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Alaska Hiking: Communications

Alaska hiking Emergency Communications -VHF Radios


You should carry some form of emergency communications when travelling on an Alaska hiking trek. Two common solutions are a VHF radio and a satellite phone. A VHF radio is used to communicate with pilots flying overhead and requires line of site for a clear signal. If you carry such a radio be sure you know what frequency is used by Alaskan pilots in the area for normal communications. Have the radio preset to that frequency and write it on the back of the radio. Also be sure to have the frequency for contacting commercial jetliners. If you are hiking in a remote part of the park it might be several days before a bush pilot flies overhead but commercial flights out of Anchorage will pass over the area with regularity on their way across Canada.


Don't contact a commercial jet unless you are in an extreme situation. Doing so will trigger a search and rescue mission that will involve many people and resources. There have been cases where emergencies were radioed to a commercial pilot and a rescue initiated for what turned out not to be an emergency situation. Authorities don’t look kindly on such incidents and you could be faced with a very large bill for an unneeded rescue.


Be sure to stock the radio with fresh batteries or a recently charge battery pack before heading off on an Alaska hiking adventure. Only use your radio in an emergency and not to say hello to a passing pilot. Batteries will last a long time when receiving but transmitting drains the power very quickly.


Alaska hiking Communications - Satellite Phones
A satellite phone has a greater range than a VHF radio and is not dependent on someone flying over your position. They do however have limitations. If you are running late you can call your air taxi provider to give them an updated arrival time but if a plane is overhead you can't talk to the pilot since he will have a radio but not a satellite phone. Sat phones are also bulkier, heavier and more expensive than radios. It's possible however to rent a sat phone for the duration of your trip. This must be arranged before you leave home, as rentals are not available in the area of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Alaska hiking Communications - Cell Phones
The area around McCarthy and Kennicott does have cell phone coverage but there are only a few cellular services that work with the system installed there and the coverage area is limited. Cellular coverage throughout Alaska is restricted to larger cities and towns in most cases.


Emergency Communications - PLB
A recent addition to the emergency communications arsenal is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). These pocket-sized devices, when triggered, send out a distress signal identifying your location from anywhere on the planet to COSPAS-SARSAT satellites, which relay the distress signal to search and rescue authorities. PLBs must be registered, so when a distress signal is received authorities know not only where you are but who you are. This device should be used as a last resort when all avenues for self-rescue have been exhausted. Deliberate misuse of a PLB such as triggering the device when no emergency exits, is a felony with severe penalties as well as a responsibility to pay for the cost of a rescue.


Alaska hiking: First Aid Training
Even if you are carrying a satellite phone and call in an accident immediately, it will take at least several hours before anyone can arrive. There's no medevac chopper sitting ready on the pad in McCarthy with rotors turning waiting to go pluck you out of the bottom of some ravine. It would be a good idea to have at least one person in your group with some first aid training. If you don't feel confident in your ability to handle a medical emergency in the backcountry then you should consider the services of a professional guide. A qualified backcountry guide should be trained and certified in wilderness first aid. Wilderness First Responder or Wilderness EMT certifications are standard qualifications for a professional guide.


Travelling Lightly on the Land: Low Impact Camping
Leave-no-trace principles should be followed anywhere in the wilderness but especially when hiking in Alaska. Because the growing season here is so short the land is more vulnerable and slower to recover from impact.


Camp on durable surfaces whenever possible. Gravel and sandbars along rivers and streams make excellent campsites that will leave no trace of your passing.


Impact is especially significant when base camping as opposed to hiking in Alaska. Vegetation under a tent will begin to die after two nights of impact. If you plan to operate out of a base camp for more than two nights, move your camp every few days. A camp that is occupied for a week will leave tent footprints and possibly worn paths where people walked between tents and cooking areas.


Keep your hiking group size small. The larger the group the greater the impact on the land.


Don't camp at sites that show signs slight signs of others having been there. Find another spot and let that one recover.
Bury human waste in a small hole away from areas that others are likely to travel. Toilet paper should be completely burned or packed out in a plastic bag.


