I went to Fairbanks Alaska in the heart of winter and lived to tell the tale.
Ok, so maybe it’s not quite that dramatic, but the fact is most people are scared of Alaska in the winter, especially the interior where the temperatures dip below 0 most nights and you have to plug in your car (Yup, that’s really a thing). During my 10 days in Fairbanks the coldest it dropped to was -25 F and that happened to be one of the nights when we were out aurora chasing – brrrrr. During our time in the interior we also had about 20 inches of snow in total! So we really had to be prepared for anything!
However, you can beat the scary Alaska cold by simply being prepared with this winter packing list. In the 10 days I traveled around Fairbanks there were only a few times where I was truly cold…the kind of cold where it was hard to ignore. And yes, I did spend the majority of my time doing outdoor activities – because it’s Alaska and you are meant to be outside in Alaska having adventures! Most of the time it was simply about making sure you had the right gear on so that you weren’t too cold, or too hot.
Before I took off for Alaska I did get a few new items to test out to see if they could survive the Alaska cold. Some were great, and some not so great. Here’s a little recap of the winners; I go into more detail about why I loved them below!
Video by Michaela Potter
Here’s what I took with me and what I suggest you put on your winter packing list if you have a similar winter trip.
Winter Packing List from Head to Toe
This isn’t a checklist of everything you need to bring. It’s a list of essential winter gear that you’ll want to bring in addition to all of the normal stuff you’d pack. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to remind you to bring underwear, shirts, jeans, and toiletries!
Suitcases and Packing Accessories
It has to start with the vehicle – the suitcase. Winter gear is inevitably more bulky and I always find that I have to use my biggest suitcase for winter packing. For this trip I rolled out and tried a brand new suitcase from my favorite brand, Eagle Creek. I used the Expanse Flatbed 32 which was perfect for carrying a lot of winter gear. I don’t like or need many bells and whistles in a bag; bells and whistles just add weight and take up space. I just want a big open compartment I can organize with packing cubes and keep things light. I was even able to fit my tripod in this monster bag on wheels!
And the Eagle Creek love didn’t stop there. I used Eagle creek compression sacks and packing cubes to help manage my suitcase organization and space even further. Compression sacks are essential for winter gear. I was able to put my bulky Canada Goose Arctic Parka and my ski pants in compression bags and get them down to small, dense little bricks that easily fit in my suitcase! I use both the original Eagle Creek cube set, as well as the newer, lighter Pack-it Specter Line.
I also brought along my great Lowepro Sport daypack for carrying camera gear and extra layers as well as my Lowepro Passport Sling which I use as a purse and a camera bag. I love both of these bags and take them on every trip!
Finally I needed some extra winter protection for my camera gear this time so I used LensCoat Lenscovers for my bigger lens and LensSacks made of neoprene that protects the lenses from the cold as well as making them easier to hold on to when it’s freezing! You can also get Tripod leg covers which are recommended for cold weather; no one ones to grab onto a below freezing tripod leg!
Suitcase and Packing Gear Used:
Eaglecreek Expanse Flatbed 32
Eaglecreek Expanse Flatbed No Matter What 32 (another option that is super!)
Eagle Creek Compression sacks – I only get large and medium bags as I normally use them for coats and pants where I really need maximum compression.
Packing cubes – Eagle Creek Original Cube Set | Pack it Specter Starter set – lighter weight but less form.
Lowepro sport daypack
Lowepro Passport Sling Bag as a part and camera case
LensCoat pouches and Lenscovers camera protection
Cold Weather Gear
For any kind of cold weather travel, layers are key on any winter packing list. For this trip I took long underwear for my base leg layer, and my favorite Prana Halle travel pants for just day-to-day stuff around Fairbanks. I also used an old winter running shirt synthetic under layer (merino wool would likely be better) and then layered a heavier Royal Robbins pullover over it. Sometimes I’d just wear my heavy winter parka over the shirt base layer and that would be enough when doing something active like snow shoeing. The most important thing is making sure you don’t overheat when you are active in the winter. Wicking, breathing fabric is essential, else you will end up very cold if your sweat is trapped next to your skin. That actually happened to me on one of our hikes and I was miserable. I just dressed too warm and ended up overheating, and I didn’t make that mistake again!
Layers are also imperative for your fingers and toes. I used a merino wool thin base layer sock and then my new Point6 merino wool socks. Let me just pause here, I love my new Point6 wool socks – they made a believer in me and I will never go back to SmartWool brand again. I used to be a SmartWool sock advocate; however, over the past couple of years I noticed that my Smartwool socks were actually getting holes in them. The quality had taken a nosedive.
