One question I often get asked by hunters is: “What truck should I buy?” I guess since I’m a former car journalist turned outdoor writer, I have some unique perspectives to offer on this topic. The trouble is, nothing you can buy off a showroom floor is even remotely optimized for hunting—that’s something you need to do yourself. Sure, you can buy a stock vehicle and take it in the wild. But in order to get the most out of your truck you should make these aftermarket upgrades.
Start with a Pickup
You know you need a vehicle designed to carry hunting gear, and to do that over rough terrain. So, you already know you need a pickup truck. But which one? Rather than simply apply the label “best” to a single model, let me explain how to figure out which truck will work best for you.
A truck’s job is to perform work. That work being hauling you, your buddies, your dogs, and your stuff. The best way to quantify a truck’s ability to perform that work is with payload. That’s the maximum amount of weight a vehicle is designed to carry, including you, anything you want to bolt to it, and anything or anyone you want to carry. You’ll find a truck’s payload listed on its specs sheet.
Payload should be treated like a budget. And too often, it’s treated like a surprisingly poor one. Some popular pickups like the Toyota Tacoma, or Ford F-150 Raptor only give you 1,100 pounds or so to work with. Add a driver, a few friends, camping gear, enough beer for everyone, and you can spend your entire weight budget before you get a single animal onboard. And exceeding your payload will cause problems. Transmissions will overheat, suspension components may break, warranties will be invalidated, and rollovers can happen. You don’t want any of that stuff to occur, because it will take a major toll on your wallet.
Aside from looking up the payload number for a given model, you’re also going to want to make sure any truck you’re looking at is fitted with four-wheel drive, and if it’s a recent model, electronic off-road driving aids.
Four-wheel drive locks the speed of your front and rear axles together, effectively doubling traction over two-wheel drive. But, doing that still leaves the wheel on each axle with the least traction free to spin. If that sounds like four-wheel drive really only drives two wheels, you’re not wrong. To actually apply power to all four wheels when the going gets slippery, you also need to lock the speeds of each wheel on an axle together. That’s traditionally been achieved with locking axle differentials, but those are expensive, can be a real bear to engage and disengage, and make your truck difficult to turn (rear lockers), or impossible to steer (front lockers). More recently, electronic alternatives that use the anti-lock brake system to tweak individual brake calipers (to quickly replicate the effects of locking axle differentials) have been proving not only easier to use, but also more effective. They’re cheaper too, and you’ll find them included on most new trucks with any sort of off-road ambitions.
A lot of people dislike, or simply don’t understand those electronic traction aids because most truck makers force them to work overtime to make up for the entirely inadequate tires they’re forced to fit to most trucks, in an effort to meet corporate average fuel economy standards. Without enough tire grip, the electronics end up causing all sorts of lurching and awful sounds in order to find a way forward. The first thing you’re going to want to add to any vehicle destined for dirt is some good rubber.
Because all of us have to spend more time on pavement than we do the fun stuff, I’m going to suggest that the vast majority of you look for a quality all-terrain, rather than mud-terrain tire. The former is going to work as well on the road, in rain or snow, as it will off-road. Fortunately, there’s a new generation of extremely capable A/T tires that’s taking dirt traction further than ever before without sacrificing road manners. And that’s best embodied by both the Toyo Open Country ATIII, and the Falken Wildpeak AT3W. Just figure out what tire size you want to run, and buy whichever of those models is lightest in that size.
The relative weight of a tire is important because that weight moves up and down over every bump, and more inertia in those movements can dramatically worsen ride quality. More weight also adds inertia that must be overcome in order to accelerate or decelerate a spinning tire, impairing both braking and acceleration. You’ll find weights for each individual size and load rating a tire can be found on the manufacturer’s website.
Whatever tire you end up with, or are stuck with for right now, you’re going to need to alter its pressures. At higher speeds on-road, high pressures help keep a tire safely seated on the wheel, and prevent it from overheating. Off-road, decreasing the pressure helps absorb bumps, improving ride quality, and lengthens the tire’s footprint, dramatically increasing traction. With potentially larger A/T tires, you’re likely going to end up running something around 40 pounds per square inch on pavement. Off-road, 20 PSI is a good starting point. You can safely go as low as 10 so long as you’re not bouncing off-rocks.
How do you inflate and deflate tires without wasting an hour every time you need to do it? You’ll need two tools: an InDeflate, and portable air compressor. Depending on the model, the InDeflate connects two or four of your tires to a single gauge, deflator, and Schrader valve. This enables you to rapidly dump air out of the tires, or to connect a compressor and inflate those tires simultaneously. And it performs both tasks while matching tire pressures, helping keep your truck’s handling consistent after performing either task. A good starting place for a quality air compressor is with ARB’s single-piston portable unit. The $350 may sting, but this thing is going to work quickly, and keep working essentially forever.
