Tag: blog

Eliminate “Off-Road” Abuse!

That should get everyone's attention! 😀 What I am actually referring to is the overuse of the term "off road" as opposed to "off highway," "off pavement," or "4-wheeling." For as long as I can remember, the recreational sport of 4-wheeling has been called "off-roading," as in "Hey, y'all, let's load up the Jeep and spend the weekend offroading!" Somewhere along the way, the legal definition of "OFF road" came to mean when you are NOT on an established public thoroughfare.

As a group, those of us who engage in the use of unpaved roads and trails for recreation need to update our vocabulary to more legally accurate terms, and here is why: I frequently experience incidents where a mere misunderstanding of each party's definitions have caused unnecessary conflict and confusion.

For example, when a local Forest Service district announced they were considering eliminating all off-road use, the local Jeep club came unglued, until the fine print was reviewed, revealing that what was actually proposed was the elimination of allowing people to drive off of the established trails onto virgin terrain--our favorite 4-wheeling trails were not actually in peril (that time).

Another common confusion I encounter is in the Jeep rental business. We frequently have guests tell us "I'm not sure if my insurance covers me off road," to which we reply "That's fine since you aren't actually going off road today." Then we explain it: The legal definition of "off road" by land management agencies and insurance companies is "off of an established public thoroughfare." When a ranger or insurance adjuster says "off road", what they mean is "were you on a named and/or numbered, identifiably established trail?" Even trails like Smasher Canyon and Broken Arrow are officially-recognized public thoroughfares--legally, you are "ON road". 

Therefore, I have been trying to catch myself whenever I say "off-road" and changing it to "4-wheeling," "off-highway," "trail riding" or " rock crawling." I should also mention that the term "trail" in Forest Service-ese means hiking, so mindful of that, too. Sheesh! 
Bottom line: stay off of the topsoil, ask about the local rules, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification. 
Happy trails!

Enjoy the Trip!

This past Saturday, I ventured out onto Diamondback Gulch. It's a moderate Jeep trail in West Sedona that is not nearly as well known as Broken Arrow, Soldier Pass, or Schnebly Hill. In fact, on busy Saturdays, it's one of those trails you take because you know there will only be a few folks out there. But on this Saturday, there were countless tour Jeeps and three different 4x4 clubs on this mere 6-mile trail. What is usually a casual two-hour excursion was a harried 3-hour stop, wait, and back-up game.

With Spring Breaks starting all across the west this week, traffic snarls and manic visitors are the expected fare in tourism towns all over, both on and off pavement. This carries over onto even our most exclusive 4-wheeling Jeep trails. A few reminders:

  1. Safety comes first--no matter how late you may be to whatever appointment or next scheduled activity, it's never worth the safety of you or your family to hurry: stay calm, pay attention (no texting or taking pictures while driving), don't rush. There are way too many other harried people out there this time of year. Stay alert!
  2. Educate yourself--call ahead to your destination or next activity to find out what the weather conditions are, what road construction snarls you may be able to avoid, or what alternate activities or timing could better suit your needs to help you avoid peak traffic. Most business operators are happy to help direct visitors to a time frame that will be better for everyone. Some Jeep trails are busier certain days of the week or time of day. Some road construction snags can be avoided by alternate routes or different times of day.
  3. Have fun! Remember why you are out there--to enjoy the natural beauty of your surroundings, and share a fun experience with friends and loved ones. Plan some extra time in case of unplanned snags in your schedule--have snacks or activities for kids ready. Make the best of whatever situation you encounter. Keep everything in perspective and ENJOY your trip.

Happy Trails!

Trail Clean-up: What are YOU doing next Saturday?

I'll keep this short and sweet...well, at least short. If you love the outdoors--four-wheeling, hiking, fishing, whatever--you need to give back. Disrespectful, lazy, worthless scum leave trash on our trails every day. No, it's not our trash, but it is our land and our responsibility to take care of it. Participating in a trail clean-up is a great way to get started on responsible land use, a great way to meet other like-minded recreationists, and the most fun trash pickin' you will ever have.

Four Peaks is a beautiful area northeast of Phoenix that is abused by slobs. There is an annual clean-up there, and we are making headway--every year gets a little better. This year's event is NEXT SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2010. Join me and a bunch of other people here, or watch for a clean-up near you through your local club, association, or land management agency.

Happy Trails!

