Off-roading: An unusual sport – and one way some NU students relieve stress

Norwich university, vermont, off-raoding

Off-roading is a hobby enjoyed by some at Norwich University.

Picture a vehicle driving through a forest, crawling over rocks, slogging through mud and pushing the limits. That’s what people who drive off-road envision when asked for a description of one of their favorite activities. At Norwich, a number of students are avid fans of off-roading, spending money and time modifying their vehicles to handle all kinds of terrain.

Off-roading is a term used to describe driving on unpaved ground. This surface can be almost anything other than typical smooth pavement, including fields, riverbeds, muddy bogs, sand dunes, beaches, mountainsides, gravel, boulders and even roads that have fallen into disrepair. “If it’s not paved (or paved well), it’s fair game for off-roaders,” according to the website,

Off-road driving has its share of critics because off-road vehicles can damage wetlands, riverbeds and other environmentally sensitive areas. In Vermont, it is illegal to go without landowner permission or on posted land and enthusiasts can face fines and other sanctions in some cases, according to Department of Motor Vehicle laws in Vermont.

But done legally, the activity is a great way to have fun, say some Norwich University students.

“I’ve been off-roading with four-wheelers and dirt bikes since eighth grade, then Jeeps since sophomore year in college,” said Brad Paisker, 21, a senior engineering management major from Pittstown, N.J.

The vehicles that are typically best suited for off-road types of environments are those that have higher ground clearance (the area between the ground and the car body/frame) and four-wheel drivetrains, such as trucks and SUV’s (sport utility vehicles). There are also other vehicles such as ATV’s (all-terrain vehicle), dirt bikes and dune buggies which see more strictly off-road use as opposed to the trucks and SUVs, which can typically be used both on and off the main roads.

The type of terrain that is being traversed is the largest factor in determining which type of vehicle should be used. These terrain types include “mudding (driving in shallow or deep mud), rock crawling, dune bashing (driving over sand dunes) or green laning which usually involves forest trails, the countryside or on roads that have fallen into disrepair,” says

There are any number of reasons that a attract people to the sport of off-road driving Paisker said he likes the challenges it offers. “I enjoy testing things to the limits, getting out in the middle of nowhere and I’ve always been working on things so it’s another thing to work on,” Paisker said.

Out of all the different types of off-roading such as “rock crawling, woods driving, mudding, competition courses, and desert courses,” he said that, “I like rock crawling the best.”

That aspect of off-roading requires serious modifications to one’s vehicle. “I put a lift kit on so that my truck sits up higher and I can put bigger tires under it. I also put a big bumper on it so I can bump into trees and over things (without damaging the vehicle). Most importantly I added a winch so that when I get stuck I can pull myself out,” he explained.

Along with improving the capabilities of the vehicle, it is also important to improve the capabilities of the driver, which can be done both by gaining experience and by using a spotter (a person outside of the vehicle helping the driver through obstacles by giving visual aid and directions.)

Paisker said that, “being able to listen to your spotter telling you where to drive and what rocks to go over,” is one of the skills that make a good driver, along with a, “go-get ‘em attitude. Paisker translates that to mean, “when in doubt throttle out,” but he added that “going slow and learning how to do things” is a good general approach too.

Paisker said that going off-road can be done anytime of year if you plan ahead. “It’s a year-round hobby as long as you have your vehicle correctly equipped.” This means that this hobby is not hindered by inclement weather so long as the vehicle is correctly set up to handle it, which in some cases could simply be a change of tires. In Vermont, he explained, he uses, “mostly Class Four roads (unmaintained dirt roads) or talks to private landowners” about using their property.”

As with many other activities, people generally prefer to bring along some friends to share in the experience. That also can be helpful for safety and in case drivers encounter problems. “I prefer to go with at least one person so if you get stuck they can pull you out. Or maximum five to seven guys, because otherwise the group gets too big and bunched up,” he said.

While getting stuck is not necessarily a problem, as long as there is a way to get pulled out, breaking something is. However, Paisker said break-downs sometimes are a chance to work on your skills and change equipment. “Breaking things is somewhat common, it’s usually more denting stuff, but when I break something I look at it as an opportunity to upgrade,” Paisker said.

“Most people who off-road have pretty good mechanical knowledge, otherwise you’ll go broke taking it to a shop, so knowing how to fix your own stuff is important when you’re in the middle of the woods,” he added.

