In May 2020, my friend Steve Opat of Alaskan Odysseys hit me with the news over the phone: “Change of plans. Alaska caribou hunt. We’re hunting the Haul Road.”
We’d planned on going after moose that fall, but the ‘rona shut down access to the native village from where we were going to launch our hunt. There were few ways into Alaska at the time, but all 414 miles of the Dalton Highway were still open for travel. Our September moose hunt mutated like the virus into an August caribou trip.
I was disappointed. My heart was set on moose. But soon after we headed north from Fairbanks, the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness smacked me in the face. I was with the perfect guide. Steve has hunted the Dalton Highway — or “the Haul Road” — more than a dozen times. I’ve done the trip with him twice now and once came back with a nice mature bull.
If you’ve dreamed of hunting big game in the Alaskan backcountry do-it-yourself style on the cheap, well, this is the playbook. There are many ways to hunt Alaska, but Steve’s approach to Haul Road caribou might be the easiest way possible.
Alaska Caribou Hunt: How to Get Started
“If you go any slower, we’re never gonna get there,” Steve laughed.
We were somewhere in the middle of the Brooks Range, and I was in the midst of my first shift behind the wheel as we traveled north. I couldn’t help but gawk. The Dalton Highway is the most remote drive in North America. It’s also one of the most scenic drives, reminiscent of the Yellowstone Valley.
To get there, first, you have to fly into Fairbanks. The road that becomes the Dalton Highway starts just north of town. Being a small city of about 30,000 residents, it has all the resources necessary for the trip, including a Sportsman’s Warehouse and a Costco.
To hunt, you’ll need a general caribou tag along with your hunting license. You can buy it online before you travel or pick it up at the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Fairbanks. The Haul Road is in Unit 26B, and, for the most part, you can hunt both sides of the road.
There are two truck rentals in Fairbanks that allow you to take their vehicles on the Dalton Highway: Uhaul and Alaska Auto Rental. On my first trip, we rented a full-size, king cab Ram from AAR. The price was fair, and the truck was great. You can also rent pack rafts at Northern Alaska Packrafts in Fairbanks.
Fill up your tank before you leave Fairbanks. You’ll be driving the most remote highway on the continent. While you’re at it, snag some extra gas cans and fill them up, too. Running out of fuel on this road is bad.
The Life of a Road Warrior
Once you get on the road, maintain a travel speed between 50 and 60 mph. You’ll get there in decent time without blowing past all of the good stuff. The road is rough in some places — like axel-bending rough. Hanging in that speed range allows for enough reaction time.
There are two main stops up and down the road: Yukon Camp and Coldfoot Camp. At Yukon Camp, walk down to the river. Trust me. Time your arrival at Coldfoot camp during mealtime. (It’s about a six-hour drive from Fairbanks.) They usually have a good buffet spread, so dig in because this is your last chance to eat prepared food for a while. Top off your gas tank before you leave Coldfoot. Each camp also has a hotel if you need to get a room for the night.
After Coldfoot, keep the following in mind:
- The highway was constructed for trucks that haul freight to support the pipeline. Be respectful of the big trucks and stay out of their way. When one is coming toward you, pull over and slow down. These suckers launch stones.
- At the bottom of each big hill, there is usually a pothole. Take it easy coming off the hills.
- The Bureau of Land Management has a nice little pull-off at the Arctic Circle. It’s a great place to take a break, stretch your legs, and drain your bladder.
- There are Dall sheep that hang out in Atigun Pass. Glass as you drive through there. Sometimes they are bedded or grazing right along the road. They’re cool to see.
- After the pass, once you hit the area around mile marker 300, Pump Station 3, and Slope Mountain, start glassing hard. You could get yourself right into some hunting.
- You’ll encounter road-work zones. When you do, get out and talk to the flaggers. They’ve spoken to all the other hunters and truckers traveling up and down the road. They’ve heard the gossip about where the animals are. Offer them jerky or beer.
- Drive to the end of the road in Prudhoe Bay, even after you’ve finished hunting. Plus, you can hunt almost the whole way into town. You’ll also find a few limited resources. There’s a hardware/automotive/general store. As of this writing, if you have a COVID-19 vaccination card, you can stay in the Aurora Hotel.
- There are pull-offs along the road where you can camp, as long as there is no gate blocking access. At the northern end of the road, the pull-offs lead to the river. They are great spots to camp with easy water access.
