Ideal Hunting Vehicles, Part 1: SUV
By Chuck Hawks
The major outdoor magazines seem to be full of vehicle reviews these days, no doubt to attract big advertising dollars from the major automakers. And it seems to be working, as every issue now seems to have advertisements for Chevy, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Hummer, Jeep, or other trucks and SUVs. Whether there is a commensurate reader interest in these vehicles, I do not know. Personally, when I want to read a car book I buy a copy of Car and Driver, not Outdoor Life or Field and Stream--but maybe that's just old fashioned me. In any case, it got me started thinking about what makes an ideal hunting vehicle, and this article is Part 1 of the result.
A two wheel drive vehicle as simple as an old Volkswagen bug can get surprisingly far off the beaten path. I know this because in years past they have gotten me far off the beaten path. And practically any modern compact or family sedan will usually suffice to get an outdoorsman to a place where he can do a little hunting or fishing.
When I was in college I drove a Triumph TR-3 sports car, as unlikely a hunting car as one could imagine. Yet that never stopped me from getting into the field. Today my personal car is a Mustang Cobra, and I still hunt and fish. I have never owned a truck or SUV for the simple reason that I prefer to drive a sports or GT car. However, it cannot be denied that such vehicles are far from ideal hunting cars.
These days there are a plethora of trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUV) vying for the outdoorsman's money. SUVs run the gamut from giants like the Cadillac Escalade ESV, Ford Excursion, GMC Denali, and Chevrolet Suburban to relative compacts like the Ford Escape, Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Freelander, Suzuki Grand Vitara, and Toyota RAV4.
Four wheel drive is so widespread that any serious hunting vehicle should probably be so equipped. Some vehicles advertise "all wheel drive," which transfers power to the normally un-driven wheels only when the normally driven wheels start to slip. It offers better traction than two wheel drive, but it is not the same as true four wheel drive.
Another sensible requirement is at least four person capacity (in reasonable if not lavish seating comfort), plus space for the rifles or shotguns and the associated gear those four individuals are probably going to need. It's handy if the gear can be stored in an adequate space behind the second row of seats, thus making it accessible from inside of the vehicle as well as more secure when the vehicle is locked and the hunters are elsewhere.
Secure storage with easy access is one of the major advantages of SUVs compared to pickup trucks, even when the latter have canopies. Other SUV advantages include a typically higher level of passenger comfort, shorter wheelbase and greater manuverability (compared to crew cab pickups). On the other hand, after your game is down and field dressed, it will have to fit behind the seats of an SUV or be carried externally. A pickup offers room for the carcass in the bed, separated from the passenger compartment. In any case, this article is about SUVs. Pickups are examined in the companion article, "Ideal Hunting Vehicles, Part 2: Pickup Truck."
Huge, long wheelbase SUVs like the aforementioned Chevy Suburban, Ford Excursion and equivalent offerings from Cadillac, GMC, Hummer, and others offer four wheel drive and plenty of room for seating 7-9 passengers and/or carrying enough equipment to provision the Lewis and Clark expedition. If you are operating in wide-open country for extended periods of time and have lots of friends, they may be a good choice.
But in cramped quarters, such as narrow dirt roads barely wide enough for a normal vehicle to navigate, they may be denied entry unless you are willing to leave a good bit of the vehicle's expensive paint job on rocks, trees and bushes. On narrow, less than one lane wide roads they can be the very devil to turn around when its time to leave. In fact, they can be impossible to turn around. In a worst case scenario, backing-up for long distances might be required to get out of a tight spot. Me, I hate to back up, and the Pacific Northwest (where I live) seems over supplied with just such narrow roads in remote places. So wide, long wheelbase vehicles are out as far as I am concerned.
The small (compact) SUVs will usually carry four people, but typically fall short on cargo space when doing so. They are less expensive and get better gas mileage than larger SUVs, and if they fit your needs they can be a good value. I imagine that they would be fine if only two passengers are to be carried. But, like their giant counterparts, they are going to be eliminated from further discussion here. Remember, we are looking for an ideal four person hunting vehicle, not just a satisfactory one, and for that we need more cargo space than most small SUVs offer.
The best compromise seems to be a mid-size, four-wheel drive, SUV. A vehicle that typically seats 5 adults in the first two rows of seats and has enough room behind the second row of seats for at least four long guns and four packs, plus some extra space for heavy coats, a water jug, and a grocery bag of food. If you are an optimist, add room for a field dressed deer wrapped in plastic.
And that, of course, is the main drawback of the SUV as a hunting vehicle. Whatever you shoot will probably wind up in the vehicle with you. This makes the SUV ideal as a scouting, fishing, and small game or wildfowl hunting vehicle, but less desirable as a big game hunting vehicle. Those who use their hunting vehicle primarily on big game hunts should pay particular attention to the companion article, "Ideal Hunting Vehicles, Part 2: Pickup Truck."
Three common examples of such vehicles are the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Ford Explorer, and Land Rover LR3. (Other manufacturers offer similar vehicles, of course.) All three seat 5 persons in two rows of seats. Their wheelbase is 113", 113.7", and 113.6" respectively; length is 191.8" (Chevy), 193.4" (Ford), and 190.9" (LR). The Chevy has 43.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, the Ford has 45.1 cubic feet of cargo space, and the LR3 has 44.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Functionally, for our purposes, they are pretty much a toss-up.
Here at Guns and Shooting Online we have been using a four-wheel drive Chevy Blazer as our primary hunting vehicle for the last year, and it has proven very capable. Four adults can ride for a considerable distance in satisfactory comfort, along with all the hunting gear required for a weekend in the field. The TrailBlazer is maneuverable, and narrow enough to get down almost any road that is not flat out impassable. We have yet to have to back out of a tight spot.
After deciding on a brand and model of midsize SUV, you get to choose the options and the color. There may be engine, manual/automatic transmission, and load or towing options that need to be carefully evaluated. Other options are more a matter of personal taste. If you feel that you need the upgraded stereo, extra cup holders, chrome wheels, fancy seating material, or comfort and convenience packages, go for it.
But I submit that, strange as it sounds, the color of a serious hunting vehicle matters, and it should be bright. The Chevy mentioned above is red. If the worst comes to pass and you get into a jam four-wheel drive won't get you out of and need to be rescued, a color that can be spotted from the air with relative ease is a pious idea. I vote for red, orange or yellow, even though drab colors are the best sellers these days. Least desirable are earth tones that will blend into the scenery; thus greens, tans, grays, and browns are best avoided. Black and white aren't so hot either, with the former blending into shadows and the latter being difficult to spot in the snow.
Happy four-wheelin', and good hunting!
Copyright 2005, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.