What to wear in Alaska in summer: everything you need to know

As a traveling cat, one thing that constantly piques my curiosity is the concept of clothing. Michele, my eternally optimistic travel companion, seems to be obsessed with purchasing new articles of clothing and then combining them in different ways depending on where we are traveling. This strange obsession becomes most pronounced when she is deciding what to wear in Alaska in summer. 

Upon deeper thought, however, this obsession with summer clothes for Alaska is not surprising, given the quickly changing weather patterns. The summer temperatures can be very warm and sometimes hot in certain regions, but some areas can have freezing cold temperatures at night. Therefore, being prepared with a comprehensive Alaska packing list is truly vital to having a great time… and looking fabulous in vacation photos. Now looking fabulous is a concept that all cats can understand!

In this article, I’ll share everything I have learned over the course of years of observations. Specifically, I’ll cover the essentials for choosing clothes for your Alaskan adventures, no matter what area you visit or activities you choose.

Factors for choosing what to wear in Alaska in summer:

Dressing in layers

The most important thing to understand about packing for Alaska is the concept of dressing in layers. Layers allow you the flexibility to be comfortable and dry in an array of different weather conditions. This method of dressing is one of the best ways to shorten your packing list since items can easily be repurposed for various weather conditions. When layering your clothes for Alaska, there are three main components – base, middle and outer. 

Base Layer

Clothes for Alaska - layering
Typical summer day in Alaska

The base layer is the clothing closest to your body. This layer helps regulate your temperature by moving the sweat away from the skin. This function is not only important for hot, sunny days but can be life-saving in cold weather. Excess moisture can actually freeze and cause hypothermia. One of the best things you can remember for traveling in extreme weather conditions is that moister is not your friend.

Your best option for the base layer is synthetic long underwear. The synthetic material is lightweight and will help move moisture away from your skin. Try to stay away from cotton on the days that you plan to be active. Cotton can actually retain moisture and make for a long and uncomfortable day.

If you are traveling at the height of summer, your base layer shirt can be short-sleeved or even sleeveless. When packing, it’s a good idea to include a mix of both long and short sleeve shirts. A good quality long sleeve shirt can keep you cool during warm days and also provide protection from the sun. Depending on your planned activities, you may also consider using a swimsuit as a base layer.

Middle layer

The middle layer helps retain heat and is also known as the insulating layer. This piece of clothing will provide a little extra warmth for those crisp early mornings or as you begin your approach to one of Alaska’s iconic glaciers.

For your upper body, recommended options include vests, flannel shirts, sweaters, or, my personal favorite, a fleece jacket. If you are traveling during cooler temperatures, a great option for your middle layer is a lightweight down jacket. This amazingly versatile piece of clothing is easily packable and can provide a high degree of warmth when needed.

For the lower body, this would be your regular pants or a pair of shorts. For most summer trips, it’s fine to skip the base layer for your lower body, especially if you are using quick dry shorts or pants as your middle layer.

Outer layer

The outer layer, also known as the outer shell, helps protect you from the weather, including wind, rain, and snow. For summertime in Alaska, a good, lightweight rain jacket is recommended for this layer. Look for a waterproof jacket (not just “water-resistant”). But what if it gets cold, you may be wondering. Well, here’s why layering is such an effective method: you’d simply slip your raincoat over your lightweight down jacket. The insulating warmth of the down, coupled with the wind resistance of your rain jacket will create an amazingly warm bubble for the coldest summer nights. Additionally, you’ll have your raincoat to throw over your shorts and t-shirt in case it rains during the height of the summer heat.

For your lower body, you should bring a large pair of rainpants that can easily slide over your middle layer. These will come in handy for long hikes in the rain, kayaking, or any other water-related activity. If you plan on visiting any snow-capped mountains via a flightseeing tour, you may also consider a pair of waterproof ski or snowboarding pants. It’s recommended to check with your tour guide for any recommended gear.

Protecting your feet and head

Now that you know how to dress in layers, it’s time to consider clothing needs for your feet and head. Bringing the right gear for your feet and head can significantly increase your comfort while taking up a relatively small amount of space in your suitcase.

For your feet, you should look for a good pair of shoes that provide traction and are waterproof. Depending on your planned activities, you may want to purchase a comfortable pair of hiking boots or simply go with a high-quality, waterproof sneaker. It’s always a good idea to bring a pair of sandals to wear when you are lounging around after your adventures. 

