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  • Kris Gove

Off-Roading 101 at TrailCraft: Bring your life-size Tonka

2002 Xterra splashes through mud puddle.
Welcome to SplashMountain. My 2002 Xterra gets all sorts of muddy. Photos by Drew Crowley where noted.

My truck might have been in 4-low, but my mind was racing, adrenaline bangin’ off the rev limiter like a rally car flat over crest. Against my better judgment, my left foot slowly released the brake of my near-antique Xterra and it rolled closer to a 10-foot drop into an adult playground they called a Four-Wheel Drive Park. This ‘park’ I thought was going to be like a Range Rover dealership with a little hill and a couple of rocks so rich people could test to make sure their statement Rovers could make it over the speed-bumps in the parking lot at Crate & Barrel. No. This park wasn’t in the shadow of a Whole Foods. It was in the shadow of the White Mountains – and I was headed straight down.

Welcome to TrailCraft.

TrailCraft is Team O’Neil Rally School’s (TO) latest incarnation of fun things to do on four wheels. Trailcraft is 4x4 school for beginners, like me. Today’s class was the first-ever for the public side of the TO off-road school and I was the first to sign up (hey, I’ll take the podium however I can get it). Now, for those who are familiar with the rally side of TO, you know that when you show up for class on Day 1, they give you a car to beat the sweet BeJeebus out for the next five days. For TrailCraft though, you bring your own truck to flog. This is a good thing for two reasons: 1) You get to learn and practice maneuvers in a vehicle that’s familiar to you, and 2) Using your own rig, in theory, prevents you from going full Red Mist because you know you have to drive the thing home.

Full disclosure, I am a rallyist. I know all about car control and left-foot braking, Scandinavian flicks, and all that fun stuff, particularly when it comes to rallying a 32-year-old BMW. However, this is only the second time I’ve been 4-wheelin’, as the kids like to say. The first was last November in Vermont, and it was great, great fun, but that excursion didn’t include any formal instruction. It was more of a follow the guy in front of you and hope he knows what he’s doing sort of thing (luckily for me, there were people there who knew what they were doing). This three-hour tour was a whole 'nother thing. I hoped the Minnow wouldn’t get lost.

Flashback 1980s

But let’s chuck this thing in reverse for a sec. Back in the early 80s, before Group B, I happened to catch a few clips of stage rally on TV, back when the clicker only had 11 buttons. The footage was somewhere in Europe. I was nine. Since then I was hooked and finally got my very own rally car set up about 10 years ago. Also, back in those glorious 80s, I discovered Camel Trophy. If you’re not familiar, Camel Trophy was sort of a racing series sponsored by a filterless cigarette company and Land Rover. Land Rover sponsored 30 or so Land Rovers, the Discovery was my fave, and outfitted them with all sorts of overlanding gear, recruited teams of two, and unleashed the whole mess on some unsuspecting part of the world where roads and bridges always seemed to be washed out for good. Part of the fun, you could say, was rebuilding that bridge with toothpicks and zipties so it held together long enough to get 30 Land Rovers over it with nobody (hopefully) getting swept away in the Amazon. This did happen a few times, but the teams worked with the other teams and managed to drag the soggy trucks from the muck and re-fire their diesel engines. Nothing really gets any cooler than listening to 15 different languages trying to work together with hand signals and inflection, with the soft chatter of diesels in the background.

Close-up of a muddy 2002 Xterra.
Sally, who's weathered all sorts of storms, awaits the next adventure.

So, about six years ago, I had the chance to buy a good friend’s smashed up 2002 Xterra (don’t text and drive) for only a few clams. I put that truck back together, then a month later, also smashed it up (practicing rally maneuvers in the snow). So I rebuilt it again, but this time with the fun bits one might find on a Camel Trophy truck: Big honkin’ Prius-killer bumper, 8k winch, 3-inch suspension lift, Bilstein 5100s, and some meaty BFG KO2s. I even added DIY hardware-store limb risers to add to the retro coolness.

