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The Dalton Highway Dos and Don'ts

Thursday, January 30, 2014
The Dalton Highway has a 245-mile stretch without fuel. Most 5-gallon tank bikes will not make this if the rider is going over 60 mph. Therefore  bring a small  2-gallon fuel container and strap it to you bike for your ride north out of Fairbanks.
The Dalton Highway has a 245-mile stretch without fuel and there are relatively few amenities along the way.
Every year motorcyclists are killed on the Dalton Highway. This road offers the rider the adventure gamut. Almost half of the highway is paved or chip sealed. The other half can be smooth or baseballs. There are relatively no places to stop along the way: no gas, no convenient stores, no McDonalds. There are stretches of up to 245 miles without gas. You are literally riding through pristine wilderness. There are no tire shops or police stations. A wrecker to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks is a $1600 bill. Dalton Highway, mile marker 300: Welcome to the food chain.

MotoQuest founder and lead guide Phil Freeman is a veteran of 10+ rides up the Dalton Highway. He is the co-author with motorcycle photographer/writer Lee Klancher of the upcoming book "The Adventurous Motorcyclist's Guide to Alaska" from Octane Press. Over his 13-year career as a motorcycle guide in Alaska, he has witnessed the very best and worst prepared adventure riders you can imagine. Here is what Phil has to say about the Dalton Highway.

I was riding north on the Dalton Highway during one of my tours. It was raining and I was on a section of chip seal, which is English for sh#tty pavement and an 18-wheeler was headed toward me. Between us was a large pothole full of water. I could barely see the truck, the road and everything else. I crossed the semi just as it hit the pothole, sending me literally a child's play pool amount of water crashing into me. Along with the muddy water were bits of road: concrete, rocks...and as this stuff was dripping down the inside of my face shield, I laughed out loud. Here I was, going down the road at about 50 miles an hour in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE and I could not see a thing! I thought to myself, "This is no ordinary road!"

After many trips up the Dalton Highway, I put together a list of dos and don'ts when riding it. Here it goes:

1. Don't: Put Weight Up High

Pack your bike with care. On the Dalton, you are going to hit 700 yards of terror. The road is going to be so slick you lose all traction, and every little thing in your favor is precious. Keep your center of gravity low. Anything heavy in your gear should be at the bottom of your panniers, strapped to your bike low, or discarded altogether. A classic example of overpacking is the motorcycle campers who have so much stuff, and they need to put it somewhere. Then, the tendency is to pack it high on the bike. Big mistake.

For the riders on the BMW R1200GS Adventure, this rule also applies. I have talked to a handful of riders on these beastly steeds that have topped off their 9-gallon tanks, only to hit a slippery section on the highway and go down. This usually means parts of the bike and rider get broken. My advice to them is to fill up their tanks with only 7 gallons, instead of topping it off.

On the Dalton, no matter how you plan and what weather the weather, you can always have a mile of terror. Talk to one rider and they breezed up and down it, enjoyed 70 degree temperatures, and the ride was easy. Talk to another with the same weather conditions, and they hit several road construction areas where a grader and water truck are working together to make your life a sloppy misery. As long as you bank on a greasy mile of muck, you should be prepared for the Dalton. There is a chance you will not encounter muddy conditions, but chances are you will, so come prepared.

2. Do: Choose Your Tire Wisely

Long distance tourers have a dilemma: Do I pick a knobby tire or less aggressive tire? Since you are destined to hit a sloppy section on the Dalton Highway, there are two main schools of thought I have come across regarding the Dalton when it comes to tires. Some say knobbies, and some say 70/30 tires. Both work and have their limitations, and to be honest, much of it comes down to rider skill.

Knobbies are great for the Dalton Highway. This is the surest way to prepare for the water truck or mother nature’s over watering program. The only problem with knobbies is that you will have to plan ahead, since if you are riding up the highway on your own from the continental US, you will most likely run them down before you get there. Because of this, an outfit called Adventure Cycle Works out of Fairbanks was started. You can send them your tires, have them waiting and put on before you start your run to the Arctic Ocean. Once you are on your way back down, you can have them taken off. So, a little extra time and money spent in Fairbanks will insure that you get as much grip as possible for your Arctic Ocean journey.

70-30 tires are not the mud tires, but are designed to displace it and keep traction. Both Metzler and Avon put out very good, long lasting tires. I am a real fan of the Avon Distanzia, which is a good street tire, but really shines when the conditions start to go sloppy. And you can get 6000 miles out of the rear.

There are times on the Dalton when the mud is so thick, especially in a road construction area, that you will lose your grip, no matter what tire you have. Do not be surprised when this happens. Just get on the pegs, drop a gear to gain torque, and put a little throttle on....

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markbvt   January 30, 2014 06:50 PM
This article applies equally well to the East Coast equivalent, the Trans-Labrador Highway. Similar conditions overall, including a 260-mile stretch between gas stops, all of it gravel. It's a road that demands care and attention, but it's an absolutely amazing ride.
Ax1464   January 30, 2014 02:32 PM
Sure would be nice to have this all on one page instead of five so it could be printed for easy reference.