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If you’re like me, spending $70,000 (or more) on a new truck is out of the question. And honestly, if you’re a hardcore hunter, it may never be in your interest to buy a truck off the showroom floor. You’re going to use and abuse the hell out of your pickup, and that’s why buying something more basic (used) is a smart choice.
But, shopping the used truck market can be a high-risk endeavor, especially these days. Any vehicle can have problems, but some have better track records than others. It doesn’t matter if you’re chasing the satisfying clatter of a diesel engine, something compact enough to zip around town, or a good old-fashioned half-ton gas guzzler––there’s a used truck out there that you’ll love.
I’m going to focus on modern trucks built after 1990 for this article. This will (mostly) mean the truck has airbags, anti-lock brakes, and fuel injection. Here is how to navigate the used truck market, plus which trucks are the best buys.
What Makes a Good Hunting Truck?
A good hunting truck, first and foremost, needs to be able to go where other vehicles can’t. Start your search with off-road capability in mind. There are a few viable all-wheel-drive options out there (Subarus are a good option), but most hunting trucks and SUVs come with four-wheel drive. The difference between the two is a conversation for another day, but basically all-wheel drive tends to be more sophisticated and more agile at high speed; four-wheel drive tends to be stronger and better for crawling over obstacles. I’ll be sticking to selectable four-wheel drive, meaning you will have to manually choose when to switch from rear-wheel to four-wheel drive.
Hunting trucks also need to have cargo room. If all your hunting involves small game and a dog or two, an SUV might be worth looking at because you can keep your four-legged hunting partners warm during travel and at night if the motel doesn’t allow dogs. If you need to load up a a deer or elk, a truck bed is almost a necessity. Hose it out when you’re done, and your bed is clean.
Some hunters need to consider towing capacity. If you tow a boat, camper, ATV or UTV on a trailer, you’ll want to look for a truck with an engine, transmission, and chassis that can deliver. Most half-ton trucks are capable enough to handle a fair bit of towing. For heavier loads like gooseneck campers, you might want to switch to a heavy-duty truck with a diesel engine.
No matter what truck you buy, it will be your responsibility to maintain and repair it. Target trucks with simple pushrod V8 engines and old-school four-wheel drive (think manual shifter). That kind of technology is tried and true, and if you are moderately handy, you can tackle many of these repairs in your own garage with basic hand tools. Newer trucks will probably require less maintenance, but they’ll also be more complicated and expensive to fix.
Tips for Mastering the Used Truck Market
- Put brand loyalty aside: There is no hierarchy of brands in the truck market. Every auto manufacturer has made quality vehicles, clunkers, and everything in between. My advice is to focus on the specific features you want in a truck and be open-minded about which brand can deliver them at the right price.
- Only pay for the features you want: If you don’t care about fold-out steps and a little handle to help you get into a truck bed, maybe you don’t need to drop a year’s salary (or more) on a new half-ton. If all you need is solid four-wheel drive and a decent towing capacity, there’s no reason you can’t get everything you want from a used model.
- Do your homework: Once you have a list of wants and needs, you can start thinking about which specific truck to buy. Your next step should be an online forum dedicated to the exact year, make, and model of the truck(s) that interest you. Learn from other owners’ experiences so you can plan for common malfunctions and get a better idea of what to expect from the truck.
- Read the signs: When you finally lay eyes on a truck for sale, investigate it. Are there records for standard maintenance? Does it look like the truck was cared for? A dirty cab and leaky oil pan aren’t deal-breakers, but an owner who didn’t take care of the little things probably wasn’t too meticulous about big-ticket items, either. Minimize your risk by putting in the legwork to find a truck that’s been treated well, even if it has higher mileage.
How Much Should You Spend on a Used Truck?
What qualifies as a good truck is subjective, as is what counts as a good price. Let’s assume that you aren’t looking for a project. To get a reliable vehicle with a decent interior, you’ll need to set aside a chunk of cash. The good news is that most trucks handle years of use and relatively high mileage better than most cars. Under-stressed engines, overbuilt components, and simple interiors age well.
If you can deal with odometer readings that are closer to 200,000 miles than 100,000 and don’t care about having the latest body style, there’s no reason you can’t find a quality truck for less than $10,000. I’m not talking about bargain-basement vehicles, either. Four figures will get you a relatively clean truck with a V8 and four-wheel drive. If you see older trucks as classics rather than hand-me-downs, even more options open up and you could spend half that amount and be perfectly happy.
