If there is one thing that is universally true it’s that practice makes perfect. It’s easy to forget sometimes that what you do in your vehicle on or off-road has some inherent risks. That’s where a place like Hungry Valley SVRA comes in. These types of off-road parks are scattered throughout Southern California. If you live here or if you’re just passing through, there’s a good chance there’s one within a couple of hours of you.
TIME TO GET RAD, SAFELY
If you’ve never been to an SVRA (State Vehicle Recreation Area), it can be a pretty cool place to hone some skills and learn some new ones. More importantly, it’s a place to learn what your vehicle can do in a safe and controlled environment. These parks usually have miles of trails and varying terrain and many have purpose-built obstacle courses, things like hill climbs, stair steps, frame twisters, mud pits, and rock gardens.
LET'S GET DIRTY!
Among the obstacles at Hungry Valley is the mud pit. I’m not sure what skill this hones or sharpens other than making you grin ear to ear and making sure your rig is wearing the proof of a good time! This particular mud pit was a bit shallow and posed little threat other than a long day with a pressure washer. To be fair, mud pits can be useful, if anything to show an inexperienced driver how much speed you lose and if the mud is thick enough, how quickly forward momentum can turn into stuck. In our case, it was a puddle, and we made a splash as best we could.
TWIST AND SHOUT!
Next up is the frame twister. This is a fun obstacle and a good way to show in practice the limitations of an open diff and also the difference between a solid axle and independent suspension. The idea here is that the holes are offset so that at any time two of your four wheels are flexed or not making contact at all depending on how much travel you have. Without getting too much into how suspension, shock droop, or differentials work, here’s a quick rundown. There are far more detailed explanations by more qualified folks on the internet if you want to really dive into it, and I think you should as you progress. But here are the basics.
First is your front and rear differential, in a true 4×4. AWD is a bit of a different animal. When you drop your vehicle into 4WD you’re really in 2×4. How? Well if you have open differentials, which most of us do, then that means that if one wheel loses traction, all the power goes to that wheel and it just spins. Making that axle a 1×2. 4 wheels = 2×4. Make sense? This is where locking differentials come in. A locker effectively locks the gearing in your limited slip turning it into a virtual solid axle, like an old-timey wagon from your childhood. Wheels are fixed to a solid axle and so the wheels spin together and power is transferred evenly. You can’t just spin one wheel. So when your wheel leaves the ground on an obstacle like the frame twister, the one that is making contact is still getting power and pushing you forward. If you do not have lockers engaged you will lose forward power and just sit there, wheels spinning in the air. This is a great obstacle to test this function in your vehicle. If you have AWD, yours works similarly except power is split amongst all 4 wheels instead of 2 (front and rear). You could still get stuck, but luckily most all-wheel-drive vehicles also have fancy computers that help with some virtual locking using brakes and such to control a free-spinning wheel and force power to the one on the ground. It gets pretty complicated pretty fast. This is exactly why these places are useful, and a good way to learn your vehicle. You can see what will get you stuck, and what to use to get yourself unstuck with all those buttons your vehicle may come equipped with.
This type of obstacle is where solid axle vehicles with a swaybar disconnect like Jeeps excel. If well-equipped, the axles will flex enough that they simply don’t lose contact with the ground and continue to drive forward. That doesn’t mean they won’t slip or lose traction, it’s just less likely depending on how far that axle will sag into the hole. Try it out, and have a friend spot you. It’s the best way to learn what you’re doing right and what you can do better.
A STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
The stair-step is fun, this is a cool place to test your suspension’s “flex”. How high can you go before losing contact with the ground? We spent some time on this obstacle and Matt’s Land Cruiser 200 series handled it great. That 200 is not stock and it’s done plenty of things well. To say the least, it’s an awesome rig. This easy obstacle got real fun on the other side when Shannon decided she wanted to try her hand at spotting.
As I mentioned, Shannon wanted to try her hand at spotting. And what better place than somewhere created to learn and experiment? Shannon wanted to navigate me up the stair step and then off and over a rock obstacle. She got me off the stair-step great! But she misjudged the rock and which way the tire would slide. I trusted her completely and I knew the rock was there, but sometimes you have to let a mistake happen so that someone can learn. This was one of those situations. Luckily it was a minor mistake. The cruiser rolled away with a minor scratch to the skid plate and a frame rail and Shannon with a valuable lesson. Things do go wrong, but again this is why a place like this can be so useful: being able to hone skills that go beyond being behind the wheel.
Check out the video below for the cringe-worthy sound of steel on stone. Luckily it was minor and we had it off the rock in a few minutes.
CLIMB, BABY, CLIMB
Hill climbs of various levels from smooth to rutted to rock garden to total NIGHTMARE! This is a fun place to test your skill and your mettle. Some of these get pretty rough and damage is possible. A good spotter and a good line can make it a great learning experience!
MORE ACTION FROM THE DAY
The rest of the day consisted of fun trails and an awesome lunch spot! We did prevent a rollover of someone we came across but that’s a separate post. There is one last surprise though!