I’m fresh off the Dalton Highway (haul road) taking a day of rest in Fairbanks, Alaska to recover and reflect on the experience. I’ve had the chance to see riders successfully navigate the Dalton as well as those that were not so fortunate. My intent is to put together a post that includes helpful advice for this 414 mile stretch of untamed wilderness, but I’m afraid I’m going to digress first.
It’s about the Alaskan wilderness. I know, right? We’ve been down this road before – but it’s important. I’ve spent all four seasons wandering around the wilds of Alaska. Do not underestimate her. She’ll take every bit of toughness you thought you had in your being, chew it up, spit it out, and disappear you in a New York minute. You can’t best her with toughness alone. You’re going to need to use some smarts. That’s why we’re here.
Any time you roll the dice with the wild, there’s always a change you’ll come up snake eyes. Hopefully something in this article will increase your chances for survival if ever so slightly.
Learn to Read the Weather
This one thing alone might just make or break your run to Deadhorse. We are fortunate here in the United States to have the single most robust repository of weather data on the planet. If you don’t know about NOAA, get familiar. As I sit here in Fairbanks it’s currently snowing in Prudhoe Bay with winds blowing around 20 MPH. That the wind blowing off of the Arctic Ocean is colder than any wind I’ve known, even at nominal temperatures. As we were riding the last 80 miles into Prudhoe it was blowing solidly from the West while the temperature was a moderate 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the best GORE-TEX Pro gear with 3 under layers I was chilly. Drop that temperature to 30 degrees and lord help you on the Arctic Tundra.
Precipitation changes the characteristics of the road drastically. Add a solid day’s rain to an otherwise benign stretch of gravel covered dirt road and you’ve got a mud bog. This can easily slow your travel and test your skills. Put simply, don’t go up there if it’s 35 degrees and raining for the foreseeable future. This road will test your skills when it’s dry.
Choose the Right Motorcycle
I’m not going to say that there hasn’t been any number of full dressers, baggers and any other manner of cruiser that has successfully navigated the Haul Road. A little bit of luck and a heapin’ helping of skill will get you a long way. The fact of the matter is that these bikes are simply not built for this level of punishment. Of the two cruisers that we saw that successfully made it to the end of the line, one of them had two busted fork seals and an oil leak, presumably from a ground strike. The other (photo above) was temporarily abandoned along side the road awaiting some sort of repairs. The moral of the story is leave the street bikes on the street.
This is the domain of adventure bikes and dual sports. The BMW R 1200 GS Adventure reigns supreme in this territory and is easily the bike of choice amongst the extreme moto adventurers on the Dalton. Bring your KLR 650’s, your KTM 1290’s, your Triumph Tigers, your Honda Africa Twins, and BMW GS models, but leave your street bikes at home. This is not the time nor the place for them.
One more side note. The GS tag on the faring of your bike is not a replacement for skill.
Here’s an F 650 GS we found along the side of the road the seems to have hit a a spot of deep gravel, taken a spill, and and been left for broke. It was gone on the return trip, but the point still stands. Speaking of skill…
Off Road Riding Skills
Get some. No, seriously. If your off road motorcycle riding skills are limited to your friends 200’ gravel driveway – you’re not ready for this trip. If you’re not willing to get up on the pegs and kick that baby around when things get soupy in less than favorable terrain – you’re not ready for this trip. That doesn’t mean you can’t get there in relatively short order. My riding partner and brother was in about the aforementioned spot. It was just recently that he wouldn’t get on the pegs doing 20 MPH on pavement and now he has survived the Dalton.
Over the course of the 5000 miles that it took to get to the Haul Road I had quietly prepared for him an off road familiarization course. On day 2 of the trip we hit our first 30 miles of off road riding. We built on the experience from there seeking out stealth camping, exploring, and other challenges off pavement. By the time we got to the haul road he was still timid, but he at least had a little experience and some expectation of what was ahead. That goes a long way.
