414 miles of frost-heaves, broken chip seal and grated dirt surfaces, the Dalton Highway has its challenges. On a good day, you can ride it wide open. On a bad day, you can go home in a helicopter.
Every year motorcyclists are killed on the Dalton Highway. This road offers the rider the adventure gamut. Almost half of the highway is paved or chip sealed. The other half can be smooth or baseballs. There are relatively no places to stop along the way: no gas, no convenient stores, no McDonalds. There are stretches of up to 245 miles without gas. You are literally riding through pristine wilderness. There are no tire shops or police stations. A wrecker to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks is a $1,600 bill. Dalton Highway, mile marker 300: Welcome to the food chain.
I was riding north on the Dalton Highway during one of my tours. It was raining and I was on a section of chip seal, which is english for sh#tty pavement and an 18-wheeler was headed toward me. Between us was a pothole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle full of water. I could barely see the truck, the road and everything else. I crossed the semi just as it hit the pothole, sending me literally a child’s play-pool amount of water crashing into me. Along with the muddy water were bits of road: concrete, rocks…and as this stuff was dripping down the inside of the my face shield, I laughed out loud. Here I was, going down the road at about 50 miles an hour in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE and I could not see a thing! I thought to myself, “This is no ordinary road.”
After many trips up this road, I put together a list of dos and don’ts when riding it. Here it goes:
1. Don’t: Put Weight Up High
Pack your bike with care. On the Dalton, you are going to hit 700 yards of terror. The road is going to be so slick you lose all traction, and every little thing in your favor is precious. Keep your center of gravity low. Anything heavy in your gear should be at the bottom of your panniers, strapped to your bike low, or discarded altogether. A classic example of over packing are the motorcycle campers who have so much stuff, and they need to put it somewhere. Then, the tendency is to pack it high on the bike. Big mistake.
For the riders on the BMW 1200 Adventures, this rule also applies. I have talked to a handful of riders on these beastly steeds that have topped off their 9 gallon tanks, only to hit a slippery section on the highway and go down. This usually means parts of the bike and rider get broken. My advice to them is to fill up their tanks with only 7 gallons, instead of topping it off.
On the Dalton, no matter how you plan and what the weather, you can always have a mile of terror. Talk to one rider and they breezed up and down it, enjoyed 70 degree temperatures, and the ride was easy. Talk to another with the same weather conditions, and they hit several road construction areas where a grater and a water truck are working together to make your life a sloppy misery. As long as you bank on a greasy mile of muck, you should be prepared for the Dalton. There is a chance you will not encounter muddy conditions, but chances are you will, so come prepared.
2. Do: Choose your Tires Wisely
Long distance tourers have a dilemma: Do I pick a knobby tire or less aggressive tire? Since you are destined to hit a sloppy section on the Dalton Highway, you should be aware that there are two main schools of thought I have come across regarding the Dalton when it comes to tires. Some say knobbies, and some say 70 -30 tires. Both work and have their limitations and to be honest, much of it comes down to rider skill. Knobbies are great for the Dalton Highway. This is the surest way to prepare for the water truck or mother natures over-watering program. The only problem with knobbies is that you will have to plan ahead, since if you are riding up the highway on your own from the continental USA, you will most likely run them down before you get there. Because of this, an outfit called Adventure Cycle Works out of Fairbanks was started. You can send them your tires, have them waiting and put on before you start your run to the Arctic Ocean. Once you are on your way back down, you can have them taken off. So, a little extra time and money spent in Fairbanks will insure that you as much grip as possible for your Arctic Ocean journey.
70-30 tires are not mud tires, but are designed to displace it and keep traction. Both Metzler and Avon put out very good, long lasting tires. I am a real fan of the Avon Distanzia, which is a good street tire, but really shines when the conditions start to go sloppy. And, you can get 6,000 miles out of the rear.
There are times on the Dalton when the mud is so thick, especially in a road construction area, that you will lose your grip, no matter what tire you have. Do not be surprised when this happens. Just get on the pegs, drop a gear to gain torque, and put a little throttle on….
3. Don’t: Go without an Emergency Plan
The Dalton Highway runs through the most remote parts of North America. There is no infrastructure up there to deal with accidents. If you get into an emergency situation, chances are, you are going to have to get yourself out of it. There is heavy truck traffic up and down the highway, and they do help riders quite often, but do not rely on it.
