Alaska Road Trip – how to be bear smart and other useful advice

Driving to or in Alaska is not as scary as some people would have you believe. Yes, you need to be mindful of certain things, but it’s not scary, honestly!

Last year I drove on my own from our home here in Southern Alberta, Canada to Alaska,  a total round trip of just under 7,000 km, and I would do it all again, and again, and again (although I think my family would not be best pleased!).

The start of the Alaskan Highway

The start of the Alaskan Highway

The first thing I would advise anybody wanting to do a road trip to Alaska, is to go and buy the latest edition of ‘The Milepost’.
This fantastic guide has every mile in Alaska and parts of Canada logged. It has information on roads, towns, accommodation, shops, attractions, dangers you could face, and every natural beauty spot you could imagine. This book became my bible before, and during my trip.

Now, you don’t have to plan everything to the last bit, but in a state where gas stations can be few and far between, some planning is necessary if you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere having run out of gas. Don’t get me wrong, somebody will stop and help you, but that could be a while depending on where you are.

I would sometimes drive for hours without meeting so much as an oncoming car, so it’s advisable that you fuel up every chance you get, and are always aware how far away the next gas station is. And if like me your car takes premium gas, be prepared that some gas stations do not carry premium gas (oh, and the price goes up exponentially when you get into remote areas).

I literally planned my driving days from gas station to gas station and only came close once to running out of gas (although, even that was planned, as I knew that one tank would get me to my destination – just).

The other thing you should make sure of, is that you have a good spare tire on board. The days where you needed a full set of spares are in my mind gone. Most little towns have a car repair shop or somebody who is able to do it for you. Yes, it might mean a slight change to your travel plans, but sometimes the unexpected stops are the best. Make sure your vehicle is in good mechanical condition and you should be able to do some of the basic maintenance yourself. I bought a tire puncture repair kit (which I didn’t need to use), and one of these jump start/tire inflator things. I was glad I had them with me, just in case.

On the Alaskan Highway - hours go by without ever meeting another car.

On the Alaskan Highway – hours go by without ever meeting another car.

The Milepost, together with those who travel up and down the Alaskan Highways on a regular basis, will tell you that the Alaskan Highway (the Alcan) will be very busy during the summer months of July and August and that you will spend the majority of your drive sitting behind trailers and RV’s, waiting for an opportunity to overtake. I must admit, I did not find this to be the case. Perhaps I was just lucky, but I only found myself in this situation a couple of times. Yes, on occasion the roads were busy, again, depending on where you go. The busiest part for me was actually back in Canada, on the Icefields Parkway, between Jasper and Banff, but even then, I didn’t mind being slowed down, it gave me time to admire the landscape and animals we came across.

Talking about animals, we have all heard the horror stories (or seen the YouTube videos) of people being attacked by bears/wolves/cougars etc. Again, yes it can happen, but usually because the animal was surprised to find you there or you were trying to feed it (yes, believe it or not, people will try and feed these animals).

As I was travelling solo I bought some bear spray as a precaution, but to be honest, the only time this will work is if you are fairly close to the bear.
Your best bet is to be bear smart and try to never surprise a bear, keep all food and items like perfume, toothpaste etc far away from where you intent to sleep (that is, if you are tenting or camping), lock these items into your vehicle or hoist them in a cooler high up into the trees.

Remember that if a black bear is following you, climbing a tree will not help you, as they are really good at following you up that tree. The majority of bear incidents happen because the humans didn’t do the smart thing. It’s not just bears that can be a potential danger out in Alaska, moose are as deadly as anything. If you intent to drive during the dark hours you must be prepared to encounter these large beasts. Here in Canada more people are killed by moose than by bear, and I am sure it’s not that different over in Alaska. If your car has a close encounter with a moose, 99 out of 100 times you and your car will lose, whereas the moose will be able to walk on.

One of many black bears that I encountered along the roadside

One of many black bears that I encountered along the roadside

I had absolutely no issues with animals on my trip (if I ignore the cheeky chipmunk that was trying to steal my bread). I came close to all sorts of animals, but with a healthy respect for them and the environment I was in, it was always a great experience.

A note on booking ahead. If you are planning on taking any ferry, whether as a foot passenger or with your vehicle, be aware that booking as far in advance as possible is a necessity.
I took two ferries with my car; the first from Haines to Juneau and the second from Juneau to Whittier. Both of these I had booked as soon as the new schedule for that year came out; in this case 10 months before I travelled.

Ferries like these book up real fast, especially if you have a trailer/RV, and also if you want a cabin. The Haines to Juneau ferry was only a 5 hour ride and this route operates on a regular basis throughout the summer. In contrast, the Juneau to Whittier ferry (the Cross Gulf ferry) only operates twice a month and car space is at a premium. So, ensure you book as soon as you can to avoid disappointment (my whole trip was planned around the Cross Gulf ferry).

As for accommodation, I only booked ahead for towns/cities where I stayed longer than one night, which was only the cased for Haines, Juneau and Anchorage. I had no issues finding a campsite for tenting or hotels in any of the other places I overnighted.

Looking out into the inlet from Haines, Alaska

Looking out into the inlet from Haines, Alaska

Here are some random things I learned on this trip that might help you in some way (in no particular order):

–      it rains more in Alaska during the summer than I thought, so be prepared

–      potholes are on every highway and road, get used to avoiding them unless you want to train yourself in changing your tire

–      anywhere with a port will inevitably have a cruise ship or 10, so be prepared for the masses in these towns/cities (i.e. Juneau, Skagway, Haines)

–      wildlife will not stand and pose for you near the highways, so don’t be too disappointed if you don’t see any

–      if you want to go and do things like whale watching or any other organized activity, and you don’t like the masses to be with you, spend some time researching to find smaller local companies that will often offer you a much better deal with much smaller groups

–      go off the beaten path every once in a while

–      take time to stop on the road every so often to take in the scenery and admire the wildflowers along the highways and roads

–      don’t over pack, most of the items you think you will need end up at the bottom of your car only seeing the light of day when you unload at home after your trip (trust me, I had a few of those items lurking in my car)

So, if you plan a little ahead, have some common sense and are not afraid of the unknown a trip like this can be the experience of a lifetime; it sure was for me!

If you would like to read about my trip last year, please come and visit my blog http://storki.wordpress.com/category/alaska/.

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10 thoughts on “Alaska Road Trip – how to be bear smart and other useful advice

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