New Car Reviews

Off-Road Driving: A Dirty, Mud-Spattered Primer

“America,” Henry Ford once said, “is a gorgeous, vast, and monumentally impressive kind of place. Now hold my beer while I build an industry that’ll let us crap it all up.”

OK, so Ford didn’t say that. But when you’re trundling across the unpaved American West, trying to figure out where the road goes and watching some of the most beautiful scenery on earth pass beneath your wheels, the mind gets to wandering. And one of the first things that pops into your head is, “This country is amazing. God help us if we ever ruin it.”

We like cars. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you like cars. A common belief among environmentalists is that driving across unspoiled America — the unpaved roads and trails that reach deep into the interior of this great nation — somehow desecrates it or trashes things for future generations. As if. The automobile remains one of the best ways to see some of the world’s prettiest places, and these days, it’s possible to cover large amounts of land without putting a scratch on Ma Nature’s pretty face.

To help prove that point, we accompanied a handful of journalists and off-road experts on a Land Rover-sponsored “teaching” expedition into the wilds of southwestern Colorado. We drove 2011 Land Rover LR4s and Range Rovers across the edge of the earth, teetering past thousand-foot drops and climbing, goatlike, up the sides of mountains. It was an amazing experience, one that you can replicate without a lot of effort. Here’s what we learned.

The Stuff You Need, the Stuff You Don’t
The most common misconception about off-road driving is that it requires serious machinery. Hardly. America’s unpaved roads run the gamut from interstate-smooth gravel paths to bony, boulder-strewn two-tracks that are difficult to walk on. With the right amount of skill and training, you can tackle a large percentage of them in something as pedestrian as your grandmother’s all-wheel-drive crossover. (You know, the one with the doilies draped over the headrests. Just try not to get mud on her Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass tapes.)

Still, there’s a short list of ingredients that can ease the process. Ground clearance, or ride height, is probably the most important — the higher your car or truck is off the ground, the greater the chance you have of not getting stuck. Next up is rubber — you can cross Africa on street tires if you’ve got enough experience, but for the most part, sidewall flex and soft, knobby rubber are your friends. Tires that give when they encounter an obstacle are less likely to puncture or tear, and as a side benefit, they’ll also provide more grip for climbing over slippery or uneven surfaces.

Lastly, don’t discount torque or suspension talent. The same qualities that can help make a vehicle more pleasant on the street — grunt when you need it, regardless of rpm, and a healthy dose of pothole-friendly wheel travel — can also help it tackle the wilderness. A lot of off-road driving is spent at single-digit speeds and high loads, and big throttle openings are rarer than ice cubes on a New York sidewalk in July. The instant-on shove that comes from a torquey engine helps you claw over obstacles and inch your way out of (or into, if that’s your thing) nasty, slimy situations. Things like locking differentials, traction control, and adjustable-height suspension will boost the number of places you can venture, but they’re not a vital part of the experience.

In short, if a car looks like it might be decent off-road, it’s probably safe and capable enough, presuming your mechanic gives the OK and you pick an appropriate trail. Pickup trucks with big tires, SUVs you have to climb into, even some all-wheel-drive cars will work. Keep in mind, too, that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rates most of the more popular off-highway trails in the country — their ratings mark the difficulty and equipment required for a given road, and they’re as good a guide as any. When in doubt, err on the side of easier trails, a shorter wheelbase than you think you need, and caution.

Thanks to the government’s preservation efforts, legal off-roading on public land is now possible in most of the continental United States. We flew into Telluride, Colorado in late summer, plopped ourselves down in a bone-stock Land Rover LR4 with aired-down tires, and headed off into the hills.

First, Do No Harm
The most important thing here is to not prove the environmentalists right. This comes down to two things: Don’t hurt the land, and don’t hurt yourself. The land part is easy — if you go traipsing off into the woods with no regard for where you’re going, you’ll destroy a lot of plant life, disrupt fragile parts of the ecosystem, and probably get eaten by a bloodthirsty mountain lion or, if you grew up in a city, an irritable squirrel with low blood sugar. (Remember, the food chain is a harsh mistress, and the phrase “dangerous wild animal” is relative. Especially if your personal definition of wilderness involves the words “knock-off Starbucks” and “Why haven’t my day laborers returned from lunch?”)

Easy solution? Stick to established trails. It may sound like a one-way trip to Snoozeville, but the BLM and USFS know what they’re doing — the government’s patrolled and marked-off roads often lead to some of the most scenic and otherwise unreachable area, and most areas feature roads appropriate for both novices and experts. Our trip included everything from wheel-dangling cliffs and sheer rock faces to stream fording and mild passes that wouldn’t have troubled a riding lawnmower. All of them were unmaintained county roads, and thus OK to drive on.