If you pull up rocks to hold down a tent or tarp, replace them when you break camp.


Set your stove on a flat rock or gravel. Putting a stove directly on the tundra will not only provide an unstable surface but will result in scorch marks.
Treat all leftover food as trash and pack it out in a plastic bag.


Leave all historical artifacts such as mining relics where you find them. Removing such artifacts is illegal.


Alaska hiking: Campfires
The Park Service allows campfires in the park, but only dead wood on the ground may be used for fuel. Much of the hiking terrain of the park is above treeline making the ethics of building a fire somewhat moot. At lower elevations there may be fuel available, however fire building is generally to be avoided in the wilderness. For many, sitting by a crackling fire in the evening is almost a ritual of camping. But in the delicate alpine and tundra environments of backcountry Alaska, a single fire will leave a scar that will remain for years. The best approach is to refrain from making fires on Alaska hiking trips unless you are camping on a riverside gravel or sand bar where all trace of your fire can be eliminated.


Forget about bears - what really strikes fear into the hearts of Alaskan hiking trekkers are mosquitoes. The belief that Alaskan mosquitoes are large enough to carry off small children is a part of the dis-information campaign perpetuated by Alaskans to discourage others from moving here. Alaskan mosquitoes are no larger than elsewhere, but what they lack in size they make up for in sheer numbers.


June is prime bug season and at lower elevations they can get pretty horrific in places. In the mountains however they usually aren't as bad. You might want to carry a headnet if you're planning a trip in June, as well as some bug juice. First time alaska hiking adventurers often overreact to bugs, hosing down with DEET at the first sight of a few mosquitoes, while the locals don't even seem to notice. Sometime around mid August the bugs begin to die off and cease to be a problem even at lower elevations.


There are insect repellants that use natural ingredients such as Citronella which vary in effectiveness though their efficacy is generally short lived at best. DEET remains the most effective and longest lasting repellant. Wearing lighter colored clothing may also help to minimize bug attraction. Clothing with a very tight weave will keep bugs from biting.


Drinking Water
Even in the wilds of an Alaska hiking trek the potential for contamination of drinking water exists. Giardia lamblia is the most commonly found microorganism in the backcountry. Cryptosporidium (or Crypto) is also a possibility though much less likely. These microorganisms can be carried in the feces of animals including humans.


The most effective method for destroying these organisms in drinking water is boiling for three minutes. Boiling water in the backcountry however, is not usually very practical because of the time involved and the amount of extra fuel required. Alternatives include filtration or some form of chemical treatment.


There are many different models and styles of filters produced for treating drinking water on alaska hiking adventures, but they aren't all created equal. If you want to filter out Crypto you will need a unit that has a pore size of 0.2 microns or smaller. Beyond that there are features that mostly effect ease of use and convenience such as pump design and whether the filter can be attached directly to a water bottle.


Some models come equipped with a pre-filter or silt filter. But the makers of water filters didn't have the glacial-silt-loaded rivers and streams of Alaska in mind when they designed such features. If stream appears cloudy, even a little bit, then the silt in the water will quickly overwhelm and clog even a brand new filter. Even units that claim they can be field cleaned will be rendered useless. So only use your filter on reasonably clear water.


Disadvantages of filtration pumps are bulk and weight. Once water has been run through the filter it will never be as light as it was out of the box. The spare filter also adds has to be taken into account.


Chemical Treatments
Another method for treating drinking water is with some sort of chemical. Iodine solutions can be used but these don't kill Crypto and taste terrible. Some people have an allergy to iodine.


There are several products that create a chorine dioxide solution, which is the same compound used to treat most city water supplies. The MIOX purifier by MSR creates a similar solution on the fly by passing an electric current through salt brine.


All such products will kill Giardia but there is a question as to the effectiveness of chlorine compounds against Crypto. Destroying Crypto generally requires a much longer waiting time in any case. Wilderness travel generally requires that water be treated on demand, and waiting 8 hours for treatment is not usually practical. Regardless of the method you use, there are trade-offs to be made. But you will want to treat your water in some way on your Alaska hiking trek.

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