Hey guys, Kevin with Lifestyle Overland here coming to you with a how-to article on preparing for two of the most iconic remote roads in North America; The Dempster Highway and the Dalton Highway.
Even if these destinations aren’t on your bucketlist, the suggestions found here will also help you prepare for just about any off-road adventure.
The Dempster – 1,086 Mile Adventure
The Dempster is now the most sought after overland adventure in North American travel. What was once a dead-end gravel road to the town of Inuvik, located in the Northwest Territories of Canada, has recently been extended 87 miles across Arctic Tundra to the historical hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. Opening the gates for year-round travel to a place that used to be only accessible by a seasonal ice-road. Now, the completed route takes its riders to the edge of the Arctic Ocean on a 1,086 mile round trip adventure.
The Dalton – 832 Mile Adventure
The Dalton (or the Haul Road as it’s called by it’s daily users) was once the only driveable route to the Arctic and recently conceded it’s title of top overland travel destination in North America to the now completed Dempster.
This 832 mile round trip journey through Northern Alaska may not share the same cultural experience along it’s length that its eastern sister offers, but the beauty of the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass and abundant Musk Ox population may make deciding between the two a difficult decision. (That’s why we recommend doing both!)
If you can’t squeeze both into your schedule, we recommend watching our overland travel series on both highways to help you decide which adventure you prefer.
Whatever your preference, both routes share very similar characteristics when it comes to the necessary preparation steps for travel along these routes. In this article we will share tips and a few lessons learned from our summer expedition along both of these wild and beautiful stretches of road.
Planning is a critical step before you even begin outfitting your vehicle. Take time to research and familiarize yourself with each route so you know what to expect. Always keep in mind that you are ultimately responsible for you and your co-traveler’s safety; at the end of the day it’s up to you to prepare, train, and survive a worst case scenario.
You are responsible for your own safety.
This article is just a suggestion on how we prepared for our travels and isn’t intended to be a definitive guide to get you there and back in one piece. I say this not to scare you away; but highlight the reality of these remote locations and the dangers that must be understood and respected.
Everyone has different comfort and skills levels when it comes to self-sufficient travel situations. If you feel like these routes are beyond your limits, don’t be afraid to explore locally while you develop your abilities and/or seek out other trusted and experienced travelers who are willing to convoy with you. This way you can combine skill sets which will help ensure a successful journey for all.
That being said, let’s move on to the tips:
Maps & Apps
We highly recommend printing or purchasing hard copy maps to take alongside any electronic apps or devices. Technology can fail at any time but paper doesn’t require batteries. If you only buy one hard-copy item we recommend the Milepost Travel Guide. This is the absolute bible when it comes to travel in the north country and will give you an almost mile by mile account on some of the more popular routes in Alaska and Northwest Canada.
For navigation apps we primarily use Gaia GPS for route planning, tracking, and waypoint marking. While you won’t get lost on these highways, knowing where you are at all times helps determine the nearest campground, fuel stop, or emergency services facility in an emergency.
For more info on this powerful app you can see our feature walk-through video here:
Another handy app to have is called iOverlander and is a user created database of campgrounds, wild camps, water sources, repair shops and more. Just be forewarned that not all the data may be up to date and some camping areas may not be 100% legal. Again, you are responsible for your actions so use multiple sources to verify public camping areas before setting up. We the iOverlander apps in conjunction with the public land layer in Gaia GPS to help confirm what’s allowed.
The last piece of the planning puzzle is: Schedule. Generally speaking, both of these routes can be traveled round trip in 3 days when all goes well. However, we recommend scheduling 5 days from start to finish to allow for unforeseen weather or repairs.
What’s the best time of year to travel these routes?
Most adventure seekers travel these routes between mid-June to late-August for the best weather but all seasons offer it’s own experience. Winter travel opens up a whole different set of challenges and risks but will show off this land in it’s most natural form.
We believe that early-July to early August would be a safe window if you’re attempting to minimize any weather surprises.
2: Vehicle Preparation
Your vehicle should be in tip top condition before venturing out on these remote roads. Even minor repairs with basic parts can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on whether or not you need a tow truck to the nearest form of civilization. Oh, and that’s not counting lodging or missed work if you overshoot your schedule! So, invest in your adventure before setting out with that questionable water pump or wheel bearing. You’ll thank us later…
Will I need 4-wheel drive?
Well, the answer might be a bit subjective. It all depends on the weather and your vehicle of choice. There were a few times on both roads where mud was 2 to 4 inches deep from the rain. Needless to say we were very glad to have all 4 wheels working for us… especially with towing a trailer. That being said, we also saw several passenger cars that made it through the same conditions on street tires so it really depends on your skill, weight, and configuration.
