Full Time Van Life: Our experience driving the Dempster Highway and the road to Tuktoyaktuk

We have all heard the horror stories of the Dempster Highway. 740km one way of nasty gravel roads. The road so rough it sounds like the most dramatic story teller made it up… Well the horror stories are true. But we made it up and back and so can you.

Dempster Highway, driving to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, travel guide, vanlife travel, full time travel, off the beaten trail, epic roadtrips

The start of the Dempster Highway is 40km outside of Dawson City, Yukon. We stocked up on a few more groceries, dumped our tanks, and filled our fresh water before heading out. We also fueled up at the cardlock on our way out of town, for the cheapest gas.

It is recommended that you bring a jerrycan with extra fuel when you attempt the Dempster. We didn’t, but we can see the reasons. Fuel is pretty limited along the way.

Our first stop on the Dempster was Tombstone Territorial Park. Take some time here, the hikes out to Tombstone or in any direction from the park are really stunning. In the Yukon, Territorial parks are $12/night and this includes free firewood! The park is dry but did have water available, though boil notices were posted. We checked in at the parks visitor centre for our last updates on the road. We also recommend picking up the Dempster Highway Guide while you’re there. It includes towns, stops, points of interest, and information on the areas you will be driving through.

It rained for two days while we waited out the weather at Tombstone. The rain caused two mudslides between 220-346km marks. This shut the road down for two days. They started allowing traffic through while cleaning up the last mudslide. We were reminded that 4×4 could be the way to go on this drive (but really not necessary if the road is dry)

On the third day we were waved through, and made it past the mudslides. The road otherwise was not too bad to this point. Gravel, some loose and some packed, and pot holes but the road was wide and manageable.

With the stress of the road closures out of the way, we took our time pulling over constantly to take pictures, hike to the top of little mountains and dip in creeks.

We reached the Ogilvie Ridge View Point and that’s when things got interesting. The road and our views were changing. The Richardson Mountains looked incredible to the East of the road. The road itself got a whole lot worse. The paths that were packed gravel and not huge potholes got narrower and the shoulders got soft. So we slowed down, basically after the mudslide we barely approached the speed limit again.

Next stop Eagle Plains! At 370km there is fuel, camping and a restaurant here. We heard mixed reviews about the service from a few different people. We topped up our fuel, gas was actually not too crazy about $0.10-0.15/L more than in Dawson⛽.

The road is packed and pure potholes for the foreseeable future from this point. We saw several spots to boondock, but without 4×4 and not having cell service📵 made us a little weary of going too far off the beaten path.

We crossed the Arctic Circle! The roads were kind of ridiculous around this point, not great condition but wide enough to navigate around most potholes. We saw signs warning that the road doubles as an emergency airstrip🛩. It turns out this is no laughing matter, one day behind us a motorcycle accident had the driver air lifted out.

The landscape changed again. Rolling hills, less trees, and the ones that were there were tiny. Creeks were low, and there was still snow on the ground in some places. This stretch is where Grizzlies🐻 and Caribou🐂 often get spotted so keep your eyes peeled.

We camped out at Rock River another Territorial Park. It was quiet and surprisingly not too busy. It looked like a great spot to fish and a couple sites backed right on to the water🎣. The mosquitos were terrible so we didn’t spend much time outside.

The road changes again when we cross into Northwest Territories. You also cross the Continental Divide here! I’m not sure why the Yukon side is so bad, but the change was instant. Actually we have a theory, if you are driving the Dempster you are leaving the Yukon, so maybe they just don’t care? To be fair though the roads are an uphill battle to maintain because permafrost dictates what they can and cannot do. But wider, smoother gravel roads were a great relief after days of driving those crazy stretches!!

We took two free ferries on this drive: Fort Mcpherson and Tsiigehtchic. The loading area changes based on the shore line of the rivers⛴. We saw other RVs bottom out loading and unloading. But luckily we didn’t fully. We did discover when we stopped for lunch that we had rubbed our fresh water valve, turning it to open, and it dumped about 1/3 of our fresh water while we were driving😒.

We rallied and opted to finish out the drive to Inuvik, although there were some pretty nice looking spots to stop along the way. Overlanders were a common site on this trip, and they pretty much seemed to camp wherever they wanted.

Inuvik was a cute town, the girls at the Visitor Center were awesome. They gave us their honest opinion from their experience driving to Tuk, finally, more than just “you should have 4×4 and spare tires”. We again did a little stock up stayed at Happy Valley Territorial Park ($22/night with power). It rained again, so we did laundry (yes they have laundry facilities and nice showers in the park!!!) laid low and waited for the road to dry up again.

When the weather cleared we topped up on gas, again cheaper at the cardlock on the way out of town. We headed out on the 138km road to Tuktoyaktuk. The road to Tuk was only finished in November 2017, so this is the first summer it was open!

