Backcountry Alaska on a budget

Not long ago, getting far into the Alaskan backcountry meant paying a bush pilot upwards of $2,000 to fly you out and drop you off in a remote spot. Not so today. Public transportation along with gear innovations, now mean that even the most budget savvy travelers can get out into the remote Alaskan wilderness with very little logistical hassle.

Alaska has two key resources that make it convenient for the active, able-bodied explorer to get into the remote bush with ease. One: the Dalton Highway- also called, “The Haul Road.” And two: the extensive public ocean ferry system, called the Alaska Marine Highway.


The Dalton highway runs 499 miles from Fairbanks, through boggy spruce lowlands, crossing into the Arctic Circle, into treeless tundra expanses, and eventually the arctic coast-line, where it ends in the town of Deadhorse. For the last few years, a well-reputable company named, The Dalton Highway Express, has started taking shuttle trips in vans and buses, up the Dalton Highway. Tourists make up the majority of the travelers on these shuttles- usually driving up to Deadhorse, and then taking a scenic flight back to Fairbanks; or staying a night at Deadhorse, and then driving back the next day. More recently, some adventurous travelers- myself included- have used the shuttle as a mode of transportation to get dropped off into the Alaskan bush, just off the highway at many untold number of spots.

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I jumped off the van at Galbraith Lake, and then spent twelve incredible days alone, backpacking across the tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I photographed foxes, Dall sheep, caribou, and one large grizzly bear at close range. I walked nearly 90 miles in that time- and for the first eight days never saw another human being- that is, until a group of rafters floated down a river where I made camp. With some physical effort, putting one boot in front of the other, I was able to get far into the Alaskan bush relatively easily. A lightweight pack-raft would have made travel even easier on the bountiful river filled arctic tundra.

But this is only one option to utilize the Dalton highway and the shuttle service to stage an epic Alaskan adventure. There are literally infinite possibilities to choose from, along its many miles of public land.


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The other travel resource, the Alaska Marine Highway, gives travelers the option to embark, or disembark at numerous destinations starting from Bellingham, Washington, along the western coast of Canada and southern Alaska, well into the remote Aleutian Islands. One look at a map following the ferry routes to various public wilderness areas, and it becomes clear the bountiful options for a coastal Alaskan epic. I have not used this resource just yet, but I have a huge expedition planned which will entail using the ferry system to dump me on a remote island where I plan to raft, backpack, fly fish, and even climb for two weeks.

Two other examples of awesome trips would be: One, take a ferry from Homer to Kodiak island (that’s right, the famous Island of big brown bears fishing for salmon), and from there, spend your time hiking, or pack-rafting into the remote wilderness of sweeping grassland and studded forests. Another option, would be to hitch a ferry from Ketchikan to the famed Prince of Wales Island, deep in the coastal rainforest, and then use a bicycle to travel the many networks of public and logging roads around the island.

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If you go, be sure to pick up an Alaska road atlas, The Milepost, and also topo maps off the USGS website. Alaska is big and formidable; it goes without saying, always bring the necessary gear, and prepare for tough conditions. Almost any time of the year, a rain suit is a necessity. Also, leave yourself enough time in whatever city you arrive in to track down some bear spray to buy or rent. On my trip, I was not aware of the fact that I could not bring bear spray on the airplane, since it is flammable, and had no time in Fairbanks to buy any before I departed for the wilderness!


The most appealing part of these travel options, is that they are fairly cheap. My entire round trip, flying from Bozeman, Montana, to Fairbanks, with one night in a hotel, and driving both ways on the shuttle bus up into the Arctic- cost me less than $900- with 15 days of travel. $900 for a life changing trip to the Arctic for two weeks. A round trip into the bush on a public ocean ferry, with round trip airfare, will cost me more-or-less the same. I’m not sure of anywhere else at that longitude in the world, can a person organize such a rugged, authentic adventure at less-than $900. It is simply unthinkable. I hope this information might inspire someone to get out to the big land up north; and if you do, I’d love to hear your stories.

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6 thoughts on “Backcountry Alaska on a budget

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  1. I spent twenty years in Alaska and drove the Dalton at least twice every one of those years. You are right getting a ride up the Dalton and being dropped off is the most inexpensive way to get a true Alaskan wilderness camping trip. I too have hiked and camped in the Galbraith Lake area along with many other spots from Coldfoot North and have found that within an hour of setting off your are totally alone in Americas last frontier. I would however strongly recommend not hiking/camping North of the Brooks range on the North Slope…. unless you bring an extra supply of blood because the mosquitoes are unforgiving up there.

    1. Man, I am jealous- I would love to see that country every year. You are right about the mosquitoes; I found the days it rained hard, I just wished for sunny weather- but when the sunny weather came, the mosquitoes made me wish for the rain again!

  2. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Map Office is a great resource for hard copies of USGS topo maps, though they’re not very reliable if you’re navigating the yukon flats – those meanders have changed a lot in the last 30 years.

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