Are you thinking about biking the Dempster Highway? I cycled the full length of the highway from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, to its terminus near the City of Dawson, YT, in late June 2023. My ride was about 900 km long and it took me just shy of seven full days to ride.
When I arrived at the end of the Dempster Highway (at its southern junction with the Alaskan Highway), I encountered a cyclist from Colorado. “What would you suggest if I want to bike up to Tuktoyaktuk?”, she asked me. Up to that point, I hadn’t thought about what advice I’d give to a fellow rider.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my journey, I’ve put together the below list of considerations for anyone planning to ride the Dempster Highway.
1. Will You Go Unsupported?
This is one of the biggest questions you need to answer: Should you ride unsupported (i.e. carrying all your own gear and supplies), or should you ride supported (i.e. with a support vehicle carrying most or all of your supplies).
I rode the Dempster Highway with a support vehicle. This was by no means a formal arrangement but rather the result of fortuitous circumstances: I had some family members that wanted to travel to the Far North at the same time as me, so we teamed up and travelled together. I travelled by bicycle while they stayed close by with their vehicle. We would meet up throughout the day and they would supply me with food and water. In the evening, we would have dinner and camp together.
It was incredibly helpful having a vehicle to carry my food, water, gear and other supplies. This enabled me to eat good food (and much more food) than had I travelled unsupported, and I could bike faster than I could with a fully loaded bike.
I also want to emphasize the benefits of having travelling companions. The Dempster Highway is long and remote; I can imagine a solo traveller feeling isolated and alone at times.
It is possible to ride the Dempster Highway unsupported. I encountered four cyclists riding it unsupported at the same time as me, and I met a few other cyclists who had done it in the past. But I caution any cyclist considering an unsupported journey.
The Dempster Highway is hard to bike. Even if you are familiar with gravel riding and bike touring, the remoteness of the highway makes it immensely challenging. Resupply points are few and far between. You need to carry enough food for multiple days. You also need to carry replacement bike parts and know how to repair your bike because there are no bike shops or mechanics along the way. You are responsible for remedying any problems that arise by yourself.
Even medical services are limited — it could take hours, if not days, before a medical team can respond to an emergency on the Dempster Highway.
2. Be Prepared for Dust
When the Dempster Highway dries out, it gets dusty. This is especially true on hot summer days. You’ll notice the dust on windy days and when vehicles go by.
Passing vehicles are particularly problematic since they kick up a big dust cloud, even when travelling at low speeds. This causes two issues.
First, you will have trouble breathing and seeing in the dust. A face mask or bandana will keep the dust out of your lungs, and eye protection will keep the dust out of your eyes. Be ready to put this gear on when a vehicle approaches.
Second, dust clouds make cyclists invisible to vehicle traffic. You need to have a headlight and rear light operating at all times along the Dempster Highway to maximize your visibility. Consider using other high-visibility equipment too like reflectors and a safety vest.
Do not treat visibility as an afterthought. This is a serious matter: shortly before I set off along the Dempster Highway, a cyclist was killed by a driver, allegedly because the driver could not see the cyclist through a dust cloud at the time of the collision.
3. When it Rains, It Gets Muddy
You should expect rain at some point along your Dempster Highway ride. And when it rains, it gets muddy. The type of mud varies depending on where you are, but I never found it to be too thick or clay-like — it won’t clump up and prevent your wheels from turning, but it will slow you down and make you dirty.
I found that after a few hours of biking through the mud, my gears had trouble changing because the derailleur was clogged with little stones and mud. Riding on the muddy road felt like riding with partially deflated tires.
You’ll want to ensure that all of your gear is ready for rain. Keep items in dry sacks and sealable containers, which should also protect them from dust.
Be warned that the mud can stain: my blue rain jacket is now stained with brown mud splatter. I think some mud has a high iron content, which can colour clothing.
4. What Will You Do for Water?
You will not have access to potable water along the Dempster Highway except when in populated settlements, which are few and far between. This means you will need to filter water from natural sources, unless you are travelling with a support vehicle.
Consider what type of water filter you want to bring. You might be able to get by with just purification tablets (since the fresh water near the highway tends to be clear), but I always recommend a proper filter to remove any sediment and impurities.
