There's a LOT to know before your Alaska vacation. Wildlife, crazy weather, remote roads, cell service, and what to pack are probably just a few things you're thinking about. If that's you, keep reading because we've got your complete Alaska vacation guide here!
Alaska: rugged, raw, dangerous, and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s one of those places you have to see for yourself to understand all the hype. Are the mountains really as tall as they look in pictures? Do salmon really fill the rivers so full you can practically walk across them? Are there really bears and moose just wandering through towns? Yes to all of the above.
Alaska blew us away and we only caught a glimpse of all it has to offers during the 6 weeks we were there in 2019. We took so many notes, pictures, and videos while we were there so we could pass on our best tips and tricks to you here in our Alaska vacation guide.
Alright, now let’s get going.
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I'll start by briefly summarizing our vacation in Alaska....
We drove to Alaska via the Alaska (Alcan) Highway (more about our drive to Alaska can be found HERE) and spent 6 weeks bopping around Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, and even Northwest Territory where we drove the Dempster Highway up to the Arctic Ocean. We set out with the understanding it would probably be a once in a lifetime adventure, but we hadn’t even reached the lower 48 again before deciding we wanted to drive the route again (likely 2021).
The trip was beautiful and incredible (probably the understatement of the year), but it didn’t go perfectly smoothly. Truthfully, there aren’t a ton of other millennial digital nomads who are working full time while RV-ing up in Alaska and sharing about it online, so we weren’t really sure what to expect as far as wi-fi and cell signal goes. Our original plan was to spend at least 8 weeks in Alaska alone, but after about 5 ½ weeks we had to call it and head back home due to lack of connectivity (wi-fi and cell signal speeds) affecting our work.
All that to say, we learned a lot about what to expect in the great state of Alaska. No matter your age or lifestyle, this guide is for you! We’re answering all the questions we had, as well as giving you any other tips and tricks we think you’ll find useful. If there’s something we still don’t answer in this blogpost, please don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments below and we’ll get back with you ASAP. :)
Best time of year for an Alaska vacation
Tourist season starts in mid May and runs through early September. The weather will be best in the warmest months (mid June - August), but that’s when everyone else will be driving that way, too. If you want to experience the road as remotely as possible, the earlier you drive the road, the better. The window for summer tourism in Alaska is really quite small so be prepared to see a lot of other people (especially other people in RVs, campers, etc.).
No matter what part of the peak season you visit Alaska, you should go prepared. Be ready for any weather (bring jackets, pants, hiking boots, shorts, etc.) and make sure you have a reservation if you’re going to be staying in hotels. If you’re traveling north in an RV that requires hookups every night, be sure to book campsites in advance as they are likely to fill up as well.
average temperatures in anchorage
The weather will vary across the different areas of Alaska, but considering Anchorage is relatively centrally to most tourist attractions in the state, going off their weather is a good gauge for when is the best time to visit.
What we did: We began our drive in mid May and returned the end of June. On the way north we would go hours without ever passing another car for most of the trip. However, on the way back south we would pass other RVs heading north almost every minute of the drive. Because our camper van is capable of going fully off grid for days at a time, we had a lot of flexibility in our schedule and only made campsite reservations in or near national parks since they were most likely to be full. Not everyone will have that freedom which is why we’re writing this to help you go fully prepared.
What to pack for an Alaska vacation
Like I mentioned above, you need to go to Alaska prepared. You may encounter all sorts of weather conditions from snow to 90 degree days, not to mention wildlife and hundreds of miles without a gas station. Here is our list of essentials to bring to Alaska no matter the time of year you will be visiting.
Binoculars - We purchased these binoculars right before we hopped onto the Alcan Highway and I’m so glad we did! You’d hate to drive all the way to Alaska and then only see a grizzly bear as a brown blob in the distance. If you haven’t already, invest in binoculars!
America the Beautiful Pass (National parks pass) - Every year we purchase the America the Beautiful Pass because it ends up saving us so much money. The pass is $79.99 for unlimited access to any public lands managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. Denali alone costs $15 per person. If you have any intention of visiting any of the other national parks in the lower 48, get this pass!
Bug spray - This is a MUST. Trust me, the mosquitos can be terrible, especially during the first half of the summer. You’ll need a good bug spray just about every time you step outside.
Swimsuit - Trust me, you’ll want a bathing suit for Liard Hot Springs. Even if you don’t like hot springs at all, you might want to hop in a river or a lake at some point in the summer when it starts to heat up (yes, Alaska can get hot, too!).
Sunscreen - I never leave home without my favorite sunscreen. It's reef safe and natural so it keeps you safe in a few different ways.
Toilet Paper - If you’re traveling in an RV, you’ll want to bring your own toilet paper. Stores like Cabela’s and Walmart that usually sell RV specific toilet paper were sold out the entire time we were there.
Bear Spray - We counted over 50 bears along the Alaska Highway. Trust me, if you’re going to be stopping off on any sort of trail along the way, you’re going to need bear spray and bear spray holster.
Note: You’ll need to declare bear spray at customs when you cross the border both into the USA and into Canada. They won’t mind you having it, but don’t forget to include it when talking to border patrol.
Lots of layers - The best way to travel (especially to places like Alaska where you’ll encounter all sorts of weather) is by wearing layers. This way you can easily add or subtract clothing as the temperature rises or falls. Here are a few of our favorite clothings items we recommend for Alaska:
Synthetic down jacket that packs small
Warm socks good for hiking
The Milepost - If you are looking for a mile by mile guide to all the main roads throughout Alaska and Canada’s surrounding provinces, definitely get The Milepost. We snagged this guide per a friend’s recommendation and we were so glad we did. This guide tells you everything along the way from picnic tables to gas stations to campgrounds and wildlife concentrated areas along the road. While our blogpost is meant to help by giving you our first hand experience, grabbing The Milepost will take a lot of stress off your shoulders when it comes to stressing about where the next gas station is.
Become an REI member - If you're not already a member of REI, we'd highly recommend joining while prepping for Alaska. With locations in Anchorage and Fairbanks, you'll be able to get all your outdoor needs before your trip and while you're all the way north in Alaska.
The membership program is a one time $20 fee and allows you to earn 10% back (member dividend) on all eligible purchases throughout the year. But the best part of shopping with REI is their return program: you have 365 days to return items you don't like. Obviously don't abuse the program, but say you buy a new pair of hiking boots for Alaska and after a few hikes you hate them. You can return them to any store, no questions asked.
There are other perks like member only sales and discounts on classes and events which could come in handy if you're interested in taking something like a wilderness first aid class before heading to Alaska. As a member you also receive a discount on guided tours and adventures including 8 different adventure options in Alaska.
Staying connecting during your Alaska vacation
According to whistleOut, “Small carrier GCI provides the best coverage to Alaska, while AT&T and Verizon are relative newcomers to the state. Sprint and T-Mobile don't operate their own networks in Alaska, but have roaming agreements with GCI. That means you'll still get a signal where GCI's network is present.”
That statement is helpful but ambiguous. Here’s what you really need to know about wi-fi and cell coverage:
If you’re using one of the major carriers listed above, you’re going to have cell signal in all the major cities in Alaska. In fact, you will likely have cell coverage in many small towns and most of the time along major roads throughout the state.
While cell service can be dodgy in more remote areas, you can usually depend on wifi if you need to do some quick research or answer emails on your computer or phone. Most visitor centers, McDonalds, hotels, coffee shops, breweries, museums, etc. will have wi-fi available for paying customers.
Harder than finding a signal is finding fast upload and download speeds.
If you need fast upload and download speeds for work (like we do) you’ll need to plan accordingly because the speeds we found were much slower than in the lower 48.
If you’re in Alaska strictly for vacation, you shouldn’t have too bad of a problem with cell signal since it’s widely available in most popular tourist locations. For work, allow for extra time for upload and download speeds.
Food in Alaska
When we travel we love to try food specific to the location. However, if you’re not a seafood person, you might be a little disappointed while in Alaska. Salmon is king so if you like fish, trust me, you’ll be happy (it’s delicious there!). Reindeer is also a popular option on many menus. Keep an open mind and try some of the local dishes while you’re in Alaska!
