cold weather clothing?
May 2, 2012 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to plan a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska next March in the hopes of seeing the northern lights. I'd be happy for any tips you might have in general for trips to alaska/northern lights viewing. However, my first concern (as I do more research) is clothing - I'm in Georgia, and doubt I have anything that is suitable for March in Fairbanks. (-20 to 50 degrees?)

We'll be out in the middle of the night (or the wee hours of the morning) looking for the Northern Lights, so I would like to plan for the extremes. What type of clothing will I need, and where should I get it?
posted by needlegrrl to Travel & Transportation around Alaska (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was in the Northwest Territories at about the same time of year in those temperatures (and saw the Northern Lights in the middle of the night). The essentials were: a full body thermal base layer, a good down jacket, gloves with glove liners, and a balaclava/ski mask. Nothing that you shouldn't be able to get at a standard outdoors/ski store.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:00 AM on May 2, 2012

March can be nice - though, after temperatures of -40 to -10 for much of the winter, 10 feels "warm". Expect temperatures from -10 to 20, really not bad. You don't need super special expedition clothing. A good winter coat, maybe in a longer length, will do fine. I'd recommend two pairs of gloves - one a lighter weight with better dexterity, and other heavy for warmth. You'll want a good hat and/or earmuffs. Snow can be deepish, especially if you're being adventurous in your viewing, so boots and warm socks. Get a set of long underwear. The problem isn't so much the temperature, but the lack of activity when you're sitting somewhere looking up at the sky. Hand warmer packs are good. Bring a good blanket or two, and a hot beverage.

The aurora shows up when it shows up. Sometimes it'll go all night, and sometimes it's just an hour or a few minutes and poops out. Sky can be overcast and it is a bit of a crap shoot if the solar activity picks up AND there are clear skies, but it's beautiful to see. Websites like this one will give you an idea of how much activity you may expect.

You can see the aurora fine in the city, but you can head out a short distance to escape the city lights, which is a pretty awesome "wilderness" experience even if you're just by the side of the road.

You might also look at hitting the World Ice Art Championships - similar time frame, similar clothing needs.
posted by griselda at 10:07 AM on May 2, 2012

I saw the Northern Lights in Churchill, MB a few years back. We were able to rent insulated Arctic coveralls there. The coveralls, plus heavy weight thermals and fleece tights and top were enough for -40 weather. Our hostel actually had a perspex dome on the roof for indoor Aurora viewing.
posted by monotreme at 10:09 AM on May 2, 2012

Also, if you stay the night at Chena Hot Springs (highly highly recommended you at least do a day trip), they actually have a service where they will call your room and wake you if the aurora is out.
posted by griselda at 10:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

One last note! If you're coming from Georgia, your biggest worry will probably be winter driving. I'd recommend a rental car with all wheel drive or 4 wheel drive. They do not put winter tires on the rental cars here for god knows what reason and it really really sucks if you get thrown into winter driving in a 2WD vehicle with no winter tires. (I wrecked my AWD vehicle one winter and got stuck in a 2WD rental afterwards and ended up hyperventilating and crying because driving was so stressful. You do not want this on your vacation.)

The roads aren't awful unless the temperature hovers around 30 and does that thawing/freezing thing, but you'll probably be very happy you sprung for AWD/4WD, especially if you want to go out of town, like to Chena Hot Springs.
posted by griselda at 10:38 AM on May 2, 2012

When I've been in Fairbanks in the winter I've usually gone with jeans, long underwear (silk or wool), washable wool socks, insulated boots like Sorels, a down parka, a fleece hat (but I have a lot of hair) and insulated mittens. No coveralls needed in my experience, which has included significant outdoor time (although it has included physical activity.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:46 AM on May 2, 2012

So, I live in Fairbanks. March is a great time to visit: it will be light all day, but probably not so much that you can't see the aurora at night. (Maybe? It looks like this year, sunset varied between 6 Pm and almost 9PM during the month, so it depends when in March you're thinking. On there other hand, the aurora usually happens closer to midnight.) If it shows up. On the other hand, in the three years I've been living here, I've seen the aurora about three times. (However, I don't stay up all night.)

As for winter clothes: snow pants, a heavy down/fake down coat, a fleece hat, good warm mittens (not gloves!), warm boots, and a neck gaiter. (I adore my Steger Mukluks, but that may be too much of an investment for Georgia.) On the plus side, we've got a couple of good outfitters (e..g, the Prospector), so one option might be to come with whatever you've got, and then buy a coat, some mittens, and a neck gaiter.

But standing around at night outside gets cold.

If you plan to stay in town, I wouldn't worry so much about winter driving. Mostly the roads are pretty clear in the winter; just drive cautiously. We drove for our entire first winter on old all-season tires in a 2WD car without problems in town (although when I tried to go up to a house in the hills I had some problems). On the other hand, in town there's more light pollution.

Have you considered aurora tours? I don't know anything about that company, but that might be more fun than coming and hoping.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:12 AM on May 2, 2012

* Most overlooked, in my opinion, is a facemask or gaiter of some type. If the wind picks up, it will be blowing -50F air into your face. That gets old fast.

* Warm boots are a no-brainer. Military-surplus bunny boots are the best, and very "Fairbanksy." Your feet just WILL NOT be cold in them. They might be hard to get hold of, though, and aren't much use outside the Arctic.

* Even if your boots are very warm, also get "Hot hands"-style hand and foot warmers. Those things are gold.

* Think mittens instead of gloves.

* Layers, layers, layers. Lower-48 types most often neglect their legs, and don't realize how cold they get. When I'm tooling around the Arctic, I'm happy with two pairs of long underwear, a pair of sweatpants, and a pair of loose jeans. And yes, I mean all at once.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:22 AM on May 2, 2012

I don't live in Alaska but I do live in a city that's statistically just as cold as nearly all of Alaska (woot!).

Here are my tips:
-If you are a woman and have small feet (US 7.5 and smaller), buy children's boots to save money. I have a pair of Kamiks that are rated to -40F and they are absolutely lovely. Clunky as hell but they do the trick.
-Everyone is saying mittens not gloves because mittens allow you to keep your fingers together; your fingers get too cold too quickly when separated. If you aren't allergic to wool, look into that as well as some of the high tech fabrics like Thinsulate.
-If it's above zero and you're careful, you might be able to get away with convertible mittens and a liner. Convertible mittens increase your maneuverability but also your chance of frostbite.
-Long underwear is super cheap and surprisingly warm. Definitely buy more than one pair. If you wear a long enough coat, you can possibly get away with less leg coverage if your boots and your coat reach.
-I have no idea how to buy an economical coat. They just aren't cheap--think $100 for a good one (try Cabela's, REI, etc. for reputable brands). My only good news is that if you buy carefully, you'll be able to use it for years to come.
-Balaclavas are also super cheap. You should investigate whether you want a hat (so very terrible in the wind), earmuffs, a balaclava, or some combination thereof.
-If it's icy, you probably will need Yaktrax over your shoes.

I agree with Alaska Jack that the trick is layering. The list below will take you into some pretty cold temps (-20F easily).

To recap, from top to bottom:
1) hat, balaclava, or earmuffs (probably balaclava if it's below zero, given that you're coming from balmier temps)
2) nice long coat (can get away with a shorter one, but longer ones are extra protection on your thighs)
3) mittens of some species
4) long underwear plus another layer (not if it's above zero) plus jeans or snow pants
5) socks of some species (wool if you're not allergic)
6) boots (either true snow boots or just insulated boots, depending on temps)
7) Yaktrax if it's icy
posted by librarylis at 7:43 PM on May 2, 2012

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