I grew up in Alaska, but my limited perspective of how Alaska might appear to someone traveling here for the first time has not stopped people from asking me what to expect. It seems normal to me that most people would own a wool “halibut jacket” and a pair of XtraTuf boots. Alaska’s active outdoor lifestyle makes it easy to take for granted what others wear and how they prepare until someone shows up late for an offshore fishing trip in tennis shoes and a cotton shirt. Only then do I wonder how they might not know 70 degrees on land is not the same as 70 degrees on the ocean, or that we just might get wet, and that we might not make it back on schedule. Many Alaskans are happy (especially in the winter!) to share their advice on preparing for a first-time hunt in Alaska. I asked a few of Alaska’s experts to share their experience on what might surprise a newcomer most.
Sue Entsminger, who was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Alaska in 1973, said her biggest surprise in coming to Alaska was the different style of hunting. “I had heard stories, and was energetic and extremely excited about backpacking,” she says. For her, backpack hunting was the biggest difference between deer hunting in Pennsylvania, “where you go home at night and you sleep in a bed,” and Alaska, where “everything you carry is on your back.” Sue recalls taking her father on a backpack hunt, and after the hunt he summed up the backpack experience rather well: “He set the pack down. He pulled out the toilet paper and said, ‘Here’s the bathroom.’ He pulled out the cup and spoon and said, ‘Here’s the kitchen.’ He pulled out the sleeping bag and said, ‘Here’s the bedroom.’”
Sue began professionally guiding sheep hunters in 1990. Many remember Sue’s patience as she stood at the crest of a ridge while they discovered for themselves the experiences she has mastered over a lifetime. Being raised on her family’s dairy farm, when Sue began hunting in Alaska she carried items she doesn’t carry today, and wore leather hiking boots. Now she recommends going in as light as you can, and prefers “plastic” boots—boots made from an industrial-strength rubberized plastic material on the outside, with an inside liner that requires no break-in.
Another big surprise for many newcomers to Alaska comes in the form of logistics. Sam Oslund, who works as an educator for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, gets questions daily on how to plan and prepare for a first-time trip to Alaska. “Cost plays a big part in the success of your hunt, pending logistics available to you,” she says. “For example, if you fly out, your hunting trip instantly gets more expensive. Guided hunts will cost more. Knowing what tags to put in for and what the hunt will cost before you put in will really help zero in the focus of your hunt. Alaska is so big, it’s hard for out-of-state folks to envision that traveling from Anchorage to Fairbanks actually takes an entire day because of the deceptive nature of maps and roads on paper.”
Sam recommends starting the plan by deciding which species you want to hunt. “What’s your dream animal?” Once you know the species you plan to hunt, the logistics and the cost, you can begin to prepare and save for the trip. “If cost plays a major factor, call our offices and ask a staff member what else would be feasible, as there are many options,” she says. “Also, ask about hunts you won’t need a guide for and what you might be able to walk in off the road and hunt. Cost will go down substantially.” Sam stresses the importance of becoming fit for the hunt. “I’ve been hunting in shape and hunting when I’ve been out of shape. I was miserable out of shape.” Sue tells her sheep-hunting clients to get into a climbing regimen, whether it is stairs or finding hills to climb. “Getting in shape for a sheep hunt is vital,” says Sue.
Nicole Moffat, co-founder of The Alaska Life, didn’t start hunting big game until after she had her third child. Her biggest surprise in marrying an avid Alaska hunter and moving to Alaska, was the complete lifestyle change. “I knew how to shop in the mall and go to the pool,” Nicole jokes. Her husband’s passion for hunting led her to join in creating their family legacy. Nicole now focuses on planning for the unexpected when it comes to clothing and gear selection. “The hard thing about hunting in Alaska is you can have 70-degree temperatures and then 30-degree temperatures within same day. You have to plan for everything.”
Sam also emphasized the importance of staying warm and dry. “Good base layers, rain gear, and boots are a must,” she says. Nicole dresses in layers and makes sure to always pack high-quality rain gear. She also advises bringing a satellite phone, having a first aid kit, and knowing how to use both. She recalls an incident when her dad had cracked ribs on a backcountry trip. “We didn’t use to take a satphone, but it’s become a lifeline,” Nicole said. She also packs a pair of “rescue” socks, shirt, and gloves. Sue warns about the risk of hypothermia: “It is critical to have the right gear for the right time of year.” Sue regards any type of trip into the Alaska woods beyond just a day plan.
Whether surprise comes in the form of an abundance of mosquitos, unpredictable weather, or coming upon a downed moose for the first time and realizing the size of the animal and the amount of work involved, Alaska, more than any other state, offers an adventure rather than a hunt. It’s not just a chance to take game, but also a risk. For every unique experience, there is a unique requirement to prepare for. Considering what you might need and developing contingency plans is part of the joy of visiting Alaska or living here. And a day will come when you’ve remembered your gloves with abrasion protection, and also to pack a few more protein bars and a water filter when you needed them. It’s a day when you feel like you haven’t just gotten here, but that you’ve arrived.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham