Truck Update 10-20-19

Now that we are home, we spent quite a bit of time inspecting the truck and cleaning everything. It did great on the trip and shows very little wear. The bulk of the cleanup was just washing little bits of arctic mud out of the nooks and crannies of the exterior. The exterior cleaned up really nicely. We gave the whole habitat interior and cab a nice deep clean. We thoroughly wiped everything down, vacuumed, touched up paint, etc. The inside of the habitat looks almost exactly like it did when we finished it in the spring.

All Clean After the Trip
All Clean After the Trip

We were really happy with the way the Tern Overland windows handled the nasty conditions up north. They didn’t leak at all, the integrated blinds and screen were awesome, and the double thickness was super warm and cozy. We were a little bit concerned that they would get scuffed by tree branches, but it didn’t end up being as bad as we thought. They did end up with some scuffing, but this week, we tried a 3-part polishing compound that really cleaned them up. They look as good as new, so we are really happy with that.

There were a few things that we had mentally been keeping track of to work on when we got home. We cleaned, prepped, and re-painted a few areas on the undercarriage of the truck that had gotten a bit chipped by pebbles along the way (front of the fuel tank and rear fender guards). We replaced the rear muffler mount as we didn’t like how it behaved on the rougher roads; it’s much better now.  We also fixed a minor clearance/rubbing spot on one of the rear fenders. Basically, the to-do list was super small considering the length of trip that we went on.

The truck is in super great shape now. Other than the hot water heater upgrade work that we are doing, the truck is ready to take on another adventure.

Truck Update 10-13-19

In the spring as we were finishing up the truck, we had some specific dates that we wanted to hit for starting our summer travels. The prime window of travel in the far north is pretty narrow, and we wanted to make sure we got there as soon as some of the river crossings opened. As our departure time approached, we had made it pretty much through our entire truck to-do list, but we decided to defer installing the hot water heater until we got back. Surprising as it might seem, we did the whole 5 month trip without a hot water heater and really didn’t miss it. We found that because we stored our water inside the habitat that it was always in the 70-75 degree F range which was quite comfortable for washing hands, face, and dishes. For showering, we would heat a specific amount of water in a kettle on our alcohol stove. We had a digital thermometer and we would heat the water to 107 degrees F. It actually worked perfectly; the water temperature was great and it really helped us ration water as we knew exactly how much we were showering with.

Now that we are back, we are finishing the hot water installation. There is a large area for the hot water heater reserved underneath the forward dinette bench behind the shower wall. From the beginning, we only planned to plumb hot water to the shower as the kitchen seemed fine with room temperature water.

SureCal 22 litre 5_81 gal Horizontal Single Coil Calorifier
SureCal 22 litre 5_81 gal Horizontal Single Coil Calorifier

Originally, we planned on installing a sailboat calorifier that would take hot coolant water from the engine and circulate it through a heat exchanger in the calorifier’s insulated tank. We liked that it would heat the water while we were driving using waste heat and that we could use our engine pre-heater to heat the water when not driving. Some of the downsides to the calorifier option is that the calorifier that we have is really larger than we would ever need; it is 5.8 gallons. Also, it has some system complexity by tying the engine coolant system to the habitat hot water system.

On the trip we were really pleased with how our solar and lithium battery combination performed. Even when the weather was cloudy for several days in a row, we used a lot of power extensively in the evening, and we had the truck in a dark ferry hold, the lowest we ever got the batteries was 88% charge state. This lead us to start thinking about using some of the battery and solar capacity to run an electric hot water heater. There are several nice, small 12-volt electric hot water heaters available now. Even at full power they only draw 200-300 watts, so with full sun on our 600 watt solar array, they wouldn’t even put a dent in the battery capacity. They are smaller, though, at only 1.5-1.6 gallons, but in a way that is nice because it would heat quickly.

So we are in comparison mode and looking at the pros and cons of the systems. Both would be great for different reasons.

