The Ultimate Guide: What to wear in Alaska in winter – It’s not what you think

There is nothing quite like an exciting Alaskan winter vacation filled with exhilarating dog sledding trips, backcountry skiing, and chasing the elusive aurora borealis. Since an Alaskan vacation is a bucket list trip for many people, it is important to know what to wear in Alaska in winter to ensure you stay warm and dry during all of your amazing adventures.

What to wear in winter in Alaska - winter sunrise
Winter sunrise in Alaska

While the weather in Alaska in spring through early fall is mild, the winter months are a different story. If you plan to travel to Alaska during the winter, you will definitely need to pack appropriately. Keep in mind that during the winter months the temperature can change quickly and dip well below zero with a wind chill factor much lower. .

With that said, planning a vacation to Alaska in the winter months is a great idea! Don’t let the cold temperatures deter you from this amazing vacation experience. Just follow these guidelines to help keep you warm and dry, and you will be set to comfortably explore all that this beautiful state has to offer. Here are some tips about what to wear in Alaska in winter.

Lesson #1: Don’t get too hot (sweat is your greatest enemy)

In order to stay warm, the key is to stay dry. When moisture is present from sweating, rain, or snow, you will start feeling colder because the moisture will freeze. This is important to remember because most tours and excursions include outdoor activities that happen no matter what the weather. Layering is the best way to stay dry in extreme temperatures. This is important for several reasons, but above all it can keep you from getting too hot. Yes, I said it! You should be worried about getting too hot because sweat will freeze the second it hits the cold Alaskan air and then you’ll be dealing with a thin layer of ice on your skin. Remember to pay attention to your exertion and add and remove layers as much as needed to regulate your body temperature.

Lesson #2: What to wear in Alaska in winter – Create your own personal heat bubble by wearing loose fitting clothes

Wearing loose fitting clothes may seem counter intuitive at first, but Alaskans have know about this little trick for ages. Your body is constantly generating heat and wearing loose fitting clothing allows you to retain that heat.

The other matter to keep in mind is that the extremely cold winter air will freeze your clothing much quicker than your skin. Trust me, you don’t not want a frozen pair of pants stuck to your thighs (no matter how cute they look!). The more loose fitting layers you can wear, the better. This will allow you to create layer of your heat bubble, so when your outer layer freezes, the clothes more likely to touch your skin will be less cold.

Lesson #3: Take your outer layers off as soon as possible

Dog kennel at Chena Host Springs in Alaska

Another counter intuitive tip for staying warm in sub zero temperatures is to take your outer layers off once you get inside. In these extreme temperatures, your clothes will retain the blistering cold from the air and 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 is only 32 degrees, while your Alaskan jacket is probably closer to 0).

This is lesson is especially true if you get your clothes wet. In the event of wet clothing, you should go inside immediately and change. Wet clothing is dangerous in extremely cold temperatures.

Lesson #4: What to wear in Alaska in winter – Layering

Perhaps the most important lesson of all, layering combines everything we just learned about staying warm in the Alaskan winter. It will allow you to stay dry, create your personal heat bubble and keep cold clothing off of your skin. Welcome to layering 101!

There are three main layers to consider when deciding what to wear in Alaska in winter months. Each of these layers performs a distinct function that works to keep you warm. Let’s talk about the base, middle and outer layers. The base layer helps wick moisture away from your skin; the middle layer is for insulating and helps keep your body warm; and the outer layer protects you from the elements such as snow, rain, and wind.

Base Layer – Wicking moisture away from your skin

Your base or inner layer of clothing should consist of light to mid-weight clothes made from fabric that wicks well. Try to make sure your base layer does not fit too tightly as it can actually make you colder in extreme temperatures. This layer includes shirts and long underwear made from synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester as well as a natural material like wool. Also, consider underwear made of the same materials. Cotton is the worst fabric for extremely cold temperatures.

Middle Layer – Insulation

Your middle layer should fit looser than the base layer and be made from heavier material. Fleece jackets, down-filled sweater jackets, and even vests made from these fabrics are excellent choices for the middle layer. Fleece pants as well as thermal underwear are also great to wear when layering for cold weather.

Outer Layer – Protecting you from the elements

Blue ice from the iconic Kenai river in Alaska

Your outer layer should consist of a waterproof, windproof down or nylon ski parka that will cover your other layers with ease. I’d suggest going as large as possible for this layer. Remember dressing for an Alaskan winter is not a beauty contest. Your outer layer will help keep the heat inside to keep you warm and will also protect you from the cold wind that can be extreme when temperatures dip down. Choose full-zip ski pants that will keep you dry and allow easy use without having to remove your winter boots. Even if you are not skiing, these kinds of pants are highly recommended since they do a good job of protecting you from outside moisture.

Lesson #5: Protect your extremities

Let’s discuss your feet

One of the most important things to consider when planning your what to wear in Alaska during winter months is protection for your feet. Choosing boots that are weather rated for temperatures of -20 degrees is a good plan. Also, make sure to look for waterproof boots. At some point you will step in snow that’s deeper than it looks and you’ll want your feet stay dry.

For socks, all of the above principles apply. In fact feet sweat is the hardest kind of moisture to prevent and are often the first part of the body to get cold. The best way to prevent this is to no over exert yourself. Move slowly and at a steady pace. Another trick it wear sock liners, which will help wick moisture away from your feet. Finally make sure to either wear wool or synthetic socks while in Alaska. Cotton socks will get very cold and retain the smallest amount of moisture making the situation even worse.

The last item to consider is adding gaiters to your winter wardrobe. Gaiters are worn over your boots and provide coverage all the way up to the knees. Make sure the drawstring and strap are secure for the best results.

Up next, your hands

Keeping your hands and fingers warm is important when spending time outdoors in Alaska. Mittens do the best job since they produce more body heat by keeping your fingers close together. But why stop at item? I’d also recommend adding a layer of thin gloves underneath. This will allow better use of your hands and also means that you don’t have to expose them to the cold while snapping your vacation photos. In extreme temperatures, consider hand warmers for extra warmth and protection.

Keeping Your Head and Ears Toasty

Rare presence of swans in the Alaskan winter

When deciding what to wear in Alaska in winter, don’t forget about your head and ears. Choose a hat with a balaclava to ensure your face stays covered to avoid frostbite. Also consider a nylon buff that can be worn around your neck or pulled up over your face and ears for extra warmth. These additional accessories can help tremendously in keeping you warm and dry in Alaska during extremely cold days.

Lesson #6: It’s not all about the clothes

In addition to warm clothes for all of your layering needs, there are still a few more items to bring. Considering that the air will be too cold to hold any moisture, make sure to pack the following items to keep your skin and hair in good shape throughout your trip:

  • Chapstick
  • Face Moisturizer
  • Body lotion
  • Moisturizing hair conditioner
  • A water bottle to stay hydrated

Conclusion – what to wear in Alaska in winter

Knowing what to wear in Alaska in winter is key to making the most of your cold-weather getaway. From ice fishing and snow shoeing to dog sledding and aurora viewing – your winter vacation wardrobe will keep you warm and toasty through all of your Alaskan adventures.

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