Packing for an Alaska cruise is different from most other itineraries as you want to be prepared to encounter all four seasons, sometimes in the same day! It can be 35 degrees in the morning and 70 degrees by 3pm–especially if you’re doing morning shore excursions, which take you out in the wild.
The key to being comfortable in all conditions is to wear clothing you can layer as it gets cooler, or remove as temperatures rise.
For most cruises, I leave my blue jeans at home, but in Alaska they serve as staples to wear in ports of call, on excursions, and even onboard for day wear while visiting Glacier Bay, or cruising the Inside Passage.
Upper body clothing: Start off with a lightweight T-shirt for a base, then either a long-sleeved flannel shirt or sweatshirt (I prefer the hooded variety, so I can keep my head warm too). For truly cold weather insurance I also carry a flannel vest or ski jacket. Because rain is common in Alaska in the summer months, some sort of rainwear is also essential. A waterproof windbreaker and an umbrella are effective.
At times, we’ve been fortunate enough to experience “shorts weather” in Alaska. So don’t assume Alaska will always be cold: Bring along a swimsuit and a pair of shorts. But when we’ve flown up to, and landed on, glaciers, we were delighted we’d brought along warm socks, gloves, polartec fleece or parkas.
We’ve found evening dress on the ship during our Alaska cruises to be generally more casual. Formal nights can still be quite formal, but on most ships, all other nights are casual attire. Therefore don’t feel compelled to pack sports jackets and ties or extra cocktail dresses.
Due to the diverse conditions in Alaska, the first thing on my Alaska packing list is a lightweight, comfortable backpack that I use as my mobile suitcase in ports of call and on shore excursions. If it turns cool, my next layer of clothing is readily available, and when the sun comes out, I have a handy place to store the clothes I remove.
Even in the Caribbean, backpacks are handy for carrying beach towels, coolers and items you purchase along the way. So it’s not something you’ll only use in Alaska, if you choose to purchase one before you go.
If you’re planning to take some of the many “adventure excursions” available in Alaska, I highly recommend investing in a pair of hiking boots, rather than wearing sneakers. They’re comfortable for walking around town, and combined with a good pair of socks, can keep your feet warm and dry in inclement weather.
- Dress in Layers: a cotton turtleneck topped with a light sweater and windbreaker-style jacket. Add and subtract layers as the weather warrants. You will find that temperatures can fluctuate wildly. If you intend to purchase long underwear, consider silk—it feels nice and is extremely effective.
- Pants: Jeans and corduroys are fine for days ashore in cool climates. Yes, you’re on a cruise and you won’t want to wear jeans to dinner, but they are quite acceptable for daytime.
- “Wind Suits”: These are a staple in some women’s wardrobes and the nylon suits lined with cotton are ideal. You might want to add a pair of leggings under the pants if temperatures dictate something heavier.
- Jackets: No, you won’t necessarily need a down parka; however, but you may wish to pack a warm jacket or coat. With layers beneath to trap warmth, an anorak-type jacket, lined windbreaker, or a slicker (particularly useful if it rains) should be sufficient. Items made of Gore-tex are very effective at cutting the wind. Remember, with all the spectacular scenery, you’ll want to spend some time on deck, especially the day your ship stops alongside a glacier. Extended time outside can mean you’ll be cold if you’re not properly dressed.
- Accessories: Comfortable shoes go without saying—try to make sure yours are water-resistant and wear warm socks with them. Gloves and a hat or knit headband that covers your ears are necessary for that day at a glacier.
- Gear: Bring along your camera, plenty of film, and batteries. Binoculars are a must for viewing wildlife—you don’t want to miss seeing a bald eagle up close! A lightweight backpack or tote bag is handy for carrying your gear, both on board ship and ashore. You never know when a whale or a bear will decide to take a look at you and you’ll want your binoculars handy.
- Miscellaneous: I find that if I have an umbrella, I won’t need it—pack one that folds up. Insect repellant is also handy in Alaska in summertime when the native mosquitoes can be fierce. Good facial moisturizers and body lotions will keep your skin from feeling dry and chapped. Does that sound like a lot of extras? Keep in mind that by dressing in layers, you can mix-and-match for versatility. Three or four light tops can take up less room in a suitcase than one heavy sweater or sweatshirt. A few words about sweatshirts—if you plan to buy one as a souvenir, wear it during your cruise and don’t pack one.
- Bathing Suit: And, because you’re on a cruise, DO pack bathing suits and at least one pair of shorts. Most cruise ships have a heated or covered pool and hot tubs for relaxation and you may find the weather balmy on the southern reaches of your itinerary.