Surviving The Unknown In Wild Alaska

Photo by Paul D. Atkins

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


I’ve been in all kinds of survival situations, actually more than I like to remember.

There was the time I went through the ice on my snowmachine, stopping only as the cowling started to go under the slush. Or when I was hunting moose, slipped and fell and tore my MCL on the first day. While in extreme pain, I hobbled back to camp using my bow as a crutch.

Or that trip while hunting muskox at minus 40 degrees and my snowmachine wouldn’t start and I was 90 miles from the nearest shelter. I could go on and on, but some stand out more than others.

There are many situations like this where having the right equipment and following a certain set of rules will save your life if need be. Let’s first start with these.

Meals that are ready to eat are lifesavers. Whether in survival mode or not, having enough MREs will provide the calories needed to sustain you during a strenuous event, like this cold- weather hunting trip Atkins and a buddy went on. (PAUL D. ATKINS)


The most important aspect of any survival situation is to use common sense. Never lose your head; think things through, if the situation calls for it. Before leaving the house, the first and foremost thing to do is tell someone where you’re going or planning to hunt.

In the far north, where I have done most of my Alaska hunting, letting someone know where I plan to be was a ritual. I actually had a laminated map on the back of our door that I marked each and every time I went out. I marked the map to let my wife and at least a couple of hunting buddies know exactly where I would be. 

I also let them know the time to expect me back and if I wasn’t home by then, give or take a few hours or a day, then to start the search. It was something I lived by. Alaska is big and very unforgiving, and if possible I never went alone. I know this isn’t always the case, since for some of us going solo is what it’s all about. But in the Arctic, having a second set of hands, eyes and brains can and will save your life.

I have been in a ton of situations where trouble has arisen and I’ve had to go from hunter mode to survivalist mode in an instant. If it wasn’t for my gear and the survival kit that never leaves my pack, I would not have survived.

These are just a few of the items to consider adding to your pack before heading out on any adventure. A first-aid kit is a must and they come in all sizes. Just make sure yours includes the items you need for the adventure. A space blanket will keep you warm and last but certainly not least, bring plenty of fire-starting material (inset). (PAUL D. ATKINS)


Let’s start with the caribou/moose scenario. I hunt caribou and moose each and every year in Alaska. These hunts are usually a week to 10 days deep in the bush, surrounded by miles and miles of tundra without people or any sign of civilization. Being able to take care of yourself and camp is a constant. You never know when an accident may occur or a grizzly might show up. You must be prepared and always ready for any situation that might occur.

With today’s advanced technology of the day, many would say that having a satellite phone and a GPS is a must, and I would agree. For me these two items are always in my pack. But even with these devices you are still not safe from the many forms of disaster that can come your way.

Weather is the biggest killer in Alaska, and a phone can only do so much. On fly-in drop hunts, you are totally dependent on the pilot being able to fly. The GPS serves only as a marker where you might be in case someone needs to get to you. Weather can prevent any type of rescue.

When hunting many places in the West and especially in the far north of Alaska, your housing is usually a tent of some sort. Getting out of the elements is not only beneficial to the hunting experience, but can save your life in dire instances. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

My survival kit for caribou includes not only the phone and GPS, but also more practical gear that will keep me alive. On a caribou hunt, weight isn’t usually a problem and your kit can contain a few more necessities versus, say, a backpack hunt into the mountains. Besides the sat phone and GPS, here’s a list of what I take in order to survive:

• Water purifier and bottle. I use the pump-type purifier on these hunts versus the tablets, only because I have the room and they weigh very little. I also prefer a bottle to a bladder, as a bottle won’t break and/or leak due to a hole, which sometimes happens with a bladder.

• Headlamp or small flashlight with extra batteries. Nothing worse than roaming around in the dark in bear country without a light.

• Duct tape. This is a cure-all and can be used in a lot of different situations in the wild. Once, I was skinning a moose that we took right at dark. My knife slipped and I nearly cut my middle finger off. With a little care I was able to duct tape my index finger to my injured finger and finish the hunt. The bleeding stopped and the tape formed a somewhat crude splint. Duct tape can also be used to stabilize a broken leg or busted knee. Simply cut a couple of willow branches and form a splint. Securely tape them to the leg and you’re good to go, or at least able to get back to camp and call for help.

