The following packing list for teaching in bush Alaska was submitted by Kenz of Rhode Trippers. See all of our packing lists on HPL. Please note that some of the links below are affiliate links.
In 2017, I was graduating with my M.A. in Elementary Education and last-minute decided to attend the MERC job fair in Boston. Less than 2 weeks later, I accepted a position teaching 2nd grade in the Lower Kuskokwim School District—a collection of 27 schools spread across 20 Alaskan bush villages with populations of less than 100 people, to just under 6,000 people.
The starting wage for a new teacher was more than $20,000 over what I could have expected back home, came with free healthcare, a $3,000 signing bonus, and subsidized housing. Compared to an expected 2-3 years of subbing before finally securing a job back home, I couldn’t say no!
While not all the benefits were as amazing as the recruiter made them seem (the high salary only matches the extremely high cost of living in a remote area, and the subsidized housing doesn’t apply for the one village I chose to live in), the experience has been something I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’ve watched a dog sled race, learned how to fur sew, eaten wild salmonberries off the tundra, and had recess duty in -20 degrees.
However, in preparing for the move, I found that information about moving to the bush was scarce. Unsurprisingly, bush villages don’t have a lot of advertising for apartment rentals online and packing information was often outdated, coming from long-abandoned blogs of ex-teachers.
To combat this, I’ve made a modern post on what upcoming teachers should expect to pack.
Note: Most of the schools in LKSD are in villages of about 100-500 people. The single “hub” of these villages is Bethel – a “village” of just under 6,000 people with two full-sized grocery stores, a gym, a movie theater, and way more available resources. If you teach in an outer village, your contract will provide an apartment with subsidized rent and will explicitly list the furnishings provided, but housing is not provided in Bethel. However, smaller items like cooking supplies, dishes, and bedsheets are not covered in either situation, so in this case, I’ve made one list which should cover you regardless of your assignment.
I know it’s Alaska, but don’t worry, it’s not -20° all the time. While I can only speak for Bethel, being on the river helps keep our winters milder. Winter will average 0° in the day with cold snaps reaching to -20°, but it usually won’t stay there long. We get around 4 hours of daylight in the winter, but don’t expect to see the Northern Lights because it’s cloudy every. Single. Day. On the other hand, nothing beats an Alaskan summer— no humidity, mid-70’s with a nice breeze, and the sun never sleeps!
Unfortunately, due to climate change, Alaska has warmed up so much in recent years that the permafrost (tundra) is actually thawing. When speaking with elders, they’ll tell you that when they were young, the trees were nothing but knee-high bushes, but now the roots are allowed to grow so much that we have full-grown trees! In speaking with a teacher from Newtok over the summer, I learned that she spent spring break moving her classroom to a new school on the other side of the river because the village had to relocate due to erosion.
The extreme winters here are not to be taken lightly. The communities are used to the intense cold so don’t expect any snow days off and the recess cut-off can be as low as -20°. The best brand of winter clothing you can get is Carhartt.
On the other hand, most of the schools here are very lax in their dress-codes so your indoor clothes can be as casual as jeans and a sweater (I even wear slippers in my classroom). On top of your casual wardrobe though, you’re going to need the following:
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- A long winter coat with a rating of at least -30°. (Be careful of ordering clothing with polyester though— I’ve heard the plastic fibers inside can freeze and your coat might actually crack!)
- Snow pants with a similar rating (A lot of women here instead wear snow skirts which they say is like being wrapped in a big blanket!)
- Waterproof snow boots with a similar rating (The mukluks they make out here are beautiful, but really only used for special occasions and are very expensive).
- Heavy-duty winter gloves
- A thick wool scarf
- Long underwear or leggings to wear under jeans (those classrooms can get cold!)
- Plenty of sweaters to layer
- A good hat – I brought a typical fluffy winter hat with a pom-pom on top and soon found that was not enough. Luckily, I made friends and had some help sewing my very own beaver hat. I recommend you do the same as soon as possible – it’s the only thing that will stand up to the cold. The area I live in is actually more temperate due to being on the water, so a lot of people forgo the beaver fur for seal skin instead. But, if you’re looking for something that will make you sweat in the snow, it’s beaver fur.
- Get a kuspuk when you arrive! They’re extremely popular (at my school we actually have Kuspuk Wednesday instead of Casual Friday) and are a comfy-casual yet professionally acceptable addition to your work wardrobe.
- Rain coat (it seems like when it’s not snowing, it’s raining…)
- Muckboots – These are so popular, literally everyone has them. They are 100% waterproof for trudging through all the mud of unpaved roads, but are also insulated for the cold fall weather. (In southeast Alaska, such as Juneau, you’ll find that the go-to shoe is the iconic Xtratuf brown boot, but, up north, these are just not warm enough).