If you’re like us, you’ll eat at home a lot in Alaska. Whether you’re cooking in your RV, at a rented cabin, or even over a campfire, you’ll need to know where to get good groceries while up north. We were under the impression that groceries in Alaska would be way more expensive than in the lower 48. However, that wasn’t what we found. Yes, there were markups but not crazy amounts like we expected. You’ll notice a few cents here and a dollar there, but it won’t break the bank.
What we didn’t expect was how hard it was to find fresh produce. It takes grocery stores a lot longer to ship food up to Alaska, so when it gets there it’s a not as fresh when it hits the shelf. We learned a trick from the locals while we were there though: shop at Safeway. Safeway is owned by Kroger and has the fastest shipping schedule up to Alaska so you’re more likely to find good produce on the shelves at one of their stores.
We also had good luck with what we purchased at Walmart, too. If you find yourself at smaller, local grocery stores, check the expiration date before you head to the checkout line. A few times we purchased dairy (eggs) that were over a year old without realizing it until we got home. Yes, that really happened. Keep an eye on what you buy and you’ll be fine!
Gas and diesel in Alaska
Like groceries, we were expecting fuel to be crazy expensive in Alaska. However, much to our surprise we were (mostly) wrong. In the major cities in Alaska (Anchorage and Fairbanks) gas will be relatively comparable to the lower 48 states with only a slight increase. The more remote you travel in Alaska, the more expensive fuel will become. To be safe, budget at least 25% more for gas than what you would pay for fuel in the lower 48.
Wildlife to expect on your Alaska Vacation
When you think of Alaska, the first think you think of is probably a bear. Or a moose. The state of Alaska truly is full of all sorts of beautiful, awe inspiring wildlife, but you'll need to keep your eyes peeled if you want to catch a glimpse of any of these creatures.
Certain animals will be harder to spot that others. For example, we saw tons of moose during our time up north. We saw them standing inches from our camper van when we woke up in the morning, walking through the Walmart parking lot, and standing in lakes. On the other hand, we didn't see a single grizzly bear in Alaska. Really. It wasn't until we ventured up the Dempster Highway in Yukon and Northwest Territory that we saw grizzlies for the first time. We did see black bears in Alaska, but even those weren't as abundant as they were along the Alcan Highway during the drive north to Alaska.
Consider Booking a Wildlife Tour
If seeing wildlife is important to you, I'd recommend booking a tour in one of the national parks. For what sightseeing consider a tour new Kenai Fjords National Park. If you'd like to see bears, be sure to take a tour in Denali National Park or one of the other more remote parks.
Do keep in mind though that wildlife is just that: wild. Regardless of whether or not you do or don't want to see wildlife, you always need to be prepared. The best mindset isn't "what do you do if you encounter wildlife," it's "what do you do when you encounter wildlife." Always set out expecting to run into an animal that could potentially pose a threat. When you expect it, you're more likely to react appropriately.
The best mindset isn't "what do you do if you'll run into wildlife," it's "what do you do whenyou run into wildlife."
Park rangers at the national parks give wonderful instruction regarding what to do if you do encounter an animal so if you'd like to hear a professional give a talk about it, be sure to stop by the visitor centers at each park to speak with a ranger. If you're intimidated by the idea of setting off in the wilderness alone, don't worry-- you're note alone in feeling intimidated. Plenty of companies exist to guide tourists (like you and me) on some truly epic adventures. We'll talk more about those options later in this blogpost though....
Tips & gear to keep you safe on your Alaska vacation
Before we wrap up talking about wildlife though, let's talk gear and quick tips:
Do not leave pets unattended (they attract wildlife)
If you're camping, be sure to properly store food
Take extra caution when driving at night (moose can do a number to the hood of your car)
For more information regarding how to stay safe near wildlife in Alaska, checkout Alaska.org's page HERE.
Traveling with pets on your Alaska vacation
While we're on the subject of animals, let's talk about travel with pets. It's not totally impossible to take an Alaska vacation with pets. They're welcome at most campgrounds (in fact, I don't think we came across a single campground that wasn't dog friendly!) and there are even dog parks in towns like Anchorage and Fairbanks.
An Alaska vacation gets tricky when it comes to tours, especially in the national parks. Denali and Kenai Fjords do not allow dogs on trails or in the backcountry. Wrangell-St. Elias does allow dogs in the backcountry, just keep an eye out for wildlife. (Note: Denali does allow dogs in their campgrounds.)