Now, back to modern times. I got to start living out my Camel Trophy dreams and it’s only about four hours from my house. Since it was peak Fall, I didn’t even have to worry about mosquitoes, never mind the poisonous pteradactyls or pee-hole swimming parasites one might find in a South American jungle.

Let go your conscious self (and the brake)

So here I am, balanced on the precipice of both glory and certain doom, and I let go of the brake as if it were my last cigarette when I quit 20 years ago. The next thing I knew, the only thing I could see out of my entire windshield was a wall of the finest White Mountain gravel. It felt like I was pointing straight down. My mother always told me I’d end up in a ditch. Then, a little blip of the throttle, with my foot braced into the trans tunnel as instructed, the next thing I saw was clear, clear blue October sky. Now I was pointed straight up, admiring the yellow, red, and orange leaves. More throttle, I’m up over the second mogul and straight into the off-road park.

Welcome to the forest… O’Neil’s got fun and games.

Side tilts. Mud pits. Roots. Branches. Logs. Yes! I knew you had to exist adult playground. I am here now. I am here with my Tonka truck ready to play.

Before we arrived at this magical playland, Wyatt had us size up our trucks. We looked for the approach angles, how much overhang your headlights and other important bits had before the tires came up. The shorter the overhang, the better your chances of your tires hitting the dirt rather than your brand-new shrubbery extractor. Then departure angles. Same concept, but in the rear of your truck. We looked at low-hanging things, like spare tires, trailer hitches, and exhaust systems.

Instructor pointing to things on the underside of a truck.
Instructor Wyatt Knox points out things that might fall off. Low-hanging exhausts, under-mounted spare tires, and accessory lights. Photo by Drew Crowley.

My Xterra seemed to have good front and rear departure angles for this sort of thing. Then a fella showed up with a brand-new, bright red Jeep Gladiator. The thing still had new-car smell and temporary tags! But as we looked at Gladiator Guy’s rig, Wyatt and Max pointed out the rear overhang of the truck bed, which was a few feet longer than Sally’s, as well as having a longer wheelbase. “We’ll keep an eye on that,” Wyatt said.

Then I asked about tire pressure. I always heard about airing down and the like, to give the tires better grip.

“Where are yours set,” Max said.

“Fifty-five,” said me.

“Fifty-five!?!” Wyatt said, looking back at Max.

“Yep, that’s what they told me for on-road at Tire Rack,” I said.

“OK then,” Wyatt said. “Let’s see what happens.”

Max then explained that I really should keep them at what’s on the door sticker, but that, like Waytt said, we’d have a go, then if things get too slippy, we’ll air down a skosh. This was good, I thought, especially since I didn’t have a compressor on me. I knew they’d let me air back up with TO air of course, but it’s good to know that it might not always be necessary to have one taking up space in the back when I’m out on my own.

Enough jibber-jabber, let’s rock

We convoyed up. Wyatt took the lead position in an old, square-body Jeep Cherokee with a roll cage and a winch big enough to climb the Statue of Liberty without wrinkling her gown. Then me in my freshly-built Xterra in all its dented-fender glory, then Gladiator Guy and his daughter, Max in his trusty Tacoma, and then Drew, the new TO guy, brought up the rear in another brick-shaped Cherokee to take some snaps for our scrapbooks.

We started slow. Very slow. Four-low, first-gear slow. Wyatt was testing to see if we actually did what he said we should do in the video they sent us beforehand: Go outside. Put your truck in 4-low and first gear and feel how herky-jerky that shit can be. You’re not on the highway anymore. Both hands on the wheel. Nine and three. None of that 10 and 2 bullshit. Y’know, unless you’re more comfortable that way. Thumbs outside the wheel, so they don’t snap off if you hit a rock. There were a few times throughout the day where I could see how someone not minding their thumbs might break them off. Wouldn’t even be able to hitchhike home. I hit more than a few rocks throughout the day, enough to yank the wheel hard to enough to make me realize that sometimes paying attention is a good thing.

