Alaskans have a proverb: There’s no such thing as cold weather—only cold clothing! So don’t be afraid of chilly or even frigid temperatures. It’s easy for anyone to stay warm and dry during a winter trip to Alaska. Just follow these five rules.
Rule #1: Layer!
Wear a lightweight to mid-weight wool or synthetic base layer that fits snugly to your body. Absolutely no cotton! Some good buys are long underwear from SmartWool, Capilene 3 or 4 from Patagonia, or Under Armour ColdGear. Warehouse stores like Costco often offer these items for bargain prices. Wear a top and a bottom.
A tip to guys: If you will be active in windy or subzero conditions, consider wearing briefs or boxers that have been reinforced with material that blocks the wind over the privates. Or stuff an old hat.
Here’s where you need to be flexible. You adjust what you’re wearing to match the outside temperature and conditions with your activity level. In very cold situations or when you are not moving around enough to generate body heat, you might want to pull on several insulating layers. But when temps rise, or if you start to get hot as you move around, you should dress with fewer insulating layers or peel one of them off.
Layering tip: Wearing several layers is the best way to trap heat close to your body. Two (or more) thinner layers will be much warmer than a single heavier layer of similar bulk.
In general, each insulating layer should be a little looser and heavier than then one beneath. For instance, if wearing lightweight inner bottom layers, use mid-weight fleece or Capilene for the next layer. A fleece or pile jacket on top is a great final touch. Packable down or synthetic filled sweater jackets also work well. Many Alaskans will like to wear a down or fleece vest to help warm the body core while leaving arms less encumbered. For extremely frigid days, fleece pants or heavy long underwear bottoms can be handy. Most of the time, though, you won’t need to go that far.
About getting too hot: The biggest threat to Alaska winter comfort during activities might not be shivering with chattering teeth. It’s overheating! If you find yourself wearing too many layers for conditions, you tend to grow hot and then start to perspire. Once clothing gets damp, it loses warmth, making you uncomfortable and chilly once you stop moving around.
Keeping dry while staying warm is essential. How do you do that?
It’s simple. Be willing to add or remove layers until you discover the Goldilocks sweet spot that matches the weather and your activity of the moment.
Let’s say you’re spectating at a windy sled dog race or watching the aurora on a frost-nipping night, and you’re not moving around very much. Go ahead and layer up until you are toasty! But what if you are striding briskly down a trail, or working through snow on skis or snowshoes? Don’t hesitate to peel off an insulating layer or two, and then put it back on once you stop. Carrying a backpack or satchel can be helpful for stowing these unused layers while underway.
A good rule of thumb for embarking on an active or strenuous outdoor adventure in winter: Dress so that you’re a little bit cold when standing around at the trailhead. And then adjust as you go.
A nylon jacket or ski parka that fits over your insulating layers will cut the wind and trap heat. Many Alaskans also wear wind or waterproof ski pants—full zip models are especially easy because you can put them on without taking off your boots. Downhill ski pants often feature additional insulation that will add significantly to the warmth of your inner layers.
Insulated winter skirts are a new popular outer layer among Alaska women. Most feature a side zipper that allows you to wrap them around your waist and put them on over outdoor clothing. Check out Skhoop, Arctix, Ortovox, Mountain Hardwear and REI.
For your final, ultimate outer layer, nothing beats a poofy down or synthetic down parka, especially for spectating at outdoor events like race or a festival. In temperatures below 10 degrees, particularly if there’s wind, you’ll be glad to have this as an option.
Rule #2: Invest in warm winter boots – or at least buy toe warmers
Warm feet are a must—they can make or break your day. Purchasing boots rated at -20 to -40 is a good idea. If you already have a pair of boots but are concerned they won’t be warm enough, toe warmers can usually make up the difference. Avoid the brand Little Hotties—they don’t work well in cold temperatures! Instead, try Grabbers. They have adhesive that sticks to the outside of your sock to keep them in place—and they last for 6+ hours.
A note about socks: Using wool or synthetic winter socks, preferably two pairs (a thinner liner combined with a thicker pair) will help keep your feet warm and dry inside those boots. Do not use cotton socks! They will make your feet cold.
Rule #3: Mittens over gloves
Warm fingers are as important as warm toes. Mittens are the best choice because they keep your fingers together and trap heat more effectively than gloves. Hand warmers (also made by Grabber) are good to have on hand if you need some extra heat. If you’re taking photos and need use of your fingers, wear a thin pair of gloves beneath your mittens so that when you take the mitten off, your fingers aren’t totally exposed.
Rule #4: Hat + balaclava or buff
A great combination in cold temperatures is a hat paired with a balaclava that will cover your nose and cheeks. If you’re active and become warm, swap the hat for a headband—but keep those ears covered to avoid frostbite! An inexpensive nylon buff around the neck and/or pulled up over your head and ears can be as effective as pulling on an extra coat.
Rule #5: Keep the snow out with gaiters
If you anticipate wading in deep snow and don’t want it to get into your boot, consider purchasing gaiters (which are inexpensive). They’re worn over your boot, cover up to your mid-calf or knee, and held in place with a drawstring at the top and a strap underneath the boot. A warm boot is rendered totally useless if the inside gets wet.
Here is a clothing list for your Alaska winter outdoor adventure:
- Lightweight wool or synthetic long underwear top
- Lightweight wool or synthetic long underwear bottom
- Wind briefs (for men doing outdoor sports)
- Medium weight wool or synthetic long underwear top. Looser or one size larger than first layer..
- Medium weight wool or synthetic long underwear bottom. Looser or one size larger than first layer
- Fleece or down vest
- Fleece jacket or heavy weight top that fits over inner layers
- Fleece or heavy bottoms (for especially frigid spectating)
- Wind or snow pants that fit over bottom layers
- Wind or ski jacket that fits over top layers
- Down or synthetic down winter parka (with hood if possible!)
- Insulated winter skirt
- Good winter boots
- Synthetic liner socks (no cotton!)
- Warm synthetic or wool insulating socks
- Liner gloves that fit inside your mittens (especially for photographers)
- Hat that covers your ears
- Balaclava or buff (or both!)
- Head band
- Snow Gaiters
You Can Rent Winter Clothing
If you don't want to invest in purchasing winter clothing, contact the folks at Alaska Outdoor Gear Outfitter & Rentals. They can prepare a custom gear package for your winter visit.