Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
“Don’t hit the brakes!” I shouted as the smooth new ride I was in fish-tailed, and the driver wasn’t able to keep it together. I’d hitched a ride up the 10-mile access road to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, B.C., that snowy morning and got picked up by a guy in some kind of glossy white hatchback that was apparently just front-wheel-drive. For three seasons this was my morning ritual: Walk to the hitching spot, then jump in with whichever tourist or local picked me up. For the most part, it never failed.
On this day, after the nice bloke from England “put ’er in the ditch” without injury but denting his brand-new quarter panels, there wasn’t much I could do for him. A friend in a rusty old Toyota Tacoma ended up randomly stopping and grabbing me on the side of the road while the other guy called for a tow. In contrast to the shiny vehicle in the ditch, my friend’s truck was filthy, and there were even holes in the floor. But we rallied up that road at lightspeed with the confidence that only a good ol’ five-speed transmission and locking front hubs give. We were amongst the first in the lift line that day, which went on to be epic.
I experienced a lot of different cars on that mountain road back in my hitching years. The best ones were always the rotted and dented shit-kickers that served only one purpose: To get you from A to Ski.
It took years before I was able to afford my own car as a ski bum, but by then I knew exactly what I wanted: all-wheel-drive, manual, good winter tires, and working heat. For my first go, I got a battered 1992 Subaru Legacy for $1,500 with rust-accented wheel wells. It flawlessly delivered me to more pow days than I can count, until the clutch finally went after a couple years. When it did, I donated it to the Kidney Foundation, and bought a new-to-me Subaru for $2,500. It lasted just as long, and on it went.
Fifteen years later, I’m no longer a ski bum, but my criteria hasn’t changed. I still drive the least respectable cars I can find. These days, there are only two ways to be a skier: be rich or be smart. Spending a year’s worth of salary on something that isn’t any better at getting you to the hill than an ugly old Subaru is not smart.
According to the automotive site Edmunds.com, the average vehicle price in the U.S. in 2019 was $36,710. That’s a down payment on a house. OK, maybe not in a ski town, but still, cars aren’t a good investment. Unless it’s a collector’s item, it’ll never—ever—be worth more. Only less. Nice cars are the most fleeting things on the planet. The only actual lasting value they bring us are the experiences they provide, and you don’t need to pay forty grand to get those.
I’d sooner put $1,500 into a hut trip than into getting rid of whatever’s causing my seemingly innocuous engine light to be on. I’ll live with that crack in my windshield to get to go to Chamonix in the spring. And the rust on my runner boards ensures I’m welcomed into the lift line as a local. Having a car that’s worth less than comprehensive insurance costs per year means I can just replace it if something major goes wrong, and that’s what I’ve done for a decade and a half for less than the cost of the interest alone on a new car.
The whip I’m driving today, a 2001 RAV4 I call Frodo—because it’s short and squat and would make it up Mount Doom—has given me four full seasons of amazing days in the mountains. Some people might scoff at the gravel guard I sprayed over my corroded rims or the bull’s-eye crack in the windshield from a softball-sized rock the Trans-
Canada Highway threw at me a few years back (that amazingly didn’t penetrate), but let ’em scoff.