When our family moved to Alaska in December 2005, a few things were immediately clear. 1) I had forgotten how to drive in icy, snowy conditions, and 2) Confidence was low. My husband might also add “Worst backseat driver, ever” to this list, but that’s a whole separate story.
Timid, unsure of myself and my skills, I limited trips to flat places, and places where I could rely on my 4-wheel-drive to effectively boost my power, whether perceived or actual. I was cautious and careful, but cloistered.
By winters two and three, I felt comfortable enough to trade cars with AK Dad and rely upon German engineering to safely navigate all but the deepest snow. During winters four and five, we got the heck out of town, as much as possible.
Traveling Alaska’s roadways any time of year means an opportunity to view the state’s inner guts, for lack of a better term, and at one’s own pace. Wilderness and small-town life seen in a very big way, that’s why so many people jump at the chance to motor around Alaska’s few highways in search of the “real” they’ve read so much about or seen on television.
Winter road trips, then, ramp up that opportunity even more. On one end of the spectrum is the requirement for self-reliance and street smarts; on the other, unparalleled scenery and wildlife. In the middle, life as an Alaskan, if only for a short time.
Preparation is key. Careful list-making, preparation, and packing ensure an enjoyable trip, and the forethought is worth any amount of time spent tracking down everything necessary for a winter drive. We’re headed to Denali National Park this weekend, in fact, marking one of the warmest winters by taking advantage of (mostly) clear roads and low snow levels to visit this popular national park.
Along with AAA Alaska, I have created a list of supplies that generally stay in the car all winter, just in case. They are:
Ice scraper with brush
Flashlight and extra batteries
First aid kit with a multi-use tool
Tools: Small shovel, pliers, wire, electrical tape, duct tape, flares, etc.
Set of rain gear, boots, and lined leather gloves
Gallon jug of water
Non-perishable food for each family member, kept in sealed plastic bag
Garbage bags (multiple uses, these)
Fire log, newspaper, and waterproof matches/lighter
Power cord to plug in the car
Diapers, baby food, extra clothing, chemical hand warmers, and anything else you might need for infants and smaller children. Make sure everyone has a warm hat, mittens, boots, and blanket for warmth should you become stranded.
AAA Alaska also recommends the following tips for a safer Alaska (or anywhere) winter driving experience:
1. Put away the cell phone. Distracted driving causes accidents. Pull off the road in a safe place for photos. It’s okay to do that.
2. Renting a car? Don’t forget to ask for a power cord to allow the engine’s block heater to do its job. A must in Interior Alaska.
3. Check fluid levels (oil, antifreeze) and tire pressure before you leave home.
4. Watch the sides of roadways. In Alaska, anything from dog teams to moose can appear without warning, and drivers must not assume either will stop when they see you.
5. Check windshield wipers; are they suitable for winter driving? If wipers become clogged with ice or snow, stop and clear them before continuing.
6. Refrain from using cruise control in snowy, wet, or icy conditions.
7. Make a trip plan, and leave it with a trusted family member or friend at home. Call this friend when you safely reach your destination, and upon return home. Allow plenty of time to reach your intended stop. Do not rush.
8. “Aim high,” that is, look farther than 15 seconds down the road, about a quarter mile at 50 miles per hour. Ask kids to pick a landmark ahead, and count until you reach it, that will give some perspective of stopping distance or evasive maneuverability.
9. Carry your AAA membership card at all times. Remember, the membership follows the individual, not the vehicle, so even traveling in someone else’s car, you’re still protected.
Alaska travel during the winter months can be challenging, testing even the most savvy drivers. The rewards are great, however, and worth the extra time to plan and prepare for a safe experience.
(Sponsored post on behalf of AAA Alaska/AAA Mountain West.)