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The Dangerous World of Ice Roads: Are They Worth the Risk?

The Dangerous World of Ice Roads: Are They Worth the Risk?

Most drivers around the country avoid driving when there’s ice on the roads. However, drivers in some areas, like Alaska or Canada, have no choice but to drive their trucks on roads made entirely of ice. Their ability to get from one spot to another depends on these unique roadway infrastructures.

However, it’s easy to see some potential issues, especially if ice has ever buckled under your weight or caused you to tumble.  So are these roads worth the risk?

Let’s bundle up and see!

World’s Most Dangerous Roads | The Canadian Ice Roads | Free Documentary

What Are Ice Roads?

Ice roads are temporary roads constructed over frozen lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. As their name indicates, these types of roads consist of ice. They’re relatively common in the northern regions, such as Alaska, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland.

These highways rely on plows to remove and compact snow to create a hard and smooth driving surface on top of thick layers of ice. These temporary roads are beneficial for transporting goods and supplies, especially to remote communities.

However, while these roads are helpful, they can be incredibly dangerous. They’re not something to take lightly. Only the most experienced and prepared drivers should attempt to navigate them.

ice road built on lake

How Thick Are Ice Roads?

As water freezes the ice becomes solid and significantly thick. However, the thickness of these roads depends on the location and weather conditions. Ice roads must be 12 inches thick for small passenger vehicles and 20 inches thick for larger trucks. However, ice approximately 36 inches thick is strong and can support fully-loaded ice road trucks carrying 40+ tons of fuel or other cargo.

Since the thickness of the ice is crucial, it is something that experts monitor very closely. Due to unsafe or unstable conditions, ice roads can close with little to no notice. Always follow any posted safety precautions or guidelines when traveling on ice roads.

View from truck driving on ice road
Ice roads temporarily form over frozen lakes or rivers.

Why Do Truckers Use Ice Roads?

Ice road trucks utilize these roads as many communities along the route are entirely inaccessible during summer. The only way in or out of some of these areas is by boat or seaplane. This can make surviving extremely challenging.

These ice roads allow drivers unrestricted travel to these communities while reducing unnecessary stops. They’re the most efficient and cost-effective option for delivering supplies to communities and mining, oil, gas, and forestry workers. 

Pro Tip: Don’t say we didn’t warn you! We think These Roads Are the Worst.

trucker driving in the snow

Are Ice Road Trucks Special?

Ice road trucks aren’t ordinary vehicles. They often come with specialized features to help them withstand extreme weather conditions. It’s common for them to have engine block heaters, heated fuel lines, and reinforced windshields. In addition, they typically also have supported heavy-duty suspension systems to help them navigate uneven and rough terrains.

artistic image of mine truck on ice road
mining vehicles operate on ice roads in the winter to get supplies to mines via ground

Are There Ice Roads in the United States & Canada?

There are ice roads in the United States and Canada. Most ice roads in the United States are in Alaska. However, some small ice roads connect islands on lakes in northern states like Minnesota. 

Let’s look at some of the Alaskan and Canadian ice roads!

Alaska Ice Roads

Because of the constantly changing conditions and availability, there’s no exact number of ice roads in Alaska. However, during the peak of winter, there are typically hundreds of miles of Alaskan ice roads.

Most of Alaskas roads are built on dirt, but some of the famous ones are open all year and vehicles operate on deep snowpack in the winter. Alaska’s most famous ice roads including the Dalton Highway, Kuskokwim River, and the Noatak River. In addition to these major highways, numerous minor roads run throughout the state.

The Dalton Highway is one of the most established and famous of these roads in the state. It’s more than 400 miles long and connects Fairbanks with the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. It’s partially unpaved, and people often describe it as North America’s most challenging and dangerous highway.

Mortons on the Move by the Dalton Highway
The Dalton Highway is one of the most established and famous ice roads in Alaska. We drove it in the summer.

Pro Tip: Stay safe while cruising around Alaska by using these 7 Tips for Driving the Dalton Highway.

Canada Ice Roads

Like ice roads in Alaska, it’s nearly impossible to determine the number of these roads in Canada accurately. However, there are hundreds of miles of roads across this massive country. Some of the most famous include the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, Attawapiskat Winter Road, and the Mackenzie River Ice Road.

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road is the largest Canadian ice road. It runs for approximately 372 miles from Yellowknife in the northwest to many remote mines throughout the region. Like most ice roads in Canada, it’s typically open from December or January until April.

traversing ice in canada

What Is the Longest Ice Road in the World?

Canada’s Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road is not only the longest ice road in Canada; it is also the longest in the world. It can range from 250 to 370+ miles depending on the season and conditions. Estimates are that 85% and 87% of this road is over frozen lakes.

Officials first built this annual road in 1982 to assist with efforts to explore the northwest territories and to service mines in the area. It’s crucial to know that this typically opens in January and takes approximately six weeks for workers to complete. It remains open for about eight to ten weeks.

During this time, trucks travel in groups of four to help ensure safety on the treacherous highway. To avoid congestion, officials release them every 20 minutes between 12:00 AM and 6:00 AM. The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road is responsible for thousands of loads reaching the northern communities. Nearly 11,000 trucks made the trip north in 2007.

