You just bought the 4×4 truck of your dreams. The natural thing to do is take it out on the trail and slather it with dirt, mud, and have great off-road experiences, right? Or, even better, find a group or local club to join and do some organized trail runs. But, there’s a problem. You’ll realize this as you pull up to an obstacle on the trail with a long line of trucks behind you…waiting…for you to work up the nerve to do it.
As you gaze through the windshield, hands white-knuckling the steering wheel, heart pumping, brow sweating, you look upon the massive 3 foot deep ruts, loose dirt and a 30 degree sloped hill ahead. You’re about to do this! It’s during this nerve-racking moment you realize something: you have no idea what you’re doing; more importantly, you have no idea how your truck will handle this situation.
Don’t worry, you’ll probably be fine. Send it! Just kidding, don’t do that.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the adrenaline pumping through your veins was from the excitement, rather than apprehension because you’re able to approach that obstacle with a high-degree of confidence for one single reason? The reason is: you know your truck inside and out. You’ve spent hours and hours off-roading on various terrain under different conditions, so you know what your truck is capable of.
This level of confidence is the result of something called “seat time”. It’s a term used by race car drivers and it basically means, you’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel and you’re able to drive with confidence. It means driving this particular vehicle is second nature. The vehicle has become an extension of your being.
Most recreational off-roaders don’t spend much time in their trucks off-road. When it comes time to do that trail run with the local group, there’s a lot of guessing, nerves and sometimes broken parts because we just haven’t spent enough time wheeling to know what the truck will do under certain circumstances and there’s an urgency to keep up with the group and act like we know WTF we’re doing.
If you only find yourself facing a tricky obstacle once every few months, where will this experience come from? My solution is simple: find an area, preferably near your home (and within close distance to civilization in case you break or get stuck) and practice off-roading. It doesn’t have to be the Rubicon Trail or Moab (if it is, good for you). Maybe it’s just a flat dirt stretch with some washouts, or a wooded area with rocks and ruts. If you spend a few hours here and there experimenting with different lines and approaches, you can start to feel out how your vehicle will respond.
Back in the day, when I was young and single, I had a 1992 Jeep Wrangler. I made some modest upgrades to this 4 cylinder YJ, like a spring-over lift, lunch box lockers and 33″ tires. Where I lived at the time, there was easy access to desert trails just a few miles away. I spent hours and hours in this smallish stretch of desert trying different obstacles, observing how my suspension reacted, finding my Jeep’s limitations and becoming one with that beautiful black drive-train-with-seats (that’s pretty much what the early Wranglers are).
When I found myself on a trail run with a group, I had no problem tackling the obstacles with confidence. Picking the right line was easy because I knew how my Jeep would handle certain scenarios. I also knew what my Jeep would not handle well, so I could avoid things that would put me in a bad spot. It all came from practicing, from seat time.
Now, I find myself with this very capable Land Rover Discovery. But, when it comes to off-roading, I don’t know it well enough to wheel it with confidence yet. If I get all cross-axled, will it keep climbing (the answer is yes)? How off-camber can it get before I put it on its side? Is the wheelbase an advantage or a hindrance on a steep ledge climb? Because I haven’t put in the seat time, I end up either gritting my teeth and going for it, hoping for the best, or I take a bypass because I don’t know what the Disco is capable of.
I realized this on my last group trail run. This particular trail has a lot of optional obstacles, some that are very hard. I did a few, but passed on others because I don’t have the experience with this truck and I don’t want to break something, or hold up the group. The Discovery also surprised me in a few cases where it effortlessly handled obstacles that some of the Jeeps, with a lot more mods, struggled with.
The lesson for me is this: if you want to be good at something…anything, you have to practice. That applies to off-roading. I found a stretch of desert near me that I had originally written off as too flat for anything challenging. Turns out, there’s some good obstacles to practice on there and it’s close to home. I’ll be spending a lot more time on this stretch of state trust land. I’m going to get more seat time and the next trail run, I’ll have much more confidence in myself and my Discovery.