Off-Road Travel: Good Family Fun

Feb. 28, 2017 By Justin Fort, Photos by Jaime Hernandez and the author

A little four-wheeling is good for the soul and – surprise! – turns out it’s good for family too. If you seek to improve on your family nexus, taking you and yours off-roading is a focused way to do it. The same truckster you drive to work can be an ideal all-of-us connectivity device. Off-road adventures put your family together with their phasers set for fun, and four-wheeling activities don’t need to obliterate your bank account. Close those doors and head for some nowhere in particular, and you’ll be presented with an ideal setting for structured family time.

Think about it: the dependability, the comfort, the familiarity of family is a panacea in these times of woe and weirdness. As the news cycle thunders, and your work and social settings ratchet up the tension, the nuclear family unit is a balm, a shelter against the world’s jackassery. It sounds sappy, but going ‘froadin’ together is a little bit of chicken noodle for the family unit.

Enforced Togetherness
This is not jetting off to some random tourist spot: the kids can’t run to the pool or the Wi-Fi, and mom won’t pass out in the bar. You’re together in one vehicle for an extended period of time. When you get a little way into the wilderness, you’re joined at the truck and must find a way to get along – without leg irons. That truck keeps everyone close, and makes extended hangout time de rigeur as you four-wheel your way from cool spot to cool spot.

In the case of a weekendy trip/summer vacation instead of a day-run, a rustic rental (or a tent, if your family are togetherness ninjas) is all you need to turn one day of four-wheeling into three or five. With an off-road rig that’s not too rough (or just rough enough), your multi-purpose off-roader will get you the cabin as well as to the pass.

No Reception and No Escape
A few join-us-it’s bliss/you’re-one-of-us rules can underwrite family cohesiveness (and embarrass the Hell out of your kids). One of our favorites is a classic: no devices while on-trail. The sad, petty compulsion of folks to tune each other out when together is empowered by mobile devices, and the instinct to flip in and out of connectivity for purposeless purposes is nothing but detrimental. In addition, there’s not much reception to be had in the outback; a built-in excuse.

The “no escape” stricture for family off-roading is not just about tuning out, and not just about fleeing to the infinite shallows of the web. When you’re deep in the boonies, your family is there, together, with you, and they can’t get away – 10 miles in is 10 miles out, and a desolate two-track running to the top of a mountain means the way out is how you came.

Adventure by Committee
So, you’re day-running an area, somewhere with lots of terrain options, such as a trail complex with lots of altitude and offshoots. The opportunity to make choices about “this way” or “that trail” will inevitably arise, and the ship’s captain can hand off the decision to members of the crew – trail d’jour, so to speak. There’s also the opportunity for uninitiated family members to try their hand at figuring if their driver-truck combo can do something more challenging this or the next time you head out. And about “next time” – an additional trip and the planning that goes with it is fuel for long-term enthusiasm and teamwork. “Can we do something tougher?” “Is there a turnoff we didn’t do?” “Are we capable of hitting that trail we saw the Jeepers take?”

Shared Adventure and Experience (& Trust Building)
While it’s a must-have for the father-son bond, getting WAY out there works for mothers, daughters and all sorts of child-parent bonding as well. Adrenaline, achievement, triumph – even failure – connect people. Four-wheeling to a peak your kids have seen in the distance can be a terrific exercise in success, or you can just succeed at changing a flat, even if you don’t reach the beach.

An ancillary benefit of shared adventure is the need for maturity. Help them understand they wouldn’t be out here with you on the side of a mountain if you couldn’t trust them. Let them show you they can wear the big-boy pants. It’s also a great time to show the recalcitrant non-listening me-me child what they COULD be enjoying should they get their rear in gear and join the family at this spectacular mountaintop/creepy mineshaft/whatever adventure. Not much grey area out here.

