Most people who own a four-wheel-drive SUV will never dare drive it off-road. Not so these intrepid Boundless members, who brought their vehicles to a 4x4 Group ‘Toe in the Mud’ day
The engine revs, the wheels spin and the mud flies, but the Jeep Cherokee is firmly stuck and going nowhere. And then Rebecca Parsler begins, very calmly, turning the 4x4 SUV’s steering wheel from left to right.
Slowly the tyres start to find grip and the Jeep inches forwards. Rebecca guns the accelerator and, with one bound, the Jeep pops free of the mire, up the slope and away.
It’s impressive stuff watching an experienced off-road driver in action in a modified 4x4 vehicle. Rebecca, though, had never driven off-road – and this Jeep Cherokee is completely standard, just like the one you might do the school run or pop to the shops in. As if to reinforce the point, most of the Parsler family (pictured bottom right) are onboard. Rebecca’s dad, Jim, is in the passenger seat, with mum Nikki and sister Bryony in the back. Even Disney, the dog, has come along. So, what’s going on here? It’s a Boundless 4x4 Group day at Whaddon 4x4 Centre near Milton Keynes, and the Parsler family is participating.
Toe in or tow out?
This is one of a series of events that enable Boundless members to bring along their own 4x4 SUV and drive in a safe and responsibly maintained off-road environment for just £25 per driver. Passengers, both human and canine, ride for free. Named ‘Toe in the Mud’ days, they give members the chance to dip their toe into the world of off-roading and discover what it’s all about. But as Rebecca soon finds out, they can also be ‘tow out of the mud’ days.
“We had no idea what to expect, but we thought we’d come along and give it a go,” grins Rebecca. “We’ve been really impressed with how well the Jeep has handled it. Dad and I have been sharing the driving, and we’ve been through waterholes, down steep hills and up muddy climbs. There are lots of people around to help and, when we did eventually get stuck, there was someone to tow us out.”
Today’s session is run by the group’s leader Pete Gregory, whose calm, relaxed and friendly demeanour would set even the most nervous first-time off-roader at ease. Pete has been heading into the wild since 1963, when he first took up the activity in his Land Rover Series II. “Most people here are driving off-road for the first time, so it’s important that they feel safe and comfortable and don’t have to do anything they don’t want to,” he says. “We’ve got something for everyone, with gentle drives for first-timers and bottomless mud holes for more experienced off-roaders.”
During normal, non-Covid times, Pete and his fellow Boundless instructors can sit alongside members and give guidance. But even with social distancing in place, there’s still plenty of reassurance on hand. As most of the driving necessarily takes place at low speed, instructors can provide advice through open windows.
There’s not a lot one needs to do to prepare for a Boundless Toe in the Mud day. A stout pair of boots are recommended, along with wet weather gear, sun protection and a packed lunch. Pete advises members to contact their insurance company in advance to make sure they are covered, and to lower the tyre pressure on their vehicle by 5Psi to give better grip. It’s also worth removing tow bars if they are fitted, as they can ‘dig in’ on steep climbs and lift the back wheels off the ground. And if a wheel isn’t touching the ground, it can’t provide traction to drive the vehicle forward.
Many modern off roaders are equipped with sophisticated electronic technology such as traction control. In the blink of an eye, this can take driving force away from spinning wheels and redistribute it to wheels with more grip to keep the vehicle moving forwards. Helen and John Ball are braving the course in their showroom-fresh Land Rover Discovery. Equipped with hill descent control, it automatically continuously applies and releases the brakes to enable the vehicle to inch slowly and safely down slippery slopes.
“We’re keeping everything within a sensible range, so we feel safe. I enjoy going through the water, but I’m not a fan of the swaying from side to side over the ruts,” confesses Helen. “I don’t mind the swaying, but then I love the Big Dipper at Alton Towers, and Helen doesn’t!” says John. “It’s been great to bring the Discovery and see what it will do. We’ve been really impressed – it just drives over everything.”
Get a grip
Some members – such as Paul Renwick, who’s been off-roading with the club for 30 years – have modified their vehicles. Paul’s Suzuki Grand Vitara features raised suspension and knobbly off-road tyres for extra ground clearance and greater grip.
It also has metal plates underneath for additional protection, and a front winch that can be used to pull other vehicles – and the Suzuki itself – out of the mud. The most hardcore vehicle has to be Neil Watterson’s 1979 Land Rover Series III ‘Lightweight’ army model. Neil, who’s the editor of Land Rover Owner International magazine, rebuilt the vehicle himself. “It was designed to be dropped by parachute but, fortunately, this one was never chucked out of a plane,” says Neil as he powers through another mudhole, while I cling on in the passenger seat.
Generous to a fault, Neil pulls over to let me have a go. When you swap from the passenger seat to the driving seat, suddenly the fun factor goes off the scale, especially in a vehicle like Neil’s ancient Land Rover, where there are no electronic aids to help you out – just an agricultural four-wheel-drive system. “Oh yeah, it’s pure adrenaline at 5mph,” laughs Neil.
I’m enjoying myself so much behind the wheel that I’ve forgotten the first basic rule. “Remember to keep your thumbs out clear of the spokes, in case you hit a rut and the steering spins back,” cautions Neil. And, sure enough, the steering wheel does precisely that just a few seconds later. If it hadn’t been for Neil’s advice, I would have been nursing two very sore thumbs.
Access for all
Like all the members, I’ve had a thoroughly good day playing in the mud. But of course, off-roading isn’t always viewed by everyone in such a warm light. And when it’s done irresponsibly, it can cause problems.
Rebecca Parsler normally traverses the great outdoors on her horse Shadow, covering up to 50 miles a day while competing with the England endurance riding team. She also serves as Bridleways and Access Officer for the British Horse Society.
“It was very different driving, as opposed to riding, off-road today,” she says. “There can be an issue with off-road vehicles churning up tracks but horses can cause damage too, especially in winter. If the weather is bad and if you know your vehicle, or your horse, will cause damage, then ask yourself if you really need to go out that day. We all want the same thing – access to the countryside. And the only way we are going to get that is if everyone works together and is respectful of each other and the environment.”
Do more with Boundless
Interested in joining the 4x4 Group?
Aiming to help you get the most out of your 4x4, this friendly group is always thrilled to welcome new members and organises green-laning expeditions and beginner competitions as well as Toe in the Mud events. The next event is on 8 May at Whaddon. To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01525 861673.