Do I need to modify my vehicle?
While the list of available modifications for vehicles today can be downright overwhelming the good news is that you really only need one important upgrade for these highways…
Both the Dalton and Dempster are know for destroying tires, so much so that the US Bureau of Land Management officially recommends 2 full size spares for traveling the Dalton. Accounts from many travelers report multiple flats as a standard toll for traveling these roads (Some had as many as 4 flats!). You can reduce those statistics by running quality all-terrain tires including a full size spare along with proper air pressure.
We run the BFG KO2 series on our rig and have had 130,000 miles of trouble free service out of them. The only flat we experienced in 5 years was a piece of steel we picked up in Alaska!
A frequently overlooked method for protecting your tires and suspension on these “highways” is to slightly reduce the air pressure in your tires. This is also known as “airing-down” and is generally used in more extreme terrain for increased traction. But this tried and true method also does wonders for smoothing out the ride, while allowing the rubber to conform to sharp objects instead of remaining rigid and causing punctures. This is a very condensed explanation but you can read more in our article; The Mystical Art of Airing Down to help you determine safe pressure levels for your off-pavement travel.
Tire Repair Kit
Even these methods aren’t a guarantee against foreign debris like nails or screws so a tire repair kit is another must have in your kit. These are available for a few dollars at a parts store, or you can go with this kit from ARB which has much beefier tools that are easier to use and ensure proper plug installation with the built-in retainer.
And last but not least in the tire category is an air compressor. The selection and price on these can range from $50 to almost $500 depending on brand and features. Basically the more you spend, the faster and more reliable the compressor. In this situation, any compressor is better than none so go with your gut.
You can see our complete tire care kit here: Deflating, Inflating, and Repair
The next items on your list should be basic spare parts. Extra lug nuts, misc hardware, fan belts, and hoses are just a few suggestions but tailor this list to your own vehicle’s needs. Don’t forget any vehicle specific tools if needed.
Basic Tool Kit
You should also carry a basic tool kit. What does that look like? A ratchet and socket set, wrenches, vise grips, screwdrivers, adjustable wrench, and a hammer are just some suggestions. You can eliminate sizes that don’t exist on your vehicle to reduce weight.
You can shop all day for recovery gear and find yourself out of money for the trip really fast. There are a lot of products out there but as long as you keep it on the road you shouldn’t need much gear for these routes. A suggested minimum would be a tow strap and quality clevis attachments for minor extractions or a tow to the nearest support center.
Vibration is the bane for improperly torqued connections. Crawl under your vehicle before your trip and ensure everything is torqued properly. Checking your suspension regularly as well as your wheel lugs can save you a lot of heartache in the event something starts to work loose. Carrying a tube of blue loctite will help keep any of those loose connection repairs permanent.
3: Fuel Management
Up next, and probably one of the most talked about topics for these adventures is; fuel management. Fortunately, fuel isn’t too hard to come by along these routes but depending on your fuel mileage, road conditions, and fuel stock at gas stops you may find yourself stranded without some reserves of your own.
We recommend carrying a minimum amount of fuel to give you 50 to 75 miles of travel. Just remember when calculating this that lower tire pressure and muddy terrain can reduce your miles per gallon below your usual average so err on the conservative side when choosing your capacity.
These are the fuel containers we use:
4: Emergency Preparation
First Aid Kit
Next up, and the most important step of all, is emergency preparation. Ensure that you have a quality, well-stocked first-aid kit on board and get trained on how to use it. Poorly administered first-aid can sometimes do more harm than good so sign up for a weekend course that also includes CPR so you will know how to react in multiple situations.
Two of our favorite brands are: Adventure Medical Kits and Tuff Gear for Life
While most first aid kits contain limited amounts of basic medication, it’s best to also a good practice to carry a miniature medicine cabinet with a selection of over the counter options. A headache, allergies, bug bites, or bad case of heartburn can really put a damper on the traveling spirit.
Also, don’t forget to bring enough prescription medicine for your travel schedule including enough for unexpected stops due to weather or repairs.
If you don’t already have one, make sure your vehicle is outfitted with a quality fire extinguisher. This simple device could mean the difference between a minor flame-up resulting in scorched wiring that’s easily repaired or a completely burned out hulk on the side of the road not to mention the possibility of wildfire as a result. Make sure you have one rated for automobile use and keep it securely mounted in an accessible location.
A couple flashlights with extra batteries is another item that might go overlooked, especially if you’re traveling during the 24 hours of daylight cycle but these could be indispensable if you’re trying to find a missing bolt in a dark engine bay or warn oncoming traffic of your disabled vehicle. We prefer rechargeable flashlights that stay plugged in and ready to go.
