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The Dempster Highway – Canada’s Road to the Arctic Ocean

Posted on July 22, 2022

The farthest north you can drive in Canada is to a small town called Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. It lays on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and the only way to get there by land is via the Dempster Highway. One road in…one road out.

The trip, and the road, is not for the faint of heart. The Dempster Highway is 880km (550miles) of ever changing surfaces that can, and will, bite you the instant you drop your guard. Contrary to common belief, you do not require a 4×4 or AWD to get to the top and back, but good tires are a must.

It is said that you never visit the same river twice. It’s always changing…the depth, the current, erosion, etc all add to the mix for an ever changing landscape. The same holds true for the Dempster. Not only does the surface change every kilometer or two, but those sections also change from one day to the next. One day a section could be loose gravel and the next that same section could be flooded over, or a grader may have come through and filled in some potholes, or sections that once had grip, now completely lacks it. You need to be ready for it all. There are also two ferry crossings to get across the Pelly River and the MacKenzie River (3rd largest in the America’s behind the Amazon and the Mississippi). They run about 18hrs a day until the rivers start freezing over and they are free, which is a nice bonus.

Waiting for a ferry

The one constant is the need for concentration. The official speed limit for most of the Dempster is 90km/hr and although you can go faster (not legally) most sections require a much slower and more cautious pace. Many of the corners are blind and covered in loose gravel, and since there are no barriers or guard rails, keeping to the speed limit will certainly result in flying clear off the roadway and landing far below on the Tundra or among the trees. Even in places where it’s flat and wide open, the potholes are no joke. It’s a toss up between what causes more flat tires here…the potholes or the sharp shale stones that make up much of the surface.

Along the Dempster, you’ll cross into the Arctic Circle

There was a time when driving the Dempster Highway, when you were pretty much guaranteed to get a flat tire and everyone recommended having at least one spare tire (ideally two) or don’t even attempt the trip. The service centre at Eagle Plains landing is busy all day doing tire repairs. Now I happened to have on my van a new set of Goodyear ComfortDrive touring tires and they worked surprisingly well considering what I put them through. They aren’t designed for such an abusive “off-road” type of road, but not a single issue despite the serious hammering that they were subjected too. I did have a tire repair kit on hand if needed but thankfully it remained unopened.

I chalk this up in part to very attentive driving on my part by avoiding as many of the really nasty potholes as possible. Having said that though, I did hit a few nasty ones so hard that I thought for sure that I bent a rim. Fortunately I survived the Dempster unscathed. Dirty for sure…oh so very very dirty…but not a single flat tire. I’m actually surprised that my 20yr old van survived. The tires, suspension, chassis, all took one hell of a beating for over 1700km (round trip).

If you’re going to visit Tuktoyaktuk, then you will have to take on the Dempster Highway…but be prepared. Bring survival gear (it could be a while before someone finds you), a spare tire or at the very least a tire repair kit, tools for changing a tire, a tire inflation pump, and your wits and your full concentration. You should also bring some extra fuel. The largest gap between fuel stops is 380km, so if your vehicle can’t do 400km with fuel to spare, bring some extra with you. You should also bring cash because the electronic payment terminals aren’t always reliable and there isn’t any mobile service until you reach some of the most northern settlements like Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk at the highways end.

Goodyear ComfortDrive Tires

If you’re going to do the Dempster, be prepared for a very challenging drive and an adventure, and of course it wouldn’t be an adventure if it was easy.

Oh…you’re going to need a car wash by the time you’re done. Pay special attention getting ALL the mud out of your wheels. If you only blast out a bit of it (with a power washer), you will unbalanced them and then bad things happen. Clean them thoroughly!

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