Winter Driving: On and Off Pavement

I am always appalled when a driver speeds past me on an icy highway, refusing to drop below the speed limit regardless of road conditions. More often than not, you see that same driver slide out into the median some miles up. And, also more often than not, when you ask them what they were thinking they reply, “It’s 4-wheel-drive!”

Today’s new vehicles almost all provide some sort of anti-skid program. On Jeeps it’s called ESP (Electronic Stability Program), which senses when the vehicle is going to slide and uses the brake system (ABS) to correct the vehicle. However, ice is still ice, and though an anti-skid program may prevent you from doing a triple sow cow with a double axle (a lovely spinning figure skating maneuver--I have done this particular maneuver before, in a 2wd pickup in Colorado), slide you will if you don’t employ good driving BEFORE hitting the ice.

Regardless of your vehicles programming, you are better off preparing in advance for what may come than trying to recover from it after you have made some driving errors. Slow down and try to just maintain a steady pace rather than “making good time”. The goal is to get home in one piece, not necessarily on time. Be alert to changing conditions and anticipate what changes may occur on the road surface.

The concept of situational awareness and constant vigilance while driving, in any conditions, is one I attempted to relate to the author of a survival book who came to me for advice about what to do if your car careens down a steep mountainside. I told him “If you have already made the series of wrong choices that led to you careening off of the road in the first place, it is unlikely that you will be able to properly execute the techniques to save your hide as you are sliding down the hillside.” I humored him anyway, but my opinion stays the same: it is preferable to properly prepare than to engage in recovery.

Here are a few tips for winter driving conditions, applicable to both paved and unpaved driving:

  1. 4-wheel-drive vehicles are not invincible. Ice provides little or no traction, regardless of whether you have power to one wheel or four or eighteen. When I warn people about icy roads going to Flagstaff, and they shrug and say “I have a 4-wheel-drive”, I usually respond “…with studded tires? Because ice doesn’t care how-many-drive you have. No traction is no traction.” I’ll put my money on an experienced winter driver in a front-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla over an inexperienced driver in a 4wd Lincoln Navigator any day. Also, if you have huge lug gaps in some super aggressive rock tires, you can paddle powder like a champ, but your tires will be lost on ice.
  2. Slow and steady wins the race. When you find yourself on slippery roads, paved or not, maintaining a slow steady pace, with as few speed or course corrections as possible, will get you across the slick section better than hitting gas, slamming brake, or yanking wheels back and forth. On pavement, do NOT use cruise control on wet or icy roads. Do NOT use axle locks, except at low, slow speeds—driving a full time locked Jeep on a highway with icy patches was one of the most thrilling and frightening experiences of my life. All that said, the number one mistake I see is SPEED—whether on dry sandstone or icy highway, it seems that I am always yelling at people to slow down. But, inversely, you also don’t want to panic stop—if you are wheeling along a shelf road and you start sliding toward the edge, often a little more steady pressure on the throttle will keep you moving forward on the road, whereas braking will just enhance the slide. STEADY is the key. Did I mention that you should slow down?
  3. Give yourself some space. Not only should you allow plenty of extra time in winter conditions, but remember that the same dirt road that allows you to stop within 10 feet, may take 30-50 feet or more if it’s muddy or icy, depending on your momentum (see point 2, above, about slowing down!). If you are traveling with other vehicles, proceed one at a time up or down even hills that are easy when dry, that can become like a greased slide when wet.
  4. Plan ahead. Many tragedies can be averted by just a little planning, research, and preparation. What are the current conditions where you are going? At what altitudes will you be traveling? What is the weather forecast? What is the temperature range for your route (day and night)? What time does it get dark? Are you prepared to turn back if conditions get dicey? Are you prepared to be outdoors in cold/dark/wet conditions? Let’s say you blow a tire or your vehicle battery dies at night in a snow storm—do you have sufficient equipment and clothing for it NOT to become a life-threatening incident? Always have an escape plan—where is the best turn around point? Where is the closest point of civilization?
  5. Anticipate. It’s better to be proactive than reactive. If you come to a decline that is slushy, muddy or icy, and you have only driven it dry before, you should expect this descent to be quite different! You should anticipate it to be slippery. You should be reminding yourself that if the rear end starts to come around, you want to ease off the brake and turn the wheel into the slide or lean. If it’s solid ice, you may want to consider what the bumpstop is at the bottom, or decide not to proceed at all! All of these things should be mentally assessed BEFORE you proceed. Be alert--LOOK and THINK!