- Teacher tote! There’s literally nothing to do in the villages so most people spend almost all their time at the school (plus it’s usually the only building with WiFi). You’ll want a good quality tote to haul your workload back and forth. Land’s End is a popular option for their great quality and warranty.
- Lunch box and water bottle
- Bug spray – Some of the villages are built on boardwalks and the gnats can get nasty! (Literally, every building is on posts and pathways between them are raised boardwalks only wide enough for a 4-wheeler.)
- Vitamin D – a helpful fighter of winter depression
In terms of feminine hygiene products, I would definitely pack plenty of a preferred brand because the selection is very slim and rarely re-stocked. If Target or Amazon delivers, you can relax a little, but if not it’s certainly something to add to the barge order!
>> Might be a good time to invest in a menstrual cup.
Birth control is tricky too. The villages don’t have a pharmacy (only a health clinic) so any regular prescriptions need to be mailed or picked up in Anchorage (and the mail is very irregular). Luckily though, the district does offer one paid roundtrip plane ticket to Anchorage per year for the purpose of renewing birth control.
Considering you’ll be moving with the expectation of staying at least a full year, you’re going to need to pack… well, everything. When teaching in an outer village with supplied housing, your contract will include general furnishings such as a bed, couch, TV, etc. but there’s no promise on the condition of these items (although the schools are generally good at replacing items when needed). Also, it can be tough to remember all the smaller home items, but if you forget anything, it’s going to be a looong wait before the mail-carrier plane can deliver it.
Here’s a list of standard home items you’ll need to get comfy in your new home:
- Dish set – You won’t have a dishwasher so get a set for 4 to save yourself from needing to do dishes every night
- Drinking glasses
- Utensils set
- Dish drying rack
- Kitchen towels
- Hot mitt
- Cooking pot set
- Cooking utensils set
- Cooking knives
- Cutting board
- Bakeware set
- Food storage containers
- Coffee maker and filters
- Electric mixer
- Strainer/ colander
- Breadmaker – Bread is $6 per loaf where we live so we save a ton of money by just loading up the bread machine at night, setting the timer, and having a fresh loaf of bread in the morning!
- Air mattress – You don’t know what condition your provided mattress will be in when you arrive and might need a temporary one to hold you over until you can get a new one.
As a side-note, if you do decide to buy your own mattress, the packable “Purple” ones are very popular because they can be shipped via regular USPS instead of needing to be airlifted in (cost us $300 just to fly our king mattress in to Bethel!)
- Air mattress pump – a hair dryer works just fine though!
- Sheet set
- Comforter and blankets to layer – an electric blanket is a nice upgrade
- Clothes hangers
- Laundry basket
- Blackout curtains or at least an eye-mask – Remember, the sun doesn’t go down in the summer time!
- Sad Light – I don’t have one, but a lot of people have suggested getting a “sad light” to help with those long, dark stretches of winter
- Couch cover – Your provided apartment will come with a couch and TV (unless you live in Bethel) but you never know who used it last
- DVD player/ PlayStation/ Xbox – The internet here is capped! In Bethel we pay $150 per month for 100 gigs of WiFi. It sucks, but in the villages the prices are even more ridiculous (like $150 for 60 gigs). To get around this, people buy hardcopy DVDs or subscribe to Netflix mail-in disks instead of streaming, so you’ll definitely need a disk-player of some kind unless you don’t mind watching TV on your laptop.
- Replacement showerhead – Makes a world of difference.
- Vinyl shower curtains – It’s one of those things that you can get at the Dollar Store in the “lower 48” but cost $10 each to order online if you forget.
- Toilet, shower, and counter cleaners – People here swear by Iron Out to clean the orange stains from our old pipes, but it smells so toxic I have just gotten used to everything looking gross.
- A plunger – You never think of needing one until you really need one.
Ordering food is tricky. Most resources online say to order your years-worth of food at once and have it barged via river to your village. I wouldn’t do this right away. For one, that’s a lot of stress and money. And two, you don’t know if you’ll even like it enough to actually stay the whole year (a lot of people don’t).
Instead, aim to arrive in your site at least 1 month prior to your start date and talk to people who already live there. In some villages you do still have to spend $5,000 up-front on your year’s supply of food. In others, Amazon Prime and Target.com deliver year-round so you don’t have to.
Also, try to make friends! See if someone will take you out fishing or show you where to pick berries. Many villagers live off of subsistence hunting and fishing which will save you ton of money if you can tag along. In my first year here, my principal’s husband took my boyfriend out fishing and he came back with two trash bags full of salmon! We had a fillet every Friday for a year!
Because most of the people hunt for their own food, meat is typically not in high demand and therefore limited and expensive. If no one will take you hunting or fishing, expect to pay at least $6 per pound for chicken. We’ve switched to supplementing most of our protein with beans and lentils instead— they keep for a long time, can be purchased in bulk, and are great for hot soups on cold days.
