Off-Roading Through A Pandemic With OnX Offroad

Illustration for article titled Off-Roading Through A Pandemic With OnX Offroad
Photo: Boyd Jaynes

March 4, 2020. The late afternoon Nevada sunshine had made me sleepy after a long day of off-roading with the OnX Offroad app crew—my first ever time piloting a Jeep over steep rock faces and sandy hills—when one of the voices in our little press group asked, “So, what do y’all think about this coronavirus thing?”

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The question had hung about the group as we hesitated to engage in the usual handshakes in the press crew meetup, had lingered while we stood side-by-side, slapping each other’s arms and pointing at the next member of our group taking on a challenging obstacle in the off-road course and gathering in close to check out the way the app worked. No one seemed to worry too much about what had yet to be named COVID-19, even as the nightly news reports warned us of US-based cases, cautioning us to maintain a little distance from those around us.

And, as it’s turned out, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made a dent in the off-roading world the way it has with other forms of automotive enthusiast outings. In fact, Joe Risi from OnX Offroad said that it might have even helped get more people out of their comfort zones and onto the trail in order to get out of the house in a socially distant way.

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Illustration for article titled Off-Roading Through A Pandemic With OnX Offroad
Photo: Boyd Jaynes

RV sales have been skyrocketing as people look to travel without staying in hotels, and Risi has noticed that the trailhead near his home has been consistently busy every day, not just during the weekends anymore. There have also been massive updates with the app since I last used it in early March.

One of those improvements comes in the form of the Trail Guide Program, which encourages avid off-roaders to apply to contribute detailed, peer reviewed information for specific trails. With nothing else on their plates, the app’s 70 trail guides have hit the road to compile write-ups of information regarding the trail’s history, difficulty, notable obstacles, and more.

I had no idea what OnX was when I received the invitation, but a quick Google search revealed that it was right up my alley: here was an app designed for off-road enthusiasts and people taking trips through unfamiliar territory. I might not be an off-roader, but I love knowing what other car fans are doing to make their drives smoother and more enjoyable, and OnX Offroad was exactly that.

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When you open the app, a map pops up with highlighted roads that are given a specific color based on your ride (a dirt bike, an ATV, or a high-clearance vehicle). These are off-road trails that the company has meticulously mapped out, replete with all the extra information you might need: fun facts about certain areas, air-down areas, and more. Users can share waypoints where trails split and where you have to face a serious incline—or you can just make notes for yourself that no one else gets to see. As you scroll through the map, you can watch your coordinates and elevation change in response to the movement. You can download specific trails and map sections if you want to go off the grid. You can track your ride the same way fitness apps let you track your jogs, then save the route for future reference.

I’m perpetually skeptical of new apps that promise big things, but I’d also traveled out to Iceland and road-tripped around the entire island the previous summer. If you’ve never driven there before, there are tons of gravel, dirt, and off-road-ish trails that tourists with a rental car can traverse—but they’re also graded depending on the type of vehicle you’re in. As someone who had rented a Mazda 2, I spent so much time wishing I had an updated-by-the-minute map telling me which roads were safe for me and my machinery to take that it actually put a damper on the trip. OnX sounded like exactly the kind of app I was looking for, albeit one based in the western United States.

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Off-roading seemed to be counter to everything that defined me as a person. I’m not one to derive some testosterone-drenched pleasure in conquering natural landscapes. If I’m honest, I get uncomfortable trekking through nature on foot knowing that I am, essentially, an invasive species in this otherwise natural environment. From the practical side of things, I’m shorter than the average dude, and I’m sadly out of shape; maneuvering some giant beast of a vehicle is not only miserable, but it’s often not even feasible if I can’t reach the pedals, see over the dashboard, or crank the heavy steering wheel. I don’t enjoy being dirty or sticky for prolonged periods of time. I’m terrified of getting lost and being unable to find my way back home.

But I’m also not someone to turn down an opportunity to try something and put my preconceptions to the test. So when Risi messaged me about attending the Mint 400—including our little off-road excursion to whet our appetites ahead of the event—I agreed.

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The OnX Offroad team joined up with Las Vegas Rock Crawlers, the latter of whom provided us with a variety of Jeeps and the instruction of experts familiar with the area. To put it simply, the odds were stacked in my favor; there was no way I could screw this up unless I developed a sudden God complex and decided not to listen to anything that any of the professionals had to say.

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But that’s similar to a lot of press drives—there’s pretty much always a professional at hand to tell you what you’re doing wrong. I’ve had experts sitting beside me for fast-paced track days, for press drives and for autocross courses. I was confident that I’d be able to give any obstacle a good ol’ college try. I was not confident, however, that I would be any good at any of the rock crawling we’d be doing.

Especially not when we were faced with a gatekeeper, or a daunting obstacle designed to put you to the test before you even hit the trail. In this instance, our media cohort was told that we’d be driving our massive Jeeps through a thin crevasse between two otherwise steep, rocky cliffs. At most points, one tire wouldn’t even be making contact with anything. If we didn’t hit our marks exactly, we would have to reverse and start the whole obstacle over—at best. At worst, we could flip a Jeep if we didn’t manage to get our tire positioned perfectly on a rock.

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Not exactly the kind of confidence-inspiring thing a first-time off-roader wants to hear.

