 8.

Realize everything here is simply an example. In good shape, we could walk this trip in 4-5 solid days. We could also easily spend 10-12 days here, exploring everything along the way. I feel that an 8-day backpacking trip (+ 2-3 days of travel) just “fits” it well.

Trip participants should arrive in Fairbanks no later than the evening before our scheduled trip departure date. For our example, the Trip would require all participants arrive in Fairbanks sometime on July 31. I highly recommend you try to arrive even a day earlier if at all possible, to allow for flight delays resulting from weather. Expeditions Alaska does not provide, but can recommend, accommodation in Fairbanks.

Do we have a Match?

Who’s It For?

It’s for you. If you’re reading this, it’s for you.

Meets the standard for intermediate hikers. You don’t need to be a rockstar for this one. It’s fine if you are, of course, with miles of tundra to explore and walk if you’re up to it.

There aren’t any real challenging terrain features of note. Good walking all the way.

Challenges

Any time you wear a backpack and carry it for 6 days across mountains, it’s hard work. But if you’re a backpacker, this is what you do.

Climbing over the Divide isn’t too bad, steep, but nothing of note or concern. Slowly, slowly, and you’ll be fine.

Muskeg isn’t an issue, some softer than average ground is the worst you’ll amble across here.

FAQs

  • Depends completely on the time of year you come. My suggestion is early June. The bugs will start coming out toward the end of June, and July is usually pretty thick in the interior Arctic Alaska. But definitely tolerable.

    August is nicer as well.

    June is the ticket.

  • Maybe. Probably not.

    They’re hard to predict and not consistent in their migration patterns.

    We don’t run this trip to coincide with the Porcupine herd migration, but we’ll see plenty of caribou heading north. Plenty. We saw multiple bands of caribou on our backpacking trip here this past June.

  • Here’s a very simple gear check list. Email me if you have any specific gear/food questions. Try not to overpack but don’t short change yourself on essential items like raingear, tent, backpack, boots, sleeping bag, etc. Temperatures can be below freezing with rainy and even snowy weather.

    Remember Once we leave Anchorage (or Fairbanks), there are usually NO options for purchasing gear, supplies, food, etc. Anchorage has a great REI and several other gear stores, groceries, etc. The best option is to bring as much as you can with and only use Anchorage for forgotten and last minute items.

    Expeditions Alaska will supply bear resistant food canisters, fuel (white gas/coleman fuel, or isobutane mix) and water filter system, First Aid Kit and maps. I highly recommend bringing your own “boo boo kit” – a basic first aid supplies, like sunscreen, blister kit, bandaids, ibuprofen/aleve, etc). We can, if you need, provide tents and food as well. Let me know if you have any specific gear requirements. We’re always glad to work to accommodate them.

    I also recommend you see this post for my gear list for more information.

    Camping Gear

    Food
    Tent, w/ groundcloth
    Sleeping Bag (20degF min)
    Backpack – w/ rain cover
    Trekking poles – (Provided if necessary, highly recommended*)
    Sleeping pad
    Lighter/matches
    Plastic garbage bags
    Eating utensils
    bowl, mug
    Water bottles

    Optional

    Stove (check with Carl)
    Cook set (check with Carl)
    Fuel bottle (check with Carl)
    A couple of gallon sized zip lock bags
    Flashlight/headlamp (if before mid-Aug)
    Compass

    Clothes

    Long underwear (wicking, top & bottom)
    Long sleeve nylon shirt
    Nylon Pants
    Fleece Jacket
    Additional thermal layer
    Rain shell – Pants and Jacket
    Wool or fleece gloves
    Hat – Cap and 1 Fleece
    Wool socks & liners
    Backpacking Boots
    Stuff Sacks
    Sandals/Camp Shoes

    Optional

    Head Net/mosquito Repellent

    Personal Items

    Toiletry items – Toothbrush, toothpaste, Floss,
    Toilet paper
    Biodegradable soap, etc

    Small first aid supplies

    Blister stuff (mole foam second skin, etc)
    Ibuprofen tablets
    Bandaids
    Sunscreen
    Sunglasses
    Lip balm

    Optional

    Small bath towel (2′ long)
    Book/Reading material
    Camera & Film/memory cards
    Brush/comb

    Mandatory items

    20˚F, or lower, sleeping bag
    Waterproof-breathable rain jacket and pants
    Pack rain cover
    Fleece jacket (min. 200 wt) or (even better) down/synthetic fill jacket
    Sleeping pad

    Do NOT Bring

    Poncho
    Trash bag as rain gear or pack cover
    Flip flops for river shoes
    35˚F or higher rated sleeping bag

  • Well, “defined” probably isn’t the right word. This is Alaska after all. But this an important question to consider.

