Getting a Little Too Dirty With the Ford Raptor

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

I knew I was borked the minute the truck started down the incline.

Even a Ford Raptor is no match for fresh, gray mud that looks like wet cement. Illinois mud may not be Alabama mud, but it’s no joke. And I had just attempted to drive a Raptor through just that sort of mud, mud that was puddled at the bottom of sharply angled incline that had a distance of a few feet from top to bottom.

The thing is, when one is about to hit a mud hole, the best thing to do, usually, is to give it as much throttle as you can to maintain momentum (but not so much as to fling yourself into a tree). However, I came in a little too hot, bounced, and lost momentum when I reacted to the bounce by not digging into the throttle.

And that, friends, is how you stick one of the world’s most off-road-ready production vehicles in the mud. Also, it’s a good way to expose yourself to social media ridicule, as smartphone-wielding park guests, already happy to see a Raptor on the trail, surround you. Apparently, the woods aren’t free from 4G LTE.

“I’m so fired,” I thought, mentally updating my resume. I figured my fail would be on Reddit before I even had a chance to flag down a tow.

Let me back up to the beginning. A Ford Raptor showed up in my usual press-vehicle rotation, and someone on the TTAC staff (don’t recall which one of us scallywags) suggested, perhaps jokingly, that I take it to an off-road park.

I initially balked at the idea because I didn’t think there was an off-road park within easy driving distance of my Chicago base. A little Googling proved me wrong. There’s one in Marseilles, Ill., less than two hours away in traffic.

My cousin lives about 35 minutes from there, and he’s a truck guy, so I knew he’d go with me to the park if he wasn’t working. I’m glad he did – off-roading is not to be attempted solo. You always need a second set of eyes, as well as someone to talk strategy with. I actually had the hubris to think I could go ‘wheeling solo if no one else was free, but I am glad I didn’t have to.

Getting stuck in the muck was the end result of a series of seemingly unconnected bad decisions. Bad decision number one was to go on Sunday instead of Saturday. Saturday’s weather was perfect – sunny and unseasonably warm for October in the Upper Midwest. Summer temps. But for a variety of reasons, I headed out on Sunday, despite knowing rain was forecast. I think it even rained overnight. So, I gambled on the weather — and lost, bigly.

It was still warm when we got to the park around 11:30, but the rain had mostly held off, with just a few sprinkles falling intermittently from the sky.

The young woman behind the counter walked me through the basics. All four-wheeled vehicles need a flag, for example. She indicated which trail was best suited for a stock vehicle – the so-called “easy” trail. She also pointed out the fast and slow sections of the trail and which mud holes to avoid, before reminding me to put the truck in four-wheel-drive low all the way around.

The other two trails looked to be too gnarly – a sign even indicated the “hard” trail all but guaranteed bodywork damage. As capable as the Raptor is, this truck wasn’t mine, so in order to return it in one piece I knew I’d be sticking with the “easy” trail.

Little did I know that “easy” doesn’t really mean what I think it does, at least not in the minds of the folks who run the park. After doing a full loop that included more than a few white-knuckle moments, I’d have hated to see what the two more difficult trails looked like.

I should’ve known I’d set myself up for failure when the cashier asked I’d been off-roading before. Why yes, I said, trying to sound confident. That wasn’t a lie – I’ve off-roaded at several media events, in a variety of vehicles, including earlier this month in California. But each time, I’d had professional spotters along the trail or in the vehicle with me. Spotters who work for Land Rover or Jeep. In other words, experts.

Overconfidence is often a precursor to failure – pride goeth before a fall, and all that. And the truck and its abilities to conquer the first part of the trail weren’t helping. In fact, the early going was so easy that I thought we’d go around two or three times, until we succumbed to either hunger or boredom.

The initial section was easy, save for the first mud hole, which I drove around easily enough. I was able to get on the gas hard and let the truck fishtail a bit, and even did one gentle donut to appease some ATV riders nearby (I would’ve done more had I owned the truck, but I don’t like to abuse press vehicles more than necessary. I was already nervous about taking the truck off-road without prior permission from Ford, which I simply forgot to obtain).

I’m not sure how far into the trail we were before disaster struck, but it was probably a quarter to a third of a mile. It was definitely before the half-mile mark. We were presented with a stand of trees and three different routes between them. The one furthest right appeared to be the easiest – it looked to be the driest, too, with the widest berth between trees. Only once we were upon it could I see the mud that would nearly swallow us – this was far from the driest route. Lesson learned – get out and look before you attempt to drive through. Also, if you’re nervous about an approach, back up and go another way.

We did get stuck two on two other occasions, but we weren’t buried as deeply as the first time. The second time, I was driving through a rutted section when we lost traction and just couldn’t regain any grip. I tried to turn left to get to drier patch of ground, but no go. One helpful passerby pulled us out. We were still perpendicular to the trail, and the tires were so slimed I couldn’t even make a three-point turn – the truck just slid the wrong way. One more winching got us out and pointed the right way, but not before the bumper hit a tree stump and was dented.

Not a bad dent – not much worse than what one would get from being backed into by an inattentive driver in a strip-mall parking lot – but enough to make me worry about the rest of the ride. We weren’t even halfway done.

