Katmai’s volcanic backcountry is unique even by Alaska standards, offering hardy backpackers a lifetime’s worth of adventure in a rapidly-changing landscape. But that uniqueness can make Katmai much more challenging to prepare for. In many regards, Katmai combines the greatest challenges of desert, high alpine, and Pacific coastal environments. The high mountains are draped in glaciers, and the valleys may be raked by dust storms or blasted by unrelenting rain. No gear will be able to handle all conditions here perfectly, so planning a trip to the Katmai backcountry will necessitate some degree of hardiness, ingenuity, and compromise. It’s our hope that this section of the website will help keep your trip as safe and rewarding as possible.
Backcountry Advice for Katmai National Park
The River Lethe, in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Though drinking water is abundant in the VoTTS, it is often difficult or dangerous to access because it flows through deep canyons. The easiest source of drinking water here may be ash-covered snow patches, or rain collection at the Baked Mountain Hut.
Paxson: “There many types of water sources in the Katmai backcountry. Some streams run clear and clean, while others are dark gray with glacial silt, ash, and floating pumice sand. Some streams tumble out of mountainsides with a strong smell of sulphur. To keep your filter working properly, pump the clearest fast-running water you can find. Siltier water can be filtered when necessary, boiled, or chemically treated. UV light purifiers have special considerations with silty water, so make sure your device is up to the task.
Snow can be found on mountainsides well into midsummer, often below a protective layer of ash. These ash-covered snowfields can be tough to spot at first—keep an eye out for strange “pointy” fields of ash, which signify snow melting a few inches underneath. Finding ash-covered snow is especially helpful in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where access to fresh running water can be challenging because it is concentrated in deep or distant canyons. There are several ash-covered snowfields near the Baked Mountain Hut that often persist into midsummer. Just dig a few inches below the ash layer to reveal the bright white snow, and either mix it with liquid water, shake it rapidly, leave it for a while, or melt it with a stove to create drinkable water.
We asked the NPS prior to our trip whether there were any known health considerations drinking water from the volcanic Katmai backcountry, and were told that there weren’t. Nevertheless, drinking clear, non-odorous, and fast-moving water from seasonal snowmelt, where possible, is probably wise.”
Paxson: “The 1912 eruption of Novarupta incinerated almost all organic matter nearby, and buried nearby mountain ranges deep in glowing ash. While alder and other flora are slowly reclaiming this burned-over landscape, their march is by no means complete. In many parts of the park, even near sea level, there is simply no organic matter to block wind and provide protection, and near the volcanoes the terrain is remarkably barren, with few obvious wind breaks. The wind can shift abruptly and concentrate forcefully in canyons. Though the Katmai region is not especially cold in the summers, the highly exposed terrain, coupled with Katmai’s famously stormy weather, necessitate the use of robust backcountry shelters. If camping in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes or the volcanic-affected Katmai backcountry, even at low elevations, the normal rules for high-elevation camping apply. This means that your backcountry shelter–whether it’s a conventional tent, a tarp tent, or even a bivy sack–should be able to withstand high wind and particles (rain, hail, snow, pumice sand) in the air. There are several accounts of tents being shredded by dust storms in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. A 3-season tent with light poles and high walls made of ultralight material, designed for protected sites below tree line, is a risky choice for the non-forested parts of the Katmai backcountry. For most travelers, an ultralight 4-season mountaineering tent would be a much better all-season shelter for this region.”
Paxson: “In the Katmai region, particularly the parts of the park surrounding the volcanoes, geologic change occurs on a human scale. Human settlements and structures have changed or disappeared entirely due to volcanic activity: for example, “Katmai Village” marked on many maps near the outflow of the Katmai River was abandoned days before the 1912 eruption and is, reportedly, no longer visible—a mistake on many maps that have serious implications for distressed backpackers who attempt to reach the “village.” Volcanic outflows have altered the topography of Trident Volcano and other areas in recent decades, and the glaciers that crawl off of the tall peaks are in a state of constant change. The deep canyons in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes are endlessly carved and re-carved, and ash continues its inevitable slide down mountainsides. Because these changes can have major implications for the way you move through the terrain, obtaining the most current maps is important.
We were happy with the National Geographic topo map of Katmai National Park, which provides a good level of detail and is much more accurate than currently-available (and much older) USGS maps. If traveling in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes region, make sure that your map includes the precise location (see below) of the Baked Mountain Hut, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Overlook, the road between the overlook and Brooks Camp, and Brooks Camp itself. If your map does not include these locations, draw them in yourself. Call the Katmai NPS, a local guiding service, or contact recent travelers to ask about safe locations for crossing the deep canyons that cut through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and make river crossings difficult. If using Google Earth to scout terrain, bear in mind that the receding glaciers are mixed with a great deal of ash and rock, which create large and potentially impassable moraine regions. These regions will look like rock piles or rock in aerial photographs.
Baked Mountain Hut: 58°17’36″N 155°12’5″W
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Overlook: APPROX 58°22’7″N 155°23’44″W
Brooks Camp: 58°33’16″N 155°46’42″W”
Paxson: “Many groups rely on fires to boil water, warm up, dry out gear, and drive off mosquitoes. Contact the NPS to ensure that a fire ban due to low rainfall is not in effect. In many parts of the park, including the Katmai River plain, the mountainsides above the brush, and in the entire Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, finding enough organic material to burn would be difficult or impossible.”