Alaska lives up to its name as the Last Frontier, and despite having lived there for years and visiting old friends again many times after, sometimes I have a hard time describing it to someone who hasn’t been there. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is going for a visit, and for many people it’s a great place to move to.
That’s true whether you’re in your early 20’s and looking for a taste of adventure and someplace different to discover (or reinvent) yourself, or moving up there for a school, a job opportunity, or whatever else.
However, just as I was when I first moved up there back in 2003, most people are incredibly unprepared when they arrive.
The learning curve can be really steep. I want to pass along just some of my firsthand knowledge and experience to help anyone looking to make the move to make the challenging transition as smooth as possible. There will be enough bumps without adding to them with any self-inflicted mistakes!
Most of these tips work for people coming for a visit as opposed to moving – but it applies even more if you are making that permanent address change.
#1: It’s Like a Different Country
Yes, Alaska is part of the United States. So is Guam. Hawaii. Puerto Rico. Compare the cultures of California, Montana, Texas, Iowa, Florida, and New York. Would you call it the same? The differences are even more pronounced in many ways once you get up to the Great White North.
Culturally Alaska is way more like another country with some similar bits of culture to the Lower 48 than another state. If you keep that in mind, the adjustment will be much easier. You can have a cabin with an outhouse and no running water, but decent Wi-Fi.
It’s a weird place sometime.
Alaska is also so big. Different sections of the state are even like different countries. The “Alaska culture” of a native village reached by float plane is way different than the Interior around Fairbanks. Or the docks and fishing, water taxi, and art conclave life of Homer. Kenai is way different from the North Slope and Anchorage…well Anchorage is Anchorage.
There will be some major cultural adjustments. But if you’re a decent person who helps out and doesn’t have an agenda being pushed on someone else then you will find plenty of friendly folks willing help you adjust, get settled in, and thrive.
#2: The Alaska Highway Is NOT a Well-Maintained Connective Highway
Looking at a map makes it look romantic, and in many ways it is incredible. A long highway cutting through the United States and the incredible wilds of Canada all the way to the Last Frontier of Alaska. The Alaska Highway does indeed connect the state of Alaska to Canada and the Lower 48 by road but there’s a very, VERY important piece of information to keep in mind.
Highway is a very, VERY loose term when describing this road especially in some of the more isolate regions up North where settlements are the most sparse.
The road is undeniably amazing and an engineering marvel. But while sections are well-paved and smooth running highway, good chunks of the middle are not. Sometimes you will be on wide RV-friendly highway. Sometimes you will be on very narrow, curvy, and windy mountain highways where one slow-moving vehicle will be impossible to pass for dozens of miles.
At times the road is a very, very wide dirt and gravel road that looks like it has plenty of space until you see a loaded logging truck barreling down the middle of the road at you. (Note: most of these were filled in by 1992 but there are still large sections every summer with road construction, detours that are all gravel, etc)
You can travel via highway, but this isn’t a road you just drive on a whim. You need to plan. You need to have spare tires and tools on hand. You need to have a backup plan for your backup plan.
Yes, you can drive from the Lower 48 to Alaska. I know of one person who spent just over four months to actually bike it. Crazy. This is a trip of a lifetime and if you’re set on it, you won’t regret the memories.
But this is not another drive on a highway. Best to understand that before making the trip.
Three good resources to start your research on the Alaska Highway.
- The Mile Post Alaska Highway FAQ
- Alaska Highway Wiki Voyage
- Travel to Alaska – Getting to Alaska by Road
#3: DGAF Culture (as long as you’re not hurting anyone else)
One of the things I loved about Alaska was it really had a Don’t Give a Fu*k culture, with the big caveat being don’t hurt anyone else. Neighbors of mine at various times around Fairbanks included multiple cabins of very anti-government almost a militia not quite a militia survivalists, next to them was a female only compound of gay hippie organic farmers. They got along fine.
No one wanted to bother each other, they each just wanted to do their own thing. So who cared who the neighbors were as long as they weren’t hurting anyone? As long as everyone stopped in winter for a broke down truck.