Trust Building, Version 2
On more than one occasion, your author has put trail decisions in the hands of his son. While vehicle capabilities were not a concern (who asks kids a questions without already knowing the answer?), the boy didn’t know it and needed to make a smart choice. At that point, the route became the perceived responsibility of the rookie. If you want to draw your child into a process, whether it’s ‘froading or mowing or making dinner, put perceived control in their hands: a safe decision might negate some fun, a risky one could bring some adventure, and a stupid choice could bring shame. All teach responsibility. Let your kid choose a trail you know dead-ends, or a route that, had they done a little studying of the map, they’d know was boring as babysitting Grandma’s fish. Nothing like trussing up a kid with their decisions, for better or worse.

Shared Education, Understanding, Awareness
Someone needs to choose which adventure you’ll be having, and you can’t make a decision without knowledge, right? The oft-lamented kin of adventure is what you come away with. Your kids may claim a trip was so awful it gave them projectile ebola, but which adventures do they brag about, or ask for again? You’re the parent here: you have the right to make those kidlins enjoy themselves whether they like it or not, and no one’s more at fault should they grow up without an understanding of history, geography and their own culture. Immersing them in history is your job, and going ‘froadin’ is a great method.

Research the areas you’re traveling together. In many of the areas you’ll off-road, what’s now a remote track was once a device of industry or settlers – mining, logging, commerce, rail – and thanks to a four-wheel drive truck, a map and some learning, you’re much closer to that history. Where’s that go? Why is this here? Who built this? That’s the stuff.

Shared Tasks and Goals
If you’re headed out for a day on the trail, everyone contributes. Someone checks tires and fluids (and someone else can be taught in the process). Someone checks the battle bag in the truck and the compressor, and someone loads the truck. Kids can be on-duty for PB&J and carrots and water, and if Mom forgets Dad’s coffee, everyone look out. Let someone plan your trails and route (so long as Moe and Curly don’t decide you’re running Iron Chest in a Forester), and put Daddy in charge of “No.”

Have Junior get out and help Mom guide your through a section of trail (that you and Mom already know you can handle) to build trail awareness. Task your kids with knowing what roads and trails you’re on, and where they’re going to build route awareness. What’s the plan? Do you want to end up at the top of a peak? Do you want to get out of the house for a day? Do you plan to fiddle around on an interesting/challenging trail feature?

It’s inexpensive to ‘froad, so you can do it more often. It’s easy to conquer a trail but want that thrill again. Did a certain spot on-trail send everyone’s Wow-Meter off the scale? Did your son have a section of road that he wanted to revisit? Let’s go again!

While we’d advise that your first trips off-pavement are done without the distraction of distractible family members – Driver Person needs to have trail instincts before bringing the babbling baggage – repeating a section of trail creates comfort on-trail for budding off-roaders.

Safe Setting for Kids and Such
Unlike the horror films that reel off in your head when you picture “off-road adventure,” such as drunken fools in the dunes and fine child-rearing lessons like how to jump your XR650 into a parked Jeep, most four-wheeled trail adventures are at a reasonable pace, with reasonable people, in relatively kid-friendly environments. Sand events like the Superstition Run and Tierra del Sol and rocky gatherings like the FJ Summit and Jeep Jamborees pride themselves on being family-friendly. coverage of these events will help clue you in.

The basics: Do you have a four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive truck with room for the family? 4Runner? Sidekick? Explorer? Range Rover? Something like a Honda Pilot can do it, if you don’t overdo it.

Tires and maintenance: Have you taken care of your SUV/wagon/truck? Has your truck gotten the repairs it needs? Would you try a new road in a vehicle you don’t trust?

Standards apply: If you bought crappy Chinese tires, keep them on the freeway all the way to a set of new tires with a reputation you can trust. Tires are important.

Don’t off-road alone: Bad ideas and bad luck travel in packs; so should you.

Set some rules: No devices, no movies, no carsickness. If you want to fight with your brother, get out. When Daddy is paying attention to the trail, shut up. If Mom said you could bring one thing, that means one thing.

Where you can go: has run a number of stories about trails that might be in your backyard (especially if you're in SoCal): easy access for a morning of family-oriented fun – start there. Newsletter
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