Of the 50 states, Alaska is the one least traveled. Located in the most northwestern extremity of North America, Alaska is “out of the way” and unlike Hawaii, with its gorgeous beaches, is often relegated to the bucket list of items that never get completed. Those who decide to travel to Alaska, however, typically fall into one of two camps: the cruisers or the road trippers.
In July of 2016, my family of four, along with my in-laws, traveled to Alaska in celebration of my father-in-law’s milestone birthday and to cross off my husband’s 50th state with his parents! The 49th state was Hawaii, which we visited with my in-laws in September 2013. I’ve written previously about our experiences in Seward, Talkeetna/Denali National Park, and Wrangell-St. Elias, but this post is dedicated strictly to the ins and outs of road tripping in a large RV for those of you who have never done it but may be interested in exploring a large RV as an option in the future.
Choice of Vehicle:
The first crucial decision to make is what vehicle to take? There are a number of options beginning with a vehicle you already own, a rental SUV or minivan, or any number of trailer/rv type vehicles that you can pull behind or drive independently. My in-laws strongly considered pulling a fifth wheel camper behind a pick up truck they already owned (the “fifth” wheel is the hitch in the bed of the truck), but my father-in-law had long dreamed or road tripping to Alaska in an RV and a necessary part of this dream involved eating sandwiches and reading a book on the Alaska Highway as my mother-in-law did the driving.
In researching their RV options, my in-laws visited an RV Show and Camping Expo one full year prior to when they expected to take the trip. They did this knowing that they needed to fully research their options, order the vehicle, have it customized (if necessary), and take it on at least one trip prior to departing for Alaska. Given that they knew my husband and young son would be traveling with them, they wanted a large enough RV that everyone would be comfortable for the long trip and they ended up purchasing an FR3 RV They strongly considered purchasing an Airstream, but ultimately decided that the layout of the FR3 worked out better for them.
The FR3 was massive and amazing and my son loved it. My in-laws however, ended up with mixed feelings about the RV. My husband reports that although it was very nice to drive and they had plenty of space, it was an extremely loud vehicle and they could not actually talk while driving because the noise of the vehicle prevented them from hearing one another clearly, even sitting side-by-side. Furthermore, my father-in-law’s dream of leisurely eating a sandwich while my mother-in-law did the driving did not come to fruition as the vehicle was too large for my mother-in-law to feel comfortable driving and, it turns out, they did not feel comfortable being unbuckled while the RV was moving on the road. Although it was nice to have the luxury of the FR3, especially in remote areas in Yukon, my husband’s overall verdict was that if given the opportunity to make this trip again, he would choose instead to drive a large SUV and stay at hotels or camp overnight in the wildness.
Pro-Tip: A key consideration for people with kids who don’t already RV is to do several low stakes nights close to home to learn everything before you are out in the middle of nowhere. Heck, this is a key consideration for anyone, kids or not!
During World War II, the Alaska Highway was built, connecting the lower United States to Alaska via Canada. Months prior to their departure, we purchased a copy of The Milepost, the definitive guide to traveling the Alaska Highway. My father-in-law used The Milepost and mapped out a route that would take the four of them from their starting point in Indianapolis, IN to their first destination in Alaska: Tok. Knowing that they would be traveling with a seven year old, my in-laws planned the journey to place over 11 days, with the longest day of just under 600 miles. The goal, of course, was to survive the journey without forever ruining road trips for my young son and so they built in at least one day in which they traveled only 120 miles and made sure to build in enough time for bike rides, tree climbing, and other leg stretching activities.
Their itinerary, with corresponding mileage, was as follows:
|Mt Rushmore, SD||120|
|Calgary, AB (Canada)||423|
|Grand Prairie, AB||443|
|Fort Nelson, BC||475|
|Lake Watson, YU||320|
|Destruction Bay, YU||432|
One the trip was a go, my in-laws sprung to action in terms of planning the logistics. My father-in-law was in charge of the RV, making advance reservations at RV parks, ensuring that any and all equipment they might need for the RV was packed and ready and my mother-in-law was in charge of the packing of the RV and ensuring that they had the supplies they needed to make it to Alaska and back. With plenty of storage space, my mother-in-law purchased large plastic rubbermaid containers that fit snugly into the containers and began planning the items she would need. Among others, she needed to ensure that she had all the cooking and dining supplies they might need as well as whatever linens and other cleaning supplies they might need. To that end, one item I found and purchased for her was this 14-piece kitchen in a box set that provided her with many necessary kitchen items all packable into one neat little box.
