The Complete Packing Guide for Alaska Winter Trip
Packing for your Alaska winter trip is not difficult. It largely depends on where and when you are going. Alaska is the largest state in the USA and the climate varies from the east to the north.
There is almost a 10-degree difference between Anchorage and Fairbanks, despite an hour air travel between these two cities. In the southeast, the weather tends to be warm and humid. In the central area and up north, it is cold, windy, and dry. If you plan an Alaska winter trip, do read on to find out what you need to wear and bring.
How cold is Alaska in the Winter?
Fairbanks: generally winter starts in October and temperature can be anywhere between -32 and 6 Celsius (-25 – 44 F). If you are lucky, you will experience extreme temperatures below -51 Celsius (-60 F). From late October to the end of December, Fairbanks experiences shortening daylights, and you will not see too much sunshine.
If you are visiting during the winter months, know that the snowfalls and whiteouts are frequent. January and February are the coldest months to visit, please cover yourself from head to toe. The countryside is colder than the city, and these are places like highways, Chena Hot Spring Resort, and anywhere on the mountains.
Anchorage: compared to Fairbanks, the city has a moderate winter climate, with average temperatures from -11.6 – 4.7 Celsius (11 – 40 F). Although Anchorage has subarctic temperatures, it has maritime influence so it can be unexpectedly warm in winter. It was almost above zero for three days when I was there in December.
Barrow: Barrow is located 320 miles north of the Arctic and the temperature can be as low as -49 Celsius (-56 F). Barrow is dangerous in winter because of the combination of the extremely low temperatures and the strong wind. Unlike Fairbanks, there are no wind barriers and protected valleys like Brooks Range to block out and settle the cold air.
Every year around November 18 or 19, when the sun sets, it remains below the horizon for 65 days. During those 65 days, Barrow experiences the decreased amount of twilight everyday till December 21, when the twilight lasts for only two hours around noon.
What to Wear in Alaska in the Winter?
This packing list will help you to prepare a winter trip to the central and northern parts of Alaska (Anchorage and northwards). It also helps if you plan to venture outdoors and experience winter activities like ice-fishing, dog sledding and walking around the cities.
A Parka for men and women – when it comes down to winter Alaska, a parka is a must have to wear as an outer layer. Parkas are heavy coats that come with a hood and fur, and cover you down to your knees. Parkas are waterproof and when the temperature comes on to -30 and lower, it is your best option. I brought an Alpinetek mid-length parka. It is expensive but has me to endure the -30 Celsius weather for years.
Fleece jacket for men and women – It is always recommended to add an extra inner layer when you are in Alaska, especially if you plan to participate in physical activities and walk outside. For your inner layer, you can wear a light-weighted fleece jacket as a solid warm layer. An important feature of the fleece jacket is that it makes cold air and water stay out, so it will help you remain warm and comfortable. I wore a fleece jacket whenever I was outdoors.
I highly recommend the fleece jacket from Columbia. The price is reasonable and they have a wide range of colors for you to choose from.
Caribou boots - If you need to stay outside for long for winter activities, I recommend that you get a pair of Caribou Boots. Caribou boots have moisture wicking inner layer that insulates against moisture and traps the heat inside, and they are cheaper compared to other winter boots. Caribou boots is also a great investment as a pair of good ones can last for 10 years and longer. You can wear Caribou boots when you do dog-sledding, ice-fishing, and walked in the ice park with a temperature of -30 Celsius, and your feet will never feel cold.
If you are a Disney fan, you can also try Mickey Mouse boots. Mickey Mouse boots are bunny boots’ cousin and the boot itself looks like Mickey’s jumbo cartoon kicks.
Wool and valley socks for men and women – a good pair of socks will make your trip to the Alaskan wilderness more enjoyable. You can wear two to four pairs of normal socks and still feel cold. Therefore, it is worth investing in a pair of wool socks if you plan to spend a day of hiking and ice fishing, or waiting for Aurora at night near the mountains and the lakes. Wool socks are made of wool. They are long and often cover your ankle and your calf, and insulate against moisture.