You could just do your own thing as long as you weren’t hurting anyone else and this would lead to some of the best parties I’d ever been to at random cabins where (and this will be a sentence) illegal immigrants from Scotland playing bagpipes, true mountain men who’d lived around Fairbanks since the1960s, big time hippy pot farmers, right wingers, left wingers, students, old-timers would all be around one campfire, drinking, laughing, chatting, unwinding after another long winter before getting back to life and work when the 24 hour sunlight days of summer roll back around.
It wasn’t a everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya, but there was a DGAF culture in the best sort of way. The type of freedom many people claim they want before trying to shove their beliefs or demands on others who don’t match their exact beliefs.
And I really, REALLY hope that independent nature never changes.
#4: Generally People Are Very Direct Versus Polite/Manners
This doesn’t mean Alaskans aren’t friendly people. Many of them are, and many of the best people I ever met are from the Last Frontier. But when you live in an environment like that – swarms of mosquitoes, bear, moose, long winters, lots of crazies, then politeness takes a fast back seat to directness.
Alaskans can be blunt. To the point where if you’re not expecting it you could see it as being unkind. But being super direct doesn’t mean you have to be unkind, it’s just a no b.s. type of talking that can be surprising to people coming from areas that aren’t as used to that.
The adjustment can be especially jarring if you spent a good chunk of your life in the South, California, or parts of the Midwest (although that last one is slightly dulled by the sheer number of Midwest people you find in the AK).
#5: Cold is COLD
Yeah, if you’re heading up for winter, talk to locals for how to prepare. Cold is cold, even by the “warm” coast. If you’re heading to the Interior to a place like Fairbanks where I lived, -35 to -45 is common. And daily life goes on so learn to dress in multiple layers, have mittens to go over the gloves, and get clothing that works when the temperature is just that that dang cold.
Even normally safe things like walking a few blocks can be dangerous during the day even with basic winter clothing. You will need to be prepared to adjust to life when the outside world wants to kill everything that’s moving from sheer low temperature.
This also applies to more than people!
Since the cold is what it is, you don’t just need to prepare to wrap up the moment all the leaves turn yellow, indicating you have mere weeks until the heavy winter follows, but you also need to prep for other things.
- Special winterizing for vehicles
- Special winterizing for housing
These are pretty big deals and it’s up to the individual to figure out what needs to be done before the coldest time of the year rolls around.
There’s such a list of things here that I couldn’t go over all of them, but don’t assume because you come from a cold area of the Lower 48 that you are prepared. You’re not. You might be better off than someone trying to make the adjustment after another summer in Texas or Florida, but you’re not fully prepared.
#6: Necessary Community
Because of the harshness of the environment, which can and does kill plenty of people every single year, there is a necessity for community and some unspoken rules.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be left alone – you can be alone 99% of the year if you want, but it’s important to know that there are certain types of bonding/community you might not expect elsewhere – even if it’s not what you imagine when you think of community.
These are things like unwritten rules such as:
- Always stopping if you see a broke down car in winter
- NEVER stealing a car in winter – it’s like stealing a horse in the Old West, especially around Fairbanks
- Always stopping for someone waving for help in winter
- A strong hitchhiking culture
This is hard to explain but once you’ve been up there for a bit you’ll realize there are just some senses of community from the shared experience of living up there.
A sense of pushing through the long harsh winters, a sense of joint celebration coming out into another glorious summer – there’s just something communal about those experiences.
And if you become good friends with a Yupik or Inuit family, definitely take the invite to a family meal. Great experience, and a first-hand experience of another style of community many of us have never experienced before.
#7: Hitchhiking, Giving a Ride Culture
This one applies to the Interior and Fairbanks in particular, though it also does exist elsewhere. There’s a big culture of hitchhiking or of stopping to give a ride. I’m a big guy (6 feet, broad shoulders, giant beard, built like a brick wall and north of 300 lbs) and I had no problem getting rides when I stuck a thumb out.
In fact I very rarely stuck my thumb out (I loved walking and was in Alaska…what wasn’t to like?) and still got rides all the time from people stopping asking if I wanted a lift.
There is a culture of helpfulness, especially when it comes to transportation and for some of us it could be a real life saver when getting around.
#8: Outhouses – Heat Lamps, NOT Lights
Yeah a light bulb isn’t going to do it when it’s 40 below zero and you’re heading out to the outhouse. You want heat lamps, and you want to make sure the extension cord running to the house or cabin that plugs them in are in fully working order.
You’re going to want to make business as quickly as possible even when you have these bases covered. You don’t want to shiver while trying to get things done when conditions are not ideal.
If you’re renting a cabin make sure the outhouse comes with a heat lamp and not just a light. If you’re building your own cabin off the grid, remember this important piece of information.
#9: Public Water & Publicly Open Showers
This is one for all you heading to the interior who are jumping into the cabin life. Because with very few exceptions: you don’t have any running water in those cabins. That means you need to look at the available options when i comes to water and publicly open showers.
I know around UAF there were multiple public bathrooms for people in cabins to use the shower and bathroom facilities as needed, and there were other places around time where the same was true.
Plenty of places to pay to fill 5 gallon jugs of water, or if you have some good friends, they will show you where the free springs are outside of towns.
Can be a bit of a drive depending on where you are, but loading up on free water while enjoying the incredible scenery – that’s just a win-win!
#10: Be Wary of Your Surroundings
You can’t zone out in Alaska. It’s not safe. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the views on an incredible hike or take a long walk with one earbud listening to a podcast, but you need to be wary of your surroundings. While I don’t want to scare off people from visiting or moving up there…Alaska is a wild land and it can be dangerous.
You don’t want to not notice a curious bear or a mother with cubs. That’s a quick way to become a very unfortunate statistic after a severe mauling. Moose can be curious and docile.
They also kill more people in Alaska than any other animal and it’s not close.
Because there is so little infrastructure and so much wilderness, the two often overlap.
Moose will walk down a city street. They’re used to people.
When you step out of an apartment, look to the right and see a big momma moose about 20 feet away looking calm, then a “small” baby emerges from further back in the woods,
Keep your distance, be respectful, and if in doubt, slowly back into the door and back inside, when applicable.
False bravado getting you killed is called one thing in Alaska: stupid.
There are a lot of good people in Alaska. There are a lot of crazy people. And there are also some very bad people. That’s true wherever you go in the world, but because of the environment and what the environment can do to people, it feels like these are all exemplified in the 907.
The weather and extreme instances of no light for 5 months, all light for 3 months, or “it’s finally light after all this darkness and I’m so happy and I step outside and it’s -40 and I want to kill everything with a pulse” – the mental struggles can be real for even the best of us.
Alaska is full of people who know how to handle themselves. Most are really good people. Some are not. Same as anywhere. Don’t let it scare you away from exploring AK, but be aware of the dangers.
So many mosquitoes in the summer. So much cold even outside of the winter. Weather can also change quickly depending on where you are. A group of friends and I were once enjoying a normal cloudy breezy day in the 60s on a big challenging hike and then within 10 minutes at the mid-way point, no clouds, sun out, temperatures shot up into the high 80s.
Know the weather patterns you’re likely to run into in the local area so you can be safe and prepared.
#11: Nothing Is “Just a Day’s Travel”
If you’re told something is a day’s travel, that might mean various things in different parts of the country, but in Alaska it’s probably 9-12 hours or more. Remember that every map you’re used to seeing is heavily condensed because the state is so absurdly big but the number of towns, cities, etc is so small compared to other states.
Fairbanks to Anchorage are the two big cities connected by road and it doesn’t look like much on a map. But Google Maps confirms that this is a longer trip than it looks:
First of all that’s outer edge of Fairbanks to outer edge of Anchorage, and it’s worth nothing both these cities sprawl miles and miles to a ridiculous amount. In fact, Anchorage is the 5th most spread out city in the United States covering over 1,700 square miles. The only cities more spread out are also in Alaska.
Then there’s the traffic at Denali and Wasilla. And the stops you will have to make to stretch the legs. And the road conditions.
Just pen in 7.5 hours and assume there might be more driving after that.
