It’s arguably one of Canada's most epic road trips and definitely one for the bucket list - Canada's Dempster Highway is a must-do for anyone looking to explore beyond the normal tourist routes. With the opening of the new road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk to the locals), this is now the only place in the North America where you can drive yourself to the Arctic Ocean.
The road itself is generally well-maintained but it's gravel all the way. Those not used to driving on non-paved roads may find this road is not for them - other travellers will enjoy the beauty and solitude served up along every kilometre. This is definitely not your average Sunday drive but, with proper preparation, it's not as daunting as some may think.
While traveling this road is possible in any vehicle type, we'd personally recommend one a little higher off the ground. Potholes can form quite quickly after rain and a higher vehicle will make it easier to not 'bottom out'. A 4x4 is ideal. If you don't want to take your own vehicle, check out RVs for Rent in Whitehorse
or, if you are booking accommodation along the route, find companies in Whitehorse who rent vehicles permitted to travel this highway. We rented a 4x4 truck and camper
for this trip and these are some of the things we think travellers need to do to prepare for this amazing journey.
Dempster Highway (left) and a view of Tombstone National Park as seen from this Dempster Highway (right).
1. Ensure the tires on your vehicle have good tread. Flat tires are notorious on the Dempster and starting out with a good set of tires will minimise your chances of getting one. This is no guarantee however so always carry at least one good full-size spare with you. Tire repair facilities are only available in Eagle Plains, Fort McPherson and Inuvik. If you are in a rental RV, you may need to contact your RV company for assistance to repair a tire en route. RVs are heavy and we wouldn’t recommend attempting to do this yourself.
2. While the speed limit is 90km/h along much of the highway, a slower speed will reduce the possibility of flat or shredded tires. You want to enjoy the scenery, so tearing along at higher speeds won’t allow you to soak it all in. Remember, you are on holiday so what’s the rush?
3. Cellphone coverage is virtually non-existent. If you feel the need to have outside contact along your route, satellite phones can be rented in Whitehorse. We opted to rely on passers-by for assistance if we had any issues, and fortunately we had none.
Maximum speed on much of the highway is 90km/h. Note that your phone will loose signal during this spectacular drive.
4. Fuel. Start with a full tank. There’s a gas station at the junction of Highway 2 at the southern end of the Dempster Highway. Fill up your gas tank there! The next gas station is 365km away in Eagle Plains. Fill up again in Eagle Plains. Gas prices are expensive on the Dempster but there’s little you can do about that – as with anywhere in the Yukon and NWT, take the opportunity to fill your gas tank every chance you get.
5. Food and Drink. Stock up on plenty of bottled water before you go. Fresh water isn’t available outside of the ‘main’ centres and even then is very expensive. Food is also more expensive in the north. If, like us, you are travelling in an RV, you should stock up on food in Whitehorse before you leave.
Make sure you have a full tank of fuel, and enough water to drink to complete your journey.
6. Windshield. We were lucky to complete the return journey with no cracks or chips in our windshield however we saw many people who weren’t so lucky. Be aware that the chances of windshield damage (or damage to headlights etc) is high and don’t be surprised if it happens to you. If your rental company offers windshield insurance, take it!
Gravel and small rocks can easily cause chips and cracks in your windshield.
7. Mosquitos by the hoards! Bug repellent is a must. Even then, you’ll still be tormented by them. Think of it as just part of the adventure. Mosquito netting might also be a good investment. The bugs are most prevalent in the late Spring and summer – the cooler weather from mid August sees populations decrease but we weren’t fortunate enough to travel at that time – perhaps next trip ...
8. Dust, Dirt, Mud and all that FUN stuff! Depending on the weather conditions you encounter when on the highway, expect your vehicle to be covered in dust (if it’s really dry), dirt (if it’s slightly moist) or MUD. We had rain and our truck and camper was almost unrecognisable under all the mud. Imagine our relief when we finally found a truck wash in Whitehorse before we dropped off the RV. All part of the experience.
The Dempster Highway.
9. Camping – spontaneity rules! It’s unlikely you’ll need to book a campsite ahead of time which means your journey can be completely at your own pace. There are many territorial campgrounds along the route and, outside of Tombstone Park, you can also freedom camp.
10. Ferries. Two rivers need to be crossed by ferry. The ferries start operating after the ice melt and stop when it begins to form. Before you embark on your epic road trip, check to make sure the ferry will be operating.
11. SLOW DOWN. You can get to Inuvik in two days but plan to take a week or more for the return trip. If the road is wet remember to take extra care. The highway becomes extremely slippery on top of the permafrost on which it is built. With long drops off the side into the valleys, the last thing you need to be is a casualty. Stop only where other drivers can pass you safely and ensure you are visible to traffic coming from both directions. Always drive with your headlights on.
12. Continue on to Tuk. Crossing the Arctic Circle was definitely a thrill but not so many people can say they dipped their toes in the Arctic Ocean!
Above all, enjoy the drive! For many this will be the only time they are fortunate to do this trip – for us, we’ll be back!
This blog was contributed by Laura Butler, a CanaDream Guest who travelled with us earlier this year. Laura is an avid traveller and enjoys exploring out of the way places.