Pro-tip: Make sure you pack your flatware in napkins or felt so that you aren’t driven crazy by jingling flatware on the road!
The Daily Routine:
The daily routine while on the road was relatively simple. Wake up, pack up, start driving. Stop for lunch somewhere (usually a light lunch of sandwiches or something else that can be easily prepared), drive some more, stop for the night. Once stopped for the night, they would “open” up the RV, which essentially meant opening up the various storage compartments to get out what they needed to make dinner.
The FR3 had so much storage space there was never any concern that they would not be able to bring along something they needed. Indeed, they packed their own portable grill, tables, seats, napkins, wine, flatware and dinnerware… pretty much anything you can think of.
In the evenings after dinner, they liked to play baseball or go for short bike rides around the RV park.
Once in the Yukon, they spent many evenings by the fire, roasting smores and just generally enjoying the midnight sun.
In terms of bedding down, my in-laws had a king bed in the back of the RV, with a sliding door that closed it off from the rest of the RV. The dining table opened up and turned into my son’s full-sized bed. My favorite bed, however, is the one my husband slept in. His bed dropped down from the roof ceiling and was literally suspended over the front driver/passenger seats!
As you can imagine, therein so much to remember to do every morning in terms of tidying up and making sure you secure all belongings. I wasn’t surprised to learn that there’s actually a thing called pre-departure checklists that you can print out and bring (even laminated!) along with you on your trip to ensure that you do everything needed prior to pulling away. Sample lists can be found online and include everything from reminders to “put away lawn chairs” to turning on/off your water pump! I know that my in-laws had a pre-departure check list that they followed every morning prior to getting back on the road.
The RV Scene:
In general, my family found the RV scene to be severely lacking. Not only were the RV parks in the United States generally run down and nothing more than glorified parking lots with hook ups, the atmosphere was also lacking. My husband reports that the main evening activity was to sit outside of the RV and watch tv. Needless to say, after a long day of driving and being cooped up in the RV, my family was desperate for something active to do, but they seemed to be in the minority.
In contrast to RV parks in the United States, the provincial parks in Canada were amazing. Not only were they in wooded and semi-private spots (versus in a parking lot right next to another RV), the surrounding scenery was beautiful and there was always an excellent firepit to roast marshmallows late into the night. My family absolutely loved the provincial parks in Canada and would recommend it for anyone looking to camp, RV or otherwise. Unlike US campgrounds, they generally provide free, well-seasoned firewood. The Alaska state campgrounds were also great for camping, but in general commercial, for-profit US RV parks left something to be desired.
The major drawback to driving an RV to/from/around Alaska is that it is a large, unwieldy vehicle. Although the FR3 was a nice and spacious ride for the long drive to and from Ohio, my family ended up needing to rent two vehicles during our stay in Seward and Talkeetna. Moreover, my family elected to fly into Wrangell-St.Elias because although the road from Chitina (where they parked the RV) to Wrangell-St.Elias is only 60 miles, it would have taken hours for the RV to make the trip. As a result, unless you are willing to restrict yourself to RV friendly roads, traveling via RV will require additional expenses, like a rental vehicle and paying for a “parking spot” for the RV, should you choose to leave it behind. Although parking the RV in an RV park without hook ups costs approximately $10-20/day, parking an RV at a location with full hook ups can cost upwards of $50-75/day. In other words, an RV is hardly a “free” way too travel and stay. It may be slightly less expensive than a hotel room, but it also has significant draw backs and I would recommend that anyone looking to save money do the math very carefully to determine whether or not they will actually save money by traveling via RV.
My family loved the RV experience and my son still talks about it fondly. But, having done the great journey to and from Alaska, I believe they are ready to put the RV days behind them. My husband has said that he would love to drive the Yukon and British Columbia with me someday, but that we will be traveling via SUV and staying at lodges, instead of an RV. And that’s just fine with me.
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