Iceland's Arctic Trucks Knows Extreme Cold

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By Tim Esterdahl

The recent cold snap across the country left many Americans shivering. This kind of cold weather takes a toll on everybody and everything, including pickup trucks. So we wondered: How much cold can a truck really take? For the answer, we turned to the experts at Arctic Trucks International (located in Iceland); they just landed a team at Novo Airbase in Antarctica for the 2014-2015 expedition season. If anybody knows what happens to trucks in extreme conditions, it's these guys.

An Icelandic firm with 24 years of cold-weather experience, Arctic Trucks has made trips to Antarctica for years, helping to support a variety of expeditions. The company's Toyota Hilux trucks sit out in the extreme winter for months on end. During these expeditions employees have learned many things about how to adapt their trucks to the cold.

CEO Emil Grimsson said the company chose the midsize Hilux because it knew the vehicle well, and it needed the 3.0-liter diesel engine (169 horsepower and 265 pounds-feet of torque) for fuel efficiency and its ability to use special jet fuel. Arctic also needed a light truck capable of carrying cargo.

For its expeditions, Arctic modified the trucks to haul 3,306 pounds, which is quite a bit more than Toyota's 1,764-pound payload rating. The trucks also tow a 2,866-pound trailer for longer expeditions. This extra capacity puts a strain on all the mechanical systems and tires.

Why Not Use a Full-Size Pickup?

Grimsson said Arctic looked at larger trucks, but larger vehicles would need still bigger tires to get the flotation needed. Plus, trucks like the Ford F-150, which Arctic considered, don't come with a diesel engine. This creates a logistical problem since there are limited places to get gasoline.

Another factor working against newer vehicles is testing them at extreme temperatures. With a new Ford pickup, for example, Arctic would have to start with shorter routes that have support stations in case things break. These routes would also need air-support options to have parts delivered.

Finally, since Arctic has lots of experience with the Hilux it has a collection of spare parts to fix things on the go. Instead of going larger, Arctic created a 6x6 Hilux to handle Iceland's and Antarctica's challenging terrain and conditions.

Antarctica Driving Challenges

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While ice and black ice seem to be key winter problems across parts of the U.S., driving in the winter conditions of Antarctica creates a whole new assortment of problems. When planning an Antarctic expedition, Grimsson said, the company faces several challenges.

  • Antarctica isn't just flat terrain. There are mountains filled with icy crevasses. Many routes cross thin snow bridges that span thousands of small and large crevasses. A driver error, blown tire or mechanical issue can mean life or death.
  • Fuel is a constant concern. Fuel stations are few and far between, so vehicles carry extra fuel and that becomes a balancing act. You want enough fuel to make the journey, but carrying too much extra weight causes the truck to burn more of it and could increase the risk of breaking down.
  • How do tires handle the cold? Arctic Hiluxes are outfitted with 44-inch tires that are often driven with the air pressure below 3 pounds per square inch, and there is concern a tire could simply break if drivers stopped long enough for the tire to cool down. These tires have such low pressure and so much rubber you could drive over someone's arm without fear of injury, according to Grimsson.
  • Lubrication choice is of paramount importance. The pickups face extremely cold conditions during which the engines are floored for 20 hours straight while hauling gear. This really puts a strain on the drivetrain and other mechanical parts; Arctic uses Helix Ultra 5W-40.
  • Arctic was concerned about how the Hilux engine would cope with the thinner oxygen level in Antarctica (it's 13,123 feet above sea level). Less oxygen means the engine loses power even when running on jet fuel.

'On Thin Ice'

All of these concerns were addressed during Arctic Trucks' most notable expedition, which occurred in 2008-2009. While being filmed by the BBC for "On Thin Ice," Arctic helped support a 1,500-mile ski competition to the South Pole. The trucks, working in two different teams, provided support for the last 500 miles to the South Pole.

Throughout this expedition the Hilux trucks faced all of the obstacles described above, as well as being overloaded. Grimssom said neither the film crew nor the Arctic Trucks team would compromise on the amount of gear they needed. So they brought everything.

All of this extra gear forced the Arctic Trucks support teams to choose between leaving behind spare parts and tools or fuel. Ultimately, they left the spare parts and tools.

The biggest problem for the overloaded trucks turned out to be fuel shortages. For this expedition, the teams had to stick to a schedule to arrive at an airplane-delivered fuel dump. Pushing the trucks harder, with the excess gear, meant they burned more fuel than planned. Fuel turned out to be such a concern that one of the teams had to leave a trailer (which carried extra fuel) in order to drop weight, thereby improving fuel economy.

One truck team also had to deal with snapping rear axles due to the weight. These axles were replaced en route with temperatures hovering at minus-50 degrees.

