Not having creature comforts like a heater, padded seats, and power steering can make for an unpleasant weekend on the trail. Overly heavy steel bodies and wide-ratio manual transmissions and underpowered engines make it completely impossible to enjoy driving a vehicle on- or off-road. There’s no way to go night wheeling with only incandescent bulbs fired by a 25-amp engine-driven generator. That’s not even enough juice to recharge your cellphone. Going off-roading without seatbelts or a rollcage isn’t a great idea in terms of safety.
Well, OK, that last sentence is actually true. But unless you’re completely tone deaf I’m sure you realized by the second sentence I was being factious. Bare-bones wheeling is where it’s at—in moderation. I don’t think I’d thoroughly enjoy hitting the trail in a completely Spartan 4x4 with zero safety or creature comforts every single weekend, but damn if going back to basics every now and then doesn’t refresh the soul. I’m no equestrian, but I’m betting it’s much the same way horse people feel. (Clarification: by “horse people” I mean horse-riding people, not Centaurs). They love to get out in nature with their animal partners, but they’re not about to commute 50 miles to work every day on them.
Military vehicles are often the epitome of bare-bones, no-nonsense transportation. I’ve owned several military 4x4s over the years, but my favorite by far was my 1968 M-715. Aside from a swapped-in small-block Chevy engine and some 38-inch TSLs it was completely stock when I took it on a multiday off-road adventure camping expedition with two of my Jp Magazine colleagues, John Cappa and Pete Trasborg, and some other military-vehicle-owning friends. We called it the OD Convoy (or something like that, and I don’t even think the story’s online anymore), and man, did we have fun!
First, we arrived in Glamis and tried our hand at sand-dune running. Cappa whanged the Continental diesel in his M35A2 for all it was worth, to no avail, and Pete’s 366-powered M-715 was too heavy and underpowered to do any incline, so my 290hp V-8 was the only one of ours that could make it to the top of Oldsmobile Hill. But forget carving the apex with a manual steering box that was 500 turns lock-to-lock. It made me appreciate the variable-ratio power steering on my built flattie back in my garage.
Then we high-tailed it off-road by Plaster City and through the Chocolate Mountains. There’s just something Zen about bombing down a wash all day atop a set of leaf springs designed to hold the weight of the great Pyramids of Giza. I imagine it’s what getting continually beaten in the kidneys with a baseball bat feels like. It made me appreciate the ride quality of my 1995 YJ sitting back in my garage.
After a couple days exploring we arrived at Truckhaven Hills for the start of Tierra Del Sol’s Desert Safari event and went wild in the moguls and steep climbs. As my elbow repeatedly whacked the sharp corner of the battery box and the M-truck precariously balanced side hills, you can be sure with no rollcage or seatbelts I paid damn close attention to every movement I made behind the wheel. I’m no video gamer, but it’s like going for a world record in Donkey Kong on your final life. It made me appreciate the airbags, seatbelts, and full ’cage in my daily-driver TJ.
So that’s my pitch for devolving your off-roading every now and then. Getting back to basics is a not only a great way to sharpen your driving skills and make you slow down and smell the off-roading flowers, but it also makes you appreciate the small things your modern 4x4 gives you. Before you go complaining that your herbal tea spits out the vent of your titanium tumbler when your JK drives over a rock or that your power steering takes more than one finger to turn your aired-down 40s, think about how good you really have it.