Dog Wagons, Part 2
September 23, 2010
Further thoughts on "ideal" hunting rigs.
Editor's Note: In the August issue, a New Hampshire reader asked Dave Duffey for recommendations on the best vehicle(s) to transport gun dogs to the field. Dave replied with a discussion of what has served him well over the years, noting that utility and reliability are much more important considerations than newness and fancy extras. He now offers the following additional thoughts.
There are many factors you can come up with that will contribute to the plus and minus, useful or frivolous decisions to be made in seeking out canine friendly, used or new hunting buggies. But it's safe to assume that the bottom line for most everyone is cost and value. At your will, arrive at or discard my conclusions.
Based upon some cursory shopping for a new, versatile landcraft suitable for dog transportation over highway and back roads, any vehicles I considered were well outfitted; and there were no bare, basic, elemental interiors that could be self-customized. They cost between $35,000 and $55,000 per vehicle, depending on non-standard accessories. That was too much for me.
By my best guess, the combined sale or trade-in worth of my three decent looking, well-functioning vehicles, with 270,000 combined miles, might be $9,000, give or take a few hundred each way. I've also saved on car insurance cost by owning three well-used cars vs. a single brand new vehicle.
Insurance rates are established when the car is brand new and unless periodically reviewed by the owner, they remain in effect for the life of the car. But the instant your new car is driven off the lot, it depreciates. And right along with that standard loss, your coverage skids as well.
The roads are crowded with vehicles assessed at their new car rate. But if serious accidents occur, owners don't recoup anywhere near what they paid for their new car. So when a several-years-old vehicle is totalled, you receive only the amount your insurer decides it was worth at the time of the crash, which almost certainly isn't going to come close to what it will cost to replace that vehicle.
Should you enjoy auto shopping and still insist on "buying new," however, you ought to be able to "wheel for a good deal," even from a dealer, by buying stock from the lot that remains after next year's models are on the market. Expect the discount to be at least equal to the year's depreciation rate. I lucked out on my 1995 GMC Vanagon, which I bought new in March, 1996, when the current GMC Savannah was replacing the Vanagon.
A dealer had half a dozen or more customized '95s on the lot, but he could not get me a bare-bones or factory customized '96 Savannah. He was amenable to selling a "year old" and outgoing Vanagon for what an almost stripped introductory Savannah would cost.
If memory serves, the Vanagon I picked out had been manufactured in late fall of 1995 and had all the mechanical features of the 1996, the final year of that model. The original sales price was about $35,000. I paid less than $23,000.
As I told the dealer, I really had no use for the abundance of jee-jaws and conveniences in a hunting vehicle. (If I could buy a vehicle without a radio, I would. This one had two radios, a TV, plus sound and soft lighting systems, etc.) Before I stripped it of a lot of the furnishings, with less than 100 miles on it I hit the road for Nebraska, with room enough to carry three dog crates before the captain's seats and electric double-bed rear seat were taken out and stored.
I eventually managed to get in eight dog crates of large to medium size, accessible without shifting any guns and luggage, plus seat two passengers. I could get in 10 crates when both middle captain's seats were also removed--all that room, a comfortable ride and handling for long trips, with or without dogs. A lot of the fancy stuff in it, like Venetian blinds and screened windows, provided handy comfort for parked or moving canine travelers, with no worry about how they were doing because we were all breathing the same air.
For those and other reasons, I'm hanging on to the Vanagon. Depending upon load weight, weather, speed, etc., it runs 13 to 18 mpg, and pulling a dog trailer with one passenger and a load of equipment on board, the small V8 loses about a mile to the gallon.
Something much smaller than this big wagon may do you very well to tote one or two dogs plus your hunting buddy, but also remember that something really compact (and with four wheel drive) is still capable of dragging along a dog trailer. But you won't get the gas mileage you expect.
Back in the middle '80s, my late wife and I made a quail hunting trip from eastern Mississippi to western Kansas, pulling a trailer-load of dogs with a four-cylinder Nissan pickup. The engine strained as the gas mileage fell from an accustomed 26-27 mpg to 15-17. Driving and riding in it was work.
Different preferences in dog haulers are legion. If your hunting style is to slowly troll back roads and trails in a vehicle, a small maneuverable four-wheel-drive rig is certainly most suitable. Likewise, since modern full size pickup trucks now ride and handle so well, probably one- to three-dog owners will be happy with them.
Regardless of their off-road capabilities, I don't often drive highway suitable vehicles across roadless fields or on tote trails. When training or hunting I drive to a destination, park in a safe place and, one or two at a time, take out and walk the dogs I'm working. Hence, my preference for closed vans that are roomy and dog accessible through multiple doors.
(Dogs loose inside a vehicle or in a pickup box are an anathema, dangerous to people and themselves, so use dog crates for travel in anything.)
Since accessibility to dogs or stuff in the pi
ckup box is often difficult (particularly for old geezers like me) you probably shouldn't consider a regular cab pickup. Even if you have to put up with a short box, extended cabs will increase not only seating room, but will also furnish weather protected room for equipment, travel gear and guns.
Long wheelbase trucks ride better than short-coupled ones, but they are not as maneuverable. Four-wheel-drive, desirable as it may be, will bump up the purchase price and the cost of driving without appreciable difference in its on-road ability to haul and tow.
Should you be single or have a small family, you might be interested in something that will double as your hunting car and as an extra passenger vehicle. I think I have the answer. But don't be put off by my brand name mention. Look over comparable styles and models, then go with your taste, choice or gut feeling.
(I typically don't evaluate equipment or gear or gun dog breeds unless I've had considerable personal experience with the subject. I do bless editors who permit reliable observers and evaluators to offer opinions, however. So please pardon the specifics used to offer a guideline in your search.)
Your starting pick for a very compact but comparatively roomy and economical mini-van that can handle at least one large and a couple of medium sized dog crates behind an engaged folding back seat, which can accommodate three passengers, is the Pontiac Vibe. It not only gets high marks from Consumer Reports; my current life partner owns a 2004, front wheel drive model.
It was comfortable on long eastern and western trips, has plenty of zip, cruises or short hops well and gets up to 34 miles per gallon. It's a fine family car that can easily double as a dog hauler for most owners with rear seat up or down.
But when you shop for a new or used vehicle of any similar type, take into consideration the size and number of the travel crates you will utilize. Measure them or take them and a tape or ruler along when you go looking. Style can make interior space--or the lack thereof--deceptive.
All-wheel drive won't be a requirement for large numbers of "dog folks." Perhaps the newer cross-overs (part van, part SUV) are the answer for those who do appreciate power on all the wheels. If I had the dough and had to limit myself to a single vehicle, I see the Toyota Sienna at the head of the line, based solely upon looking at them after reading raves about them in Consumer Reports.
Roomier than SUVs, minis or mid-sizes, available with four-wheel drive, load accessible and claming decent gas mileage, they rate trying something resembling an offroader in ruggedness but with the room, comfort and economy of a good roadrunner that can haul and pull reasonable loads.
If not that, for my purposes I'd opt for the even larger successor to my GMC Vanagon, the GMC Savannah. It has loads of room and has been well tested by a hunting buddy. With a bit of ingenuity he is able to load up all kinds of extraneous gear plus the 10 dog crates of various designs he and his wife usually embark with.
Savannahs are difficult to find used. But he found an excellently maintained one with about 60,000 miles on it for less than half the price of a new one. Van owners are customarily easier on their vehicles than pickup owners.
My comments are meant to provide food for thought and alert you to possibilities. Any car deal is at least partially a game of chance, but here's hoping the above suggestions will help you nail down what you need to get your dogs and yourself safely and economically to the field.