Bring a Buddy: With a second rider, at least you can formulate a plan of extraction without feeding mosquitos off to the side of the road without a plan!
SPOT: bring a spot device, especially if you are riding alone, so at least your friends and loved ones will know where you are and can help you, albeit belatedly.
Bring a Sat Phone: This is by far the smartest solution. If anything should happen, you can at least start fixing the problem immediately. The sat phone saves time, worse injury and life. There really is no good reason not to have one if you are going to travel in this remote corner of the world – especially alone.
Have Tools: (See #10)
4. Do: Make sure to have Dirt Riding Skills
The Dalton is not the place to start to learn how to ride dirt. I have seen too many gung-ho riders take their unprepared bikes up there, only to receive a strong thwarting from the conditions. Some bikes come back broken, some come back on the top of trailers. Some of these bikes never run again. The truth is, the rider did not have the skills for the terrain. Some riders seem to think that since the highway exists on a map, and looks like any other road on the map, it must be like any other road. Wrong. If you did not grow up on dirt bikes, race competitively, or take an off-road course and practice, then this road can be over your head. If you do not know to get on the pegs and give it the gas when things get creamy, then you should not be on the Dalton at all. This road will throw everything at you, and your mistake can cost you thousands of dollars or worse.
Before you ride it, be sure to know how to handle your bike in gravel, deep gravel, and mud. Practice fire roads at home and dirt tracks. Spin that back tire and get familiar with acceleration….these are the tools you need to master before going up the Dalton safely.
5. Don’t: Forget about Fuel
The Dalton Highway has 245 mile stretch without fuel. Most 5-gallon tank bikes will not make this if the rider is going over 60 m.p.h. Therefore, bring a small, two-gallon fuel container and strap it to you bike for your ride north out of Fairbanks. You won’t use it until Coldfoot, but you will be glad you brought it! Running out of gas on the Dalton is a bummer, and usually includes voracious mosquitoes…to be avoided if possible!
6. Do: Clean your Radiator and Air Intake
The consistency of dirt on this highway is like clay. They mix the road surface with Calcium Chloride to keep the dust down in the summer. It also acts as a natural hardener so when the road surface is dry the heavy truck traffic forms it to have the characteristics of pavement – when it is dry. When wet, a thin layer of mucky clay begins to cake onto your bike. Once it sticks to your engine, it heats up and dries like ceramic. Once this happens, you can’t get it off, even with a chisel. To be sure, once you ride the Dalton, your bike will never be the same – that stuff will never come off your bike completely. This muck will cover your engine and causing it to heat up. It will also clog your radiator, your air intake and if gone unchecked will cause your engine to severely overheat, to the point that it will stop you in your tracks. I picked up a Japanese rider who had this happen to him, and he has spent a couple of miserable nights out with his mosquito friends.
To counter any problems, find a hose in Coldfoot on your way up and down…and see if you can find one in Deadhorse. This is not an easy task, but you’ll find if ask nicely, you will be able to clean out your radiator and air intake in that lonely outpost.
7. Do: Choose the Right Bike
Many riders figure that they can take their comfortable cruiser up the Dalton. This works well, until you hit that 700 yards of terror. A couple of years ago, some adventurous Harley riders chose to take on this highway after the annual HOG rally. What happened after that was a disaster: some of the riders were air-vaced out and some of the bikes never rode again. Though there are riders that make it all the way to Deadhorse on their large street bikes, many will tell you that they would not do it again.
My suggestion is that you leave your street bike for the street, and ride a dirt-oriented motorcycle on the Dalton. All of the BMW GS models do well up there and any 650 cc dual-sport style bike will be the most appropriate.
The dilemma for many long distance tourers is sacrificing the comfort of their street machine for the long miles it takes to get to Alaska. Why do that for just the couple of days it takes to ride to the Arctic Ocean? A safe solution for this is to ride to Anchorage and rent a motorcycle for that portion of the trip. MotoQuest offers this service. You can bring your street bike to our facility for storage, and rent a well-equipped adventure bike for that portion of your adventure.
