Alaska layering guide
“What’s the weather going to be like while we’re there?”
“It could be anything…”
“I realize you have to say that. But, in general, what are we talking? Like 40s? 50s?”
“It could be anything…”
This is an age-old exchange between someone planning their first Alaskan adventure and their hunting guide or buddy. There are a number of you out there who have had this conversation and know it is true. For those of you who might have this conversation in the near future, remember: packing for anything does not mean packing everything.
When Fred Bear hunted Alaska’s Little Delta river back in 1955, it took him a few trips to get everything from the airstrip to the cabin. He had flannel, heavy wool and oiled canvas clothes along with lanterns, canned food and a few other heavy essentials that the 1950s could provide. He did not have a jacket that could keep him warm into freezing temperature and also stuff into a pant-leg pocket. Our modern era outdoor gear companies are really technology companies. We have innovative and ultra-light products to help us conquer Mother Nature’s uncertainty.
Here are some layering ideas for Alaska — a place where it seems the farther north you go, the more uncertainty the weather holds! This is not saying southern Alaska has better weather than the north. Quite the contrary. It is more to saying that the coastal weather is certainly going to suck while in the northern mountain ranges it could be anything.
A rugged and reinforced product is imperative. Rarely will I wear something that can absorb water. You will be shwacking through wet alders and a plant appropriately known as “devil’s club.” You will slide down scree hills, kneel in the tundra/rocks, siwash on the side of the mountain and lord knows what else. You need something to keep wind and moisture from getting to your core or you’ll be cold. You need reinforcement over your knees, butt and thighs or you’ll be nursing little wounds all week. Also, pants need side-zippers so you can get them on/off without removing your boots and so you can vent body heat. Jackets need armpit zipper vents, too.
If I’m hunting in those soggy coastal regions or I’m on low activity hunts, I prefer Helly Hansen impertech rubberized rain gear. In the northern ranges or on high alpine high output hunts, I use garments like KUIU’s Yukon gear and I only change out of it while sleeping. I no longer bring extra or dry clothes. I do think we should still carry a change of underwear — if only to change our luck during the trip. In the space where I may have stowed those extra clothes, I now carry extra stove fuel and a good book.
In Alaska, I favor being too warm over a little chilly. I find the tight fitting synthetic base layers do well when I am active, but poorly when I am mostly still and they make my leg hairs hurt at the end of day. That’s weird — I know — but it’s true. Someday, I’ll meet somebody who is honest enough to empathize with me on this. Before UnderArmour, I used polypropylene (poly-pro). Military veterans know it well. It keeps you warm, but heaven forbid you have to take it off. The stank brewed by a day in poly-pro is enough to make a buzzard gag. You are better to cut it off than to pull it over your head.
My preference is comfortable and odor inhibitive merino wool. With the quality of fabrics like KUIU’s NuYarn, one shirt is all that is required for a backcountry hunt anymore. Their merino wool zip-off bottoms have – in my opinion — made all other options obsolete. Similar to all my other layers, I can add and subtract them without taking my boots off. I carry mine along on every work mission, travel getaway, and backcountry endeavor.
In Fred Bear’s time, the correct insulating layers were “warm when wet” wool. Wool is not obsolete — it has stood the test of time — but there are several reasons to consider puffy layers instead. The moisture wool absorbs is heavy and requires significant body heat to drive away. Dry down puffy garments shed water and also block wind, thus keeping your two mortal enemies away from your core. Perhaps their biggest benefit over wool is that they consume negligible space in a pack while weighing next to nothing. Therefore, there is no excuse for leaving it behind. As with your outer layers, consider buying them in non-camo/earthen-toned colors so you can use them throughout the year.
Read my recent article Staying in the game to see how KUIU Superdown helped me harvest a trophy caribou on Alaska’s Haul Road.
Footwear: Take exceptional care of your feet
It is imperative that you buy great leg gaiters and wear them every time you put on your boots. They will save you notable duress.
Next, bring three to four pairs of merino wool socks. (I love and recommend Darn Tough). Rotate through pairs to keep your feet dry while hiking. Wrap moist ones around your neck to dry them as you move. Save the warmest pair solely for sleeping in at night. I have had great success with wearing liner toe-socks (Injinji merino wools) beneath hiking socks. The fabric between the toes helps pull the moisture out and truly cuts down on foot odor and blistering.
As for boots… I have opinions I may cover in future articles, so stay tuned.
While the weather can be anything, good gear can adapt to unpredictable and surprise weather conditions to keep you dry and warm. The ability to quickly add/subtract insulation and weatherproof layers is key to success. Simply put: wet hunters are cold hunters. Wet/cold hunters are miserable hunters. Miserable hunters quit hunting. And, when you quit hunting, well, there’s no salvaging the fun at that point. Thus, you must keep your insulation layers dry at all times and keep wind, water, and cold away from your core so you can be out there when it is awesome. If you arrive prepared for this task, you will not regret your trip to Alaska.