Sunday, December 28, 2014

A little preaching...

It seems like holiday weekends bring out a higher percentage of bad behavior. To give the majority of you who ARE responsible public land users some ammo, here you go...;)

This is the sign we have in the office of our rental store. People think we don't like cleaning dirty Jeeps. That's not it. We clean Jeeps all day long. What we don't like are closed trails. We don't really like blown motors either, but at least those are replaceable--trails are not.


Yes, close the gate, even if you are returning the same way later. The cows won't say "Oh, they'll be right back--we shouldn't go through this open gate..." Another excuse we've heard? "Well, we didn't SEE any cows...?" Lame. Close the stupid gate. Or we'll sick our stealth cows on you...

This just isn't for hikers. If you are heading into the backcountry for any type of outing, whether hiking, Jeeping, or underwater basket weaving...
1. Don't go alone.
2. Take water. Think about taking a few other things, too.
3. Look around. Pay attention. "Make good choices!"
4. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. No exceptions. 

We have heard this from many drivers with muddy or damaged Jeeps: "I just needed to let off some steam." Really? How much is a $5000 repair bill going to help with that? 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Humble Pie

by Nena Barlow
15 December 2014

Flat towing back to the parking lot. You can see the small ruts alongside the road--that is what I hit at 30 mph that was the last straw...

Even when I am teaching, I learn something new every day. This is a good thing! I encourage clients to always look for the learning opportunity—no one ever “arrives” to where they know everything. We can always find new knowledge and continue growing.

Frequently, there is also the opportunity to reinforce “old” lessons. This week offered me just such an opportunity. Although I frequently joke about “Do as I say not as I do”, I had to eat that joke out in Glamis.

Imperial Sand Dunes, aka "Glamis": the easy, rolling hills in the foreground don't require the momentum that the taller, steeper, softer dunes in the background do.

My oldest work Jeep is Greta, my red 2012 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Since this week’s training was focusing more on navigation and easy desert driving, rather than hardcore dune-running or rock crawling, I took this Jeep in spite of an ongoing mystery noise I have been hearing for six months now.  A noise I had been attempting to eliminate without success. It was a metal-on-metal light tapping noise heard since summer, when she is articulating or compressing. I replaced control arms, skid plate bolts, checked brackets and mounts—everything I could imagine. When I had Billy weld on two new nuts to hold on the front of one of my skid plates, I was sure we had finally solved it. But on the first day of the training on easy terrain, I heard that same old familiar noise. “No worries,” I thought, “She’s an old Jeep—she’s going to make some noise sometimes.”

Greta, loaded up for the trip.

Greta, not breaking a sweat on THIS trip, but she has known many aggressive trips in both soft dunes and big rocks, wearing down her bumpstops with time. 

Nice easy terrain for this trip, focusing primarily on overland navigation.

Now, those of you who have been on trips with me know that one of my pet peeves is when people say “It’s a Jeep, it supposed to make some noise.” My reply is always “No, if something is squeaking or rattling, something is worn or broken and you better figure out what it is.” Enter Greta’s mystery noise.

After a successful morning of dead reckoning navigation practice, we were headed back to the main road to move to another area. As the road flattened out to hard-pack dirt, I accelerated to about 30 mph, and just as I merged onto the main road, I hit a small tire rut and I heard that same smacking noise, but slightly louder. Suddenly, I smelled motor oil. I stopped immediately, hopped out and saw motor oil pouring out from under her. I quickly turned off the engine and then crawled underneath to investigate.

Ah--now I know what was tapping on what all this time...

Well, I found out what that mystery noise was. Greta is outfitted with an axle truss, which raises the total height of the housing about 3.5-inches. When she was outfitted with this 20,000 miles ago, along with new springs and bumpstops, everything worked together flawlessly. After 20,000 “Nena” miles, the wear on her bumpstops and the softening of her suspension was now allowing the top of the axle truss to tap the upper front part of the oil pan. And, with one last good jounce over that rut, I cracked the oil pan, exposing the oil pump and timing chain and spraying motor oil out.

I had the good fortune to be on a flat main road, so towing was the obvious option. If I was out in the middle of the desert, or by myself, or no way to get help to me, I would have been trying JB weld, duct tape and bubble gum to try to hold in enough oil to drive out.  If I had been simply on a private trip, I would have been totally focused on just getting back to where I could repair the Jeep. But, since I was in the middle of a training, the show had to go on. So, I called Jesse, 4 hours away in Sedona, to load up another Jeep and start heading my way. We dragged Greta to the side, transferred a few things and crammed in the other Jeep to continue with our navigation exercises for the day. Just before dark, we travelled back to where we parked Greta, Jesse arrived, we swapped Jeeps, and I headed back out into the desert to set up camp, and continue for another day. 

