A Lesson In Off-Roading: Unprepared And Unprotected

“You’re an idiot,” is all my girlfriend had to say once my buddy and I finally turned up after three days stuck in the wilderness. A spontaneous day trip into the mountains had quickly turned into two days with basically no food/water, no cell reception, and both our Jeeps stuck in a rising creek. Let this story serve as a case study for what can happen if you go off-roading unprepared, what could have been done to prevent it, and the aftermath in cleaning it all up.

Note: This is a true story from about 10 years ago. The pictures shown are the same Jeeps, but unfortunately, I do not have pictures from this event, as my phone was destroyed during the trip (more on that later). Don’t be like me.

So my buddy and I both had Jeep Wranglers that we were building up at the time, a TJ and a YJ that took all-around to test them out every opportunity we had, despite being woefully underprepared kids right out of high school. We were more caught up in making our Jeeps look rugged and cool than actually thinking about much that’s really practical to protect my pride and joy and get myself out of a bad situation.

1. Don’t go where you’re not supposed to

The Squeeze in Anza Borrego, CA

After scouring over maps looking for trails to explore, we set out with enough food and water to last us that day. We made it out to the mountains and eventually found the trail we were looking for. Unfortunately for us, the trail was closed due to weather — but being cocky young guys with 4WD at our fingertips, we laughed this off and drove around the gate.

Not only did this make our little trip illegal, but it turns out that there was actually good reason for the trail to be closed. It had been raining a ton recently, and more was on its way. If anything, that made us want to go out there even more because, in our tiny minds, more mud meant more fun. What tiny, tiny minds we had.

After going around the gate, we made our way out into the wilderness, having no idea what the trail ahead had in store for us. After three-four miles of mostly uneventful trail, we came to a shallow creek that only looked to be maybe 15 feet across. I could see that the trail picked right back up on the other side, and it didn’t look too deep, so I lead the way.

About halfway through the creek, the front end of my Jeep suddenly dropped and my bumper slammed down onto a rock. I put it in reverse and try to back out, but my front wheels just spin freely in the water while my rear wheels dig themselves in. My buddy comes over the CB and asks if I’m stuck. I reply yes, but had no idea how stuck I really was.

2. Don’t cross into water without checking the depth first

Pictured: Coyote Canyon OHV Trail — not the creek from the story

As rain starts to fall, I climb out of the Jeep, crawling along with the side steps and over the tire to jump off onto the shore of the creek. As soon as I land my feet sink into the soggy sand and my shoes immediately fill with cold water. Great.

With my shoes already ruined, I wade knee-deep into the water to attach the tow rope so my buddy can pull me back out. I climb back in, as the rain starts pouring harder, my Jeep only sinking further as he fails to pull me out. We try some different angles, trying to pull my Jeep in a direction that will hopefully help gain me some traction to get out.

The creek continues to rise as he tries to pull me out, the shore itself now completely submerged, killing any hope of him gaining traction. Eventually, his Jeep becomes buried up to its axles, and we both end up stuck.

3. Don’t prioritize “cool stuff” over proper recovery gear, like a winch

Pinyon Mt. Truck Trail — me spotting my buddy’s YJ that would later be stuck with me in the creek

By this time, the sun is fading over the mountains around us, it’s raining even harder, and we’re up to our waists in water trying everything we can to get his Jeep unstuck. Having no traction mats, we try to dig out underneath the tires to put rocks under them for traction, but that just sinks the Jeep down further. Next, we attempt to leverage our off-road jack as a come-along winch, but with both of us giving it all we’ve got, we can’t muster enough strength to pull the Jeep out. Really should have bought that winch.

Hours go by, and all our efforts only served to make the situation worse. The water is now up to the doors with both Jeeps flooding, and my drivers seat absolutely soaked from me getting in and out. Our tires were steadily being buried in sand by the rushing waters, and our legs were going numb from the cold water. We decide there’s nothing else we can do by ourselves, and make the decision to abandon the Jeeps to go get help.

I had lost my trusty flip phone somewhere in the flooded Jeep, leaving just his as our only hope of getting out of this. The only problem is we were miles away from anywhere we could get signal, so we set off to hike back towards civilization in hopes of finding anyone who could help us.

4. No seriously, don’t go where you’re not supposed to

Out on Ocotillo Wells — I’m not panicking, you’re panicking!

After we hike a few miles through the hills in the mud and rain, we finally find a peak where we can get signal and start calling around for help. It was then that we found out that since this trail was closed, any towing company would have to involve the police to come to get us out. OK, well we’ve found our last resort, at least.

We decided to scrap that idea for the time being, and instead call the guy my buddy bought his Jeep from. What a champion this guy, picks up the phone saying “Uh oh, what happened” and I could actually hear his laughing at our situation through the phone from five feet away. He pulls through and was even able to rally two other guys with built Jeeps to come to rescue us. They, unlike us, actually had proper recovery equipment, including a few winches between them.

