Everyone knows that cats prefer warm temperatures, but I am here to tell you that a well-executed winter trip satisfies a deep-seated sense of adventure that all slow traveling cats secretly harbor. The truly brave cats that venture into the Alaskan winter are sure to be rewarded with a truly unforgettable experience! Like most cats, you may be wondering how to stay warm in the winter season. Do not fear, I have carefully observed Michele, my faithful travel companion for all of her tips and tricks on what to wear in Alaska in winter.
With the right gear, anyone can enjoy Alaska’s greatest activities while staying both warm and dry. From cross country skiing to my personal favorite activity of dog sledding, a few key lessons will help you prepare for the adventure of a lifetime.
Lessons on what to wear in Alaska in winter:
Layering to stay warm
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is learning to use a good method for layering. This will allow you to create a flexible clothing system that is adaptable to Alaska’s constantly changing weather conditions. From pitch-dark early mornings to the few hours of direct sunlight in the afternoon, even in prime conditions, your clothing needs will vary throughout the day.
There are three main layers to consider when deciding what to wear in Alaska in the winter months. Each of these layers performs a distinct function that works to keep you warm. The base layer helps retain body heat and wick moisture away from your skin; the middle layer is for insulating, and the outer layer protects you from the elements such as snow and wind.
When being active in very cold weather, we recommend looking for a loose-fitting base layer for the purpose of retaining your body heat. Loose-fitting clothing helps keep the air around your body nice and warm by creating your own “personal heat bubble”.
Ideally, you manage your exertion to minimize sweat. However, if you do end up sweating, your base layer should also be able to wick away moisture to keep your skin as dry as possible.
The base layer includes shirts and long underwear made from synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester as well as a natural material like wool. It may feel counterintuitive, but going with a lighter material is better. This can prevent you from overheating, minimizing the risk of freezing sweat.
And, finally, don’t forget about your underwear! We recommend using underwear made of the same materials. Remember that cotton is the worst fabric for extremely cold temperatures.
Your middle layer, sometimes called the warm layer, should fit looser than the base layer and be made from heavier material. A fleece jacket or down-filled coat are both excellent choices for the middle layer. Fleece pants are the best option for your lower body. With the right outer layer, loose-fitting blue jeans or cargo pants can also provide good insulation, just as long as you do not get them wet.
The purpose of your middle layer is to retain body heat, while also buffering the cold absorbed by your outer layer. Like all layers, make sure to keep it loose fitting so you do not end up with cold clothing laying flush on your skin.
Your outer layer should consist of a waterproof and windproof winter jacket as well as snow pants. I’d suggest going as large as possible for this layer. Remember dressing for an Alaskan winter is not a beauty contest!
Meant to protect you from cold wind and snow, I can not stress how important it is for this layer to be fully waterproof. Staying warm means staying dry. Getting even a little bit of moisture between your outer layer and your body can cause a major breach to your “personal heat bubble”.
For your upper body, look for high-performance down parkas rated for temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Your jacket should have adjustable cuffs to manage airflow through your sleeves as well as vents on the sides. Also look for a good, adjustable hood for extra protection for your head.
For pants, we recommend zip-up snow pants that can easily slide on or off over your winter boots.
What to wear in Alaska in winter: Protecting your extremities
Whether you are trekking through Denali National Park, searching for the aurora Borealis, or simply exploring downtown Anchorage, having warm feet and hands will make all the difference in the world! Bringing extra gear for your feet, hands and head takes up a relatively small amount of space and has a huge impact on your comfort and well-being.
Keeping your feet warm and dry is paramount to staying comfortable in the Alaska winter. The feet are often the first part of the body to get cold. Therefore, paying extra attention to keeping them warm can have an outsized effect on your overall comfort. As with all clothing, your footwear should be designed to retain your body heat and protect you from the elements.
The best way to retain your own body heat is to use sock liners. These are thin, synthetic socks that help wick moisture away from your feet. On top of your liners, you should use one to two layers of high-quality wool socks. Like the rest of your clothing, using layers will help retain your natural body heat.
Pro Tip: Merino wool socks are a good option for active travelers due to their ability to help regulate your body temperature.
To protect your feet from the outside elements, you should choose a good pair of high-top, waterproof winter boots. Look for boots that are rated for -20 degrees or less. Verify that your boots have a rigid sole and good traction in case you need to walk on ice. One specific kind of winter boot is known as bunny boots. Invented by the US military, these boots are designed for extremely cold temperatures and are generally rated between -20 and -60 degrees.
Finally, adding gaiters to your winter wardrobe will provide an extra layer of protection between your feet and the snow. Gaiters are waterproof cuffs, worn over your boots providing coverage all the way up to your knees. When engaging in outdoor activities in the Alaska winter you will inevitably set foot in deep snow. When this happens, you’ll be glad for your waterproof boots and gaiters!
Pro Tip: If you decide to try foot warmers to stay warm during your Alaska vacation, make sure to purchase a battery-operated, adjustable system. Using a non-adjustable foot warming insole can result in your feet overheating. This will cause excess sweat which will freeze and make you colder.
