More than half of the work we do at 4-Wheel & Off-Road boils down to product testing. All the editors own 4x4s, and we're constantly bolting (or welding) junk on and putting it to the dirt, rock, mud, and pavement to separate the performers from the pretenders. The past 30 days have been more intense than usual in this respect. We finished our 4x4 of the Year competition (with the largest field of vehicles ever) just in time to make final preparation for a Rubicon Trail run to test several aftermarket components.
Here's a rough rendition of how things came about: Before the end of the season came, Technical Editor Trenton McGee and I conjured up a few excuses to take our trucks over the Rubicon. We've both been there before, shooting pictures and hiking the trail, and we've even driven sections of it, but we wanted to do the whole thing in our 4x4s to test two sets of tires, a pair of axles, four different lockers, and two aftermarket bumpers. And if we got really lucky, we could test an on-board welder and a couple of winches. Of course, there were a few hitches.
First, neither of us knew the Rubicon well enough to go alone, and we're not brave or stupid enough to set off over a tough trail like this without a couple more vehicles for breakage support. The search for a couple of willing guides turned up Dean Powers and his '74 Bronco and Ken Arentz and his '84 CJ-7. Both live in the area and have traveled the Rubicon more times than I've been stuck in traffic on I-5.
Hitch number two was that our schedule of other events, story deadlines, trade shows, and meetings didn't leave many weekends open for this trip. We finally picked a date in mid-October-further into fall than we really wanted, but it was the one that worked for everyone.
One point I haven't mentioned yet is that both of the trucks we needed to use for testing were fullsizes. I've talked to people who have taken big trucks over the Rubicon, and it's just not pretty. That's OK, though, we thought. Trent's Blazer has never been accused of being pretty, and my truck is one color and that's about all I can claim for aesthetics.
Next, half of the axles, tires, and lockers we wanted to test had to be installed sometime in the 10 days we had between 4x4 of the Year testing and our 'Con trip. My GMC was at Off Road Unlimited, which did an incredible job of meeting my deadline while doing extremely professional work.
Now, anyone who has tried to put together a little run to a popular spot knows it just can't be done. When all of this came together and we ducked off the graded road at Loon Lake, it wasn't a huge surprise to see 25 vehicles gathered for this run. Most only intended to go to Spider Lake. By noon, however, the snowfall (yes, I said snowfall) was so heavy that the open vehicles turned around, and by 2 p.m. there was enough breakage that the group dwindled to five vehicles: Dean's Bronco, Brian Cox's Toyota 4Runner, Drew Persson's 4Runner, Trent's Blazer, and my GMC. Ken had stopped to help a Jeeper build new front-axle U-bolts, and, even though we heard him on the CB a few times later that day, we didn't see him on the trail again. The weather let up a little and alternated between light snow and rain for the rest of the day.
Much to our surprise (and that of those left in our four-wheeling group), the fullsizes did way better than we expected on the trail. The most difficult parts for us were the tight trees and the squeeze rocks, which often left only an inch on either side of the quarter-panels. My GMC's turning radius leaves me jealous of Greyhound bus drivers, so I did plenty of three-, four-, and five-point turns. Trent and I figured out very quickly that the right lines for the big trucks were totally different from those for Jeeps, early Broncos, and Toyotas-we needed to go over the rocks, logs, and holes rather than around them.
As for the testing, almost all the products we had opportunities to try (no welding or winching on this trip) did exceptionally well, and you'll read about the details in future technical articles.