- If you or someone in your party has a known shipper number with Alaska Airlines, you can ship your meat in the freezer compartment of an Alaska flight. You can do that from the Alaska Airlines office next to the Deadhorse Aviation Center in Prudhoe Bay.
About the Hunting
“Fresh caribou shit. That’s a good sign,” I said. We were hiking a bluff to glass during the first day of my first trip up the Haul Road.
“The sign of caribou is caribou,” Steve replied.
I was thinking like a whitetail hunter — sign, patterns, all that. Forget it. When it comes to caribou. Here’s the punch list to commit to memory:
- On each side of the road, there is a 5-mile archery-only corridor. Its purpose is to protect the oil pipeline from being pierced by stray bullets, which is pretty essential. Unless you’d like to create a national ecological emergency, or get rung up with a gnarly fine, make sure you’re outside the corridor when rifle hunting. Use saved maps on OnX, or a similar app, to know where you are at all times. Likewise, the Prudhoe Bay no hunting zone starts 14 miles from town.
- Take a bow and a rifle if you can, because it significantly increases your opportunities. Had I taken my bow on my 2021 trip, I would have had a chance at a big, gray, old beast. But alas, I don’t always take my own advice.
- To rifle hunt, you’ll likely have to hike the 5 miles to get out of the corridor. There is an airboat runner for hire, but he’s not always available. There are also small streams that you might be able to pack raft. But you can’t count on there being enough water. Be in shape. Hiking on the tundra feels like walking on bowling balls stuffed into wet sand and covered with grass. Every mile feels like two or three.
- Caribou are unpredictable. Set your camp where you can see them miles out and where you can move on them quickly. If you see decent numbers, groups of 20 or 30, set up camp or start hiking in.
- Many of the caribou on the North Slope are resident animals that don’t necessarily migrate with the herd. If you find a group of them, stay on them.
- Don’t leave caribou to find other caribou — even if you do not see mature bulls. On my first trip up the Haul Road, we stayed with the caribou, despite the fact we mostly saw cows and calves for days. The mature bulls showed eventually, and we ended up killing two.
- Find a balance between patience and impatience. You might not see caribou for days, then all of a sudden, they’re everywhere. If there are no caribou for an extended period of time, get mobile. You have a truck and a road; drive and glass.
More About Executing a DIY Alaska Caribou Hunt
The farther north you go, the fewer the terrain features you’ll find. Bowhunting gets tougher. There are bushes along the river and in the riparian areas. There are also some creek beds and drainages to tuck into. But if your main plan is to bow hunt, hanging toward the terrain features will help.
There will also be times when you can just walk across the tundra and kill them — or so it will feel. If they’re alone, sometimes this is true because they are curious creatures. But don’t bet on this as a matter of course. As you walk at the caribou, they’ll eventually circle you to get your wind. If they get it, you’re toast. Be a good hunter. Use the wind and the terrain.
At times, you’ll have no choice but to walk straight at them. In that case, put off looking like a predator for as long as possible. Don’t stoop or creep. Just slowly walk forward like you don’t care about them. If you’re moving with a group of hunters, walk in a single file. It’s possible to get much closer than you think. I shot my bull at 170 yards. I’ve been a part of three other caribou kills — one was at 60 yards, one was at 80 yards, and the other was at 130 yards. All were on the open tundra. Prepare to shoot farther, but if you’re patient and stalk well, you can get close. Also, keep the following in mind:
- Cows have antlers, too. Practice looking for penis sheaths. Yes, you’ll likely be able to tell a mature bull from a cow just by headgear. But if you’re okay with taking a younger bull, triple-check before you pull the trigger or send an arrow. Only shoot the Dirk Digglers.
- If you miss, stay on your bull! As long as they don’t smell you, and you don’t make grandiose, fast movements, you’ll likely get another shot. They’ll hang around to figure out what you are and what’s going on.
- Manage your energy. There is a lot of light in Alaska in August. Weather is unpredictable. Hunt when you can hunt, and rest when you can’t hunt.
- Have a system to get your meat aired out and to keep it dry. Keep in mind, once you get to your hunting grounds, you’ll likely be hundreds of miles from the nearest tree. So, grab resources along the way to build a meat rack.
