Surviving in the Alaska cold takes good gear, and good sense to know when and how to use it

Fairbanks, cold, winter, weather

The winter has been an easy one — until recently. A couple weeks ago the weather reverted to a more normal pattern. Delta Junction and the Paxson area dropped to colder than 30 below zero. Ten below is about as warm as it has been. Folks who expect and enjoy winter are OK with that. Not many claim they love 30 or 40 below, but most can deal with it and still be outdoors.

Outdoor gear has changed, that is for certain. It is much tougher to find decent gear than it was 20 years ago. The military, which used to be the best and most reliable source of cold weather boots and such, no longer has much available to surplus. Other purported “extreme cold weather” suppliers carry mostly yuppie junk. The jackets, boots and mittens will suffice from the car to the store. Their better gear will keep you warm outside in the yard for 20 minutes or so.

There is an outdoor clothing rental place in Fairbanks that rents gear to tourists (there may be several). We have had groups come for mushing rides wearing rental gear that would not keep them comfortable for an hour, even with chemical warmers in their boots and mittens. These folks are from down south. How would they know what they need? They trust an Alaskan supplier who is supposed to be expert. This is a sad state of Alaskan affairs.

Wednesday morning, I was waiting at a remote glacier location jump-off point for clients to arrive. The temperature was 10 below with a slight breeze. A nice winter day for someone decently dressed. A couple showed up in a little car and asked the way to the glacier. I pointed them, but added there was no trail because of 8 inches of new snow overnight and a bit of drifting. I had run a machine to the base of the glacier and back, but it wasn’t walkable. It would be easy with skis or snowshoes. The couple had neither.

Nevertheless, they departed. The gal was wearing pajama pants and a nylon jacket with no hood. The dude had jeans and a light jacket. No neck gaiter, no hood. The suggestion that maybe more gear was needed was met with: “Oh we are OK, if we get chilly, we’ll turn around.” I forgot to mention the couple was wearing tennis shoes. They turned around.

Alaska is changing. There are a number of people getting out for these short day trips. The vast majority of them are badly underprepared. This winter I have met well over a hundred people on various trails. Few have a smidgen of the basic gear necessary for a successful one-hour hike. Four- and 5-year-old kids are hauled along dressed like their parents. Kids are basic. They are cold; they cry. Mom and dad suck it up to get the kids to the car. I have helped more than one stumbling adventurer to their feet and shepherded them down the trail for the last bit to their vehicle.

This is scary to me. It is not likely that one suffers serious frostbite within a mile or so of leaving their vehicle. What is more commonly the case, the underdressed don’t go out again and tell outrageous stories of the bitter Alaska cold.

My message here is this; before you go “adventuring,” show a little common sense and over-prepare. The mountain regions are very unforgiving. The glacier doesn’t give a good goldarnit if you freeze, live or die. Your family might.

Good socks are readily available. Don’t buy into the hype of merino wool or Smartwool. Both are wonderful to be sure, but thickness is the key here. Lightweight Smartwool is worth little. Heavyweight is great. Don’t wear gloves! Get good mittens that are loose enough on your hands to put an extra liner in. Chemical handwarmers are good inventions. Don’t depend on them for the long term, but for trips of two or three hours they are great. Should they claim to stay warm for eight hours, that is bunk. Cut that time by two thirds. Do not wear pack boots unless they look twice as large as your feet at minimum. A pack boot that is less than two sizes bigger than the shoe you usually wear is worthless.

Boots with some type of foam liner are best. They leave enough air around your feet to let a chemical warmer work. Foam liners will let you warm your toes by wiggling them. Felt-lined boots do not.

Bunny boots are decent. They are not what they used to be. New ones were last made in 1992. The “new” Mickey Mouse boots one buys are 30 years old.

Snowmobile gear is the best available for your legs. For your upper body, nylon jackets need to be covered with a decent parka. A parka without a ruff is like a pizza without cheese. Always bring snowshoes along in Alaska. There may have been a trail where you are headed … last week. It may have snowed or blown since then. Don’t trust others to tell you what gear they used. No two people handle cold the same.

Alaska is a winter wonderland for those who are properly prepared. It is miserable, cold, and dark, for those who are not.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.