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Off-Road Adventures

Cracking the Ice Road In a Truck Camper

Jim and Nui Curry crossed the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk in their 2013 Chevy Silverado and Northern Lite truck camper.  With temperatures reaching -45 degrees Fahrenheit, they pushed the capabilities of their truck and camper to the ultimate limit.

Driving the Ice Road Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk

Insane!  Dangerous!  Impossible!  These are some of the words that ran through our minds when we learned about Jim and Nui Curry’s experience this past winter.

When most of us where staying warm and toasty in our homes (or someplace south), Jim and Nui were crossing the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk.  Created by the frozen Mackenzie River and parts of the Arctic Ocean, the “Tuktoyaktuk Winter Road” serves oil and gas operations in the upper reaches of the Northwest Territories, and supplies the town of Tuktoyaktuk and hamlet of Aklavik.

The ice road has been made famous worldwide by the History Channel’s highly successful reality television series, Ice Road Truckers.  With 10 seasons and 128 episodes, the show reveals the considerable risks and challenges of driving loaded semis across the extremely remote frozen road.

When Jim learned that the ice road would be closed after this winter, he had to make the run.  An all-season land-based highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk is scheduled to be completed this fall.  When the road opens, the ice road will be closed permanently.  If Jim and Nui didn’t go this winter, they would lose their chance forever.

So how do you prepare a diesel Chevy Silverado and Northern Lite truck camper to drive across ice and endure temperatures that reach -45?  Not to mention the question of how Jim and Nui wouldn’t freeze to death along the way.

No matter how warm it may be where you are now, you might want to go get your winter coat.  This is, by far, the coldest – and quite possibly the craziest – truck camper adventure story ever told in Truck Camper Magazine.  Bundle up.

Northwest Territories Ice Road Map

Above: The top blue dots to Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik are the ice roads that Jim and Nui traveled with their Northern Lite; map credit, Northwest Territories Department of Transportation

TCM: You recently went on a six week truck camping trip to Canada’s Northwest Territories from mid-December through January.  What compelled you drive to northern Canada in the dead of winter?

Jim: We had been up on the Dempster Highway in the fall and we loved it.  It is beautiful!  But once we got to Inuvik, we couldn’t go any further.

We wanted to go to Tuktoyaktuk, but you can only drive there in the winter when the road is frozen over.  You can’t go to Tuktoyaktuk in the summer because you can’t drive across water.  You can only go by airplane and boat.  We started in Seattle and drove all the way up.

2016 was the last year for the ice road because they are completing the all-season road to Tuktoyaktuk for 2017.  After this year there will be no need for the ice road.  The all-season road will bring big changes for the people of Tuktoyaktuk.

Camping on Ice Road 5 miles out of Aklavik NorthWest Territories

Above: Camping on the Ice Road five miles out of Aklavik, Northwest Territories

TCM: What was it like driving on the ice roads.  Did your rig slide on the ice?

Jim: It was pretty easy to drive on it.  You can’t make sudden stops or quick turns.  There are no mountain grades on the ocean so it was completely flat.  My rig is heavily loaded, so it was good on the snow and ice.  Before the trip I had H rated tires installed.

Thick Ice on Mackenzie River Northwest Territories

Above: Thick ice on Mackenzie River, Northwest Territories

The ice has to be three to five feet thick to drive on it.  There are hundreds of miles of rivers that are frozen over.  At the north end of the trip we were driving over the Arctic Ocean.

Ice Road on Peel River to Aklavik, Northwest Territories

Above: Ice road on Peel River, Aklavik, Northwest Territories

When you go onto the ice roads, there are signs that tell you the maximum gross weight allowed at that time and whether it is open or closed.

Ice bubbles on Peel River, Aklavik NWT

Above: Ice bubbles on Peel River, Aklavik, Northwest Territories

There were overflows on the ice road which is when the ice cracks and water comes up from underneath.  This year there were lots of overflows.  Roads can also be closed because of snow drifts.  We kept waiting because the ice road was closed, but the locals said to go anyway.  It wasn’t illegal, but my insurance wouldn’t pay if something happened.