Travel Log 10-6-19

Well, that sure was a great trip, and we are so glad we set aside the time to take it at the pace we wanted. It is really a long distance and it would have felt rushed any other way. We are also glad that the timing worked out as well as it did. We originally wanted to take this trip 9 years ago using our old Jeep Wrangler and our roof top tent, but it didn’t work out for many reasons. In a way we are glad that it got delayed. 9 years ago, you couldn’t drive to Tuktoyaktuk. That being said, we suspect that a lot of the places we went will become crowded in the near future. Talking to locals, it sounds like they are expecting a lot more people in the coming years and we are glad that we were only the 3rd vehicle to drive to Tuktoyaktuk this summer (and this summer was only the 2nd summer that the road to Tuktoyaktuk was open).

On top of that, climate change really is apparent up north. Some of the areas we visited this summer we had previously been to 8 years ago. It really is clear that many of the glaciers are retreating, some of the mountains have less snow on them, forests are struggling with drought/disease, and there were some pretty impressive record-breaking high temperatures this summer. The cause of the change is naturally up for debate, but there is no sense denying that it is changing. It makes us even more thankful for seeing it when we did.

The truck was a champ and it was the perfect vehicle for the trip. It was so comfortable and we were happy to call it home. Its highway speed ended up being perfect and well matched with semi-trucks. Our high ground clearance, awesome approach and departure angles, and 4WD let us safely get to places that we wouldn’t have been able to get to in another vehicle (even our Jeep Wrangler). We did use 4WD several times and diff locks to get unstuck a few times, but it was really the huge ground clearance, large tires, and awesome approach and departure angles that we relied on day after day to get to cool camp spots. For a big truck, it’s awfully small (in a good way)!

Anyway, we are thankful that we were able to take the time to go to such beautiful places. Many thanks to all that have helped us in preparation for and during our trip.

Now that we are home, we plan on changing things up a bit, so we think we will list the truck for sale shortly. It’s a great vehicle, and we will miss it, but we went on the trip we have been planning for years and it’s time for us to do some other things.

Each Pin is one of our Camp Spots
Each Pin is one of our Camp Spots

Trip at a Glance

Number of Days – 133
Total number of Canada/US border crossings – 8
Number of ferries/barges – 13
Miles on Pavement – 9,478.3
Miles on Dirt/Mud/Gravel – 2,521
Miles on Ferries – 618.7
Total Miles – 12,618

Average Fuel Cost – $3.909 USD/Gallon
Average Mileage – 10.7 miles per gallon
Average Mileage – 22 liters per 100 km

Nights above Arctic Circle – 19
Number of meals that we ate out – 2
Number of campfires that we started – 0
Number of photographs taken – >5,000
Total number of old friends we met up with – 19

Number of vehicles that we helped – 4
Number of times we used fuel from jerry cans – 17
Number of times we got stuck – 0
Number of times we almost got stuck – 2 (thankful for 4WD with diff locks!)

One of our favorite parts of the whole trip was all the wildlife that we had the opportunity to spend time with. We kept track of all the large animals that we saw along the way.

Grizzly – 6 (including 1 cub)
Black Bears – 22 (including 4 cubs)
Elk – 1
Porcupine 3
Stone Sheep – 12
Dal Sheep – 16 (including 4 babies)
Moose – 14
Bison – 43 (including 12 babies)
Beaver – 7
Bald Eagle – 14
Golden Eagle – 4
Wolf – 1
Caribou – 11
Musk Ox – 95 (including about 5 babies)
Owl – 2
Humpback Whale – 2
Gray Whale – 12
Lynx – 1
Salmon – far too many to count

Travel Log 9-29-19

We really avoided organized camping on our whole trip. Finding wild camp spots in the northern wilderness was quite easy and we consistently found beautiful places to camp with no one around for miles and miles. For the middle 4 months of our trip, we didn’t stay at a single organized campground. We really came to enjoy our privacy in wild camp spots. It was a bit of a shock to us to get back to the lower 48 and remember how densely populated everything is and how many more people there are.