    Click on the little hiking boot icon in the sidebar for whichever backcountry trip you’re considering and you’ll see the discussion for that particular level of trip. One boot equals easiest and five boots the most challenging option. Thanks.

    As a general rule I’d suggest rating everything here one notch HIGHER from what you might be used to (assuming you haven’t hiked in Alaska before). If you consider yourself up for an intermediate level hike assume that a trip rated intermediate here will probably be a bit tougher than you’re expecting. Not impossible, but harder than you think.

    As I mentioned above, terrain is the biggest factor here and it’s extremely subjective as to what is difficult terrain and what is not.

    Some people really struggle walking over a boulder field, and others don’t find it difficult at all. Some people find sidehilling more difficult, or bushwhacking, and so on. But the most common element people struggle with is almost always terrain. Your balance is probably a more important consideration than how miles you run on a treadmill each day in the gym.

    One of the best ways to lower a rating is simply give yourself an extra day or 2. Make a 5 day hike a 7 day hike and it’ll much more manageable. Conversely, if you want a challenge give yourself a little less time and you’ll find just about any trip here as challenging as you could want it to be.

    Again: please carefully read over the difficult rating discussion for your particular trip. It’s the boot icon in the sidebar of the trip page.

    Thanks.

  • Way too subjective to be a simple FAQ here. In the interest of keeping this simple, 65L is a good backpack for most of our trips (5-10 days). Anything smaller and you REALLY need to have your gear system dialed.

    Is it doable to do a 10 day backpacking trip with a 45L backpack? Yes. Does it typically work well? Not at all.

    For a more thorough discussion of appropriate backpack size, see this blog post.

  • Typically, it doesn’t mean we go “off the trail“. It means there is NO trail. These are two very different things.

    Offtrail hiking, or no trail hiking, is hard at times, easy at others, and very hard at others. It’s almost always changing, and not something you should dismiss as irrelevant. In fact, it’s probably the single most important thing to understand about our backpacking trips.

    I’ll say that again. Louder. It’s probably the single most important thing to understand about our backpacking trips.

    When we say offtrail backpacking we’re talking about traversing boulder fields, hiking through dense brush, over steep scree and talus slopes and walking for hours on steep grassy mountainsides. All of which are harder than you think they are.

    Trust me.

    I’ll keep this post brief, but you can read a lot more about this subject (and I recommend that you do) on this blog post.

    Click the link and read that post. Thoroughly.

    It’s important.

  • Travel Suggestions

    3 pieces of advice

    1. Do NOT book your commercial flight early the next morning. The later the better. Better still, the day after that,
    2. Book a refundable/changeable ticket for your return flight home, and
    3. Purchase travel insurance.
    Weather delays are always possible in the backcountry with bush planes.
    The more cushion you give yourself before a committed departure flight home, the better.
    Definitely don’t try to book something out on the evening of our return. Or the next morning. We SHOULD be back by then, but there are so many moving pieces to these trips, it’s much better to not have the stress of having to re-arrange flight schedules. Even if it’s just for something simple like road construction delays or flat tires, or a healthy travel schedule is one with some slack built into it.
  • There certainly is.

    Avoid the hassles of carrying a heavy backpack. As an example, travel to our jumping-off destination, overnight, fly into the backcountry, camp and explore the area via day hikes and packrafts (* option on some trips), fly back, overnight and return travel to Fairbanks/Anchorage. Trip logistics and itinerary will vary with the specific trip. Fully-outfitted or do it yourself.

    These trips are extremely flexible, wonderfully fun and a whole lot easier on your body than a backpacking trip is.

    Looking for something “in the middle”? Sure, we can do that too. Fly in and out of the same location, and make a smaller backpacking loop or out and back, combining a few days camping and a few days of backpacking. Contact me via email or call 1-770-952-4549 and we’ll set it up.

  • If you’d like, Expeditions Alaska can handle your backcountry food for the trip. Cost depends on trip length, but it’s typically $325 for a 2-4 day trip, and $425 for a trip 5 days or longer (backcountry days).

