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I looked up behind me after I had gotten out of my jeep and thought, “There is no way in hell that I would drive down that thing.”,  while at the same time loving the fact that I just had. I was in Johnson Valley, CA at Cougar Buttes on the Bullfrog Trail with I4WDTA Master Trainer Tom Severin and a group of enthusiasts who had signed up for this rock crawling class.  Wimpy?  I don’t think so. My rig is expensive and off-road, 4WD training classes have given me a good, solid foundation in smart and safe off-roading. I believe that practice is necessary in order to build skill and knowledge provides a safe foundation to go on.

I’m going to give you a brief recap of the class and encourage any of you who are considering taking your off-roading skills to a new level to find an I4WDTA trainer in your area and sign up for a day of fun.

the adventure portal rock crawling class

After signing in and checking all the vehicles for safety items (fire extinguishers, recovery straps, etc.) we met a BLM Ranger who reviewed some outdoor safety rules: no shooting, no glass, stay (non-alcoholically) hydrated, pack your crap out with you, and,  “Say hello to my little friend….”. We were educated on the nature of creatures in this rocky, desert environment.  He warned us to check under our vehicles when re-entering, after being parked for any length of time, for snakes or scorpions, who may have taken refuge in the shade of a tire.

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A Rosie Boa, one of the many creatures to be found out in Johnson Valley.
Gentlemen and lady, start your engines.
Gentlemen (and lady), start your engines.

After our discussion on how to safely co-exist with the spiders, snakes and scorpions in the area, we headed out to Cougar Buttes for some warm up exercises. Tom had three co-instructors who stationed themselves at different points on an obstacle course. One by one, they guided us over each obstacle. They spotted us when we asked for help or were headed for trouble, giving us feedback on the amount throttle to apply and our tire placement.  We drove this course three times going one direction, then three times in the opposite direction, in order to get a feel for going up and down obstacles.

One of our first warm ups
Same obstacle, opposite direction.

After the first round, the instructors encouraged us to pick our own lines (most of us had required spotting the first time around). We came out of this exercise with feedback based on what the instructors had seen. We were told to always stop as soon as our wheels started to spin. This was contrary to my instinct, which was to pump up the throttle to “get over” whatever my wheels were spinning on. I got a loud, “Stop! you will break something!  Back up and choose another line.”  We were also told how to steady the amount of throttle by using left foot braking while slowly accelerating, which was counter-intuitive at first, but works well.  Going slow, slow, slow reduces the amount of bounce and helps with traction control. We were in 4WD low, first gear most of the day. Oh, and no diff locks. According to Tom, using diff locks is cheating when you are trying to improve your rock crawling skills. Good point.
















Some things that were heavily emphasized, were the importance of recon; getting out of your vehicle and scouting your line. Picking a safe line. Ideally, one that allows all your wheels to have traction, your carriage to  have adequate clearance and a line that keeps you on camber as much as possible.  Also emphasized was the importance of placing your tires on top of rocks when needed, in order to reduce the chance of undercarriage damage.

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Place your tires on top of rocks in order to protect the undercarriage of your vehicle.

Some other words of wisdom: If a front wheel keeps climbing (you are angling at more than 30 degrees)…back up and pick another line. Use rock rails to pivot around a rock. Always scout ahead planning for the next portion of the trail. One thing that I found difficult (and still do) , is wheel cheat (here is a useful diagram/information on wheel cheat). When you pick a line and need to turn around an obstacle, it’s important to modify your turn to allow the back wheels to also go over the obstacle. Use wheel cheat to pull your back wheel up over a rock, rather than pitch the tire between a rock and your rim.

Wheel cheat miscalculations had me back up a few time to get around this pile while navigating a ledge on driver side.
Wheel cheat miscalculations had me backing up a few time to get around this pile while navigating a ledge on driver side.

What a rush! TAP is a big proponent of Off-Road 4WD training courses and highly recommend them to those of you who are somewhat new to the sport as well as the salty old dogs…a bit of a refresher never hurts because as soon as you think you’ve got it wired, mother nature provides something to smack the undercarriage of your rig….just to keep you humble.

rock class The adventure portal
Trainer, Tom Severin, navigating a challenging obstacle at Bull Frog in Johnson Valley.

So, get out there, be safe, stay on designated trails and TAP into adventure!  The wheel cheat sheet (ha!) comes from www. rubicon-trail.com a good source of info if the Rubicon is on your bucket list….it’s on mine.

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Author, Editor, Photos: Lori Palmer

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New York born to SoCal via Puerto Rico and San Francisco, partner in crime and co-founder of The Adventure Portal, Lori has over 15 years experience in partaking of adventures in the American southwest, primitive camping, hiking and exploring in her Rubi. She welcomes new challenges and is always pushing the envelope of adventure in her Jeep.


  1. Looks like a very fun day! I’ve always been interested in this type of training, beginner through advanced courses would be great as well. One day!!

    • It was a great day.Training courses are well worth it…seasoned driver or beginner…always good information and practice. Do it! 🙂

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