When I watched my German shorthaired pointer inside his large wire kennel tumble bum over biscuits out the back of a Yukon XL, I was astounded. First, the round water barrel rolled out and toppled to the left. Then four boxes of ammo jettisoned to the right. One dog bowl, three dummies and a bird launcher followed. Then Scratch went last.
As the SUV grumbled up a short but steep incline to the shady patch we’d spotted as a better parking place, Scratch’s crate slid slowly toward the open hatch, pushing out the gear piled in front of it. The kennel tipped outward then clunked over the edge of the bumper, cartwheeling end to end. It bounced off its roof, pitched on angle, and landed on its side. Somewhere along the way I saw flailing paws and heard a series of canine-style exhaled “oofs” and “urfs.” With the latch jiggled free, the side door—now on top—popped open. Scratch jumped out, shook himself off, and gave me a look that said, That was amusing. Can we do it again? Only then did I remember to breathe.
Since that day, I am much more appreciative of carefully loaded trucks and custom bird dog transport. Unfortunately, there is no simple route to finding the perfect road rig. Ask any bird hunter to describe his or her optimum road-trip vehicle, and you’ll get a verbal sketch more complex than the flowchart of an expectation-maximization algorithm. It must be part highway cruiser, part off-road buggy, part restaurant kitchen, part canine spa, part boarding kennel—and don’t forget the bird cleaning station.
While many of us settle for a basic configuration of kennels perched on a compartment of slide out drawers jammed with guns and gear, some smart road tripping bird hunters prove their dedication with more sophisticated units. Companies such as Jones Trailers and Diamond Deluxe offer an array of pickup-mounted or trailered dog carriers. Stackable, removable crates such as those made by Dakota 283 and Ruff Land are also popular, having the safety advantage of nesting together to minimize a Scratch-style sliding. In both cases—trailered or inserted kennels—hunters still need to pack equipment, dog supplies, guns, food, and bourbon in an assortment of bags, coolers, and vehicle storage compartments.
There are, however, road-tripping hunters who want it all and can make it happen.
David Kuritzky, owner of Kuritzky Glass, is on the board of directors of the Ruffed Grouse Society. Leaving his upstate New York ruffed grouse woods, David hits the road each year with his German shorthairs (and a few friends) in search of other covers and upland birds. He first envisioned an organized layout of gear and equipment to suit his “just go” mentality. When David set up the truck, however, he tried to outfit it for waterfowl as well as upland hunting but found the waterfowl gear took up too much space. He settled for a design dedicated to the uplands.
Starting with a one-ton, long-wheelbase, gas-engine GMC Denali, David opted for a chassis-mounted box built by Mountaintop Custom Kennels in Abingdon, Virginia.
The first question the body builder asked was how many “holes” he wanted, meaning the number of dogs he planned to carry. Even though he owned only two pups at the time, David had friends owning multiple dogs, and opted for eight insulated holes with louvered vents. He insisted that the boxes be located as far forward as possible in case of a rear-end crash. That was just the first of many decisions to be made. “Tire selection was a consideration, in that a lot of time would be spent on the highway getting to hunting areas that would have a lot of dirt—meaning mud—roads. Because of the cold, I chose to not pressurize the water system. I carry a 12-volt pump and hose to have pressurized water on demand,” he explained. He also added a removable winch and a front facing hitch for either front or rear towing.
This truck raises the bar for tailgating. A stainless-steel table doubles as a cooking and serving surface (as well as for dog grooming and first aid). “We mounted a propane bottle on the exterior wall of the body. Hoses run directly from the tank to the griddles and grills I carry for cooking. In addition, there is an inverter to charge collars and run a crockpot while we’re parked.”
Each custom hunting rig owner I talked with had a different set of preferences and solutions, yet they all had dog safety and security as top priorities.
