By on October 8, 2015

Ford F-350 Prudhoe Bay

After starting in Barrow, the northernmost settlement in the United States, our second stop takes us 200 miles (320 km) south east to Prudhoe Bay, again on the Arctic Ocean.

As I detailed in the opening report, there are no roads linking Barrow to Prudhoe Bay, only barge transport during the summer (the barge season had already ended by the time I visited) and ice roads when the ice layer on lakes is thick enough to drive, generally only in March.

GMC Sierra Prudhoe Bay Oversize

Therefore, the only option right now is to travel by plane, which explains why there are no less than three flights per day connecting Barrow to Prudhoe Bay (two during the week) even outside summer, all operated by Alaska Airlines. Flight time: 35 minutes.

Deadhorse Airport, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

To be more exact, I flew to Deadhorse, located 10 miles inland from actual Prudhoe Bay. I arrived on a cloudy, snowy day for a four-hour stopover and the sky and ground were uniformly white. In fact, it snows in Prudhoe Bay more often than not — about three-quarters of the time. Even if we are located south of Barrow, the climate here is even harsher because of its geographic situation at a crossroads between the Ocean on the north side and a mountain corridor to the south. Prudhoe Bay also gets one of the longest nights in the country. There are a total of 54 days between November 24 and January 18 when the sun doesn’t rise. Inversely, it also sees one of the longest daylights: 63 sun-filled days between May 20 and July 22.

Prudhoe Bay 5

Prudhoe Bay AK

The mean annual temperature in Prudhoe Bay is 12° F (−11° C), with the warmest month, July, not exceeding a daily average temperature of 46° F (8° C). In the coldest days (rather, continuous nights) of winter, temperatures below −40° F/C are to be expected.

Let’s shiver for a minute: The highest recorded temperature in Prudhoe Bay is 83° F (28° C) on June 21, 1991, while the lowest is −62° F (−52° C) on January 27, 1989. That’s lower than in Barrow. Where it gets really tricky is when you start calculating wind chill. Prudhoe Bay, due to its location’s heavy winds, recording an official wind chill low at a horrifying −102° F (−74° C) on January 28, 1989, when the air temperature of −54° F (−48° C) combined with wind speed of 36 mph (57 km/h).

Prudhoe Bay 1

Typical Prudhoe Bay pre-fabricated module

Typical Prudhoe Bay prefabricated module

These beyond extreme conditions are suitable for only the hardiest wildlife. Prudhoe Bay is home to large herds of caribou and, if you’re lucky, you may spot Arctic foxes, grizzly bears and polar bears. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky.

If it’s so harsh, why would we — furless, thin-skinned humans — want to live in such a forsaken environment? One word: Oil.

The permanent population of Deadhorse ranges between 25 and 50 residents. However, no household was considered permanently occupied during the 2010 Census. At any given time, up to 3,000 transient workers are based here to support the surrounding Prudhoe Bay oil field, the largest in the United States, as well as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) that transports oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in south central Alaska.

The airport, lodging and general store servicing the oil field are all located in Deadhorse, with facilities almost exclusively consisting of pre-fabricated modules shipped here via barge or air cargo. The drilling happens in Prudhoe Bay itself.

Prudhoe Bay Hotel

Prudhoe Bay Hotel

Something very interesting happened during my short stay here. When you put a bunch of strangers together in such an inhospitable environment, they will look out for each other. It only takes 10 minutes to walk a loop from the airport and explore all of Deadhorse, but in that time three trucks stopped to enquire whether I needed a ride anywhere and if I was alright. Everyone driving past waves to you with the biggest smile they can muster.

Get inside the Prudhoe Bay hotel and customers and employees alike are fighting for the title of friendliest person in town. The hotel has a cafeteria where all food is included in the lodging price but also accepts outside diners, charging a mere $6 for a full lunch-worth of food and free drinks refillable at will. The hotel itself is rather unique, consisting of pre-fab units put together to form a very large structure criss-crossed by endless corridors, all on ground level.

Prudhoe Bay oil fields

Prudhoe Bay oil fields

As I was there toward the end of September, there weren’t many workers staying in the hotel as the high season here is winter. The only time the surface is hard enough to support heavy equipment is when temperatures drop low enough to strengthen the permafrost. That’s when full-time drilling occurs.

