NYE Off-roading: Planning and Land Rover Prep
Time to make a plan and see that the old Landy can handle it!
I know what you're thinking. "Fun? In this economy!?" but hear me out. For the last few years, my "adventure team," for lack of a better term, has been going out into the middle of nowhere for New Years and doing some offroading. It started back in 2017, right after we'd finished up our overland cheap car challenge and had caught the bug for all things dirt, gravel, and rock. That year we were completing the western half of the Oklahoma Adventure Trail, an approximately 2,200 mile track through Oklahoma which is predominantly unpaved, and happened to be staying in a winery bed and breakfast for NYE. After arriving, we realized we were the sole patrons of said winery, got sloshed on local wine, and explored the almost certainly haunted house after the hosts had gone to bed. It was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed the lack of fuss and drama when it was just the three of us.
The next year, 2018, we decided that "middle of nowhere" New Years was vastly preferable to bars, noise, people, etc., so we decided to head out to Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas for some trail bashing. Again, a great time was had and we brought in the new year under a blanket of stars.
Most recently, for 2019, we headed out to New Mexico and spent NYE camping in a canyon, which was epic.
NYE 2019 - New Mexico
No one is going to say 2020 was an uneventful year, though sitting here in my pajama pants three meetings into the day I am struggling to remember the last time I left the house. For that reason when the subject of NYE came up, we decided we needed to do something fun, chill, and safe.
Speaking of which...
Let's talk safety
The elephant in the room is the pandemic, which in the US is at the time of writing is more or less out of control. Naturally pandemic safety was at the center of planning and will be mentioned throughout the article. The tl;dr here is we're doing everything we can to minimize exposure and maximize fun. Overall we expect the trip to actually be lower risk that staying at home as we're likely to enter fewer public establishments than we would otherwise.
Aside from all that, our usual safety precautions will be in place as well. We always carry with us flashlights, a satellite beacon, recovery gear, flares, first aid kits, emergency blankets, and emergency vehicle repair solutions. Furthermore we have an external coordinator with all of our route information, accommodation information, and emergency contact info in case we fail to check in. This isn't our first rodeo, though thankfully none of our emergency supplies and few emergency procedures have been needed as of yet. We have had to enact our "unplanned hostile road block" procedure one-and-a-half times, but that is a story for another day.
Planning an Adventure
While we were all pretty game for going back to New Mexico, their quarantine requirements are pretty stringent and additionally we didn't want to risk sullying the superb memory of 2019's trip. Instead we decided to stick to areas closer to our respective homes, Texas and Oklahoma. North Texas didn't seem to have much of interest, Louisiana carried the threat of having to visit family, and we've done Oklahoma... so Arkansas and Missouri were selected as our likely targets. While we've offroaded in Arkansas multiple times, with its huge swaths of national forests and parks, there is still plenty we haven't done. Oddly while I've purchased at least two cars out of Missouri, a dune buggy and a Jaguar S-Type R, I've never really spent much time there so I am excited to see what it holds.
K-Trail near the Oklahoma/Arkansas border
With the general area identified, we set about finding some accommodations. Ordinarily on one of these we'd stay a new place every night or two, moving and throw in some camping while moving along a predetermined route. However, given the pandemic we decided to stay two places total for three nights each and opt for a "hub and spoke" model for trail bashing. In this way we don't run the risk of running out of trails, or having to travel longer distances to trailheads at any rate, while also minimizing exposure. Also, because "chill" was the name of the game, we decided to only look at accommodations that had no visible neighbors and at least two bathrooms. Having good luck with AirBnB and VRBO in the past, we focused our search on those two platforms.
During our search, we quickly developed the skill of "seeing what was not pictured." Which is to say a lot of listings have pictures of beautiful, remote vistas and give the impression you're in the middle of nowhere, just you and nature serenely getting to know each other in side-by-side bathtubs... or whatever. Then you look the place up on Google Maps and it is in the middle of a subdivision. Looking back at the photos, you quickly begin to realize odd framing isn't due to photographer incompetence, but because they're trying to crop the neighbors out.
Creative cropping at its finest. Still a cool looking place, but not what we were looking for. Also expensive!
