Alaska Native dancers perform at Exhibit at Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.

Wondering What to Wear for Aurora Watching?

The Alaska experts at the Morris Thompson Center have noticed some AMAZING aurora activity recently.  Are you thinking about coming to Fairbanks to see the lights?  Because this is one of the best places on Earth to see them, and we Fairbanksans love to share the special experience of the northern lights with our guests!

According to Explore Fairbanks, our aurora season is from August 21 to April 21. The aurora is visible in Fairbanks an average of four out of five nights when the sky is clear and – this is the key! – dark enough (the northern lights occur all year, but you can’t see them under the midnight sun).

If you are planning to chase the lights in Fairbanks there are a few things you should probably know.  One is that many tools exist to help you get the timing right and see the lights. A great example is the real-time Aurora Tracker on the Explore Fairbanks website.

Aside from when to go out looking, another important thing to consider is how to dress for your adventure, especially if you’re Aurora hunting in, say February, when temperatures here tend to be chilly.  The right clothing will keep you warm and comfortable – but what is the right clothing?

To help answer that question, I went to visit a local friend: Steve Johnson at  Big Ray’s, a local Alaskan outfitter serving Alaskans (and visitors!) for 74 years. They have a storefront in easy walking distance from the Morris Thompson Center that has been open since 1978. 

Store Front Sign that Says "Big Ray's"

I asked Steve to share his expert advice on what winter clothing a person arriving from warmer climes should plan to get their hands on before heading out to gaze at the wintry night skies of the sub-arctic.

Steve stands near racks of clothes at Big Ray's

Sometimes, Steve said, he helps visitors who arrive needing to purchase a complete kit for cold weather, but many people pack some or most of their own cold weather clothing. It’s also common to borrow some from a local tour or activity company.  The most common last-minute purchases Steve sees visitors making in the winter are hats, gloves, and warm boots.

According to Steve, it is best to choose cold weather gear that is loose fitting, not snug. He told me that most brands of winter wear are sized generously for that reason.  Steve made the good point that when you get dressed for the cold outdoors it’s important to consider your own body’s tendencies: are you a hot person, or a cold person?  Also think about the requirements of the activity you’re planning. For example, Aurora viewing usually doesn’t involve intense physical activity that generates body heat. 

Steve offered this checklist of cold weather gear that you’ll want to have to keep you warm and cozy during your Aurora viewing experience:

  1. Wool socks.  If your feet sweat inside heavy winter boots, cotton socks will get cold and “clammy.”  Wool stays warm even when wet!
  2. A warm base layer.  Steve recommends either woolen or synthetic “long johns,” or long underwear.
  3. Wear your own normal pants and shirt over this base layer.  If you have wool, that’s great, but for aurora viewing jeans are probably ok: you aren’t planning to do a lot of activity that will make you sweat, which is what makes cotton get “clammy.”
  4. Snow pants or snow bibs.  These are insulated pants or overalls.  Choose bibs for additional warmth, and to keep the snow out if you might try a little sledding or snow-angel making during your adventure.
  5. A nice warm parka.  For this activity, a single heavy parka is a good idea.  Again, you won’t be working up a lot of body heat while watching for the northern lights, so you’re not likely to need additional layers to help manage body heat fluctuations. Parkas come in a range of materials, temperature ratings, and prices.  The lower the temperature rating you choose, the warmer you’re likely to stay.
  6. Warm boots.  Big Ray’s has boots rated for temperatures as low as -120 degrees!  This may sound a little crazy, but Steve points out that if you tend to have cold feet the warmer the boot, the better.   
  7. A good hat.  It’s surprising how much of your body heat can escape just from your head. And ears can get frozen quickly in the cold.  There are lots of good-looking options to top off your outfit.
  8. A neck gaiter. You don’t want snow or cold air sneaking in through the neck of your parka! Use a nice tube of fleece or other insulating material to prevent such unpleasantness happening!
  9. Touch screen-friendly liners under nice, warm, mittens.  Mittens tend to be warmer than gloves.  Steve’s pro tip is to pair them with touch-screen friendly liners so that you can easily pop the mittens off to take a quick snapshot with your camera or smartphone.
  10. Hand/toe warmers. In addition to these essential clothing items, you might choose to pick up hand and/or toe warmers.  There are many kinds available. The chemical kind are not reusable, but very reliable.  You can also get electric ones, which are best for milder weather, as they can lose their charge in extreme cold. Extra-reliable butane heaters are also available, but those are subject to restrictions in airline luggage.

Finally, Steve wanted to let you know that they keep some heavy winter gear out on the floor of their shop year-round, so even summer visitors can try it on, see how it looks and feels, and snap a selfie!

Here’s the checklist in easy printable format. You can find more info on Aurora chasing and how to dress at in the Explore Fairbanks Winter Guide.  Tag us (@MorrisThompsonCenter) in a FB picture of you wearing your new winter gear, and drop us a line if you have additional questions or Aurora stories to share. You can also sign up for Morris Thompson Center newsletter and blog updates.   Happy Aurora viewing!