Jesse drove out with Josephine, towing Lilah on the trailer to swap out with me. Nice to have a backup plan! 

Those who know me well immediately concluded that I had a particularly spectacular airborn moment and hit really hard on landing. I will be the first to admit to many such previous instances (hence the status of the bumpstops), see incriminating videos here: 

...but this time it was just a small bump, like hitting a bad pothole that was the final straw. Did I deserve it? Not for that exact moment, but absolutely for all the others. Did I learn? Oh, yes, but not that the driving technique was poor, but rather that I didn’t listen to my own advice “if you hear a noise, you better figure out what it is…”

So, what to do about preventing this particular problem from occurring again? I am certainly replacing her bumpstops, new springs while we’re at it, and possibly considering some longer control arms to change the arc of travel WHEN I do bottom out again. This is the fodder for an entirely different article titled “What Happens When We Start Screwing Around With The Original Engineering”, but that is for another day.

The axle truss is great for NOT breaking your axle housing, but it reduces your clearance to the oil pan, and your suspension should be adjusted appropriately--either longer bumpstops or control arms.

As I write this, Greta is suspended on the lift, waiting for her new oil pan and pump, and I also see that her front driveshaft is starting to wear out. And is that a kink in her winch line? Sigh. Well, I also always say “4-wheeling is a pay to play activity!” 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Baja Relief Trip

November 2014
Baja California Sur, Mexico
Hurricane Odile Relief Trip
by Nena Barlow

My trip to Baja was my small way to contribute to the efforts of rebuilding from the damages of Hurricane Odile. We launched the Friends of Harald group to raise funds to go directly and entirely to help those who need a boost to recover in Harald’s neighborhood, like Pedro, who lost his entire house. I chose to contribute by using my resources of time and money to actually deliver some goods and be there to assist physically and with whatever reassurances I could offer. I took my 17-year-old son, PJ, with me for experience for him and just some extra muscle for the rebuild projects. We both saw a lot, learned a lot, and it was a gratifying trip.

We left from Arizona with our 4x4 pickup truck and drove Mexico 5 through San Felipe and Coco’s Corner on our way to Highway 1, the famous Transpeninsular Highway, to Guererro Negro at the border of Baja California Sur. Then we drove the 1, all the way to La Paz. Everyone will tell you to be careful driving in Mexico. But after driving in Phoenix and Los Angeles, I find that driving the Transpeninsular Highway is a refreshingly friendly experience. Yes, the lanes are very narrow much of the way, but the pavement (even after the Hurricane) is much smoother than, say, Sacramento or Santa Monica. The traffic is light, polite and very cooperative about passing and making way for oncoming traffic.

As we passed through coastal areas of Baja California, you see some roofs missing, sand piled against some structures, and a few downed trees, but you are not sure if this is just neglect or hurricane damage. But once you reach Baja California Sur, as you drive through San Ignacio, then Santa Rosalia and Loreto and Mulege, you suddenly realize how violent and recent this all actually was. Water lines on trees and walls above the roofs of homes, trucks and cars half-buried in sand alongside a recently rebuild bridge, wind-whipped trees leaning with just a few scraggly leaves clinging to the branches, and tarps where roofs of homes and businesses used to be.

I have to admire the people’s response to the hurricane. Instead of sitting down in the middle of the devastation, lamenting their losses, and waiting for someone to come help, they take the attitude of “well, that sucked—let’s start sweeping up and do what we need to do to get working again.” The Transpeninsular Highway, the main artery of all of Baja, washed out in many places. Bridges or low water crossings were just gone, and in many places where the highway had been built up to be level, the fill was washed or blown away and the road edges were collapsed. By the first day the water had stopped flowing, locals were clearing go-arounds and bypasses so the trucks could get through. The federal government sent over ferries full of CFE (the power company) trucks to reestablish electricity as soon as possible. Within a week or two after the hurricane knocked down nearly every power pole in the La Paz area, CFE workers had them upright and functioning again. And on an individual level, I like to point to Pedro and his family-- Pedro’s entire house collapsed. They salvaged what they could and put up a tarp for some shelter. He showed up to work the following Monday. Life goes on.

So, our trip was not to bring immediate relief of emergency supplies, but rather to help with the ongoing rebuild of secondary needs (if you consider things like a house secondary, after water, food and electricity are restored…) La Paz has a population of almost one-hundred thousand people.  Like many American cities of that size, has a Home Depot and a Walmart, which seems so odd after driving the last 1000 miles through rural Mexican countryside. Having those stores meant that there were many supplies we needed for our projects that did not have to be carried by us from the states. Our load of supplies consisted of odd things that cannot be found in La Paz stores: a cement vibrator, synthetic motor oil, solar panels, and Viva paper towels.  Any of you who have traveled with Harald understand the significance of Viva paper towels.