- There are grizzlies, but not a ton of them. Take precautions, but don’t freak out. During my three trips to Alaska, I’ve hunted for a total of 25 days. I’ve seen one grizzly. From the truck. A mile away.
- When you see fog, get back to camp. It comes fast, and it limits your vision to about a yard. You will get lost.
- Bring a fishing rod. Pack a .22 for plinking ptarmigan. The season usually opens the second week of August.
The Gear List: What’s Worth Bringing
North Slope weather is unpredictable in August. It might be a cold, rainy 40 degrees when you go to sleep. By late the following day, it could be 65 and sunny. You might spend three days in your tent during a biblical downpour. Your gear must cover all scenarios, so consider and the following:
- You will get wet. The tundra is a sopping mess, and it’s probably going to rain. Bring Sealskinz socks and light, non-waterproof hiking boots or shoes. Sealskinz aren’t truly waterproof, but they’ll keep your feet warmer when they are wet. Light hikers are great for walking on the tundra tussocks, and they’ll dry faster than heavy or waterproof boots.
- Bring camp shoes. You’ll need something to wear while your socks and shoes dry.
- Take a complete layering system: synthetic or merino wool underwear, two sets of merino wool or synthetic base layers, a midweight mid-layer top, puffy pants and puffy jacket, synthetic outer-layer hunting pants, liner gloves, heavy gloves, and rain gear. Extra merino wool socks are good, too.
- When it comes to rain gear, you want the good stuff. Good doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. You can get a complete set of Helly Hansen Impertech rubberized rain gear, jacket, and bibs, for under $200.
- The North Slope is windy. Take a low profile or conical tent like a teepee to buck the wind. If you take a teepee and are camping close to your truck, bring a woodstove. Grab some Duraflame logs in Fairbanks and snag some driftwood on your travels. A warm stove is a true morale booster when you’re wet, cold, and the caribou are ghosts.
- A sleeping bag rated to 15 degrees does the trick. Tuck that and your sleeping pad inside of a bivvy sack, and you’ll stay toasty while keeping moisture out.
- If you’re day hunting close to the truck, carry a 2,000- to 4,000-cubic-inch pack with a meat hauler. But if you’re heading deeper to rifle hunt, bring a 4,000- to 6,000-cubic-inch pack with a meat hauler.
- Carry a square Z-foam or a square of cut Thermarest to stand on when changing shoes and to sit or lie down on while hunting. Sitting directly on the ground might sound fine, but anything that helps you stay warm and dry will also help keep your head in the game.
- Take trekking poles. Hiking on the tundra is an absolute bastard. Use the extra support to keep from wearing yourself out or getting hurt.
- Take a couple of large water vessels. A 5-gallon soft plastic collapsible water carrier is excellent. You’ll use those to fill up your Nalgene bottles. Also, bring a water filter and another means of purification. Both years I drank directly from the river without filtering, but I think it caught up with me the second time. The cleaning staff at the Fairbanks Hampton Inn didn’t appreciate it.
- Carry a GPS device with satellite communication. There aren’t many landmarks on the tundra, and it’s easy to get turned around. You need some insurance against getting lost and some backup in case you do.
- Your deer rifle is fine for killing caribou. I killed my bull with a .30-06 shooting 180-grain Nosler Accubonds, but I’ve also seen a 6.5mm Creedmoor shooting 143-grain Hornady ELD-S damn near drop a mature bull in its tracks.
- For bear protection, I took my Glock 20 in 10mm on both trips. And on both trips, it spent most of its time in camp. A handgun is an excellent tool to have if you’re walking over the hill to take a dump. It’s also suitable for bowhunters, especially when hunting up a creek bed — barren ground grizzlies like creek beds.
- The crux of your Haul Road gear shakedown is to take gear that gives you small wins that keep your head in the game. Mostly, that means staying warm and dry. Caribou are finicky. The environment is harsh.
Money, Money, Money, Money
This is not an expensive hunt.
I spent about $2,500 to $2,600 on that first trip in 2020. That included a roundtrip flight, 10-day truck rental (split five ways with buddies), and a caribou tag, plus a hunting license, meat shipping, gas, food, and a hotel stay. That is way way less than a guided caribou hunt.
Plan this hunting trip with four or five of your buddies so that you can spread out the cost, and it won’t drain your savings account.
This hunt is worth it. If you go next season, say hello. I’ll be there.
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