Left-foot on the brake. Gassy foot on the big pedal on the right. Stuff that right foot into the trans tunnel to avoid snappy throttle blips whilst your rig is bouncing around like a moon buggy. The video works, particularly if you are brand-new. Watch it. If nothing else, it makes for a more comfortable, confident day.

Off we went

Since my truck still has a thing called a fan belt with a fan attached to the engine, as we crept along in 4-low and first, my rig sounded like a dump truck accelerating from a standstill with a full load of dirt. Screaming fan. Screaming engine. Not-so-screaming speedometer. The fan and engine noise reverberated off the mountainside. The still-thick foliage made it sound like I was going 125, but when I looked down, it was a blistering 18 mph.

Mid-1980s Jeep Cherokee.
Square Jeep.

We crept along down to the rally school skidpad, then up a rally road to a crest. This is normally where the rally school cars keep going, but Wyatt stopped us and we took a hard right, facing straight downhill to the pad below. The thing looked like a washout. Rocks, babyheads, gravel.

“Let the engine do the braking,” Wyatt crackled over the radio. From a couple of truck-lengths behind, I watched the boxy Jeep angle down and disappear under my hood.

My turn.

I barely let off the brake and inched toward the drop. The ‘road’, if I could call it that, also disappeared under my hood, just like the Jeep. Let’s see what happens.

The front tires rolled over the precipice and suddenly, I was pointed straight down. The road came back. Wyatt’s Jeep came back and it wasn’t in a crumpled steaming mess at the bottom. I let go of the brake, gingerly, left Merrell hovering close to the brake, like a helicopter parent walking up the slide steps at the playground. There was a split-second pucker moment when the truck started rolling as if it were in neutral, then it caught first gear like when the log ride splashes into the river. Dump truck noises came back with a fury this time. And Sally, knowing she was having fun, started rolling a bit too fast for my liking, so I let my foot rest on the brake a bit. At the bottom of the cliff, or bunny hill if you prefer, I had a moment to exhale. I spun around to watch the Gladiator make the descent. He did it with ease and no imperial entanglements from rocks, trees, or extreme angles. Max and Drew followed behind as if they were on their way to Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Well all right,” Wyatt keyed in over the radio. “That was great. Now let’s go up.”

Umm, what? Thing looked a wee steep for me, from this new perspective of safety and flat ground. Next thing I knew though, I was heading skyward. We took a hard right at the top and continued on the rally road, like most normal lunatics do at the rally school.

Then we did it all again.

For me, this served several purposes, like getting to do all that fun stuff again, trying a different line, and letting my brake foot rest, while I dump-trucked down to safety. This slow confidence build was really well paced. I like to ease into things, then build confidence incrementally. This class fit my need for creeping up on speed and I was quite appreciative for that aspect. I should note here too, that Wyatt and Max both said, multiple times along the way, that if we didn’t feel comfortable doing something, then just light up the radio and say so. If needed, we could take a different line, try a different part of the course, etc. There was never any pressure to do anything we didn’t want to do, especially since we were driving our own rigs. That’s a great feature for beginning adventurers.

But I didn’t ask for a different route. And neither did Gladiator Guy.

Modern Jeep Gladiator driving through mud.
This was showroom fresh. Now it's Mud-licious. Photo by Drew Crowley.

Let’s get tilty

We doubled back to the office where there was a little hill that I had never even known was there. Now it was only about six or seven feet high, with a 45-degree angle leading down to the rally road. Now all of a sudden, this little feature was Everest. Wyatt’s Square Jeep rolled up it nice and slow, leaning all the lean, tilting all the tilts, tires reaching the grass-topped ridgeline.

I don’t like tilty.