So if someplace is a day’s travel….it’s a full, full day.
#12: Bring Beer, Join Party
I’m not 100% sure if this is still a thing all through the cabin roads that dot the beautiful wooded hills around Fairbanks but I really hope it is. Because it was one of the coolest cultural things I ever saw involved what happened once late spring and summer rolled around.
With nearly 24/7 light, temperatures rising to reasonable (especially if you’re used to the -40 temperatures common to the Interior), and a lot of people looking forward to the heaven that are Alaska summers, it’s time to socialize.
When my friends and I felt like getting out of town or off-campus and a friend wasn’t throwing a cabin party we’d grab some beer from the liquor store and start slowly cruising around the gravel roads just outside the city that lead to the many hundreds of cabins throughout the hills.
If you see someone standing by and outside fire, especially with pallets, pull up and bring the beer. Congratulations, you’re invited to the party.
Even if you don’t know the person.
This was just something that happened all the time after spring broke. If you had a cabin and wanted to meet people, find some pallets and a small group of friends and start the fire. People would come with beer, and often a lot of people you had never met or otherwise would never meet.
This was a great experience and led to me meeting a lot of new people. That time of year people are social. If you see a bonfire gathering, bring a couple six packs to share on the booze table (somehow there’s always an outdoor booze table) and start making those amazing memories.
#13: Work to Catch the Northern Lights
I’ve always been a big walker, and I prefer to walk at night. It’s cool, it’s quieter, it gives me a lot of time to think and reflect at a time when many people are busy. So when I’d bundle up and walk at night even in Fairbanks through -40 temps, there were multiple nights when I caught the northern lights in their full glory.
You haven’t seen the northern lights until you’ve caught them in full force way up north. Heavy in greens and yellows and blues, and sometimes you catch the extremely rare but stunning orange and reds.
I must have caught them dozens times.
Which was why I was surprised when a good friend of mine revealed that in three years up there he caught them only once.
This brings up a point: if you live there, make sure you take the time to catch the Northern Lights. They are absolutely incredible and the type of memory you don’t want to miss out on when living up there.
More than once I’d just stop mid-walk and stare at the Aurora when they were really dancing that night. And sometimes at the end when I finally looked back around me I’d see life-long Alaskans who were 40, 50 years old who had been staring at the sky, too.
That’s how amazing it is. Even after seeing it dozens of times, or in their case possibly many, many more over the years, they would still stop in their tracks to watch it again. You couldn’t just “get used” to that level of beauty and majesty. So when you’re up there, make the effort to find a few good nights when activity is supposed to be high (yes, they can actually track this now) and take some late night walks or gazes.
It’s 100% worth it.
#14: Summer Travelers: Don’t Forget the Bug Spray
No, this is not a general hint. This is very much an Alaska thing – the number of mosquitoes that will call your body a buffet even with thick body hair and bug spray is insane. You don’t want to see how bad it is if you have no repellent at all.
The Alaska State Bird:
The mosquitoes are huge, and they swarm in numbers you have probably never seen before. Even with bug spray, you’re going to get used to the fact that you will just have a lot of mosquito bites, especially if you’re in the Interior in the height of summer. There’s just nothing to be done about it.
But it’s way way worse with no bug spray. You don’t want to find out the hard way.
#15: There Are a LOT of Midwesterners (at least in Fairbanks)
This caught me off-guard as being a bit funny, but it held up outside of the University, as well. Whether it was already being used to extreme winter weather of a sort, wanting to get out to see more of the world, or a combination of both, there are a lot of people from the Midwest around Fairbanks at the very least.
The Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri – I met many people originally from all these places. Some had been up in the Last Frontier of Alaska for only four or five years at that point. Others showed up in the 70s and 80s, fell in love, and never went back.
Don’t be surprised if where you come from (if it’s in the Midwest in particular) starts a lot of conversations with random people you meet during your adventures in the great northern state.
#16: Crime Rates Are High
This is the elephant in the room that I hate talking about because of how much I love the state and my time up there, but there’s no denying it: Alaska’s crime rates are very high and even small cities have very dangerous neighborhoods.