• Plastic tarp. I carry a small 8-by-10 tarp with me. It is small, light and can keep you warm. If you get caught in the dark far from camp or need to get warm fast, a tarp makes a great lean-to or can serve as a blanket.

•Rope. I Carry 10 To 12 Feet Of parachute cord. Rope can serve so many purposes – from making slings to tying splints to helping secure your makeshift shelter.

• Food. I always have enough to survive for three days of eating. My food cache includes meat sticks, protein bars and gorp (a nut-raisin-candy mix). These are high in energy and have lots of protein and carbohydrates and take up little room in your pack. I also pack a few of the emergency drink mixes that you can buy over the counter. These powder mixes can be combined with water and provide you with the extra electrolytes that are needed in case of a survival situation.

• First-aid kit: I carry a small kit with the basic necessities. Usually it contains a small amount of painkiller, tape and bandages. I also include a tourniquet just in case.

• Multi-tool or army knife complete with knife, saw and tweezers. I also carry a small folding saw.

• Extra pair of socks and gloves (usually wool).

• Last, but not least, toilet paper. You don’t need a whole roll, just enough in a Ziploc to get the job done.

As far as packing these items, I usually haul them to camp in a waterproof bag and then each day carefully take out what I’ll need in case I don’t make it back to camp for a few days. I pack these items in a large plastic bag; that way they stay dry in case it rains or worse.

One of the most important pieces of any survival pack is a GPS or other device that can tell you where you are or how to get from one point to another. Compasses are great, but with the advancement of technology, a handheld global positioning device is the only way to go. Everyone who hunts the backcountry should have one and learn how to use it. (PAUL D. ATKINS)
Water isn’t available at all locations hunters and anglers venture. In some cases, you must learn to improvise. “We noticed this rock had a small trickle of water coming out of it,” Atkins recalls. “But with a well-placed container we were able to catch the water each day and then filter it into drinkable H2O.” (PAUL D. ATKINS)


If I’m heading to the mountains to hunt sheep or goats, my survival kit needs to be much smaller and lighter. The items in the kit may not differ from my caribou kit or scenario, but I know the kit will be less in terms of weight and size. As most mountain hunters know, traveling as light as possible is what it’s all about, but being safe and surviving has no weight restrictions.

My typical mountain survival kit contains water tablets (iodine) instead of a pump and a bladder instead of bottles. Again, the reason is that tablets are small and light and will give me a little more room in my pack. Also most expedition-type packs have a very reliable H2O compartment, and since you have all your gear on your back anyway, it’s much easier to just carry it in a bladder.

Moleskin is another item that I always pack. Even well-worn hunting boots can and will form blisters on your feet. When your feet are done, so is the hunt.

I would include a smaller first-aid kit, space blanket, more protein bars, a knife and extra socks. The usual duct tape would be included as well for cuts and sprains. And even though not a part of a survival kit, two good trekking poles can be used for not only walking, but in case of an injury they can be combined with the tape to form a splint.

I also pack a signal flare or two. Unlike hunting on the tundra, where you usually can get from point A to point B, if you are stuck on the side of a mountain and need rescue, being able to precisely pinpoint your location is a great help to rescuers.

But if I had to leave you with one closing thought about staying safe, it’s this: Don’t panic and use your senses. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author formerly of Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s had hundreds of articles published on big game hunting in Alaska and throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. His new book Atkins’ Alaska is available on Amazon and everywhere good books are sold. If you want an autographed copy, contact Paul at He is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.

“I have been in a ton of situations where trouble has arisen and I’ve had to go from hunter mode to survivalist mode in an instant,” Atkins writes. Regardless of whether it’s your first hunt or 50th in unforgiving Alaska, you should have this mentality. (PAUL D. ATKINS)



very person who hunts or ventures into the backcountry needs to take a hunter’s safety course. Most of us have, but it may have been many years ago. A good refresher, no matter your age or how much you think you know,

should be a priority if you plan to go on any excursion.

One of the first things you learn in the class is that it all starts with physical

and mental conditioning, as hunters must know their limits and their capabilities. Depending on the amount of exertion required for a particular outing you need to prepare for it, whether that means regular exercise and getting into shape or eating the right foods and preparing your mind for what lies ahead.

Safety courses also remind us of how to build a shelter, start a fire or find water from what you have or see around you. Look for natural shelters, build a lean-to and always make sure you have matches or other fire-starting material. These will all save your life. PA