Even the most careful drivers and trip planners encounter problems. Here are some for recovering from sliding or getting unstuck:

  1. In a slide or a lean, turn your tires into the slide/lean for the best control. The instinct of many drivers is to turn away from the slide or lean, but that will actually diminish your traction and control. Watch what this guy does with the steering wheel when his Corvette starts to slide at the 27-second mark of the video.
  2. Understand where your best power is. The rear wheels are always pushing you forward. The more you crank your front tires to one side or another, the more resistance you are creating to the forward power which your rear wheels are trying to provide. Keep your front tires straight for maximum forward power.
  3. Balance the weight: if passengers or luggage can be shifted in the vehicle to balance the weight on the wheels, you have a better chance for traction with equal weight distribution between each of the 4 wheels. Sometimes, just lightening the load in the vehicle is enough to get you unstuck, by either getting passengers or luggage safely out and away from the vehicle.
  4. Give the tires something to grab: rocks, floor mats, salt or sand. If you have a tire on one side of the axle spinning and not the other, concentrate on giving the spinning tire the traction. Another trick for this situation is to use left-foot braking (if you have an automatic) or e-brake application (if you have a manual)—applying the brake, while applying a little throttle at the same time allows some power to transfer to the other wheel, arguably the one that does have traction.
  5. A winch or another vehicle with a strap is always a great option for a seriously lodged vehicle, but always remember personal safety first. Take the time to carefully assess the situation and make sure all PEOPLE are safe before proceeding with any recovery of a vehicle.

Some more reading about Winter 4-wheeling:

Happy trails!

Keep Your Guard Up!

One thing that I see over and over again in the four-wheeling world are mishaps where no one expected it. We get through a nasty obstacle, breathe a sigh of relief, then get stuck on small rock we didn't even notice. Or we spend all day on a grueling 4x4 trail, get through without a scratch, then on the way home, slide off of the gravel road into tree.

The common thread? We let our guard down after the "perceived threat" is past. The solution? Don't take anything for granted--keep your guard up until everyone is safely home on the couch.

A few recent examples:

This Jeep was damaged just AFTER successfully navigating a nasty obstacle. The driver got through and parked. Then he realized that the Jeep coming through the obstacle behind him didn't have enough room to park, so he got back in, started the Jeep, put it in gear and, in his haste to not miss watching the other Jeep come through, accidentally mashed the throttle down, instead of the brake. He careened off of the back of the Jeep parked about 40 feet ahead of him before he stopped. Total bill: $7000. Ouch.

One-minute before this photo was taken, this very capable Jeep and driver were attempting a very challenging optional obstacle. After several attempts at the hairy obstacle, the driver decided he just wasn't going to make it up today, and was backing out to leave. He relaxed, not paying much attention to what was behind him, and backed into this rather innocuous crack with just enough momentum to flop his rig.

I have archives of such similar occurrences. These examples were lucky in that no one was hurt. Not every "oops" moment is so lucky.

The point, folks: Always traverse the trail with humility--give every inch of the trail its due attention. Plan, prepare, and educate yourself BEFORE you go. Don't ever RUSH through ANYTHING. And, in conclusion, PAY ATTENTION!

Be safe and happy trails!

GPS Locators: No Substitute for Proper Preparation

This week's blog is brief, but, once again, focuses on bad behavior.

By now, most of us have heard about or used a "Personal GPS Locator"--a device that allows you to use satellite communication to send a distress call. I often mention these during 4x4 clinics as a good tool to have in your bag of self-preservation goodies.

However, it is recently coming to public attention that GPS locators are being abused, wasting the resources of various emergency services for such trivial things as being scared by a thunderstorm, having bad-tasting water, or just an accidental activation. My favorite quote from a Search and Rescue administrator says "you send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.”

Though having a GPS-based locator can save lives, it should NEVER be used as a substitute for good preparation, including having adequate water, maps, a thorough weather and trail conditions check, and--what I hesitate to call "common" sense--a general awareness of one's surroundings, one's capabilities (and limitations) and a little knowledge about handling "the unexpected."

Even having a locator doesn't mean that you will have adequate signal or that conditions will allow rescuers to get to you. One should always approach a venture into the backcountry with the attitude that "no one is coming to rescue me--I have to rely on myself to get out and back", and plan accordingly, even if that plan means scrapping the excursion altogether. Know when NOT to go.