One more thing: If you’re serious about trekking into the backcountry, grab a copy of the USFS’s Tread Lightly! program’s Guide to Responsible Four-Wheeling. Tread Lightly! is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to preserving the great outdoors, and its guide outlines the best — read: safest, lowest-impact, and most entertaining — way to head into the bush by motor vehicle. It also includes handy tips on maintenance, trail courtesy, and low-impact camping. If there’s a backwoods bible for the gravel-graunchin’ noob, this is it.

What You Need to Learn (Or: All Hail Modern Technology, But Don’t Ignore the Basics)
We spent most of our time in brand-new Land Rovers, computer-aided marvels that do everything but clean the mud off your boots. Aided by various systems, including, but not limited to, automatically locking differentials, electronic traction-management programs, electronically adjustable ride height, and hill descent control, we rumbled and crawled over the mountains around Telluride with ease. But electronic wizardry will only get you so far.

Much like performance driving, off-roading can be distilled down to a handful of concepts, fundamentals that are easy to grasp but difficult to master. This applies to everything from speed and passenger comfort (on a bony road, ride quality is directly tied to driver skill) to vehicle durability. “It’s not the terrain that hurts the cars,” one of our instructors said, “it’s the driver. In other words, I’ve never blamed my hammer for missing a nail.”

The basics are pretty much what you’d expect: Be careful. Go slow (“as fast as you need to,” we were told, “but as slow as possible.”) Go around obstacles, rather than over, when possible, and use a spotter to help if you have any doubts. It’s like weight lifting — if you go slow and gradually build up to the big challenges, you can accomplish things that initially seem impossible.

Surprises abound for the novice. The most common ailment for trail neophytes, for example, isn’t broken suspension components or bent body panels but punctured tire sidewalls. The lesson? Watch where you place your wheels; it’s better to climb over something than to try and squeeze into a hole that might rip open your rubber. Spotters are used by even the most experienced of drivers; if you can’t see something from the cockpit, no amount of skill will help you get around it. And humble confidence goes a long way.

A Typical Day In the Dirt
Picture this: You wake up in a tent at the foot of a glacier, walk outside, and make a fresh pot of coffee. The sun rises over a craggy mountain, melts the frost off the trees, and pulls the chill from your bones. Someone cooks breakfast, maybe some bacon and eggs, over a can of Sterno. As you scan the horizon, you see nothing but mind-boggling beauty. And a sign that says “Prettyview Pass: 13,000 feet.” A lifted Jeep rolls by in the background. You sit there, awestruck by the splendor, and contemplate stripping naked and rolling in the periwinkle.

This is the kind of America that inspired the creation of our national park system. This is what most people only see in pictures. Standing by yourself in the middle of nowhere, you’re struck by how amazing nature is. And how flat-out awesome your Jeep/Land Rover/Toyota/mud rig looks parked in it.

And so you get into the car, turn on the stereo, and amble off toward the forest, which means going downhill, because you’re thousands of feet above where trees stop growing. You tickle the throttle and inch past a steep cliff, your right front tire sending a few pebbles skittering off into a ravine. The road is rough and bony enough that you rarely climb above 5 mph. (At one point, you encounter a particularly smooth stretch of tundra and crank things up to an eye-watering 11 mph, arm on the windowsill. It feels vaguely reckless, like riding a bicycle through traffic with no hands.) You are presented with impossibly blue skies, undisturbed vistas.

At the end of the day, eighty miles down and one mountain tackled, you climb out of the car tired, satisfied, and thrilled to be alive. If there’s a better way to spend a four-wheeled day in the wilderness, we don’t know what it is.

Grow up in the world of coffee chains and paid servants, or just hate camping? Picture the above environment with a decent hotel at the end of each day. If you want, you can roll from ski town to ski town in places like Colorado and Utah, never driving on pavement, and still sleep on fresh linens every night. Because of the speeds involved — 4 to 10 mph driving instead of 1 to 3 walking — off-roading is like tranquil adventure hiking without the sacrifice. What’s not to love?

Why? Because it’s Fun, That’s Why
Like any other motorsport, off-roading is what you make it. It doesn’t satisfy some primal urge for speed, and it requires patience and forethought, qualities a lot of people don’t look for in hobbies. You can enjoy it without any training, but to do it well requires years of practice.

The appeal, then, is obvious: Immersing yourself in nature while spending time with friends and refining a skill related to machinery. The illusion of uncharted territory. Comfort and convenience paired with the feeling of being separated from the teeming throngs of humanity. All in all, it’s difficult to drive off into the woods, come back in one piece, and not have a good time. Us, we’ve found a new hobby.