Heading north to Alaska is the ultimate RV adventure for many. The unparalleled scenic beauty, the wildlife, the mystery — whatever your reason, Alaska is truly a prime RV destination. But before you jump in your tow vehicle, hitch up the trailer and head up north, you do need to do a bit of homework to get the most out of your trip of a lifetime.
The first step in your planning might be looking at a map of North America to see how big a chunk of the continent you will be visiting. The scope of the trip is awesome, but thousands of RVs of every kind take on the challenge every year. You won’t be blazing a new trail, and you won’t be alone up there – except for a few remote stretches of permafrost highway, that is.
And before you begin your planning, think about the purpose of your adventure. Why are you willing to drive 7,000 or more miles over sometimes inhospitable roads?
The most common attractions seem to be sightseeing, fishing and fulfilling your desire to visit the “Land of the Midnight Sun” just to say, “I did it!” Your motive for going does make a difference in how you plan to make the trip. Think about your options even before you begin preparing your rig for the long haul.
Casting a Line
A stream of RVers plying the highways of British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon Territory and Alaska take on the trip with the idea of finding the best spot to drop a fishing line and parking for days or weeks before trying their luck elsewhere. Numerous tales have been written about the can’t-miss fishing grounds, both on inland rivers and streams and in the coastal waters.
Making it easy to find a good place to fish are the stream accesses where you’ll see several or even dozens of people in hip-huggers casting lines into the frigid, clear waters. For offshore fishing, every coastal town has its fleet of boats ready to welcome you aboard for a (near) can’t-miss day reeling in trophy catches.
If you have your sights set on seeing the sights, that is really a “can’t-miss” experience. Everywhere you look on the way up to and throughout Alaska are incredible vistas with abundant wildlife, plus introductions to unfamiliar “First People” cultures. The expanses are punctuated by quaint towns inhabited by folks whose day-to-day lives are what you might expect of the Far North existence, where temperatures drop to 90 degrees below freezing in the winter
If you’re heading up there to fish, you probably want to plan your trip yourself or just hitch up, get in the truck and drive. If you want to take in the beauty and cultures, you have a choice: you can wing it by planning the trip yourself just taking your chances, or you can join an RV caravan, which is well worth considering for your first time up there.
Why? Because there is so much to see … and there are also many opportunities for driving a long way to take in what turns out to be a disappointing sight. Many of the caravan companies provide RVers with a chance see a lot in a short time, with the amount of time on the road part of the reason to choose one company or route over others. Also, they will literally steer you in the right direction for sampling much of what Alaska has to offer, and will place emphasis on safety for members of their group.
As you can imagine, once you get out of southern British Columbia (or Alberta, should you choose a Montana takeoff point), you will soon be encountering hundreds of miles of beautiful scenery witnessed from lonely roads. You will want to do everything practical to have your tow vehicle and trailer rough-road ready.
The following are some of our top tips after our Alaska experiences:
Tires & Suspension
Don’t risk the trip on unreliable tires. You can’t call for a tow truck where there is no phone service for 100-plus miles, and the time and money wasted will greatly diminish the enjoyment of your adventure. And while you’re at it, it’s a great idea to have your vehicle thoroughly checked out, especially the suspension, before starting the journey. Don’t risk having an undependable battery, and be certain to get your trailer’s LP-gas topped off before leaving the United States.
As a rule, you should always carry extra fuel. You may expect to get gas or diesel fuel in 200 miles, only to arrive at a solitary service station to find a sign saying “Out of Gas” or “Out of Business.” It is a familiar sight that could put you in panic mode instantly. We also recommend that you buy a spare fuel filter — just in case.
The Grille & Windshield
Protect the front of your tow vehicle with a screen or other material that will stop rocks from embedding themselves on your radiator. I rigged up a screen that kept us safe. As a bonus, a member of our caravan harvested numerous butterflies from the front to press into a framed picture, which she presented us at the end of the trip (that kind of camaraderie is a major benefit of caravanning).