You can either pay $40 for a watermelon (not kidding), set aside a closet with a UV light to grow your own fruits and veggies, or stick with frozen and dried options. Because they can survive the long transport over, fruits like apples and oranges are usually pretty affordable. Other than that, we buy a bulk bag of frozen mixed veggies and have a serving with dinner every night.
Some people sign up for a produce subscription box called Full Circle. They deliver a variety of seasonal fresh produce from Washington once every few weeks and I’ve heard the quality isn’t too bad!
However, if someone is willing to take you out berry picking, you can get a years-worth of blueberries, salmonberries, blackberries, and cranberries in just a few days for free!
To save money, stick with basic stock ingredients and make as much as you can on your own. For example, instead of buying 52 loaves of bread, 10 cake mixes, and 10 muffin mixes, buy a few 5-lb bags of flour. Once you find a good bread recipe, make your loaves in bulk and freeze them.
Here’s a list of basics to remember:
- Salt & pepper
- Olive oil
- Brown sugar
- Old fashioned oats (flavor with walnuts and cinnamon for a cheap, filling, and healthy daily breakfast!)
- Coffee (whole grounds keep longer, but don’t forget to bring a coffee grinder!)
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Corn starch
- Yeast (bring this with you as you’ll find that yeast is either unavailable or strictly limited because many people use it for moonshining in the dry villages.)
- Lemon juice
- Boxed pasta
- Canned soup
- Canned beans
- Soup stock
Keep in mind, aerosols and anything with alcohol is very difficult to get here. The aerosols will need to be part of a barge order because they cannot be flown, and most of the villages are “dry” meaning alcohol is prohibited by the Native Counsel – even for items such as vanilla extract or mouthwash.
- Laundry soap (powder will be easier to ship than liquid)
- Dryer sheets
- Aluminum foil
- Plastic wrap
- Wax paper
- Dish soap and sponge
- Stock up on basic medicine such as Tylenol, Ibuprofen, cough syrup, Pepto-Bismol, allergy meds, etc.
- Paper towels
- Toilet paper
- Facial tissues
While it’s great fun to go shopping for a new home, the challenge with moving to the bush is actually shipping all of it.
We packed everything into our truck, drove it from Rhode Island to Anchorage, had a really great road trip, and then barged it from Anchorage to Bethel. This allowed us to bring all our belongings and our truck! Unfortunately, it did cost over $2,000, but my $3,000 signing bonus was enough to cover it (even after tax).
The barge is a massive cargo ship by Lynden that makes a few delivery rounds in the summer months. You can board your belongings (no passengers) in either Seattle or Anchorage and it’ll make it to your village a few weeks later.
Now, the barge doesn’t stop at all the villages, so I’d contact your site administrator (principal) about the logistics of moving to an in-land village. This district sees about 25% of its teacher population replaced every year so they’ll know a thing or two about moving in and out of the villages. Plus, upon hiring they also put you in touch with a coordinator whose job is literally just to get you set up comfortably.
In Your Suitcase
There’s a few ways you can go about the move. You can choose to ship everything up right away via air-mail or the barge, or you can move with just some initial belongings to give yourself time to check out the living situation and sample the job for a few weeks before having everything shipped in.
If you do choose to take it more slowly, this is what you should have in your suitcase-set before officially sending for the rest of your belongings:
- Full-size toiletries (better to have too much and pay $3 for shampoo in the Lower 48 than have to replenish for $12 in the village.)
- Clothing for fall-weather, including Muckboots (unless you’re arriving mid-year instead of August, in which case DO bring your most extreme winter clothes)
- Teacher tote, lunch box, and water bottle
- Bug spray (if moving to a village on a boardwalk)
- Paper dishes and cups, plastic utensils
- Paper towels
- Hot mitt
- Cooking pot and pan with lids
- Cooking utensils set
- Cooking knife
- Ziplock bags
- Tupperware containers
- Air mattress
- Air mattress pump
- Sheet set
- Blankets to layer
- Toilet, shower, and counter cleaners plus brushes/ rags
Pack food like you would for camping— nothing refrigerated, count on using the stovetop instead of the oven, and aim for instant coffee. This should make packing light and keep you from having too much waste should you decide to leave. Prepare about 2 weeks-worth of food to give your Target/ Amazon deliveries time to arrive. Don’t be afraid of running out of food though—if worse comes to worst, you’ll just have to pay “village price” for a few meals.
I know this post may make moving to the bush sound exhausting, but the challenge is part of the experience. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!
About the Author: Kenz is a Rhode Islander currently teaching 2nd grade in bush Alaska. She has previously taught ESL in Ecuador and plans on using her teaching profession to take her around the world. Learn how to do the same from her blog Rhode Trippers, or keep up with the adventures on Instagram or Facebook.
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