For a thorough article about the rising misuse of GPS locators, see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33470581/ns/us_news-life//

For more information on one specific device that I have used with great satisfaction, visit: http://www.findmespot.com

Happy trails!

Don’t be the Guy Who…

Don't be the guy who drives a moderately challenging Jeep trail in 2wd and then brags about it.

Why not?

1. Many of our Arizona Jeep trails are heavily used, old, and highly scrutinized. Spinning your tires and revving your motor is not only disruptive to the enjoyment of other trail users (4x4's, hikers, mountain bikers, etc.) but also destructive to the road surface, and contributes to the unwillingness of land managers to keep trails open.

2. Using RPM's instead of gearing to pull yourself up hills is very likely to result in an overheated motor and/or transmission--if you are not aware, both are VERY expensive components of your vehicle.

3. It makes you look like an idiot. A 4x4 has gears specifically designed to tackle steep and/or rocky terrain. NOT using them is like using a screwdriver as a hammer, or using a toothbrush to comb your hair. Use the tool the way it's supposed to be used. If you like looking like a moron, by all means, entertain us, but PLEASE don't do it on OUR land--public trails are not your personal back yard--they belongs to all of us.

It boggles my mind when someone comes back from a moderate trail where we recommend using 4L, and they say "I did it in 2H (or 4H)!" like we should be impressed. This past weekend, we had several reports of a 2wd Ford pickup on Broken Arrow trying to get up several obstacles, having to rev the motor, and make multiple attempts to climb, whereas any SUV with 4L just walks right up. Rocks and dirt were flung for 50 feet, and people throughout the 4 mile trail could hear the roar of the V8 motor struggling.

What do you say when you encounter someone on the trail who is that blatantly ignorant and/or disrespectful?

First, I try to establish if they are having a mechanical problem, ignorant or just totally disrespectful. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt first by saying something like: "Is everything okay with your truck? It sounds like you are stuck in high range." And SMILE when you talk to them--that's important.

If everything is okay with the truck, I proceed: "You know, you are really tearing up the trail--if a ranger catches you, there are big fines for that. You really should be using 4L to avoid digging up the trail, not to mention overheating your motor or tranny. I think I speak for a lot of people out here when I say that I would like the Forest Service to keep this trail open, not to mention having to drag a dead truck out of here." At this point MOST people will get sheepish, and humbly say okay, to which I respond "Thank you so much--have fun and be safe!" with my biggest syrupy-sweet smile.

But what if you still get no result? Again, smile, say "Well, have a nice day_______(insert nickname of choice)" then get a photo of them, the truck, the license plate, the trail damage, and write down all the details of the location and the incident and turn it in to the Forest Service--they are very hi-tech now--you can email your info! At the very least, the moron in question will get a message asking to speak to them about the incident, and maybe, just maybe, they will think twice about acting like an idiot on our land next time.

May the morons on your trails be few and far between.

Happy trails!

More Fall Color: Mingus Mountain

Mid-October is usually prime color on Mingus Mountain, and though some sporadic color may be enjoyed from the highway and some of the hiking trails, by far the most spectacular color is only accessible by Jeep or other high-clearance 4x4.

We enjoyed a jaunt up Mingus Mountain this past Sunday, October 18, and it was definitely in that perfect 10-day window of the most vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, and golds.

The trail starts in Cottonwood, Arizona from Mingus Avenue. Take Mingus Avenue past the airport and stay on it as it turns to bumpy dirt and gravel road. This is now FR 493 in the Prescott National Forest. Follow 493 as it winds up the mountain and gradually gets narrower, steeper and rockier.

Pass the Copper Chief Mine (be careful to stay on the main forest road, not wander onto private property--respect signs and gates), which was a very rich copper mine from the turn of the century until the mid-50's, but gets very little historical note due to the fact that the much bigger and richer Jerome lies just over the rise. With the rise of metal prices, this mine has recently been reopened and you can see signs of more modern mining amongst the historic footing of the old operation.

About 5 miles up, you will come to a T at FR 413, but not before the trail tests your resolve with a half-mile of extremely rocky trail. This last 1/2 mile before FR 413 is the toughest part of the whole trail and definitely requires a high-clearance 4x4 with tough tires and a driver who knows how to pick a line. Experienced Jeepers in well-built rigs will walk right through this section without much thought, but a novice in a stock SUV will gasp at the sight of 12-16" rocks sticking up in the narrow trail.

In addition to gorgeous flora, visitors are also rewarded with expansive views of the Verde Valley and the red rocks of Sedona.



