7P Overland: Foundation Overland & Expeditionary Driving Course
We were not ready to leave Baja in the winter of 2018, but we had scheduled a driving course with the good folks at 7P Overland, so north it was. If you have ever been to an Overland Expo, you will be familiar with 7P. These are the guys and gals who build, lead, and instruct all the off-road training at the Expos. And if you’ve seen them in action, you know their knowledge base and leadership skills are second to none. Not to mention, their enthusiasm for all things overland is infectious. As we rambled out of Baja towards Moab, UT we were filled with excitement knowing we were about to learn and be tested in one of our favorite places on the planet, by some of the best in the field.
My husband had signed us up for the training shortly after our first Overland Expo in the fall of 2017. During the three days we spent at the Expo, the 7P team challenged and built our skills far beyond our expectations. Clearly, an intensive 3 day course in the desert with 1:1 instruction sounded fantastic. Full disclosure requires me to say that while my husband was totally on board with the idea, I was somewhat on the fence about it. Not only did it mean rolling out of Baja sooner than I would have liked, but the timing also butted up to our daughter’s due date, which I had promised to be present for. Add to that it was February and I was not remotely in winter mode. More than once in the weeks leading up to the course I suggested we cancel training. I just felt my heart was elsewhere. But once we arrived, met our instructors, and the other two trainees attending the course, I was all in.
Introductions were made in the hotel lobby. My husband and I would take turns being trained and tested in our 2016 Mercedes Sprinter (nicknamed the Ice Cream Van on this trip). Josh Jewel drove out in his Toyota Tacoma. And the fourth trainee was a woman named Mari Rossman in her Toyota 4Runner. The Instructors were none other than the infamous Nick Taylor, Graham Jackson, and Duncan Barbour. I was all stirred up with a mix of excitement and fear- two key ingredients for any good time.
Our first training day met us with cold temps and a promise of snow. Duncan Barbour was the designated instructor for the Ice Cream Van, Graham Jackson paired with Josh Jewel, and Nick Taylor trained Mari Rossman. With our assignments set we made first parades and hit the trail. Wait, what’s a first parade? My knowledge of off-road driving consisted of everything I learned at that Overland Expo and that’s about it. There was a whole new language to learn! Add to that, the course was taught by Brits, so the language learning curve was steep at first. However, once I sorted out that a bonnet was a hood and a numpty was a knucklehead I got on a little better.
Anyhow, back to first parade. This is the safety inspection that ought to be performed before any off-road drive. The inspection includes a visual/mechanical once over on the vehicle being driven, and leads into a risk assessment of the trip ahead. This was totally new to me as I typically deferred all things vehicle to my husband. However, I was being trained and tested apart from my husband so first parade it was. Duncan took me through each item on the list, teaching me the practical skills with the relevant theoretical discussion. Duncan has a style of teaching that is very by the book while at the same time encouraging and super fun (all in his endearing Scottish accent). I learned a ton in just the first hour of instruction. Still to this day, wether I am traveling alone or with my husband, I open the hood, climb underneath the van, and get a view of of all sides of every tire before I roll.
The natural progression from first parade was risk assessment. This involved discussion of what may or may not lie ahead- the activity, the route, trail conditions, the weather, etc. While all of this seemed rather dry at the time, it has so far had the greatest impact on how I travel. Taking time out before a trip to consider risks and perform an inspection are now ingrained pre-trip exercises. The exciting stuff- recovery, driving, and so on- I still need to practice more.
Speaking of the fun stuff- we finally hit the trail as the temps dipped even further. It didn’t take long before we were tackling routes we never would have considered prior to then. There’s nothing like having a pro in the passenger seat to instill confidence. But....with a goal of recovery training in mind we were quickly led into situations that required problem solving, team work, and recovery gear. Again with the language: winch, shackle, pulley, load rating, kinetic rope, and fairlead were new words for equipment I had never seen or used before. So, I spent some time going over what everything was, and we had plenty of practice putting all the pieces to good use. The Ice Cream Van took the prize for requiring the most recovery while the Toyotas only needed an occasional push or shovel, maybe MaxTrax on the dunes. We used the winch to get the van up the steep stuff, out of the deep stuff, and under the low stuff. We also practiced using the winch to move objects blocking the route- it was SO MUCH FUN.
After a very long day of training we met for dinner, drinks, and tall tales back in Moab. Comraderie was high as we relived the highs of the day and swapped stories of travels near and far. Be forewarned- any time spent with Duncan, Graham, or Nick will awaken a passion for travel so DO NOT hang out with them if your future plans involve routine, comfort, or predictability. They will mess all that up.
The second day was assessment day. I would be assessed by Graham and I was so nervous. Graham pretty much knows everything about everything and once he dons his instructor outfit, pulls on his boots, and gets his hat cocked just right, he’s not a man to be trifled with. I’m pretty sure my legs were shaking- yes it was cold, but also, Graham.
Most of my assessment is a blur but a few highlights remain. Graham spotted me down a gnarly little descent with drop-offs and steep sides. All I had to do was drive where he told me to, but still, it gave me a rush. I think I did okay with the winch- I had to use it to “recover” the van as well as move a tree that was “blocking” our route. At the very least I didn’t perform a critical fail like step over a live line, but I don’t think I wowed anyone either. The last skill on my test was a hill climb. Try as might, I could not get the van up it. I don’t call it fail though because going into the training my greatest fear was failing on a steep hill and having to back down it again. There’s something about having a four ton rig on a steep hill with both feet on the brake and being terrified as hell to let it go. During assessment, we tried this hill so many times, and I backed down it so many times (at night!), that it is no longer a fear.
At the end of a second long day, again around a big table with food and drinks, I still had thoughts of our daughter and soon-to-be grandson in the back of my mind, but Baja was gone. Dirty, exhausted, and thawing out with that group of people was the only place I wanted to be.