2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
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   TRAVELING TO ALASKA, p. 7:  VEHICLE
CONSIDERATIONS IF YOU DRIVE
(CONDITION, TYPE & SIZE OF RV, ETC.)

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9

 
"Uncertainty and anticipation are the joys of travel." 
~ Ken Hundert
 
 
(Continued from the last page.)

Uncertainty about where you're going and what you might find there can be a lot of fun.

Having a mechanical breakdown along the way because you didn't properly prepare your vehicle for the trip can definitely spoil the fun.


There are lots of remote miles like this along the Alaska Highway.
This is near the NW end of Kluane Lake in the Yukon.  (9-7-12)

If you're planning to drive to -- or even just around in -- Alaska there are some things to consider about the condition of your vehicle(s) and the size/type of RV you take. This isn't just some ordinary road trip through the Lower 48 states.

CONDITION OF YOUR VEHICLE(S)

It's obvious that your vehicle needs to be in excellent shape before beginning any trip (heck, before going to the grocery store!). It's absolutely critical when you're traveling several thousand miles through remote wilderness.

There are a number of reasons why Jim and I chose this year to go to Alaska despite the exorbitant fuel prices and record-breaking snow. (At the time, we didn't know this summer would be wetter and colder than usual, too.)


Snow still covered the ground at 2,600 feet near Thompson Pass on the
Richardson Hwy. and near sea level in the town of Valdez in mid-June.  (6-14-12)

One of the reasons we went up there this year was because -- like us -- our truck and camper aren't getting any younger. Our 2008 Dodge Ram had exactly 78,000 miles on it when we began this trip in Virginia. Right now it has over 91,000 miles on it. It will have nearly 94,000 miles on it by the time this trip is officially over.

One of the reasons it runs so well is that Jim takes excellent care of it and does his own maintenance on or before schedule.


Jim changes the oil and fuel filters on the truck at regular intervals.

Ditto with the camper. He spends a lot of time keeping it in tip-top shape, too:


While we were in Anchorage Jim re-welded a weak spot on our camper steps
and repainted them. Good thing the metal picnic table at our campsite was black, too!


One of his more labor-intensive jobs was replacing the shackles and wet bolts earlier this year.
In this photo Jim's explaining what he's doing to an RVing neighbor at Imperial Dam, CA.  (2-20-12)

I haven't added up the Cameo 5th-wheel miles yet; they are lower, but will still be at least 11,000 miles by the time we get back East to make sure our house is still there.

We've had our 2010 Cameo for over 2 years now. It is built much stronger than the previous 5th-wheels we've owned. Despite all the bumps it took this summer on rough roads in Alaska and Canada it has held up magnificently. Even though Carriage went bankrupt earlier this year (after our two-year bumper-to-bumper warranty expired, but before the five-year-frame warranty did) this coach is built not only for full-time use but also for treks to Alaska!


Soon after we bought the Cameo Jim installed new Timbrens shock absorbers on the truck.

The only problem was with the basic hitch head we have. As mentioned in the last entry, the sliding handle (next photo) got bent on the way back to the Lower 48 and was a bear to get back out so Jim could unhook the truck from the camper:

The manufacturer promptly replaced it at no cost to us and Jim installed the new one. We now consider that a temporary fix, though.

We should have gotten a better hitch when we bought the Cameo, or certainly before heading up the Alcan (another name for the Alaska Hwy.). Jim is researching air hitches and better Mor/ryde pin boxes now so we don't have this problem again.


Current Mor/ryde pin box (attached to camper) and Curt hitch (attached to bed of truck)

Keep this in mind if you plan to tow any kind of trailer to Alaska. You'll have a smoother ride with a hitch that helps even out the lateral and longitudinal forces between the truck and camper and it will cause less stress to the vehicles.

Be sure all parts of your vehicles are in excellent condition before heading to Alaska and do required maintenance on them while there. If you need to change the oil or rotate the tires or get new brake pads while you're traveling, for example, do it or have it done when it should be -- or earlier.

The newer your tires, the better. We heard that we should take more than one spare tire just in case but we never saw even one traveler fixing a flat tire on this trip. You'll minimize tire problems if you drive carefully over rough spots and have a tire pressure monitoring system that alerts you to anomalies in your tire pressure and temperature.


Our TPMS continuously measures changes in the tire pressure (L. number) and temperature (R. number)
of all four camper tires as we're driving. We can set high and low warning alarms for each function.