Fortunately, I spent 5 years as a motorsports guide and learned the fine balance of pushing people to the edge of their comfort zone, but not beyond. We started off slow and by the end of the trip I had him cruising 55 MPH down gravel roads.
Testing another person’s comfort level is always interesting. It’s a bit of a psychological test. At one point on the return trip, I told Steve over the headset not to ride faster than he was comfortable with. I then proceeded to take off in a cloud of dust at 80 MPH. If people are comfortable riding at 50 MPH they’ll ride outside their comfort zone at 60 MPH as not to bruise their ego, but not at 80 MPH. What they will do, however, is settle into the fastest speed within their skill set. You can then use that as a baseline to readjust the trip speed. It doesn’t hurt to have a quick learner on your tail.
The bottom line is that if you don’t have the experience to make this trip happen you can grab someone that does and learn the skills you need along the way. Don’t let it be a deal breaker.
Get Some Decent Tires
I can’t stress this enough. That one ride down a muddy, 35% grade in a construction zone will more than pay for a good set of tires. The go to rubber up here is the Continental TKC 80 and for good reason. They’re a 40/60 on/0ff road tire and that’s exactly what you’re doing on the haul road with 600+ miles of dirt and gravel to cover round trip. I simply cannot sing the praises of these tires high enough. They are exactly the tool for the job.
You may make it on a more street tire, but you’re rolling the dice, again. Remember, rain equals mud and that’s where your Michelin Anakee 3’s and the like will start to fail I met one guy on a R1200GS running Anakee 3’s and he certainly had his regrets about his tire choice on a largely dry trip. He made it, but not without a couple close calls. Play it safe in the wild and take the right tool for the job. Words to live by.
If you don’t want to ride all the way to the Dalton on knobbies, stop by Trail’s End BMW in Fairbanks on the way through. They seem to stock TKC 80’s in common tire sizes.
Use Some Sense When Loading Your Bike
Center of gravity. Say it with me… Center of gravity. BMW put a whole lot of effort into keeping the center of gravity low on your R 1200 GS. That boxer engine does its duty, too. Don’t F it all up by piling it high. You know exactly what I mean. You ran out of space for all your camping gear in your panniers, didn’t you? And what did you do? You piled it high. You’re goddamn sleeping pad is 3 feet above the riders seat, isn’t it? I know, it’s been fine all the way to Alaska, but you need to fix that shit before heading down the Dalton.
Start by keeping the weight low. Your heaviest stuff should be in the bottom of your panniers. Work up from there. We left all of our camping gear in Fairbanks to lighten the load. If I had to do it all over again I’d have brought the camping basics, camped in Coldfoot (for free) and then ditched the gear there and stayed in a hotel room in Prudhoe Bay (nobody wants to camp there – it’s one of the more miserable places on Earth). You live you learn. Either way, lighten your load for the haul road. Ditch anything that you do not absolutely need. Hotels in Fairbanks will check bags for you. Take advantage.
Get Serious About Your Riding Gear
Coldfoot to Deadhorse is 245 miles of nothing, literally nothing. There’s not a gas station, a post office, a souvenir shop, nothing. Once you’re out there – you’re out there. There’s not an overpass to pull under if it starts raining, a 7-Eleven to grab a hot coffee and warm up. There’s nothing.worse than being wet and cold with nowhere to go.
GOR-TEX. Say it with me. GORE…. TEX. This is the top of the line when it comes to waterproof (insert any garment/gear here). I prefer KLIM myself. They make some of the best gear on the market. I lived in my KLIM Badlands jacket and pants this entire trip. It’s not cheap, but when you’re facing conditions like this it’s worth every. single. penny.
The moral of the story is the Dalton Highway is survivable by motorcycle You just need to keep your wits about you and be prepared. Stay safe my friends.
And don’t forget to check out our upcoming adventure over at New River ATV Tours!