Spectacular scenery, economy and unique viewpoints make motorcycling the Alaska Highway a popular way to visit the Alaska and northwestern Canada. Following are some tips for anyone planning a motorcycle trip to Alaska.
While it's the adventure of a lifetime, riding through vast tracts of wilderness in all kinds of weather can be demanding, requiring both physical and mental preparation. Almost every make of motorcycle—Honda, Harley, BMW, Yamaha, Buell—in every shape and size—bike, trike, sidecar—has made the trip to Alaska. Motorcycle choice is more a function of rider preference than a trip requirement. But while lighter bikes are more suitable for gravel roads, larger bikes are definitely more comfortable for long highway trips. Power cruisers such as the Harley Davidson and touring bikes like the Honda Goldwing are popular choices: Their weight, power and plush suspension make long, high-mile days more comfortable.
The larger bikes are also able to carry larger loads, an important consideration for riders hauling enough stuff to set up camp. Trailers are popular accessories for some Alaska-bound bikers, although we met a very frustrated motorcyclist on the Alaska Highway south of Beaver Creek one summer who had trouble negotiating the frost-heaved sections of highway with his too heavy trailer. He had also experienced an expensive breakdown and tow on his trip, as well as a lot of wet weather.
Weather and road conditions can make or break a trip for some people, although battling the elements and surviving the road is the best part of a motorcycle trip for others. Harley rider Doug Eaton included a trip up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle on his tour with friends, and experienced wash-boarded wet gravel and impatient 18-wheelers. “My rear sprocket was jarred apart and I cut off the dangling piece with the hacksaw blade on my Victorinox multi-tool. When I got home, I replaced the crystallized and broken front axel bolts and a few others that were just plain missing.” Despite the bike damage, bumpy road and rain, the picture of their mud-caked bikes and mud-covered selves at the Arctic Circle sign is “my favorite of the whole trip.”
Another road condition that motorcyclists should watch for are the metal-grated decks and wood-deck bridges along the Alaska Highway and connecting routes. Both can be slippery when wet and the metal grates have longitudinal grooves that tend to cause a gentle sway as you ride. Go with the sway rather than fighting it.
How long a riding day you have depends on road conditions, the weather, your stamina and your schedule. One motorcyclist on a 2-week trip from Seattle to Anchorage had a 550-mile day, although 400 miles was his average. On bad weather days, or days riding through road construction or damaged road, that average dipped. One advantage in Northern climes in summer: Long hours of daylight. (Fairbanks has 21 hours and 49 minutes of daylight on June 21, summer solstice.)
A note on accessories: For all but the most hard-core riders, a windshield is essential. Some bikers also use headlight shields and hand guards. A fairing, while not completely protecting you from rocks, will offer good protection against insects, rain, wind and cold. Case guards are good insurance against damage to the bike should you go down. Gravel roads are dusty in dry weather, so consider taking a good competition air filter. A skid plate will help protect the engine from rocks kicked up by the front wheel, and a center stand can be a great help when parking on gravel or fixing a flat or lubing a chain.
A complete tire repair kit is essential. Also bring a valve stem tool, a mini bicycle pump and dish soap to aid in tire changes. Other recommended tools include a 3/8-inch socket set, open and box end wrenches, a hex-key set and drivers for screws and fasteners. Also carry special tools such as sparkplug and spoke wrenches. A utility knife or multi-tool with pliers is also useful.
As far as gas tanks go, the bigger, the better. While gas is readily available on major routes, fuel stops are few and far-between in more remote areas, and high-octane gas is simply not available. On these more remote roads, you may want to stop and top off your tank more often.
Tire choice and maintenance are extremely important. Harley rider Brad Moore wore out a completely new back tire after only 5,000 miles (“I usually get 9,000 or so miles out of a back tire at the same speeds”), but says he found both paved highway and gravel highway in the North on par with similar highways in the Lower 48 (“except longer, of course!”). Softer tires have more traction; harder tires last longer. Careful airing down of tires in rough or slippery conditions can improve performance.
Major pre-trip maintenance and routine on road maintenance will help avoid costly breakdowns. Getting a tow to the nearest motorcycle shop with parts can add up to many miles in the North. Keep up on your oil changes and bring chain lube. Most major towns have hardware and auto parts stores (NAPA is in several communities). A few cities in Alaska have motorcycle dealerships, for example: Harley-Davidson Motorcycles in Fairbanks; Denali Harley-Davidson at Mile 37.5 Parks Highway in Wasilla; House of Harley-Davidson on Spenard in Anchorage; and Kenai Peninsula Harley-Davidson in Soldotna. Along the route in Canada there are Harley-Davidson shops in Smithers and Prince George, BC, and in Whitehorse, YT.
Expect minor delays caused by road construction.
A helmet is required in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. Also recommended: a rain suit; waterproof riding boots; tall wool or synthetic socks; warm layered clothing (synthetic preferred); riding gloves; a complete first-aid kit; sunscreen; and insect repellent. Weather can change dramatically in the North, from hot sun to cold pelting rain. It is not unusual to run into mixed snow and rain, even in the middle of summer, at places like Summit Lake on the Alaska Highway. Heated handgrips are also recommended for colder temperatures, which arrive relatively early in the far North, where early morning temperatures can dip below freezing by Labor Day weekend.
Road reports from other motorists help prepare riders for upcoming conditions. “I’m always amazed at the pipeline of information available,” says motorcyclist Dennis Bible. “Everyone has a story and wants to help the other traveler.”
There is usually space for motorcycles on the Alaska Marine Highway System (reserve ahead to be sure). The folks at the ferry terminals are helpful and will load motorcycles last, which allows you to be first to offload. This is for safety, as the metal-loading surfaces and decks can be slippery when wet. Use the chocks and rope provided, along with the bike’s center or side stand, to secure your motorcycle during rough weather crossings.
Summers in Alaska are packed with motorcycle rallies, bike shows, picnics, local celebrations, organized day and multi-day rides, and other events. Before you go, check with local organizations such as Gold Wing for special events during your visit.