Last updated: April 2nd, 2020
One of the most epic road trips in all of Canada is the Dempster Highway, a 700-km dirt road stretching from Dawson, Yukon to Inuvik, NWT. The highway takes you from one territory to another, passing the Arctic Circle and all sorts of magnificent scenery, and finally linking up to the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk-Highway, which takes you all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
During our 150-day road trip across Canada, this was one of our most epic experiences. After all, how often can you say you drove past the Arctic Circle? The landscapes are so incredible and because we went in the fall, we were greeted by an array of beautiful colours, ranging from dark reds to golden yellows. It was truly a road trip we’ll never forget and a trip that many people wish to take. After all, this is one of the best things to do in Canada.
As mentioned in the beginning, however, the Dempster Highway is a 700-km dirt road with very little services offered along the way. In fact, there’s only one and it’s in a place called Eagle Plains, which is located around the 400-km mark. Due to the highway’s isolation and rough surface, you must do some planning before you go. We read all sorts of blogs and info sites before embarking on our journey and quite frankly, many of them scared the shit out of us. Now that we’ve been on the Dempster Highway ourselves, I can say that some of them exaggerated quite a bit, but probably for good reason – to really make sure people prepare before making such a long-isolated journey.
Depending on when you go and what you’re driving, there will be different ways to prepare.
What is the Best Season for Driving the Dempster Highway
Without a doubt, the best time will be in the warmer, drier months, including certain times in the spring, summer, and fall. Winter driving is an entirely different beast and we don’t recommend doing this unless you’re highly experienced. When it comes to choosing a season, it mainly depends on the weather. A little bit of rain can be a good thing as it calms down the dust on the road. Too much rain can make the road very slippery though, which can lead to accidents. Other things to keep in mind are the bugs. The spring and summer present much more bugs, including mosquitos and black flies. None of these will kill you but you’ll definitely get bitten at this time of year. In our opinion, the best time to go is in the early fall, which is when the fall colours are out and the bugs have almost all disappeared. This also one of the best time for Dempster Highway conditions.
Seven Tips for Driving the Dempster Highway
As mentioned above, you need to prepare for the Dempster Highway and depending on what vehicle you’re driving and when you’re going, this preparation might differ. However, we’d like to share seven tips that we think will come in useful, no matter what time of year you go.
Fill Your Tank!
This might sound obvious but it’s very important. You will not have another option to get gas until the 400-km mark. There is a gas station just outside of Dawson, but even if you fill it up in Dawson, you should be fine. However, you need to know what your tank holds and how many km you can get out of a tank. Our Honda Pilot has a range of about 650 km or more so we knew one full tank would be fine. If you’re not sure, you may want to bring an extra plastic canister of gas with you.
Bring Food and Water
Just like gas, there is no place to buy food or water until you get to Eagle Plains. Once in Eagle Plains, they have a restaurant but they do not have a grocery store. You’ll want water and snacks, especially if you break down. Also, groceries in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk is very expensive so stock up on what you can if you want to save money.
Driving on a gravel road is not the same as driving on pavement. Even when the road is dry, a gravel road is much more slippery when taking turns. If it rains, it’s much worse. In addition, the faster you drive, the better the chance you’ll get a flat tire on the loose shale rock along the way. Even during our trip, we saw a minivan turned upside down in the ditch. Behind the wheel was an obvious foreigner who likely had no idea how to drive a gravel road. Drive 80 km/h or less and you should be fine.
Bring a Full-Size Spare Tire
We chose to rely on the dummy tire that came with our Honda Pilot but this was taking a risk. We also bought a product called Slime, which is used to plug small holes in the tire. On our way back down the Dempster, we got our first flat and the Slime did not work. Thankfully, we were only 20 km away from Eagle Plains and the dummy tire got us there. Once in Eagle Plains, they repaired our tire. However, if you break down 100-km from the nearest service centre, a dummy tire might not make it. If we ever go back, I’ll be bringing at least one full-size spare tire, just in case.
Stay the Night in Eagle Plains
The community of Eagle Plains has a hotel, a campground, a restaurant, a bar, a gas station, and a car mechanic. It’s a little more than halfway between Dawson and Inuvik. We highly recommend spending the night, especially if you’re enjoying the scenery along the way. Summer daylight is long, but if you try to stretch it too much, you could get tired, or have a higher chance of breaking down at night. There’s also ferries along the way and you don’t want to miss one and be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, staying a night in the Eagle Plains Hotel is not required but we recommend it just for being extra safe and enjoying the area. Eagle Plains is located right on the Arctic Circle as well, and when we spent the night, we saw an incredible display of Northern Lights.
Get a Satellite Phone if you Want Service
If you want to be able to have access to a phone in case of emergency, you will need to buy or rent a satellite phone. There is NO SERVICE from any of Canada’s cellphone carriers. None. The only possibility is a satellite phone and yes, they can be expensive. We chose to rely on other people in the rare chance of an emergency and never did need one. However, many people feel safer with access to a phone and so we just wanted to mention it so that you know your options. If you do want to rent one, you’ll need to do so in Whitehorse.
Bring a Windshield Repair Kit
The Dempster Highway is known for broken windshields. It’s quite common to get some sort of crack or ding due to rocks being flung up by passing trucks. Surprisingly, we didn’t get any BUT we did get them on the Alaska Highway heading to Whitehorse, Yukon from British Columbia. If you get one or two, it might be nice to plug them up with a proper windshield repair kit, which costs around $20 per crack. However, if the crack is too big or you have too many, you may want to just consider getting a new windshield once your trip is over. The main purpose of a windshield repair kit is to stop the crack from spreading further. You can buy them at Canadian Tire or a similar shop.
Enjoy Your Drive on the Dempster Highway
The Dempster Highway is not as bad as some people make it out to be. However, it still requires some planning and safe driving. Read over our tips above and decide how you want to prepare for the journey. It’s about 400-km to Eagle Plains and then another 300-km or so until you reach Inuvik. Once in Inuvik, most services are available, as well as a variety of hotels and restaurants. Either way, the work to get prepared is worth it because this is easily one of the best things to do in the Yukon and one of the best things to do in the Northwest Territories. Enjoy your drive on the Dempster Highway and let us know how it went!
If you have any tips, comments, or questions, leave a comment below!
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