This was exacerbated by the fact that we chose to drive 101/1 right along the coast to avoid traveling through the warmer areas inland. Campgrounds really aren’t our thing (we prefer fresh air to breathing other people’s campfire smoke), and we feel a little bit ridiculous in our rugged off-road truck in a campground, but it just seems to be the reality of the west coast these days. That being said, we actually ended up staying at some nice campgrounds along the Oregon and California coast.

Our driver side front wheel bearing had been making a little growling noise periodically for a while. As we headed south into California, it became obvious that we needed to do something about it. Luckily for us, Expedition Imports in Vallejo had all the parts we needed and we decided to get new front brake pads and discs while we were at it. We also picked up two new tires at Expedition Imports to replace two tires that were pretty used up from all the rough roads we have been on. The truck is in awesome shape now, and the ride home was super smooth and the truck did great.

We definitely had mixed feelings about our trip coming to an end, but we always love driving the Pacific coast, so it was a nice way to finish up our trip. As an added bonus, we were able to meet up with quite a few friends and former co-workers along the California coast in our last few days.

We are home now and it is a very interesting feeling after being out in the wilderness for so long. We definitely got used to living in a cozy, small space. Our house seems too big now, and we already miss the fresh air and wildlife.

The truck was the ideal vehicle for our trip, and the trip was everything we had hoped it would be. We really don’t think we could have gone to many of the places we went in a lesser vehicle, so we are glad that we chose a Unimog as our base vehicle.

Travel Log 9/22/19

As we were heading south through British Columbia, we wanted to spend some time on Vancouver Island. It seemed like the most efficient way of seeing Vancouver Island was to catch a ferry from the central coast of British Columbia at Prince Rupert to the northern end of Vancouver Island at Port Hardy. We also liked this change to our route because we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps down the Alcan in central British Columbia. As it was, the 18-hour ferry trip along the inside passage was really pretty. We saw several humpback whales and really enjoyed seeing the British Columbia coast from a different vantage.

Once on Vancouver Island, we met up with Andreas and Katie from Total Composites and enjoyed several days of them showing us their favorite camp spots. It was nice to slow down a bit and enjoy the Vancouver Island coast. Another customer of Total Composites joined us and it was neat to check out their large Mercedes 1824 expo truck that is in work.

The ferries on our trip have really been great. We were surprised to count the number of times we have been on ferries and river barges on the trip; in total we have been on 13 ferries/barges. It’s really a great way of getting around, crossing rivers, and sometimes getting a break from driving.

On our way north, we passed through the Olympic Peninsula quickly, so we were happy to spend almost a week checking out all the green forests, forestry roads, and coastline as we were on our way back home. It’s really one of the prettier areas of our trip, but definitely more populated than we had grown accustomed to.

Travel Log 9/15/19

After hurrying through Skagway to avoid weather, we needed to slow down a bit. However, the weather front really did hit Yukon and northern British Columbia right when we got there. We had two nights of ridiculous wind from the north followed by a morning of driving through 100 miles of snow. It was pretty great and made a really awesome, crisp, frosted look to the landscape. However, we decided it was best to keep moving south as we had some ferry plans leaving mainland British Columbia that we wanted to maintain and we wanted to avoid a weather delay.

Wild camping in central British Columbia has proven to be a challenge both on our way north and then again on the way south. As always, we try to avoid organized campgrounds, but for some reason in central British Columbia, we sometimes had to drive pretty far to find good wild camp spots. That being said, the landscape really was pretty with the dusting of snow. The western route along Highway 37 is way more scenic than the Alcan. All that being said, one of our prettiest camp spots of the trip was camping on a mining road above the Salmon Glacier in British Columbia near the Alaskan border. The glacier is beautiful and it was neat to be repeatedly engulfed in clouds. Cool camp spot.