Anyway, through all of this we managed to find two cabins, one near Hot Spring, AR, and one in the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. The latter, where we'll be spending NYE is in a dark sky zone that is about as dark as you can get in this part of the country, which I am very excited about.
Accommodation bookings done, we set about researching interesting looking trails and photo spots near the two locations. I'd love to share those details with you, but as of writing we've sort of back-burnered that discussion until further notice. Or until the trip starts. Remember, the theme of this trip is "chill"!
Something I can plan without heavy input from the others is food, so I did just that!
"Akio, why would food be an important think to plan for this far in advance!?" You may ask.
Well dear reader that is because, in case you hadn't heard, there is a pandemic on. Our usual practice of "do whatever" isn't really going to fly when the temperatures are low enough outside dining isn't viable, inside dining is a non-starter, and we don't want to have fast food for every meal. Plus I like planning and cooking.
While planning a trip menu may sound complicated, it really isn't. We almost never eat lunch on these things and only eat breakfast some of the time. Breakfast and/or lunch are usually snacks/quest bars, that way we don't waste valuable offroading time sitting in a diner (remember when we could do that?). So planning on picking up a couple dozen eggs, breakfast meats, and breakfast breads and frying up traditional breakfasts most days.
With breakfast and lunch "planned," that leaves seven dinners to plan. The first and last days are travel days on which we traditionally just grab fast food on the go. With those days not requiring additional planning leaves five dinners. I am also thinking we're not going to want to cook on our travel day between cabins, both for cleaning and time reasons, so that leaves four dinners to plan.
For those four, the plan is: Pho, burgers, steaks for NYE, and spaghetti. Why those meals? Easy prep with minimal ingredients! Obviously pho is the outlier here, but I've found the instant pho from the the Asian market is actually pretty stellar after you throw in onions, peppers, bullion, sambal, garlic, and meat. Ok, that sounds complicated but trust me. Also I have some pulled pork in the freezer and I can assure you, pulled pork pho is amazing, especially when it is cold out.
Sides will be the usual mix of veggies. Brussels sprouts, potatoes, squash, salad, etc. and will pair with the meal as appropriate. We try and be veggie heavy on these trips because of the crap we tend to eat for breakfast and lunch. and this trip will be no exception.
The plan is to buy everything but the steaks in advance and pack it with us. One of us owns a small travel refrigerator, which paired with a few traditional coolers should set us up nicely for the five-ish hour drives to the sites.
Most importantly, of course, we're going to be sure to bring enough booze to kill a small village. Whiskey, wine, and of course champagne, though as we're, again, not going out to bars I might bring stuff to make cocktails.
No road trip would be complete without a host of last minute fixes to my venerable "old" Land Rover. For those that aren't familiar, I picked up a 2001 Land Rover Discovery in 2017 when we were doing our overland cheap car challenge. So smitten was I with this cheap motor, I went ahead and kept it, rather than selling like I was supposed to and the other two did. Anyway, I say all that to say I own a Land Rover and the TODO list on the Land Rover is never empty.
So what needed to be done? Thankfully, nothing! The Rover is in good health with no major issues to report. The keyword there being "major." There were a few minor items that I wanted to look into before taking it on a long trip.
First and foremost I wanted to knock out a small transmission fluid leak and the need for an oil change. I borrowed a lift and a few fluid soaked hours later the Rover was sporting a new transmission pan gasket, filter, and fluid. While I was under there I did an oil change, though oddly had a hard time finding the 5W-40 I usually use and had to substitute 5W-30. No issue in the short term, but Land Rover recommends a heavier weight oil in the summer months, so I'll have to be sure to change back before May or so.
Next up, the spark plugs were last done about 15,000 miles ago when I was replacing the heads and head gasket. I normally use copper plugs and that meant they were just slightly overdue to be changed. Luckily the Rover wasn't having any running issues from it, but knowing my luck something would crop up in the middle of the trip. Unlike previous times I'd done plugs, I decided to pull the most difficult plug first, rather than last. On this engine the worst is plug number seven, nestled against the firewall with the brake booster handily blocking access. After I'd found the correct combination of wobbly extensions that gave me enough reach, flex, and clearance, I popped the plug out only to discover...
Old and new compared
Apparently I'd put iridium plugs in when I did the head swap! Oops! With no obvious issues and the new plugs being the wrong gap anyway (thanks NGK...), I put #7 back in, torqued it to spec, and moved on.