Keeping your hands and fingers warm is important when spending time outdoors in Alaska. Mittens do the best job since they retain more body heat by keeping your fingers close together. But why stop there, when you can layer?
Adding a layer of liner gloves underneath is a good idea that will add both warmth and function to your clothing system. Using this method you can easily remove your mittens for activities that require more dexterity, like snapping your vacation photos. In extreme temperatures, consider throwing some hand warmers in your jacket pockets for extra warmth and protection.
When deciding what to wear in Alaska in winter, don’t forget about your head and ears. Choose a warm hat that also covers your ears. Look for hats lined with fur or wool to provide that extra insulation needed in the winter months.
In order to stay warm, you’ll also need a nylon neck gaiter. This versatile piece of clothing can be worn around your neck or pulled up over your face and ears for extra warmth.
Finally consider a face mask to cover your entire face for extremely cold conditions. Look for one made of synthetic material that will not hold onto the moisture generated by your breath.
An important lesson on what to wear in Alaska in winter: Don’t get too hot
In order to stay warm, the key is to stay dry. Aside from avoiding the obvious sources of moisture like water and snow, you also need to think about the moisture your own body creates. Yes, we’re going to talk about your sweat!
It may not be intuitive, but regulating your body temperature by not getting too hot is the most important thing to remember when adventuring in extremely cold winter temperatures. When moisture is present from sweat, you will start feeling colder because it will freeze.
So what can you do to prevent this from happening? The most important thing you can do is to regulate your body temperature by managing your exertion of energy. When participating in outdoor adventures, take notes from the natives who move slowly and deliberately. Avoid large bursts of energy that will spike your body temperature.
Next, make sure to always dress in layers so that you can easily control the degree of cold air that contacts your body. Winter coats designed for outdoor activities often have “vents” that can be opened to allow for airflow when you start to get hot.
And, finally, if you start to feel hot, stop and adjust your clothing or remove layers immediately. Once you start to sweat it’s extremely difficult to warm up again. Even if you use moisture-wicking base layers, the layer that absorbs the sweat will still freeze until the moisture is fully evaporated. Cold clothes make for cold bodies.
What to wear in Alaska in winter: loose-fitting clothes
Wearing loose-fitting clothes may seem counterintuitive at first, but Alaskans have known about this trick for ages. The heart of this advice lies in the fact that your body is constantly generating heat. Wearing loose-fitting clothing allows you to take full advantage of this fact by creating a “personal heat bubble” where you can stay nice and warm.
Think of it this way: your body is constantly generating heat to counteract the cold air. The only thing between your body and the cold air is your clothing. Your clothing will become cold much quicker than your body. So, the name of the game is to keep your cold clothing off of your warm skin.
Even the highest performing “heat retaining” fabrics will get cold in extreme weather conditions. When it is laying flush against your skin, your body needs to work overtime to warm up the fabric. If you leave a little space between your skin and your clothing, your body only needs to warm the air in between.
In fact, the more layers of clothing you can wear the better! This creates increased protection of your “personal heat bubble”. When your outer shell inevitably starts to freeze, the inner layers, which are more likely to touch your skin, will be less cold.
Remove outer layers as soon as you get inside
Once you understand that your clothes are colder than your body, this advice makes sense. In extremely cold temperatures, your outer layer will retain the blistering cold from the air outside. This means that your jacket will actually make you colder the longer you wear it.
Imagine wearing a cloak of ice and you’ll start to get the picture. Though to be fair, ice can be as warm as 32 degrees, while your Alaskan jacket is probably closer to 0. Why make your body work overtime to warm it up?
This lesson is especially true if you get your clothes wet. In the event of wet clothing, you should go inside immediately and change. Even if you do not have clothes to change into, you should take your wet clothes off as soon as you are indoors. As long as the air is warmer than your clothing, you are better off wearing nothing than trying warm up while wearing frozen clothes.
What to wear in Alaska in winter: Beyond clothing
In addition to warm clothes for all of your layering needs, there are a few more items to add to your Alaska packing list. In the winter average temperatures across Alaska will be well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Given this is the temperature at which water turns to ice, it’s safe to assume the air will be too cold to hold any moisture. Make sure to pack the following items to protect your skin and hair stay throughout your trip:
- Face Moisturizer
- Body lotion
- Moisturizing hair conditioner
- A water bottle to stay hydrated
- Light weight day pack to carry extra gear
Conclusion – what to wear in Alaska in winter
You are sure to experience multiple changes in weather and temperature throughout the long days of your vacation, so always remember to dress in layers. Additionally, don’t forget about your head, hands, and feet.
Knowing what to wear in Alaska in winter is key to making the most of this special time of year. From zipping down North Face, Alaska’s most famous ski run, to chasing the northern lights through the arctic circle – a well-designed clothing system will keep you warm and toasty through the cooler temperatures of the Alaskan winter. As they say in Alaska, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear!