You can only Google a subject so much before you need to jump in feet first to experience it. That’s what it was like trying to figure out what we needed to prep for an Alaska winter.
Honestly, there’s not a lot of good information about things a Cheechako needs to be comfortable for living in some of the most extreme weather in North America. In early 2023, I found a lot of tourist information for winter trips to see the Northern Lights and other touristy cold weather attractions. A few moving companies have good blog posts with helpful tips for people relocating up here for the long term.
But the only way I got a good sense of what a temporary resident might need for a year in Alaska was by asking our crazy musher friends. They gave us a packing list of essential clothing and other winter gear. Knowing how expensive it is to outfit yourself with good cold weather clothing, these two amazing people also set us up with some extreme cold gear that we would never use anywhere else. I can’t thank them enough for that stuff. Especially since we’ve had two consecutive weeks of sub-zero temperatures.
But there was one thing I forgot to ask them about.
The main thing I wish I knew before spending winter in Alaska.
Some things you just have to experience to know what you don’t know. One of the biggest learning experiences so far revolves around my eyewear. I hope my revelation saves another four-eyed geek from the kind of hassles I’ve been experiencing.
First things first: eyeglasses suck in extreme cold weather.
I’ve worn specs since I was a kid. I cannot drive a car, read a book, or do anything meaningful without them. So last summer, I went to the Costco eye center in Fort Collins, Colorado, and bought two pairs of heavy-duty, super geeky sporty eyeglasses. One with polarized sunglass lenses, one with transition lenses but mainly for indoor use. They’re ugly as hell, and only the men’s section had what I wanted. But I figured hey, these goggles look like they can take abuse in an Alaska winter. And really, everyone knows that clothing is about function over form in this kind of weather.
Nobody wins fashion shows in these parts.
However, before I committed to my ugly ass eyeglasses, I asked the Costco eye doctor about wearing contact lenses in sub-zero weather. “What do you think?” I asked. “Can you wear contacts in sub-zero temperatures?” Naturally I assumed it was probably a bad idea, and his answer was what I expected. “No, don’t do it,” he advised. “They’ll stick to your eyes.” That scared me enough into not getting a separate exam for contacts.
Those ugly glasses met my needs until December.
When the daily high temperatures started divebombing into the teens, I learned that wearing a face mask is the best protection against the elements. After Googling what a “balaclava” is, and trying four different types of face coverings, I found one that worked. The neoprene Gator Sports Face Covering (pictured above) is the only one that’s comfortable enough for my outdoor needs.
I live in terror of frostbite, and started wearing scary Gator mask every time I went outside. I put it on to go outside on a dog walk, go on a run, a snowmachine ride, or mushing adventure (more on that soon!). But the one thing you won’t usually see me wearing at the same time is my new eyeglasses.
Face coverings make eyeglasses fog up. The combination sucks.
And not even the supposedly best anti-fog spray actually works in this climate. This is a hassle I didn’t really experience during the pandemic, because I was never in this kind of weather.
Up here, having to wear a face mask and eyeglasses in extreme cold started to make outdoor activity a frustrating, annoying experience. When you’re trying to avoid slipping on ice, looking out for speeding snowmachines, and keeping an eye out for moose on the trail, not being able to see clearly is a little terrifying.
Calling Dr. Google
One day I got so fed up, I Googled “Can you wear contact lenses in extreme cold?” And it turned out to be one case when Dr. Google knew more than a real human eye doctor! Much to my surprise I discovered several articles about wearing contacts in extreme cold, most written by eye care practices.
Yes, you can wear contact lenses in sub-zero temperatures!
After my discovery, I went to a local eye doctor in Wasilla. He looked stunned when I told him what that other guy told me. “An doctor in Colorado told you that?” he asked. “Wow!” Then the doc wrote me a prescription for “mono-vision” contacts (one eye for distance, one for reading). He told me to use eyedrops for dry eyes, and sent me on my way into the frigid afternoon.
I haven’t worn contacts for over a decade. And I can’t use them for daily work. But for everything else, they work. Those cold weather hassles of foggy eyeglasses are over for me! Now I’m sticking those contact lenses on my eyeballs almost every time I go outside. It’s a hassle, but not nearly as much as living with fogged up lenses. And with the long streak of extreme cold we’ve been enduring (daily temps have been ranging from -5 to -25 for the last two weeks), winter in Alaska has never looked more beautiful.