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Solo-Hiking Alaska’s Brooks Range

An interview with thru-hiking phenom Kristin Gates

At just 27 years old, Kristin Gates is fast becoming a thru-hiking force to be reckoned with. The New England native and current resident of Coldfoot, Alaska, has already completed the long-distance Triple Crown (AT, PCT, and CDT) and this past summer, she became the first female to hike Alaska’s 1,000-mile-long Brooks Range alone—a 50-day endeavor. She chatted with BACKPACKER about her rigorous preparation, the breathtaking scenery, and overcoming adversity along the way.

BACKPACKER: How did hiking fit in to your childhood?  Was it always something you enjoyed?

KRISTIN GATES: I grew up hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with my dad. The first mountain I ever hiked was Jackson. I was eight years old, but I remember it vividly. I remember feeling so tired and unsure that I could make it as we approached the tree line…and then, not ten minutes later, I remember reaching the narrow ridgeline and running through the clouds hopping from boulder to boulder, feeling better than I ever had in my entire life. That was it. I have been hooked ever since. By the time I was 15, my dad and I had hiked the 48 mountains above 4,000 feet in New Hampshire. During those trips, we would often find ourselves on the Appalachian Trail and my dad would tell me how that trail went from Georgia all the way to Maine. I knew I just HAD to hike it. That is how it all began.

BP: What did your family/friends think when you told them about your plans for the solo Brooks Range traverse?

KG: My friends and family think I am a little crazy, but I don’t think that they were very surprised when I made the decision to hike across Alaska this summer. I had been talking about it ever since I moved up to Coldfoot, AK (60 miles north of the Arctic Circle) in 2010. My friends and family know that outdoor travel is what I live for, so they were very supportive throughout the whole trip. I could not have done it without them. Especially my mom, who helped mail out my re-supply packages and my dad who texted the weather report to my SAT phone every day, and my friends Danielle and Jack who texted me often during the trip. I was never really alone out there because of them.

BP: Did you do any kind of special training or fitness conditioning in order to prepare yourself for the conditions up there?

KG: Preparing for this trip was a full time job and took five months. There are no hiking trails in Northern Alaska, so I had to map out the route and figure out how to re-supply myself.

In order to prepare physically for the hike across the Brooks Range, I hiked the 730-mile Grand Enchantment Trail from Phoenix to Albuquerque. This trail helped toughen up my feet and it gave me an opportunity to fine-tune my navigation skills since some of the Grand Enchantment Trail is trail-less. I also hiked through two snowstorms during the New Mexico portion of the trip. My tarp did not hold up very well in the storms and my gear got pretty wet. This was an important reminder that I needed to have my act together for the Brooks Range. If my stuff got wet up in the Arctic, I would not have a town to bail to. There is no safety net up there. You have to be ready for anything that comes your way and cannot make any mistakes.

BP: What was your single most valuable piece of gear?  Anything you wished you had, but didn’t?

KG: My Henry Shires Moment DW Tarp Tent. It completely took the stress out of bad weather. With its removable interior, I knew that even if it rained for weeks, I would be able to keep the important things, like my sleeping bag, dry. On rainy days, I would pack the interior of the shelter away separately from the rain fly so that it would stay dry and I would always have a dry shelter to climb into every night.

I would have loved a dry suit for the packrafting portion of the trip. I had decided not to get one because they were a bit out of my price range, but after a couple of days of rain and wind on the Noatak, I would have paid twice the price and thrown in my big toe to have one.

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