CAUTIONS FOR THE ALASKA HIGHWAY
Make sure your tires are in good condition and carry a mounted spare tire at least the equal of the tires on the road. The small, temporary doughnut spares commonly provided with vehicles are impractical on the Alaska Highway. During the winter, from October through April, cars need cold-weather protection and gear. This may include an engine heater, antifreeze, thinner oil, studded snow tires and warm clothing for the driver and passengers. Tire chains are occasionally required for some stretches during the winter so be sure to carry a set with you and know how to install them. Temperatures may fall to 50 below in the winter. Remember, not all businesses are open all year, nor are they available 24 hours a day, so plan ahead for gas, food and lodging. Although most highways in Alaska are paved, the freezing and thawing of permafrost (permanently frozen ground) in the northern three-fourths of the state and in Yukon Territory can cause the road to buckle. If you drive too fast on these stretches, you may lose control or cause severe damage to your vehicle; slow down and proceed with care.
WINTERIZING YOUR CAR
Probably the only thing you need to do to your car before bringing it to Alaska is to make sure it is in good shape. This includes a tuneup, maybe changing belts and hoses that are more than 2 years old, and making certain your coolant is adequate to 50 below or colder. The decision to further modify your vehicle can generally wait until you arrive. The mechanics at the base service stations and local garages will be happy to advise you.
Many people with orders to Alaska wonder if they need to get new tires. Whether to do so depends a great deal upon your abilities as a winter driver. Obviously old, bald tires are a bad idea in the winter, and regular street tires offer little traction. However, many people get along fine year-round with all-season radial tires.
Others feel more comfortable with snow tires or studded tires. There is no magic formula. Even a sport utility vehicle with four studded tires can spin out if the driver encounters black ice or is not driving cautiously.
Tips for vehicles in Alaska:
- An engine block heater is a must to fight off winter temperatures. Cars should not have to be plugged in unless temperatures drop below zero, but the state recommends plugging in your vehicle at temperatures below 20 degrees to help mitigate pollution. Portable interior car heaters are prohibited because they are a fire hazard and an extra drain on the electrical system.
- Another important thing is to change to an arctic-weight lubricant for the differential and transmission.
- You may want to include a northern (hotter) thermostat. A battery blanket may further aid in starting your car on cold winter mornings.
- The oil should be changed to 5W-30 or to special arctic oil. Check your owner’s manual carefully before deciding which oil to use. In the extreme cold, lubricants can thicken, so thinner oil is usually the way to go.
- The circulating/freeze plug heater and other mechanical modifications will probably be fine if left in place, but it’s not a bad idea to check them out to see if they work come winter.
WINTER DRIVING TIPS
People who have never driven on ice and snow will need to rethink their driving techniques. Snow and ice greatly reduce the traction of your tires, so it takes longer to start, longer to stop and longer to get where you’re going. Allow extra time for everything when driving in the winter. Speeds that may be safe in summer are not safe on ice and snow. The distance required to stop a vehicle safely on a slippery surface may be three to nine times longer than on dry pavement.
ALWAYS ADJUST YOUR SPEED TO ROAD AND WEATHER CONDITIONS.
To avoid winter collisions, maintain at least 50 yards between your vehicle and someone else’s; more is better. When slowing or stopping, don’t slam on the brakes or you could skid and lose control. Pump the brakes gently and shift to a lower gear if possible. In case of a skid, turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid. Cars with ABS brakes may state in the owner’s manual to avoid pumping the brakes and allow the system to do its job in bringing your vehicle to a smooth stop. Do not rely exclusively on this recommendation as sometimes conditions are so slick ABS brakes may lock your wheels.
When you brush the snow off your windshield, take the time to clear the rear and side windows, headlights and taillights too. In winter, vision in every direction is paramount and may help prevent an accident.