We were told by numerous people that there was a neat place to watch bears fishing for salmon in the Hyder, Alaska, area. It’s a little ranger station run by the US Forest Service. We usually try to avoid organized things like that, but it was really cool to see a grizzly bear fishing from the safety of their boardwalk. In general, throughout the trip, we have been amazed at the number of salmon visible in just about every stream.

Travel Log 9/8/19

We constantly evolved and updated our route plan as we started our way back home. We definitely tried not to travel the same roads we took to get north. As we still had plenty of time in our schedule, we zig-zagged a bit and tried to hit side destinations as we went back through western Canada. The route we ended up driving had us ducking between Canada and Alaska repeatedly.

One side trip that we did was to drive the dirt road to McCarthy through the Wrangle St. Elias National Preserve. Maybe it was just our mood or the weather, but it was very dry, dusty, and not as pretty as many of the other places we had recently been to, so we drove the length of the road both ways in one day. But heading east from there, toward the Canada border, we camped at a really great nature preserve with a beautiful lake and vibrant ecosystem. We spent the evening watching beavers busily doing their thing and we heard wolves calling to each other at dusk from either side of the lake.

The drive down to Haines, Alaska, area from the Yukon was really pretty; lots of open expanses and alpine tundra. It’s really interesting to see how seasons come and go as you travel in latitude, elevation, and weather. One morning we woke up and it was locally fall. The fall color was really nice in western Yukon.

We had a little trouble finding good camp spots in the Haines area as it is a very geographically constrained area. We spent a day in a wetland perfecting our salmon photography and then found a reasonable camp spot at a state park. We saw a really pretty lynx running down the road that evening. The lynx we saw was quite a bit bigger and lankier than bobcats down south.

There was a big cold weather front coming down from the north, so the wind in Haines really started picking up and we changed our plans a bit and got a standby trip on the ferry to Skagway to jump ahead in our route before the weather hit. It worked out great and we were able to get a nice camp spot in the Yukon before the wind really picked up.

That evening, we ended up sharing a camp spot with a nice German couple that turned out to be the parents of an expedition couple that we had met a few days earlier. They were there to meet up with their son and daughter-in-law and travel together for a while. They were super into our truck and it was fun to talk expedition trucks with them.

Travel Log 9/1/19

We sure avoid touristy things like the plague. The whole vibe of our trip is just to see the beautiful sites and spend time in nature, but now that we’ve checked off all the major goals of our trip in the arctic and have started working our way south, we thought we’d duck into a few more well-known Alaskan destinations. Interestingly, we ended up liking the Valdez area a lot. It’s a really great setting and the drive south into the Valdez area is super pretty. Like always, we avoided the crazy congested organized camp areas and we were able to find really nice primitive camping in some remote spots along the area.

The truck has been running really solid, but we did pick up a screw in one of our back tires some place along the Denali Highway. It was holding air, but we decided to do a quick tire swap with our spare while we had the chance. It was no big deal and the whole thing took less than an hour.

We’ve been getting in a lot more hiking lately. It feels good to get out and stretch our legs. Despite how much we liked being up in the arctic, we never found places we felt very comfortable going for a hike. We found a nice mining road near Valdez that gave us a good 5-mile hike for a few nights in a row. We also met a really nice family that is gold mining up there. A few nights later we shared a camp spot with a super friendly French couple that drove up from Patagonia in their Inveco. So far, their trip has taken them 3 years. We’ve run into a lot of great people in our travels.

We also helped out a young guy that got a little over zealous and drove his FJ Cruiser halfway off a cliff, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, the Valdez area is beautiful and was a nice addition to our trip. There were a lot of salmon running while we were in Valdez, so that was cool to see. And we got some better underwater pictures this time (with permission and supervision from local forest rangers)!

Travel Log 8/25/19

After finishing up the Dalton Highway, we were able to meet up with our friend and his wife that have a truck almost identical to ours. It’s funny that the two trucks live only a handful of hours apart, but the first time we got the two trucks together was in Fairbanks, Alaska. Anyway, we had just finished the Dalton and they were about to start, so we didn’t get to travel with them, but it was nice to meet up and swap maintenance and road condition stories for a bit.

