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Essential National Park Skills: The Ultimate Park Pass

Write your own ticket to new adventures with these 10 territory-expanding skills.

©John Burcham

The Park: Denali

The Skill: Crossing glacial-runoff rivers

Experiencing Alaska’s wilds-the mind-blowing moraine of Muldrow Glacier or the magnificence of Denali-requires river crossings. You won’t get more than a few miles from the road in this park’s trailless wilderness without getting wet. But fording roiling Alaskan rivers can be life-threatening; they’re often fast, deep, wide, and braided into many channels. And they’re always head-numbingly frigid. Here’s how to do it safely.

Cross in the morning Glacier-fed rivers rise with daytime’s warmer temps, sometimes by a foot. Ask rangers about the conditions of all the rivers you’ll cross.

Use your map and eyes An area where the river widens or braids is shallower and easier to navigate. Avoid crossing upstream from boulders, rapids, fallen trees, and standing waves (which indicate boulders).

Examine the surface The river gives clues to its depth: Small washboard ripples indicate shallow water and a smooth bottom. (Glacial silt turns most rivers gray, so you’ll rarely see the bottom.)

Lob rocks A hollow “ker-ploop” indicates deep, possibly dangerous water. A rock that moves downstream before sinking, or the sound of rollers, suggests a powerful current.

Use watertight bags Keep clothing and gear dry; remove boots and socks, but wear sandals or sneakers to protect your feet. Some BACKPACKER editors strip off all bottom layers to keep clothes dry; you’ll go numb either way.

Unbuckle your hipbelt If you go down, it will be easier to slip out of your pack.

Retreat If the river looks too fast and deep-anything above the knees gets dicey-find a safer spot to cross.

Use trekking poles Walking sticks aid balance, as does looking a few steps ahead instead of straight down.

Cross at an angle In fast water, face upstream but sidestep across at a slight downstream angle. Lean into the current and step slowly to keep steady.

Ford as a group Lock arms and cross together if the water is knee-deep or if anyone’s having trouble.

The Park: Rainier

The Skill: Attaching an ice axe to your pack

You’ve paused high up on Rainier’s Disappointment Cleaver route, gushing with your buddy over the sunrise view when you turn to start upward again, and…spear him in the gut with the axe that’s tilting out from your pack. To avoid this potentially dangerous scenario, use this 2-step trick:

1) Insert the spike (the pointed end of the shaft) down through your pack’s axe loop so that the pick is pointing across the pack rather than jutting to the side.

2) Flip the axe to point the spike skyward so the loop cradles the axe’s head, then secure it with the pack’s axe clip or a compression strap.

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