Only 600 miles of pavement and dirt road stands between us and the Arctic Circle. With an entire weekend available there is plenty of time to make a run for it. Packing for a road trip is easy. The “safety” of the vehicle provides an escape from rain, allows for an unexpected trip to the store to buy forgotten items, or even make an early return home as an easy out for poor planning or unexpected conditions. A trip up the Dalton Highway is an entirely different story. This is a road made and maintained for working people not tourists. Although we have found the folks on the highway to be generally courteous and even friendly we bring what we need, stay out of the way, plan to be self-sufficient and help others in need. Having driven the road only twice we are no experts; however, we do know a little about travel and are great listeners. Below are the tips and tricks we have collected along the way:
Bring what you need
Bring everything you need with you. Don’t count on buying anything north of Fairbanks. Packing for the trip we took along the typical car camping equipment of tents, sleeping bag, bug spray, etc. A few extras that make a long distance road trip in Alaska complete include:
- Fuel. It would be real tough to bring enough fuel to make the entire trip to Deadhorse and back. I counted two gas stations directly north of Fairbanks. Once on the Dalton gas can be found at the Yukon crossing, Cold Foot and Deadhorse. Bring spare fuel along with you and plan on stopping for fuel long before the tank is empty. Anything can happen. We have found fuel stops on the Seward highway have closed unexpectedly due to technical problems, generators have failed on the Richardson causing all services to go offline at roadhouses and I am sure the Dalton stations have their share of random problems. For our August 2012 trip we packed 20 gallons and skipped fueling at the Yukon crossing on the return home saving time and money.
- Cash. Most every place in Alaska strives to accept credit cards; however, I have seen credit card machines go offline in all sorts of remote places resulting in a cash only business. Don’t get stranded because you plan to survive on plastic!
- Spare tires. Expect a minimum of two flat tires for each vehicle and trailer and be prepared to repair or change them on your own. Bring along a minimum of two full size spare tires for each vehicle/trailer and be sure to carry a working jack and lug wrench. I have given up on the stock equipment opting to bring a 2.5 ton floor jack, 12-ton bottle jack and a large 4-way lug wrench to “break” rusted parts free.
- Tire repair kit. It is easy to plug a tire. Buy a tire repair kit and air pump then find someone who can teach you how to use them. Even if you don’t feel comfortable plugging the tire while on the vehicle, it will provide a useful activity for an evening beside the camp fire and will return the tire to a functioning condition.
- Tools and parts. A full toolkit comes along on every trip we head out on. Items include full sets of metric and standard wrenches and sockets, pipe and adjustable wrenches, hammers, cable winch, vehicle tow strap, and a wide assortment of miscellaneous hand tools. Bearings, housing, spindle, lug nuts and axle grease are brought along to fix the trailer if needed. We have seen many trailers with blown bearings and damaged spindles left stranded on the side of the road and bring along the parts just in case. If you are not mechanically inclined find a basic tool kit in a neat and orderly box and be sure it includes: standard and philips screwdrivers, needle nose Vise grips, black electrical tape, duct tape, and 6 feet of stiff wire. Nearly everything can be fixed or patched with these items. Needle nose Vise grips can grab a hold of most bolts even if it strips them a little, stiff wire can secure loose or broken parts, electrical tape can provide a quick repair to wires or hoses, and duct tape can fix nearly anything (including replacing an entire window). Be creative.
- Cleaning the windshield. Between the bugs and the dust expect a very dirty windshield. Be sure to fill the washer fluid before leaving and carry an extra gallon. Bring along some baby wipes as they make excellent rags to scrub the dead bugs off the glass.
- CB Radio and a SPOT. A CB can be helpful in asking for help in an emergency and a SPOT can call in emergency responders. The further north we travel the less responsive our SPOT becomes especially when behind even small hills and light tree cover. Don’t even ask about or expect cell coverage.
- Battery booster pack and jumper cables. A light or radio left running can drain a battery quickly. The Es5000 Booster Pac works great in getting a vehicle started. With lots of use in the winter these units hold up very well. Make sure it is charged before you leave! Bring along a quality set of jumper cables.
Stay out of the way and drive with your lights on
The Dalton is a road for working people – tourists beware and keep out of the way! Drive with your head lights on at all times. When meeting oncoming traffic on the Dalton slow down and pull off to the right side as far as you safely can. Most drivers will see you slow down and do the same. The blue trucks of Carlile Transportation have always slowed their rigs and the drivers often wave as they pass by. The men and women who drive the road every day likely will travel faster then you and be better equipped and trained to do so. If you see someone coming up behind you slow down and pull over to let them pass. Do not become a hazard by traveling too slow, stopping on the roadway, or taking up too much road around corners and up hills. You are putting your life and the lives of others at great risk. Find a safe spot to pull over for pictures, lunch or to change a tire.
Drivers everywhere should be capable of changing a tire but if you don’t know how bring along someone who does or stay off the Dalton. Be ready to handle stopping your vehicle if a tire unexpectedly blows out. It is hard to prepare for this except to keep a reasonable speed when traveling. During stops perform a visual check of your tires and ensure they have adequate air pressure. Be prepared to enjoy the full experience the road will offer. Just a few of the problems I have encountered on dirt roads include a shattered window, cracked windshields, broken muffler mount, broken u-joint, blown out ball joint, flat tires, broken tire belts, broken leaf spring, engine fire, leaky radiators, blown radiator hoses, engine misfire, engine backfire, water in fuel, dust in eyes and mouth and bad attitudes. This is all part of the fun and if these things have never happened to you then you must be the luckiest person alive or you don’t get out much.
Offer a helping hand
Stopping to help a fellow traveler is something we should all do on a regular basis. Use your time on the Dalton to practice this charity and of course exercise good judgement.
Traveling the road on a dry day can offer a mouthful of dust and poor visibility. A heavy rain and the road becomes slick and soggy. Permafrost prevents water from deeply penetrating the soil. A fine silt in the gravel creates muddy spots in various areas that can cause some difficulty.
Find a copy of a Mile Post to read and take along as a guide. Even a copy that is a few years old will do. Stop along the way and talk to fellow travelers, station attendants, the BLM folks at the Yukon river visitors center, Doyon security guards and anyone that happens along the way. Spend more time listening to their experiences than having your voice heard and perhaps you will learn about what lies ahead and a few of your own tricks and ideas. Remember to have fun and be sure to share your ideas in the comments below.
Our August 2012 adventure
Over 1,200 miles in 48 hours. Three drivers, fourteen passengers, nine children.