Discover the Best Hunting Truck for You [Exclusive]

Nature's predators move to hunt.  Whether it's a cheetah running down a gazelle, or Arctic wolves stalking a caribou herd for miles without end, mobility is key.  Same holds for human hunters.  They need to get to their hunting ground, or stay mobile once they are there.  Since game animals are seldom found in suburban backyards, this means hunters must travel into remote, often inhospitable locations.  Mud bogs, narrow mining roads carved into mountain sides, desert sand, dense forests, and rock choked trails are just some obstacles hunters must surmount if they are to fill their freezers.

Picking the Right Truck

There are many ways to solve this problem: mountain bikes, motorcycles, ATV's, light trucks, dune buggies, helicopters, even roller blades.  The most common, though, is the four-wheel drive light truck.  While ATV's and side-by-side buggies are popular, it's the tried and true truck most hunters rely upon to help fill their tags.

For our purposes, light truck is any motor vehicle with a GVWR less than 10,000 pounds.  The traditional quarter-ton, half-ton, three-quarter-ton, and one-ton trucks.  Every car maker offers at least one, often more, truck models, but this is not a Brand X is better than Brand Y article.   Instead, let's focus on which vehicle meets a particular hunter's needs for their hunting truck.

Last, you have to decide if a new truck or a used one fits your needs best.

What, Where, and How

What truck you need is determined by where and how you plan to use it.  Someone who hunts in Louisiana or Maine's rain and mud needs a rig far different from a the person who hunts at 11,000 feet In Colorado's San Juan Mountains or Nevada's scrub desert.

The Long and the Short

The first question is how big a truck do you need?  Size matters in this area.  At the least, you need a rig big enough to hold all your gear and any critters you get.  Beyond this consideration, terrain is the biggest factor.  Trucks come in compact, mid-size, and full-size versions.  Compacts are trucks such as the Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Tacoma.  Mid-sized examples are the Dodge Durango, or Honda Ridgeline, and full-sizes are the ubiquitous Ford F-150 or Chevrolet Suburban.  Each size has its advantages and disadvantages.

Compacts: The Ninja Trucks

If you're headed to an area with narrow trails, thick brush and timber, or serious rocks, the best bet is a compact truck.  There are many to choose from these days.

Best bets:
  • Perhaps the premier compact truck is the classic Jeep.  The Jeep brand now offers many models, but the best for hunting is the Wrangler.  The Wrangler has evolved from the simple, capable Willys used by American forces during World War Two into a modern, almost unstoppable truck.  Best used picks here are the late-70s through early 80s CJ-7 and 8, or the 97 - 2006 TJ Wrangler.  The former have the best frames and running gear of the classic generations.  The TJ combines the tried and true 4.0L in-line six engine with modern fuel injection and the best suspension ever put on a Jeep.  The current JK Wrangler has one big issue, it is BIG.  So big, it's more a mid-size than a compact.  It's just too wide to fit onto many trails in the Rocky Mountains and other places, although it would be great for open deserts.
  • The other Jeep to consider is the second generation Cherokee.  They're dirt cheap on the used market, but solid Jeep underneath their staid exterior.  Avoid the late 80s models and look for one with the 4.0L.  Downsides: they are more difficult to repair in the boonies than a Wrangler and more difficult, in some respects, to modify.
  • Other good Ninja trucks are the compact Toyota's from any era; they get better as they get newer.  The compact Nissan's are good.  Look for the bullet proof V-6 over the four-banger.  The original Ford Bronco is an excellent off-road truck, but it has achieved collector status and prices are sobering.  The other old-school truck to consider is the International Scout.  Like the Bronco, some are considered collectable, so you may have to search to find an affordable example. 

Mid-Size: Jack of All Trades

Mid-size trucks, as their name implies, fit between the compact Wranglers, etc. and the big, full-size models.  Mid-sizes are often a rational compromise between the handy and maneuverable compacts and the heavy load capacity the full-sizes offer.  Trouble is, they can prove too big for the most challenging trails and too small if you have to carry multiple hunters and their gear.