Alright, we’ve gotten you to and from the animals with more reliability, comfort, and confidence. Now what do you do once you’re there? You’re going to want the ability to sleep in your truck (comfortably), keep your food, beer, and ice cold, and you’ll also probably want a place to hang out, work, and get changed that’s out of the weather.
The most common way to add both storage space and shelter to a truck bed is with a topper. But while toppers add secure volume, it also buries essential gear, making it difficult to get to. They do give you a space to sleep out of the weather, but climbing into one is like crawling into a coffin head first.
The most expensive way to add shelter is with a camper. But those are going to eat up most of that payload budget, while compromising both your truck’s ability to make it through challenging trails, and its capacity for things that aren’t amenities.
Fortunately, there’s a solution that draws from the best parts of both topper and campers, resulting in something uniquely practical. Go Fast Campers are made just outside of Bozeman, Montana, and couldn’t prove more suitable for hunting if they’d been purpose designed for the job. Built on top of a tubular steel space frame chassis, a pop-up tent provides a rooftop sleeping area, while lift panels wrap the entire perimeter of the bed, allowing uncompromised access. The best part is they start out around 275 pounds (depending on the size of your truck), leaving as much payload available as possible.
Remove one half of the full-width, two-person sleeping surface, and you’re left with a bunk above your truck bed, along with standing height room to change, cook, or work inside.
Using a truck as a hunting base camp also creates the potential to add some comfort, time-saving, and meat-preserving features it would prove impossible to bring along if you had to carry them on your back. So far as I can tell, the only reason more hunters don’t take advantage of this stuff is because they don’t know it exists.
The first of those is a portable fridge-freezer. While not quite large enough (yet) to carry a quartered deer or elk, a portable fridge-freezer can keep block ice frozen indefinitely, allowing you to load it into a cooler for a long drive home, at the coldest temperature possible. They’re also ideal for bringing along good food, secure in the knowledge that it’ll remain safe, at a set temperature, indefinitely.
And while a tailgate may be a great place to process an animal, it’s going to be a whole lot more useful if you can see it with something more than a headlamp.
And man, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to cook a meal, drink a beer, or cut up that deer out of the rain?
My own quest to combine payload with off-road capability led me to a new Ford Ranger. Even in its heaviest format (a four-door cab with four-wheel drive), that still gives me 1,600 pounds of stuff I can carry, combined with the latest electronic traction aids, along with a turbocharged engine that doesn’t lose power at altitude (an important consideration if you live and hunt in the mountains).
To add even more sheltered space to my Go Fast Camper, I attached an Eezi-Awn Bat 270 awning, which provides an additional 7 feet of coverage around one side, and the rear of the camper. Inside the camper’s lift panels, I also added an affordable LED camp lighting setup from Truckparts.Parts, which illuminates not just the bed, but the entire area under that awning.
I also mounted two 100-watt solar panels to the roof of that camper, and ran the wiring down into the bed, and into a Dometic PLB40 portable battery. Its lithium iron phosphate chemistry is purpose-designed to match the power needs of a large portable fridge-freezer. I use mine to power a 95-liter Dometic CFX3, which gives me two separate compartments that can be set to different temperatures. I use half the space to bring along fresh food, and the other half to keep block ice frozen solid.
Such a compact truck only makes room for a five-foot bed behind the two-row cab, so I’ve had to make careful use of the little space available. A 10-gallon upright water tank mounts flush to the front of the bed. At two inches thick, it barely takes up any room, but gives me running water from a hose that reaches back to my tailgate. Whether it’s washing hands, pouring fresh water for morning coffee, or rinsing off an elk quarter—it’s a useful tool.
Then, behind the water tank, that big fridge-freezer rides on one side of the bed, and a stack of Frontrunner Wolf Packs takes up the front quarter of the other side, and carries recovery gear, tools, camp stuff, and dog supplies. That leaves just enough room for a Rubbermaid Action Packer full of kitchen tools on one side, and a Yeti 210 on the other.
That’s how my truck sits in the driveway during hunting season, ready to go for another weekend in the mountains. Friday night I’ll pull up to the trailhead, pop my camper open, extend the awning, and cook dinner inside what amounts to my own personal hunting cabana. And if all goes according to plan, I’ll be back at the truck sometime late the next day, trimming venison and packing it alongside rock-hard ice into that giant cooler.