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Skiing Alaska: How to Prepare for a Sub-Zero Trek

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by James Redden, who will be skiing Alaska in February 2022.

Did I say sub-zero? I mean way lower than the red line you find on those old school, white plastic thermometers pinned to the wooden walls of a service station on the roadside in the middle of nowheresville.

I’d say the temperatures will be closer to minus 30 C, which is rather chilly.

My Background

Hi, my name is James, and, along with my blogging buddy Jake, I run TrekSumo.

We are UK-based, and much of our writing focuses on gear reviews and hiking routes around the British Isles.

Most of our writings are tongue in cheek – we don’t take anything too seriously, apart from safety.

Here’s a little more of my background.

I’m a former soldier in the British Army; most of my time in the military served in an airborne unit where we did a huge amount of very interesting work.

Well, definitely more interesting than painting vehicles and sweeping the barracks every other day.

After 13 years of service and many operations, I decided it was time to give my broken body a break – I resigned.

In the civilian world, I chose to start an IT consultancy.

I should add that I don’t particularly like technology. It’s more that the job is relatively easy as I have a very technical (read: logical and borderline ‘Vulcan’ aka emotionless) mind, which serves my clients well.

Now we’ve done the intro, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

In February 2022, I’ll be setting off with a teammate to ski/trek 600 miles across the northwest slope of Alaska. So, a walk in a very big park. Very big.

Some of you may well have already trodden the wild and rugged extremes of the frozen states. For those who haven’t, here’s a rundown of what it takes to prepare and complete a trip like this.

Quick note: I’ve already completed skiing expeditions to the North Pole, across Greenland, and several trips across northern Norway.

Oh, and a 12-day, 400-mile run/hike/ski along the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Russia.

Lake Baikal - 400 miles long, a mile deep, and very cold if you go through the ice.
Lake Baikal

If you’re like truly wild places where only a few people will cross your path, then I recommend Baikal as a destination for one of your future adventures.

Why Alaska

Why go skiing in Alaska? For a multitude of reasons, but mainly because of the remote expanses of snow-covered terrain.

Also, I love traveling across ice and snow, but getting to ‘famous’ destinations like the North and South Poles is an expensive game ($55,000 and $73,000, respectively).

This trip is far less expensive, requires no dedicated support, and the route is accessible to pretty much anyone with a modest amount of spending and a bit of willpower.

And for the sheer beauty of the region. Mountains to our left, oceans to our right, and sheets of ice in the middle.

There are no ‘firsts’ here, no bragging about being the first person to carry out the crossing.

It’s simply a chance to experience something beautiful and challenging.

Preparation

The three keys to success. Planning, planning, planning. Well, along with suitable gear and lots of food (including a couple of tons of dark chocolate–delicious).

Now you’re probably wondering what kind of planning and preparation goes into a trip where you’ll be hauling 100kgs+ over snow and ice for about six weeks, right?

Well, I hope so; otherwise, what I’m about to write will be wasted.

Still here? Cool, let’s take a high-level view of the preparation I’ll go through.

Money

Far cheaper than even a one-day South Pole Marathon, this journey will cost you about £4,000 ($6,000) if you’re setting out from the UK.

As Brits, we are ripped off at every turn by local companies, and the government and travelers from other countries will no doubt find their costs are less expensive. 

If you live in the US or Canada, you easily drop $1,500 off this price, assuming you have all the gear you need.

Fitness

When I pause and close my eyes, I see images of explorers gliding across the snow and ice with little effort.

Not a bead of sweat clings to their foreheads. Their faces betray no sign of effort.

They make it look so easy.

But it’s not.

When you set your mind to covering hundreds of miles across snow and ice while hauling a small house-sized sled behind you, you’ve got to be aware of the toll the trip will take on your body, especially if you’re unfit.

If you’re not reasonably fit, there’s no way you should ever consider a journey like this.

Here’s a minimum standard I recommend you:

  • Be able to run 10 miles without stopping. Not because you’ll be running on the snow, which is REALLY hard work, but because a good level of cardiovascular fitness is a must for anyone planning to haul big distances.
  • Can drag several car tires, cross-country, for several hours at a time because… well, it just looks cool, and everyone wants to know what you’re training for and then you get to bask in the limelight. Okay, joking aside, pulling tires is a great way to condition your body in readiness for hours and days in a harness.
  • Get to the gym and start pumping iron! Do squats! Lots of them to build leg muscles that would make Arnie cry with envy. The stronger your legs the easier the haul. No arguments.
  • Train your body to be on the move for two hours at a time. No, that doesn’t mean put in a few more hours in the daily car commute. Your big training runs – the 10 milers we talked about a minute ago – need to be a minimum of 120 minutes. Why? Because that’s the average amount of time you’ll ski for non-stop.