Extra Food and Water
Keep emergency rations of food and water on board at all times in the north country. How much to carry depends on your travel party but we try to keep at least 7 days of extra food and water on hand at all times. We like the freeze-dried meal options that are lightweight and compact to reduce storage use. Streams and rivers are fairly abundant along these routes so a water purification system and containers will help keep weight down if you don’t want to carry a lot of extra weight.
Weather is the wildcard in these regions. An 80 degree day can change to snow in a few hours… even in August so make sure you dress in layers and be prepared for all types of weather. If you’re traveling in the winter it almost goes without saying that you will need some serious cold weather gear in the event of a break-down. Temperatures can dip into the -40 degree Fahrenheit range with windchills down to -60F.
That brings us to communications. There is very little to no cell phone coverage on these routes so an alternate communication method is very important. Unfortunately satellite phones can be cost prohibitive on a budget and even rental fees can be hard to swallow for some so while this may be the most reliable communication method, it might not be viable for everyone.
The next best options would be satellite texting devices with SOS capabilties or a personal locator beacon (PLB). There are a lot of great articles on the pros and cons of these devices out there so do your research and choose what’s right for you. Personally we use both, the satellite texting device for keeping in touch with family and allowing them to locate us in the event we don’t check in. While the personal locator beacon for true life or death emergencies since it is the only device required to be responded to by international law and offers higher location accuracy due to it’s dual frequency. We highly recommend a PLB as a minimum for your kit.
If you are a licensed ham radio operator, you’ll have the option of using your mobile unit but be forewarned that there are no repeaters along the Dempster and the only two near the Dalton are located in Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay so you will be relying on simplex to reach out for help. We don’t recommend using this as a primary communication method unless you are experienced and capable of very long range transmissions.
Our communications kit: Electronics and Comms
Know your nearest emergency care facility.
And finally, always keep track of where you are and the nearest emergency care facility and communicate that with others in your group. This will ensure you head the right direction in the event of a medical emergency and not lose time going the wrong direction or attempting to make a decision under stress.
Now, moving on the fun part… the drive! As mentioned before, set your tire pressure to the optimal setting for your vehicle.
Take a few minutes at every stop to check for loose bolts, leaks, or tire damage.
Ask locals or oncoming travelers about road and weather conditions ahead.
Always give larger vehicles the right of way and slow down when passing oncoming traffic to reduce the risk of rock damage.
Always drive with your headlights on and frequently clean your rear brake lights when dusty or muddy.
Slow down in low visibility conditions such as rain, fog, or dense forest in order to give yourself reaction time if a large, 4-legged animal decides to cross in front of you.
Only stop when it is safe to do so. Wildlife encounters can be distracting so always check your mirrors before coming to a halt and don’t stop in curves or blind hills.
Be aware of soft shoulders when pulling over. It doesn’t take much for the roadway to give in bad weather which could leave you in a ditch or the bottom of a ravine.
Check on your fellow travelers when you find a disabled vehicle. Never assume a wrecked or stuck vehicle has already been checked for injured passengers… always remember it could be you inside hoping someone would stop.
And finally, keep an eye out for aircraft, especially on the Dempster where stretches of the road are designated emergency landing strips.
6: Lodging & Camping
If you plan on staying at lodges or hotels along these routes be sure to plan well in advance because rooms are very limited especially in the busy season.
If you’re camping, ensure you only camp on public land designated for camping use. Keep in mind that the Dempster has many segments of land owned by the First Nations and the Dalton has private oil company sections, both of which are prohibited to public use. Again the Public Land and Backroad Canada Mapbooks layers found in the Gaia GPS app work really well for this along with the iOverlander app.
Remember to use caution when camping near streams and stick to the highground to avoid the path of a flash flood. Torrential rains have also been known to cause mud slides so scan the area before pitching your tent.
7: Wildlife Awareness
And now, for another popular topic… wildlife! If you’ve spent any time watching videos or searching social media for photos along these routes you’ve probably seen a lot of bears, moose, caribou and musk ox. While these natives are indeed the highlight of the adventure, they can also be dangerous under the wrong circumstances.
That’s why you want to always be alert when walking around camp or hiking to a lake or vista. Situational awareness is your first line of defense. Make it a habit to keep your head on a swivel and avoid distractions.
Always carry bear spray and make plenty of noise when going through low-visibility areas to avoid surprising animals and triggering a self-defense or territorial response.
Reduce / Control Smells
When possible cook in a separate location before traveling to camp for the night. If you do cook at camp make sure you keep smells to a minimum by keeping food and trash inside a hard sided vehicle or IGBC (International Grizzly Bear Coalition) approved container or cooler.
