Many people buy cars with one purpose in mind: to get out into nature. In North America, you practically need a car to take nature trips; and if driving into forests is your goal, you’ll probably want an SUV. Novice drivers and nature lovers face two main questions: which car to get, and how to behave while you’re using it.
This article discusses what you need in an SUV for driving in the wilderness, how to be respectful while you’re out there, and which SUVs are both effective and affordable.
What You Need in a Nature SUV
Clearance is the distance between the road and the lowest part of your car, an important consideration if you expect to go off-road or into nature. Once you leave the city behind, there’s a good chance you’ll run over uneven ground or rocks and other debris. If debris hits the bottom of your car with enough force, you could get a punctured oil pan or worse.
Sedans generally have a clearance of five or six inches, SUVs of at least seven or eight inches. That may not sound like much. But those extra couple of inches can make a big difference, and they are a major reason that nature lovers favor SUVs.
Most people know about revolutions per minute (RPM), i.e., how fast the wheels of a car turn. Another important rating is torque, which refers to the strength of rotation. Think of it as the difference between throwing a beach ball and pushing it forward. If you are throwing the ball, it will go faster, but it will bounce off of a small obstacle. If you are pushing the ball, it will shove small obstacles out of the way.
The same principle applies to the wheels of your car. With a high RPM, the wheels can move fast; with a high torque, they can climb a mountain.
All Wheel Drive and Four-Wheel Drive
Even during the driest days of summer, the outdoors is often slippery. Mud, dirt, sand, and steep hills can make it hard for a car to retain its grip on the road. Holding on gets even harder when there’s a lot of rain or snow.
The differences between four-wheel drive and all-wheel are technical. What you need to know is that all-wheel drive is designed primarily for slippery on-road conditions, four-wheel drive for off-road conditions. Many modern SUVs can toggle between the two. Except in the worst conditions, though, a pair of snow tires should make all-wheel drive as useful as four-wheel drive.
Storage Space and Top Racks
You may be looking for more than a simple hike. Kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, and camping are all fun options, and all of them may require more space than the back of a given SUV provides. So if there’s any chance that you will need to lug a canoe or enough camping gear for a whole family, either make sure that the SUV you choose has a top rack or top bag or that you can afford to get one.
How to Be a Friend to Nature
If you’re going out into nature, you need to know how to treat it right. This pertains to everything from your choice of car to how you treat nature once you’re in the middle of it.
Mileage, Emissions, Maintenance, and Sustainability
As I’ve noted in [another article] [link to my “Environmentalism and Your Ride” article], nature-loving drivers face a quandary. The power and weight of SUVs results in both lower gas mileage and more emissions. (Not to mention the resources that go into making them.)
With these considerations in mind, it’s wise to keep your car in good condition so that it doesn’t use more gas than necessary. It’s bad for the environment to leak oil or other fluids in a parking lot; the leaked fluid will eventually make its way to the water table and poison the forest. Also make sure that the model you choose has no unnecessary junk weighing it down. A [Hummer][link to my article about the Hummer EV], for example, is a terrible choice if you care about the environment.
If you have friends who want to join you, consider carpooling. Every person you bring along with you reduces total emissions.
Get a Used Vehicle
Unless you can afford an electric SUV or an SUV with extremely high gas mileage, it is probably best to get a used SUV. For one thing, doing so avoids the expenditure of more raw material. And since SUVs see a lot of use, you won’t feel as bad about scraping together $5,000 for a used vehicle as you would $30,000 for a new one.
Leave No Trace
The mantra of hikers and campers is “leave no trace.” This means:
- Anything you bring into an area, be sure to take out with you. Don’t leave behind any trash, junk, or children.
- Be careful with your gear. Don’t carelessly damage anything on your way up.
- Don’t damage the environment while you’re there or change anything at all.
It’s the last two counsels that people often forget. Moving rocks disturbs the soil and makes the area more prone to erosion. Disturbing rocks also disturbs fragile vegetation and micro ecosystems.
Treat visiting nature like a stealth game. If anyone can tell that you were there, you did it wrong.
Now that you know something about how to be a good nature traveler and what you need in a nature-going vehicle, let’s consider specific recommendations for an SUV.
The Subaru Forester, Subaru Outback, and Subaru Crosstrek
In any list of the best SUVs for nature lovers, the Forester and Outback must be near the top. One reason is that Subaru has spent a lot of time marketing their SUVs to nature lovers. But the main reason is their effectiveness.
The Forester and the Outback both have built-in all-wheel drive, great storage space, and good mileage for the cost; and they are tough and reliable. The main difference is size. The Outback is longer and wider; the Forester is taller. Which is better for you depends on your needs. If you want an SUV that is smaller than either, the Subaru Crosstrek is a good bet.
The Toyota RAV4
Toyota is Subaru’s main competitor in this category of vehicle. One benefit of the RAV4 is that you can find it just about anywhere. The RAV4 is reliable—though not as reliable as the Forester, Outback, and Crosstrek—and it handles well in off-road situations. The RAV4 also tends to be cheaper. But the Subaru models last longer, handing their years much better than RAV4s do.
The Honda Passport and the Honda CR-V
The Honda Passport and the Honda CR-V are beloved for their comfort, size, and smoothness. Their mileage is good, they’re extremely reliable, and, although not quite as strong off-road as the models described above, they are in fact strong enough to handle off-roading and excursions into nature.