I crept up on it like Verne over the train bridge in Stand By Me. Creeping. Crawling. One eye was fixed on Everest, the other on the ground outside my driver’s window. My goodness, that ground was close. Halfway through, I started planning my escape if I started losing the battle to gravity – goose the throttle and turn left. Alas, Sally eased me down off the Hillary Step and I flattened back onto level ground. I unclenched a wee bit, then we did it again. For this, for me, for some reason, it didn’t get easier. It’s just an uneasy feeling in my inner gyroscope. But, if you want to get in to this sort of thing, it comes with the package.

A walk in the park.

So I teeter-totter into this off-road park, earth, sky, earth, sky. Then I get a full view. Two giant mud puddles, yes. Large dirt moguls, yes. Trees aplenty. Logs in the road to drive over. Narrow trails. Side tilts (gulp). More mud. Slippy foliage. Yes, yes, more yes.

After we were all safely in the playground, Drew popped out and started taking some snaps. Once we coursed through the trail once, at an appropriate 3 mph, Lap 2 had me a little giddy at the prospect of splashing through the mud. Ten years old again, albeit briefly, I got as splashy as I could for the photos. These turned out pretty well and are quite poster-worthy.

A muddy mountain slope.
Mountain Mud.

As part of this beginner’s course, we had a lot of time to play here. We lapped a few times, then Figure Eighted some stuff, went in reverse order, until we felt comfortable with what we were doing. While Gladiator Guy was getting some long-truck-specific instruction on the other side of the playground, Wyatt, seeing no Red Mist cloud about me, released me to the wild and I got to check out some less-used trails off the beaten path. I got myself in trouble a few times of course, but was able to Drive/Reverse, Drive/Reverse my way out of a few sticky situations, including one with those Monster Moguls.

Hard as I tried, I was stuck between the thought of not gassing enough and gassing too much that I’d fly over the second mogul and break something. That would be a long, expensive tow home, especially since I let my AAA service COVID-lapse. I was on my own. After a while, the audience had gathered. I’d gas up, then sort of get stuck, then slide off the side of the Monster. Tried again, tried again, tried again, and finally, up and over. Smiles for miles, let’s do this again!

Muddy Xterra climbing out of the Monster Mogul.
Cresting the Monster Mogul. Hard to see here, but the back end is down in a gully so far that Beezlebub's got a chain around the trailer hitch. Photo by Drew Crowley.

When we finally left the off-road park, we took a different path out, a more extreme teeter-totter. This bit, I was sure, would find me digging my winch, headlights, spotlights, and trailer hitch out of that fine, aforementioned mountain dirt. I made it out unscathed, save for a cracked spotlight that dangled under my rear bumper. The intention of that was to have a night-time trailer-hooking-up light, but my bad placement left it full of salt water, so it was time to pull it off anyway.

After the puddles, or perhaps before, I did get a check-engine light, glowing the less-than-dangerous orange instead of red. Because I had packed for The Apocalypse, I had a code reader with me and determined that it was for a long-standing charcoal canister issues and a new one, an ABS issue, but I had long-since intentionally disabled that, so I was good to press on regardless.

2002 Xterra in muddy trail.
This may or may not have been where the check-engine light presented itself. Photo by Drew Crowley.

Trailside chat

We popped out of our trusty buggies for a moment to talk about what we just did, lessons learned, and more, things like skills assessment, how did we feel about heading up the mountain and so on. Hell, yes. Let’s make this practice practical. After a brief, adrenaline-fueled pee in what Wyatt described as ‘600 acres of public restroom’, we climbed in our trucks once again and headed straight up the mountain.

Back in the days of my own rally school experience, and subsequent practice sessions before The New England Forest Rally, I had been up this mountain before – but never like this. No, for this go-round, we didn’t use the roads, but the trails that linked them all the way up. Remember that first no-brake trust-first-gear hill? What I saw next made that look like a driveway entrance.