Clean up immediately after meals and dump rinse water away from camp. Don’t forget that many non-food products also smell like tasty treats to bears such as shampoo, soap, and in some first-hand accounts even spare fuel containers. There are many opinions on camping and cooking in bear country and ours is just another one of those. Again, you are responsible for your own safety so do your research and adopt the tactics you believe to be most effective for your travels.
Both Alaska and Canada allow firearms for protection against wildlife but if you are unfamiliar or unskilled with their use then they can become more of a liability than a safeguard. A firearm is an absolute last resort in an animal encounter. It’s up to you to avoid a dangerous interaction before it starts and only use lethal force when all other options are expended. If you plan on carrying one, do your own research when determining what is legal, what permits are needed, and any border crossing declaration requirements.
And now for another type of wildlife… more specifically the type who will no doubt draw some kind of blood during your travels… the mosquitoes. Depending on the time of year you travel, these bloodthirsty, winged nuisances can absolutely ruin a beautiful evening at camp if you come unprepared.
Bug spray is only one step in keeping these guys at bay. The best approach is to use multiple methods to help minimize their impact. We’ve had great success with a product called a thermocell which uses a low-heat source and wafer with active ingredients to create an airborne perimeter of protection.
You’ll also want to invest in a few hats and head-netting to keep the clouds off your face while setting up your defenses or hiking.
When all else fails, it’s time to bring in the secret weapon… an instant pop-up screen room. When you’re just tired of fighting and want to eat dinner in peace, this product proved to be worth its weight in gold.
We’ve written an article on proven pest control tactics to help you successfully avoid being overwhelmed by clouds of hungry insects:
We’ve already touched on the weather a bit but here’s a few more tips. Bring a good rain jacket and maybe even rain pants in case you find yourself making repairs in a downpour.
Dress in light layers you can add or remove with the temperature fluctuations.
Be mindful of heavy rain and how it might affect streams when you’re selecting a campsite.
We were unable to pick up any weather stations along these routes so striking up conversations at stops was a big help on determining road conditions.
One of the great features with the Garmin inReach device is that you can get a weather report from anywhere since it operated over satellite. We used this several times to keep tabs on rainfall.
9: Convenience Items
A few suggestions on items that will make your trip a bit more enjoyable… Starting off; toilet paper! Always bring your own stock just in case. You’ll also want to bring a small shovel to properly bury your accomplishment and keep the tundra looking pristine.
Stock up on groceries in the larger towns because even simple items can cost 2 to 3 times more the further north you travel.
Be sure and carry cash reserves in the proper currency just in case credit card readers are inoperable.
If constant daylight will be a factor for you, bring along a sleeping mask to help you sleep at night.
10: Unique Info
And finally, while both of these routes share a lot of similarities there are a few distinctions worth mentioning.
The Dempster is 98% gravel and can be extremely dusty or very muddy. The speed limit is generally 55 mph outside of populated areas.
You can camp right on the edge of the arctic ocean at the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk.
Yukon Territory camps offer free firewood with your $12 Canadian camping fee.
The longest stretch between fuel stops is from the beginning of the highway to Eagle Plains so make sure you top off at the Card Lock before heading north.
What is a card lock? It’s an unmanned gas station where you scan your card inside a building, select your pump, and top it off yourself. These can be finnicky at times.
There are two ferry crossings along the Dempster that can be closed as late as early june for ice breakup and mid october for freeze up. In the winter travelers drive across the frozen rivers.
Verizon 4G LTE is available in Tuktoyaktuk.
The Dalton is 25% pavement but don’t let that fool you, the pavement can be much worse than the gravel sections and has claimed many a tire and suspension component. Take the potholes seriously.
The speed limit is 50 mph outside of populated areas.
There are no official campgrounds once you reach Deadhorse but there are severals pull offs outside of town that are great wild camps.
Don’t let your guard down in Deadhorse; bears frequent this area and are not afraid of people.
You can listen in to the Dalton’s truck drivers on CB channel 19 which helps keep tabs on incoming semi’s. Alaska State Troopers also monitor this channel.
The longest stretch without fuel is from Coldfoot to Deadhorse, always top off at these locations.
Access to the arctic ocean at Prudhoe Bay is only through a paid tour that has to be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and requires a background check.
Verizon 4G LTE is available at Galbraith Camp and Deadhorse.
Ok folks, that wraps up our in-depth suggestions on preparing for two of the most iconic routes in North America. If you’re interested in GPS data for these routes then click this link and consider becoming a patron of our channel where you can get all kinds of exclusive content while supporting what we do.
Hope you enjoyed this and found it informative. We wish you safe travels on your northbound adventure!