Outdoor truck talk from an expert

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Linda Water Nelson has spent more than 30 years writing about the automotive industry, more than half of that in the outdoor field. For more than 11 years, she authored a regular column as sports vehicle editor for Texas Fish & Game magazine and its online site, as well as speaking regularly to outdoor enthusiasts.

“Show me an outdoorsman and I’ll show you a truck.” That little maxim came up during lunchtime banter at the Outdoor Writers Association of America meeting last summer in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was just the cue Linda Water Nelson needed to assert her expertise. Nelson, of Austin, Texas, has written about the automotive industry for more than 30 years, mostly in the outdoor field, including an 11-year run as columnist with Texas Fish & Game magazine.

When Nelson and I struck up a side-conversation, I told her that where I come from outdoor folks use their trucks to haul everything from hunting dogs to a week’s worth of firewood. She nodded her understanding when I said truck owners around here deal with steep terrain, rough back roads, and heavy snow.

Nelson’s knowledge of woods-worthy vehicles and applications was impressive, so I posed the idea of an interview that might prove useful to local hunters, anglers, campers, or boaters in the market for a truck or 4WD. Nelson was enthusiastic. My own mechanical expertise amounts to “turn the key and hope,” so any gaps in the information are due to my lack of command of pertinent questions.

Moyer: What new models are good choices for outdoorsmen in mountainous terrain and a snowy climate?

Nelson: Truth be told, there are no bad new trucks today. No manufacturer could afford it. Virtually all new 4WD pickups, and most similarly equipped SUVs, are designed to do the job in mountainous and snowy terrain. I generally don’t recommend all-wheel-drive as a substitute.

The manufacturers— Ford F-Series, RAM, Chevy and its stablemate GMC, Toyota, and Nissan — have spent huge amounts on development because consumers are so demanding in fleet, outdoor, and work categories.

Toyota has a new truck on the near horizon. Their chief engineer, Mike Sweers, has lots of surprises up his sleeve for Tundra, Sequoia, Tacoma and 4Runner, I’m sure, as they look toward a new generation of outdoor-oriented trucks. Nissan has discontinued their Titan XD diesel truck but is committed to their truck customer. I would love to see a redesigned Frontier, and so would the consumer.

For actual specifics on how a truck performs on certain terrain, I always recommend info from owner forums for a brand or model and online comments. For new vehicles, check online articles and drive reviews by writers in the region or nationally. They are frank and honest.

Outdoor enthusiasts are very lucky that commercial buyers often run their vehicles 24/7 because that’s what they are designed to do. Commercial buyers look at the cost of long-term maintenance and life cycle cost, so that’s important, too. Fuel efficiency improvements can also be attributed to that. The old “six gallons to the mile” scenario is fiction these days, even in heavy duty trucks with major towing capacity.

There is a price to pay, though. Although some vehicles are dramatically discounted these days, new truck prices can make hearts skip a beat. Typically, outdoor people buy used trucks and SUVs, but they hold their value better than other vehicles. There are few bargains for recreational vehicles in good condition.

Moyer: Many truck makers tout their “locking rear differential” on 4WD models. How important is this feature?

Nelson: Many people don’t understand rear locking differential since it has become a buzzword. Simply explained, it is a feature that allows both rear wheels to act as though both are connected on a common shaft and act in unison, regardless of the traction under either wheel separately. A locked differential can provide a considerable traction advantage. It’s standard on virtually all new 4WD trucks and many late model ones. There are only a few disadvantages, like increased tire wear and, on ice, an automatic locking differential can sometimes cause loss of some control. For example, if a vehicle is parked on a slippery grade it can break traction and slide down the grade if both rear wheels spin. I would take a vehicle with rear traction control over a vehicle without.

Moyer: Hunters and fishermen pack a lot of gear, and a lot of buddies. What trucks offer adequate room for gear storage and passenger comfort in the cab?

Nelson: Storage space is adequate and growing in virtually any truck or larger SUV. And there are lots of creative solutions in the aftermarket, too. Searching online resources using terms like “vehicle storage” for hunting, fishing, outdoor vehicles provide incredible sources you might never have heard of. Truck makers like RAM offer locking boxes mounted to the exterior sides of the truck box that are long enough to transport most long guns or fishing rods.

Moyer: How about towing? What new models are well equipped to pull boats, trailers and other equipment over hilly roads?

Nelson: Towing capacities continue to rise but I discourage people from buying more than they need. It’s not uncommon for outdoor people to say that they are buying towing capacity that accommodates their anticipated next bigger boat. Increased towing capacity translates to more cost for the vehicle. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. I recommend loading up the vehicle with everything you would take along seasonally, including people, and anything that you will be towing. Then take the entire load to a weigh station. Know the gross vehicle weight information for your specific vehicle and model and see how they stack up. This pro-active step helps to avoid weight-related problems on the road.

Moyer: Outdoorsmen tend to be more interested in utility and economy than in hi-tech and fashion. But, that said, what new tech features might hunters and anglers find useful?

Nelson: Ram brand — the old Dodge — has overtaken some of their big competitors with new product that is very popular. When it comes to addressing communication, they can boast the largest easy-to-read vertical screen available in the cab. Jeep’s new Gladiator — a Wrangler with a cab — is catching a lot of attention. Ford has a technology that makes it foolproof to match up a vehicle and trailer easily without a spotter the very first time. GM has a new camera-based tow feature, too, although I haven’t experienced it yet.

There is not a single bad pickup in the market today. Since they offer some of the highest profit margins in vehicles, there is constant development going on. Some of my favorite new features are less obvious than new paint colors and exotic wood interior elements. These relate to safety and communications, which can have a huge impact on the owner/driver experience. Drive-assist technology with blind spot detection, occupant safety protection, accident avoidance, and similar things are special. They are a good value, too.

Most features are software driven, so tweaks can be done by the dealer without waiting for parts. I strongly encourage truck owners — particularly those who were not the original purchaser — to routinely go to www.nhtsa.gov/recall. Only the original buyer of the vehicle gets a recall notice but knowing about it could save your life. Recall repairs are always no charge.

Moyer: What about tires? Do the factory-mounted tires on most trucks serve outdoorsmen well? Or, are owners better off seeking tires that fit their needs after the purchase?

Nelson: The tires that are originally on the vehicle were chosen by specialists who understand all the systems and dynamics that were engineered in the vehicle itself. Replacing them with the same type is fine. If there are newer high performance tires available to substitute, the truck dealer or a brand name tire dealer — no off brands — is the best resource Take no chances on replacements. Life threatening circumstances could be the result. Don’t skimp on price of replacement tires for either vehicle or trailer. Cheap tires are never a bargain.

Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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