Next up was the HVAC blower motor. While still working fine, the blower has occasionally been ticking and/or squealing over the last couple years. As the part is inexpensive and easy to replace, I figured I'd throw one in before it became a persistent issue. As per expectations, four bolts and three screws later, ignoring all the ones I took out by mistake because I was reading the wrong section of the factory service manual, I had the blower motor in my hand, and had identified at least one of the problems.
I think that accounts for the ticking!
While the motor felt like I was in good shape otherwise, it did have a little more axial play in the shaft than the replacement and the replacement was non-returnable anyway, so I winged in the new one anyway.
In a fit of foresight that I usually don't have, I tested the replacement before reassembling the car and, lo and behold, it started ticking! Assuming I'd done something wrong, I messed around with alignment and fit for a while before removing the replacement and running it resting on the floorboard.... and it still ticked! Something internal to the replacement was defective. Rather than wait on a replacement replacement, I went ahead and cleaned up the old one, installed it, and applied for a RMA on the new one.
While I had the glovebox out to do the blower, I went ahead and modified the ABS ECU. Now... that sounds scary and/or impressive, but in reality it amounts to cutting one wire. I just needed to make sure it was the right wire! The reason for this modification is long and complicated, but rather than gloss over it I'll spell it all out! When Land Rover introduced the Discovery Series II (D2) they were so smitten with their new offroad traction control system they decided to do away with the mechanical center differential lock found on the Series I Discovery. Without getting too much into the weeds of 4WD, with a center differential lock (CDL) engaged you get a 50/50 power split between the front and rear wheels. Most traditional 4WD systems do this automatically when 4WD is engaged but the Land Rover Discovery does not, instead opting to have it be a separate control. The upside to this is unlike most 4WD vehicles you can operate in low-range on pavement with no ill effect. The downside is without the CDL locked and with no other assist, like traction control, the vehicle is much easier to get stuck in some situations. If one wheel loses all traction, 100% of the power goes to that wheel whereas with a CDL engaged only 50% of the power would be fruitlessly spinning away.
Wait... what were we talking about? Oh right... ABS ECU! Anyway, though Land Rover eliminated the CDL for the D2, many models still had all the hardware in the transfer case and just lacked the linkage to operate it. Luckily mine was one of those and I had installed a linkage a few years ago, making my CDL fully operational. Unfortunately the ABS ECU on my model year is programmed to disable traction control if the CDL is engaged when the vehicle is started, leaving me to have to remember to disengage it before shutting the vehicle off otherwise I lose all electronic assist. This is a minor annoyance but the fix is easy: cut the CDL wire going to the ABS ECU. There is no downside, later D2s had this modification from the factory, and the upside is you can leave the CDL locked if you stop mid-trail.
Anyway, one careful wire clip later, that was sorted!
Just, you know, make sure to cut the correct wire
Next up was a fairly minor irritation: the passenger door wasn't shutting properly. Usually it took two good slams and even then it wasn't quite right. I'd recently adjusted the latch, so I assumed it wasn't catching properly or something. I was sort of right, as when I actually looked at the thing I noticed the latch had come almost completely undone! A little threadlocker and a lot of torque saw that problem solved.
Also on my TODO list was to flush the brake fluid, torque the rear driveshaft flex coupling bolds, and replace the rear door locks. The brake fluid is new enough and likely DOT3, so it can go another couple months without issues, so I am going to skip that unless I get really bored. The rear driveshaft coupling somehow worked its way loose and caused some problems. While the bolts have been since tightened and I intend to eventually retrofit the flex coupling to a u-joint system, I don't have the time, energy, or cash to do that before this trip, so instead I'm going to periodically check torque on the coupling bolts. The rear door power locks are in-op and have been since I got the car, but are a massive pain to replace so that can is going to get kicked down the road for another couple months.
And that is it! The Rover and the trip are ready to go! The trip is a go! I'm excited!
As per my usual I'll likely be doing small daily update on Opposite-Lock (The Hyphen) and will do a big post-trip report here. This will be my first big trip without OG Oppo (RIP), but I am looking forward to sharing the adventure with a whole new group! You DriveTribe. Talking about you.