This also made for interesting conversations at the military checkpoints. The primary goal of the military checkpoints is to stop guns and drugs, but they found my camping air mattresses, Viva paper towels, and my ARB weather-proof duffels to be the items of most interest. When one thorough soldier insisted on me showing the contents of my duffel, I pulled out the pair of pink panties on top and waved them at him. He quickly decided that we could move on. I might not recommend that as a technique for everyone.

We spent five whirlwind days at Hacienda Las Puertas (Harald’s house), righting leaning trees, cutting up trees that couldn’t be saved, rebuilding hurricane-ravaged roofs, and working on wall and house designs that would be better this time around. We did take evenings off to enjoy local cuisine, cruise El Malecon (the Esplanade), or hang out at the beach. I lived on seafood and tortillas—yum! We held a small party on Saturday afternoon for the Friends of Harald, and presented Pedro with a gift certificate for a house.  He was surprised and very happy!  On Monday, Harald, Karl, PJ and I visited Pedro’s family. Pedro showed us his property, and gave us radishes from his garden. His mother and father, who also live on the property, showed me where their kitchen had collapsed. Karl came up with a plan to improve the electrical wiring for the whole property as well as hook up the rebuilt house to the sewer for the first time.

We talked a lot about what to do next with Friends of Harald, now that the plan for Pedro’s house is set and work is starting. The challenge is that there are so many that still need basic things, like a roof over their head, that it is hard to choose who gets what little help we can offer. We made some wonderful friends and saw some amazing things.  I hope that we made some difference, and through Friends of Harald, can continue to do so. We go on, and we do what we can with what we have.  Hasta maƱana!

Monday, April 28, 2014

By Nena Barlow

Easter Jeep Safari 2014 in Moab was bigger than ever. The weather was beautiful and many of the official trail runs were full to maximum capacity, making all the trails busy with both official and unofficial runs. Considering just how busy the trails were, I was impressed by how well most people cooperated and showed respect for both the trails and other users. MOST people.

There was one particular incident which set a poor example of respectful trail use. This incident involved a group of 4-wheelers whose leader insisted that they had the right to run any trail whenever and however they wished.  They were attempting to enter a trail from the backside which was not only closed to the public for the day, but also a one-way only trail all week, regardless of Safari runs. There are eight trails that are closed on days during Safari that there is an official Safari run—ONLY eight, out of the 38 listed official Safari trails.  When they were informed by the trail official that they would have to run a different trail that day, they waved him off and said “We’ll just follow behind you.”  When the official again informed them that this would be illegal during Safari, they told him “We’re locals” (they’re not), as if that made it okay to be rude, disrespectful, and disobey the law. It actually took a phone call to the Sheriff to convince these guys to go elsewhere.
There can be long lines on trails, even (or especially) on days when Safari is not using a specific trail. Stay on the routes--don't widen the trail by passing or turning around on virgin soil. 

Contrary to the beliefs of some, the laws and etiquette of the trails are not imposed to inconvenience people, but rather to protect the trails so they do not degrade beyond all continued enjoyment. The eight trails closed during Safari run days are closed because they are one way in and one way out, or far too difficult to have groups safely pass each other without widening the trail. Most people would find trails far less enjoyable if they became giant dust bowls because the soil crust is crushed beyond all ability to support trees and shrubs and hold down the sand from billowing away. And we have all been on trails where there are far too many Jeeps and we spend much of our time parked, waiting to move through an obstacle. The rules are pretty simple to follow, and the Red Rock 4-Wheelers clearly post the information on their website and in the paper available for free all over town. In my opinion, if you are too lazy to research what trails are available, OR you just don't care enough about the trails or other users to follow basic etiquette or law, you are not a responsible trail user and you just shouldn't go.

Here’s the part that really bugs me—the offending party in question was a representative of a well-known 4x4 parts manufacturers. These are people whose livelihood depends on the existence of public trails. These are people who should be setting a glowing example of how to properly use a trail, respecting the laws and ethics, and all other users of the trails. There were MANY aftermarket parts companies in town, and I know that the vast majority of them take the time to acquire any required permits, check Safari schedules to plan their routes, and go out of their way to respect the environment and other users on the land. Fortunately, the incident in question seems to be a somewhat isolated occurrence these days.

Promote and support companies who respect the trails and all other users of the trails. Those are the companies who understand that, in order for our recreation AND their business to continue, we must care for what we have. If a company exhibits shameful conduct on the trails, I will choose to not promote or do business with them. I make a point of promoting the businesses which DO practice good trail ethics and etiquette.  I encourage all of you to do the same.             

AEV is one of the companies that applies for the necessary permits and is conscientious about working around Safari's scheduled runs, as well as excellent trail ethics, such as planning lunch stops at established areas and staying on marked trails. 
Happy trails!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Woodchute Trail: Secret Gem!