TCM: Most readers just thought, “This guy is nuts!”  What was the appeal to driving the ice road?

Jim: I like a challenge.  I have friends who said, “Are you out of your mind?”  I explained to them what I did and then they said that it sounded like fun.  People up in the Northwest Territories told us that we picked the perfect time to visit.

Coldest night of the trip was -45 degrees

Above: Their inside thermometer only went to -40, but according to their outside thermometer, the coldest night of the trip was -45 degrees Fahrenheit

TCM: What was the coldest it got to during your trip?

Jim: On coldest night the thermometer showed -40 Fahrenheit.  I watched the temperature go from -38 to -39 to -39.2, and then -40 and it stopped.  I pulled out the instructions and realized that was the max range of that thermometer.  I had another thermometer outside and it got to -45 Fahrenheit.

Whitehorse Yukon Territories Canada

Above: Wearing lots of layers is the key to staying warm

TCM: You went outside in -45 Fahrenheit?  How did you not freeze to death?

Jim: We bought the right clothing.  For clothing we had a first layer, second later, goose down pants, a jacket that was -30 rated, face covers, and gloves.  We never got cold.  When we were in the truck, we were always warm.  The camper was warm because of my cold weather modifications.

On the way back on Dempster Highway

Above: On the way back on the Dempster Highway

TCM: How did the truck perform in that insanely cold weather?

Jim: Before we left, I had a test done on the truck’s antifreeze and it went to -30 degrees Fahrenheit.  On the way up in Canada I stopped at a Chevy dealer and asked them to put in -45 degree Fahrenheit antifreeze.

The service manager said to not let the truck run all night because it would hurt the diesel engine exhaust system.  He also told me that I had to plug the truck in at -10 or the truck might not start in the morning.  Additionally, he was concerned that the batteries would be too low to start the engine.

To make a long story short, my truck started up in -35 degrees Fahrenheit.  They were wrong.  I had a generator to run a box heater, but I didn’t really need it.

Sunset at Ogilvie Ridge, Yukon

Above: Sunset at Ogilvie Ridge, Yukon

TCM: That’s incredible.  Many of us have owned cars that would struggle to start at below freezing temperatures.  Were you concerned that your diesel fuel would gel?


Jim: People did tell me that I would need an additive, but they all use winter diesel up there.  Winter diesel already has the additives required to prevent waxing and gelling.

My truck surprised me.  I thought I would need the Yamaha generator and block heater.  As it turned out, the generator froze up because the intake froze over.  The locals told me that I needed to have my generator in a box to keep it running.

After that experience, I let my truck idle on the coldest nights.  That happened for two nights.  I did the calculation and it took four gallons of diesel a night.  I added a 30 gallon auxiliary fuel tank to the truck, so I have a total of 66 gallons on board.  I never needed that much during the trip.

It got colder and colder as we drove north, so we learned as we went along.  The tanker trucks and semi trucks we encountered also ran all night.

Pink sunset on Dempster Highway

Above: Pink sunset on Dempster Highway

TCM: How did you prepare your Northern Lite for the cold temperatures?

Jim: I put extra insulation in the camper and in the bed of the truck.  Wherever there was room in between the truck and camper I stuffed bags of insulation.

In the skylight above the bed I installed foam plugs.  Then there was a bubble wrap cover that went on top of that.

For the ceiling vents, I had foam plugs and then velcroed bubble wrap insulation over the plugs.  I also velcroed bubble wrap insulation over all the windows.

I removed the inside panel of the air conditioner and stuffed it with insulation.  Under the sink I stuffed insulation.  The basement has a pull out drawer, so I stuffed that with insulation.

Then I insulated the bottom of the front cabinets in the overcab.  I should have done the walls as well.

Iced up windows in the Northern Lite

Above: The windows iced up on the inside of the camper

TCM: Did the additional insulation help?

