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Dressing Tips to Stay Warm and Comfortable on an Alaska Cruise

packing tips for your Alaska cruise

Alaska stands alone among US states as a picturesque gateway to arctic glaciers, diverse wildlife and stunning national parks. Its heady mix of serene natural beauty and exciting adventure opportunities make it a bucket-list choice for many cruise-goers worldwide.

But a question that comes up time and again among Alaska travellers – a question you’ll find threaded through online discussion forums and cruise lines FAQs – is “how do you pack for an Alaska Cruise?” How do you ensure that you stay warm, comfortable and stylish enough to enjoy your cruise to the fullest?

That’s the question this article aims to answer definitively. If you’re hoping to book an Alaska cruise this year, and aren’t sure how best to fill your suitcase, take inspiration from these tips.

What Can You Expect on an Alaska Cruise?

Before delving into the packing particulars, it’s a good idea to take a step back and explore what exactly you are packing for. An Alaska cruise means something different to each traveller. For some, it’s an excuse for high-excitement activities. For others, it’s the solitary, slow enjoyment of nature that draws them in. Some cruise-goers prefer to while away their time inside, while others live for the brisk breezes. Others simply love to relax on their balcony with a pair of binoculars to watch the whales and bears pass by. The common factor though is that all of these different people are looking for ways to stay warm.

However you define yourself, here are some common things to expect on an Alaska cruise. Let these common activities guide you as you pack for your cruise.

  • Adventure: from Heli-hiking the tundra to salmon fishing and whale watching, Alaska cruises are often filled with outdoor adventure. These activities demand warm clothing most of the year, as well as a few accessories covered below.
  • Leisure: As you snake your way up the Pacific coast, expect some leisure time. For these slow periods in the cruise cabin, you will want to prioritize comfort and relaxation in your packed items.
  • Socializing: Aboard the cruise, you’ll typically find formal nights and social shore excursions. Expect to meet a kindred spirit or new friend. To make a strong first impression, it’s a great idea to pack at least a couple of “nice” outfits – the kind you would feel comfortable wearing to a downtown restaurant with a dress code.
  • Lots of Picture Taking: To drive home the importance of looking your best, remember that Alaska cruises often make for a fantastic photo opportunity.

Understanding the Cruise Season Weather in Alaska

The weather conditions are notoriously tricky to predict in Alaska. During the spring and summer months (peak season for the cruise industry), you can expect temperatures anywhere from the mid-30s to the 80s, a staggeringly wide breadth of climates that make packing a little tricky. Heading into fall (September and October), temperatures reliably hover around the 40-50 range.

These temperatures, as you would expect, will be slightly colder the farther north you go. For instance, Anchorage weather is going to be colder (average high of 62 degrees in July vs 64 degrees in Ketchikan - the southernmost Alaska cruise port on typical itineraries). That isn't a huge difference but it is absolutely something to consider when it comes time to select the perfect outfit to stay warm on your cruise. 

Beyond temperature, it is also very important to consider that cold air isn't the only consideration. Rain is very common during the summer in Alaska's coastal areas and even just a bit of rain can make that chilly temperature unbearable if you don't have the right clothes to keep your body warm.

It’s important to note: Don’t take any of this as gospel. Well before you embark, check the long-term weather forecasts for your destinations. As the embarkation day approaches, tweak your packed items to reflect the short-term weather forecasts. I.e., if the weather calls for loads of precipitation on your first day, swap those fleece vests out for a robust rain jacket.

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Packing for an Alaska Cruise

To recap, you can expect a mixture of outdoor adventure and indoor leisure on your Alaska cruise. And, while the weather is challenging to predict in advance, you can lean on short-term weather forecasts to guide you as you pack for the cruise.

Now, let’s tackle the particulars – here are some top tips for staying warm and comfortable on your journey. This isn’t a complete cruise packing list; rather, these are curated cruise packing tips to help you pack light and set sail in style on your next cruise.

Merino Wool: The Ideal Base Layer

Merino wool is the perfect base layer for an Alaska cruise because of its adaptability, versatility, and comfort. The material, spun from Merino sheep’s wool, is one of those rare fabrics that is insulating and breathable. In cold climates, it traps your body heat, keeping you warm. In warmer weather, merino wool is breathable, allowing your body heat to escape to keep you cool. It’s a marvel of nature that no synthetic material can imitate when it comes to helping maintain a comfortable body temperature. Moreover, the material is incredibly soft – a far cry from the rough wools you remember wearing as a kid.

Regardless of how you plan to spend your time on the cruise or what the forecast is, pack a base layer of Unbound Merino travel clothes, including a few pairs of merino underwear, a few pairs of merino wool socks, and two merino wool t-shirts. Pack at least one change of clothes in a day bag for shore excursions.

Continue Layering with a Sophisticated Middle Layer

Now might be the perfect time to talk about layering. Rather than packing a single, bulky outer garment, like a down coat, it’s better to pack multiple, thinner layers for an Alaska cruise. In all likelihood, your journey will experience some temperature fluctuation; packing layers is a more versatile way to travel since it allows you to adjust for each dip or hike in temperature.

With your base layer taken care of, you can turn your attention to the middle layer, which typically consists of a sweater, sweatshirt, zip-up jacket and pants.

Again, merino wool is a terrific choice here (for all the reasons outlined above). The goal here is to pack comfortable items that are stylish enough to make a great first impression. This is probably the most visible layer, the one you will wear most often to social events and temperate outdoor excursions. Before you pack a middle layer item, ask yourself, “is this the clothing I want to see in most of my pictures?”

Outer Layers

Think of your outer layer as a final form of protection against the elements. For unseasonably cold days, you can pack a coat, fleece jacket or puffer vest. But perhaps the wisest way to go is packing a single, heavy rain jacket. Heavy rain jackets provide the same wind protection as a fleece jacket and the same insulation as a puffer vest, with the added benefit of – obviously – keeping you dry in the Alaskan precipitation and during water activities.

Accessories, Essentials, and What Not to Pack

Due to its northerly position, Alaska receives a lot of summer sunshine – roughly 20 hours a day! Moreover, the sun easily reflects off the plateaus of white snow and glacial fields, creating a potentially blinding barrage of light. To keep yourself safe from the intense sun, pack important items like sunglasses, a sun hat, refillable water bottles and lip balm.

Lastly, pack a few essential items and cruise essentials: a bathing suit and flip flops for hot tubs, travel documents, travel insurance, luggage tags, credit cards, cell phone, portable phone charger, memory cards, first aid kit, water shoes, motion sickness meds, prescription medications, etc.

It should go without saying, but there are a few things that shouldn’t grace your cruise carry-on bag or luggage: valuable items, flammable liquids and illegal drugs, to name a few.

For more helpful tips on packing for an Alaska cruise, river cruise, Royal Caribbean cruise – or whatever cruise destination is next for you – read through this blog. Bon voyage, and enjoy Alaska!