It doesn’t really matter what time of year you’re doing an Alaskan cruise, because when the ships are sailing, the weather is pretty much the same: unpredictable. That’s right…even if you’re cruising to Alaska smack in the middle of summer, you could face worse or better weather than the shoulder seasons of May and October. But the good news is this: my packing list for a cruise to Alaska is the best and will serve you well regardless of your cruise date. Even though it means you’ll be packing to prepare for the potential of three seasons’ worth of weather you could get (maybe all in the same day).
The TL;DR here is that layers are your friend and you’d better be prepared for the worst. Scroll all the way to the end for a printable checklist if you don’t want all of the WHYs that went into this packing list.
Summer in Alaska
Before we dive into the only packing list for a cruise to Alaska that you’ll need, let’s take a moment to talk about Alaska’s summer weather. Because if you’re researching Alaskan cruises, you’ve probably already noticed that they’re the most expensive in July and August — mostly because those are historically the warmest months with the least rain.
But Alaska and rain are like peanut butter and jam. One of our tour guides told us that it rains an average of 300 days a year in Alaska, so while you could luck out (and people do!) and have a rain-free Alaskan cruise, you should expect rain on at least a day or two of your trip.
Some cities are rainier than others, but the stats aren’t in your favour enough to base your Alaskan packing list on the ports you’re visiting.
Packing list for a cruise to Alaska: let’s talk layers
Alaska is very much a plan-for-the-worst, hope-for-the-best kind of destination when it comes to packing. But you don’t need to overpack if you pack carefully, and Alaskan cruises are notoriously more casual than cruises to most other destinations simply because the weather can be unco-operative, so all the extras for those “formal nights” can easily be left behind if you don’t like to check bags.
Wondering how to pack using only carry-on bags? This post teaches all my tips and tricks.
The key to careful packing is layers, layers and more layers. Ones that work together to keep you warm and dry if temps dip and the rain is torrential, and ones that allow you to easily stash what you don’t need to enjoy the sun when it comes out.
In Alaska, you might experience spring, summer and fall weather all in the same day — and for those from warmer climates, you might even feel like it’s winter. I was on a Zodiac tour with a family from Mexico City and while I was busy taking off the mitts they provided and undoing my heavily insulated Zodiac suit to allow the breeze in as we zipped across the ocean on a relatively nice day, this entire family was extremely cold and kept themselves tightly bundled up for the whole ride.
If you only take one thing away from this section, let it be this: cotton is the enemy. Avoid cotton layers at all costs. It’s a terrible insulator and if it gets wet, that cold, damp feeling is going to seep into your bones. Not to be melodramatic, but you’ll be miserable.
Layering is imperative and goes at the top of your packing list for a cruise to Alaska! You’re going to pack base layers, mid-layers and outerwear.
There are plenty of blends out there that are very budget-friendly, but when it comes to your base layers, you get what you pay for. Merino wool (pure merino wool — not blended with any other fibres) is where it’s at. That’s not just because it’s warm, though; it might surprise you to learn that merino wool is actually temperature-regulating, just like UGG boots; it’ll keep you warm when it’s cold out, but it’ll also keep you cool when it’s warm out.
Obviously, on a sunny day with a temperature above 20 degrees C (68 degrees F), you won’t need a base layer at all. Yet even in mid-July when we took our Alaskan cruise, we had several days where base layers were a must.
Pack a long-sleeved merino wool top, merino wool bottoms and two pairs of merino wool hiking socks. Only one set of base layers and two pairs of socks for an entire cruise, you ask? Yep. The best part about about merino wool is that it’s antimicrobial and highly antibacterial, so you can wear it over and over again before it ever needs to be cleaned. You can sweat in it and it won’t stink for a really, really long time…so you can definitely make it just a week on a single set.
I suggest two pairs of socks, though, because the chances of your socks getting even a little wet are much, much higher than your base layers getting wet if you take the rest of my packing advice. That means you need a backup pair of socks waiting in the wings while the first pair hang to dry.