In our experience, most tours offered in Alaska will take multiple hours leaving fido to cross his legs back in the RV or hotel. Dog sitters and kennels are hard to come by outside of major cities in Alaska leaving you have a couple of options:
Leave your dog at a kennel or dog sitter in a major city for a few days while you visit more remote areas
Bypass taking tours longer than your pet is okay to be left alone
Finding a Pet Sitter in Alaska
While we loved traveling with our little dog in Alaska, it really did pose a whole new level of difficulties for us. In fact, we ended up having to skip our 8 hour bus tour in Denali because our dog sitter fell through the day before. With no other dog sitter or kennel options within a 3 hour drive of our campsite in Denali National Park, we had to skip our tour and lost the money.
If you do decide to use a dog sitter while in Alaska, we recommend using Rover. Besides the one time our Rover sitter cancelled in Denali, all of our past experiences using Rover dog sitters have been great! We highly recommend giving it a try rather than relying on kennels. Personally, our dog doesn't like kennels at all but he loves a good playdate with a dog sitter.
Get $20 off your first Rover experience by using our affiliate link HERE.
Experiencing the midnight sun Alaska
One of the most unique things about visiting Alaska during the summer is the chance to experience the midnight sun. Twenty four hours of sunlight means more time for adventures and fun! However, the midnight sun can also pose a threat to your sleeping pattern. If you’re traveling in an RV, make sure to have good blackout curtains otherwise (like us) you’ll find yourself trying to sleep with the sun right in your eyes at 1am. If you’re staying at a hotel or similar, your place will likely already be equipped with good curtains to help you get your sleep.
Just in case, we’d recommend finding a good sleep eye mask to take with you in case the curtains available don’t do the trick.
Budgeting for you Alaska vacation
If you’re like us, you’ll also need to take into consideration your budget when planning where to go and what to do in Alaska. Guided tours, ferries, and gas can all add up fast so be sure to check cost/rates for all of your top choices of guides and tours prior to arriving in Alaska. It would be impossible for me to give you an idea of how much you can expect to spend in Alaska because there are so many options of things to experience!
One great thing to note though: there are plenty of free options in Alaska, too! Hiking, driving, views, birdwatching, and more can be enjoyed without spending a penny (with the exception of fuel to get there). If you have a kayak, canoe, or fishing pole , consider bringing it with you, too (just don’t forget to get a fishing license)!
What to do in Alaska
Before we start listing off all that you can do in Alaska, we first need to start by saying this: you won’t be able to see and do all that you want to do in one trip. Because Alaska is so large and holds so many unique opportunities, you’ll need to prioritize what’s most important to you. Do keep in mind that each activity costs money so this will tie back to the budget aspect of planning.
Before heading to Alaska we did a lot of research about what was most important to us. Top of our list were the national parks accessible by road: Denali, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias. Past that we knew we needed to save some money so we spent a lot of time enjoying our campsites (bonfires and watching wildlife), hiking a bit, and getting lost down some dirt roads through gorgeous mountains.
Our best recommendations for an Alaska vacation
While we loved our time there, there were so many cool experiences we stumbled upon online that we would have loved to experience if it weren't for our budget. Here’s our list of things we tried (and some we wish we had been able to try!) while on an Alaska vacation.
Fly to one of the national parks not accessible by road
This was high on our list but it’s definitely one of the priciest things you can do in Alaska. We’d love to try and visit at least one of them next time we visit Alaska!
Go fishing - if you already own the gear and know how to fish on your own, have at it (just don’t forget the proper license). Guided fishing tours are also available for those wanting to try something new.
Obviously this list is brief and relatively vague. There’s truly so much to do in Alaska. Figure out what you’re most interested in seeing and go from there.
Note: Most of the vendors offering tours and guides will book reservations months in advance. I would strongly encourage you to book activities and accommodations as far in advance as you are able.
Alaska truly is the trip of a lifetime. We hope this post helps you better navigate your own adventure to the great wilderness of Alaska. If you have any questions or suggestions we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Remember, have fun and don’t rush. Enjoy the remoteness of Alaska and take your time exploring all that it has to offer. Happy trails!
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!