Alaska cruise packing list: What to pack for a cruise up north

Packing for an Alaska cruise does not have to be a stressful experience. Yes, you will be visiting some places where the weather might be chillier than back home, but you will not encounter truly Arctic conditions. Away from the viewing sites of magnificent glaciers and icefields that brought you to Alaska, you might even encounter weather suitable for shorts and T-shirts.

If you’re used to cruising around tropical islands, you’ll find an Alaska cruise packing list is different from your Caribbean one. Spend some time learning about what you should pack for an Alaska cruise so you’re prepared for the changeable weather and terrain of the 49th State.

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What to pack for an Alaska cruise

John Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay National Park. ANDREW PEACOCK/GETTY IMAGES

Alaska weather can be unpredictable and varies by elevation. In temperate Southeast Alaska, which is the main cruising area, summertime temperatures can be in the 30s (Fahrenheit) when you are close to glaciers, such as when cruising Glacier Bay National Park, Yakutat Bay (home to the gigantic Hubbard Glacier) and College Fjord, but rise into the 60s or above in the fishing town of Ketchikan, the gold rush town of Skagway or Alaska’s capital city of Juneau. Juneau can hit 80 degrees some days. Nights in these towns are cooler.

The key is to wear layers of clothes you can put on and peel off to help you deal with temperature fluctuations.

Warm and waterproof layers

Rain will likely be in the picture, particularly if you cruise during the popular months of July and August. (Want to avoid rain? Here’s the best time to cruise Alaska.) Waterproof jackets and shoes or boots, umbrellas and hats will serve you well.

In April, you might encounter snow; anything goes in the fall. There is a reason you’ll encounter many Alaskans throughout the year wearing waterproof Xtratuf boots, otherwise known as “the Alaskan sneaker.” Warm parkas, gloves, hats and scarves will come in handy during early and late cruises, as well as when you’re outside on deck watching glaciers calve.

Outdoor clothing

It’s best to wear layers when doing outdoor activities in Alaska. MARK KATZMAN/PRINCESS CRUISES

You should pack a variety of outdoor clothing options for an Alaska cruise. The good news is you probably have these things in your closet already: Think fleece jackets and vests, zip-off hiking pants and rugged footwear. If you’re not planning any adventurous Alaska activities, you likely won’t have to gear up in advance at a retailer such as REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods or L.L.Bean or scour Amazon for the right gear.

Also, if you are doing a shore excursion in Alaska where you are likely to get cold or wet — such as a dog-sledding tour on top of a glacier (highly recommended) — the tour operator will provide specific, necessary gear, such as parkas, waterproof pants and boots. If you do a water activity such as kayaking, the operator will loan you waterproof gear.

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While casual is the order of the day on your ship, your cruise line might have specific suggestions on what to wear at night, with lines such as Princess Cruises and Holland America hosting both casual and dress-up nights.

Some lines take the always-casual approach to eveningwear in Alaska. Other cruise lines designate certain nights as informal, smart casual or “elegant chic,” meaning you are expected to get slightly dressed up, such as a nice sweater or blouse for women or a sport coat for men.

Many cruisers enjoy capping dress-up at that. However, a few lines offer the opportunity for guests to gussy up even more for “formal” nights. Cunard Line, and to a lesser extent Holland America, are lines in Alaska where some passengers tend to relish dressing for dinner — even in some cases with suits and gowns. Itineraries longer than one week tend to attract more of the cocktail dress and tuxedo crowd.

If you don’t want to get dressed up at all, you can dine in your ship’s more casual eateries. Or, if your ship is doing a late-night stay in port, you might want to seek out the best place for king crab, wild Alaska salmon and other local delicacies on shore. Alaskans tend to dress for comfort at restaurants — even those with fancy menus.

Related: The 5 best luxury Alaska cruises you can book right now

Accessories and gear

Don’t forget chargers for all your technology on a trip to Alaska. WESTEND61/GETTY IMAGES

You don’t have to pack for an Alaska cruise as if you are going camping, but it’s important to bring the appropriate amount of adventure and travel gear.