These trucks will again be put to the test during the 2014-2015 expedition season that is just beginning in Antarctica. Arctic Trucks will support several different missions that include servicing a fuel depot and supporting Manon Ossevort, a "tractor girl" from the Netherlands who plans to drive a Massey Ferguson MF 5610 tractor to the South Pole. Dubbed Antarctica2, that expedition began Nov. 24.

In the end, the things the Arctic Truck teams learn about how trucks deal with long-term exposure to cold weather may become a part of future truck design and engineering. We are just glad they are out in the cold and not us.

Arctic Truck images


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@DenverMike - I do agree that a full floating axle would be better but expecting a company to ship HD trucks from the USA that they are not used to using in the Antarctic is a stretch.

Companies use what they are familiar with. How many HD's from the USA are in Argentina?

A Unimog would probably make more sense than a Hilux.

My name is Emil Grimsson and was the one that answered the Tim’s questions on this.

It is very interesting for me to see your comments, US is by far the leader in Pickup Trucks and there is a lot we can learn.

I like to comment or do more explanation on the background.

The story and photos above are basically from our first expedition from a place called Novo to South Pole and the main problems we faced then. Since then we have successfully covered nearly 120 thousand miles on the Antarctica high plateau setting number of world records and world first's. We have made number of improvements over this time but basically, except for one Tacoma and one Land Cruiser we have been running the same setup. Once you have collected experience with one vehicle it is very hard to change type of vehicle as we know the weaknesses and what is likely to break and what not. With a new type of vehicle you don’t know and if something fails that you can’t fix, a flight from Novo with spare parts will cost you 210 thousand USD and the flight might not be able to fly for days due to weather conditions.

This in 2008, it was our first real Antarctica expedition and organizing this was very challenging. We had done and expedition for BBC Top Gear, from Resolute in Canada to Magnetic North Pole the year before but this was a big step up in challenge; the route had never been done before, it was know that there would be huge hidden crevasses, hundreds of feet deep that could easily swallow a car but no one knew where and then the distance 3120 miles return with only one place with fuel. This was a fuel drop made by a big cargo airplane 950 miles from Novo, 8 barrels per parachute. This fuel was there for the Basler airplanes could reach South Pole from Novo so the only option was JET1A fuel. We mixed this with two stroke oil we had with us.

Even if we had the option, normal Arctic diesel will not take the cold on the highest part of the plateau and by our experience a gasoline V6 Tacoma will use about 30% more fuel than the diesel Hilux when the conditions get hard.

Once passed the fuel drop the vehicles established a “runway” about 470 miles from South Pole for the Baslers to bring in the skiers. Then the ski race started.

The main reason the axles broke in this expedition comes down to number of unexpected events (weather, human mistakes, plane crash and more) which forced two of the cars to temporarily load each vehicles with ca. 6600lbs. About 120 miles later the first axle broke and 100 miles after this all four rear axles had broken. Our guys did great in keeping the vehicles running and supporting the race even though they had only two spare axles. The other two vehicles cauth up later with two more spare axles.

We are very familiar with most of the US made vehicles, we do work with some but for number of reasons we started using the Hilux in Antarctica now it is hard to change at least for the longest expeditions.

I saw someone mentioned to install belts/tracks on the vehicle but for Antarctica plateau this increases the fuel consumption 3-4 times with normal load. For long expeditions they would be far from being able to carry their own fuel. Also there are large areas of sastrugi (very hart packed snow boulders) this destroys the belts fairly quickly.

We average about 7.5 miles per gallon on Novo to South Pole, but by our estimate, this is still 5 to 10 times better than the belt vehicles, commonly used in Antarctica by the scientific stations and the fuel is super expensive. We are also traveling about 3-5 times faster, so for many types of operations down there we have a very good solution but there are other things the belt vehicles are much better at.

This has been come much longer than I planned so I stop here.

Thank you very much for your input.

By the sounds of it you had a very challenging trip.

You should comment more on this site as it will be an eye opener for many who make comments here, including myself.

Thank you again.

@Emil Grimsson - Thanks for the reply and the story. Sounds like you're having an absolute blast!

So a globally-known Arctic expeditionary outfitter also says the American full-sized pickup truck is too big. Who knows? Maybe someday the American OEMs will realize that.

@@Emil Grimsson - thanks for the personal insight into Antarctic expeditions.

Confirms all of my points.

This is possible why bone-stock US pickups sell for up to and over $150,000 in Australia. And these have by far, the highest retained resale value of any (daily driven) vehicles in the world!

Posted by: DenverIIIMike | Dec 1, 2014 7:19:05 Am

That's right. If you want the best you are going to pay for the best.

You need trucks like these for that environment

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