After a brief instructor-discussion about whether the Gladiator was short enough to make it around some obstacles we were about to surmount, we took off, back in our convoy. We took a left that pointed just about straight up. The ‘trail’ looked more like a washout, or a creekbed at the end of summer. The wash of adrenaline dripped nicely into my veins as my truck started bouncing up and over jagged rocks, babyheads, branches, and other bits of woodland flotsam and jetsam. The damp, cool air smelled of leaves just starting to decay, swirling in with random smells of hot oil and the uncatalyzed exhaust leaking from my cracked right-sde header. It was glorious.

One by one, we climbed mountain passages, giving enough space in case of a backwards runaway. I got too close to the lead truck once on a very narrow uphill pass where the only getaway was a 50-foot drop. This was enough to pucker me, so on future climbs, I made sure to stay back enough to have at least a couple of options in case we turned for the worst.

Muddy Jeep.
Deep Jeep. Photo by Drew Crowley.

Truth be told, my favorite features were the water features and the uphills. Some of the downhills were a bit daunting. Going up the hill, I felt like I was clicking and clacking up that first hill on the wooden roller coaster at Canobie Lake. It’s all fun and games until you peak that crest and you’re pointed straight down on rails and rickety wood that was so old they probably made it from pieces of the Mayflower. Up the rocky trails were a bit of the same feeling. Once at the top, a mini celebration was had, then suddenly, the downhill, which was just as rocky, with seemingly more slippy wet leaves to boot.

If anyone’s been to the Grand Canyon, you know that any picture you see of it, taken even by the best photographer, will never, ever match the thing in real life. Same applies to the trails here. The pictures make it look like a nice bunny slope. In reality, sitting in a top-heavy truck with bouncy tires, it feels like a triple black diamond that terminates in Hell.

And now for a downhill

Four-low. First gear. Left foot on the brake. Dump truck sound on. Seatbelt checked (and re-checked). Here we go... Wyatt edges down with nary a problem, no slipping, no sliding, no issues.

“This might get a little slippery with your tire pressure,” Wyatt said over the radio. “If you get into trouble, you’re a rally driver, you’ll figure it out.”



Yes. Yes I will.

Off the brake, but left foot covering, I start making my descent. So far, so good. The dump truck noises spring to life and everything looks and sounds good – until about halfway down. There was a little kink right and when I went to step on the brake, the KO2s had a little trouble finding some grip under all those leaves. In that 1.5 seconds of sliding, which felt like 10 minutes of falling off El Cap, I was able to look ahead and plan for a big moment, but thankfully, that never came. I released the brake, found the grip, and steered out of my little pucker festival like a proper rally driver. Sure enough, everything was fine – at the bottom.

After this we caught a breather with a little less quick, more technical route down a more slight trail. Lined with magnetic trees, this route seemed to like the idea of scratching the heck out bodywork. I had resigned to breaking something or denting something else on this trip. That’s a risk I was willing to take, especially in this Xterra, that once towed a GMC Top Kick, with a trailer loaded with a rally car, off the highway. But I admit I felt a little nervous about Gladiator Guy. Surely he was going to leave a few red streaks on some NH trees before he was done. But he did say at the beginning, that he’d rather scratch it here than in the parking lot of some big-box store. Good man.

Cliff drop.
There were some downhills too. If you look closely, just beyond those foreground leaves, there's an approximately a 29,000-foot drop. Photo thanks to image stabilization.

After my ass end very nearly slid off a rock sideways and into a tree, a rather nice rotted stump grabbed a rear wheel and prevented me from denting a quarter panel and busting out some glass. Gladiator Guy came down after me, met the same fate, but got hung up, very, very slightly on small dead tree that had reached out and grabbed his protruding taillight. The tree though, wasn’t bitter. It pulled the light only slightly out of its socket but didn’t break anything. After a few attempts to back up and get the tree to release its grip failed, Max grabbed a chainsaw from the shop and they both cut the tree down with a surgical precision akin to the Operation game back in the day. Wyatt worked the chainsaw and Max pushed on the tree – and they didn’t touch the sides. Once the tree was firewood, the Gladiator rolled along freely to seek out another adventure.

