Boondocking In Alaska

by Emma Lawson

Alaska had never been a dream vacation for me but my partner, after hearing about a friend’s trip up north, had a burning desire to go. Since I get an absurd amount of vacation time and he was going to be finished his work contract that summer, we decided to take 28 days to explore Alaska in August 2014.

I was still drowning in student debt and my partner was going to be unemployed, so we wanted to keep the trip on the cheap as much as possible. I booked flights to Anchorage through Air Canada using points that I collect steadily through an Aeroplan credit card. The rental car was going to be our major expense, so we started calling around to rental shops in June to get price quotes. Weekly rates in the summer range from about $400 for a compact car to $800 for a SUV. For four weeks, that adds up.

One guy (“Call me Stan!”) suggested we could reduce costs by renting one of his camper vans, although as we realized later, camper van was a generous term. He pointed out that you can sleep in a camper pretty much anywhere in Alaska — Walmart parking lots, pullouts at the side of the highway — so we’d save lots of money on accommodations. Stan was a salesman, a kooky salesman, but he was effective. We negotiated a price of $400 + tax per week for a camper van, and started researching boondocking, also known as “sleeping in your car.”

When we got to Anchorage, we realized that my partner’s credit card does not offer car insurance. My Aeroplan credit card does, but that wouldn’t help us as I wouldn’t be the one driving. (I know how to drive, it’s just that the government doesn’t let me.) We didn’t really think about this until sitting in Stan’s office in Anchorage, watching him calculate the additional cost of insurance. We had brought cash with us as Stan seemed like the kind of guy to prefer that anyway, and we managed to negotiate the rental and insurance to $2500 in cash.

After working out payment, Stan walked us around his car lot offering us very old cans of bear spray, a half-used canister of fuel, a rusty hatchet, and one camping chair. We took it all, though somehow we didn’t end up using the rusty hatchet.

Stan’s van was a forest green minivan, with all but the two front seats removed. In their place was foam padding underneath a sleeping bag, unzipped and laid flat, and two throw pillows. Not exactly a camper van, but it was comfortable enough to sleep in. Even my partner, who is fairly tall, could extend his feet fully while lying down.

We piled our big backpacks by the back door and left our hiking shoes by the side doors so we didn’t track dirt all over our new home.

Our first night boondocking was both scary and magical. We stayed in a pullout on Exit Glacier Road, about 20 minutes outside of Seward. We had spent the day exploring the glacier, touching the receding ice, and hiking in the surrounding Chugach National Forest. I was a bit nervous about sleeping on the side of the road but we had picked up a copy of the Milepost, which is essentially a mile-by-mile guide to all Alaskan roads. There’s a new edition every year, and it costs about $30. It details the location and size of pullouts, scenic views, gas stations, motels, campsites, laundromats with showers, and anything else you could possibly need.

The Milepost also has some information about where it is and isn’t legal to boondock, so combined with my brief internet research about the area, I felt fairly safe about where we spent the night, although I still feared waking up to a knock on our window. There was something special about waking up to the sun shining on the open road that made it worth it the fear.

You can save a lot of money boondocking, but you need to be prepared. We had a tiny camp stove that I could use to make coffee and cook breakfast, and we brought a giant container of water that we filled up as necessary at campsites and gas stations. You do have to be okay with peeing by the side of the road. There are usually enough trees that you’re moderately hidden from view.

Boondocking is a lot easier outside of major cities and towns. People say that you can always park in a Wal-mart or Fred Meyers parking lot, but in Anchorage there’s a city ordinance against overnight camping. In Old Valdez, we found a little clearing surrounded by trees where kids came to party, if the trash left over was any indication. In Fairbanks we did end up staying in a Wal-mart parking lot, which was especially great as it was open 24 hours and we could use a real washroom. But it did mean that when we wanted to go check out some local bars, we had to call a cab to the Wal-mart parking lot. I only felt a little embarrassed, which is better than drinking and driving. In most cities and towns, however, there are campgrounds that you usually range from $10 — $24 per night, or you can boondock outside city limits.

Overall, we spent 14 nights boondocking, 12 nights tent camping, and two nights at a hostel. Having the flexibility to tent camp was really nice, as some of our best nights were spent in a tent on the spit in Homer, or deep in Denali National Park at the Wonder Lake campground. Still, there’s something to be said for driving into the evening, pulling over where ever you want, and waking up ready to go explore.

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Emma Lawson is a librarian in Vancouver, Canada. You can read about her surprisingly expensive knitting habit here.

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