How to prepare for a cold-water surf trip to Alaska

This story originally appeared on SURFER. Words by Davis Jones.

No crowded lineups. It’s one of Alaska Surf Guides owner and operator Scott Reierson's favorite parts about surfing in the Last Frontier. That, and the possibility of scoring a spot no one has ever surfed before. But heading to Alaska to score some waves is more like a surf expedition. Want your shot at one of Alaska’s most reliable rivermouths? That’s 18 miles by boat, dodging glacial run-off and chasing limited daylight. Don’t bother hiking. Three mountains stand in your way. And bring layers.

how to prepare cold-water surf trip

Fun surf awaits those who can brave freezing waters. Photo: Chris Burkard

“Sometimes people don’t understand, but these trips are in real expedition-style settings,” laughs Reierson. “It’s a cross between mountaineering and surfing, in a way. That’s my pre-trip speech. It can be joking or not joking, however they want to take it. But I try to tell them that you might be pumped up to try a high-grade maneuver in the water, but just remember we’re out here in the middle of nowhere. If your board pops up and busts your nose, there’s a possibility that we won’t be able to get you medical attention for 24 to 36 hours, or even longer.”

Reierson’s disclosure isn’t meant to scare people away. The Seward native just wants to inform surfers about the real hazards they face on excursions through Alaska’s southern coast, along the Kenai Peninsula. The reward, though, is a surf frontier unlike any you’ll find.

how to prepare cold-water surf trip

Photo: Chris Burkard

Reierson offers a few different trip packages – by heli-travel or by Bush plane – of varying lengths through his charter company out of Seward (You can view them here). However you choose to find waves in Alaska, says Reierson, you can bet the process is more complicated than stepping from the lodge to the sand.

We reached out to Reierson and asked him for an honest how-to on surfing in Alaska.

The best time of the year to get good surf:

"Spring and fall are your best call. Winter is just cold," says Reierson. "The snowy backgrounds in photos sell, but in reality, it’s freezing. I only run my charter April to September now. Even down here in Seward, we’ll have six hours of daylight in the wintertime. Because of the weather, the only way you can do stuff in the winter is in a boat, which has its own seasonal hazards. Those good shoulder seasons are more or less April, May, and June. August, September, and October are when the water will be warmest, but that’s still only around 56 degrees. If you’re really concerned about the water, then that would be a better time."

Best way to get there:

"I think a road trip to Alaska is pretty unreal, driving the ALCAN and Cassiar highways," says Reierson. "That’s how a lot of the younger demographic is getting to Alaska – they’re doing these massive road trips. But that also tends to cost a little more for a tight-budget trip. Flying into Anchorage International Airport, to be cost-effective, is probably your best option. Alaska Airlines can get you up here for fairly cheap."

The different kinds of break set-ups you can expect:

"I think the most common set-up you’ll find is a river mouth-style break, because we have so much glacial runoff," says Reierson. "We have a lot of sediment being pushed out of these rivers. During the summertime, it’s a lot like Waimea, where sediment gets pushed out and creates a totally different sandbar. Where I’m at, there aren’t any cold-water reef breaks, like what you see in the Aleutians. If it’s not a sand-bottomed river mouth, it’s more or less a cobblestone-like pointbreak. When you fly over, you fly over half a dozen spots in the process."

Where to stay:

"A lot of people will camp around here. We have so much state land here, so we can camp in a lot of cool spots," says Reierson. "There are so many cool AirBnB’s up here now. It’s a great way to know the locals. From what I’ve heard, people are good hosts in Alaska. But as for specifics, I would recommend the South Central zone on the Keani Peninsula. From an adventure and travel perspective, it gives you the most range. You can still drive to Denali, but you can also stay local and do other forms of recreation, like sea kayaking, hiking, and biking."

Photo: Chris Burkard

What to bring:

"If you’re coming to Alaska, definitely bring rain gear. That’s number one," says Reierson. "I think most people’s perceptions of appropriate gear is off. There are so many variations of what people think quality gear is. Sometimes you’ll see people decked out for an Antarctic safari, and it’s still 65 degrees [Laughs]. If you’re from somewhere in California, you might think that’s cold as sh-t. When it comes to layers, have options. Synthetic fibers are always a go-to. They’re fast-wicking, and you can easily add more layers or take layers off. You need to stay comfortable, and that’s pretty much staying dry, in my opinion."

Boards and wetsuits:

"I’d bring a 5/4 suit, for sure," says Reierson. "The best all-around board, if I had to pick one, would be a groveler, something in the shorter range But I think it just depends on the surfer. I just picked up a 5'10" roundtail with some volume on it. More volume is one of the keys to Alaskan surf. The salt content in our water is a lot lower because we get that glacial runoff. It takes a board with more volume to float you, in addition to the fact that you’re already wearing five millimeters of rubber."

Gloves and booties?

"It depends," says Reierson. "I don’t wear gloves in the summertime. Generally, I enjoy not wearing gloves, but in the season that I’m in, I do wear thinner 3mm gloves. I’d also recommend 5mm booties."

How much you can expect to spend:

"Some estimates have the cost around $130 bucks a day, including accommodations and food, per person," says Reierson. "It depends on the individual and the kind of adventures that they want to do. If you ate out three meals a day and had some beers with your friends, and did, say, a whale-watching tour, I’d say you’re looking at $150 bucks a day.

"A lot of people think surfing is a low-cost sport. But that’s not the case in Alaska. Things are ridiculously expensive because you need to ship everything here. That’s on a supply front. On a transportation front, a 30-mile distance for a boat takes two hours each way. There’s a good chance that the people who grew up in beach communities are used to driving down to the beach. But all these guys running these airplane, helicopter, and boating businesses, they’re planning on running the entire day. So I think the higher cost, and the logistics behind it, are a massive challenge with Alaska. You can pretty much expect the pricing to be just like Hawaii. There are some things that are less expensive about if you live up here, like the price of seafood. But you’re going to pay for it on the backend."

Ding repair solutions?

"If someone is on a trip of mine, and they have a problem, you can make your standard repairs with the ding putty we bring," says Reierson. "But it’s funny. If you just didn’t have the stuff and you needed a quick fix, you’d probably go down to the boat supply store, in all honesty [Laughs]. You can buy – gosh, I don’t even know how thick the fiberglass sheets are, but it’s definitely not surfboard stuff. It’s for putting boats back together. You have to make do with what you have."

The item you don’t think you’ll need, but inevitably will:

"Cold-water wax," says Reierson. "That’s something people don’t think about. I’m not a huge wax connoisseur, but I definitely use the cold-temp Sticky Bumps wax. The difference in a warm-water and cold-water wax when you’re in a place like Alaska is pretty significant. Warm-water wax ends up being like plastic when you put it in 50-degree water."

More from SURFER

Words of wisdom from Kauai big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly

Tyler Wright on winning her second World Championship Tour Title

A tribute to Jean da Silva; video