Sweaty-palmed, I was the third person in line to give this obstacle a shot. I had a chance to watch two other people have at ‘er, one of whom had just been off-roading the weekend prior, another of whom was a newbie like me. Both of them, though, were very tall men who had no problem completing impossible-for-me tasks like “stick your head out the window and watch the front right tire” or “look over the dashboard when you breach anything other than a flat, zero-degree angle.” Yet again: not the kind of confidence-inspiring thing a first-time off-roader wants to hear.

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I put the Jeep in gear and started forward slowly. Tim and Carl, the Las Vegas Rock Crawlers guides leading the tour, were lined up along the obstacle to give each of us a hand. All I had to do was watch for hand signals directing me to go left or right and listen to directions. The only mistake I made on that first obstacle was a result of being unfamiliar with the two-pedal off-roading method, where you keep one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake to better moderate your speed.

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By the time I’d navigated my way up the side of the cliff and parked the Jeep, I was changed. Yeah, I was still nervous. But I was also flushed with accomplishment. I was fully prepared to stumble my way through the day, making one mistake after another. I expected to be totally out of my depth. I mean, hell, I’d never quite figured out my skills on a track day, and I’d been doing those for almost a year.

But the thing is, off-roading is exactly my jam in a way that track driving isn’t. I’m just not a fast-paced person. It’s the same reason why I’ve never enjoyed video games like Mario Kart in favor of Animal Crossing; I like the slow and steady way of doing things. When you’re off-roading, it’s not about speed. It’s about patience. You have to hit your marks both on the track and out in the desert, but off-roading gives you a chance to digest at a much slower pace. You have to acknowledge and understand your environment in order to figure out how you’re going to overcome an obstacle. It’s about working in tandem with the things around you, not letting the track dictate your process. It isn’t that off-roading is easier, it’s just a whole different world, and it’s one that makes far more sense to me as a person, despite the fact that I absolutely adore all things fast when it comes to racing. I appreciate speed, but I’m not the person who’s going to go out there and set the fast lap.

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To give a little bit of perspective, our off-road journey was a little over seventeen miles, but it took us nearly four hours. Our average speed? 4.4 miles per hour. That’s probably a little slow since there were five of us who required instruction over each obstacle, but it also included a leisurely lunch on a cliffside and plenty of questions about the landscape along the way. At the end of the day, I still rolled into my hotel room sweaty and exhausted, my body aching with the same exertion I’d output on a long track day. But I also felt a hell of a lot more accomplished.

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The slow pace helped me feel more at home, especially since I could follow our journey on the OnX app and keep track of where we were. I really hate not knowing where I am, not having a backup plan to get out of any possible trouble, and it was nice to have a little recommended path telling me where to go should I need to make my way back to a main highway. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was already scoping out the other trails that the guys at OnX had mapped out because I wanted more.

Now that the pandemic has kept me cooped up indoors for the last five months, I’ve been craving a chance to get out on the trail again. I find myself flipping through Craigslist looking for something I could take offroading while planning out dream routes.

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While the app is still pretty young, it has grown rapidly since March. About 20,000 miles of trail are added each week which means its archive is constantly evolving—you just might have to be patient to see your home state mapped out in full, and the list of states involved has grown exponentially: California, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Washington, Virginia, Idaho, and more.

Illustration for article titled Off-Roading Through A Pandemic With OnX Offroad
Photo: Boyd Jaynes
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The main focus is currently the American West, which makes sense considering that’s the main place people go off-roading in the US. However, Rory at OnX mentioned that the company is looking into mapping out wooded trails further east (something that my well-forested heart loved to hear) and in Mexico. If all goes well, other countries will follow.

And it’s also not foolproof. Off-road trails are highlighted, but it’s up to you to map yourself to those trails—and those routes aren’t always easily accessible. As a quick example, Joe drove our media cohort out to the Mint 400 time trials in a Chevy Suburban. What looked like a shortcut on the OnX map turned out to be a completely non-navigable trail for our Suburban—and it still likely would have been a challenge for anyone driving a proper off-road vehicle, since the route eventually included a serious cliff that would have daunted all but off-roading experts.

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The advanced trail program has helped ease some of those struggles, since almost every step of the way is mapped out. As with any form of off-roading, app guided or otherwise, it’s always good to use your common sense to ensure that you’re not putting yourself in a situation you’re uncomfortable with.

While normal trails are highlighted in green, advanced trails are highlighted in blue and provide detailed information about the route you’ll be taking.
While normal trails are highlighted in green, advanced trails are highlighted in blue and provide detailed information about the route you’ll be taking.
Screenshot: OnX Offroad
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As a newbie to this kind of traveling, OnX was a really neat way to get comfortable with a type of driving that had previously intimidated me, and it’s something I’d recommend to people who have already been initiated into the world of off-roading. It’s not an all-encompassing guide, though, and I still don’t think it could replace the value of in-person expert instruction for learning the ropes.

But I’m still stoked that it exists. I’m a serial knowledge-hoarder, the kind of person who scrolls around on Google Maps to analyze the food options near any place I’ll spend any lengthy period of time. I’ll hunt down gas stations along a road trip route weeks in advance, just to make sure I’ll be prepared. OnX gives me that same kind of comfort in a realm that I thought would have been difficult to map in that way. And now that I know that off-roading is well within my wheelhouse, I have a feeling it won’t be long before I’m back out hunting down a trail on my own.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Freelancer. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

Gee, I dunno. After seeing that video of the crazy dude chimbing Moab in a clapped-out Crown Vic, off-roading in a Jeep seems kinda weak.

It also puts the new Bronco to shame as well.