Gunnery Sgt. Michael La Mar, an avid off-roader stationed at Twentynine Palms, Calif., drives the trails of Southern California just outside the Marine base. (Gunnery Sgt. Michael La Mar)
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Where to ride
When Petersen’s 4-Wheel and Off-Road magazine, the Rolling Stone of 4x4s, published its definitive bucket list of four-wheel-drive Nirvanas, editors dubbed the Hammers at Johnson Valley, Calif., the "Mt. Everest of rockcrawling." Of the 20 parks and trails on the list, many are within a tank of gas of a military hub. "Not all are 5-plus pucker-factor thrill rides; some made the list based on scenery, history, and geology," according to the editors. A handful to check off your list:
Badlands Off Road Park, Attica, Ind.: Putting the badass into Midwest off-roading. Badlands Off Road Park
Barnwell Mountain Recreational Area, Gilmer, Texas: 1,800-acre park less than five hours from Fort Hood. Barnwell Mountain Recreational Area
Gray Rock ORV Park, Mount Olive, Ala: Known as the "bent there, broke that" spot, open by reservation and special events only. Gray Rock ORV Park
The Hammers, Johnson Valley, Calif. The Hammers
Rausch Creek Off Road Park, Joliett, Pa: One of the most popular spots in the Northeast. Rausch Creek Off Road Park
Rubicon, Georgetown, Calif: Anointed the "most-famous trail in the United States" by Petersen’s. Rubicon
Ruby Lake Trail, Sutton, Alaska: Just an hour up the road from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Ruby Lake Trail
San Juan Mountains, Telluride-Ouray, Colo.: A Rocky Mountain favorite for the Alpine scenery, if not its challenging trails. San Juan Mountains
Gunnery Sgt. Michael La Mar loves to drive on hammers — the Clawhammer, Jackhammer and Sledgehammer, among others.
Known to tag vehicles like a red-hot brand, they're just a few of the off-road trails that separate the four-wheel-drive foals just out of dealership nurseries from the sure-footed mustangs that thunder through California's infamous Johnson Valley. The sprawling 300-square-mile off-roading preserve is a crucible of craggy Mohave Desert canyons and dry lakes known to toss unprepared off-roaders around like a rodeo ride.
"They call them the Hammers because they beat the crap out of your vehicle," La Mar says.
But with a lifetime of off-road experience, La Mar can fight back. He was pounding trails in Claytonville, Ill., with a dirt bike when he was barely out of diapers and rebuilding four-wheel-drives before he had a license to drive them.
Last year, La Mar led a team of Marine chop-shoppers who converted a Scion xB into a one-of-a-kind four-wheel-drive off-road assault vehicle, one of three finalists in a militarywide customization contest.
These days he's out on the trail every chance he gets. Getting stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., makes that easy. An off-road back-breaker in its own right, the base sits adjacent to Johnson Valley.
"I just love getting out there," La Mar says. "Sure, exploring the unknown and the challenge of conquering the terrain is all part of it, but it's also the fellowship that comes with it — being with your friends and family in these beautiful, natural settings."
Of course, doing the impossible is always fun, too. Well, impossible for anyone without the right chops.
"You'll stand there looking at a rock formation that is — somehow — on the trail that you're on, and you'll think, ‘Can I really drive over that?‘" La Mar says.
"Yes. Yes, I can," he tells himself.
And you can, too. But not with that little four-wheel-drive toddler that came out of the factory.
If you're willing to turn a few wrenches and scout around for the good deals, it could be less expensive than you might think. So if you're ready to transform your rig into a mountain-climbing, river-crossing, mud-slinging master of all terrain, here's what you'll need, from the ground up:
For most off-roaders, the adventure begins with a new set of tires. "But for the average guy," La Mar says, "going with the biggest, baddest, gnarliest-looking tires may not be the best thing. After a few days, your fillings are coming out, your back hurts — it's not pretty."
Instead, try to find a happy medium between off-road rugged and on-road friendly. Any regular mud terrain radial tire will usually fit that bill, says La Mar — 36-inchers are the minimum for places like the Hammers.
But remember, when it comes to size, your existing wheel well will only fit so much tire before you'll have to start making room.
"There's a domino effect with just about anything you do," La Mar warns. Even something as simple as changing the tire size usually means you'll need to recalibrate your speedometer, adjust your gear ratio and maybe upgrade your shocks and brakes.
While new tires can run much as $500 or more each, you can often find great deals on used tires through your local Defense Reutilization and Maintenance Office or off-base military surplus resellers.