Then I came across Point6 brand wool socks and learned that the founder of Point6 was actually the original founder of SmartWool. A few years ago he sold SmartWool and I’m guessing that’s when I started seeing the lapse in quality. He was so tired of hearing complaints from people after he sold the brand, when his non-compete clause ran out he started the Point6 brand. I’m happy to report that on my inaugural trip with the Point6 brand – I’ve fallen in love all over again! And this sock is guaranteed for life!
One of the other big gear winners on my trip were my Oboz insulated boots. This was my first experience with the Oboz brand and I was impressed. The insulation definitely kept me warm – and when I used them to snowshoe they were practically hot! What I loved about them is the high quality insole providing incredible support. The insole was even thermal. I’ve had enough foot and knee injuries to know it’s imperative to have good footbed support and the Oboz Bridger provided that. I wore these boots non-stop because they were as comfortable as my tennis shoes. I was happy to be introduced to the brand, they made a believer out of me!
I also used some new Stabilicers, ice crampons that easily fit onto any boot or shoe. These provided some great security when walking on icy sidewalks and lakes! I used them for ice fishing and they were perfect for ensuing I didn’t fall on my ass!
Keeping my hands warm was the biggest challenge because I so often had to work with my camera or phone. I used the Swany Hudsen Collective mittens and liners for most day-to-day stuff. I loved the zipper access where I could use the liners only to work with my phone and camera. My only complaint was the liner gloves were just a little big for my hand. Glove liners need to be tight fitting so they are like a second skin. The sizing on me was a little bulky which made it a little hard to use with electronics. The idea is awesome, I just needed a better fit.
I also brought my hiking poles for snow shoeing as well as a new camera harness carrier called Cotton Carrier. It was perfect for keeping my camera secure and accessible while being active. This new toy was definitely a keeper for active travel photography going forward.
Winter Clothing and Boots Used:
Merino Wool Base Layer Top
Merino Wool Base Layer Bottoms
Prana Halle Pant – my favorite stretchy travel pant!
Point6 Wool Socks – all sizes, weights, and colors
Oboz Women’s Bridger Insulated Boot
Stabilicers Hike XP Crampons
Turtle Fur Neck Gaiter
Winter Hat – I love these from Nepal!
Hudsen Collective Mittens and Liner Gloves
Active Gear Used:
Cotton Carrier CCS G3 Camera Harness
Extreme Cold Weather Gear
There’s cold weather gear and then there’s extreme cold weather gear. When you are dealing with temperatures of -25 or days that don’t even go above 0, then you need another level of gear.
I took a couple of parkas with me that also offered wind protection. I learned the importance of having a fur-trimmed hood when we were dog sledding at night. It’s amazing how much warmer just a little fur lining can make your face. I really just thought the fur lining was for looks, but trust me, it’s functional! I also used a pair of ski pants when we were spending a lot of time outside doing aurora photography as well as snowshoeing. That extra layer was essential to deal with the wind and freezing temps when outside for long periods of time.
My favorite new item was my Seirus Magnemask Balaclava. This was more than a balaclava, because it also had a full face mask (secured with magnets) with great ventilation for breathing and heavy activity. You can easily pull down the mask part and tuck it away if you don’t want to use it. This mask kept me completely toasty warm but I could still easily talk and breathe. I also use the Seirus Arctic Mitts for my super cold weather gloves. I was pretty skeptical at first as they were leather and didn’t seem like they had a warm lining at first glance. However, once I wore them in the cold I was amazed at how great the leather was at insulating and protecting from the wind.
And to bring one last level of warmth to my gear, I used hand and foot warmers religiously. Hand warmers and foot warmers are an essential item in extreme winter weather. I would simply throw a hand warmer pack in the gloves and my fingers were never cold! I used the foot warmers more sparingly, mainly for aurora watching. Actually it was more like aurora waiting. Standing and waiting in the cold meant my toes would get cold even in my awesome new boots. Plus, hand warmers are also great for keeping batteries warm in cold environments.
My other essential item for super cold weather and wind were a pair of goggles. I borrowed a friend’s old pair to see if I would like them and I loved them. I’ll be getting my own pair for future trips! When I used the goggles in combination with the Magnamask, my face never got cold and I didn’t have to worry about my glasses fogging up!
With this essential cold weather gear you’ll keep warm and comfortable on your next winter trip, and even your next extreme winter trip. Don’t be afraid of winter, embrace it with the right gear!
To see all of these items in the same place, just visit the Ottsworld Amazon store! You’ll find these products as well as all of the gear I recommend and use for travel.