You have a state with extreme weather, extreme seasons, a lot of hard people who work dangerous jobs, lots of dangerous people, lots of people who can handle themselves, a lot of gung-ho idiots trying to prove themselves, a harsh environment, and the loosest gun laws in the U.S.
Add in a lot of alcohol, rough necks, and sprawling wilderness with those 6-month winters making virtually everyone “a little touched in the head” and you’re going to have above average danger, bad apples, and crime. It sucks, it’s unfortunate, but it is a truth that needs to be taken into consideration before making a move.
Research the area you’re moving to
Getting data on specific areas is crucial. Anchorage tends to have the most dangerous areas and highest crime rates, but there are places in Fairbanks that are no picnic, either. There are also places in both these cities that are quite safe.
There are small towns very safe – and there are very small towns that are surprisingly dangerous.
Research each area to know what the most likely potential crime issues might be. And hitting the other unfortunate truth: if you’re a broad shouldered 6 foot plus male who looks like he could wrestle a bear, you’re safer than a very pretty 5’5 petite female.
All the woman safety issues are double in many parts of Alaska, especially in the middle of winter.
Educate yourself, take the proper precautions, and understand that while most people up there are awesome, there are real dangers that need to be taken into account.
#17: If Shipping Exists, It’s Prohibitively Expensive
When your only option for things you can ship in the Lower 48 relatively inexpensively is “International Freight Shipping Rates,” you change your mind real fast about what you can and can’t live without. The shipping rates for normal things are insane in Alaska.
It’s also possible that some things can’t be reasonably shipped. Keep in mind that every basic type of mail and shipping that’s done often doesn’t apply to Alaska & Hawaii. There’s a reason for that.
Shipping is really expensive and a lot of things can only come via freight or cargo ship or plane and all of those become jaw-droppingly expensive.
Real life example: When I took a job I couldn’t refuse in Texas, I had a 32 piece cast iron set of pans, kettles, and Dutch Ovens. These were left in the “open for anyone” area of dumpsters in one area around Fairbanks and I picked up the whole set and boy howdy did I cook up a storm over many a fire with those!
I love cast iron, loved cooking, and wanted to find a way to bring those with me. To get an estimate I had to weigh all of them and call around FedEx, UPS, and all other shipping options that were actually available to me.
The CHEAPEST option, and this was in 2006, the cheapest option had a comma in it.
Yeah. I almost wept realizing I had to give up such a treasure because it wasn’t in my budget at that time. On the plus side, it was split between three friends who love me dearly to this day – so that’s something?
#18: You NEED a Light Therapy Box
No, really – that’s not an exaggeration. You need it. Not prone to depression? Don’t care, you need it. Not affected by SMD? Don’t care, you need it. Winter is your favorite season? Don’t care, you need it.
Those three traits were true about me going into my first winter. Like many things in Alaska, extreme is extreme, and after three months of not seeing the sun and dealing with -40 days….you want that light therapy box. It’s literally a little box that sends UV light out to simulate sunlight.
When you haven’t had real sunlight in months, even 15-30 minutes of that a day is a huge light saver and can make an absolute world of difference.
#19: Explore the Craft Beer Scene
Denver, Portland, eat your heart out. The craft beer scene in Alaska is incredible and has been for well over 20 years. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Try paying $12 a bottle for a really cheap terrible beer and see how long it takes before you start contemplating opening your own brewery.
There are multiple amazing breweries up there in not only the major cities, but also great small towns that are relatively close to one of the few urban centers up there. In fact, I think six of my ten favorite beers come from Alaska.
There are many really amazing options and if you love a great dark, creamy stout you’ll be in heaven.
#20: Re-Visit the Budget Early & Often in Year One
Alaska is really, really expensive. No, really, Alaska is expensive and in many places the yearly dividend payment and no taxes won’t come close to making it up. While average salaries tend to be higher, sometimes those won’t even cover the difference.
Because the sticker shock is huge, it’s crucial to create a budget, and re-visit that every month early on as you get used to the new numbers, the new expenses, and figure out where you’re actually at versus where you were estimating where you thought everything would be.