Base layer product recommendations:
- SmartWool — you can even get great merino wool bras from this brand
- Icebreaker — I like this brand’s merino wool underwear, too!
- Peak Performance — it has great sets for taller people thanks to its Nordic roots (I wrote about it here)
- Darn Tough — hands-down the best merino wool socks, and they come with a lifetime guarantee; it’s OK if socks aren’t 100% pure merino wool
Next up is mid-layers. This is your insulating layer, so you want to look for things like fleece or something like Thinsulate-lined clothing. Fleece-lined tracksuits are a great option here, too, but you don’t want too much bulk for a couple of reasons: (1) because it will affect how your outerwear fits on top of it, and (2) chances are good in Alaska that if you need your mid-layer in the morning, you won’t need it in the afternoon as it warms up. But since you’ll probably be off the ship on a tour or exploring a port on foot, you’ll need to stash those layers in your day pack.
We added not only jacket- or pullover-style mid-layers to our packing list, but we also took insulated vests. And we were really glad we did because some days, we didn’t need anything but a T-shirt, fleece jacket and a vest.
Mid-layer product recommendations:
- Mountain Warehouse — an awesome, cost-effective place to shop for loads of things on your packing list for a cruise to Alaska, but especially vests, mid-layers and outerwear
- Helly Hansen — the Odin Stretch jacket is probably my favourite mid-layer of all time; it’s extremely thin and packable but is a warming powerhouse
- Peak Performance — the Helium Hybrid jackets are outstanding
- Patagonia — the Snap-T pullovers look great, feel great on and some are even water-resistant (plus Patagonia’s company ethos and product warranty are both incredible)
- Lazypants — they make a fleece-lined set that is both very warm and cozy AND stylish enough to wear as a casual outfit
If your base and mid-layers are really good quality, you probably won’t need insulated outerwear for your Alaskan cruise. (If you’re not cruising, however, and packing for a trip to Alaska in the dead of winter, you are in the wrong place!) We had one tour day during our cruise that required every single layer we brought, and it was extra-cold because we were on the water — but it was manageable. Adding, say, a winter jacket would have been overkill.
Where you need to focus your efforts when it comes to outerwear is on waterproofness and breathability. The last thing you want is to have your jacket fail you and have cold rain seep down into your fleece and base layers; those are for warmth, not to keep you dry. You also want your jacket (or pants) to offer enough permeability that your body heat can escape. Port days can be long and the name of the game is comfort.
Without getting too techy, waterproofness is measured in millimetres (mm) and called hydrostatic head. Look for a minimum of 10,000mm, with 20,000+ being best-in-class and pretty much guaranteed to perform even in the most torrential downpours.
A waterproof jacket is a must for Alaska, but you may also want to add water-resistant or waterproof pants as well (we sure did and they came in very handy).
Outerwear product recommendations:
- Mountain Warehouse — all of our Alaskan cruise outerwear came from here! (I used the Arlberg Women’s 2.5 Layer Waterproof Jacket; Big B and The K Man both wore the Brisk Extreme Men’s Waterproof Jacket; and Miss Q packed the Summit Ultra Kids 3 Layer Waterproof Jacket)
Packing list for a cruise to Alaska: shoes, accessories & other stuff
Don’t underestimate how much space you can save in your luggage by streamlining the amount of shoes, accessories and other “little extras” you bring along. When making your packing list for a cruise to Alaska, remember that it’s a very casual state. Heck, one of its most popular exports is a glorified rubber boot! Leave your fancy things at home and come ready for rugged exploration. And rain.
Since I typically pack only in carry-on bags, I have a strict three-pairs-of-shoes-maximum rule. And even with our Alaskan cruise coming at the end of our two-week BC road trip — for a total of three weeks on holiday — I still only packed three pairs of shoes: dress shoes, flip flops and waterproof shoes.