Be sure your brakes are in good working order. There are numerous long 8-10% grades down to river valleys and back up. I've never seen so many broad rivers in my entire life as there are on the Alaska Highway. It goes through numerous drainage areas.

We had more elevation change because of streams than going up and down through various mountain ranges this summer. Elevations on the Alaska Hwy. range from about 1,000 feet to about 4,250 feet but often run in the 2,000-2,400-foot range. Other routes may get higher. In Alaska we drove from sea level to no more than about 3,000 feet on paved highways with the RV in tow.


Heading down to a bridge in eastern Alaska; the Alaska Hwy. is a real roller-coaster,
with many long descents down to rivers and then back up again.  (9-6-12)

It's a long way between some of the towns in Alaska and through northern Canada. The more you know about fixing your own vehicle problems, the better. It's a good idea to have some type of emergency road service but even with that it could be a long wait before a tow truck or mechanic can reach you in some areas.

IS 4WD REQUIRED?

That depends on when you're traveling through northern Canada and Alaska and whether you want to get out on some rugged dirt/gravel roads in your passenger vehicle (not RV!!) while you're there.

We did fine towing our 36-foot 5th-wheel coach (14,000+ pounds) with our 2WD truck while in Alaska and Canada during the summer months when there was no snow on the roadways. We mostly avoided dirt roads when we did day trips in just the truck. The rather new tires have good traction but we didn't want to shake the truck so much on seriously bumpy roads that we'd knock it out of alignment or cause other damage.

Jim doesn't think the truck needs re-aligning when we get back to Virginia because the tires are wearing evenly and the front end doesn't "pull" to one side or the other. That's good, considering the stress under which we put the Ram this summer.


Just before we began our journey to Alaska Jim repacked the bearings on the camper tires.

If you're driving through Alaska and/or northern Canada in the shoulder seasons (late spring/early fall) or during the winter it would be wise to have 4WD on your truck if you have a camper top on it or you're towing a trailer.

Major roads are reportedly kept clear but you could easily get caught in a sudden late spring or early autumn snowstorm and be stuck for a day or two before the road is plowed or sanded.

I'd also recommend 4WD if you want to have fun in your truck or toad (vehicle towed behind a motorhome) on rugged dirt roads like the Denali Hwy. between Cantwell and Paxson, AK, Hatcher Pass Rd. between Willow and Independence Mine, the two roads in Wrangell-St. Elias NP, and numerous others.

There are more dirt roads like these in the Far North than paved highways.

The paved part of Hatcher Pass Road (below) to Independence Mine is smooth but the  
dirt road beyond that (above) to the pass and over to Willow, AK is rough and narrow.  (7-28-12)

There are some better-maintained dirt roads where folks drive their RVs in Alaska and northern Canada but I think they'd be more suitable for truck campers, vans, and motorhomes than 5th-wheels and travel trailers.

Examples are the Dalton Hwy. in Alaska to Prudhoe Bay, the Steese Hwy. north of Fairbanks to Circle, AK, the Top of the World Hwy. between Dawson City, YT and Chicken, AK, and the Campbell Hwy. between Watson Lake and Carmacks in the Yukon.

If you choose to drive any of those allow plenty of time for slow driving, keep your fuel tank topped off as much as possible, and carry spare fuel.

TYPE OF RV

We saw every type and size of RV on the roads to and in Alaska, from little old VW vans and truck campers to brand new half-million dollar Class A motorhomes.

I'm not sure who was having more fun. They all looked like they were!


Here's an interesting combo we saw on the Seward Highway -- a bus that's
been converted into an RV, pulling a coordinating VW bug.  (6-27-12)

There's an advantage to taking a well-used pop-up camper, travel trailer, or 5th-wheel coach to Alaska -- you don't have to worry about damaging a shiny new one.

Just be sure you're towing it with a reliable truck. It's the vehicle with the motor that really counts on a long, remote trip like this. I'd certainly advise against taking an unreliable Class A, B, or C motorhome up there because of potential mechanical problems that might leave you stranded somewhere really inconvenient (makes me wonder about that bus, above).

You also have to consider availability of parts and how long it might take to have them shipped to you, if that is necessary.