However, it won’t be until the next morning that the troops will be able to make it out to rescue us. It was still raining, and there wasn’t exactly an abundance of shelter around to weather the night, so we made our way back down the mountain. Mercifully, our Jeeps hadn’t flooded up past the seats, so we were able to sleep in our Jeeps to stay out of the rain. Didn’t have a blanket, though, and was still soaking wet, so I can’t say we got too much sleep in.

When all the king’s horses and all the king’s men arrived to pull us out the next morning, our axles were entirely buried, and only the tops of my 33-inch tires were visible beneath the water. We broke out the shovels once again, and this time with the help of a few more guys, we mostly uncovered the wheels and axles, at least enough to not worry about damaging the suspension/drivetrain when pulling us out. They ended up having to daisy chain all three Jeeps together to have enough weight/traction to pull us out of the creek.

Mercifully again, both of our jeeps started right up (after making sure the airboxes were clear of water), and we were able to drive off the trail without incident.

The Aftermath and Cleanup

Some much needed new shoes in the form of the BFG KM2’s

Oh man, my poor Jeep.

Interior woes:

First thing I did was pull all the carpet and lay it out to dry. Unfortunately, the damage was done, so I decided to just strip out the interior and bed line the whole tub. This came out pretty cool looking… at first. In hindsight, I think a custom-fitted full tub floor liner would have been a better solution, like the BedRug Jeep floor liners. Bedliner tends to trap and collect dirt and makes things difficult to clean without just hosing the interior down — not something I want to have to do on a regular basis.

The other downside to bed lining the interior, was that removing the carpet exposes a lot of ugly linkage and just leaves things feeling a little… janky. Also, floor mats just did not want to stay in place on the surface. You would think that this would be just about the ideal conditions for them to stay in place, but the rubber underside of the mats just didn’t have much to hold onto and slid all around. Annoying.

The seats took a hit from this ordeal as well, the driver’s seat absolutely from me getting in soaking wet, but also the water rose just high enough for the seat foam and fabric to soak up some of the water and hold onto that moisture, leading to the unmistakable smell of mold after a few weeks. Some waterproof seat covers would have done wonders for my driver’s seat, especially.

Honestly, with all the time I spent in that thing without doors and top-down, the seats were already taking a beating. This was just the nail in the coffin for me to pull them out completely. The damage could have been mitigated, but since I didn’t prioritize the practical things, I ended up having to replace the seats outright, because I was never going to be able to get rid of the mold growing in the driver’s seat. The next seats I had got a set of Wet Okole seat covers immediately. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

The drivetrain took a hit as well:

Turns out gears and bearings don’t do well with water. Who’d have thought, right? Water made its way into the differentials, wheel bearings, U-joints, and double cardan joint in the driveshaft. The gear oil in the differentials came out looking like a milkshake (and smelled even more horrible than usual). Luckily I changed this fluid this soon enough that the ring, pinion, or spider gears took too much damage. The same can’t be said for the driveshaft, u-joints, and wheel bearings, however.

OK, maybe I didn’t exactly help matters….

After changing out all the fluids, it wasn’t until the next three to six months that issues began to surface. First off, my driveshaft began singing the song of the forum famed “angry sparrows.” The double cardan CV joint in the front driveshaft started making some minorly annoying squeaks, but those quickly turned into what sounded like a swarm of those aforementioned sparrows underneath my Jeep, and man did they sound pissed. Lesson learned. I thought about just doing a rebuild kit, but ended up just going for a slip yoke eliminator and a Rubicon Express driveshaft of the right length because I was pushing the limits with my four-inch lift as it was.

The wheel bearings were the next to go, the driver’s side front and the year began making noise (the side the water was pushing against in the creek), so I just ended up replacing all four. These are not the most fun job, either. Luckily after that things seemed to be fine. I had the Jeep for another year or so before making the jump over to an XJ to have more room for gear and a little more practicality.

The XJ I ended up with after.

Overall it was a hard lesson learned, not to mention expensive. However, looking back 10+ years later, I’m glad it happened. It taught me a valuable lesson in being prepared, and the consequences of just assuming everything will be fine. You never think it will happen to you until it does. Things could have been much, much worse. We still had our health, and all the damage was repairable, even the damage to our egos.

By the end of the weekend, my buddy and I had each been served a well-deserved slice of humble pie.

ed. note: This article was provided by Auto Anything, and we felt that the editorial merit was worth sharing it with you.

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About the author

Garrett Davis

Garrett has something of a sickness when it comes to cars, working on everything from Jeeps, to sports cars, to over-engineered German nightmares. Currently he is embroiled in an Audi Allroad offroad project, and is slowly losing his grasp on sanity.
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