Does your Alaskan cruise leave from Vancouver? Do you love road-tripping? British Columbia is a road-tripper’s paradise. Take a look at my Vancouver to Whistler itinerary, which kicked off our epic multigenerational adventure, followed by things to do on Vancouver Island.
Even if you’re foregoing the whole formal night thing on your cruise (and you absolutely can — we saw people in every kind of outfit under the sun during even the dressiest nights onboard…right down to sweatsuits and shorts with Ts), you’ll probably want to bring a couple of nicer outfits, which means you’ll want a pair of dress shoes to go with it. Choose the shoes you like the most and plan both outfits around it. Bring a small purse to match. I usually like Tieks, but for this trip, I bought a pair of Vessi‘s Sunday Slippers, because I wanted only waterproof shoes with me in Alaska. They were cute enough to go with even the fanciest dress I brought.
You may not get weather that’s warm and sunny enough for sandals, but bring a good pair of flip flops anyway. They can serve as both walking shoes if it’s super-nice outside and get you easily from your room to the cruise ship pool and back. Flat flip flops are a waste of space; they’re terrible for your feet. Go with Archie’s, which were designed by a physiotherapist in Melbourne (those Aussies know their thongs!) and have an orthopedic footbed with built-in arch support.
Above all else, you’re going to need a good pair of waterproof running/walking or hiking shoes. This is non-negotiable. Think of it as insurance; if you bring them, you’ll be ready if it rains during your Alaskan cruise. If you don’t, it will absolutely, most definitely, certainly rain on your vacation! Mountain Warehouse offered the biggest selection and best prices on waterproof footwear for my family, with sizes including kids and men’s all the way up to Big B’s size 14.
You definitely need to pack two kinds of hats: warm ones, like beanies that fit snugly under a hood, and sun hats with SPF if you luck out with some sun in port or on the pool deck. I loved my cozy recycled beanie from Mountain Warehouse we took the BEST sunhats from Solbari, which have UPF50+ protection (that reduces UV rays by 98 per cent).
Mitts or gloves are another must, especially if you’ll be kayaking, canoeing or glacier trekking. Mountain Warehouse had some great options for my family, but I personally opted for a pair of Gore-Tex shell mitts from Dakine, lightly lined with fleece.
Don’t forget to add your travel wallet to your packing list! I know that may sound a bit crazy, but ensuring you have your ID/passport, health/insurance cards and local currency all accounted for is so important. I’ve heard horror stories of people arriving at the airport only to find out they brought their wallet but forgot their passport. Don’t be a horror story.
I was surprised to learn that Alaska has 55 species of mosquitoes and that they’re especially prevalent in July, when we were going on our Alaskan cruise. We took mosquito spray and Moskinto patches with us just in case, and fortunately didn’t need either. But having seen a few on a bike tour we did in Haines, I can tell you that they appeared to be on steroids.
While a collapsible, refillable water bottle is an optional thing to pack for an Alaskan cruise, we used ours quite a lot. From getting free water-fountain water in airports (instead of paying $6 for a bottle of water) to using it throughout the cruise ship and on tours, it came in handy enough that I’ve added it to the packing checklist you’ll find below.
If you’re packing lightly and travelling by plane for any part of your Alaskan cruise, use a day pack for your personal item. Something around 20 to 25 litres is perfect and will allow you to keep essentials like your smartphone, cruise pass, travel wallet, sunscreen, mosquito stuff and water bottle handy while you’re out exploring a port city, but it’ll also give you enough space to toss in a mid-layer and waterproof jacket.
Packing list for a cruise to Alaska: tech
Any modern packing list for any destination includes tech, but a packing list for a cruise to Alaska also needs to account for all of the wildlife and landscape photo moments you’re bound to have that really deserve more than just your smartphone camera. Photos are the name of the game here, and it’s the most important component of your tech list.
