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.