With temperatures doing what they do in June in AZ, many people are seeking out cooler temps at higher elevations. Many people know about the stunning views and fascinating history of Mingus Mountain and Schnebly Hill Road, but a little-known secret gem of a trail is the Woodchute Jeep Trail just above Jerome AZ.

The Woodchute Jeep Trail starts at FR 503A just at the bend at mile marker 339 on Hwy 89A. High clearance 4x4 required, and if you have an aversion to brush scratches, this may not be the trail for you, as its status as being "little-known" also means lower traffic and more overgrowth after the wet season.

The trail is short--only about 5 miles and 1-1.5 hours off-pavement, with stops. It loops back down to Hwy 89A and you come out on the highway only 2 miles uphill from Jerome. For a gorgeous full-day of Jeeping, start with the Mingus Mountain trail, which takes off at the bottom of the mountain near the Cottonwood Airport, then loop back through Woodchute for those spectacular afternoon views.

Check it out for yourself!

More maps and info at and

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Speaking Up on the Trail

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the social dynamics of groups on the trail--how sometimes in a sticky situation there are too many people shouting opposing opinions at the same time, and how at other times no one speaks up when they should. Recent mishaps with weather calls and recovery snafus have brought this topic back to mind.

HERE is the link to the whole article I wrote for JPFreek Magazine.

Remember that, in most cases, it pays to take an extra few seconds to think things through, discuss circumstances calmly, clearly, and thoroughly. Unless, for example, someone's rig is on fire, or sliding out of control towards a cliff, there is usually no need for urgent action. Step back and explore all the options.

In a spotting situation, there shouldn't be a bunch of people yelling out all at once. Observers should communicate their concerns through the designated spotter.

Finally, and very importantly, a good trail leader should not be offended by someone in the group asking for clarification on a judgement call or recovery staging, BUT it's better to risk offending that person rather than risk personal safety or vehicle damage. As a professional instructor, I expect to be explaining what I see and the judgements I make all day long as a way to help others develop their own on-trail decision-making skills. Ultimately, you, the driver, are responsible for the "go" or "no-go" call for yourself, so, in my book, it is ALWAYS okay to ask for more information.

Happy trails!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Recommended 4-wheeling Equipment

By popular request...from our Jeep School workbook--the Equipment list for 4-wheeling! It is in written form, below the photos, so you can cut and paste, but for a better format, see the attached photo.

Recommended Equipment for Four Wheeling

Basic Outdoor Preparedness Gear (stuff for your own self-preservation):
Water & food
Extra Clothing (know the weather forecast)
First Aid Kit
Matches, Lighter, Candles, FIRE
Toilet Paper, Paper Towels, Trash Bags, wet wipes, hand sanitizer
Detailed Road Maps, Topo Maps, Compass, Watch
Tarp, rain gear
Cell phone, CB, HAMM radio, or Personal GPS Locator Beacon
Flares, signal mirror, police whistle
Flashlight (windable, or with extra batteries)

These are the most used recovery items. Invest in quality items.
  1. TIRE CARE: Jack, spare tire, repair kit, tire pressure guage, air compressor                      Keep your spare tire inflated and in good condition. Make sure you have the correct lug wrench for your wheels.

  1. VEHICLE PULLING: Tow Strap                                                                                                       A tow strap should be at approximately 10-15 feet long and rated for at least twice your vehicle’s gross weight.  Buy good quality strap with loops on the ends, not hooks.

  1. DIGGING OUT: Compact folding shovel/axe/saw                                                                            A Forester tool, Handle-All, or plain old shovel is an invaluable all-purpose tool for getting yourself unstuck in a variety of circumstances, and are also useful for general survival.

These items are an important part of your regular excursion kit:
Heavy duty work gloves
Jumper Cables
Fire Extinguisher
Recovery Strap (20' to 50', with loops, rated at 3-4 times the vehicle weight)
Baling wire, Duct tape, Zip ties, Ratchet Straps, bungee cords, equipment tie-downs
Stop Leak radiator repair, Motor Oil, Transmission Fluid, extra water
Replacement fuses and electrical tape
Basic tools: wrenches, pliers, mallet, ratchet, spark plug socket, vehicle-specific tools
Variety of hoses, clamps, nuts, bolts, washers, parts specific to your vehicle

Additional equipment to consider for more extensive excursions:
Extreme caution is urged for the use of these items. Make sure you are thoroughly familiar with their function and operation.  Read owner’s manuals thoroughly and follow all safety precautions:
Hi-Lift Jack
Full-size Shovel (especially for sand, mud, or snow areas)
Full-size Axe, Bow Saw, Chain Saw (in heavily-forested areas)
Winch with accessories: tree strap, clevis, snatch block, chain
Extra gas