My home city, Houston, is known for being the first word said on the moon. And also for being extremely hot & humid.
Sweating out 110F temperatures in 90% humidity… we’ve got that down pat.
But if temperatures drop below 60F, you can expect to see nearly all 5 million Houstonians whipping out their hardly used Uggs and winter coats. If, heaven forbid, it dips below freezing, the entire city shuts down.
So, you can imagine how unprepared we were for visiting Alaska in the winter.
Several fellow travelers have asked, “How did you prepare for that trip on a budget, living in the South?”
The short answer, “Amazon and outlet stores. And it wasn’t easy.”
First, we researched what winter gear we’d need. This sounds easy, but I’m going to make a list below, because some things didn’t occur to us until pretty late (for example, an insulated water bottle and carrier. It’s pretty hard to drink ice.)
Then, we hit the outlet stores nearby for outdoor brands. Columbia was the most successful. We shopped in January, when the season is almost over in Texas, so there were New Year’s sales and end of season clearance options. (I also successfully did this in May for my Peru backpacking trip – there were a lot less choices, but they were super cheap.)
For all the accessories that couldn’t be found on clearance at outdoor stores or outlets, we ordered from Amazon. There are many cheap options with tons of reviews.
The things I already had are listed in italics, and the things I bought for this trip are in bold. I spent roughly $200 in total, but had some key gear already. If it had been colder, I’d have wished for proper arctic temperature boots – my feet were pretty cold the whole time; but on a budget, it didn’t seem necessary.
- Columbia insulated outer jacket (like this one)
- 4 pairs of Smart wool socks (these)
- Columbia Infinity Wool Scarf (like this)
- Columbia Ski Gloves (these)
- Columbia Omni-Heat Beanie (like this)
- Columbia Thermarator Headring (this)
- Columbia Softshell Inner Jacket (this)
- Ahnu Hiking Boots – my favorite boots ever. Wore them for the first time for one month straight and had ZERO blisters. I recommend them to everyone! (Bought here)
- Headlamp with infrared setting – the red settings allows you to have light in the dark without ruining your night vision, while searching for the aurora. Trust me, you’ll have people yelling at you if you don’t use this. (like this)
- Vacuum Insulated Water Bottle – this prevents your water from freezing. Or keeps your hot chocolate warm! (This one)
- Iphone Neoprene Case – you don’t want your phone to shut down due to the cold. Keep it in this sleeve to keep it warm. (This one)
- Water Bottle Sleeve with Shoulder Strap – allows you to further insulate your water, not have to pull things out of your bag (with gloves, it’s tricky in the cold), and store your phone/wallet/lip balm at easy access (This one)
- Snow Gaiters – you don’t want snow coming in at the top of your boots. Gaiters keep them out. Super handy! (These ones)
- Northern Lights Photo Taker – this app will allow you to take photos of the aurora on your iPhone, something impossible to do with the normal camera settings. I highly recommend it. This was the only way I could capture it (since I don’t have a DSLR). (Download it from the Apple Store)
- You can rent winter gear. It’s not cheap, but it may be an easier route for you, if you don’t have an outlet store nearby. Without outlet sales and pricing, my Columbia gear would have been well over $400.
- Join a Facebook travel group and ask if anyone in your state/city can lend you gear. I’ve lent gear to fellow women travelers for their week-long Alaskan trip. It’s free – just offer to dry clean the gear before returning, as a kind gesture.
- If you’re doing an overnight or Arctic Circle tour, they will provide heavy duty gear. You (probably) don’t need to buy furs and intense cold gear, if you go through a tour company. Most of the ones we looked at listed clearly that they would provide heavy outerwear for long tours.
- Take it slowly. If you aren’t used to ice and cold, know that walking on it can be difficult. Go slowly. Make sure to wipe your boots and use the rubber-mat stairs when possible. Take it from someone who has cracked their tailbone on ice – it’s no joke!
- Electronics need protection. In certain temperatures, gear will shut down. Phones go at fairly reasonable temperature, GoPros are hardier, and DSLRs seemed hit or miss. Research your gear and go prepared. Bring a sturdy backpack, insulate your electronics, and only pull them out as needed.
Experiencing winter was exciting and novel for us Southerners! (It also made me feel 100% sure that living in snow would drive me insane.)
Did I miss any good tips or essential gear? Share your advice in the comments below!