Chicago Auto Show Blog

The Detailer gets his 4Runner immersed in mud

Posted by: Jim OBrill

Off-roading 101 

After years of wanting to take my 4Runner off the pavement, I finally had the chance to do so and loved every minute of it. I’ve done off-roading before in manufacturer vehicles for media events with several guides and front seat passengers. While they were good off-road courses to mildly show off the capabilities of a Jeep, Ranger Rover or Toyota, they barely scratched the surface compared to Badlands Off-Road Park in Attica, IN. This was the first time I took my 4Runner out and tested its capabilities. Some questioned my sanity because if I happened to go to deep in water (it happens) or caused other damage… I was stuck with the cost and a potentially broken vehicle. I’m happy to report that my 4Runner was a beast and handled everything we tried. The only “loss” was a burned-out fog light. 


If you’re wanting to take your off-road capable vehicle to a park like this, I fully recommend doing it with a group for the first time. Even better if you can find a guided course like the Off-Roading 101 course I joined through Chi-Town 4x4. Joe Krelle, the owner of Chi-Town 4x4, led the course and kept our group to 7 trucks so that we could stay together and get proper guidance.  Joe happens to specialize in Toyotas so I was in good company with other 4Runners, Tacomas, FJ Cruisers, and one Jeep Wrangler.  Three of the vehicles in our group were fully stock while the rest had some modifications such as lift kits, off-road tires, and more.  Before we hit the trails, we reviewed proper etiquette and learned that there’s quite a few terms that generally are applicable only in this community (See the end of the blog). We outfitted all of our trucks with a flag that sat at least 2’ above the roofline. The flags are a safety element that help you see and be seen. As an added benefit, by watching the flags you can also get an idea of the terrain.


As we hit the trails, I raised my seat to the highest position for the best visibility and took my place in line while managing a safe 1.5 car lengths from the 4Runner in front of me.  Keeping distance allows for room should trouble arise and lets you see exactly what the vehicle in front of you is going through. On more than one occasion, we’d see the 4Runner in front of us hit a big drop while driving through water and we were much better prepared for the same drop as we drove through.  Speaking of water, we drove through a lot of large puddles and even spent a good mile of the trail driving through a low-grade river filled with large rocks. One key thing is to approach every water obstacle slowly… you can’t see what’s underneath so it’s important to take your time so that you can quickly alter your driving or stop should the ground suddenly drop or a large boulder be under the water.  Of course, what fun is off-roading if you can’t splash through the water though!? I simply hung back once the 4Runner in front of me comfortably cleared the water (with no dips/boulders) and then took the water with some speed and picture-perfect splashes. On at least one of these runs I was wishing I had a go-pro on the back of my truck to capture my friend’s Jeep hit a puddle that coated his entire hood with a mud bath.  


Throughout the trails, we stopped at various points with the first being the top of a large sand dune.  As we approached the sandy hill, we kept a straight line and headed up leaving a cloud of dust behind us. Our trucks were starting to look good and dirty, just what you want from an event like this. The views throughout the park were amazing. We were only a couple hours outside the Chicago suburbs, but it felt like a significant getaway. At each of the checkpoints, we talked through any concerns and discussed what to expect in the next section of the trail. While driving through trails that have minimal sight lines, it’s always a good idea to hop out of the truck and walk it a bit to make sure you’re not getting yourself in a tricky situation.  We all walked ahead to look for a good trail to head down. We ventured down one that was bowl shaped. It was best to keep the truck centered and level when driving down so that we didn’t bottom-out or scrape the sides of our vehicles. 


Our next stop on the trail was the rock quarry. This was basically a big playground for trucks. This is the area where my 4Runner and my driving skills were tested. One of the first things we did was head up some rocks to an area that would allow our trucks to flex and get a couple tires significantly off the ground.  Joe guided us to the key photo worthy position as we sat in the truck that was oddly balanced on just two tires.  After nailing that photo-op, we headed to one of the steeper climbs on this trail. This was the one climb that would prove too steep for the stock 4Runners. At this point in the day I had already become fully confident in my 4Runner and wanted to tackle this climb. Since I have a 2.5” lift, I was able to get up this climb with ease. Driving up all you saw was sky until you hit the top. There was an adrenaline rush heading up this climb that was even more satisfying having nailed it on the first attempt. 


Even when you’re not driving, it was fun watching others. Although, at one point in the day we did see someone (not part of our group) head straight for the center of a large pond in his FJ Cruiser at a fast speed without testing the waters first. Needless to say, it got significantly deeper towards the center. The FJ came to a quick stop as the front became submerged. Fortunately, he was with a couple others that quickly jumped to action by swimming out to his truck and hooking it up with some straps to the back of a Tacoma. They pulled the FJ out and we all watched as he opened the doors to water just flooding out of the interior.  The truck was clearly water logged, but ultimately did get started again.  Lesson learned that it’s best to travel with someone and that the off-roading community is really a community that is willing to help when needed.


I had an absolute blast taking part in this event with my brother in-law and friend. The guys behind Chi-Town 4x4 are top notch and know their stuff so if you’re a Toyota person, I highly recommend you take part in their next Off-Roading 101 event. We only explored about a quarter of Badlands Off-Road Park so I look forward to checking it out again in the near future. Having done this course, I now feel more confident in my 4Runner and have a better understanding of what to expect when visiting an off-road park. I’ll probably head up north to check out River Road Rally Park in McHenry, IL which is more of an off-roading beginners park to get the truck dirty again.


And if you want to sound legit when talking off-roading, check out a few of the terms I heard frequently below:

  • Armor: The protection/equipment that you’ve outfitted your vehicle with 

  • Approach Angle: The maximum incline angle that a truck can climb or descend without hitting its front.

  • Butt-scratcher: A trail obstacle that scrapes on a truck's rear end. 

  • Departure angle: The maximum angle a truck can descend before hitting the rear bumper or other components located behind the rear tires.

  • Flexing: Refers to suspension flexibility that allows the vehicle tires to remain in contact with the ground while driving over uneven terrain.

  • Lifted: Any 4x4 that is raised either by a suspension or body lift.

  • Line: A driver-selected path that gives a truck the best route to climb over an obstacle or through a pathway. Choosing the right line is essential to successful four-wheeling.

  • Locker: A device in either the front or rear differential that sends engine power to both wheels regardless of traction. 

  • Vaporlock: Condition where fuel boils within the fuel line or carburetor, causing bubbles to form that impede the fuel flow or cause excessive fuel to flood the carburetor.

Click here to view some video highlights of the experience.



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