Stop what you're doing and go off-roading immediately
In the past year, just by coincidence, two of my closest friends have bought Jeep Wranglers. Both 2000 TJs, both manual, both base models, both the same shade of silver, and both bone stock underneath. The two of them don't really associate with each other normally, so it was truly fate.
And, both of them have been dipping their toes into the world of off-roading. Or wheeling, as we usually call it. I go with them every chance I get. We've been using a series of trails a few towns over that we gradually explore a little more every time.
By far though, the greatest joy is water fording. It's terrifying in a way like nothing else. We've scuba'd these poor TJs through water up to the taillights. (It's especially enjoyable when it's not your car!)
The first time I brought these two together (and a crew of a few others) to go wheeling, we ran into a problem. One of the Jeeps was producing a worrisome noise from the front end. (We later diagnosed it as the wheel bearing.) If there's somewhere you're going to break a worn component, you can bet it will be on the trail. So, we had to leave one TJ behind before we even hit the trail.
That meant we had too many guys to all cram into a tiny TJ and no recovery vehicle, so someone had to answer the call. That ended up being me, in my 2000 Durango (affectionately dubbed Rango). Was it a stupid idea? Almost undeniably.
So, with one TJ and my Rango, we arrived at the trailhead. Understandably, I was a tad terrified. My truck is bone stock with just under 200,000 miles on the clock. My friend in the lead didn't stop long enough at the trailhead for me to accurately assess my second thoughts, so we began the ascent. The main access road is an upward slope of large rocks and small boulders, so right off this is not a task for those lacking in ground clearance.
We followed the usual access road, then barreled down a trail littered with puddles to splash through. After a while they got deeper and required a little more caution, so I began skirting the edges while my buddy in the TJ plowed right through.
After about an hour on the trail, we came to an intersection of trails, and the surface switched from dirt to sand. For the life of me, I can't figure out how all that sand got on top of a mountain in Pennsylvania. But its up there and we made the most of it. With the new, looser surface, the hoonery doubled. I disengaged 4WD, planted the gas to the floor, and ripped the wheel left to pitch into a slide. My friend in his Jeep followed suit, and soon we were both carving donuts in the sand. I laughed so hard and so loud that I scared the others.
There's no feeling quite like absolutely cutting loose in your daily driver like that. But, that isn't what we came for, so we continued on our way. Ahead lay the real target.
Another mile or two down a side trail lies The Big One. A puddle we have dubbed Lake "Oh F--k!" after almost swallowing our Wrangler (the one out of commission) a few weeks prior. The operational Wrangler's driver had never been to this obstacle before, and plunged in before we had an opportunity to remark that "the water looks higher than last time".
Anyway, I'll let this video speak for itself.
I'll spare you the audio on this one. There may be children watching.
So, after nearly losing that Jeep to the murky depths, I needed to find a way around this water feature. There was no way I'd make it through that in my soccer-mom special. I took a muddy trail around the right side, trampled down by many before me exercising a similar caution. After a few teeth-gritting encounters with trees barely clearing the mirrors (and a stump barely clearing my front differential), we had cleared our greatest obstacle yet.
A bit further in, the surface gradually shifted from sand to gravel. Even further yet, the stones in the gravel seemed to grow larger and angrier until we were plodding over a trail made of baseball-sized rocks. At a certain point, the trail necked down so far that I'd nearly be cutting down trees with my mirrors. Simultaneously, it pitches downward at a considerable grade (probably at least 50%), and the rocks turn to small boulders ranging in size from grapefruit to watermelon.
Clearly, this is where the trail ended for us. With some very skillful driving, the Wrangler may have made it down safely. But that was no place for Rango, with its independent front suspension, mediocre ground clearance, and lengthy wheelbase.
We turned around and headed back.
With additional caution this time around, we circumnavigated Lake "Oh F--k!" and arrived back where the trails intersected, sand still carved with numerous donuts. After cooking up another baker's dozen or so, we took a previously unexplored path. We quickly ended up at the bottom of a recently dry creek bed. It was interesting terrain to explore, but only a few hundred yards in we heard something horrific.
It's the last sound you want to hear a few miles into the woods. Grinding gears. I check the Wrangler through my passenger side window, and I see it's coasting to a stop.
We all unload out of Rango to assess the damage, greeted by an exasperated cry of "We lost first!". Not good. Some investigation followed, and we eventually found that first gear only refused to grab with high range engaged on the transfer case. Disengaging the TC or engaging low range restored first gear again. Peculiar.
With that, we decided to head back. He really could not afford to lose any more gears (after all, that's his daily driver too). Luckily we were on top of a mountain, so the return descent was doable without 4WD.
Once we'd made it back to the trailhead, we assessed our rigs and found no visible damage. Mission accomplished, time for some celebratory Burger King! (Give us a break, we're all broke.)
Cool story, what's the point?
My point? Anyone can do it. If you have a beater with some ground clearance, you meet all the requirements. Grab a pal, find some trails (where you aren't trespassing!) and go hit it. I do suggest you bring the following, just in case, though: another vehicle (for recovery), tow strap, shovel, spare tire, flashlights, and a portable air compressor.
We had a riot just goofing off with our daily drivers. You don't have to push your rigs hard to have a good time. My buddy's transfer case mishap was unfortunate, but that's also the sort of thing you come to expect when you regularly drive twenty year old vehicles with no less than 100k miles. Usually 200k.
So, just get out there and send it!