The Ultimate Buck Truck

How we turned a tired SUV into a great hunting vehicle.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Sure, it needed a lot of work. Most older, hard-used sport utilities do. But St. Louis deer hunter Bill Loughran saw a lot of potential in the second-hand 1997 S-10 Blazer 4x4: the 4.3-liter V-6 would get good gas mileage, and the smaller wheelbase would allow the vehicle to navigate almost any of the tight trails he drives in Missouri's whitetail country.

But the ride and handling of the Blazer were awful, the V-6 seemed underpowered, and it didn't offer a lot of storage space. Loughran came to Field & Stream for help. Here's what we did to turn that run-of-the-assembly-line Blazer into a reliable, practical, and fun deer hunter's truck. Although your truck may not need this much work, these upgrades can be adapted to nearly any SUV:

Ride and Handling
The main reason the Blazer rode so poorly was its worn-out suspension. First, we replaced the old shocks with heavy-duty Rancho RSX9000 shocks ($93 each). We also added a Rancho steering damper ($78) to the front suspension to reduce kickbacks to the steering wheel.

Second, we beefed up the rear leaf springs. The Rancho Add-a-Leaf system ($82) increased the ride height by 3 inches and firmed the springs without our having to replace them.

Third, we tightened the torsion bars (a labor charge of $100, which must include a front-end alignment) to reduce front-end bounce.

"It's a different truck," said Loughran, who drove the Blazer immediately after the suspension work was completed. "There's no more diving nose or wallowing rear end."

Loughran's typical fall deer season driving conditions called for a set of Firestone Destination M/T LT265/7516 tires ($155 each). The new Destination M/T was developed especially for wet and muddy surfaces. The tire also delivers a smooth, quiet highway ride.

The new aluminum billet wheels from Colorado Custom ($325 each) are stronger and lighter than the stock wheels, which helps reduce weight below the suspension and makes for a less jarring ride offroad. Because Colorado Custom allows buyers to customize wheels via their website, we were able to put better-handling 16-inch tires on the Blazer's old five-bolt wheel pattern.

Finally, we installed carbon-metallic front disc brake pads ($44) from Performance Friction to improve stopping power and eliminate mushy pedal feel.

Power
To get more "oomph" out of the V-6, we installed a Stage Two JET performance chip ($319) and a JET air-flow sensor ($389). The former replaces the stock computer chip to deliver maximum power and torque by (among other changes) reprogramming the air-fuel ratio, spark advance, and transmission shift points. Stage Two tuning requires the use of premium fuel-an expense offset by the V-6's modest consumption.

A cat-back (catalytic converter to tailpipe) exhaust system from Dynomax ($155) reduces back pressure, creating a more efficient air flow to improve performance.

We replaced the paper air filter with a reusable, oil-impregnated K&N; Filtercharger cotton filter ($56), which helps boost fuel economy and engine power by allowing more air into the engine.

** Storage**
To increase interior storage space, we asked St. Louis carpenter Terry Bolef to build a wooden cabinet that would slide into the rear cargo area. The main locking drawer of the cabinet holds a pair of scoped deer rifles. The top has a hatch with a compartment for an auxiliary winch and a separate area for ammunition. Bolef charged $350, but anyone who has basic woodworking skills could make a rudimentary box for a fraction of that cost.

Up top, we added a Thule roof rack with a Playpen basket and a 19-inch extension ($700). The basket resembles the high-rise sides of the so-called safari-style roof rack but is far more aerodynamic. Loughran uses the basket to carry coolers, tree stands, and other bulky items and stores it in the garage during the off-season.

Extras
Because Loughran often drives in mud, we opted for a Superwinch S4500 winch ($750) that can be stored in the truck and slid into a rear hitch receiver (we added a $140 Valley Industries Class III model) when he needs to pull the Blazer out of trouble.

To light up the trail, we got two pairs of Thule auxiliary driving lamps ($400). One set is mounted high, on the roof rack; the other low, on a Westin Safari Light Bar ($225). All Loughran needs to do now is wait for opening day.

**Have you customized your truck for hunting or fishing? **
If so, send us a photo and no more than 100 words describing what you did to: Offroad Editor, Field & Stream, 2 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016. (Photos will not be returned.)