“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” ~Yogi Berra
The concept of a family vacation a’la vehicle is time-honored and extremely popular tradition in Alaska. Particularly attractive to those who want to see as much of “real Alaska” as possible, on their own time, a 49th state road trip means loose schedules, beautiful scenery, and the same opportunities as those scheduled tours. They do, however, require participants who are 1) willing to make their own arrangements for everything from campsites to river rafting trips, and 2) independent in both spirit and ability, because in Alaska, anything can happen, and usually does.
Here’s what you need to know for a safe, fun road trip, from planning to packing, Alaska-style.
Gathering information is easy. Go buy The Milepost, a five-pound (just kidding), full-color travel bible of maps, photos, and click-by-click descriptions of every major roadway in Alaska. I have driven for days since moving here, thanks to the Milepost, an annual edition of which has been published since the 1950’s, and something we purchase at Costco every spring in gleeful anticipation of going somewhere, anywhere. Visitors have a choice, they can do their research online, then purchase a hard copy of The Milepost upon arrival at Costco, or they can order one from the company directly. The Milepost publishers are also offer an online version. They also have a nifty Facebook page, where photos are regularly posted and some nice dialogue ensues about driving, trip reviews, and such.
Not sure about lodging or camping? We like to utilize the information in Alaska’s major cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks. Traveling to Southeast Alaska? Remember that there is no road to Juneau, only the communities of Haines and Skagway, so you’ll need to employ the services of the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries (hey, we have a book about that!). Also useful is Recreation.gov, a clearinghouse of all public land campgrounds and cabins both on and off the road system.
For those considering an RV adventure, we always enjoy the service and style of Great Alaskan Holidays, our go-to company for the last three summers of wandering the byways of Alaska on road trip itineraries between the Lower 48 and the Denali Highway, and everything in between. We highly endorse this warm, dry, and comfortable style of travel, and it’s becoming very popular with families.
Packing for an Alaska road trip involves a bit more stuff than other destinations. Fewer services combined with roadways that may be less-than maintained mean drivers must demonstrate an ability to care for themselves in any situation. Alaska has but three major highways that pass through bustling cities, and after less than 30 minutes, your family is likely to be zooming into the state’s wilderness, away from services and cell service. We bring lots of books, podcasts, and often create a roadside scavenger hunt based upon our destination so kids can check off items we might pass.
Call the hotline. Alaska’s Department of Transportation hosts an informative site called Alaska 511, where all road construction, accidents, or weather-related delays or closures are posted. This hotline is especially critical during the season called “Construction,” whereby motorists can be idling for hours while graders, dump trucks, and other heavy equipment rumbles and roars by.
Create a safety kit. We Alaskans like to prepare for anything on a road trip, and visitors should, too. Flares, jumper cables, duct tape, electrical tape, extra water, food, plastic garbage bags, sleeping bags or blankets, chemical hand warmers (yes, it does become chilly rather quickly in Alaska, especially if one is crouching in a rainstorm trying to change a tire), and cash. Cash? Yes, as difficult as it might be to believe, there are still some places without credit card machines. Plan on carrying at least $100 in cash, stashed inside a zip-type bag and placed somewhere safe. Don’t forget the device charger, either. Amazing social media updates and incredible photos will suck the life out of a smartphone in short order, and it would most definitely be a bummer to have a dead battery in the middle of a roadside crisis.
Where should one put all this extra kitch? Some families bring an empty duffel bag; one resourceful group I know went to a thrift store and purchased a cheap cooler that did double duty as a lunchbox. Whatever travelers choose, just be sure it’s readily available should the need arise.
Struggling with luggage? After several years of getting by with the traditional wheeled-style luggage that works great for traversing airports or large cruise ship docks, we’ve settled for wheeled duffels instead. No brand loyalty here; we’ve purchased from several companies and have had good luck with all. Why do we like them? Squishability – that’s why. We can smush duffels into spaces not possible with hard cases. We use one for outdoor gear and one for each traveler.
Good luck out there.