You can’t do much about windshield dings, except to wait to return home before replacing the windshield unless it causes an unsafe driving condition. Another member of our group made the whole trip without a ding, only to get smacked when driving home through Oregon.
Summers in Alaska can get very warm, but as you near glaciers, a dramatic chill sets in. Be prepared to layer on excursions. Pack a parka, raincoat and/or a waterproof jacket (although Alaska is a good place for jacket shopping) and weather-resistant boots.
Check the laws to learn what Canadian Customs officers will ask you about or search for when you cross into their country. At the checkpoints the officers take their jobs very seriously, with concerns about fruit, weapons, an abundance of alcoholic beverages and other listed items.
The further you drive from civilization, the higher the prices of fuel and food. You can’t do much about it, so take cash or debit cards. With debit cards, however, expect to pay irritating bank service charges. Alaskan prices are slightly higher than in the Lower 48 except for fuel.
Along the way , you’ll need to stop at a bank or exchange to have Canadian currency on hand. Don’t fight it! It makes going across our neighboring country much easier.
My speedometer has “kilometers per hour” on it (as I’m certain yours does), which is the Canadian way, but I found it much too hard to read without glasses. So, I wrote the equivalents and taped them to the center of my steering wheel. It worked very well for me. Though it doesn’t take long to get used to the metric system, you may want to practice a bit before you set off.
Take it Easy!
You’ll quickly realize that you can’t be in a rush on the way to — or once you’re in — Alaska. Permafrost along much of the route causes major upheavals, which can launch you airborne before you realize you’ve hit it. It takes getting used to, but even after days of learning to recognize signs of upcoming frost heaves, you will still encounter a few that will send you bouncing, sometimes violently. Drive slowly to minimize trailer and tow-vehicle damage.
Most roads are paved these days. That’s reassuring, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have smooth sailing along the way. In addition to the frost heaves on almost every highway, there is seemingly constant repair and construction that will slow you down.
There is a rumor that you can just park along the road at night. That is true in some places but not others. Unless you have already made reservations at a particular RV park, plan to arrive early in the day in order to get a spot. Space is limited in most towns, so travelers do get turned away with nowhere to stop for a hundred miles. On the other hand, many park managers do try to accommodate as many travelers as possible.
Get your medications before you leave. Medical facilities on the way through much of Canada’s remote areas are few and far between — and many health-insurance plans, including Medicare, don’t apply. Check your plan’s coverage, particularly if you have a chronic problem. Once in Alaska you will enjoy the same coverage as elsewhere in the U.S. but, of course, medical care could be 300 miles up the road.
Don’t be afraid to take your pets, but make sure you know which documents you’ll be asked for at the border crossings. Availability of pet medical care is about the same as with human facilities. One situation to think about is what happens to your pet when you head out for an 8-hour bus ride into Denali National Park or an all-day boat tour to the glaciers or fishing. There are sitter services at some RV parks for additional fees. And don’t forget your pet’s pills and other needs.
Forget cell-phone service for much of your trip up and in many areas of Alaska. Call your service carrier to find out about optional out-of-country plans and to understand availability. We have OnStar, which I expected to keep us in touch, but it, also, relies on cell towers for service.
As you travel northward, phone, Internet and satellite dish service sometimes fades away. There are Internet cafes and providers along the route, but service is not always available and, again, it can cost a bit more than in the Lower 48. Alaska does have good coverage around cities.
CB radios are often required for caravan members, who are asked to announce RV park departures and arrivals. CBs are an effective way of communicating with others in the group, be it for discussing danger along the road, where to stop for meals or simply for conversation on lonely stretches of highway.
The bible of RVing to Alaska is “The Milepost,” a comprehensive guide with alternate routes and maps, as well as information about services, food, RV parks and sights practically every mile along the way. It also offers tips on what to expect on your trek into the great unknown. And, of course, membership in the Good Sam Club is a reassurance for travelers, providing reliable, customized RV-related information and services, including roadside assistance.
Set your sights on the most incredibly beautiful trip of your life, but don’t go without taking the time to minimize risks. After all, it can be a bear up there.