It is a beautiful summer morning, a few small clouds, light breeze, not too hot yet. I’m sitting in my 4Runner, engine idling, 4low lit up on the dashboard. I’m third in a line of 4Runners, one Tundra, and one Jeep. Ahead of me a tall instructor, Director of Training Mike Morrison, leans into an open window, chatting with the driver, our teammate Scott, talking him through the first obstacle that lies ahead. Our teammate Greg is in front of me in his recently purchased 4Runner, and our owner Jeff behind me in our work Tundra. Our crew is about to begin the obstacle course of the Overland Expert’s (OEX) 4wd 101 class.
As I’m watching Scott begin to crawl forwards through the first obstacle, an alternating series of dips and moguls designed to articulate the suspension and create a situation where two tires lose ground contact, I’m taken back to my first time through this class two years ago.
The first time I took the 4wd 101 class I had just purchased my new 4Runner. It had just broken 4,000 miles on the drive over to Uwharrie that morning, new BFG KO2s installed the week prior, the only modification I had made to my 4Runner at that point. I had never been “off road” before, and I was nervous as hell, but that’s why I was taking the class.
At that time, I didn’t have any intention of ever making my 4Runner into what it is today. It was just going to be a vehicle that could take me into forest roads for hiking, and if I happened to accidently get “stuck” or find an obstacle blocking my path, I wanted to know the safe ways to approach them. By the end of the day, I was introduced into a whole other world, and I was hooked.
The “bug” hit me about the time I was doing the off camber turn, a 35 degree downhill turn that generates some serious pucker factor. You are about 10 degrees away from being in any danger of a rollover, but to a new off road driver, it is terrifying (in a good way). I was blown away at what obstacles the stock vehicle was capable of crossing.
By the end of that first day, I knew that my new 4Runner was no longer just a means to get into the woods, but a new hobby and addiction all by itself.
Jumping back to the present, it is my turn to approach the obstacle. Greg has just completed the first obstacle, his new stock 4Runner making it through with ease.
We’re using two-foot driving (Left Foot Braking) for these technical obstacles, a method where you hold the brake with your left foot, set the throttle with your right foot at about 1300 RPMs in my 4Runner, and then smoothly use the brake to adjust the vehicle speed while keeping the engine speed set at that constant RPM level. This allows you to maintain traction when wheels begin to slip, using the brake to retard spin of the wheels that are breaking loose and keeps power going to the wheels that have traction.
I hold down the brake, set my throttle, and gently ease off the brake to roll forward. I learned this technique in the class two years prior, but admittedly I have been using the “cheater buttons”, ATRAC and the locker, a little too much over the past year, and I was a little rusty. I lurched a little bit more than I’d have liked approaching Mike. He leaned into the window, briefed me, and then I was off through the moguls.
When I reached the end of the moguls, where the obstacle is the biggest and you lose ground contact with both a front and rear tire, I immediately lost all momentum and felt the tires spinning. I had messed up my two footing and wasn’t going anywhere. I took a breath, reset the throttle, and eased forward this time without issue despite the two airborne tires. I should have been practicing two foot driving more over the past two years on the trail.
The rest of the time on the obstacle course was spent getting familiar again with two foot driving, and navigating the rest of the obstacles – the hill, the ditch crossing, the tree crossings, rocks, and my favorite, the off camber turn, which still is a little intimidating even after everything I’ve been through these past two years. Watching Jeff in the huge Tundra traverse this was interesting, seeing that long wheelbase truck with a spinning KO2 several feet in the air as he crested the turn. We also practiced what to do if you ever did start to enter a rollover situation, turn the vehicle downhill and give it throttle, (which happened to save me a year and a half later one cold wet December night riding around Uwharrie, but that’s a story for another time.)
The rest of the afternoon was spent discussing different recovery methods and gear, a brief introduction into winching, and finally how to recover from a failed hill climb. Then we were off on the trail ride around the Grand Overland District where we got to practice some of the techniques learned.
There is a very deep ditch on the trail, which I remembered fondly from the past few times I’ve driven on the property during past classes and events. I watch Jeff in the Tundra ahead of me dip the monster into the ditch, rear tire lifting impressively into the air, and easily climb back out, this time with the fronts lifting. Jeff was completely new to off roading that morning, but handling the ditch like a pro at the end of the day.
I maneuvered into the ditch gently, feeling the front tip down and left while the rear rose several feet, and then easing forward, up and out. I remember when I took the ditch two years ago I scraped both the front and rear bumpers and had a little difficulty traversing it, but this time there was no contact and I went over without any slippage, a testament to the techniques I have gained (and the lift and bigger KM2s didn’t hurt either.)
The biggest takeaways our team had was that even our more experienced drivers still learned a ton in the “entry” level class, and that our work Tundra is extremely capable despite it being so much bigger than the 4Runners. It’s also always impressive seeing what obstacles stock vehicle is capable of crossing. I was personally surprised at how much I learned the second time through the class, and I need to remember to practice two foot driving on obstacles.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a decent amount of time looking at blogs and forum posts about amazing off-roading trips out West – stories of running the famous trails in Colorado, crawling around Moab, maybe getting lost somewhere in Idaho or Montana for a few weeks.
Here on the East coast, it seems almost like a dream; we just don’t have the same vast open deserts and mountain ranges that exist out West. Most people don’t think you can do a similar kind of trip on this side of the country, but there are quite a few little known routes one can take that can feel almost as remote as the Western trips. I had the chance to run one of them with one of our friends, Alan, this past October – the Georgia Traverse.