Best bets:
  • JK Wrangler.  Despite what we said above, this Jeep is a good choice for a mid-size.  Biggest drawback is it depends on a small V-6 to drag around an almost 5000 pounds GVWR.  Time will tell if this new power plant is as reliable as the 4.0L in-line it replaced.
  • Dodge Durango/Dakota.  While its original market targeted the soccer-mom demographic, the Durango is a serious half-ton truck under the sleek skin.  Its pick-up truck brother, the Dakota, is just as good, and offers more cargo room.  Either way, get the 5.3 or 5.9L V-8.  The small, 4.7L had issues.  Downside is limited aftermarket support for mods.
  • Toyota Land Cruiser.  Iconic best describes Toyota's effort to improve on the Jeep.  Like their compact trucks, the Land Cruiser gets better as it gets newer.  The early FJ-40 is now a solid gold collector item, but the follow on models are just as solid off-road and more affordable.  The FJ-80 is perhaps the best, but get a thorough mechanical inspection before you buy.
  • Hummer H3.  Maligned by ecco-mentalists, and dismissed by some as a poseur's truck, the H3 is built on the proven GM Colorado platform, so you can get it serviced by anyone who works on Chevy's.  It's a capable off-roader as delivered, and there is good aftermarket support.

Full-Size: The Conan Trucks

Full-size trucks are great.  They carry up to a ton, will tow a big hunting camper, horse trailer, or boat, and they have room for families and their gear.  Just don't try to squeeze them through a mining trail in Colorado.  Full-sizes are at their best in open country.  Their long wheelbases give them an advantage in mud bogs.  This is the truck if you hunt in the desert or muddy places such as the Southeast or Northwestern U.S.

Best bets:
  • Truth is, any full-size from America's Big Three auto makers will do the job well.  Each brand has its own strengths and weaknesses as the internet fan boys are quick to point out.  The big choice here is between pickups or SUVs.  The SUVs, even the Suburban or Expedition, have shorter wheelbases than their pickup siblings, but if you have a fifth-wheel or carry big, heavy stuff you'll prefer the pickup.  The newer the truck, in most cases, the better and more reliable.  Aftermarket support for all three brands is excellent.
  • Toyota Tundra/Sequoia.  Japan's premier car builder decided to take on the Americans at their own game in YEAR.  They launched a whole new truck line which has proven popular.  Reliable, as always, Toyota's full-size effort has good aftermarket support.  Downside is they still don't have a 3/4 ton or 1 ton with a turbo-diesel.  If you need heavy-lift capacity, you'll have to look to America.

New or Used

In the past, this choice presented fewer difficulties.  A new truck had distinct advantages.  They were more reliable and you didn't have to risk the previous owner's maintenance habits.  Now, however, the waters are much murkier.  New trucks are crazy-expensive, so much so, most people lease now, rather than buy.  If you lease, forget any modifications to the truck as it often voids the lease agreement.  At the least, it will destroy your residual value when it comes time to trade.

A used truck in good nick can serve a hunter well for years.  In most cases, used trucks are much less expensive than new.  You can modify them all you want without some bean counter telling you what to do.  Best bets are models made before 2005, or so.  The newest trucks are more complex than jet fighters, with multiple computers, drive by wire, and failure prone info-tainment systems.  Most backyard mechanics can not repair them.  Forget sorting things out if they fail in the boonies--it's tow truck time, then.

The Road Less Traveled: Unusual or Alternative Rigs

There are a few uncommon trucks to consider as well.  Keep in mind any truck which is not a big seller is often difficult to maintain.  Parts are scarce and fewer mechanics are familiar with them.  So, go here with caution.  The right rig will give you good service and set you apart from the madding crowd.  The wrong one will drain your bank account and break your heart.

Best bets:
  • Land Rover Defender 90 or 110.  While they won't admit it, Land Rover would not exist if not for the original Jeep.  At first based on a Willys chassis, Rover progressed to their own design and proved it in the world's most remote and challenging places.  Down side is reliability--you'll chase leaks for as long as you own one.  Parts and service are scarce in the States.
  • Mercedes G-Class.  The Gelandewagen (Off-road Vehicle, in German) is more associated with sports stars and nefarious cartel members these days, but under the leather and vibrating seats is a military specification off-roader.  The basic truck is reliable, but the add-on luxury systems are problematic.  Get as old and simple an example as possible, then get your checkbook ready when you take it to a dealer for service.
  • Suzuki Samurai.  This awesome little beast had it reputation assassinated by Consumer Reports Magazine.  Like any small, light vehicle with a high center of gravity, you can get into trouble on the road if you don't drive with your brain switched on at all times.  However, once you get it off-road, you'll wonder how ever got along without this diminutive berserker.  Aftermarket support is still good and you can almost fix it with chewing gum and duct tape in the field.
  • Pinzgauer.  This former Austrian army utility vehicle has a cult following in the States.  Simple to operate and repair, it will go just about anywhere you point it.  Get ready for parts struggles, and good luck finding a mechanic who understand them if yours breaks in Clinton Gulch, Montana--or Los Angeles.
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