Equipment for your Alaska Adventure
Think about being prepared for a variety of activities and staying warm and dry. Are you on a bus tour or an adventure vacation?
Depending on what you’re doing and where you’re going, conditions can range from sunny and almost hot to somewhat cold, wet and maybe even snowy.
Summer in Alaska is basically June, July and August and many of the popular tour spots are busiest then.
The last couple of weeks in May can be brilliant with lots of sun and fewer visitors (some areas may still be in winter or mud season however).
Early September can have some crisp fall weather, sunny days and changing colors. But you can also expect some cold and rainy weather, shorter days, and snow in the mountains.
Remember there is no such thing as bad weather. Just bad gear and bad attitude.
OK, there are no penguins in Alaska. But it can still be cold, even in summer. Remember that hypothermia can happen as easily on a 50 degree, wet day as in the middle of winter. You’ll need a couple of good insulating layers to keep you warm.
A fleece jacket will be your best friend and constant companion on your Alaska vacation. A second warm piece like a wool sweater or fleece vest will also be handy for when the first one gets wet or if it’s a bit colder. Get a warm fleece or wool hat and stuff it in the pocket of your jacket. Take it everywhere.
Staying dry starts on the inside. Good underwear layers like Capilene or the new, soft wool help wick away moisture from your body and keep you dry and comfortable.
You probably won’t need fleece pants but midweight synthetic or wool long underwear will be handy under rain pants on wet days or under shorts for a real Alaskan fashion statement.
Cotton (including blue jeans, your favorite sweatshirt and the white, waffle pattern long johns like grandpa used to wear) has no place in your outdoor clothing line-up.
For your outer layer, you have a confusing range of options. One of the most popular, and expensive, is
“waterproof-breathable” like Gore-tex. If it’s really pouring you’ll get wet and if you’re really working, you’ll get sweaty. But it works fairly well under certain conditions. Look for sealed seams and ways to vent when you’re warm.
If you’ve had your rain jacket for a while, re-new the DWR finish before your trip.
Another option, popular in Alaska, is good heavy-duty waterproof rain gear like Helly-Hansen. Commercial fishermen wear it to keep dry in the Gulf of Alaska and it will keep you dry on the deck of a sightseeing boat. It keeps the rain out but also keeps your body vapor in (but those insulating layers should still do their job when damp). You just can’t beat the rubber rain gear for staying dry in low to moderate activity. And a bargain compared to the other options.
Just to further confuse you, there’s now a variety of “soft shell” outer layers. These are more breathable and less waterproof than either of the other two options. Great for extremely active pursuits where your body heat will keep pumping out the moisture from your insulating layers.
The soft shell can be topped with a light, waterproof shell if you’re caught out sitting still in a downpour. This combination will give you some flexibility as well.
It’s almost ridiculous how many specialized pairs of shoes we think we need. You can probably get by for a week with a good pair of hiking boots and some sport sandals. If you’re planning any sort of adventurous trip in Alaska you can almost count on wet feet for at least part of the time. “Waterproof” hiking boots might help for a while; until you cross that knee-deep river. You could save the money and have more breathable boots that keep your feet more comfortable on dry days.
Unless you’re carrying a heavy pack, lightweight hiking boots or running shoes might be all you need for the backcountry.
Activities such as kayaking, ice climbing and mountaineering require more specialized foot gear. One advantage of going with a guide service is that they will often be able to provide what you need; saving you the trouble and expense of buying or bringing from home.
Alaska is one of the most casual-dress places you’ll ever visit. You can walk into most of the nicest restaurants in Anchorage in jeans and hiking boots. Buy a t-shirt when you get here. Put your fleece jacket on over it and head out on the town. And don’t forget the ball cap, almost every day is a bad-hair day when you’re playing hard in the last frontier.
You’ll need the usual camping stuff, just make sure it’s good quality. If you don’t have Alaska experience, or much experience at all, think about getting a guide. They’ll help you get a lot more out of your trip, be more comfortable, and maybe learn some cool tricks.
What kind of sleeping bag?
A bag rated to 20F should be fine for just about anything you’re doing in Alaska in summer. Down is lighter, lasts longer and is more expensive. Some people prefer a synthetic bag because it’s “warm, even when wet”. Other than a hot tub, few things are really warm when wet. Keep your bag dry no matter what it’s filled with.
If you’re going on a guided trip, the operator should provide a complete list of what you’ll need.