Our 5th-wheel coach is sandwiched between two Class C motorhomes (foreground) and a
Class B van and Class A motorhome (background) at Tags RV Park in Watson Lake, YT.  (6-8-12)

On the way back through Canada recently Jim and I got into an interesting discussion about what we might do differently when we go back up to Alaska in the future.

One thing that I think would make the trip easier and more comfortable for us is to take some type of motorhome instead of a 5th-wheel trailer.

For the two of us and one or two dogs, that would probably mean a medium-sized Class A or C motorhome, not a smaller Class B van-type RV. I think the suspension system on a well-built motorhome would handle rough roads better than any type of trailer, even if we got an expensive air hitch for the Cameo.

SIZE OF RV

Size considerations may be more important to you than the type of RV you take to Alaska. What length is best? How many slides?

The answers depend on the amount of interior space and/or level of comfort you want, how much you want to spend on fuel, the types of places where you want to camp, and how much maneuverability you want.


Sunset at Black Spruce CG at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage;
we saw every size and type of RV here during three separate stays in June, July, and
August -- but no sunsets until the last time (think "Land of the Midnight Sun").  (8-17-12)

The equation is pretty simple -- the smaller the camper, the more campsite options you have, the cheaper it's probably going to cost to buy, drive, or tow it, and the easier it will be to maneuver through tight gas stations, narrow campground roads, etc. What you gain in those respects you'll lose in living space.

Only you can decide which of those factors are most important to you.


Stopped for a short break at one of many scenic lakes along the Alaska Hwy. east of Tok; this sign
says no camping but you can stay overnight at most of the other turn-outs like this in Alaska.   (9-6-12)

Our 5th-wheel coach is 36 feet long. That's not the longest 5th-wheel made but it's close. Our three slides extend the width from about 8 feet 4 inches (closed, as in the photo above) to 14 feet when they are open. We got a big rig because we live in it ten months of the year and it's very comfortable for us and one or two big dogs.

We know it costs more to haul than a smaller camper would. At an average of 12 MPG our cost for diesel fuel will always be high. We've made a conscious decision not to let that hamper the nomadic lifestyle we enjoy.

We know that with a relatively big rig we also have fewer campsite options, particularly in public campgrounds, because our camper requires so much space for its length and lateral slide-outs. It also requires a lot of maneuvering room, not only in campgrounds but also in gas stations and other tight spaces we sometimes have to get into and out of.


This large, double site at Russian River NFS campground would have been
perfect for us if we'd known to reserve it. Instead, a very small Class C camped there.
It could have fit into any of the smaller sites if the owners had been more considerate. (7-2-12)

Jim's very good at backing into campsites that might be too small for less-experienced RVers but he knows his limits. Some sites and some campgrounds just aren't suitable for us, like the one we initially reserved at Russian River (discussed on a previous page).

That said, we didn't have any significant problems finding suitable campsites with a rather large RV during this whole trip, nor did anyone else we talked to before, during, and after the trip.

We stayed in various provincial, state, and national parks and forests, several military campgrounds, a few private campgrounds, and several roadside turn-outs and Walmart or Sam's Club parking lots (we boon-dock like this only in transit, not at destinations where we unhook the truck).

There are also numerous private parking lot-type "campgrounds" in both Alaska and northern Canada that will accommodate large RVs. We mostly avoided those because the sites were so close together and there weren't any trees or grass except perhaps around the perimeter.


This unusual truck camper from Europe will fit in any campsite.
We saw it at Denali National Park in early August.

Before our trip we talked about buying a camper top for the truck and taking just that to Alaska, then selling it when we got back to Virginia.

We are soooo glad for so many reasons that we didn't do that. We would have been miserable before we even got to Alaska. But that's us. We did see some older couples who were touring Alaska in truck campers and they hadn't gone berserk yet! (Some even had dogs.)

If you have a larger RV don't worry about finding campsites in Alaska or northern Canada. There are plenty of options. If you can afford the gas or diesel for a large rig and it's in good condition, take it.


Despite some rain we enjoyed the Williwaw NFS campground in Portage Valley. Many
of the sites are large and we had a great view of one of the hanging blue glaciers. (7-15-12)

If you're considering purchasing a different kind of RV than you already have, carefully weigh the factors that are important to you and buy one that will meet your needs for all the kinds of camping you intend to do, not just Alaska.

You don't need any one particular type or size of RV for an Alaska trek.

Continued on next page:  some tips re: communications (phone, internet) and border crossings

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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