Don’t get me wrong, I took and used my iPhone 13 Pro (which I reviewed in my Apple Ecosystem post) but since most of the wildlife tours in Alaska keep you a considerable distance away from the animals, you need a really good zoom lens if you want to capture all of the action. I have a Nikon DSLR and a SONY A6 mirrorless, and to save space, the only one I considered taking was the SONY because it’s quite compact. But the problem with taking any camera body is that you often need a variety of lenses. It’s pretty rare to find a lens that can do closeup pics as well as zoom photos.
So when I found the Tamron 18-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di III-A VC VXD lens that fit on my SONY A6, I was ecstatic. And it was such a legend! I was able to take just one mid-sized lens attached to my mirrorless camera and easily able to capture crystal clear, stable photos — whether my subject was up-close or more than a hundred feet away.
But what about all that rain you keep talking about?, you say… Yes, you need to come prepared with a rain cover for your camera and lens, too. The emergency rain cover from ThinkTank was perfect because it folded up into nothing and was easy to put on quickly.
I used the Rotation 22L Backpack as both my day pack and camera bag, and it was a stellar companion. Being able to access my camera, with the lens fully extended and ready to catch a whale’s fleeting fluke, without ever taking off my backpack was GOLD! And when I didn’t need it, I could just slide the hip pouch back into the backpack base and lock it into place. You can even fully detach the hip pouch component from the main bag. Although it was water-resistant, I’d definitely buy the optional rain cover for it if I were returning to Alaska or another rainy destination.
That backpack also held my VEO 2 GO 265HCBM Carbon Tripod / Monopod with Ball Head firmly in place. I didn’t use my tripod as much as I thought I would, but having the monopod option built in came in very handy during our whale watching tour in Juneau and allowed me to stay much steadier in a rocking boat.
Other must-bring tech:
Camera gear aside, there’s other tech you’ll want to add to your packing list for a cruise to Alaska:
- Apple AirTags — I will never, ever, ever, ever travel without AirTags again. We flew from Toronto to Vancouver during what was arguably the worst time to be in Canadian airports. The number of lost bags due to cancelled and delayed flights was astonishing. We put AirTags in our checked bags (remember, we preceded our Alaskan cruise with a two-week road trip in British Columbia…I’m usually an excellent carry-on packer!), so when we landed in Vancouver, the first thing we did was check to see if our bags landed, too. And they did! But if they were still in Toronto (or, worse — another city altogether), we would have simply gone directly to the lost baggage desk, filed a report and been on our way. I also put an AirTag on my camera bag/backpack combo since it was housing a lot of expensive equipment. AirTags aren’t expensive and offer a lot of peace of mind
- iPhone — you can’t use AirTags without an iPhone. My preference is the Pro lineup because of the excellent camera, but there’s still a lot under the hood in the regular iPhones and iPhone SE, which is what my kids use
- Kokoon Nightbuds — don’t get me wrong, I am in love with my AirPods Pro earbuds, but I really worried about falling asleep while flying and having one pop out of my ear and roll away from me into the nether-regions of the aircraft. To avoid that kind of heartbreak and yet still have wireless connectivity, I brought my Kokoon Nightbuds, which are designed to wear overnight and have no chance of falling out of your head holes
- A plug extender — if you need more than the two outlets you’ll find in most cruise cabins, this one’s a no-brainer. We took one that offered four extra sockets and three USB ports
- Charging cords — for the love of Pete, don’t forget all of your charging cords (phone, camera, earbuds, etc.)
Packing list for a cruise to Alaska: outfits
From outfits to wear onboard for moving and grooving to those latin Zumba beats to what you should wear as you head out on an all-day adventure seeing the Alaskan wilds, you need to pack efficiently when it comes to outfits if you’d rather not check bags.