Aside from the right shoes, you’ll also need to think about high-quality socks for your Alaskan adventure. We recommend wool over cotton due to its ability to better regulate your temperature by wicking moister away from your feet. Given the amount of time that you will likely spend out and about, it’s recommended that most or all of your socks be wool or made of synthetic material. If you are trekking somewhere cold, having wet feet can be extremely uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

As far as headwear is concerned, you should bring a hat for sun protection and a beanie for warmth. Even though the days will be mostly warm, when the temperature drops, you will lose most of your warmth through your head. Bringing along a good warm hat is a space-efficient way to stay warm during your trip to Alaska.

Planning for rainy days

Lake in Portage Valley in Alaska
Rainy day adventures in Alaska

If you are traveling during the summer months, it’s likely that you will encounter at least one rainy day. However, you should not let this disrupt your adventures!

Given that the summer rain in Alaska tends to be light and misty, you should rely on waterproof clothing, versus a standard umbrella. This includes a good quality waterproof rain jacket at the very least, and ideally rain pants. Generally, in Alaska, a rain jacket and quick-dry hiking pants should work for small jaunts in the rain. However, for longer stints outside, you should wear your full rain gear. Always make sure to stay away from wearing jeans for any length of time in the rain.

When engaging in outdoor activities in the rain, it’s also important to remember your feet. Make sure to either purchase waterproof footwear or use a waterproofing treatment for your existing footwear. For socks, we recommend either wool or synthetic material, due to the ability to wick away extra moisture (seeing a theme yet!?). When packing for day trips, an extra pair of wool socks just may be a lifesaver.

Finally, don’t forget to protect your gear from the rain, as well. You can purchase a basic waterproof covering for your day pack for extra protection. Additionally, you’ll need a waterproof cell phone cover. I recommend one that also comes with a lanyard, so it’ll be easy to carry around your neck and you’ll have quick access when that special photo suddenly presents itself.

As you can see, with careful preparation, there is no limit to the adventures to be had on a rainy day. As they say in Alaska, there is no bad weather, only bad gear!

Special considerations for active travelers

Outdoor adventures are one of the greatest reasons to visit Alaska. Whether you plan to hike through Denali National Park, camp under the midnight sun, or kayak through the inside passage, there are some additional considerations for your attire.

If you do not already own a pair, now is the time to invest in a good pair of hiking boots. Look for brands with a rigid sole and good traction. Due to the terrain, you should also aim for boots that are either mid or high-top and are also waterproof. Make sure to complete a short day hike or two to break your boots in before taking them on too long of a journey.

Highly adventurous travelers should also pay close attention to their base layers. If you are going to invest any money into your gear for Alaska, this is a great investment. Several good quality, moisture-wicking, long sleeve shirts will provide a high degree of comfort during your adventures. A lightweight long-sleeve shirt can actually keep you cooler by moving sweat away from your skin. And, you’ll have the added bonus of protection from both the sun and Alaska’s famously large mosquitos.

Another needed item in the Alaska backcountry is bear spray. Due to airplane regulations, however, you will likely need to purchase it in Alaska. When traveling with bear spray, you should always carry it on a front-facing harness, so that it will be easily accessible. Also, make sure to do a practice run so that you are prepared for a real-life bear encounter.

Pro Tip: check with the front desk of your hotel for abandoned bear spray before purchasing a new can.

Finally, perhaps the most important item on the list, when venturing into the Alaskan backcountry, you’ll need always a safety plan. Make sure to tell someone your route and the time you expect to return. Aside from being in unfamiliar terrain, unpredictable wildlife and rapidly changing weather patterns can also present hazards.

Boat Tour of Glacier Bay in Alaska
Boat Tour of Glacier Bay

Cruising through Alaska

If you are one of the lucky tourists who will be experiencing Alaska via a cruise, you may need to add a few more items to your packing list. No matter which cruise line you pick, you will likely have access to heated pools and a hot tub. Make sure to bring a swimsuit or two, as well as, a cover-up and sandals. With Alaska’s long hours of daylight, you’ll have the unique opportunity to experience the joy of a swim underneath the midnight sun. 

Another advantage of taking an Alaskan cruise is the daily excursions. Also known as a shore excursion, this means that you will be able to access a whole host of Alaskan adventures with little to no planning on your behalf. With that said, however, you should still read a little bit about the tour operator for each excursion to learn what kind of gear or equipment they can provide.

Alaskan Black Bear
Alaskan Black Bear

For example, almost all glacier hikes will provide essential safety gear like crampons (shoe spikes) and a helmet, but you still may want to bring waterproof pants and some extra sunscreen. Understanding how you can supplement the gear provided by each tour can help ensure that your adventures are warm, dry, and comfortable.