Getting out of jam number two required some rocking back and forth, which heated the trans fluid up to an uncomfortably high level, but not so much that it was in the red zone on the gauge. It also flummoxed the electronics – a warning popped up that hill-descent control was no longer working.

That last bit would be extremely relevant in short order.

I was warned that a steep hill awaited and with the weather deteriorating and the tires full of muck, it might be a good idea to head back the way we came. But doing so would’ve involved a difficult U-turn and a trip back through the sections we got stuck in. So I gambled again. This time, luck was on our side.

The aforementioned hill was tricky to navigate without hill descent. Differential locked, in 4-low, transmission in first gear and locked with the paddle shifter – I did all that, but we still were a foot or two away from disaster as I braked and prayed, trying to dial in just the right amount of steering but really just along for the ride. The bottom of the hill had unprotected sides as it bridged over a creek, and for a second I thought we were going off – thankfully, the truck found traction at just the right moment.

Breath caught, we tackled the ascent. Ninety percent up the hill, we lost traction and much-needed momentum, but I was able to keep us from sliding all the way back down, and one or two tries later, we made it over the hump, both literally and figuratively.

The rest of the way around wasn’t easy-peasy, but we never got stuck again. My cousin and I got better at scouting the right route, and I got better at giving the Raptor enough oomph to get through the mud without sending us barreling into the pines.

We still slid and fishtailed enough to concern me – fishtailing is fun until you remember that back end could easily smack into a tree – and still had some dicey moments, but we finished with the Raptor unharmed, except for that bumper dent. Even the electronic nannies started working again after the engine was shut off and restarted. Too bad I didn’t think about trying that before attempting the hill.

Even the tree branches that whacked my arms through the window (open to help me see the front-wheel placements) did nothing to the paint.

The primary challenge was the slicked-up tires. At one fork in the road, we agreed going left was the correct approach, as the ground looked dry, but the truck just wouldn’t go that way – it kept comically sliding to the right, thanks to a lack of anything remotely resembling grip. On the third try, I gave up and went right, blasting through a mud hole that gave me pause. We made it, somehow.

After coming back to base, we thanked the guys who got us out of the muck, asked how their rig was running, and headed off for lunch and photos. I drove the Raptor another 45 miles or so to the photo location, 50-some miles back to my cousin’s place (where we cleaned off all the mud and muck), then 60-some miles home, and there was no mechanical sign of concern. It was as if the truck had never left pavement. It’s one tough mudder.

So yeah, we got stuck. Three times. But I don’t think I can blame the Raptor or say it was incapable (that first mud hole would’ve doomed any vehicle), and I certainly can’t blame it for my own inexperience/hubris/poor decision-making. I can say that it took more abuse than I planned to subject it to and it got me home in comfort.

I suppose the experience would’ve been easier had I gone the day before. But off-roaders will tell you that getting stuck is part of the fun, and a dry trail may have been too easy. I also wouldn’t have learned that the Raptor is even tougher than I thought it was.

I don’t feel good about the bumper dent (I really wanted to write “no Raptors were harmed in the making of this story”), but I’ve done worse to press vehicles (by accident, of course) here in the concrete jungle. It’s embarrassing to be up to the fenders in mud, but if embarrassment is the worst outcome, it’s still not a bad day.

Ford has built one tough truck. Next time, though, I’m hiring a guide.

[Images © 2017 Tim Healey and Dietrich Rosenwinkel/The Truth About Cars]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • DenverMike DenverMike on Oct 26, 2017

    Always be sure to spin the wheels wildly, flinging mud everywhere, and sink it to the frame rails, once there's a complete loss of momentum, except downwards. The rescuers will thank you, not to mention the detailers.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Oct 26, 2017

    So, did they guy that helped you out have a Nissan?

  • Juan Let's do an 1000 mile drive and see who gets there first.
  • Eliyahu CVT needed for MPG. Outback is indeed the legacy of, err, the Legacy.
  • Gayneu I can comment on these. My wife always thought the Minis were "cute" so I bought her a used 2005 (non-S, 5 speed) for one of her "special" birthdays. She loved it and I kinda did too. Somehow a hole developed in the transmission case and the fluid drained out, ruining the car (too expensive to fix). A local mechanic bought it for $800.We then bought a used 2015 S (6 speed) which we still have today (80k miles). Her sister just bought a used S as well (also manual). It has been a dependable car but BMW-priced maintenance and premium gas hurts for sure. I think the earlier generation (like in the article) were better looking with cleaner lines. The 2015 S rides too stiff for me (Chicago roads) but is a hoot on smooth ones. It does seem to shift weird - its hard to describe but it shifts differently from every other manual I have driven. No matter how hard I try, so won't let go of her Mini.
  • Crown Seems like they cut some cylinders too.A three cylinder...where are they planning on selling that??
  • Slavuta "There’s also the problem of climate change, and the more intense weather that comes along with it"How could one even write something like this? We don't have more intense weather. We have better weather. When Earth started, it was a fiery ball. We don't know what weather was in 1700. And even if we know some of it in Europe, we don't know what was happening in Africa, South America, Oceania, etc. We have people living in places where they did not live before. We have news that report weather related events minutes later or during. This did not happen before. There is no evidence that we have an increase in intensity. I looked into historical records in the area where I live - there is not much movement at all between 1970 and now. And remember - none of the previous weather predictions have materialized.
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