In the end, I tracked everything I wore during our one week Alaskan cruise and — aside from the layers and gear I’ve noted above and the toiletries I’ll get to in the next section — this is what ended up on my body at some point:
- Airplane outfits (x2) — I like Lazypants or Smash+Tess for flying; at the end of the day, your goal is to be comfy and take something that you can wear during your trip in a pinch if you need to
- Bathing suit and rashguard
- Coverup or robe — just make it light/thin fabric so it packs well
- PJs — j’adore PJ Salvage jammies
- Dresses (x2)
- Jeans and pants (x3)
- Long-sleeved tops (x5)
- T-shirts (x2)
- Leggings (x2) — if you think you’ll be working out or taking part in any of the onboard dance lessons, you’d be wise to bring a casual pair (like the ones from Aritzia) and a more technical pair (you can’t beat the ones from LNDR — you can wear them several times in a row and because of how sweat-wicking they are, you don’t need to worry about washing them even once during your cruise)
- Shorts, casual and active (x3)
- Convertible zip-off pants — we all had pairs from Mountain Warehouse that were awesome and some were even water-resistant
- Hiking pants — even if you’re not actually hiking, a good pair of hiking pants are a great staple for any of your tours. (I like the stretchy ones from Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia and The North Face)
- Tank tops, casual and active (x3)
- Bras, everyday and sport (x5) — it’s LNDR for the win again on the sports bra front!
- Underwear (x9) — I have just one word here, and that’s Understance. I’ve never worn more comfortable underwear in my entire 47 years on this Earth
- Foundation garments or thigh-savers (optional) — if you won’t feel great in your dresses without SPANX, pack the SPANX! If you know your thighs will chafe without your trusty thigh-savers, bring a couple of pairs (Thigh Society makes great ones)
I didn’t add bike shorts to the packing list (above or below), because such a small segment of Alaskan cruise guests will go bike riding, but if it’s nice out and you have a bike tour planned, I can’t say enough good things about the LNDR bike shorts! I loved the way they hug my curves in all the right ways and don’t ride up or roll at the waist or leg at all. They’re also so thin that they could easily double as thigh-savers.
This list may seem a bit sparse at first glance, but keep in mind that I chose clothing items that could mix and match with each other. And I always pack in outfits to ensure that I’m not taking more than I need and that I end up with complete outfits.
My biggest tip here is to really think through your outfit choices based on which shoes you’re planning to bring, rather than planning a bunch of amazing outfits and realizing you’d need seven different pairs of shoes to finish them off.
Packing list for a cruise to Alaska: toiletries
With a truly great toiletry bag, you’ll be able to take plenty of your cult favourites — especially if they come in travel sizes like the goodies from Dr Haushka. The one thing you must, must, must remember to bring is SPF! For everyday body sunscreen, my whole family is big fans of the SunBum brand and many of their sizes are 100mL or less, making them perfect for travel. But I was also glad I packed an SPF specific for glaciers (which I can also re-use for high-altitude skiing); the Piz Buin brand are the experts here.
You can also add hair care if you absolutely must, though most people can probably make do with what’s onboard or by just throwing hair up into a messy bun! Just keep in mind that if you’re flying during any part of this vacation, you are quite limited on what you can bring in carry-on in terms of liquid sizes; please refer to your airline’s website for current information.
Packing list for a cruise to Alaska: a checklist
Now that you know why you need what you need on your packing list for a cruise to Alaska, I’ve got a basic checklist that you can print out and reference while you’re packing. I’ve built this list based on packing in carry-on only, so if you don’t see a quantity beside a particular line item, that means I’m only suggesting you bring one of that item. You can certainly bring more if you prefer to overpack and check bags!
All you have left to do is plan your tours or DIY port explorations and get on your Alaskan cruise! One day, I’ll write about our Alaskan cruise experience on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, but I have a lot of big and not-so-pretty feels about the company as a whole and dealing with its sales and customer service teams, as well as the ship itself and the ports we visited. I’m still processing.
DISCLAIMER: some products noted above were provided for review purposes, but I purchased most of them myself. Either way, my opinions and recommendations are always my own.