The earlier you can tune in the numbers, the better off you’ll be.
#21: Take Advantage of Alaska’s Natural Resources
Every resident can dip net 25 salmon, plus 10 more for each member of the household. That’s a lot of delicious high nutrition fish. Like hunting? Moose provides a lot of steak. Even if you don’t but a friend does, if you have a chest freezer friends will bring over the extra.
Summers have seemingly endless sunlight so if you have space for a garden, plant those vegetables and let them grow!
This is a good way to not only experience what the state has to offer, but that much fish and meat saves a lot of money on the highest food bills you will end up paying anywhere in your life.
#22: Black Out Curtains & Sleep Masks
The winters call for a special light to help keep you balanced. The summer is the opposite. When there’s so much light you can have a Midnight Baseball game without any lights, getting to sleep can be rough.
If you’re 22, grab an insane cannery seasonal job, don’t sleep, and make a summer fortune. Or at least consider it – that is a viable thing that can be done up there.
For the rest of us, black out curtains and sleep masks make summer much, much more bearable. Trust me, you want both of them. For the sake of sanity.
#23: Double Your Planned Budget for Moving
Moving costs a lot. A LOT. Alaska is not easy to get to, and it’s a rough trip. You are also passing through a lot of places where everything is more expensive from fuel to repairs to deciding (especially with a family) that the budget-friendly camping plan be damned, for sanity’s sake we’re stopping at a hotel for two days in this city to rest.
If you stick to a strong budget and pull it off, great. You start out ahead. But plan for the worst case scenarios. If you double the budget for emergencies and problems you’re going to just end up better off with a lot less chance of having to max out emergency credit cards or finding yourself in a truly rough situation out of money and not where you need to be.
Just double the budget and you’ll be glad that you did.
#24: The Word “Eskimo” Is a Slur
So here’s an uncomfortable one. Right before any comments or arguments start, some native Alaskans don’t care that much about this word, many do. And many may appear not to care much because they’re so polite in correction…but that’s them being polite. That is not a “It’s not a big deal” indicator.
There are Athabascans in Alaska. Inuits. Yupik. Aleuts. The native indigenous peoples of Alaska come from many different tribes and there’s a lot of pride about the culture and history of their people. And rightfully so.
So what to call people? I recommend their names. If you are naturally curious and are extremely polite, you can also ask. If it’s clear that this is from a place of curiosity and an openness to learning a question like “Was this an area where the Yupik people stayed or the Inuits?”
A genuine question showing some research and interest, asked politely, has always gotten me a good response, a little bit of history, and a deeper knowledge of the area and the people around me.
But don’t use the work eskimo. Indigenous or Native are both fine most of the time.
#25: State Citizens Get Paid to Live There – But It Doesn’t Make Up for Expenses
The PFD (Permanent Fund Dividend) is a once a year pay-out given to all Alaska residents. Payments usually range from $1-2K, falling somewhere in the middle depending on oil sales for that year. These can be a boon since it’s a bit of cash all at once…but they don’t come anywhere close to making up the difference for how much more expensive everything is.
Jobs do tend to pay much higher up there, and there are some amazing work opportunities, but don’t equate the PFD with making up for the higher cost of living. You’ll need to make sure you can cover your cost of living with the job or work you’re getting and using resources like hunting and fishing to supplement food.
That said, the once a year payments can be a huge boon if you have a good budget and are smart about investing it. A huge plus to Alaska living for sure.
Further Resources Worth Checking Out
- 15 Things to Know Before Moving to Alaska
- Traveling Igloo Alaska Article
- Alaska Moving Resources for New Alaskans
Is the Move to Alaska Worth It?
In my mind, absolutely. And if you’re going there for job or school you need to move anyway, the question is how and what to deal with. There’s no denying that moving to or from Alaska is a heck of a process and will bring up a lot of difficult and expensive headaches even during the best of times, which is not now.
The experience is worth the effort. Be willing to take a second look at what you really need versus what you want and what maybe should be left behind before starting off on your new adventure.
Other Resources You May Find Helpful