    We will organize and pack the food, handle all backcountry prep, as well as pots and pans, the stove/s, fuel and your mess kit. Assistance for cleanup and dishes is always appreciated, but not requisite.

    NB: this means, if we’re doing food for your trip, you must arrive with requisite space in your backpack for your share of the food. This typically means a BV500, sized 8.7 in. diameter. (22.1cm) x 12.7 in. (32.3cm) height. There’ll also be your mess kit (cup, bowl, cutlery, etc) and maybe some additional group gear, whether it’s a fuel bottle, stove or pan or skillet. In general your guide will carry the bulk of this stuff, but we certainly can’t and don’t intend to carry all of it. So don’t arrive with a backpack packed full, no space left in it, if we’re doing your food for you. Your food goes in your pack.

    More info linked on the page below.

    All your questions about our backcountry food answered right here.

  • All multi-day trips (backpacking, basecamping, packrafting, photo tours) out of Fairbanks include transport to/from Fairbanks/Coldfoot*, 1 night accommodations in Coldfoot, air taxi flights Coldfoot/The Backcountry, group gear such as tents, cook tents and bug screen kitchen, stoves, fuel, BRFCs, bear spray, etc. Hiking poles are included (optional) if you don’t have your own.

    We include a satellite phone for emergencies and one backup emergency contact device, such as PLB or Garmin InReach. First aid kits, map and compass included. All guides are Wilderness First Responder Certified.

    All your rafting equipment is included. Raft, paddles, dry bags, splash jacket and pants, neoprene booties, neoprene gloves, etc. We’ll provide you with a detailed gear list for your personal items upon your reservation.

    Storage of your overnight travel gear is limited but available (keep it simple, one small overnight bag).

    Expeditions Alaska can either fully outfit your trip (all food, etc) or adjust things a la carte if needed.

    UPDATE: As of 2024, we fully outfit the Canning River Rafting trip, including 4-season tents for guests and all food, kitchen items, etc.

    Guide gratuities are not included but most appreciated. Trip insurance is not included. I urge you to purchase it on your own. Give Travelex a call and tell them we sent you. We do NOT pick up your travel meals, such as eating at the diner in Coldfoot or along the Dalton highway.

    For a full outline of What’s included/not included, please see this page.

  • Reserving your place on a trip requires a 50% deposit. Deposits are non-refundable. All trips MUST be paid in full 45 days prior to the scheduled departure date.

    If the client cancels on a trip paid in full, 90% of the price can be deferred to another trip within the next 12 months, provided that

    i) Expeditions Alaska is able to fill the spot,
    ii) the trip is full and
    iii) 30 days notice is given.

    If cancellation is within 30 days of the trip only 75% of the fee can be carried over to a future trip. No refunds are given for cancellations within 14 days of the trip departure.

    Expeditions Alaska reserves the right to cancel and/or modify the itinerary of a trip. You will be refunded your payment in full if Expeditions Alaska cancels your trip.

    If weather or other factors delay or impede your trip, there will be no refund of fees. Expeditions Alaska is not responsible for any other costs incurred by the client as a result of the cancellation. Additional costs incurred through weather delays and itinerary changes are the responsibility of the client.

  • confused smileyJust kidding – it’s really not meant to intimidate anyone. It’s a difficult thing to choose a trip like this, often with relatively little real understanding of how different backpacking here in Alaska is, different even from the more rugged and “wild” parks in the Lower 48 states. Most folks that come up here are not used to backpacking off trail (or, rather, “no trail”), and that really makes a big difference. Your gear choices, your choice of trip, the time you allow for it, and so on, become more critical choices when you’re in a place like this. This page is intended to try help you sort through this and help figure out what kind of trip will work best for you.

    At the same time, the rewards and the thrill of a place like this are also unique. I’ve no question at all that if you’ve read this far, you’ll love your Alaska backpacking trip, whether it’s with me, or another guiding service, or a trip you take on your own. Just be careful out there.

    Happy Trails!

  • We all do. Questions are good. That’s how we learn. Either give me a call or send me an email and we’ll go through them.

    I also send out a comprehensive Trip Information Packet upon your reservation and that will usually answer your questions.

    Cheers.

You May Also Like
Expeditions Alaska
Visit the wild