Prudhoe Bay, unlike Barrow, is connected to Alaska’s main transport artery, the Dalton Highway. From here, it reaches Fairbanks 500 miles (800 km) south, a 14- to 18-hour trip. As such, Prudhoe Bay is the unofficial northern terminus of the Pan-American Highway, although this highway isn’t continuous all the way to Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of South America.

As tempting as it is, I won’t be driving down the Dalton Highway for lack of time and budget (I would have needed to ship the Ram 2500 from Seattle to here during the summer). Also, there’s another element to consider: safety. As winter approaches, road conditions deteriorate and become only passable by road trains and large trucks, as featured in the first episode of the BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads.

I doubt the folks at Ram would have let me drive on this road.

Ford F-350 in Prudhoe Bay AK

Ford F-350 in Prudhoe Bay AK

But before we get to the rest of Alaska, let’s have a look at which cars sell best in Prudhoe Bay.

As was the case for Barrow, the best-sellers here are not representative of Alaska as a whole, so we’ll cover Alaskan figures when we reach Anchorage. In the meantime, you can check out the FY 2014 best-sellers in all 50 States here.

Ford F-250 in Prudhoe Bay AK

Ford F-250 in Prudhoe Bay, AK

Understandably given the demographic composition of the area, there were no private cars that I could see. The entirety of Prudhoe Bay comprises of fleet vehicles in one form or another. I also did not spot a single car.

Prudhoe Bay Police

Light, medium and heavy trucks were the norm. A handful of Ford E-Series and GMC Savana vans worked a route between the Prudhoe Bay oil field and Deadhorse airport. There were also a couple of Ford Expeditions, including one owned by the local police, and two Audi Q7s acting as “luxury minivans” to transport higher-ranking oil field officials. I also spotted two now-defunct Ford Excursions — based on the Super Duty line of Ford pickups — produced from 2000 to 2005. Coincidentally, the Excursion was dubbed the Ford Valdez due to its atrocious fuel economy.

Ram 5500 in Prudhoe Bay AK

Ram 5500 in Prudhoe Bay, AK

Oil drilling companies are purchasing full-size pickups by the truckload (literally) for their workers based in Prudhoe Bay, a majority of them being the Flex Fuel variant repurposed to also use natural gas when needed.

Very similarly to the situation in Barrow, Alaska, Ford is king here and accounts for no less than two-thirds of the pickup population in Prudhoe Bay. The F-250, F-150 and F-350 pickups are the most frequently purchased in this order, a few F-550s can also be seen roaming the lonely pair of streets in town, and I also spotted a new generation aluminium F-150, the very first one I’ve seen on this trip.

Ram comes second with a healthy count of Ram 2500 pickups and even a couple of Ram 5500. The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and 2500 pickups are markedly less popular with local companies than the previous two brands, followed closely by GMC Sierra pickups.

GMC Sierra in Prudhoe Bay AK

GMC Sierra in Prudhoe Bay AK

Almost all pickup trucks feature the ubiquitous power plugs sticking out from the front grille we saw in Barrow, to which is added a front grill cover, all this to keep the battery and fluids in the engine from freezing in place at −40° F/C.

I can sense your face starting to freeze just by reading this article, so without further ado we will fly off to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska for the next stop.

Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia. He runs a website dedicated to car sales statistics, trends and analysis called BestSellingCarsBlog. The website features sales data for 190 countries worldwide including 80 countries updated monthly.

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26 Comments on “U.S. North to South 2015: Prudhoe Bay, Alaska...”

  • avatar

    I’m getting a certain snow motif about Alaska, does it snow alot there?

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not so much that it snows a lot, but that it never melts. The snowiest places are anywhere that gets lake-effect snow off the Great Lakes.

      • 0 avatar

        Poor Buffalo. The earth picks up all of the excess moisture from Lake Erie and dumps it, in the form of heavy, terrible snow, on Buffalo. The lake effect snow in Michigan is bad enough, but update NY truly gets shat upon by mother nature.

        • 0 avatar

          The Google machine tells me the snowiest city (over 50,000) is Syracuse, but I’ll bet there’s somewhere else in upstate NY that gets more snow.

          • 0 avatar

            I have a friend that grew up in Oneida, NY. It is very close to Syracuse. Some cities in that Oneida County get 170+ inches of snow a year. He lives in Scottsdale now. Smart man.

        • 0 avatar

          Yes, the east-west orientation of Erie gives winter winds more opportunity to pick up moisture than does Michigan’s north-south layout. However, that north-south layout makes for more treacherous marine conditions when bad weather rolls down from Canada.