A camera with a zoom lens or a cellphone that takes good quality photos is probably already on your list, but make sure you have chargers and enough memory for the hundreds of photos you will likely take. A portable charger is useful for full-day trips where you might burn through your cellphone battery.

Binoculars are essential. Your ship might stock some, but you’ll want your own for spotting whales, bears, eagles and other wildlife and for close-up views of glacial ice and other wilderness from the ship and on shore. If you plan to do a lot of hiking, you might want to bring a retractable walking stick for uneven surfaces.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the sun shines brightly in Alaska, so don’t forget sunscreen. You will also want bug spray since Alaska has a prolific mosquito population.

You’ll likely encounter rain or take a water-based shore excursion on your trip up north, so bring a dry bag or dry pack to protect your equipment. For drier days, consider a day pack to stash any extra layers you’re not wearing.

Pack your bag with packaged snacks brought from home. Cruise lines don’t typically provide them, and they come in handy, especially if you are traveling with kids, on long train or bus tours.

Tips for taking the stress out of Alaska cruise packing

The weather can be colder by the glaciers than in town in Alaska. PRINCESS CRUISES

When packing, keep in mind that your ship might feature a self-serve, complimentary or coin-operated laundry room or offer send-out laundry and dry-cleaning service for a fee. This is particularly useful if you extend your cruise with a land tour (or cruisetour) in Alaska. You don’t need to pack for the entire journey if you can wash your clothes during the trip.

If you forget to pack something, you can make purchases with U.S. dollars in the Alaska towns and cities you will visit. You’ll find familiar brands at stores and pharmacies.

Related: Best Alaska cruise tips to help you make the most of your time aboard and ashore

Alaska cruise packing list

With all this in mind, here is a suggested packing list for your Alaska cruise vacation:

  • A lightweight waterproof jacket or raincoat (not a parka or bulky winter jacket)
  • Heavy sweaters, sweatshirts or fleeces (to layer under the jacket)
  • A selection of T-shirts or other casual shirts (some long-sleeved)
  • Two or three pairs of jeans, khakis or leggings
  • A pair or two of good walking shoes that you don’t mind getting wet or muddy (sneakers are OK, though if you are a big hiker, you might want to bring your waterproof hiking boots)
  • A hat and gloves (for when your ship brings you close to the walls of a glacier)
  • An umbrella
  • Shorts (especially if you are the type of person who wears them in anything over 65 degrees)
  • A swimsuit (for your ship’s hot tubs, pools or waterslides; some small adventure ships might present the opportunity for a polar plunge)
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen and a baseball hat or other sun hat (the long lingering midnight sun shines bright in Alaska, especially when reflected off ice)
  • Bug spray (Alaska has a serious bug population that includes some 55 different kinds of mosquitos)
  • An assortment of evening attire and footwear for dinner, based on your ship’s suggestions (check your cruise line’s website for details)
  • Accessories (a belt, scarf or fun jewelry can transform a simple outfit so you can repurpose it)
  • Gym clothes (if you plan to take classes or use your ship’s fitness center)
  • Binoculars
  • Toiletries and prescriptions (pack these in your carry-on)
  • Underwear, pajamas and socks (including some thicker wool socks for hikes or treks into higher elevations)
  • Your cellphone or camera, preferably with a zoom lens
  • Chargers for all your electronics plus a multiplug extender so you can power up multiple devices at once
  • A portable charger in case your cellphone runs low on an excursion
  • A waterproof backpack or bag to protect your cellphone or camera and stash your extra layers and snacks
  • An e-reader or books, games and cards, as Alaska cruises involve a few days at sea without port visits (look, too, for interesting selections at local Alaska bookstores or Alaska-themed novels, such as “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah, “Alaska” by James Michener or “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey)
  • Your own wine or Champagne (this can be a cost-saving move, but check your cruise line policy for how many bottles are allowed; corkage fees might apply)

Bottom line

Pack with a focus on versatility — and prepare for a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions — and you’ll be all set for a cruise to Alaska. When in doubt, prioritize outdoor gear over formalwear. And remember: You’ll be able to pick up in port most things you inadvertently forget to bring on your trip up north.

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