Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. From the Canadian National Archives.

We are so used to fast, scheduled, reliable means of transport that it is easy to forget that only a generation or so has passed since travellers relied on horses and boats, were subject to the vagaries of weather, rough trails — or no trails at all — and a guide.  We look at the maps of the gold rush towns and forget that those towns didn’t exist when hopeful prospectors left home and comfort to brave the unknown in the hope of a lucky strike.

In my research into the various gold rushes in Canada, I came across this list of helpful hints for the trail.

  1. Don’t waste a single ounce of anything, even if you don’t like it.  Put it away and it will come in handy when you do like it.
  2. Don’t eat ice or snow.  Go thirsty until you can melt it.
  3. No man can continuously drag more than his own weight.  Remember that this is a fact.
  4. Keep your sleeping bag clean.  If it becomes inhabited, freeze the inhabitants out.
  5. A little dry grass or hay in the inside of your mitts, next to your hands, will promote great heat.
  6. When your nose is bitterly cold, stuff both nostrils with fur, cotton, or wool.
  7. Don’t catch hold of your gun barrel when 30 F. degrees below zero is registered.  Watch out or getting snow in the barrel.  If you do, don’t shoot it out.

Some of these hints are obvious.  Touch metal at minus 30 F degrees and it will freeze your skin to the metal.

Freezing the lice or fleas or bed bugs that might have taken up residence in your sleeping bag makes sense.  It also indicates that fleas and lice and bed bugs were to be expected in trail conditions.  Yuck!

The prohibition against drinking snow is because the extreme cold would lower body temperature and could lead to hypothermia.

I wouldn’t want to try to drag more than my own weight for one hour, let alone 12 hours on a rough trail but gold seekers were often mad with gold fever and needed reminding of common sense rules.  As to the weight of the packs, prospectors were required to carry one ton of goods before they could pass the NWMP post that marked the entrance into Canada.  The requirement was put in place to protect the miners who would have faced starvation in the harsh winter months if they were inadequately supplied.  The Chilkoot Pass, one of the most popular trails into the Klondike was too steep for pack animals, so the men had to carry their supplies themselves, necessitating several trips up the 1500 steps carved into the ice of the pass.

Considering the hardship prospectors faced in their quest for gold, the “trail hints” seem far too gentle.

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