          • 0 avatar

            This is true. Lake effect snow off of Lake Michigan comes in relatively narrow bands. It’s hit or miss all up and down the state. Whereas in Upstate NY, it’s typically a band that is as wide as the lake.

            And you are correct, Huron and Michigan are not lakes to be on when bad weather hits. Last year’s Halloween storm on Lake Michigan is a good example. The lake was pi$$ed that day.

    • 0 avatar

      And cold, I think it’s cold there! Great series, keep it up.

  • avatar

    Not so much these days:

  • avatar

    Anchorage (which is kind of like a colder, grayer Seattle in terms of weather) is going to seem like tropical paradise after these two frozen oil hellholes.

  • avatar

    @Matt Gasnier – you should of touched base with one of the trucking companies to see if they’d let you ride shotgun in one of the haul trucks. That would give you a good idea what it’s like to run Northern industrial roads.

    Alaskan weather is dependent upon where you are. IIRC Anchorage and some of the more southern coastal areas have mild winters but heavy snow due to the warm Pacific ocean currents. You head inland and it gets colder. Getting to places like Prudhoe Bay you are into Arctic climate which is cold and there isn’t a lot of precipitation. The simplest metaphor would be “frozen desert”.

  • avatar

    “Coincidentally, the Excursion was dubbed the Ford Valdez due to its atrocious fuel economy.”

    Oh, you won’t make no friends here that’a way!

    • 0 avatar

      Not at all. Ain’t no one every expected a 7500 pound vehicle with a V10 to be fuel efficient.

      • 0 avatar

        Im currently getting 10.5 city and 15 on the highway with my Ford Valdez. That is only slightly worse than my 09 Ram 2500. I think when compared to a minivan then yes its MPG sucks, but for a HD truck that seats 8 and tows over 9000 lbs, then I would say its fuel economy is not so bad.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    This high school in Barrow has an indoor heated pool, imagine all that expense for a school without that many students.

  • avatar

    Back in the 80s, Car and Driver had an article on the AlCan 5000. It made me wish I could visit Alaska someday, just for the quirkiness of it. Watching Ice Road Truckers and reading articles like this haven’t changed my opinion since.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Good description of the Prudhoe environment. I was up there for 2 weeks a few years ago, in the BP ‘campus’. Flew on their charter 737 from Anchorage to Deadhorse. No alcohol was allowed on the flight nor in the camp. Rumor was that a few guys had packages shipped up with colored vodka in mouthwash bottles. I was lucky and got one of the camps that had a dining hall attached. Some guys had to stand outside and wait for a shuttle bus… Some even had to walk outside to get to the bathroom. You were not allowed to walk anywhere for fear of Polar Bears. It was interesting but 2 weeks was more than enough.

  • avatar

    Back in 2007, I got hired to deliver new RVs from Indianapolis to Anchorage. Got to do two runs, and absolutely loved both trips. I’d do a road trip up the Alaska Highway again in a minute – some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve experienced (and I live in Yosemite).

  • avatar

    So how come these companies prefer Ford over GM so clearly? Does GM cars sh*tty reliability extend to trucks? Or are we just talking good old incentives?

    • 0 avatar

      For these types of fleets Up-time is the #1 priority. Purchase price is at or near the bottom of the list. Now gov’t fleets are another story where purchase price often trumps all.

    • 0 avatar

      Partly for better ground clearance. Prudhoe Bay “roads” are more often than not, depending on time and season, either snow drift covered, or ankle-to-mid-calf mud tracks. Working against exactly those qualities that make GM pickups so desirable for normal road use: Lower beds, lower cabs, lower roofs, a lower center of gravity, and a less rolly/tossy front suspension design. In the sufficiently loose and rough, lower instead starts becoming a liability.

      Another reason for Ford’s popularity, is a lot of the trucks there have service bodies installed on them. Ford still uses thick C-channels instead of boxed frames on their 3/4 and 1 tons, making upfits easier, more conventional and more predictable.

    • 0 avatar

      Sjalabais: I am betting strongly on incentives.

  • avatar

    The latter, I think. IMO, the Big 3 all make HD trucks of roughly equal quality. Historically, though, Ford has always been able to undercut GM and Dodge on their fleet truck sales. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.

  • avatar

    @Matt Gasnier

    Enjoyed the article! I work in Prudhoe Bay and am actually up here now. It’s a different world for sure.

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