Snow pants for men and women – Snow pants are the go-to choice for most visitors to winter Alaska. Snow pants are water and wind resistant so they will help you to stay dry and warm. Their baggy size allows your legs to move easily in winter and keeps your blood flowing. If you are heading to Alaska to hike or spend a large amount of time outside, I recommend that you get snow pants.
A wind-proof ski mask – there were times when I was near the mountains, that I could feel my face protesting in pain as the wind and extremely low temperature snuck up on me. A wind-proof ski mask is designed to provide cover and protection for your face and to only leave your eyes out, so your face does not suffer frostbite by the strong wind and cold air.
Earmuffs – when Alaska gets too cold and you are active outside, you want to avoid getting your ears exposed and frostbite. Wearing a hat can protect your ears but when I stood in the wilderness at the North Pole facing the cold air and wind, I really wished I had extra protection for my ears. It will be much more comfortable if you have ear-muffs to cover the external part of your ears.
Thermal underwear for men and women – for most travelers, wearing only a pair of pants outside is not enough to endure -30 to -40 degree weather. Thermal underwear is a great addition to keep your lower body warm. The thermal underwear is mostly made of viscose fiber and polyester. It has a thermal property to retain the warmth of your body, while allowing you to move around easily.
Scarf or neck warmer for men and women – when you are in a place close to the Arctic in the winter, you need to cover yourself as much as possible to avoid exposure. This also means that you need to keep your neck covered to keep you warm and dry. I always travel with warm scarves. You can also get a neck warmer, and pull it over your face and mouth to keep the wind out.
A good pair of mittens and thermal gloves – high-quality mittens and gloves will keep your hands dry and warm during your outdoor trip in Alaska. There are so many mittens and gloves to choose from but I highly recommend Ozero Thermal Gloves if you plan on doing hiking and skiing. These gloves do not only have thick layers, but are also water and wind resistant, breathable, and easy to wear. They keep your hands warm even during -30 Celsius.
Final note: if you plan to visit Barrow in the winter, just wear all the clothes you have.
– Camera, preferably a DSLR camera to take high-quality images of the Aurora Borealis.
– Bring spare batteries for your camera, as the cold weather reduces the longevity of your batteries. Read my Northern Lights Photography Guides for photography equipment and tips.
– A laptop, IPad, or phone (with data) to check the weather and Aurora forecast.
Other things to bring:
– Insulate mug with lid. Before venture outside, fill your insulated mug with hot water, tea, and hot chocolate. You can drink the warm fluid when you feel cold.
– Travel insurance is a must for your Alaska trip so you do not have to pay out of your pocket if you have some misadventure or medical emergency. In some parts of Alaska, especially in Barrow, the weather can get extreme, medical facilities are difficult to access, and the price will be astronomically high if you need a helicopter to get you out of there. I always purchase insurance from World Nomads, as it is affordable and the service is reliable.
-Sunglasses to prevent snow blindness
– Maps and Google Maps (print outs) with detailed directions (your GPS will not work in certain areas).
Food – find accommodation with a kitchen so you can make hot dishes, such as stews, soup, and noodles, to keep your body warm. If you prefer Asian food, bring your own ingredients. Inclement weather and cold meals do not coexist well.
Gas: Fill the gas tank for your car when it is half-empty. It is highly recommended that you do not skip gas stations on the road, as the next service station will probably be hundreds of miles away.
Booking: book your airline tickets in advance. Winter is low season to travel in Alaska and you will find accommodations on a walk-in basis. Most hotels in Fairbanks and Anchorage offer airport pick-ups and drop-offs. Chena Hot Spring Resort offers a 50% discount during the Christmas holidays.
Is an Alaska winter trip totally worth it?
A winter trip to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you will never forget. Many have a perceived notion of the Alaskan winter as cold, dark, and windy. In reality, it is the cold and lengthy winter that makes Alaska standout from the rest of the states. I have experienced Alaska in winter three times, and I loved the winter activities like dogsledding, ice-fishing, cross-country skiing and the late-night dips in the outdoor pools at the Chena Hot Spring Resort.
The pure white snow transformed Fairbanks into a winter wonderland. The Aurora Borealis illuminates the night sky as a magic gift to those tough enough to embrace the inclement weather in the far north. Do not just visit in the summer, because your Alaskan experience will never be complete until you visit in the winter.
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