Jim: We didn’t freeze inside the camper, but weird things happen when it gets really cold out.  Our clothes froze to the wall.  The carpet was frozen to the floor, and the windows were all frozen over.  The windows iced up on the inside.  But, it was about 60 degrees inside the camper because of all my insulation.

The propane compartment door had small vents somehow allowing the propane compartment to fill with snow.  I don’t know how that happened, but it did.

Tombstone Territorial Park Yukon Territories Canada

Above: Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon

TCM: You must have been ripping through propane to heat the camper.  Did you bring extra tanks with you?

Jim: Yes, I brought eighty pounds of extra propane.  Four propane bottles fit in the generator compartment and I kept the generator in the truck.  I also carried nine gallons of extra of gas for the generator on the camper’s rear platform bumper.  I modified the generator so that it could run direct from the extra tank.  I never used everything I brought.  I was over prepared.

Arctic Circle on Dempster Highway

Above: Arctic Circle sign on the Dempster Highway

TCM: Did you make any other modifications to the Northern Lite?

Jim: We replaced our mattress with a foam mattress which has better insulation properties.  Then I put one-inch of foam underneath.

We had 12-volt mattress heater, but it was small, so we just had it on the bottom half of the mattress – where our feet were.  The other half of the mattress was frozen like a rock.

In addition to the AGM batteries in the camper, I installed two 300-amp lifeline AGM batteries in the truck’s bed in front of the wheel wells.  It doesn’t interfere with the camper.  I’ve got twin alternators on my truck to keep the batteries charged.

We also had a 200-watt heater on the water pump with a temperature sensor.

Near Bijoux Falls Park, British Columbia

Above: Near Bijoux Falls Park, British Columbia

TCM: You were using your water system on this frigid adventure?

Jim: I was determined to make this trip with full plumbing.  We added a bunch of antifreeze to the tanks, but we still had a line freeze at -10.  It was too much to keep the plumbing going once it got really cold.

We brought along two seven-gallon jugs of water.  That worked perfect.  We put a plastic pan in the sink.  We used showers and toilets at truck stops, rest areas, and campgrounds.  It worked out.

There were no dump stations that far north in the winter.  That was another reason to not to use the tanks.  The Northern Lite 10-2 has a 18-gallon black tank.  That was big enough so that we didn’t need to dump the tank for the duration of the trip.

The real issue was heating the plumbing lines and keeping the temperature sensors going.  We only used the black tank when we had to.

Nearby Bijoux Falls Provincial Park BC

Above: Near Bijoux Falls Provincial Park, British Columbia

TCM: If someone is reading this story and planning a similarly cold truck camping adventure, what would you advise them to do?

Jim: Decide whether or not you want to use your plumbing.  There is a limitation on where it’s worth using it.  To freezing temperatures and a little under it’s okay.  After that, your water lines will freeze.

We crossed paths with another truck camper on our drive up the Alcan.  I was going to use our plumbing, but he convinced me not to.  It’s just too cold.

I also recommend taking extra sources of heat.  I wanted to be prepared so that if I slid off the ice road, we would be okay.  I had the generator to get electric heat, but we also had a Mr. Buddy heater that could be used with propane.

Dempster Highway driving in winter

Above: This is what the Dempster Highway looks like in winter

TCM: Was finding fuel stations an issue?

Jim: About half the fuel stations were closed that time of year.  Do your research ahead of time.  The cities had fuel.  It was a non-issue for us because we have an auxiliary fuel tank.

Johnson’s Crossing RV Campground and Motel, Yukon

Above: Johnson’s Crossing RV Campground and Motel, Yukon

TCM: Where did you park and camp for the night?

Jim: We were mainly dry camping.  Each day we would stumble onto something.

I did research campgrounds along our route.  The books often said a particular campground was closed between September and May.  However, when we told them we just needed to plug in, they accommodated us.  Then they showed us where the showers and laundromat were located.

From the books, you wouldn’t know you could do that.  We went to the end of Tuktoyaktuk and stayed at the community park on the Arctic Ocean.

