Dare to Drive the Dempster Highway
Car rental companies won’t allow their vehicles to travel this route. It has no pavement, scares off city drivers, and is the only public highway that crosses the Arctic Circle. Sound appealing to you? We thought so! The Dempster Highway connects the Southern Yukon with Inuvik and was originally built as an overlanding supply road for oil and gas exploration. At just over 737 km (459 miles) of potentially muddy and bone-jarring terrain, we recommend taking at least 5 days to navigate it. With that amount of time you’ll be relaxed enough to slow down over the washboard sections and take in the vast and wild nature.
The gravel and dirt berm of the highway protects the permafrost below. Depths of the berm reach 1.2 meters (4 feet) and up to 2.4 meters (7-10 feet). The Dempster follows an old dog sled trail and is named after Royal Mounted Police Inspector William John Duncan Dempster who patrolled the trail in the early 1900’s. Notably Dempster found the bodies of a group of missing travelers in 1911 who perished in the harsh and unforgiving winter conditions.
Those same harsh conditions of the Dempster persist today. And with only a small number of outposts and gas stations, preparation is of utmost importance to tackle the tough route. This is meant to be a bucket list trip, we don’t want you kicking the bucket while en route!
Take the proper gear. This includes spare tires. The deep potholes and sharp gravel can make quick work of even the strongest rubber. The good news is if you travel during the summer months, the 24-hour sunlight (also called the midnight sun) will keep your tire-changing well lit. Unfortunately, the Front Runner sleeping mask has not been designed yet but bring one anyway to shut out the invasive light.
In the winter months you’ll want to take emergency heat and power- the Kanan Outdoors Bug Out Kit contains a solar power bank, electric arc lighter for the windiest of conditions, and a powerful flashlight with a handy magnetic end that snaps on your vehicle, or other metal surfaces, so you can operate hands-free. All three items are designed to work together so you can have an endless power loop keeping everything charged and ready.
As you begin to travel down the Dempster, one thing becomes crystal clear and it ain’t your windshield. Dust and dirt will coat your vehicle, entering the smallest cracks. That means windows up with the fan on recirculate. It also means you better have some incredible storage solutions for your roof rack-mounted gear. Front Runner Wolf Packs have been a fan favorite for this type of use ever since they were released. The newer Monsoon Bag not only keeps things bone dry in the harshest rains and blizzards but also keeps your items as clean as they were when you put them in.
With gas stations limited, you’ll need to bring extra fuel and water and be as self-sustained as possible. This is not a road you want to be stranded on. Luckily, you can secure Jerry Cans and Water Tanks on your roof rack that will keep you fueled and hydrated until the next fill up opportunity.
Once you’re all geared up the actual route will start in Dawson City, the center of the historic Klondike gold rush. You’ll head north on the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. There is a total of nine campgrounds and parks along the route; and with names like Tombstone Mountain and Drunken Forest, you’ll want to spend some time exploring. The parks are known for epic mountain biking, fishing and hiking. At the end of a long day exploring you’ll want to stay off the cold ground by using the Front Runner Roof Top Tent, and with its one-of-a-kind panoramic windows, you’ll never be far from the beautiful surroundings.
You’ll come across a few Road Ferries on your way to the Arctic Ocean. While we wish these were magical flying creatures granting you anything you may wish for, these are, of course, of the boat variety that will shuttle you over some of the more deep and wide water crossings. In the winter months, the ferries get replaced with ice roads which adds another element of adventure to your trip. If ice roads don’t sound like your thing, be sure to plan your trip between June and September.
When you reach the end of the road and roll into Tuktoyaktuk (act like a local and call it “Tuk”) you’ll be greeted with endless views of Arctic Ocean. You’ll also find interesting geography. Over 1,300 “pingos” make this part of the earth a unique sight. A pingo is a unique landform that only occurs in permafrost environments. It’s essentially an ice dome, a mound of earth-covered ice, and only 11,000 exist on Earth with 6,000 of those in Asia.
When you’ve seen all the pingos you can, and have made some local friends, there’s only one way back- the way you came; but not to worry, the return trip is as enjoyable as the way out. While the Dempster may have its roots in the manic, boom and bust, cutthroat time of the of the past Klondike Gold Rush, the highway still allows you to find true road trip gold.