You shouldn’t need to carry too much water since you are unlikely to have trouble finding filterable water — there are lots of rivers, ponds and streams alongside the highway. That said, I noticed that these sources of fresh water get further from the highway as you move north. On some northern stretches, you may need to walk a few hundred metres away from the road to access filterable water. This walk will be across permafrost, which can be wet and muddy in warmer months — it’s a bit like walking in a swamp. Bear in mind that the plants living on permafrost can be sensitive to footsteps, and some of the highway is surrounded by private land.
5. Think About How to Camp Without Trees
The northern portion of the Dempster Highway is above the treeline, and there are many long stretches further south without trees. Where trees exist, they tend to be short and scraggy — not the type of trees from which you can easily hang a food bag.
Consider using a bear barrel instead of a food bag when riding the Dempster Highway if you are travelling unsupported.
The lack of trees also make it hard to find shade. I had trouble deciding where to take breaks on sunny days because there are very few spots that offer relief from the sun.
Wind speeds can be high without trees to block the wind. This can result in strong headwinds when riding (if you’re lucky, you might get a tailwind) and billowy nights in your tent.
6. Recommendation: Ride Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik in One Day
It’s a hilly 150km from the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk to central Inuvik, but I recommend riding it all in one day. It’s a big push, but this isn’t a good segment to break into smaller parts.
The Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik portion of the highway is above the treeline, meaning that you won’t have much protection from the wind or sun. Hanging your food bag from a tree is impossible without trees.
This portion of the highway lacks pull-out spots, side roads, driveways, and other gravel surfaces off the highway that would be suitable for tenting. Camping on the ground around the highway isn’t a good option because it is permafrost, which tends to be wet and muddy in warmer months. Permafrost vegetation is fragile, so leaving the road isn’t advised.
The land is relatively flat, so even if you walk away from the highway you won’t find much privacy from the road. I suspect road noise would be a concern at night.
Both Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik have good campgrounds within or beside the city boundaries. I suggest that you put in a long day and enjoy the comfort of a nice campground.
7. Bring More Food Than You Think Necessary
Along the Dempster Highway, you will find small grocery stores in Fort McPherson, Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk. I’ve heard that Tsiigehtchic also has a grocery store, but I didn’t visit it. Of these four locations, Inuvik has the biggest store.
The City of Dawson is approximately 50 km from the southern terminus of the Dempster Highway. It has a decent sized grocery store.
Fort McPherson is roughly 600 km north of the City of Dawson. Inuvik is about 185 km north of Fort McPherson, and Tuktoyaktuk is about 150 km north of Inuvik. You need to carry enough food over these distances. It will be a particular challenge to carry enough between the City of Dawson and Fort McPherson.
The grocery stores in these communities are not big and varied like typical urban grocery stores. These stores carry essential grocery items and some non-grocery items, but specialized goods will be hard to find.
Be prepared to pay high prices at northern grocery stores. I found that prices were 1.5x to 3x higher than the prices charged in Whitehorse.
Eagle Plains has a small restaurant and snack shop (which has potato chips and not much else). Eagle Plains does not have a grocery store.
An Eagle Plains staff member advised me that Eagle Plains does not have postal service, so you cannot mail a food box to yourself in advance. I did, however, come across two unsupported cyclists that made a food box in Whitehorse and then found a truck driver in Whitehorse travelling to Eagle Plains who was willing to deliver the food box to Eagle Plains. The cyclists were then able to collect the food box when they arrived.
Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk have post offices. You may be able to send a food box to these post offices as a “General Delivery”.
8. Don’t Expect Last-Minute Accommodations
Eagle Plains, Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk and a few other locations along the Dempster Highway have hotels and similar accommodations for rent. However, you should not rely on last-minute availability. The Dempster Highway is popular in the summer and accommodations fill up early. There is also frequent construction work in the area; a fibre optics cable was being laid when I travelled the highway. These construction workers filled up many of the rooms at Eagle Plains.
If you want a hotel room along the way, you should book it early. Prices tend to be high: I was advised that one night in Eagle Plains is more than C$200.
I hope you found this list of considerations helpful. If there’s anything else that you’re wondering about the Dempster Highway, feel free to leave a comment below and start a discussion.