Thank you for subscribing!
Got it! Thank you!

Packing for Alaska; Or, How's the Weather Up There?

The Alaska cruise season is underway, and if you're anything like my wife -- all set to take her first Alaska cruise this very week -- there's one big question distressing your soul: 'What should I wear?'

The Alaska cruise season is underway, and if you're anything like my wife -- all set to take her first Alaska cruise this very week -- there's one big question distressing your soul: "What should I wear?"

I can understand her problem. Alaska has, after all, been sold for decades as "The Great White North," an endless expanse of permafrost, snow-capped mountains, icefields, and glaciers. The truth, though, is a lot more complex, and while winters in many parts of the state really can dip down to thirty below zero, summers can get downright balmy, especially in the era of global warming.

In 2004 Alaska experienced its own equivalent of a heatwave, with temperatures all up and down the Southeast Panhandle about 5°F above normal and Juneau, the state capital and an important cruise port, posting seven consecutive days above 84°F. Temperatures stayed warm for summer 2005, then did a turnaround for summer 2006, dipping a bit cooler than average, with extra rainfall to boot.

But, you ask, what's average? Here's a rundown of typical high/low summer temperatures in some of the most-visited cruise ports and cruise tour destinations. Temperatures are in degrees Fahrenheit, representing mid-month low and high averages.



Temperatures last week averaged several degrees warmer than historical averages. A harbinger of things to come?

In General . . .

Southeast Alaska is the state's primo cruising area, where both Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska cruises spend the majority of their time. Generally speaking, the area has more temperate year-round weather than the rest of the state, though conditions can be changeable. In May, when the cruise season gets going, I've experienced icy rain at the waterline and hiked in new snow at the top of BBB Juneau's Mount Roberts -- but I've also seen a lot of beautiful, crisp, sunny days. June is the driest of the three true summer months, July the warmest (and also the busiest), and August the month where you'll usually experience the most rain. Rainy weather usually continues into September, though I've sailed here as the season wrapped up and had sunny days all week long. Southeast in general is a rain-prone place, though some towns are rainier than others: Ketchikan, for instance, gets about 150 inches of precipitation annually, more than three times Juneau's total.

For the most part, expect daytime summer temperatures to fall in the 50s and 60s, though the damp climate can make it seem colder -- as can wind, proximity to glaciers, excursions to higher elevations, or just standing out on deck during days at sea. Some days can also get up into the 70s or occasionally into the 80s.

This far south you won't experience the famed midnight sun, though days still seem to go on forever. In June, Juneau gets about 18 hours of sunlight -- sometimes at 10pm there's still enough to read by. Farther north, in Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks -- places visited on many ship/shore cruise tours -- the sun dips below the horizon for only a little over four hours on some June days. Summer temperatures here are roughly comparable to those in Southeast.

What to Pack

The rule for Alaska is layering. In addition to evening wear (which will vary depending on your particular cruise line's dress code) and some lightweight daywear for use aboard ship (including a bathing suit, as most megaships have covered pool areas), you'll want to bring some variation of the following items for daytime use:

  • A lightweight, waterproof coat or jacket, preferably with a hood: No matter the month, you're almost guaranteed at least a little bit of rain on a cruise in Southeast Alaska or the Gulf of Alaska. If you're taking a small-ship cruise that includes lots of exploration by open Zodiac boat or if you'll be doing a lot of outdoor shore excursions, you might also consider bringing a pair of waterproof pants and a rain hat.
  • Two sweaters or fleece pullovers: The damp environment of the Inside Passage can get into your bones, especially when you're on the water, so be sure to pack some warmth. As an option, you might substitute a knit or fleece vest for one of the pullovers.
  • Two to four pairs of pants/jeans: The higher number if you'll be doing a lot of outdoor shore excursions, since there's a very good chance you'll hit mud.
  • Two pairs of walking shoes (preferably waterproof)
  • A warm hat and gloves: Especially out on the water, your ears and fingers will need some protection. If you tend to get chilly, you might add a light scarf as well. For days when the sun in shining, you might also opt for . . .
  • A sun hat and sunscreen: The sun can be deceptive up here, but you can definitely get a burn if you're doing a lot of active shore excursions or spending a lot of time on deck whale-watching.
  • Long underwear if you're on a May/September shoulder-season cruise
  • A folding umbrella
  • Clothing aside, be sure to also bring binoculars and/or a good camera, preferably with a telephoto or zoom lens and with lots of digital memory or film. And because those whales, eagles, and bears you'll be snapping pictures of aren't the only wildlife in Alaska, you'll also do well to pack some mosquito repellant. Bugs aren't as big a problem in Southeast as in the more central parts of the state, but if you get into the forest on shore excursions, they can still get annoying.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Alaska Message Boards today.