8. Don’t: Push It
Most accidents I have encountered on the Dalton involved the most insidious of enemies: fatigue. The nature of the Dalton Highway plays into the hands of this very dangerous condition. There is no where to stop, no places “to see”… so the rider keeps on going. During the long summer days, the rider on vacation who has drawn up an aggressive schedule to “see it all” in Alaska will not stop until the sun goes down. In the land of the Midnight Sun, this won’t happen for a couple of months!! Therefore, these riders push themselves to the brink of exhaustion…and then a little more. This is when a rider loses a second of concentration, drifts to the soft shoulder of the road, and then gets flung into the bushes. It does not take much for a rider to completely change their trip and life on this road.
To avoid this, I recommend that riders budget 4 days from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and back. Stop in Coldfoot or Wiseman for the night on your way north and on your way south. Stop in Deadhorse for the night and get some rest. I have come across too many accidents of even experienced riders who have made the ride from Coldfoot to Deadhorse, only to turn around and try to make it back to Coldfoot that evening. This is when the danger of fatigue is at its peak. The north slope of Alaska is not a place to run the risk of an accident. You are best off spending the $200+ for a night at a hotel in Deadhorse and getting your rest. This road taxes your senses and your ability to concentrate. Be smart: don’t push it at all.
9. Do: Be aware of Truck Traffic
The main purpose for the Dalton Highway is for the oil companies to be able to service the oil fields at the Arctic Ocean. Large 18-wheel trucks are constantly running this road. Until a few years ago, these trucks were the only vehicles allowed to ride past the Yukon River. The culture of trucking in this neck of the woods has not changed much from those days: the truck owns the roads. When you are riding there, you need to adhere to a new set of rules and become very aware of the effect large trucks have on your ride to the Arctic.
Here are some skills you will need to develop:
When you cross a truck on dirt: Hunker down behind your windscreen. These trucks are throwing rock – sometimes the size of baseballs – and you need to protect yourself. Do not ride with your face shield open. Keep as much of your body behind a protective surfaces as possible.
Let trucks pass. Many of these trucks are empty after delivering their supplies and are trying to make time. They run at speeds of up to 90 m.p.h.!! Keep vigilant in your rear view mirror for these monsters creeping up on you. To be sure, you will be passed! The shoulders of this road are extremely soft, and will throw you into the bushes. So, when pulling over to let them by, don’t slow down too much, and do not get too far off the side of the road.
Be aware of where you park. This highway will be empty for up to 30 minutes at a time. No traffic makes a rider complacent. Add a herd of caribou and the rider wants to stop and take a picture. At the time of parking, no one is around, so you choose the road as the parking lot. Then, (and this has happened) two 18-wheelers come from opposite directions and will need to pass each other right where you parked! There is simply no room for your bike to be there, and this is when things get tricky!
If you ever stop along the Dalton, make sure to pull completely off the road. Otherwise, you may get an ear-full from an Ice-road trucker in the Coldfoot parking lot! (or worse)
10. Do: Outfit your Ride
Bring the tools necessary to get you out of a pinch. Be able to take off your tire, replace an inner tube, patch a hole, plug a hole, take your bike apart, put air into your tire…All the things you wish you had brought seem to come to mind when your bike fails. Take time and prepare beforehand. Be able to take of your tires and repair them and fix problems that may arise. I always bring a manual foot pump, tool kit, tire spoons, hex set, and a syphon hose.
Accessorize your bike. Make sure it can take rocks and fall over and not get hurt. Protect your engine on the sides and underneath. Protect your hand guards. Make sure your pegs do not get slippery. Make sure you seat fits your body. Do everything you can to make that bike you ride comfortable, well balanced and able to take a hit. You will be glad you did.
Outfit the rider. Wear protective water resistant/waterproof gear that can withstand a temperature range from freezing to 100 degrees F. Waterproof boots and gloves are essential.
These are the basics if you want to have a safe and memorable trip as far north as you can go on the North American continent. Your health and safety, of course, come first. Your lust for adventure will not be stopped. In fact, it should be encouraged! Just take a couple of these steps to make sure you get home safe and sound and have the time of your life. Ride safe!
*MotoQuest founder and lead guide Phil Freeman is a veteran of 10+ rides up the Dalton Highway. He is the co-author with motorcycle photographer/writer Lee Klancher of the book “The Adventurous Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska” from Octane Press. Over his 13-year career as a motorcycle guide in Alaska, he has witnessed the very best and worst prepared adventure riders you can imagine.