Mike Stewart is owner of Mississippi-based Wildrose International—arguably the most famous English Labrador kennel in the United States. In addition to overseeing three state-of-the-art training facilities, Mike conducts retriever training clinics across the country and travels to appear on television shows—most notably for Ducks Unlimited TV. He refers to his brawny EarthRoamer LTS as a “mobile lodge.” Built on a Ford F-550 chassis with Air Ride suspension, the specifications on this EarthRoamer “Stretch” are pretty impressive: 95-gallon fuel capacity, 85-gallon water storage, 27-ply tires, and a self-sufficient, off-road, off-grid reach of 900 to 1,000 miles. A unique three-point anchoring system lets the camper swivel and move independent of the truck, so it won’t be top heavy or encounter strain on steep grades or rough roads. This is not your granddaddy’s RV.
If Mike is traveling with just one or two dogs, they ride behind the front seats in the cab where the back seat was replaced by a raised, carpeted platform that can hold two kennels (with hidden gun storage underneath). When a trip calls for more dogs, he adds an eight-hole dog trailer with lockable hole doors and carefully designed ventilation. Security is paramount.
“As an ex-cop, I’m suspicious,” Mike explained. “I’m pulling some amazingly valuable dogs and couldn’t sleep at night in a hotel with the dogs left out in a parking lot. High security is most important to me.” An alarm system and heavy steel combination padlocks secure dogs, guns, and gear. LED lights illuminate the area around the rig for nightly dog airing as well as for security. Inside the EarthRoamer are a kitchen, full bath, ample storage, and a king-sized bed.
Mike talked about being in a beautiful place and being able to just stay there—not having to leave the landscape, miss the sunset, hurry back to a hotel, unload at night, or reload in the morning. “My purpose is to be able to go anywhere, anytime, and in any kind of weather conditions.”
Scott Bosard, owner of Firebird Bulk Carriers, in Humble, Texas, uses his customized Ford F-250 LWB to travel from his home to Southern quail hunting destinations and for annual pheasant trips to North Dakota with his wirehaired pointing griffons. Scott said his design started with the fold-down doors. “Previously, excited dogs have injured shoulders jumping out of the back of the pickup. We use the fold-down doors as an easier exit and entry to the kennels. They also work for inspection, grooming out burrs, washing, and just relaxing at the end of a walk.”
Scott started from scratch but has added modifications bit by bit. “After a couple of uses, we made some changes,” he noted. “Edges on top of the kennels added to available storage. A door assist made it easier to lift the wing doors. Heavier duty brakes, an air bag assist suspension, and extra leaf springs improved our comfort for long trips, reducing stress and fatigue.”
Another dedicated road tripper is Joe Hosmer, former president of Safari Club International Foundation and a current member of the Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever board of directors. When Joe discovered it would cost more than twice as much to fly his cocker from Texas to South Dakota for a pheasant hunt as it would for his own ticket, he decided to outfit a vehicle for the long drive. Not wanting to design it himself, he turned to Sportsmobile, a company specializing in vehicle conversions.
Joe selected a used, one-ton, four-wheel-drive van and chassis for his aptly named “QM1” (Quail Mobile 1). It was set up to hold two or more crates, a refrigerator, stove, bed, and “some sort of furnace so we wouldn’t freeze if we had to spend the night in a field somewhere.” Sportsmobile also soundproofed the van, insulated it, and added a water storage system. The top opened up like the old Volkswagen campers with a double bed that folded up or down.
“After two years I’d run the heck out of QM1, and it was time to upgrade,” Joe said. For QM2, he picked a “cookie-cutter, no-options” Winnebago Revel. Customized and outfitted on a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter, it has two solar panels, an Espar furnace, dog wash on the back, indoor shower, toilet, and an induction stove. One particularly clever feature is the electric bed on the roof that lowers at night to right above the dog crates. Planning to sleep in a motel and want more dog power for the hunt? Leave the bed up and stack in more crates.
