February 11, 2019
It’s been 13 years. That’s how long it took to draw a pronghorn tag in my home state. This time I would hunt with a muzzleloader. Solo. In the backcountry, on public land and primitive roads.
And that meant I needed new tires. As soon as that realization struck, I realized my two-year-old Ford F-150 pickup truck was going to be my rolling home and office for a week or more in August. It was time to up my pickup game.
Where the rubber meets the road, I opted for the Nitto EXO Grappler, a 10-ply tire with an E-rating. Winter performance is especially critical, but for a summertime desert hunt, I was interested in the variable-pitch tread blocks for quiet highway driving and gear-shaped block edges to reduce stone retention. The sidewall lugs offer additional strength and resistance to punctures.
Out here in the West we like to drive, and as DIY public-land hunters and fishermen, we can turn our wheels into ultimate backcountry rigs. We need that pickup or car or SUV to serve as kitchen, workshop and lockable storage, and it needs to carry the horsepower to motivate us into the deserts and mountains.
With just a few weeks to go before I was to pack muzzleloader and possibles into the truck, here are the steps I made to transform the F-150 into a desert-running rig and a look at what you might do to customize your own self-sufficient ride.
Fuel stations are few and far between in southeast Oregon. On my last antelope hunt, we carried extra cans of gas. This time, I have a 36-gallon tank, giving me a range of about 660 miles between visits to the pumps. If you order a new pickup, opt for the extra-capacity fuel tank or a second tank. Most vehicles have the capacity to swap out for a bigger tank, but the easiest way is to just buy cans and strap them on the bumper. Put a lock on the cans.
In the days before I had lockable storage in the pickup, I packed gear on top of gear and had to sort through luggage to find ammunition. With locking slide-out drawers in the bed, the gear is out of sight and protected from the weather. When I open a Truck Vault drawer, I find everything the way I packed it, neat and organized. One of the benefits of these lockable storage systems is I keep guns, tackle and ammunition out of the passenger compartment, leaving room for passengers. What a concept!
When there is dinner to cook or game to cut up or a game of poker to play on the tailgate, task lighting comes in quite handy. Check out the present generation of LED lights to install interior lighting, pickup bed lighting and side lights. Pack a headlamp for tasks that take place away from the vehicle.
One of my favorite interior mods is the Bino Dock. Every day of the year I have a binocular as close as the nearest cup holder. I used to keep a monocular in the glovebox. No more. Sometimes I would leave the bino on the dash. Not anymore. I have a dedicated binocular within reach.
On a hunt, try to bring one cooler for food and the other cooler with ice for boned-out game. The game cooler can be loaded with drinking water until there is meat to swap in. Try to keep the meat out of the ice. As ice melts, meat left in the water can spoil. Instead, put a barrier between the ice and the meat. Cardboard, plastic bags and Styrofoam can leach chemicals into the meat. A better idea is to use a food-safe foam rubber insert like the Kooler Cap (koolercap.com).
What I pack in the kitchen, which is really just a large lockable storage container, depends on who I’m cooking for. If it’s just me, I’ll have a Stryker stove from Camp Chef, useful for heating up pre-made meals I bring from home. The kitchen will also have fully cooked, self-heating meals such as Omeals. I like the single serving oatmeal for a quick breakfast. An assortment of snacks will get me through the middle of the day. And for cleanup, I bring Hunter’s EcoSoap, a brush, latex gloves and garbage bags.
On a summer night in the desert, I like to sleep out beneath the stars, but that doesn’t mean sleeping on the ground. Nope. I use a 4-inch-thick foam mattress. It stays rolled up inside the vehicle until I need it. Laid out in the bed of the pickup in my Alps Outdoorz sleeping bag, I’m as comfortable as if I were at home. If rain is in the forecast, I can sleep inside on the back seat.
In the Toolbox
On some of the roads I travel, there might not be another vehicle in sight or coming along for six hours. If I slide off the road or there is a tree to move, a come-along is a good low-cost solution. Other must-have items include a shovel, a flat repair kit, a short 2x6 to support a jack, a fire extinguisher, and, after the first of October, tire chains, in case it snows.
Receiver Hitch Basket
If space is at a premium, install a receiver-hitch rear basket. This is a good place to keep a cooler, water and extra fuel cans. Remember to check the basket when driving through washouts. A rear hitch basket can hang up on sharp contour changes.
Later in the season, the dog will need to start taking long rides in the truck for quail, pheasant and chukar hunts. To keep the upholstery clean, a dog seat cover can is handy. I bring the dog’s beds from home, too, a travel kennel and a soft pad. By keeping the rest of the gear in modular storage, there is room for the dog.
Fishing Rod Storage
On a fishing trip, the fishing time can be increased by leaving the rods strung. PVC rod cases can be fashioned, trimmed and strapped to top rails, allowing reels to be left attached to the rod. To protect rods from theft, consider aluminum rod tubes by Riversmith (riversmith.com).
Look for me out in the desert with the alkali dust billowing behind the truck. It is almost time to fire up this mobile kitchen, bedroom, butcher shop and writing desk. This is what we look forward to year ’round — or, every 13 years or so.
Unlock Your Pickup’s Potential
A lot of times, people get in the backcountry without a complete knowledge of how to use the complex features built into their pickups.
Steve Devere, an elk hunter and truck enthusiast, is the sales manager for Robberson Ford, a dealer in central Oregon. From his unique perspective, he offers these tips for the backcountry hunter.
“A lot of today’s trucks have electronic locking rear ends. When you find yourself in more extreme conditions, it’s a simple activation of that system for optimum traction in mud, sand and snow.” Even in rutted, uneven, low-traction situations, the locking rear end can be a big help.
Devere also recommends using the 360-degree camera if the truck is so equipped, especially in tight conditions, like negotiating a turn or a turnaround on a trail.
“Headed down a steep grade, don’t forget,” Devere cautions, “to use the Hill Descent Control. It maintains the vehicle’s speed and control unless it is overridden by accelerating or braking.
“After dark, remember the task lighting that a lot of late-model trucks are equipped with. Activate the spotlights on the sideview mirrors or the lights hard-mounted into the beds or the third brake light. It’s a big help when you have to get something out of a tote.”
Trouble with trailers? Some late-model vehicles are equipped with backup assist, which can really come in handy when towing a boat or travel trailer.
Devere’s favorite feature, though, is the keypad entry. “The days of putting the keys inside the fuel door are gone,” he said. “Leaving the truck at daylight, you can lock the keys inside and use the keypad to get back in.” Just remember to share the code with the other people in your party.