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A vehicle for every season: A buyers’ guide for the perfect car to accommodate your favorite outdoor activities

What is the ultimate adventure vehicle? There’s no one 100 percent correct answer to that question. For some people, it’s a vehicle they can comfortably sleep inside. For others, it’s a high-clearance four-wheel-drive machine that can crawl over any obstacle nature puts in its way. Other people want something that holds all their gear and gets good gas mileage.

No one vehicle meets all the diverse needs and desires of all outdoorsfolk (although a few come close). But when deciding what to buy for your adventures, there are a few things that can narrow down the field of contenders.

All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive

If you need a car to get you to ski destinations, or up bumpy mountain roads, you’ll probably want four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive for reliable traction. Sure, it’s fun to get out of your two-wheel-drive car in a blizzard to put on tire chains, but it’s more fun not to.

New or used

You’re going to get dirty in the outdoors, and sometimes a little banged up. Chances are, your car will get dirty as well while carrying you up those dusty, bouncy back roads. If you’re terrified to scuff up the bumper on your brand-new luxury coupe, you might find yourself parking a long distance away from the trailhead (or hoping your hiking buddy will offer to drive instead). You don’t have to drive an old beater, but maybe think about buying something you don’t feel like you have to baby out there.

High clearance or not

High clearance can come in handy in a few areas and situations, but there aren’t that many places an all-wheel-drive station wagon (or similar vehicle) can’t get to within good reason. If it’s your primary car, think about whether or not it’s worth it to get the extra ground clearance for a handful of miles per year and sacrifice gas mileage during your daily work commute.

Roof rack/roof rack compatible

The ability to keep a few things on top of your car — bikes, skis, camping gear inside a roof box — is at the very least convenient, and at the best can mean another friend can fit inside your vehicle for the road trip. It’s at least good to have as an option, if not installed when you buy the car. Also, a number of companies are now making rooftop tents that attach directly to roof racks.

Rugged rubber floor mats

Floor mats in adventure vehicles can take some abuse from muddy boots, sweaty clothes, and sometimes from the secondary use of getting thrown under a spinning wheel to get a stuck vehicle out of sand or snow. Rubber mats are durable and clean easily with a spray of a self-service car wash hose.

Back seats that fold down

If you don’t have a roof rack, fold-down seats in an SUV, wagon, or even a coupe can accommodate a mountain bike or a few pairs of skis.

Bonus points:

  • If you can sleep in your new adventure vehicle — whether on an air mattress or camping pad in the back of a truck with a topper or in a wagon with the back seats folded down
  • A hitch for hitch-mount bike or ski racks
  • Tinted windows — for sleeping in the vehicle, and keeping your pricey gear invisible
  • Cup holders that can accommodate large water bottles
  • Easily accessible spare tire — i.e. you don’t have to team powerlift it off the top of the vehicle