Can the Public Drive Ice Roads?

Most ice roads function as public roadways and are available for public use. However, using these dangerous roads requires specialized skills and equipment. You could be putting yourself and your passengers in grave danger if you attempt to travel hundreds of miles on these roads without them.

You must check the weather and road conditions before navigating these roads. In addition, you need to be aware of standard methods for recognizing instabilities or weaknesses in the ice. Check restrictions or limitations on vehicles or loads for the road. When in doubt, reach out to the local authorities or the agency managing the road for guidance and restrictions you may need to follow.

Pro Tip: New to winter weather driving? These 15 Tips for Driving on Icy and Snowy Roads from a Yooper can help you stay safe.

Walking on ice road
Only experienced drivers should drive on ice roads.

What Are the Dangers of Ice Roads?

It’s no secret that ice and driving typically don’t go well together. However, thousands of drivers navigate ice roads yearly without serious issues. While it’s a pretty wild adventure, there are some dangers drivers need to watch for no matter how many miles they’ve driven on these types of roads.

Thin Ice

There’s a reason the saying, “You’re treading on thin ice,” exists. While a 20+ inch piece of solid ice can hold thousands of pounds, its capabilities drastically decrease the thinner it gets. Cracks and breaks can occur in the ice, putting drivers and passengers in danger.

While officials monitor ice road conditions, accidents can happen occasionally. Falling through the ice and plunging into frigid temperatures can have deadly consequences, especially when help is not readily available.

Unpredictable Weather

The weather in these areas can be nearly impossible to predict. Extreme cold temperatures, high winds, and sudden blizzards can add to the difficulties of navigating these roads. You need to prepare yourself and your vehicle for the weather. 

Like the Boy Scouts say, “Always be prepared!” We feel it’s better to over-prepare than to find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have the appropriate gear. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

driving on thin ice

Limited Visibility

Visibility is essential no matter the driving conditions. However, drivers need to prepare for less-than-ideal conditions regarding visibility. Snow, fog, and extended periods of darkness can make it extremely difficult to navigate these roads.

The limited visibility is one of the many reasons these roads have strict speed limits. Typically, drivers can expect speed limits to be between 15 and 25 miles per hour. Despite the remote locations, officials monitor speeds on these roads with radar devices. It’ll cost you if you don’t watch your speedometer.

Lack of Maintenance

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that ice roads are very slick driving surfaces. However, these roads are also typically bumpy and uneven. Drivers should plan for the roads to get worse later in the season. Maintaining these roads isn’t always manageable or possible in many situations.

Due to the potential dangers, some roads can shut down without notice if officials discover an issue. This could create a problem for drivers trying to access certain areas. You’ll need to be flexible, as the lack of maintenance may require changing your plan.

Minimal Emergency Services

One of the most significant fears for many travelers on these roads is that there are few emergency services. If an accident should occur, it could take rescuers a considerable time to arrive and start treating any injuries. This can naturally cause some anxiety for drivers, knowing they’re likely on their own if an emergency occurs.

Any driver heading out on a remote road like these must have first-aid training. Basic first-aid training could mean the difference between life and death. It’s also wise to carry a first-aid kit with you. Don’t forget to check the inventory for supplies before hitting the road.

Camper parked in Alaska at sunset
Ice Road Truckers is a popular tv show that demonstrates what driving along ice roads is like.

Want to See What Ice Road Driving is Like? Watch the Show

If you want to experience driving one of these roads without risking your life, watch the popular television show Ice Road Truckers. This show premiered on the History Channel in 2007 and documented the unpredictable adventures of drivers in Alaska and Canada.

Throughout the 11 seasons of the show, there were various cast and characters. Film crews followed groups of drivers on the roads. The popularity of the show led to the creation of several spin-offs. 

One show that focused on the lives of the truckers was called Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads. Blood Sweat and Gears – Blood Sweat and Gears was also a spin-off show from the original series. It focused on the mechanics and staff responsible for keeping the trucks running.

You can find these shows on the History Channel and various streaming services. However, we warn you to clear your schedule once you start watching. These frozen adventures can be incredibly addicting!

The Best RV Winter Setup: How to RV in Winter and the Gear That Will Keep You Cozy Warm!

Are Ice Roads Worth the Risk?

While ice roads can be dangerous, they’re also necessary. They allow communities and businesses access to essential supplies and materials that would otherwise be impossible. As long as drivers follow the rules, drive responsibly, and prepare themselves and their vehicles, these roads are worth the risk. However, they’re not for everyone, especially the faint of heart.

Would you ever risk these dangerous roads? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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John S.

Tuesday 4th of April 2023

"Only the most experienced and prepared drivers should attempt to navigate them." That sentence should have been BOLD, RED, and CIRCLED.

I've travelled to Yellowknife dozens of times and met many 'ice road truckers'. Ice thickness is the number one safety concern but the men and women who do the actual driving will also tell you that speed is what can ruin your day.

When you start pushing that wave of ice in front of you then the most important tool in your toolbox is patience.