For the best color, turn left (southeast) on FR 413. The red and orange maples and yellow walnuts will cluster in the canyons for the next few miles as the trail winds southeast and climbs gradually toward the top of Mingus Mountain.

Follow FR 413 all the way to the pine forests on top of Mingus Mountain. As you get closer to highway 89A, note many great campsites in the area. Come to a T at a (sometimes marked) road, where left takes you to the highway, and a right takes you to the Mingus Mountain overlook and hang glider launch area.

About 18 miles total, from Hwy 89A in Cottonwood and back to Hwy 89A on the top of Mingus Mountain. You climb 4000 feet in elevation, from 3500 to 7500 feet above sea level. Allow 3-4 hours with stops. This trail is not recommended in wet weather and is usually closed at the top in the winter.

Happy trails!


Fall Color in Northern Arizona

11 October 2009, Flagstaff AZ - Fall Color is here! Golds, coppers, and reds contrast the green pines and blue sky for spectacular scenic drives throughout Northern Arizona. Aspens, oaks, and maples are in full swing at the highest elevations (north side of the San Francisco Peaks), with color expected to carry through mid-November at lower elevations (Mingus Mountain, Oak Creek Canyon).

Yesterday's excursion ventured to the Flagstaff area to visit Lockett Meadow, then around the north side of the San Francisco Peaks. This area always presents the earliest autumn color, with its higher elevations and cooler, northerly-facing slopes. Apparently, the secret is out, as we passed hundreds of other motorists out for a picturesque country drive as well. Note: Lockett Meadow is busy on weekends, especially a holiday weekend!

The road to Lockett Meadow is easily passable by any truck or SUV, though we did see many adventurous (or careless?) folks in sedans, many of which we witnessed bottoming out in ruts or changing a flat tire. Expect ruts, washboards, baseball-sized rocks, and some mild wash-outs. It is plenty wide for any single vehicle, but can be interesting when you encounter a vehicle coming the other direction--watch for wide spots. The road is also completely devoid of any guard rails and does follow a steep, shelf section for most of the three miles of the Lockett Meadow spur. If heights bother you, this road will get your attention!


Lockett Meadow is the caldera for the San Francisco peaks--the heart of the (dormant) volcano. There are campsites and hiking trails available in the area. Please stay on the established road and use existing pull-outs and parking spots--Arizona meadows are very fragile.

To get there: (See map below) Take Hwy 89 north from Flagstaff, and travel about 10 miles north of the mall. Watch for the entrance to Sunset Crater & Wupatki National Monument on the right--turn left onto the Forest Access road directly across from the monument entrance, near mile marker 430. Follow the Forest Access road approximately 1 mile to the T. Turn right onto FR 552 (sign says Lockett Meadow and FR418 to the right). Approximately 1 mile further, note FR 418 to the right--you may want to return here later to follow the road around the north side of the Peaks. Just past this, FR 552 Lockett Meadow turns right. Follow 552 another 3 miles to the meadow--the next 2 miles are the narrow shelf section! Once you reach the meadow, the road makes a 2 mile counter-clockwise loop of the meadow, with a side road to the bathrooms, and hiking trails and campsites all along the way.

Return the way you came, or for a slightly less-traveled road, go back to the bottom of the hill and follow FR 418 around the north side of the peaks. Once you turn onto FR 418, it's about 20 miles to Hwy 180. Spectacular views northward toward the painted desert and the Coconino Plateau, and many sunlight-dappled stretches of road that offer patches of fall color.

About 8 miles in, you might want to turn left to the trailhead for the Abineau or Bear Skull trails--there are numerous 4x4 side roads for more private picnic and/or camping spots.

About 11 miles along FR 418, the road splits and becomes FR 151 in White Horse Basin. Take it right (north) for a short 2 mile drive to Hwy 180, or left (west) for more scenery back to Hwy 180 and come out just 3 miles north of Snowbowl Road. The left route is my favorite because it wraps around the northwest side of the peaks, for more of those breathtaking meadow vistas, with the peaks as a backdrop--great for wildflowers in the summer, too!

Allow about 3 hours for a casual roundtrip from Flagstaff. Remember to take plenty of water, and have a good spare tire and jack on board, just in case. Cell signal is weak (if any) for most of the trip.

Once you get to pavement, turn left on Hwy 180 and drop into downtown Flagstaff for a refreshment at one of the fine local pubs or coffee houses.

Happy trails!