Why take a 101 Course for Off-Road Driving?

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Story and Photos by Rich Klein

Originally Published in Issue 34 of 4Low Magazine

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We wondered who these courses were for, and figured the easiest way to find out was to see who was taking them. In June, we went with Nick Cimmarusti, a Certified Instructor and Trail Guide for Barlow Adventures, on an advanced training course on the Rubicon. Barlow Adventures is a Jeep rental and guide service with locations in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Nick teaches classes in basic off-road driving skills, advanced driving skills, and recovery skills.

Here’s who he was teaching:

  • A married couple who had been motorcycle riders for years, but have redirected their off-roading to Jeeps
  • A father/daughter team with a newer Jeep that were looking for better communication and travel skills
  • A father/son team looking for more confidence to travel the rock trails without relying on others for help
  • A single woman who had owned and wheeled a CJ5 for five years, relying on others to drive the difficult or scary parts. With a new JK, she wanted to learn to drive herself.

For some, it’s hard to relate. We began wheeling before off-roading became a thing. I’ve been driving off-road for nearly 40 years now. I had a mentor who helped me learn the basics, like air pressure, tire placement, looking ahead, and remembering where to drive before losing sight of the trail under the vehicle.

When I started wheeling trail rigs were driven to the trail, and back home again. In the late ’80s, that began to change as people trailered their rigs to the trail. With that change, came rigs built specifically for the trail, they were no longer street-legal.

The TJ helped bring back the daily driver; then, the JK re-enforced the idea of a capable street rig to trail rig all in one package.

With these movements from TJ to JK, we saw a new influx of Jeepers who had not considered going wheeling until after they bought their Jeep. Before that, going off-road was the impetus to getting your Jeep in the first place. Many JK owners were looking for a cool SUV; it wasn’t until after the purchase they decided to upgrade them for wheeling. So here’s the difference. Without experience driving off-road, a $40,000+ rig can quickly become a mess or junker trying to learn. Many of these first time 4×4 owners don’t have friends (yet) that will help them learn, or they don’t want to be the person to slow down the group while learning.

This is where the training instructor can be vital to learning how to wheel.

Our day started with a driver’s meeting at the trailhead at Wentworth Springs campground, the entrance to the Rubicon Trail. Nick discussed what they would be working on, skills like reading the rocks, looking for line of travel, spotting skills, and general trail education.

With the first steep climb only a few yards out of the campground, the students got their feet wet right away. Spotting each other up a blind climb with a little bit of off-camber thrown in. Beth, who has a CJ5 as well as the new-to-her JK, had never driven this section and was nervous about doing so. Nick’s job was to help her gain the confidence to drive all the obstacles. The first climb was the start of the confidence lesson, and it was great to see that by the end of the trail, once we got Loon Lake, Nick had done his job well. Beth drove all the trail sections we took during this training day; she declared that she was ready to tackle the entire Rubicon Trail with a second driver. That’s exactly who these training classes are for.

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