Diesel trucks have always been popular among hunters and anglers because they can tow heavier loads, they’re more efficient, and they typically last longer than gas engines.
The two main drawbacks of a diesel are the price you pay at the pump (which is actually competitive with gas prices right now), and the weight of the engine. Diesel engines are bigger, thus heavier, and that’s not always a good thing for outdoorsmen and women, especially in wet fields or mud-sucked two-tracks. Diesels are also louder, so some hunters think they are more apt to spook game than a gas-powered truck.
If you need power, a diesel is definitely the way to go. But how do you know if you really need the horsepower of a diesel engine? Well, first you need to consider what kind of hunting or fishing you do and where those pursuits will take you. Some folks get caught up with wanting all the power a diesel delivers. Others find that the sound of the engine is reason enough to buy one. As ridiculous as that is, it’s the truth.
Here are the benefits and drawbacks of owning a diesel, and which truck you should buy if you select a diesel pickup.
What Exactly Is a Diesel Engine?
While an engineer could probably talk for hours on the history and evolution of the diesel engine, let’s stick to the basics. In 1892, Rudolf Diesel, a French-born German engineer, received a patent for a unique internal combustion engine that was efficient and also cut out electrical sparks from the combustion process, relying instead on heat and pressure to ignite fuel and generate power.
Today, his engine design powers everything from trains to naval submarines to pickup trucks. Features like turbochargers and intercoolers have been added since Diesel’s invention, but the basis for the engine remains the same.
The Difference Between Diesel and Gas Engines
In terms of design, diesel engines differ from their gasoline counterparts in two main ways: fuel and engine ignition. To understand the key differences, we need to understand the critical basics of both. Gas and diesel engines burn fuel inside their individual cylinders, using the same basic steps to get the job done. The key difference between the two comes at the beginning of the process. (For simplicity, we will be focusing on the modern four-stroke engine design.)
When gasoline enters the cylinder of a conventional engine, it comes in mixed with air via either the electronic fuel injection system or carburetor. The inlet valves close, and the air-fuel mixture is then compressed as a piston moves up, increasing pressure and temperature. The spark plug ignites the mix and propels the piston inside the cylinder down, generating power at the driveshaft attached to the piston.
In contrast, diesel engines force air into the cylinder and inject the fuel directly into the cylinder, eliminating the pre-mixing step. After the inlet valves close, the piston moves up inside the cylinder, compressing the air and creating a much higher level of air pressure inside the cylinder compared to a gasoline engine’s cylinder.
In very quick succession, this pressure increase transforms diesel fuel from liquid to vapor and dramatically heats up the air (usually somewhere around 400 degrees), igniting the newly-created air-fuel mixture. This explosion then forces the piston down, turning the driveshaft and creating power. By skipping the pre-mixing process, and the use of spark plugs, diesel engines require fewer parts and energy to start and stay running, making them more efficient than their gasoline competitors.
Diesel Engine Advantages
Diesel trucks have some distinct advantages over their gas-powered brethren. Diesels generate more power than gas engines, giving them a decided advantage in towing capacity while using less fuel per mile. Many modern diesels come with a turbocharger which provides the added advantage of preserving horsepower at high altitudes, something naturally-aspirated gasoline engines often struggle to do.
Due to their design, diesel engines tend to last quite a bit longer than gasoline engines and usually do so with fewer repairs and tune-ups. Over the long haul, this translates to lower ownership costs compared to a conventional pickup, although the payoff usually only kicks in once you’ve racked up between 100,000 and 200,000 miles. But there’s still plenty of life left in a your diesel engine once it gets to this point. In fact, the engine may last longer than the frame of your truck. If and when the time comes to sell, diesel trucks hold their value better than identical gasoline-powered trucks.
Of course, no engine is perfect, and diesel trucks do come with their fair share of drawbacks. Most obviously, diesel-powered pickups are louder and dirtier than gas engine trucks, and not all gas stations sell diesel fuel. Diesel engines weigh more than comparable gasoline engines, decreasing a truck’s practical payload capacity, and they generate lower horsepower than conventional engines (despite their higher torque output), which increases their acceleration times. Weather can also limit their practicality at low temperatures, as cold can increase the time it takes to start an unmodified engine, especially in older trucks.
Diesel ownership comes with some extra fees as well. Diesel fuel usually costs more than premium gasoline, thanks in large part to various government-imposed taxes. Maintenance and repair costs tend to be higher for diesels than gas engines, because parts are more scarce. For example, full-size gas trucks rarely sport turbochargers or intercoolers. Lastly, diesel trucks usually cost more to buy, especially used, because the demand is high but inventory is low.
Trucks are tools, not toys. Many people select a vehicle based on looks, sound, creature comforts, brand loyalty, etc. But buying a truck is serious business. Like a good hunting rifle or shotgun, a truck is a tool designed to do a particular job, and picking the right one requires some careful thought and consideration.
When deciding whether to pick a diesel truck as your next hunting rig, take some time to consider what job you need it to accomplish. While multiple factors will play into every specific situation, the most important factor to consider when choosing between a gas or diesel pickup is how much and how often you plan to tow. If all you need is a reliable off-roader that can transport you and a buddy to deer camp with maybe the occasional pop up in tow, then a gas-powered mid-size or half-ton pickup should do the job. However, if you plan to hunt elk on horseback high up in the Rockies, then you likely ought to consider a diesel-powered truck to tow a trailer full of gear and horses.
Read Next: How to Build the Ultimate Hunting Truck
Traditionally, Dodge diesels have been ultra-reliable thanks to their Cummins engines, which will last over 300,000 miles. Within the past decade, Ram also upped the ante with its 2500 and 3500 trucks, replacing standard Chrysler transmissions with a tough, durable, and reliable ZF eight-speed gearbox (part of ZF’s 8HP series) or the rare, top-notch six-speed option from Aisin.
Despite more horsepower and slightly higher payload and towing ratings than the Ram, the newest generation of the Ford Super Duty has struggled with some reports of the front end “death wobble” at highway speeds. GM’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra fail to meet the payload, towing capacity, horsepower, and torque numbers offered by either Ford or Ram. The 2021 Ram 1500 also earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick due to its crash-test performance, which means the 2500 and 3500 also will perform well should the worst-case scenario occur.
Choosing the best used diesel truck is much like choosing a favorite gun. GM’s LB7 Duramax offered in the first generation of Silverados and Sierras has earned high praise from owners and pundits as has the 5.9-liter Cummins in the Dodge Rams of 2003 to 2007. As strong as these trucks are, I’d spend my money on the Ford 1999.5 to 2003 F-250 and F-350 Super Duty with the 7.3-liter Powerstroke diesel.
The first generation of Ford’s F-Series Super Duty was built to last with limited issues as they age, but the 7.3 Powerstroke, which was discontinued for the 2004 model year, earns higher accolades than any other diesel with the exception of Dodge’s 5.9-liter Cummins. That said, older Rams come with a number of issues (body rust and corrosion chief among them) that the Ford simply doesn’t have, and finding replacement and aftermarket parts for a Ford truck is far easier. Overall, the Ford provides a better package with fewer issues than the Dodge and an engine with a better reputation than the GM’s Duramax.