There’s an old joke about people confessing their sins out loud in church, where the preacher encourages the congregation to “Tell it all, brother!” This goes well until one of the men, in the enthusiasm of the moment, shares too much information. The preacher replies, “I wouldn’t have told that, brother!”
I’m about to confess something I might wish I hadn’t told: I gave my pickup truck to my teenagers and bought a compact crossover.
Whatever you might think of this, I have no regrets. Since buying my new vehicle, I’ve come to find additional benefits I didn’t expect as I’ve tested it out for various hunting, fishing, and outdoor trips. I’d make the same choice again if I had it to do over. There may be other outdoorsmen like me, who have toyed with the idea of downsizing and could use the encouragement. And I’m here to tell you: Make the switch.
My 2000 Chevrolet Silverado is a great truck. I put 15 years and 205,000 miles on it (with no major mechanical problems) before turning the keys over to my son, Jake, when he turned 16. He has since passed it to his sister Laurel when she turned 16. And this year, on her 16th birthday, my daughter Julia will receive the keys.
That Chevy took me on many outdoor adventures. But when it came time for me to seek a new vehicle, I had new priorities in my shopping: affordability and fuel efficiency. Both priorities help me save money, but also I personally want to reduce my consumption of fossil fuels. You may disagree with me on the importance of fuel economy, and that’s fine—these are my personal vehicle priorities. We all have them. For many of us, a vehicle is a lifestyle statement. I’m at an age where I’m less concerned about signifying my lifestyle to other drivers on the highway than I am about my gas bill.
Pickup trucks keep getting bigger in both physical size and, of course, price tag. It surprises me how difficult it is these day to find a modest-sized pickup, while it is more and more common to see pickups that are only slightly scaled down from a tractor trailer. The average weight of pickup trucks has increased more than 30 percent since I bought my Chevy in 2000. With that astounding size comes poor fuel economy.
So, I studied the available compact pickups. While I found some with a decent price, I was surprised that none of them came with great fuel economy. Next, I searched compact “crossovers” with two characteristics in mind: great fuel economy and great performance in actual off-road use. It’s easy to build a sporty vehicle that looks like it belongs to an outdoorsy person, and many companies have. Building one that actually performs well on a rough or muddy road is another matter.
Combining these features, one vehicle kept coming up in my searches: the Subaru Forester. Long story short, I’m now the owner of a Forester. And I love it. In fact, I feel like I made an even better decision than I thought I was making when I signed the papers. My hunting buddies raised a few eyebrows at first, but after a weekend in deer camp with me and my new vehicle, one of them christened it “The Deer Wagon.”
I’m not here to talk about brands. There are other crossovers and small vehicles that offer the benefits I want to share. I’m here to testify that opting for such a vehicle to save money and burn less fuel does not mean you give up your “hunting vehicle.” When people ask me why I bought the Deer Wagon, I tell them there are 32 reasons, and all of them are miles per gallon. But beyond the savings, I had a lot of concerns about how this crossover would adapt to a hunting lifestyle. Let’s see how those turned out.
The reason the Forester kept coming up in my search is its symmetrical all-wheel drive. It’s in four-wheel drive all the time. More than that, though, the Deer Wagon monitors traction in each wheel and, in slick conditions, redirects power to the wheels that are getting the most grip. Whether I’m on a slick, muddy road at the hunting club or a slick, icy road on the way to the Archery Trade Association show, I’m good to go. I’ve tested the Deer Wagon in serious mud, the kinds of holes and ruts where I would have paused the Silverado and engaged 4-wheel drive. I’ve found the Deer Wagon crawls right on through with no problem. So far, I’m confident it would handle all but the worst mudholes my Silverado could manage—as long as I’m smart about how I negotiate the mud and I’m not actually trying to get stuck. I get the sense that having a much lighter vehicle is a factor here. The Deer Wagon seems to be able to creep lightly where full-size pickups sink and plow. And believe it or not, the Deer Wagon actually has a higher ground clearance than my Silverado does. I bought a set of Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail tires that have performed extremely well off-road without impacting gas mileage or the highway ride.
Yes, giving up the bed of my pickup was painful. It’s so nice to be able throw bloody, muddy, or bulky objects and gear into the bed of a pickup. To solve this problem, I bought an after-market trailer hitch, installed it myself on the Deer Wagon, and added a bumper rack that easily mounts on the trailer hitch. For travel to hunting camp, I strap coolers, stands, storage boxes and other bulky gear to the rack. Once I’m at camp, I use the rack to transport deer, fertilizer bags, muddy boots, and other gear around the woods. I also bought after-market rails for my roof rack that support more weight. It takes me about 10 minutes to load my Vibe fishing kayak on the roof and strap it down for the road.
No, I can’t haul a cord of firewood in the cargo area or on the bumper rack, but I can borrow or buy a trailer if I need one. And I could buy a fleet of trailers for the money I saved—and go on saving in gas mileage—by not buying a full-size pickup.
Something I wasn’t expecting is how incredibly quiet the Deer Wagon is when driving along dirt roads on the way to the stand. In fact, my hunting partners and I noticed the Deer Wagon actually makes less noise than an electric hunting buggy, a vehicle that’s battery-powered for the express purpose of being quiet! Though the motor on the buggy is quiet, the rest of the vehicle makes all kinds of squeaks, rattles, and vibrations. Not the Deer Wagon. Its engine is barely audible when it’s moving slowly along woods roads—unlike the pickups my friends and family drive. So, when considering hunting pressure, the Deer Wagon is about as low-impact as it gets.
Nimble Turning Radius
Like most crossovers, my Deer Wagon has a super-short turning radius. It’s even easier to turn around than the electric hunting buggy. I’ve turned it around in narrow forest roads where you could never hope to rotate a full-sized pickup, and certainly not today’s behemoth crew cabs.
And on this note, though not an “outdoor” factor, let me share a special joy I never knew I was missing when I drove an extended-cab pickup: parking! No more heading way out in the desolate reaches of the Bass Pro Shops parking lot where you have room to maneuver into and out of a space. No more careful reading of height limits on parking decks or sweating through turns around concrete support columns. No more shifting 47 times from Reverse to Drive to Reverse to shuffle your way out from between other trucks that parked too close. Now, I smile every time I whip in and out of a parking space close to the building.
The Long Haul
The Deer Wagon is great off-road, but it’s also great on the highway. I love the smooth, quiet ride compared to my old pickup. Since my primary hunting areas are a minimum of three hours from home, this makes those drives much more pleasant—and less costly when it comes to fuel. Whether I’m hauling a deer out of the woods or hauling kids to school, I’m enjoying the ride. I never expected that to be possible in a vehicle that was also affordable and gets great gas mileage.
Yes, there are disadvantages to giving up my Silverado. For one thing, the Deer Wagon is a little homely. One reviewer of the Subaru Forester described its appearance as “refreshingly dorky.” I won’t be cruising the strip on the weekends, but for this family man, there’s not a vehicle made that can help me there. I’ll wear “refreshingly dorky” and consider it a win, especially since I’m a debt-free dork.
I know there are plenty of hunters who love their pickups, will always love their pickups, and will never drive anything else. I’m not trying to convert you. I love my pickup too. If they made a decent one that cost what I paid for the Deer Wagon and got 32 mpg, I’d still drive one every day. But if you’re like me and share my priorities—savings and fuel economy—consider these other benefits of compact crossovers that I’ve discovered. You can downsize your loan payments and your fuel budget significantly and still own a great hunting vehicle.
Also, you’ll get a lot fewer invitations to help your friends move furniture.