The scenery changed again, less and less trees until their were basically none. No more mountains, but soooo much water and Pingos in the distance. A Pingo is basically a hill that is built up by groundwater being pushed up by permafrost. And seriously look at a map of this area, there is water everywhere🏞.

There were a few stretches of the road that were not great, jagged rocks instead of gravel (its all trucked in so they use what they can get) soft shoulders, so “pullouts” were not really an option for us. A shocking number of gravel trucks hauling down this road⛟🚛…some slow down when passing, some don’t, so error on the side of slowing down to avoid rock chips. The thing we appreciated about this stretch of road, is that they seem to be constantly working on it. Again we slowed down, had a scary moment in the last 20km to Tuk, they were doing roadwork, and this meant deep loose clay and sand😕.

But we made it, and really the road to Tuk isn’t technically the Dempster but it was the best of the gravel roads on the trip.

The first thing you see on the edge of town, sadly is the dump. It is not buried, so the rubbish is visible. Thanks again to the permafrost. But a good reminder to try to pack out whatever you bring.

Finally! We made it to the Arctic Ocean! The end of the road (litterally)

This was a pretty special experience and it wasn’t lost on us that we were so lucky.
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Lucky to visit Tuktoyaktuk in the first year that the new road is open. Prior to this, the Dempster went as far as Inuvik, so Tuk was only accessible by ice road in the winter, and by plane or boat.

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Lucky that our van made the trip. Slowly but without high clearance, or 4×4, or heavy duty tires. We were dusty, and our nerves were tested but it was worth it.⠀

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Lucky that the village is unchanged. There is a humble visitors centre, free dry camping at the end of the road on the water, and the locals are interested in the new visitors. Not too often would they have seen RVs rolling into town.

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Lucky to have met more travelling friends, we loved sharing the experience with them. It may not last that locals want to meet you, invite you back to their place for coffee to tell you about their lives, and hear about yours. Being offered muktuk (beluga) and fresh or smoked fish. Or trying a muskox burger prepared in a canvas tent outside the local store.

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We stayed up way too late, and watched one of the last nights that the sun did not set below the horizon (3:30am, it never set). We took a dip in the Arctic, and admired the Pingos from a distance.

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We don’t know if or when we will get to come back, but we expect that things will change.

We met Claudia and Jann from Switzerland while trying the Muskox burgers in Tuk🍔. We really hit it off with them. Our second couple of Swiss friends, and we are taking it as a sign that we are meant to go to Switzerland next year while we travel Europe🇨🇭.

We camped out together in Tuk, then in Rock River on the way back down the Dempster, and then once again we boondocked on a hillside outside Tombstone🏕. It was the first time we saw the moon in over a month🌛, I almost cried! We decided to carry on and casually roadtrip with Jann and Claudia into Alaska!

We made it back to the start of the Dempster and wanted to kiss the ground when we got back to paved highway🛣. We posed with the van (who really deserved a big hug after all she’s been through) and Holly🐶 who has developed a new fear of gravel roads after driving them for the better part of a month. We collected our certificates along the way: swimming in the arctic, completing the Dempster Highway and crossing the Arctic Circle.

So why did I talk so much here about the road? Well, in the days leading up to this trip, we weren’t sure we would go. All we heard was horror stories but no one could tell us where or why the road was such a nightmare. Every day on the trip we just said “we will go as far as we can”. I hope that given the chance to go, you will take it.

Pack a spare tire, we didn’t need one but honestly some of that is just plain luck, and our tires look a little worse for the wear after all this time on gravel.

Drive slow, so much slower than you think. No normal vehicles are immuned to damage, and the posted speed limits seem absurd in some parts; trucks, RV’s of all sizes: motorhomes, trailers and 5th wheel, vans, motorcycles, cars, jeeps, you name it, they got flats, flipped, lost parts, broken axles, cracked windshields and even went off the road. Overlanders may be an exception but most of them were leisurely taking their time too. (Also note that long rigs are not recommended on this drive.)

We took 10 days up and back, and I would strongly reccomend at least a week to 10 days. We would have loved to stay longer in Tuk and Inuvik, and stop in some of the small towns along the way. We met a guy who did almost a month on the Dempster all in all, and his stories were incredible.⠀

This drive was definitely the craziest thing we have done in 40,000km of being on the road, it’s a bucket list trip for sure. We are so glad we did it, we made it out and back with minimal issues.

What we did get out of it was some incredible memories, a better understanding of the Inuvialuit people who live in the Northern most parts of Canada, a million pictures, and some new life long friends.

Hi! We are Kira and Logan! we have been travelling fulltime in our Roadtrek Zion since November 2017!

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