Lower Miles Isn’t Necessarily Better
I cannot stress this enough: the number on the odometer is nowhere near as important as the rest of a vehicle’s history. Complete service records, evidence of proper upkeep, and a pre-purchase inspection by a mechanic of my choosing will make me much more likely to buy a truck with high miles than a low-mileage vehicle with a bunch of question marks. In fact, sitting idle is bad for cars and trucks. The longer rubber components stagnate, the more brittle they become. Plenty of desirable finds have puked coolant all over the road within a few miles of being bought because they spent too much time on the lot. So don’t assume that lower is better when it comes to mileage.
If this is your first truck, remember that these are work vehicles at heart. They’re designed and built to lumber along with cargo for years on end without breaking down. Some people criticize trucks for producing relatively small amounts of horsepower with large engines, but that means the engine isn’t working very hard. A high-strung sports car may be showing serious signs of wear by 100,000 miles, but a good truck will be just getting started. Right now, I have a little more than 160,000 miles on my truck. Every truck my dad ever owned cleared 300,000 miles. Focus your attention on the physical condition of mechanical components, and you’ll be in good shape.
Four-Wheel Drive Is a Must
Most people never need to bother sending power to all four wheels of their truck. Hunting is a different story, though.
A four-wheel-drive truck with appropriate tires is one of the best vehicles to drive off-road. A two-wheel-drive truck might be the worst. The problem with trucks is weight distribution; they have an extreme weight bias toward the front, so rear-wheel drive trucks have very little weight on the two wheels receiving power. If you plan on taking your truck off-road––ever––four-wheel drive is the way to go.
The trucks and SUVs on this list feature selectable four-wheel drive. That means you get rear-wheel-drive fuel efficiency on the road, with the ability to send power to both axles in a 50/50 split when you venture off the beaten path.
Gas or Diesel?
The choice between gas and diesel generally depends on how much weight you need to move, unless you just have a strong preference for one or the other. Most people will be happiest with a gas-powered truck. Vehicles that run on gas are far more common in the U.S., so it’s what most of us are used to. Plus, gas-burning vehicles cost less to buy, run, and maintain.
Once towing or hauling heavy cargo comes into the picture, that all changes. Diesel engines generate so much torque that they make towing larger loads much easier. Trailers that would have you wringing a gas engine’s neck to get moving will slip right along behind a diesel. Even if you never tow, some people just like diesel trucks. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. The beauty of the used market is that you can get a heavy-duty work truck for a fraction of its original price.
Best Half-Ton: 1990-2006 Chevrolet 1500 and GMC 1500
The half-ton pickup market is a crowded. The Ford F-150, Dodge Ram 1500, and Chevrolet/GMC 1500 have been slugging it out for years. It’s hard to pick just one, but this era of trucks from Chevy is the best in the category.
This generation tends to hit the sweet spot of modern technology and old-school simplicity. Aftermarket support for the Silverado and Sierra are hard to beat. General Motor’s 5.3-liter Vortec V8 has proven itself to be a sweetheart to drive, and it’s not uncommon to get well over 200,000 miles out of one before having to do serious repairs. You will enjoy plenty of usable power without the gas-guzzling of larger, high-performance engines. The rest of the truck is just as reliable, with most of the issues reported by owners being minor and easy to fix.
I happen to think the body lines and interior design of these trucks have aged better than most. Still, these are older trucks and you should expect to see signs of age. Chevy half-tons tend to give up a few creature comforts to Ford and don’t have the flashy curves of a Ram, but they seem to do everything well. If you want nicer interior amenities, a Sierra from the sister company, GMC is the way to go.
Best Diesel: 1994-1998 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500
Before the Ford Powerstroke and Chevy Duramax mobs storm the castle with pitchforks and torches, let me just say that there are solid diesel trucks from each of the big three. Current offerings produce eye-popping power figures, but they’re also saddled with enough electronics and emissions systems to confuse a NASA engineer.
Dodge has earned what’s possibly the most ravenous fan base in the diesel truck world with its second-generation Rams. The Cummins 5.9-liter straight-six is legendary for tractor-like torque and a level of simplicity that’s unheard of these days. There are two versions of this engine, the 12-valve and 24-valve. The earlier 12-valve engine is less powerful and less sophisticated but can be modified to get massive power gains without much trouble. If you have any interest in doing maintenance yourself, this is the truck for you.
But if the beloved Cummins is so great, why doesn’t everyone drive these trucks? Well, it turns out the rest of the truck is not as spectacular. Dodge apparently colored their trucks with crayons during this era. Body rust is a very real problem, so do your shopping in the southern U.S. if possible. Tales of the “killer dowel pin” haunt the internet. Still, if you can find a clean truck and afford the resulting upcharge, the reward will be worth it.
