How to survive in the (Southeast Alaska) wilderness

You’re returning from a walk in the woods, but you’re running behind schedule.


It’s getting dark.

The temperature is dropping.

One member of your group is not used to hiking and is extremely tired.

You realize at this pace, you’re hours from the trailhead.

Or — you’re kayaking. You tip your boat in shallow water and are able to get to shore, but now you’re soaking wet, shivering and miles from your campsite.

Or — you went hunting, and you got a deer late in the evening. After you dress it you realize you’re hours from your campsite, even if you can find your way in the dark.

People may hear the phrase “outdoor survival” and immediately start planning a squirrel snare, but more likely than not, surviving in the woods comes down to spending the night — and successfully spending the night comes down to being prepared says Alaska Department of Fish and Game Information Officer Riley Woodford.

Recently, as part of an ongoing series of classes called “Alaskans Afield: Outdoor Skills for Friends & Families,” Woodford and Wildlife Educator Tennie Bentz taught more than a dozen Juneauites some of the basics of outdoor survival and preparation.

Even Woodford has been caught outdoors unexpectedly. Once, when he was hiking at Cowee Creek with a group of people of varied ability, it began to snow — hard. Soon, the snow was 30 inches deep. They were post-holing, moving slower than they thought they’d be, sweaty and tired. It’s an experience he calls “extremely humbling.”


When they leave for the outdoors, most people understand the importance of letting friends or family know where they’re going and when they plan on returning. For those who, for one reason or another, don’t have anyone to tell (or who’d just like to be more organized and informative about their plans) the Alaska State Troopers have a form you can file, Woodford said. You call them and let them know you’re back when you return.

It’s a good idea to write down your plans even if you do tell someone, Bentz said. That way, if you get lost or don’t come back on time, no one has to second-guess their memory.

Woodford and Bentz recommend keeping a survival pack with you at all times. If you’re in a boat, keep it in your lifejacket; if you’re hiking, keep it in your backpack.

The most important things to include are the tools for building a fire, Woodford said.

“Fire may be the most basic survival skill,” he said.

You’ll need a lighter (or two — you don’t want this to be the time a lighter malfunctions), matches, which are easier to work than lighters if your hands are cold, and fire starters, which are small, cheap and sold in outdoors sections of stores around Juneau. Other supplies include a whistle, a contractor bag (which is a little heavier and more durable than a trash bag), a quart-sized Ziploc bag, something reflective — even a scratched old CD will do — and some flagging tape, all kept in a gallon Ziploc bag.

Many of those things are multipurpose – the bag can be used as a shelter. You can also sit on it to help prevent cold, wet ground from absorbing your body heat. The Ziploc bag you keep everything in can also be used as a container for water.

Woodford also always carries a headlamp, even if he doesn’t plan to be out past dark, and a knife.

One thing he doesn’t carry in a survival kit? A compass.

“To me, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “If you’re lost, a compass doesn’t help you at all.”

A GPS, he says, would be a better choice.

He’s also not a big fan of space blankets, because of their fragility, though their reflectivity is useful.


Southeast Alaska can pose more problems for fires than most places. On the day of the class, it was pouring; the class was planned for a gravelly, exposed section of Gold Creek, but the creek had flooded and overshot its banks, so everyone headed to a wooded area between Basin Road and the beginning of Mount Roberts trail as raindrops sifted their way down through the canopy.

The rain, however, provided quite a realistic Southeast Alaskan challenge.

If it’s rainy, the small, dead, broken branches at the base of spruce and hemlock trees burn better than sticks on the ground, Woodford said, as they’re somewhat protected from rain. Usnea, a pale green lichen also known as old man’s beard, can also work. Some other burnable supplies to potentially bring include cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, or old candle bits melted into ripped off portions of cardboard egg carton.

If you’re making the fire on wet ground or snow, you first need to build a platform.

It’s important to have gathered plenty of fuel prior to trying to start the fire. To start off, you’ll need both small, thin twigs and some slightly larger ones. This means you won’t let your fledgling fire go out as you run to collect more fuel. Another tip is to strip wet bark off the wood, so the fire has to burn off less water.

Woodford favors small fires, which require less fuel but still put off a good amount of heat.

If you put something — like a large rock — behind the fire, it can serve as a good resting place for the fire-starter, and helps reflect heat once the fire gets going.

Fire exudes heat like water ripples, Woodford said, so if there’s a rock behind it, that heat will ripple back to you.

During the class, with these tools and this knowledge, several groups got fires going successfully in spite of the soaked wood and the falling rain.


When it comes to surviving overnight in Southeast Alaska’s outdoors, keeping as dry as possible is paramount.

“Prevention is kind of the key with hypothermia,” Bentz said.

But if that happens — if, say, you tip your kayak and end up on a nearby island?

Wet clothes will prevent you from warming up, so she recommends taking them off and wringing them out if they’re soaking wet. It’s better to wear clothes made of materials like polar fleece than cotton.

Push-ups, jumping jacks, and other activities are good for getting body heat back up.

A strange characteristic of hypothermia is that those who are suffering from it often start to feel warm, Woodford said. Search and Rescue personnel find people with their shoes off, or stripped of warm layers.

Sometimes, hypothermic people don’t realize they are hypothermic.

It’s also important to stay hydrated. Dehydration can make you disoriented, dizzy and cramped.

The most likely disaster in the woods is a fall, Woodford said. For that reason, he doesn’t recommend traveling in the dark.

Lots of handy outdoor rules come in threes, Woodford said. You can last three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

In terms of outdoor survival, then, shelter and water are paramount.

Distress signals also come in threes. Three fires burning on a beach, three gunshots, three blasts on a whistle are all indicators of someone who needs help.

“It’s very scary to be lost and unexpectedly spending the night out,” Woodford said. “Being eaten by an animal is the least of your worries … It’s most important to be warm and dry.”

Olivia Orsborn and her son, Michael, did the class together.

“I figured it’s a pretty good thing to do when you live in Alaska,” Orsborn said. “You can’t avoid it, so you may as well embrace it.”


Future “Alaskans Afield” classes include a “GPS and Geocaching Adventure” (which still has space available) tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, an introduction to fly fishing on Aug. 2, and an introduction to shooting sports with airguns on Sept. 6. Classes are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and space is limited. Adults pay $20; those under 18 attend free when accompanied by an adult. Contact Kristen Romanoff at 465-8547 or to register. Outdoor survival classes are also available through hunter education classes and through the annual Becoming an Outdoors Woman Workshop program.

• Contact Outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at or at 523-2276.


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