After Fairbanks, we worked our way to the Denali Highway. After spending so much time on our own up in the arctic, it was a bit of a shock to be around people. Even though it’s a 280-mile (round trip) dirt/gravel/mud/broken pavement road, there was an impressive number of people camped along it. It was definitely pretty, but I think we’ve been spoiled by some of the wilderness we’ve been in and it didn’t seem as scenic as we were hoping. Some of that could have been due to weather, but overall, it’s a neat area to visit and there are lots of great primitive camping options.

One thing that was kind of fun is that there were millions of blueberries along the Denali Highway. Most weren’t quite ripe, but it was still fun to forage for a bit.

Road conditions still seem like an odd topic to us. Like all the other “dirt” roads that we’ve traveled on our trip, they can be really quite good in one direction but a little bit of weather can make them a real mess when going back the other way. The truck does great either way.

We saw a good bit of wildlife through this area. We didn’t see as many caribou as we were hoping, but we have seen about 9 or 10. Still, wildlife viewing is often the highlight of our day. At one of our campsites we had a nice visit from a porcupine friend that hung out for a bit.

Despite all the hype of the Denali Highway, our favorite spot in the area was actually not on the Denali at all but just a bit north along the Richardson Highway: Gulkana Glacier. The Gulkana Glacier is a neat spot. Tons of primitive camping along a really rough road to get near it, and there is a really sweet hike all the way up to the bottom of the glacier including an interesting cable foot bridge. No one was there, primitive camping, and beautiful scenery: checks all the boxes for us!

Travel Log 8/18/19

In total we spent 19 nights above the arctic circle. It sure was super cool. The Alaskan arctic is pretty different than the Canadian arctic, and we are glad we got to see both. We had bumped into several people before we drove the Dalton that said that driving the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay “wasn’t worth the trouble,” and at this point we are just completely confused as to what they were talking about. It was a beautiful area and totally worth driving the rough road to see. Maybe in a lesser vehicle it wouldn’t have been any fun, but the truck handled it great and we were super comfortable. We guess that’s why we have the truck, anyway. We had also heard horror stories about how aggressive some of the freight truck drivers were, but we found them to be very friendly and there were fewer of them on the road than we expected. There were a lot fewer overland people on the Dalton than we expected. We saw quite a few adventure motorcycle riders, but only 2 other expedition rigs. The Dempster Highway had many times more overland people.

We are still continuing to find great camp spots on public land tucked away in the wilderness. We still haven’t found the need to stay in any campgrounds, but there aren’t really any campgrounds up here anyway. The wildlife has been pretty great recently. We were walking along a river bank right near the truck one evening, and looked over into the bushes to catch a glimpse of a large wolf watching us from nearby. It vanished into the undergrowth as soon as we turned toward it, but it was pretty cool. After dinner, we sat in the truck looking outside hoping to see a wolf again, and we spotted a very large grizzly on the opposite side of the river eating berries (we have found and eaten both wild raspberries and wild strawberries ourselves). We ended up listening to an audio book and watching the bear from afar for about an hour.

We also spotted several large herds of musk ox on the tundra north of the Brooks Range. We had previously been able to see to 2 older males, but we were able to view a group of about 30 that were resting on an island on a river. They were super chill and we enjoyed several hours of just sitting and watching them from nearby. It was neat to get to watch them do their thing (sleep, mostly). 🙂

The Brooks Range is a really beautiful place. We especially liked the area that is about 120 miles north of the arctic circle (along the highway) just north of the Atigun pass. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. Sheer rocky mountains covered in moss and tundra. Not bad.

Other than just being chronically covered in mud these days, the truck is running really well. We seem to have daily little mechanical maintenance items (tightening bolts, resoldering some wiring for the turn indicator, chasing a gear box leak), but it’s all going well.