Finally, when thinking through your Alaska cruise packing list, don’t forget your formal wear. One of the quintessential cruise experiences is the formal nights. This is your chance to either dig out that dress or suit that you have not worn in years or, even better, purchase a new one! While Alaska tends to be a very casual place, your cruise ship dining room will offer an opportunity for you to experience a level of glamour that rarely presents itself in day-to-day life. 

Miscellaneous items

Aside from clothing and activity-specific gear, there are just a few more items to consider fitting into your suitcase.

Alaska offers some of the most stunning shots of wildlife on the continent. However, due to distance and low light during cloudy days, you may not catch your perfect picture on your cell phone camera. Even if you do not currently own specialized camera gear, you may want to look into renting some for your trip.

Either way, make sure to bring some backup memory cards and keep your charger handy. You’ll be glad you took this extra consideration after your trip when you are musing over your pictures of your favorite national parks.

Mount Denali
Mount Denali

As with most travel, you’ll also want a way to stay hydrated in Alaska. A reusable water bottle can be refilled at most destinations and will also help lower your impact on the environment. We are fans of the Hydroflask brand, but any lightweight, non-plastic product will do.

As always, when traveling you can expect increased usage of your phone. The difference about Alaska is that you may also be away from electrical outlets for extended amounts of time. An easy solution for keeping your phone charged is to include a small, portable phone charger in your packing list.

It’s also a common mistake to forget sun protection in the cool, cloudy Alaskan summer. However, long days can wreak havoc on your skin.

Additionally, you should consider the fact that interior Alaska is known for its massive mosquitos. Make sure to pack your insect repellent and consider wearing long sleeves, even in the warmer months.

And, finally, sandals are a great addition to any adventure travel packing list. There is nothing as great as taking off your heavy-duty hiking boots at the end of the day and slipping into a comfortable pair of open-toed shoes.

A sample packing list for Alaska in summer

So what should you pack for your summer vacation in Alaska? Glad you asked! Every traveler’s packing list should include the following categories of items. The list below is developed for a 10-day Alaska itinerary, however, you can adjust the number of items for your specific trip:  

  • Base layer shirts: 5 short-sleeve moisture-wicking tops, 3 long-sleeve shirts, 3 light T-shirts for going out at night
  • Swimsuit: 1-2 swimsuits and a cover up
  • Insulating layer: 1 heavy fleece jacket, 2-3 long-sleeved flannel shirts
  • Outer layer: 1 light, waterproof raincoat
  • Bras and underwear: 12 pairs of underwear, at least 5 bras. Make sure to include sports bras, which tend to dry quicker and can be more comfortable for active days.
  • Pants/Shorts: 1 pair of rain pants, 3 pairs of lightweight hiking pants, 2 pairs of jeans or slacks, 3 pairs of lightweight shorts
  • Shoes: sturdy hiking boots, lightweight waterproof sneakers, sandals, 10 pairs of socks (at least 5 made of wool) 
  • Hats: wide-brimmed sun hat, warm beanie
  • Personal items: toiletries, sunscreen, bug spray, book, headphones
  • Misc: camera gear, extra memory card, portable phone charger, water bottle

Conclusion on what to wear in Alaska in summer

Spencer Lake

While picking clothes for any trip can feel daunting, the quickly changing weather combined with a range of potential activities can make packing for Alaska feel even more difficult. However, once you understand all of the different factors to consider, it’s easy to mix and match various elements to be prepared for any scenario. 

Just remember, no matter where your travel plans take you, to always dress in layers. Next, check the expected weather for the time of year of your travel. Traveling closer. to the height of summer means lighter layers, while traveling closer to spring or fall means heavier layers, and extra attention for your feet and head. 

Your style of travel will also impact the clothing you choose. If you are more into wildlife viewing and pursuing tours with lower activity, then there is no need to spend tons of money on high-performance fabric shirts or fancy boots. Instead, you can use your budget for items that will enhance your comfort, like a good neck pillow or a good-looking jacket that you’ll continue to use after your trip. If you are looking to try more athletic pursuits during your Alaskan travels, you should invest in the best footwear and optimize all clothing for staying dry. 

Above all, the name of the game for picking clothes for Alaska is to be prepared. One of my favorite things about Alaska is that mother nature is truly in charge. A trip to Alaska is an exercise in accepting whatever weather conditions are thrown your way. However, if you take some time to be fully prepared by creating a well-planned packing list, then you are sure to have an amazing trip and experience more adventures than you ever imagined.

Read Next: Alaskan Adventures – how to become your own cruise director

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