Stunning vistas, wildlife outside your backdoor, and a pioneer spirit are just some of the reasons people come to Alaska. Fairbanks enjoys a summer with temperatures that often reach into the 80’s, and nearly continual sunlight. Winters can be harsh beyond the imagination, -65 degree temperatures, 6 months of snow and ice, and days with less than 3 hours of sunlight. Many newcomers are so shocked by their first winter in Alaska, they sell or abandon most of what they have and move to anywhere where there is a more hospitable climate. Here are some tips to make your first winter in Fairbanks a safe and comfortable one.
Extreme cold demands a variety of specialized clothing. For footwear many Alaskans turn to surplus military gear and wear either “bunny boots”, oversized rubber vapor barrier boots, or mukluks, a tall rubber and canvas boot with a felt liner.
Polypropylene long underwear is pretty standard if you intend to spend more than a few minutes outside, with many using the military weight poly-pros if outside for an extended period.
A good polar fleece jacket is the best all-around jacket you can invest in. Until about -20 it will suffice for trips from the car to the store, and other short duration ventures outside. When it’s colder than -20, it can serve as a layer beneath your real winter jacket.
A good quality winter jacket is a must. Columbia’s “Titanium”, and Carhartt “Black Lined” jackets are very popular and will keep you warm. Those that are fortunate and can get a hold of them swear by the military’s N3B Parka.
In the lower 48, gloves, scarves, and hats are referred to as “accessories”. In interior Alaska they can save you from a trip to the emergency room. Your ears, fingers, and the tip of your nose are all very sensitive to cold, and will freeze quickly if you are not careful. Polar fleece is fine most of the time, but if you are going to be out for a few hours invest in Arctic designed gear such as a fur bomber hat and arctic mittens. A word of advice: If it’s -40 or colder, do not pull your glove off and touch metal with your bare hand, it will stick.
Winterize your car
Beyond antifreeze rated to -50, and a quality light weight oil, there are other things your car needs if you expect it to start in the dead of winter. Most vehicles in the Interior have at least 3 different heaters, block, oil pan, and battery. If you scrimp and decide not to have one of these installed, at some point you will be calling friends to drive you around. Interior heaters are also available, but check with your insurance company and car manufacturer to make sure no policy or warranty will be voided if you have one installed.
For 4 to 5 months in Fairbanks you will be driving on ice. Several manufactures claim that their studless tires are equal to, or out perform studded tires. Many longtime Fairbanksans prefer the gripping power of steel studs over tire company claims and mount studded tires on their vehicles every fall.
Stock your car
Fairbanks is one of those rare places that within 15 minutes of leaving town you are “in the middle of nowhere”. During the winter drivers are subject to rapid changes in the weather, and a multitude of moose that seemingly appear from out of nowhere. In any long drive the majority of the time you will be far from civilization, and often, any kind of help. What is in your car may determine whether you live through the night or not.
Sleeping bags and blankets are the absolute minimum. Get the lowest temperature rate bag you can find, and make sure there is one for each likely passenger in the car. Blankets are multifunctional, they can used in conjunction with a sleeping bag for added warmth, or they cane be used to plug up a hole where a window used to be. A sad truth is that more than likely you will use these items to keep victims of accidents warm while waiting for up to an hour for help to arrive.
Duct tape is another essential. From temporarily patching a radiator hose to stabilizing a fractured arm, duct tapes uses are limited only by the imagination. Along with the familiar silver, duct tape is also sold in hot designer colors such as black, red and olive drab.
The other basic needs include a first aid kit, flash light, small tool kit, freeze dried food such as the military’s MRE’s, and road flares. Most of this can fit inside an average gym bag.
Babies and toddlers should never be exposed to the extreme cold. To avoid confusion here, “never” means not at any time. Children this young are very sensitive to the cold, and will be hurt by it very quickly. Anytime they are outside, even for the minute it takes to get from the car to the store, cover them completely. It doesn’t matter if they are wearing that cute snowsuit and mittens, cover them up with a blanket.
Older children should be bundled up, and never left unattended, even for a moment. While Alaska is a giant playground, and there are plenty happy memories to be made, a child that wanders off and gets lost in the winter is rarely found alive.
The breed of dog will determine its tolerance to the cold. Dogs such as Huskies and Malamutes are built for extreme cold, while Retriever’s and small breeds are not. A dog’s weak point is their feet. While most dogs can tolerate the cold long enough to do their “business”, often their feet will get cold, and if exposed long enough, they will become frostbitten. Purchase some fleece booties from one of the local pet stores, and put them on Rover whenever he goes out. Your dog will be resistive to this the first few times, but they will get used to it.
While cats are actually pretty tough and have a knack for outdoor survival, keep them indoors. While not often seen, lynx are around, and will make short work of your beloved pet.
Alaska is a beautiful place, but it can be harsh and unforgiving to those that disrespect it. If you can hold on through your first winter, you will be rewarded with spring that seems to appear overnight, and a summer that can’t be beat. So dress warm, and have some fun while waiting for the sun to return.