It could be said that custom rigs come in three categories: built completely custom to the buyer’s design; semi-customized through a conversion company’s package of options; and do-it-yourself. Outdoor writer and photographer Jim McCann chose the last option, building his own hunting rig. Jim is an avid ptarmigan and ruffed grouse hunter who has lived in the interior region of Alaska for nearly 50 years. “I’m an adventurer and always want to see what’s on the other side of the ridge, or down the river, or up that trail, so I need to be able to move around the vast region at will,” he said.
Jim bolted an ARB brand rooftop tent to Thule racks on top of his 3500 Dodge diesel pickup. With the extra fuel he usually carries, his range is over 500 miles, and it takes him just 15 minutes to set up camp with no worries about mud or rain. “I remove the waterproof cover, extend the integral ladder using it as a fulcrum to open the hinged floor, and the tent is mostly ready for me to climb up inside. A PETT portable toilet has been given two thumbs up by my daughter, so I know that was the best way to go,” he said.
For his Brittanys, Jim uses two kennels—with Arctic Shield insulated covers—strapped to ¾-inch marine-grade plywood secured by steel rings to the truck bed corners. “When the tent is open, the floor locked, and the ladder providing additional stability, half the floor sticks out over the back of the tailgate. This means the dog kennels get extra protection, and if it’s raining when I wake up, I come down the ladder through a waterproof vestibule. Then I fire up my Jet Boil stove and boil some water to use in my Mountain House ‘biscuits and gravy’ with a big cup of hot black coffee. And I eat my breakfast staring at the dogs who are busy eating their breakfast right in front of me.”
Road-savvy bird hunters also think about safety when their dogs are outside the rig. Some tips include: A reflective silver shade mesh tarp draped “lean-to style” off the side of a truck will reflect sun but let in a breeze, considerably dropping the temperature underneath where dogs can be staked out.
If possible, avoid highway rest areas. Thousands of dogs with unseemly credentials stop there, leaving hazards that are joined by antifreeze leaks, junk food wrappers, and alien life form litter. One good alternative is to stop at the “texting” areas many interstate highways now offer. They have less traffic than gas and food areas and often have a nice grassy or woody backdrop. Another tip to prevent a pup from ingesting something dangerous is to check hotel rooms for insect traps or poison.
Collar lights—such as those built into the Garmin Sport Pro or added on like the Nite Ize LED Marker Band—make it easy to keep an eye on nighttime wanderers and make them visible to other people or vehicles.
Finally, hunters should always carry photocopies of their dogs’ medical info—rabies vaccinations, especially—in case the dogs need to be boarded or go to a vet. Unexpected roadblocks like needing to fly home for a family emergency or a blizzard (with no dog-friendly hotels around) might call for boarding. Kennels are more likely to take in dogs if they can check vaccination records.
Anyone who has traveled with hunting dogs know they often catch people’s eyes. The same goes for innovative road rigs. I asked David Kuritzky what kind of reactions he’s gotten to his truck. “I have been asked if it is a dog rescue truck. My answer to that is ‘yes, we rescue purposely bred dogs from their mundane daily routine.’ I’ve also been asked if we were stocking trout streams or releasing birds. But the most common comment we’ve received is, ‘That is a sweet rig.’”
What is especially “sweet” about these rigs is how they help hunters who are passionate about their gun dogs and road tripping, maximize the ease and safety of combining the two. Most bird hunters worry about all sorts of risks, from weather extremes and dangerous wildlife to hydration and accidents. We try hard to ensure that our dogs travel comfortably and are in the best physical condition possible to meet their tasks afield. Traveling with the knowledge that our dogs are secure—thus feeling less stress ourselves—we can relish the anticipation of each day and top it off with the satisfaction of watching safe and tired hunting dogs contently curl up at night, emitting their own perfect sighs of fulfillment.
Originally published in Volume 7, Number 5 (Aug-Sept 2019) of Covey Rise.