While you’re getting fit, you need to think about your equipment.

Related: How to Get Ready for a High Altitude Mountain Climb

Expedition Gear Choices

So far, we’ve learned that money is pretty important, and fitness is essential. And both considerations can be tweaked up or down, depending on your plans for skiing Alaska.

But the one most vital consideration you need to make before you set off is the equipment you’ll take. Only food is more important.

Take the wrong gear, and you’ll pay the price – maybe one your body can’t afford!

I could list all the gear variations for different environments, but that would be a waste of time.

The best suggestion I can make for you is to talk to someone familiar with the environment you’re planning to trek through.

First-hand knowledge is a lifesaver (and you might even gain a few tips that help you cut down on the weight of your pulka, a Nordic-style sled, which is always welcome).

Some of the gear I use on my polar trips.
Some of the gear I use on my polar trips.

Once you’ve chosen the right gear, you’ll want to think about how many delicious calories you’re going to get out of your meals.

Food

Unless you’re planning to stop at villages and settlements along the way, you’ll need to haul all your food.

Hunting wouldn’t be an option, even if there were an abundance of creatures hopping around in the depths of winter, as you’d waste too much energy tracking down your lunch.

And I hate to break it to you, but there aren’t many if any, McDonald’s on the snow plains (a fact that puzzled my youngest daughter: “But daddy, aren’t McDonald’s EVERYWHERE?” I can still feel the moment my answer broke her heart.)

When you start planning your meals, you need to think ‘high calorie’ and lots of protein.

On average, my body burns around 7,000 calories per day on a trip, so I need to get those exact numbers back into my body.

Now, if you’re wondering what kind of diet would provide me with these levels of energy, here’s an example of an average day’s meals when I skied to the North Pole:

  • Breakfast: porridge made with hot water and chocolate powder mixed with cooked bacon and melted cheese.
  • Lunch: noodles, cheese, bacon, and salami. All thrown in a huge mug and heated with water boiled before dropping camp that morning.
  • Dinner: a freeze-dried meal containing a minimum of 1,800 calories, jazzed up with Tabasco sauce and, you’ve guessed it, bacon, and cheese.
  • Marching rations: bags of nuts, chocolates, raisins eaten on the move. No cheese or bacon this time.

As you can see, lots of fat and proteins. Yummy!

So, we are fit and ready to eat lots of high-calorie foods. Now it’s time to look at where we’re headed.

The Route

My teammate and I took a few precautions when plotting the route.

Our estimated traveling time for the entire 600 miles is six weeks, but we’ve given ourselves some leeway by adding finish points at the 400- and 500-mile marks.

While we want to cover the entire distance, hitting the 500-mile mark will be acceptable, although only covering 400 miles in the allocated time will be a little disappointing (I covered a longer route crossing Greenland during storms that caused six days of delay).

Imagine skiing Alaska!
Alaskan wilderness

Where is our…

Start Point

If you’re a visual person with a good knowledge of Alaska and Canada, close your eyes and picture the northwest slope of the 49th US state.

Right there on the border of the country which, with the help of some Brits who just so happened to be in the country, is a place called Prudhoe (we have a town with the same name in the northeast of England, a fact my partner was keen to point out – she’s an honorary Geordie!).

Just below Prudhoe is Kaktovik, the place we will launch from, famous for its oil storage depots and polar bear watching tours.

As you can imagine, we won’t be staying there long.

From there, we’ll track inland before turning due west and on to our endpoint.

Destination 

A place called Point Hope. Six hundred miles or so from the Kaktovik. The journey should be completed in six weeks, or less.

***

The starting pistol has been loaded, and we’re now into the swing of actual physical prep work.

My teammate and I are working hard on our cardio, insurance has been paid for, and we’ve secured some of the equipment we’ll need for the journey.

I’m genuinely excited about this journey. We’ll be building our pulks, preparing gear, and getting seriously fit.

Then we’ll travel hundreds of miles through frozen wilderness, capturing images and movies of wild Alaska.

It’s fair to say I can’t wait to begin skiing Alaska.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

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