U.S. North to South 2015: Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier

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.

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 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).

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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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  • Drzhivago138 Drzhivago138 on Oct 09, 2015

    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.

  • 14Tundra 14Tundra on Oct 19, 2015

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

  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.
  • Lou_BC "That’s expensive for a midsize pickup" All of the "offroad" midsize trucks fall in that 65k USD range. The ZR2 is probably the cheapest ( without Bison option).
  • Lou_BC There are a few in my town. They come out on sunny days. I'd rather spend $29k on a square body Chevy
  • Lou_BC I had a 2010 Ford F150 and 2010 Toyota Sienna. The F150 went through 3 sets of brakes and Sienna 2 sets. Similar mileage and 10 year span.4 sets tires on F150. Truck needed a set of rear shocks and front axle seals. The solenoid in the T-case was replaced under warranty. I replaced a "blend door motor" on heater. Sienna needed a water pump and heater blower both on warranty. One TSB then recall on spare tire cable. Has a limp mode due to an engine sensor failure. At 11 years old I had to replace clutch pack in rear diff F150. My ZR2 diesel at 55,000 km. Needs new tires. Duratrac's worn and chewed up. Needed front end alignment (1st time ever on any truck I've owned).Rear brakes worn out. Left pads were to metal. Chevy rear brakes don't like offroad. Weird "inside out" dents in a few spots rear fenders. Typically GM can't really build an offroad truck issue. They won't warranty. Has fender-well liners. Tore off one rear shock protector. Was cheaper to order from GM warehouse through parts supplier than through Chevy dealer. Lots of squeaks and rattles. Infotainment has crashed a few times. Seat heater modual was on recall. One of those post sale retrofit.Local dealer is horrific. If my son can't service or repair it, I'll drive 120 km to the next town. 1st and last Chevy. Love the drivetrain and suspension. Fit and finish mediocre. Dealer sucks.
  • MaintenanceCosts You expect everything on Amazon and eBay to be fake, but it's a shame to see fake stuff on Summit Racing. Glad they pulled it.
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