• Buying tips: Goodyear's new Wrangler MT/R tires — up-armored with a Kevlar jacket — have been getting rave reviews; Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ Radials are also highly rated. For tight budgets, look for used Goodyear MTs, standard issue on Humvees for years.
If your four-wheel-drive's tires are where the rubber meets the road, your suspension makes that meeting productive, not only helping to smooth the ride but also maximizing holding power.
That's why a new suspension is the heart of any serious four-wheel-drive mod. While it may be tempting to jack your ride to the sky, again, try not to go overboard. The higher you go, the more likely you are to roll over. So whether you're buying a lift kit or piecing together the springs, shocks and other parts on your own, "try to keep it in the 3- to 6-inch range," La Mar says.
A lot of lift kits will swap out lift blocks in place of springs, but don't get wooed by the cheaper prices. "They're just not a good idea," La Mar says. Front blocks are illegal in many states, and even rear blocks can mean problems. Remember, many lift kits may not include everything you'll need as you raise your vehicle up to the next level. Brake lines, steering and drive shafts may all need to be lengthened, but typically aren't included in kits.
If you plan to do nothing but swap out your tires, then buy some new shocks — the best you can afford. Bigger tires mean more weight, and more weight means your existing shocks probably won't be able to handle the load. "Shocks are one of those places where you just don't want to scrimp. The cheaper ones are often sufficient, but it can make the difference between feeling like you're driving with wooden wheels or a Cadillac," La Mar says.
• Good options: Bilstein, Fox and King.
Just like a pair of SAPI plates can provide life-saving protection, they'll also drag you down and slow you up. If you've driven an up-armored Humvee, you know the same goes for your vehicle.
But if you want your ride to shrug off the Hammers and the torturous tool box of traps that lay in ambush on off-road trails, you'll want some kind of protection.
These days, most stock bumpers are made of plastic. "If you're hitting rocks, it doesn't take much before they're mangled," La Mar says. You can find plenty of off-the-shelf upgrades, but they're pricey. N-Fab alloy add-ons that wrap existing bumpers like a flack vest start at about $350 per bumper. Heavy-duty replacements start at $3,000. Although La Mar got a good deal on a $200 front bumper built by Off Road Fabrications, he fashioned his own rear bumper out of scrap steel. "The main issue for me was cost, but I've got nothing but hours into this one," he says. Plus he said he was able to tune the bumper's width to right where he wanted, keeping it just inside the tires "so it doesn't get caught up in those tight spaces."
Off-roaders without a decent pair of rockers are leaving a soft target for wayward rocks, tree limbs and the inevitable bottoming out, not to mention on-road grime and rust-breeding salt and water spray.
With prices starting at about $300 per pair, trusted names include ShrockWorks, Rocky Road Rockrails and Aberle. Gen Right has just released a new aluminum line of lighter-weight rockers that are getting a lot attention. Do-it-yourselfers usually make their own with at least 3/16-inch steel.
If there's a place where less becomes more in the body armor department, it's the fenders. As you start growing your tires, your fenders will feel like a too-small glove. State laws vary on how much you can trim off. Xenon makes a custom fender for about $550 that allows La Mar to fit his 37-inch tires with only a 4-inch lift, as opposed to the 6-inch raise it would have taken otherwise. "If I had to do it over, I'd put in Poison Spyder's custom tube fenders, which take abuse a lot better," he says.
So you've saddled your ride with all that battle rattle — and now all that new weight means your engine has to work harder. On the extreme side, you can start to look for a new set of horses to put under the hood, but there are plenty of ways to improve the performance of the ones you already have.
"The engine is a big air pump. The more you can get in and out, the more efficient it's going to be," La Mar says.
Spectre Performance is among the companies that offer cold-air intakes starting at about $100 that can add more than 15 horsepower to your engine. "Also, keep your intake and air filter high and dry," La Mar adds. "Competitive people will either install a Safari snorkel or run the intake into the passenger compartment to keep the filter dryer and cleaner."
Turbo kits and superchargers
While new engines start at around $20,000, a Ripp Supercharger will set you back only about $5,000 while adding 100hp.
"Changes here can really boost both your off-road and on-road performance," La Mar says. A $600 kit to change his Jeep's gear ratio from 4.10 to 5.38 gave him an extra two miles per gallon.
Tuners such as the Superchips Power Programmer ($300) can add horsepower and torque. "Mine gives me 15 extra horses and 18 pounds of torque. That's what they advertise anyway, but in the seat of the pants, I can tell it's a big difference," he says.