As the Jeep event season looms closer, and winter-bound Jeepers start licking their chops over the trail selections of various 4-wheeling events around the country, I find the ever-sticky trail rating questions frequently crossing my path:
"Can my Jeep make it through the _____ trail?"
"What's a good moderate trail to do at _____?"
"What's the most fun trail at ______?"
As most of you already know, the askee cannot adequately answer any of these questions without acquiring a slew of other information from the asker: "How is your Jeep set up?", "What's your definition of moderate?", and "Is your idea of fun an easy scenic jaunt, or a heart-pounding steel-crushing rock fest?"
But beyond those subjective conversations is a larger befuddlement in the entire 4-wheeling world:
There is NO universal trail rating system!
In Arizona, we have used a 0-5 scale for a long time, with 0 being paved road, and 5 being impassable to any vehicle that ever rolled off a factory line. And we throw around terms like "easy" or "beginner" to "adventurous" or "extreme". Utah (specifically, Moab) has gone to a fairly well-defined 1-10 scale that categorizes anything in the 9 or 10 rating as buggy class only, relegating those of us in originally factory-built rigs, no matter how modified, to the 1-8 trails only. But to confuse matters further, Colorado and California use a 1-10 scale that makes trails like the famous Rubicon an 8-10 on their scale (the same trail might be a 6 or 7 on the Moab scale).
Then factor in that trails like Black Bear Pass near Ouray CO--the trail is actually very easy to drive--would barely rate a 4 or a "moderate" on the scenic Jeepers scale, except for that one little sticky fact about the narrow shelf road and excrutiatingly tight switchbacks with a sheer drop off of hundreds of feet promising certain death if you screw up by just a few inches--how do you calculate that HUGE intimidation factor into a trail rating?
Ask two different wheelers about the rating of a particular trail, and you will get two entirely different replies. For example, take a trail I will call "Bad Deal"--if you ask my friend Rick, whose Jeep has no straight sheet metal, a full roll cage, and carries crash helmets for its passengers, Rick will tell you that Bad Deal is a really easy trail. If you ask a recent client of mine, Jim, with a shiny stock 2011 Grand Cherokee, he would say it was impassable--that it wasn't a "trail" at all. The truth? In the rental and 4x4 instruction business, we would call this trail difficult or extreme, because it does take an aggressive 4wd with a driver who can make some good line choices to be able to make it through without damage beyond a few brush scratches and a little exercise of the skid plates. But, in the rock crawling world, this trail is barely a speed bump, and you have to go out of your way to make it interesting.
With all of this said, how can you properly choose a trail? Read, research, ask...Ask detailed questions of a knowledgable person you trust, or, at the very least, ask a variety of people and hope the truth will reveal itself in the averages (online forums are great for that!). Other good sources of info are local clubs, 4x4 shops in the area of your intended trails (and good people to know ahead of time in case you need some repairs), Jeep or ATV rental shops, and sometimes you get lucky and find a knowledgeable trail person at the local BLM or USFS Ranger Station.
But, what do you ask in order to get a true picture of what you are trying to get yourself into?
As an instructor, I address this with clients, and advise them to ask detailed questions about trails they are considering, such as:
"What size are the biggest rocks I will have to surmount? Labrador-sized? Volkswagon?"
"How tall are the ledges? Are they easy, rounded steps, or 90-degree steps?"
"What is the trail surface like? Sand? Sandstone? Slippery shale?"
"Are there bypasses for the harder obstacles on that particular trail?"
And, if you have particular fears or interests, ask about those too:
"How wide are the shelf roads?"
"How steep are the sidehills or inclines?"
"Is there adequate trail to pass other vehicles or stop for pictures?"
"Are there (ruins, mines, historic sites, etc.?"
And, last, but not least, don't forget to plan to get in and get out comfortably:
"How far to the nearest gas station to the trailhead? Closest air?"
"What about bathroom breaks...facilities at trailhead or just plenty of shrubs near the trail?"
"Closest place to pickup lunch/snacks/drinks on the way?"
Remember--the only dumb question is the one you didn't ask.