Distinctive challenges balance the extraordinary vistas for the hiker in the rocky, treeless immensity of high-elevation Alpine tundra, with its vast carpet of ground cover and wildflowers, or on the great sponge of tussock mound minefields and soggy mosses typical of the far northern Arctic tundra. One common and essential goal of any guest in these remote, permafrost coated environments, covering one fifth of the earth's surface, is protection. The Alpine tundra is typically dry and therefore easier walking than the sloppy mounds and trenches of the northern Canada and Alaska reaches, but the two zones share a permafrost layer, a short growing season and a vulnerability to long-lasting damage by visitors. Global warming is a serious dilemma to the tundra, the resultant melting releasing carbon dioxide from the carbon-rich environment, thereby amplifying the problem.
Take it slow. For trails, there is only the occasional animal track. In the Arctic tundra, it's wet, brushy and creased with creeks, streams and rivers. In the Alpine environment, a careful, slow cadence allows you to avoid stepping on the delicate plants that have taken so long to grow. The slower you go, the more you'll see.
The skills of using map and compass are indispensable in the trail-free tundra. Look for distinctive rocks and large vegetation patches for orientation. Setting way-points with a GPS unit secures your safe passage even further, especially in fog.
Adjustable poles save ankles in this bumpy terrain and give you the balance points for avoiding injury and plant damage.
Save the Flora
Keep your group small, less than seven on any particular route. If game trails are absent, spread out to avoid making one. If possible, walk on exposed rocks and avoid the hole-making of going directly up steep slopes. Firewood is almost nonexistent and fires damage the ecosystem, so you must carry a stove if you intend to cook. The shrubs, sedges, mosses and likens of the Arctic tundra, and the tussock grasses, dwarf trees, leafy shrubs and hedges of the Alpine tundra have worked hard and long to be there.
Bypass the Bogs
The soggy expanses, which grow in the permafrost-melting warm months in the Arctic tundra, are boot-grabbing, ankle-spraining, protracted labors for hikers. Stick to the high ground on more well-drained slopes or ridges, or even walk in stream beds at low water levels if the topography is unchanging. Look for faint changes in landscape colors, which can indicate drier environments.
Prepare for Weather
Low temperatures, extreme windiness and precipitation are standard issue on the tundra. Carry warm waterproof clothes and sturdy tents.
Biodiversity of the Tundras
These barren places support precious few mammals or fish and mainly migrating birds. Enjoy viewing the Dall sheep, caribou, Arctic ground squirrels, foxes, bears, hares, mountain goats, marmots, owls and musk oxen, but leave them alone.