It was right after COVID hit: I wanted a way to get out of the house with my family in a place without a lot of people that was also close to nature, but it was still way too cold outside to simply pack up the tent and go camping.
And then I remembered an interview I did for Episode 9 with AKonthego.com founder and Alaska travel wizard Erin Kirkland and her recommendation that we check out Alaska’s State Park public use cabins. I knew that they were the perfect solution to my problem.
Away from people? Check. Out of the house? Check. Getting outside? Check.
Listen next: Exploring Alaska and Passing It On
Since then we’ve done five public-use cabin trips throughout the state, and I am officially a fan. And while that’s not nearly as many as some of the traveling pros have visited, it’s enough to teach me a thing or two that I can share with you. Here are my best tips.
Know where to go.
Want to ski, sled, snowshoe or snowmachine in? Only interested in a cabin you can drive to? Willing to kayak, boat or take a float plane to your destination? The more than 80 state park cabins have options for all of these access methods — but you’ll want to know what’s required before you book your spot. The details section for each cabin has notes about access, and you’ll want to read them carefully. Even if you expect to walk to your cabin in the winter, you need to know if the walk is a few feet from the parking spot or 300 meters. If it’s more than those few steps, what you pack to help you get your gear inside is going to be very different. (Hint: you’ll want a sled to haul your supplies).
Since I have two kids, I know that a really long walk or ski is probably beyond our current capabilities. But in the winter we’ve enjoyed a mile or so snowshoe or ski in, and a well packed sled and a few backpacks full of gear make it easy.
Book Alaska public use cabins early and often.
Alaska state park public use cabins fill-up fast for popular dates and seasons. That means you have to literally mark your calendar if you want to for-sure snag a specific date for your adventure. And, making things more complicated, you’re competing against people who might be willing to stay or pay for a few nights more than you.
Here’s the deal: Cabins are booked online through Alaska’s Reserve America portal. They can be booked seven months out from the date your trip starts, and for five to seven days at a time, depending on location. That means if you want to stay in a cabin on Christmas Day, for example, you don’t have to wait until June 25 to book that date if you also want to stay the six nights prior. Instead, you can book it June 19 for December 19 through 25. Make sense?
That means if you really, really want to stay in that cabin December 25, you should think about making it a longer trip so you can be sure to get the date.
It also means you need to plan ahead. I literally mark my calendar for seven months out from the date I want so I can make a booking. It’s how we were able to have a cabin for Thanksgiving weekend and just before Christmas, both top times for cabin users.
Know your Alaska public use cabin heat source — and pack it well.
Almost all of the Alaska public use cabins use wood for heating, while a few have propane-only or both options available. The propane heaters can be finicky — we’ve experienced one that was completely broken — or take a really long time to heat a larger cabin. And the wood stoves are warm and cozy, but can be difficult to regulate, taking a cabin from ice cold to blazing hot in no time.
But key to both of these is fuel — either wood or a propane tank. Neither is provided by the cabin (although users are encouraged to leave behind an emergency stash of wood for the next users). You’ve got to figure out how to get your heating fuel to the cabin, or be prepared to do without. In the summer that’s reasonable — bring lots of layers and prepare to use them. But in the winter you’re definitely going to need some kind of heat.
So how do you do that? If you’re traveling in by foot, ski or snowmachine you’re looking at hauling it in on a sled. And that brings me to this important tip: carefully consider whether the sled you’re planning to use is large enough for the task at hand, and think about using some kind of cord or rope to tie your load down. There is nothing funnier/sadder than watching someone trying to get wood to their cabin with a too small or overloaded sled — especially since the problem is so easily avoided with just a little preparation. Think ahead!
Pack in what you need.
I’m not saying overpack — although I am a chronic overpacker. I’m saying think through what you’re taking in and carefully consider what will make your trip more comfortable. For me that means packing plenty of layers, while knowing that I may use all of them or none of them, especially if we’re having trouble regulating the wood stove. My other cabin must-haves are a deck of cards, our Luci inflatable light (those cabins can be dark, even in the summer!), my Kindle with a few pre-downloaded books and cabin slippers or shoes to keep my feet from getting wet, cold or both. It’s also worth noting that while the cabins have bunk beds, they are wooden platforms and not padded — so bring your sleeping pads!
Offload it if you need to cancel.
If you can’t use the cabin date you booked months out, chances are that someone else would like to. The Alaska State Parks system allows you to cancel your reservation for a fee. But before you jump to that, consider passing the cabin directly to someone who can use it. The Facebook group Alaska Cabin Cancellations allows cabin users to post their bookings “for sale.” I recently passed on a popular winter spot for a weekend we could no longer do. I posted it as “for sale” and within minutes someone had offered to “buy” it, repaying me what I spent. They sent me via PayPal what I had paid to book it, and I forwarded her the reservation details. Done and easy! Now I’m not out any cash and the cabin will be used and enjoyed that weekend.