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How to Drive to Alaska in the Winter

If the thought of making a trip to "The Last Frontier" scares you, the thought of driving there in the winter will terrify you. Here's how to make it a safe, fun adventure.

Difficulty Level: average      Time Required: varies

Here's How:
  1. Assess your skills honestly. If you have little winter driving experience and need to be in Alaska quickly, please only drive as far as your airport.
  2. If this is a holiday trip, decide whether driving a car, camper truck or motorhome are most appropriate to your plans. Flying north and then renting a vehicle is a good option for some people.
  3. When planning your itinerary, allow as much extra time as possible for new opportunities that arise along the way (or for the possibility of problems). Remember that the days get very short.
  4. Use the Alaska Highway, not Highway 37. It is the highway of choice in the winter, and offers more services and safety as a result.
  5. Prepare your vehicle well - tune-up, oil change and a full safety check. Ensure that you have winter or all-season radial tires that are in excellent condition. "Studded" tires are not necessary.
  6. Carry some spare parts. Depending on your vehicle, that may be as little as a fan belt, thermostat and headlight, or a more elaborate kit if your vehicle is not common.
  7. Prepare for deep cold. Carry a sheet of corrugated cardboard large enough to cover your radiator if it gets so cold that your heater starts to lose it's effectiveness. Window ice-scrapers are mandatory equipment.
  8. Carry at least a good map, preferably a detailed highway guide. "The Milepost" is the undisputed king of Alaska-Yukon highway guides, but many listed facilities are closed in the winter.
  9. Be prepared to spend the night in your vehicle. It isn't likely, but vehicle problems or weather can change your plans quickly. That means carrying an Arctic sleeping bag or lots of extra heavy clothes, and some food and water.
  10. Everywhere you stop, ask about conditions ahead, both road and weather. Plan accordingly - don't leave a warm coffee shop and head into conditions you may not be able to handle. "Macho" has no place in such circumstances.
  11. Snow conditions can vary dramatically in a very short distance. A good road may turn into a sheet of ice with no visible signs except to the highly experienced. You should usually be driving well under the speed limit.
  12. Whenever you stop, clear the snow and ice from all your windows, and from your tail lights - they are often neglected. Bringing a hot coffee back into your car can ice up all your windows instantly!
  13. If the temperature is below about minus 15 C., never shut your vehicle off unless you're at a lodge or other facility where assistance is available if needed.
  14. Driving when it's snowing can be hypnotizing - be aware of the effects, and stop for a break occasionally if needed.
  15. When meeting another vehicle, be aware of the possible "snow dust" that can drop your visibility to zero for a lengthy distance. I always ensure that nobody is behind me so I can slow or even stop when that happens - if luck isn't with you, the conditions seen in the photo at the bottom can go on for hours and hundreds of miles.
  16. Now that we have all the cautions written down, think about how amazingly beautiful the North is in the winter. You will be one of the few who get the privilege of seeing it, so savour every mile of it.
  1. Think border-crossing - do not bring a gun! If you must have one for some reason, you need to buy a permit at the border crossing for $25. You can speed things up by having the forms filled out - but don't sign them until you're with the Customs officer. Full information and the necessary forms can be found at the Canadian Firearms Registry site.
  2. Don't take the calendar too seriously - winter can visit 9 months of the year in some of the passes.
  3. Take your time!

Related Features:

Poor winter visibility on the Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John, BC