Virginia and I have been camping and backpacking for many years. Our collection of gear is easy to use and allows us to get into and enjoy the wilderness with relative comfort and safety.
But we've added a piece of outdoor gear a few years ago and it's the most technical yet. The time had come for us to learn how use it correctly. Yes, we're referring to our Toyota 4WD system.
High range, low range, traction control, skid control, locking center differential, ABS - it's a bit confusing as to which system is supposed to do what and when. We've been off road with our trusty 4Runner, but to anyone watching it would have been evident that we were a little short with our off-road skills.
Enter Tom Severin, our instructor for an entire Saturday. He and the rest of our class met us at Hungry Valley SVRA (State Vehicle Recreation Area). Hungry Valley is an off-road park for all types of vehicles. Dirt bikes, dune buggies and 4x4's of all kinds. It's 20 thousand acres and 130 miles of trails about an hour north of us. But there are two things that make this a great place for off-road learning:
-> It has a real classroom and
-> It has a well designed 4x4 practice area that includes beginner through expert terrain:
Besides this rocky hill climb, the practice area has many features to test your skills and your vehicle.
Tom is a great instructor and we were presented with lots of classroom material before heading out to the practice area.
Personal safety, vehicle safety, how 4WD works, spotting commands and hand signals, airing down tires, approaching ruts, gullies, sand, mud, snow, getting unstuck, wheel cheat - just to name a few topics.
Mandatory vehicle inspection. Here, we make sure the battery is firmly in place.
Our instructor showing a proper tow point and connection technique.
After lunch it was time to get behind the wheel and make our way to the practice area. Tom and his assistant had an organized practice routine that included:
• Properly airing down tires
• Radio (walkie-talkie) communications
• Backing down a steep hill
• Hill descent with compression braking
• Maneuvering through a hard (vs. soft) ditch
• Maneuvering through a rocky gully
• Hill climbs with large dips
• Hill climbs with large rocks and steps
• Vehicle tilt at 20 degrees and 30 degrees
Our class lines up for tire deflation – reducing pressure from 32 psi to 18 psi. We’re joined by a couple of Jeeps, another (2014) 4Runner and a Subaru Forrester!
It was a gorgeous day in the park.
Virginia looks on as Tom goes over tire deflation and radio communication. He lent out walkie-talkies for those that didn’t have them.
Highlights from our practice:
After a break, Tom lead us through the park on a trail ride where we put to use more of what we had learned in the classroom and at the practice area:
• Entering and exiting a sandy wash with steep banks
• Rough hill climbs & descents
• Straddling deep v-shaped ruts
• Airing up to full pressure
• Post ride vehicle inspection
Post ride inspection is a habit to get into. On his own Jeep, Tom discovers a loose bolt that was making noise during our trail ride.
Post ride air-up. The 2014 4Runner borrows a fancy air compressor that refills back to normal pressure in about 2 minutes per tire and is very quite. It attaches to your car battery.
We used a similar compressor. It took 3 minutes to get back to pressure, but was so loud!
At the end of the day we had been transformed. No longer intimidated by rough terrain, we now had the knowledge and a bit of experience to get through it safely while treading lightly on our car and the land. Virginia especially is no longer nervous while behind the wheel in 4Low and 1st gear doing compression braking!
Also, I'm really impressed at the capability of our 4Runner. Sure, there are those that will argue the finer points of 4wd systems that are built by Jeep or Range Rover or Land Cruiser. But once you know how to actually put these systems to use properly, any one of them will get you through most terrain. Our 4Runner comes with fairly common 4wd features and handled the terrain perfectly.
We wouldn't hesitate to recommend this class if you're interested in getting professional instruction on your most precious piece of outdoor gear.
You can check out Tom's website here: http://www.4x4training.com/
There is a nice video that shows what his class is like in more detail.
Got any lessons learned out on the jeep tracks? We’d love to hear your stories!