As for his future plans for his vehicle, Paisker said that, “I plan on putting bigger tires on it and skid plates (metal plates that protect the underside of a vehicle) on the bottom so I can slide over rocks and maybe some more lift to it,” he said, adding that he plans to, “just keep it as a hobby, a very serious and expensive hobby.”

To those people who are interested in trying this hobby, Paisker’s opinion is that the best vehicle is “a Jeep, Cherokees are the best. Just do it safely, find a club and stay on designated trails so that you’re not destroying the habitat and giving a bad name to off-roaders.”

Another Norwich student who is an avid off-roader is Nick Fabbri, 21, a senior construction engineering management major from Ashland, Mass.

I started back in high school. We used to go out on the weekends with the trucks,” he said, “my Dad had an older Toyota truck when I was growing up and we had that through high school. I ended up taking that over my senior year. The principle of mechanics was ingrained into our heads a long time ago.”

Commenting on the types of off-roading that you can do, Fabbri said he likes what he calls “over-landing, which is like a combination of everything and then applying the concept of having a reliable truck that can go anywhere you need to be. Then there’s rock crawling which is awesome – just put rocks in front of you and see how big of rocks you can drive over. I’m partial to rock crawling and over-landing, especially because my vehicle is designed towards that.”

As someone who is mechanically savvy, he has done an in-depth customization of his vehicle that enhances its capabilities. These customizations are a custom suspension on all four corners, a locker (which makes it so both rear tires spin at the same time/speed) in the rear end, upgraded gears in the transmission, (improves the delivery of power to the rear wheels and lessens workload on transmission), tires, upgraded brake calipers, tons of body armor underneath (such as skid plates), custom front/rear bumpers, and a winch, Fabbri explained

Fabbri said the idea of driving off-road is not some sort of macho test. “My mind-set has always been to be careful and slow, you focus on what you need to do and don’t push your vehicle too much. The slower you go, you can identify things before they break and identify obstacles before they mess you up,” Fabbri said.

While off-roading, no matter what the location may be, “it’s definitely much more enjoyable and interesting with less people. Two to four people are really optimal,” Fabbri said.

Breaking equipment when he’s out off-roading doesn’t bother him. “I think it’s really interesting to be able to break stuff because it gives you an opportunity to see the limits of what your vehicle or equipment are capable of. It also gives you the ability to asses those limits and redesign whatever part you broke to exceed those limits,” he said.

Like Paisker, he is always considering modifications to his truck, from upgrading to a solid front axle, which is better for articulation (of the suspension components), adding a roll cage and a winch on the back. “It’s endless, it never stops there’s always something you can do,” Fabbri said.

Because of the cost of parts and the frequent mechanical work, he advises anyone interested in the activity “(to) find someone who knows what they’re doing and build everything yourself,” Fabbri said. “A huge concept for me is to be able to develop that relationship between man and machine. Learn how your vehicle is built and how you can make it better. You can’t do that by just going by what other people have designed. Build it yourself, break it yourself, and build it again.”

Chris Gilmore, 21, a senior criminal justice major from Milford, Conn., also enjoys taking his vehicle off the beaten path. It started “back when I was in high school; I just dabbled with it. I grew up riding dirt bikes, go carts and mini bikes… my dad was into dirt bikes when he was a kid and I got into it too,” he said.

Gilmore favors off-roading in his truck, “simply because I love my truck. I prefer trails because you get to go around and try new spots.”

In order to ensure that his vehicle could meet the challenges of the terrain he made modifications, such as some bigger tires. It already had a stock lift to raise it up higher, and he put on wheel spacers (used to move tires slightly further out for a widened stance and to prevent tires from rubbing on body while turning). He also had the transmission redone, and did some minor engine work, he explained.

Even though modified to toughen up the vehicle, breakdowns do occur. There are both good and bad sides to a part malfunctioning. according to Gilmore. “It’s always negative whenever you break something but you learn from it in a positive way. You learn how you went into obstacle and you learn how to approach it better.” The skills that help to avoid such incidents are, “definitely being cautious, you don’t want to go overboard the first couple times that you’re out there,” he added.

Gilmore will “probably retire my truck (from off-roading) after this winter because it’s so old. Then, once I graduate, I’ll be investing in a new truck, just one to use as a daily driver and what I have now I’ll tuck away and put aside for doing some heavier modifications,” he explained.

For beginners, Gilmore advises to, “definitely make sure that you have some money in your wallet because you’re going to need it. Be open-minded to people’s suggestions, but do your research and make sure you know your vehicle.” As a side note he added, “make sure to keep up the maintenance on everything.”



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