The Most Important Upgrade, with On Trail Training

The Most Important Upgrade, with On Trail Training

Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the Google Play Store!Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the App StoreAnxiety. That's what I felt when I would see a trail ahead of me with larger-than-I'm-comfortable-driving-over rocks, or a hill that appeared steeper than I would prefer with said rocks. 

Photos by Blake Rubenstein/Guerilla Capturing

The stress I would endure during these trying moments began wearing on my enjoyment of actually going off-road. I was always fearing the unknown obstacles ahead of me and whether or not my FJ, or I, would make it through unharmed.

I’m sure many who are new to the off-road world will understand those thoughts. Maybe even those who have been off roading for years still have those thoughts. I’ve been off roading now for over three years with my 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser on various types of trails with two of those years the FJ completely stock. I currently have the Toytec Boss 2.0 Front Aluma Series Coilovers with a 3” lift, along with RCI steel skid plates and rock sliders. Having these upgrades have definitely helped me feel my FJ is a little more protected and prepared.I’m sure many who are new to the off-road world will understand those thoughts. Maybe even those who have been off roading for years still have those thoughts. I’ve been off roading now for over three years with my 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser on various types of trails with two of those years the FJ completely stock. I currently have the Toytec Boss 2.0 Front Aluma Series Coilovers with a 3” lift, along with RCI steel skid plates and rock sliders. Having these upgrades have definitely helped me feel my FJ is a little more protected and prepared.

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

Let's be real—FJ Cruisers, even stock, were built to off-road, and honestly, it took a while for me to realize it was an incredibly capable vehicle. It was me—or rather my fear and lack of confidence—that was holding us back. Those fears would be almost debilitating, seeing the obstacles ahead of me, as my hands would become uncontrollably shaky and breathing would become difficult as if something were sitting on my chest.

Not a really fun way to enjoy the trails. I was tired of feeling stressed and anxious and was afraid these overwhelming feelings would eventually prevent me from driving off-road all together.

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

I had an opportunity to upgrade my off-road driving skills with Matt Balasz, owner of On Trail Training. I was ready to learn, and most importantly, ready to conquer my fears.

Matt started On Trail Training in 2015, and after taking almost a year to get permits approved with the Forest Service, Matt’s first class had one student. That first year, he had a total of 12 people. Now, he has between 300-400 students a year with classes in recovery, trail driving, trail fixes, and overlanding. He can also customize courses to fit your needs. Matt is one of less than 100 I4WDTA (International 4 Wheel Drive Trainers Association) Certified trainers in the world—with less than a third of applicants actually passing the certification training. 

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

We meet up at a gas station and head down the road to Slaughterhouse Gulch near Evergreen, Colorado. Matt has done this trail too many times to count and relies on this area to train drivers about their vehicles, driving techniques, and of course, actual trail driving. I’ve never been on this trail but I know it has bypasses. Matt kindly lets me know we will not be taking any of the bypasses.

The trail starts out pretty easy but as the day goes on, each section becomes slightly more technical. Every time we would pull up to the next section, my eyes got a little bigger and my smile slowly turns into a slightly stressed frown, pursed lips and all. “I’m going up that?” is inevitably my response to the section I see before me, and every time, Matt says, “That’s not even the hard part.” 

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

I’m rethinking what I signed myself up for. 

We stop at one area to test how far we can get my FJ at a “not-so-fun" tippy angle. My FJ has the inclinometer and Matt is going to show me just how far we can actually tilt my FJ. I drive my FJ along the hill, or basically the wall of the trail, driver side to the top and passenger side facing the bottom of the road. From the inside, it is pretty much terrifying and I am sure a wiggle or heavy sigh will flop my FJ. Matt takes a photo and I as I looked at it later, I was floored at just how insignificant the lean actual was. “That’s it? That’s what it looked like? That doesn’t even look like anything.” My FJ can lean pretty far and what I was feeling and perceiving was not nearly as bad as I thought it was. My fear of tilting-so-much-I-think- I’ll-flop-or-roll—reclaimed.

As we drive along, we make our way to a rather long but rocky hill. “I’m going up that?” Again, Matt calmly tells me he’ll spot me and that that wasn’t even the hard part. “Whatever you do, don’t stop. It’s all about momentum.” 

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

I make it up the hill without much drama and the requested momentum successfully. I lost a little traction in one spot, but Matt yells “Keep going! Momentum!” I realize the hill isn’t really that bad and feel quite proud of my newly found hill climbing prowess. I feel pretty good. Maybe even a little... confident? I find that each obstacle isn’t as bad as I perceive it to be. Perceive. Perception. Those words stick with me beyond the training. 

We get to the top and I see the next hill. My body quickly sinks into my seat. I take a deep breath. “I’m going up... that? Are you f*cking kidding me?” Perception—gone. Out the window. Confidence? Gone, too. I’m trying to picture what part under my FJ is going to be ripped out or what part of the FJ am I going to break over these rather large and imposing rocks?

“The fears we don’t face, become our limitations.” -Robin Sharma

Matt, and video crew in attendance, smile at my remark but they quickly head over to calm my fears and as a group, become my impromptu off-road cheerleaders. 

