Every year, I take a trip to the rock crawling heaven that is Moab, Utah, and while that might make you think that rocks are my favorite off-road surface, it’s actually mud that has my heart. It’s a type of terrain that lots of off-road enthusiasts absolutely detest, but here’s why I can’t get enough of it.
Even the most hard-core of off-road enthusiasts will tell you they hate mud. People with enormous, purpose-built Jeep Wranglers on 40-inch tires will avoid the deep puddles; many of my former coworkers at Chrysler—who, in some cases, followed their off-road dreams to those hallowed halls in Auburn Hills—won’t take me up on a challenge to hit a deep mud pit like the one below; and there’s even a well-known Toyota Land Cruiser forum called IH8Mud.
The animosity towards the gooey brown plant-food has gone too far, so it’s time for me to stick up for the slop that has brought me so much joy through the years. And I’ll go even further with this steaming hot take: I think mudding is the best type of off-roading.
The greatest thing about muddy off-road trails is that they’re an opportunity to test pretty much every facet of a vehicle’s capability. The deep ruts test ground clearance and articulation, the steep grades test approach and departure angles, the big rocks hidden in the pools of filth put body armor to the test—the list goes on. Mudding offers most of the challenges rock-crawling does, except it adds arguably the scariest element in the off-road world: a lack of traction.
And that lack of traction means you can’t just crawl at 2 mph with your right foot barely on the pedal as your short low-range and axle ratios multiply your engine torque—no, no, you need speed. You’ve got to be ready to slam your right foot deep into that gas pedal and let the engine sing, as your tires shoot filth sky-high into the heavens.
It’s a genuine thrill, but one that can easily come to a screeching halt if, for example, you enter a puddle too quickly and hydrolock your motor (like I did), or if you get stuck in a precarious spot. While to some, that may sound a bit scary, it’s this constant risk of getting stranded in the middle of nowhere or possibly finding my Jeep’s rear end hanging off a slippery cliff at the top of a ravine that’s always kept me asking for more:
Mudding is a game of strategically using a vehicle’s momentum to make up for a lack of traction. Too much throttle will dig the tires deep into the ground or it could cause an engine to take in water. Too much skinny pedal could also send you driving too quickly toward an immovable object, and with brakes and tires coated in slop, don’t expect to slow down quickly.
Too little throttle can be equally dangerous; sure, it can cause you to wind up stuck, but it can also send you sliding down an off-camber trail into a tree if you’re not giving the vehicle enough throttle and opposite lock. Mudding is dangerous, but—like rock crawling—it’s something that takes time to master.
But the real reason why there’s so much anti-mud sentiment in the off-road community isn’t that mudding is difficult, it comes down to the fact that people hate cleaning their cars and that mudding takes an enormous toll on vehicles.
Mud gets everywhere. It gets into a car’s interior, into its wiring, into brakes, into small creases in the body (which can rust), and it’ll smoke U-joints, wheel bearings, tie rod ends, and ball joints. It’s nasty stuff, and while the traction on rock-crawling trails likely puts more average stress on a vehicle’s drivetrain, overall, there’s no doubt that mudding is tougher on vehicles. Here’s the result of the mud puddle I took in my 1995 Jeep Cherokee (the photo shown toward the top of this article). My wheel bearing crapped out prematurely:
It’s annoying having to replace components, and having to wash your car off all the time—I get that. But compared to the thrill of blasting through deep mud pits, listening to your motor rev to the sky, and cranking your wipers to full-speed just to see anything out of your dark brown windshield—it’s small potatoes, I think.
But I’m a bit biased. The very first time I went off-roading was in Germany in my Dad’s HMMWV (technically it wasn’t my dad’s, it was the U.S. Army’s), and my dad flooded the vehicle’s interior as it sank to the bottom of a swamp. He had to get towed out. I must say, my 10-year-old self was impressed by my dad’s gall.
A few years later, after our family to Kansas, my brothers and I spent most of our waking hours driving our 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ through Missouri River flood plains, which were covered in gooey silt. (No, there’s not a lot going on in eastern Kansas). We got stuck often, but that was kind of the point: We were there to find the very limits of our vehicle’s capability, and to straddle that line closely. We crossed the line 90 percent of the time we went out, but finding a way to get out of the situation was half the fun. (We may have had to “borrow” a tractor once).
It was this early off-road experience that got me hooked with mudding, and even after I entered the professional world (see video above—yes, that’s me being professional), it was hard for me to hide my elation as I ripped nasty donuts in a big filthy pit during what was technically a validation exercise.
If you’re still not convinced that mudding is good, you need to check out the jeep.rural.e.f75 Instagram page, which is filled with awesome videos of Jeeps (and, technically Fords, since The Blue Oval used to build its own Willys-based vehicles called the Rural and F-75 in Brazil) bombing through incredible mud trails in Brazil. Check these out:
Gosh I’ve got to get to Brazil.