Who’s Gonna Drive You Home? Winter Road Trips in Alaska

Driving the Seward Highway to Kenai Peninsula winter fun. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Hundreds of thousands of people road trip around Alaska during the summer months. RVs and buses mingle with bedraggled Subarus and monster trucks and mini-vans on one of Alaska’s three main highways; some have a particular destination in mind, others, not so much. Alaskan residents curse and coddle at the same time, knowing that visitors to the 49th state bring more than their automobiles, and for better or worse, prime tourist season means busy byways.

But most of that stops come September, as if a giant gate swung shut on the Alaska-Canada Highway and a sign is posted reading “Closed for the Season”. Alaskans begin to rub their hands together with glee, because finally, finally, they have the roads to themselves, because no one from Outside dare try and navigate the tricky highways during dangerous winter months, right?

Wrong.

More visitors to the Last Frontier are showing up during the non-summer seasons. Weather doesn’t exactly conform to the notion of “winter” anymore. Plus, word is out that Alaska is pretty darned incredible, activity-wise, between September and April. Aurora borealis, skiing, mushing; you name it, Alaska has it. 

But wait. 

Oh, no, you might be thinking. I watched Ice Road Truckers and saw the decimation of vehicle and Man/Woman. People go crazy up there trying to steer up and down and all around. No way will I road trip in that

There, there <virtual shoulder pat of confidence> of course you can. One just needs the right frame of mind, the proper gear, and clear knowledge of exactly where a highway might lead (or not lead) during a winter road trip in, around, or through the Last Frontier. Driving oneself around, any time of year, offers a freedom that epitomizes the spirit of Alaska and travel. Go for it. But…

1. Know WAY Before You Go: Map. Check. Good enough? Not check. There is more to winter travel in AK than simply plotting a course, however simple, on an Alaska road map. Some roads that look perfectly lovely on paper are closed in the winter. Some have been damaged by weather, vehicles, or slides. The best resource for up-to-the-minute (usually) info on Alaska’s roads is the 511Alaska web site. Current conditions, alerts, and closures are all there. Start checking before you even consider packing the car for road trips in Alaska. Ditto for weather reports. I check the NOAA Weather Radio report, find it HERE.

2. The Car. Your own vehicle? Make sure you have a current oil change, filter change, tire check, gas fill, etc. Quirky little issues? Check ’em out before the trip to prevent any roadside misery later. Gas stations are few and far between in the winter, so know where to fill up (and know how far your car will go). Rental? Ask questions before you click the “Make Reservations” tab online. Better yet, reserve over the phone with the actual agency IN ALASKA, not the 1-800 person. Avis has provided us with great service both in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and their staff know winter driving around these parts. 

With the rental, ask about 4WD or AWD. If squeamish about driving without either, take the plunge, but remember, they are expensive (fear alleviation costs money). Check tires, spares, ice scrapers, and the extension cord for plugging in (lesson learned; AK Dad and I forgot to do that one winter in Fairbanks, and our little Toyota rent-a-car was so coooold in the morning). Alaska cars, particularly those in the Interior, need to be warmed up electronically so they will start on those -40 F mornings. Don’t drive away until you are sure you have all the questions answered. 

3. Emergency Stuff. Don’t leave home or hotel without it. In a small pack or bag, bring the following: high-protein, non-perishable food, water for each person (do not eat snow), matches/lighter, headlamp/flashlight, hand warmers, extra socks (double as mittens), hats, big garbage bags (retain heat if worn as coat, half a Duraflame/Presto log (in case you need to start a fire). Cell phones are a must, but remember, coverage can be spotty, especially if you have an Outside provider, and batteries sink fast in cold weather. Other important items to consider are a shovel, blanket/sleeping bag, small games/toys/books (being stuck with kids stinks, bring something to keep spirits up), DVD player (same reason). Also, carry some cash, because you never know.

4. Communication. Tell someone when you leave, and tell someone at the other end of the destination. Hotel staff are glad to accommodate requests for travelers, or tell family/friends you’ll call when you arrive at the destination. Listen to the weather/road reports, and prepare for a possible trip cancellation. Believe me, you wouldn’t be the first person to turn around. Safe rather than sorry can mean everything here.

5. Be Flexible. Can’t go all the way to Fairbanks or Denali? Stop along the way and inquire about roadhouses or small hotels that remain open all year. You might be surprised at the quality and hospitality, and you’ll definitely see some true Alaskan character. Before a trip, get to know the communities you’ll be passing through and the options for alternative lodging, food, and fuel.

Be slow. Don’t pay any attention to the brutes in their enormous trucks with a herd of snowmachines in the back. It’s your party and your car; and they’ll likely be the ones stuck in a ditch up ahead.

Smile and wave, and know you can do it. Here’s a little video that shows AK Fam driving home from Talkeetna one holiday weekend, snowplows and all. Link to it HERE.

Posted in Alaskan Winter Fun, Health and Safety and tagged , , , , .