To most people, the largest state in the nation conjures up visions of natural adventures, untamed places, and wild people. Alaska is a BIG land. If you overlay the state of Alaska with the contiguous US, it would stretch from the California coast to the Florida panhandle and north to the Great Lakes. Even with its large land size, Alaska ranks 48th in population with fewer than 700,000 people living here, making it one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world (approximately 1 person per square mile). Roughly half of Alaska’s population lives within Anchorage, leaving the rest of the enormous state vast and unpopulated.
Alaska is considered to be the “Last Frontier” and truly, it is. You have to be pretty hearty to deal with the harsh climate, wildly changing length of day from season to season, raw wilderness that composes so much of the state, and also the remoteness and isolation. Those who do well in this environment are self-reliant, possess plenty of patience, and have an ability to adapt, improvise, and create in order to best experience all that Alaska has to offer. Keeping all of this in mind, here are some tips and advice to consider when planning your Alaskan RV trip.
Unless you’re already IN Alaska, getting TO Alaska can be its own adventure.
You either have to drive through Canada and take the legendary Alaska Highway, or ferry north via the Alaska Marine Highway. Either route will require time (the better part of a week or more) just to get to Alaska. A third option would be to fly to Alaska and rent an RV to tour the state. However you plan to get there, it is highly recommended to get a recent copy of The Milepost which gives an annual list of campgrounds, gas stops, and services along most of the road to and through Alaska. It is also wise to have paper maps available for route planning in the event that you are not within signal range of digital/cell/satellite navigation methods.
You won’t get to see much of Alaska from the road.
Not to say you won’t see amazing things, but in addition to the logistic constraint in the time it takes to get around Alaska, the road access is to only a very tiny portion the 49th state. To see the rest, you have to venture by foot, plane, dogsled, snowmobile, or boat. Of the 570,380 square miles that make up Alaska (more than twice the size of Texas), there are, in total, only about 14,000 miles of roads – including more than 1,800 miles of roads that are located within national parks and forests. The communities of Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Seward are linked by the road system, however, Juneau is not. To visit the state capital, you have to either fly in or arrive by boat. There are many flight-seeing companies throughout Alaska, so consider investing in a flight to see Alaska from the air or visit a village off the road system.
Gear up and be prepared for anything!
Alaska’s weather is as varied as Alaska is, and it is quite possible to have it rain, snow, blow, and shine all within 24 hours. Be ready with the right gear to stay comfortable. Have an adequate tool kit, jack that can get the job done on your rig, spare tires (with air), extra fuel cans, First Aid kit, bear proof containers, and some extra food on hand when you head out. Since cell service is sparse through much of the state, make sure you give someone an idea of where you are headed, and when an approximate return date is in the event they need to send help your way. If you are traveling on the fringe seasons (spring or fall), be aware that many services may not be open, and that weather can change rapidly. Also keep in mind that you are likely a long way from emergency help, hospitals, or towing services, so be over-prepared and avoid taking unnecessary risks, especially if you have a medical condition or are accident-prone.
Pack plenty of patience and let go of rigid schedules.
Alaska (and the people who live there) run on their own time, fondly referred to as “Alaska Time”, which is more in tune with the natural flow of Northern life than a clock. Things happen: supplies are hard to get and take time to order, roads get rough, and rivers move their course. And while it can be frustrating that your plans are delayed because the salmon are running, take a lesson from the folks that make Alaska home and let it all be a part of the adventure. Build plenty of extra time into your schedule for these unexpected divergences and use the down time to chat with a local or just watch the day unfold.
Know Canada’s Rules.
If you are driving up from the lower 48, be sure to have a current passport and know what you can and cannot take through Canadian Customs. Getting into Canada and then back into the US (either on the Alaska side or the lower 48) will require patience and preparation. If you are traveling with pets, you will need to pay attention to special requirements for their health certification, food restrictions, and vaccination records. Many items that are permitted in the US are not allowed in Canada (specifically many weapons, radar detectors, fireworks), as well as many food items.
If you aren’t comfortable with vast wilderness, impressive landscapes, wild animals, and not being “connected”, then you might consider traveling elsewhere. A friend recently overheard a couple in an Alaska filling station say this with dismay: “We didn’t see ANYTHING or ANYONE for the past 400 miles – there are NO attractions along this road, no radio stations, and I STILL don’t have cell service!” Alaska’s beauty and wonder stem from exactly that – the isolation and wilderness is not far removed as how it has been throughout history, and that IS the attraction. Unplug, take pleasure in the natural scenery, and enjoy your thoughts. And… HAVE FUN!