Matt has me walk up the hill with him. We’re going to walk it and see where tire placement will be. We spread our arms out like airplanes and check out where our tires will land on the rocks. I realize my wing span is the same width as my FJ. Who knew?  

We decide a good line—the path I will take the FJ up and over, trying to keep the FJ as level as possible. Sometimes, driving over the big rock is the better option, even though your gut may tell you otherwise.

Matt offers to drive up the hill first in his 80s Series Land Cruiser, with me as passenger, to see how this will work. I agree and Matt tears up the hill without a hiccup. He’s done this hill numerous times but it helps me understand where the large rocks are that will be my biggest challenges.

I walk back down to the bottom of the hill, get in the FJ, and take a LOT of deep breaths. A lot. I tell myself, “I can do this. I can do this. Just keep the momentum. Don’t stop.”

“It’s just a rock. Get over it.”-Unknown

During this trail section, Matt explains “brake throttle modulation”. “Poor Man’s Locker” or “Poor Man’s posi-traction" creates back pressure to the differential so there is no path of least resistance when a wheel loses traction. I’ve been a left-foot braker since the 2018 FJ Summit Rebelle U class, so it was easy to put this technique into practice.

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

I give the thumbs up and head up the hill. I make it over a few of the larger rock obstacles and get a little hung up on another rock. I apply the brake throttle modulation technique and make it over. I make some quick right and left turns to avoid a rather large opening between some other rocks, and get to the top. 

Breathe. 

After getting to the top, I chat with Matt about how it went and how it felt using the braking technique. It felt good. It was great. I can’t believe I just drove up that hill. Although part of me is saying “once is enough”, the other part is saying, “you’re here, you might as well do this again since you have the teacher here to help you.”  

After talking with Matt, I tell him I want to drive it again. He thinks it’s a great idea but this time, he says I should drive up the hill using my rear lockers and see if I notice a difference with steering control. I head back up the trail again, surprisingly without the previous nerves, and I do notice that the FJ seems to fight me a little when I have to make some of the tight turns. It’s all coming together and I am understanding what is happening with my FJ with the different methods. I can’t believe how happy and elated I feel—how relieved I feel. I made it up that hill. Twice. Fear of big rocks—lots of big rocks on a hill—reclaimed. High-fives abound within the group. 

A sense of calm, understanding, and relief takes over at the end of the training. I understand now what I need to do to conquer these obstacles I perceived to be larger and more difficult than they actually were. They are just rocks and my FJ can drive over them with some planning, momentum, and confidence.

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

“Action cures fear. Inaction creates terror.” -Douglas Horton

After the training, I went on numerous camping trips with various types of trails and skill level during the summer. I found the obstacles I had feared earlier were no longer in need of the anxiety and energy I once gave them. I looked at them as “just rocks” that my FJ and I could now drive over without a breath held. I could walk the trail and see where my tires would land and what “obstacle” might need just a little more effort to climb over. Using the brake throttle modulation technique has also completely changed the way I drive and now I rarely use my rear lockers.

I recommend off-road trail driving classes to anyone thinking about venturing off-road. Whether a newbie or a trail-tested warrior, driving capable vehicles and continual training is essential in the back country to enjoy and adventure safely outdoors.

Also... Make sure to check out the video of my training class with Matt and On Trail Training:

Matt’s Tips
What do you recommend to beginners to prepare for driving off road?

  • Drop the ego and testosterone.
  • Low range is your friend. I see too many beginners spending the day in 4H or even worse 2WD.
  • Learn where your wheels are. A good drill is finding small rocks on the trail and hitting them with your tires or practice in a parking lot with soda cans. Pick them up after, be a decent person.
  • Avoid wheel spin. Once you have lost traction you will not regain it by spinning tires.
  • Get qualified training. Spending a day with a good trainer can easily give you the knowledge it will take years to learn on your own.
  • Find a friend who has been doing it for some time and go along. Ride with them a few times and watch what they are doing, ask lots of questions.

What do you hope people take away from your classes, besides just new skills? 
I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing my students faces after tackling an obstacle, with ease, that minutes before they thought was impossible. I want my students to leave class more confident in their skills and having a better understanding of their vehicle’s capabilities and limitations.

Matt’s 80 Series Land Cruiser

First off, names Otto. I name all my trucks after Simpsons characters; Otto was the school bus driver and OTT is short for On Trail Training so, there ya go. 
It was built with the intention of being a teaching truck, essentially an overbuilt overland rig. I wanted it to be extremely capable, lots of room and reliability. So, 80 series. It’s a ‘97 that I bought stock. 4” lift that’s a combination of Slee and OME parts on 35’s. ARB lockers front and rear, RCV Birfield joints and Nitro rear axle shafts. Regeared with 4:88s and a Marlin 3:1 low range. The bumpers were custom made by two fabricators; Rock Rash Engineering did a fantastic job fixing the first guy’s screw-ups. I have a Superwinch Talon 12.5 winch up front and all sorts of recovery gear in the back.

FJ Cruiser Off Road Training with On Trail Training

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