Three-hour tour

In three hours, I felt like we hit just about every rocky trail and outcropping on this particular mountain. I thought the day would go by in a flash, or feel like it was a 25-cent ride on the kids’ motorcycle machine in front of the grocery store. Perhaps it was because the beginning of the day was rainy and cloudy and the end of the day being sunny and warm, that made it feel like a long time. At the end of the session though, I was beat.

Climbing back down the mountain, we actually had a little extra time, so we jumped in yet another trail that I thought was insanely technical and this time for sure, something was gonna break. But no, I took my time, used my newly acquired skills and rock-and-rolled right through the crevasse. Then we went back up. Then down. Then back up again! Each time, I saw different lines, different challenges, different ways of doing things. I could get used to this sort of thing.

After trucking up and down Everest for three hours, the normal rally roads and Drive felt like Interstate 93 through the Notch, smooth and fabulous. We made our way back down to the office to assess any damages and chat about the adventure. The only damage I had was that trailer light and a truck covered in mud. The only damage Gladiator Guy had was a sprained taillight that Max fixed while we were talking and Karl was passing out TrailCraft t-shirts and water.

Xterra coming out of mud puddle.
Ready for the Retro Camel Trophy. Photo by Drew Crowley.

We reviewed the day and had a few laughs about near misses, learned techniques, and future plans for getting our trucks dirty. Like rally, I thought this was going to be a bucket list item for me. But it’s not. I started rallying 10 years ago and I’m still doing it whenever possible. Now I’ve already started planning my next 4x4 trip using the stuff I learned here and stuff I still need to learn, like how to really use that winch up front for things other than pulling out shrubbery.


Would I recommend Beginner 4x4 Class at TrailCraft? Hell yeah.

Is it worth $300? There has been some online grumblings about the price, but mostly from grizzled, experienced 4x4 people. The way I look at it though is it’s like insurance. That $300 spent on qualified instruction might save you $3,000 in broken shit on your truck when you do it wrong, not to mention broken thumbs.

Does your truck have to be modified? Mine is definitely modified and lifted with bigger tires for ground clearance, but Gladiator Guy’s truck was stock, off the lot, and he didn’t get hung up in a ground clearance sort of way. I would recommend it though. There were times that I thought I would bottom out, but didn’t. And those puddles were deep! So deep I expected intrusion into the cabin, but a lucked out. Barely.

Would I go back for other classes, like Winching 101 and Intro to Overlanding? Oh Hell yeah.

Xterra on moutain.
The sun shines through October leaves as the sweet aroma of chainsaw exhaust and fresh cut maple wafts through the mountain air.
Tilting Xterra in mud.
"Side tilts, side tilts, this is how we do it..."
Profile view of the Xterra.
No worse for wear at the end of the day. Still at full tire pressure.
Xterra in Fall.
Articulation Station. I removed the rear sway bar to allow for more articulation, but retain the front because this is still my daily. Photo by Drew Crowley.
Side view Xterra.
Looks like there's enough clearance here... and a place to hang your socks.
Xterra with door open.
We finally drove up Everest and are now around the corner savoring the view -- of the sniper range.
Tacoma going uphill.
This is one of those Grand Canyon shots. This thing, in real life, looked like it was straight up.
Muddy Xterra.
If it's muddy, it's for me. Photo by Drew Crowley.
Tacoma going into pudlde.
Max's Tacoma takes a dip. Photo by Drew Crowley.
Jeep in deep water.
Wyatt's Square Jeep takes the plunge. You can take the boy out of the puddle, but you can't take the puddle out of the boy. Wait, what? Photo by Drew Crowley.
Jeep tilting.
Wyatt tilts like a 70s pinball machine. Photo by Drew Crowley.
Broken trailer light.
The only damage: Broken glass on an ill-placed trailer accessory light hanging low from the bottom of the bumper. This has been rusted out and broken for years.
Sniper range.
Ahhh, New England in Fall! That's a sniper range. Those little white dots are targets.
Mountain view.
Oh, that sweet, sweet view.

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