Fuel Planning For The Alaska Road Trip

If you take the road trip, the further north and remote you go, the more expensive fuel will be.  Don’t underestimate the costs involved here, you will be fueling up regularly and will have to be prepared to meet the costs involved.  Even with falling fuel prices lately, the cost of fueling up for that many miles will still likely comprise one of the largest cost factors for this trip.

Drive On The Top Half Of Your Tank:

Once you leave either Dawson Creek, AB (Alaska Highway) or Smithers, BC (Cassiar Highway), fuel will become a precious resource.  There is a saying to “always drive on the top half of your tank” or basically, when your tank is half-full, start looking for fuel location.  It is very easy to underestimate the distances between towns and your next potential fuel up.  This practice will ensure you don’t run out of gas.

We knew this, having driven the route multiple times, but have still cut things way too close for comfort at times.  We’ve never run out of gas, but have seen the better part of a low tank for way too many miles.  It’s stressful to see your vehicle start sucking on fumes with 30+ miles to go and better to just avoid any problems and the associated stress.

Modern vehicles feature “estimated miles” on your tank, but remember, this is still just an estimate.  Unknown factors like mountains, detours and animals blocking the road could factor in.  It’s just a good practice to always try to keep your tank half-full.

Cheaper Fuel:

cheapgasPlanning out every fuel stop is an exercise in futility and inaccuracy, so this will be something that needs to be figured out along the way.

The basic gist with fuel prices is that more populated areas and towns will usually feature better fuel prices than remote areas.  This is usually due to simple economies of scale where more demand drives down the prices, but in the great north, it will still be more expensive than it is at home.

Although the rural vs. urban price divide are generally the case, sometimes, you have to realize that the next services may be quite a far ways away, so making sure you fill up even at an expensive stop may be important.  It’s a balance between making sure you don’t run out of fuel and getting the best value.  Making sure you don’t run out of fuel should win every time.

Note that there are a few small roadside gas stations that compete heavily with their closest towns as this is their bread and butter.  Be on the lookout for signs at gas stations that say something like, “Cheaper Gas Than XXX” as you will see them here and there.  They do mean it and their fuel prices will be cheaper than whatever town they referenced.

Estimating Fuel Costs:

fueleconomyTo estimate what your fuel costs will be, you first need to know two things.  The MPG (fuel economy) you receive for highway driving on your vehicle and the estimated number of miles on your trip.  The latter is fairly easy, just figure out your route, drop it into Google Maps and voila, you have an estimated number of miles.  You’ll probably want to add maybe 10% to that number to account for tourism and possibly some back and forth that you’ll need to do.  Your fuel economy might not be what it was from the factory, so gettng a relatively current idea in your vehicle’s current condition is good.

If you’re not familiar with estimating your fuel economy, you can fairly easily determine what you’re getting now.  What you need to do is on your next complete fill up, write down your vehicle’s odometer mileage.  Drive as you normally would (or better yet, make a good highway trip) until you get at least to half tank.  Fill up again and write down the mileage and the number of gallons it took to fill the vehicle.  That’s it, you’re ready to calculate your fuel economy:

  • Second fill mileage – Original fill mileage = Total miles driven
  • Total miles driven / Gallons Filled = Approximate MPG

Once you know your basic fuel economy, you can estimate your fuel costs.  To do so, follow this calculation:

  • Estimated MPG / Estimate trip miles = # of gallons required
  • # of gallons required * Double the national average cost per gallon = Estimated fuel costs (high)

That’s it, that should give you an idea of what it’ll cost to knock out the trip fuel wise.  Definitely plan on keeping a budget reserve for this as it’s very easy to rack up miles that you weren’t expecting on the trip.  The 10 percent overage is probably fairly accurate, but this is also a very personal thing and will also be determined by the places you choose to stay.  If, when visiting areas, you choose to stay well outside the areas you’re visiting, your miles will rack up very quickly as you go back and forth to camp.

Things To Know About Your Vehicle:

fuelgaugeA couple things will be very handy to know about your vehicle, if you don’t know them all ready.  For example, knowing how many miles you can drive on a half tank and quarter tank will be very beneficial. While you’re on the road, you can sometimes use this information to determine if you should fill up right away or whether you can safely wait for the next, larger town to fill up in.

Of course, modern vehicles calculate a lot of things for you with their trip computers, so maybe it’s something you don’t need to be concerned about, but having the general idea will be able to tell you if those calculations are correct or not.  I’ve heard several stories of folks running those computers to find out they were wrong, only to find themselves stranded several miles from where they intended to fill up.  Just remember, don’t push it too far!  It could be a very expensive mistake and it would be better to play it safe than to lose a day waiting for a tow truck!

Also, remember, for this trip you may have more gear than you have during your initial estimations and this will likely hurt your fuel economy a little bit.  External things strapped to the vehicle (travel bags, jerry cans, etc) could have a significant impact to your fuel economy, so be prepared in case the estimates are off a little bit.

 Improving Your MPG:

upgraphFor a trip like this, it might make sense to do some things to your vehicle that will improve your fuel economy overall.  Maximizing fuel economy could save you a fair bit of money, especially if you’re not getting what you can from your vehicle.

Again, we’re not pretending to be mechanics here, so you might want to consult your local trust mechanic for further advice.  The truth is, though, that some things can drastically improve the MPG you get from your vehicle.  Some examples of these things are:

  • Replacing O2 sensors
  • Replacing spark plugs and possibly a distributor cap if used
  • Insuring proper tire inflation
  • Eliminating wheel travel issues
  • Drive less aggressively

Be wary of products that claim to improve your mileage, very few actually make a significant difference.  Some might improve things a little bit, but don’t expect vast improvements from these products as there’s only so much they can actually do.  Put simply, a vehicle running in optimal condition will get what it can, as it was built.

As mentioned in the vehicle preparation section, it’s wise to make sure your vehicle is running in the top condition it can prior to making the trek.  This will not only insure you arrive and return safely without incident, but can also save you some money along the way!

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