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Plan for worst in Alaska adventures by packing best survival gear possible

Posted by on March 11, 2011

reprint from the News Miner

FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks snowmachiner John Johnston has never been forced to bivouac on the trail or in the mountains during 30 years of riding in Alaska, but he’s more than prepared to do so if that situation arises.

While Johnston may not carry the proverbial kitchen sink on his sled or his person, he carries just about everything else.

“Rope. Saw. Cook kit. Toilet paper. Stove. First-Aid kit. Flare. Knives. Strap,” Johnston said, pulling item after item from a survival bag that mounts to the back of his Arctic Cat M6 mountain sled and laying them on the snow in front of him.

Johnston then pulled out a vacuum-packed gob of steel wool.

“If you need to start a fire, this will do it,” he said. “It’s just like kindling.”

Then he continued pulling vacuum-sealed items from the bag.

A pup tent. Extra hat. Extra gloves. Handwarmer packets. More firestarter. Bouillon cubes.

“You have it in case you need it and hope you don’t,” Johnston said. “You just never know. Things happen.”

That became evident two weeks ago when back-to-back blizzards dumped 2 feet of snow on Fairbanks, which was molded into 5- and 6-feet deep drifts by 50 mph winds. Several snowmachiners who rode into cabins in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks ended up being trapped in backcountry cabins after getting stuck in deep drifts.

Two of those snowmachiners, Elizabeth and Jonathan Jachim, were rescued by Alaska State Troopers and Bureau of Land Management trail groomers after spending two days trying to walk 15 miles to the Steese Highway. They were camped on the side of the trail when rescuers found them.

To their credit, the Jachims were dressed warm enough and had adequate survival gear, which Elizabeth towed behind her in a plastic Action Packer with a piece of parachute cord for seven miles while her husband broke trail, to endure two nights siwashing on the trail.

When rescuers found them, the Jachims were sitting by a campfire, cold and tired, but not on the verge of death.

“They were doing everything right,” Colter Franz, one of the Bureau of Land Management trail groomers who found the Jachims said. “They had a tarp set up and a fire going.”

Enough to get by

Everyone who travels in the backcountry, whether it’s on skis, by snowmachine or behind a dog team, should carry enough survival gear to weather a night or two on the trail, but snowmachiners are more susceptible to getting in trouble because they can go farther and faster, Johnston said.

“It doesn’t take much to get too far in to walk out in a day,” he said. “If your machine breaks or you get stuck and you’re 20 miles from anywhere and you have to walk out it’s going to be at least a couple days.”

All it takes is working up a sweat digging out a stuck snowmachine to get someone in trouble, Johnston said. A pair of wet gloves or soaked clothing can quickly lead to hypothermia or frostbite, he said.

“If your gloves get wet, as soon as you hit that wind when you get going again you’re packing a couple of ice cubes on your arms,” Johnston said.

Just a couple weeks ago, one of Johnston’s friends had a machine go through the ice on the Chena River 15 miles upstream from Fairbanks. When Johnston went to help pull the machine out, he ended up going up to his crotch in water. The temperature was 20 below.

Had they been someplace farther from town, it could have been a bad situation, Johnston said.

While the survival gear you carry can make the difference between life and death, more often than not it just makes life a little easier or a little less miserable when something does go wrong, Johnston said.

In 30 years, Johnston has had to use his survival gear only three times, none of which involved him.

One incident involved a small boy who wasn’t properly dressed and became so cold he was shivering. Johnston used his space blanket to help warm the boy up and get him back to a cabin.

In the other two instances, Johnston has had to use tow straps to pull broken-down machines several miles out of the woods.

“Nine times out of 10, the guys that go in prepared don’t get in trouble,” Johnston said.

His survival kit isn’t designed with comfort in mind.

“It’s not something you’re going to live in,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to keep you dry for a day or two until help comes.”

Packing a lot in a little

How much survival gear you carry depends on the size of your machine, Johnston said.

If you’re riding a short-track sled with no place to strap a bag down, you may have to put everything in a backpack that you wear, Johnston said.

While Johnston’s bags were made specifically for his machines, a simple duffel bag or backpack will work, too, he said.

“You don’t need to buy a special bag,” he said. “Anything will work as long as you can get everything in it.”

And you’d be surprised how much stuff you can fit in a small bag or backpack, Johnston said.

“People look at my list and say, ‘There’s no way you could fit all that stuff in that bag,’” Johnston said. “It’s packing. You can get a lot of stuff in there if you pack it right.”

Johnston vacuum seals many of the items in his survival pack. Doing so shrinks them for packing purposes and also keeps them dry.

One of his riding buddies, Dean Allen, carries a survival bag similar to Johnston’s on his Arctic Cat M7. One trick Allen has used to create extra space is to hollow out the bottom of the seat that he can fit a pair of snowshoes under the seat.

“My snowshoes, mess kit, tow rope and shovel blade go under the seat,” Allen said. “They never come out unless there’s a problem.”

Neither Allen or Johnston carry much in the way of clothing except for extra gloves, socks and hats.

“I always have good, heavy clothing on,” Allen said. “If I get wet I’m building a fire.”

Both men carry multiple fire starters. Dryer lint, steel wool, cotton balls soaked with Vaseline and emergency flares all make good fire starters, they said.

“The beauty of a flare is if you’re hands are freezing you can typically still light it,” Allen said.

Like Johnston, the only time Allen has used his survival kit is to help other people when they got cold or wet.

“Fire starter and space blankets are the only things I’ve had to use,” he said. “We dumped a machine in Beaver Creek in the White Mountains at about 20 below one time and yarded it out and we built a fire to so everyone could get dried out.”

Sat phones save lives

In the eyes of Alaska State Troopers, the most important thing to have in the event of a backcountry emergency is a satellite phone, Sgt. Scott Quist with Alaska Wildlife Troopers said.

“A sat phone is worth it’s weight in gold out there,” said Quist, a pilot who is routinely involved in search and rescue missions. “It can save your life and it can save the searchers that are risking their lives to come find you.”

While SPOT devices have become popular the last couple years, they don’t allow someone to communicate like a satellite phone does, the trooper said.

“A SPOT is better than nothing but a satellite phone is much better,” Quist said. “It lets people konw what condition you’re in and what kind of response is needed.

“If you’re in a warm cabin with a stack of firewood, that’s got a different urgency than if you’re on the trail and about to die,” he said. “If you have a way of communicating, we know the urgency.”

When it comes to search and rescue missions, troopers automatically assume the worst unless they know otherwise, which could put searchers at risk, Quist said

“We always assume the worst, that you’re on the trail hypothermic, buried in the snow,” he said. “We’re going to make every effort to get to you.”

Another item that should be included in any kind of survival kit is a good signaling device, Quist said.

“One misconception people have is if they can see search aircraft, the search aircraft can see them,” he said. “That’s not always the case.”

Smoke bombs, emergency flares and mirrors all make good signaling devices.

“The drawback to a flare is that it only lasts 45 seconds,” said Quist, who recommends carrying a smoke bomb.

One of the most important items in a survival kit isn’t what you take with you, but what you leave behind, as in a trip plan, Quist said. Anyone who travels into the wilderness, even if it’s only for the day, should tell someone where they are going and when they expect to return so searchers know where to begin looking if they’re overdue.

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