I had a reader named Noah write from Los Angeles recently with a couple of car-advice questions.
Number one: I want to get to more remote beaches, campsites, and trailheads, plus snowy and icy roads around Mammoth in the winter. I test drove the Ford Ranger on your recommendation, but that may not be the best fit for driving and parking in a city every day. Will the current Subaru Outback handle light off-roading or are there other crossovers or wagons you’d recommend?
I owned one of the current generation Outbacks for a couple years when I lived in L.A. and had similar needs. It was great in town and on road trips, but ultimately I decided I wanted something with a little more off-road ability.
Fitted with a decent set of lightweight all-terrain tires, the Outback (or any other Subaru crossover—the only thing that differentiates them is size) will handle dirt roads with aplomb. But, if you encounter any sort of obstacle—mud, sand, a washout—you’re not going to be able to get through. And there are a lot of neat places to camp that are on the other side of such obstacles.
If you do ultimately go this route, fit the tires and skid plates I talked about in this article before you take it anywhere. I'd also grab a set of MaxTrax—eventually you will get a Subaru stuck somewhere.
That said, I really think you should reconsider that four-wheel-drive truck. There's a lot of really cool stuff to do in and around Southern California that’s only accessible with a vehicle like this. Plus, something like the Ranger comes with steel bumpers standard, so parking one in L.A. will be easier than it looks. You’ll only be giving up about five miles per gallon thanks to the truck's superior engine and transmission.
Put that Ranger on a quality all-terrain tire like the Cooper Discoverer AT3 LT, and it’ll be about as good a companion in winter driving conditions as you can hope for. I plan to put mine on real winter tires in November, since I live somewhere cold. I know that’s not really practical for trips from L.A. to Mammoth. Those tires will be a good compromise, and the electronic traction aids that come with the Ranger’s FX4 package really do provide substantial capability on snow and ice.
Second question: Do you prefer portable fridge/freezers or rotomolded coolers like Yetis? I don’t have experience with how practical they are.
Hold onto your pants, people, I’m about to talk about some expensive gear. Being able to ditch the ice and digitally program a set temperature are total game changers when it comes to the quality and quantity of food you're able to take camping. Practically speaking, fridges provide more interior volume than rotomolded coolers of the same size, too. But it can be difficult to find a good power source for them.
In most cars and trucks, the standard power outlets stop providing electricity when you switch the vehicle off. And even if you wire up a permanent outlet, the fridge will eventually run your battery down after a night or two. Luckily, Dometic has solved this issue with its new PLB40 battery. That is formulated with a chemistry specifically designed to handle the unique power needs of portable fridges. And, it supports flow through charging, so you can plug it into your vehicle, a wall outlet, or solar panel and charge the battery as it powers the cooler.
I run a very big fridge/freezer—the Dometic CFX75DW—since I need to carry raw meat for 285 pounds of dog, in addition to human supplies like steaks and bottles of champagne. Depending on how hot it is, the PLB40 can keep that thing frozen for about one day, tops. Two if I turn it off at night. So, for longer trips, I’m adding a solar panel to the top of the Go Fast Camper I'm mounting on my truck as we speak. Unlike other batteries, the PLB40 can be plugged directly into that panel, which vastly simplifies the setup. With these cheap Amazon panels, the PLB40 will run that fridge permanently, and require no power from the truck whatsoever.
In fact, I think a truck fitted with a Go Fast Camper, and that solar/battery/fridge setup is going to create the ultimate practical adventure vehicle. And, because the GFC actually works to provide additional, secure cargo space, this setup would be great for street parking in L.A. Day-to-day, you’ll be able to enjoy a practical, luxurious, fast vehicle. Then, on weekends, you’ll be able to head to Baja or Death Valley, get further off-road than most other people, and arrive in camp with a shelter and cold beer ready to go.
(Look for more on that project soon.)