Best Midsize: 2015-present Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Not everyone who wants a truck is looking for a full-size rig with commercial-grade cargo room and fuel economy to match. Maybe you live in an urban area and need a truck that can squeeze into a tight parking spot, but also handle backwoods trails. The Chevy Colorado ZR2 is your best bet.
This truck is tiny but mighty. The stock suspension is upgraded and puts the ZR2 two inches higher than the rest of the Colorado lineup. Locking differentials at both ends add serious off-road capability. Don’t overlook that V6 engine, either. Its 308-horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque are enough to keep pace with your V8 buddies on-road or off. This truck was built specifically for off-roading, so it can scramble over rugged terrain that would give larger trucks a beating. Thanks to its relatively low weight, it’s also more nimble than a truck should be on winding roads.
One thing that surprises new ZR2 owners is the poor gas mileage––it’s actually worse than what the V8-powered full-size pickups get in some cases. It also sacrifices some towing capacity in the name of off-road performance. If you plan on doing any amount of regular towing, take a look at a full-size truck or even other trim levels in the Colorado lineup. It’s a stretch to compare any of these trucks to a lightweight sports car, but this one comes the closest to earning that compliment.
Best SUV: 1997-2001 Jeep Cherokee
Jeep created the Cherokee to broaden brand appeal enough to lure in young, suburban parents. Somehow, that inadvertently resulted in one of the off-roading community’s most passionate followings.
The 1990s might not have been a bright point for build quality and features across the board, but the Cherokee’s four-wheel drive and 4.0-liter engine will happily chug along, no matter what you throw at them. The XJ also hails from a time when SUV buyers didn’t have to choose between real off-road capability and manageable size. Frankly, this Cherokee isn’t all that different from a new four-door Wrangler and it’s about a quarter of the price. Forget about the original target demographic, the Cherokee could be your next hunting and fishing rig.
Prices for the best XJ Cherokees are getting out of hand, but you can still put one of the original SUV pioneers in your garage for a reasonable price if you look in the right places. This Cherokee is not built for towing, nor is it cut out for carting deer back from camp without making a mess. On the flip side, it’s great around town and makes a convenient place to lay your head when you don’t feel like sleeping in a tent. If you decide to buy one and join the XJ cult, I won’t blame you.
Best Bargain: 2000-2006 Toyota Tundra
Toyota built its reputation on affordable quality, but it is starting to drift out of reach for many outdoorsmen thanks to a cult-like following of their four-wheel-drive vehicles. Land Cruisers, 4Runners, and Tacomas seem to be climbing in value compared to other used trucks, but, for some reason, the Tundra remains affordable.
The rock-solid Tundra is just as tough as the rest of Toyota’s lineup. It hasn’t garnered the same level of consumer loyalty as America’s big three, but it’s just as capable. At the heart of the first-generation Tundra is Toyota’s bomb-proof 4.7-liter V8. It’s not as big as many of its domestic counterparts, but this workhorse of an engine performed well enough to earn a spot in the Land Cruiser, 4Runner, Sequoia, Lexus GX 470, and Lexus LX 470. It’s become regarded as one of Toyota’s most reliable engines, in one of its most reliable trucks. That’s high praise.
The Tundra might last forever, but it isn’t cut out for regular towing duty. The first generation’s bubbly shape might not be your cup of tea, either. If you can live with those two things, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy one of these trucks for a long, long time.
Best Sport Truck: 2010-2014 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor hardly needs an introduction. This is what happens when Ford’s performance division gets to cut loose.
If you haven’t been dazzled by the spec sheet before, I’ll give you a quick rundown. Fox Racing shocks give the Raptor more than 11 inches of suspension travel––so much that the leaf springs and A-arms had to be redesigned to accommodate that much movement. Beefy 315/70/17 all-terrain tires come standard. The truck is seven inches wider than the normal F-150 body. This first generation offers the choice between a 5.4-liter V8 making 310-horsepower or a 6.2-liter V8 making 411-horsepower. The Raptor is a beast off-road and very, very quick on the pavement.
But, just because this F-150 was inspired by the trophy trucks of Baja does not mean that it is a trophy truck from Baja. It may be able to fly, but landing in one piece is another story. Pay extra attention to used Raptors and look for signs of abuse. The current generation continues to push the performance envelope with a twin-turbo V6. That change, combined with limited supply, causes Raptors to hold their value better than most trucks. If you can live with a high-mile truck, you can still put one of these in your garage for less than the price of a new base F-150.