Winter at Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia

Above: Winter at Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia

TCM: You mention talking to locals on several occasions.  Did you see many other people during your trip?

Jim: The last people in an RV we saw were at Liard Hot Springs and we went 1,000 miles past that.  There were no RVs.  There were mostly commercial trucks.  We met many nice people at Ogilvie Viewpoint, Eagle Plains Lodge and Fuel Stop, Fort McPherson, and Inuvik.  Most of the time we were alone on the road.

Sliding off the icy road on the way back near Liard Hot Springs

Above: Sliding off the icy road on the way back near Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia

One night we camped on the side of the ice road and a blizzard came along.  The wind was howling.  They were predicting 100 kilometer winds.  The camper was facing into the wind, so it was like we were driving down the road.  The whole rig was shaking.  I liked it.  After you do all that preparation, you want to make sure it works.

TCM: All alone on the ice road in the middle of a high-wind blizzard!  And you liked it?  Did you feel unprepared at any point during your trip?

Jim: In Tok the generator stopped working and the ice road back was closed because of overflows.  That’s when I was uncomfortable.  We drove out anyway.  It was -40 and the wind was picking up.  That was a serious situation.

TCM: Again, that’s insane.  Is there anything you are thinking of adding in the future for your camper?

Jim: I would insulate more in the front cabover.  I would also bring a box for my generator so it wouldn’t freeze.

For the most part, I was over prepared.  We had the right clothing and the camper worked out well.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

There is something special about that time of year with the snowy mountains and the silence.  You see a lot of wildlife.  The gorgeous pink sky and eternal sunset is awesome.

Northern light show at Tombstone Territorial Park Yukon Territories Canada

Above: Northern Light show at Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territories, Canada

TCM: Did you see the Northern Lights?

Jim: Yes, we did.  My wife’s dream was to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).  We’ve gone to Alaska and she’s the one who takes the photos, but photographing the Northern Lights is tricky because you have to get the camera settings just right.

Nihtak Day Use Park, 17 km south of Inuvik, Northwest Territories

Above: Nihtak Day Use Park, 17 km south of Inuvik, Northwest Territories

The Northern Lights might be there and then gone in ten minutes or they could be there for four hours straight.  The University of Alaska has predictions and gives you approximate latitudes.  Those are just predictions.  We followed that to see when the best chances were for a good show.

Mac best traveling dog

Above: Mac, their dog, in his sweater, parka, and boots

TCM: In the photos we see you brought your dog.  How did he do with the cold weather?

Jim: Mac was prepared with his sweater, parka, and boots.  He mostly went on short walks with us and when he needed to go, he went out and did it quickly.  He was a lot of fun and is a good traveling dog.  He did have a little problem of being blown over in high winds on the ice roads.

TCM: After crossing the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk, what’s next?

Jim: The reason I got my truck camper was because I wanted to go to these hard to get to places.  I had traveled a lot with my Airstream trailer to Labrador and Alaska, but we wanted to drive four-wheel drive only roads to more remote areas.  There was no way I could have taken the Airstream on this trip without destroying it.

Next I’m looking at going to South America.  I’m thinking about having our truck camper rig shipped to Buenos Aires, Argentina from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  I want to explore the Carretera Austral; a 1,240 kilometer road that runs through Patagonia.  Then, I’d ship the rig back home.

TCM: That will be one heck of a trip, and possibly your next article in Truck Camper Magazine.

Jim: That sounds like a plan.

Jim and Nui Curry’s Rig
Truck: 2013 Silverado 2500 HD, Extended Cab, 4×4, Diesel, Single Rear Wheel
Camper: 2016 Northern Lite 10-2
Tie-Downs/Turnbuckles: Torklift Tie-Downs and FastGun Turnbuckles
Suspension: Firestone Air Bags, Torklift StableLoads, Hellwig Sway Bar, Rancho Shocks
Gear: 30 gallon auxiliary tank, 300 amp Lifeline battery bank in truck bed

 

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