Life is short, and if you have a bucket list you should cross those items off the list while you still can. For me, Baja was always at the top. By way of off roading even more so. But Baja isn’t a small road trip, it’s international travel even though it’s still just down the road from southern california. Baja can be daunting to say the least. So in late 2016 I began my task of taking part in the Trail of Missions, which is put on by Desert Assassins, a company operated by Cameron and Heidi Steele, of Baja racing fame. The Trail of Missions is a 2000 mile journey from the border, to the southern portion of Baja California Sur. Each year follows the royal road through a varied list of historic missions, with incredible landscapes, and the punishing trails connecting them.
Trail of Missions is, for the most part, a Ford Raptor themed event, with this year having a handful of jeeps, and couple of Toyotas in the mix. The majority of drivers are either seasoned professionals, or outright Baja racing legends. This means the pace is quick, and the scenery flies by at a breakneck speed. The terrain runs the gamut from dirt roads, absolutely treacherous highways, beaches, silt beds, jungles, mountain hill climbs, beach runs, and river crossings. And that variety can sometimes be found in just one single day of travel.
There’s really no other place in the world like Baja. Baja is Baja, and as a result it contains some pretty particular challenges. Places like Moab, Death Valley, the Rubicon, are obviously located within the convenience of a first world country, if you break something, you can have a part overnighted to get your vehicle back up and running. But Baja can sometimes feel like being on Mars, which means that preparation is critical.
Do Your Homework
Prep your rig, prep it right. I can’t stress that enough. If Baja has a spirit animal it’s a paint mixer. Any squeaks, rattles, or known issues will get sorted out one way or another due to what can feel like an eternity of bone shattering washboards, random rocks, ‘whoops’ and ‘gotchas’, and stretches of Mexican highway that make even the worst roads in America look pristine by comparison.
So what do you need to do before hand? Take inventory of any known issues, weird sounds, or preventative maintenance before crossing the border. If something is making a weird popping noise, get it to the shop and get it on a lift. What can start out as an annoyance can be a trip ending problem somewhere down the road.
Everything on the truck should be torqued to spec, witness mark every bolt to know if something is backing out from vibrations. Carry spare parts where possible. The parts you carry will range from the odd to the obvious. Spare air intake and cabin filters because the dust in Baja is legendary. Bushings, belts, tie rods. If you are driving an oddball vehicle, you’ll want to assume you won’t find what you’re looking for in a random garage. It’s better to not need them, but have them…you get my drift.
It’s both a sprint and a marathon
Baja is an incredible, varied, and culturally rich part of the world. It’s exactly like what you’d think it will be, and absolutely nothing like what you think it will be. Keep in mind that the locals do the same trails that we did, in their Camry’s or 1970’s pickup trucks. It takes its toll, as almost every leaf spring out there looks flat as a board, and every local truck sounds like random bolts banging around in a trash can.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the pace of play determines how much damage you’ll do to your vehicle. A more relaxed, subdued, and altogether slower pace would have likely meant not a single bit of damage would have been incurred on what was 1500 miles of dedicated off roading. But how can you expect slow when the group is comprised of racing greats like Cameron Steele, Curt Leduc, Rob MacCachren, and Casey Currie, amongst others. They want to go fast. Trail of Missions is basically a family vacation combined with ridiculously tuned up vehicles where the speed limit off road is how ever fast you think you can navigate the terrain safely.
Because of this you lead, follow, or sincerely and truly get out of the way. If you stink up the trail, you will get unceremoniously passed and left in the dust. In fact it’s your responsibility to keep up with the tempo of the group, as you will have to ensure that you keep pace and a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you to avoid entering into someone’s dust.
I mentioned this was primarily a Raptor event with some Jeeps and Toyotas thrown in for good measure. Make no mistake, these Raptors are in their home turf. The Gen 2 Raptor is amazing in that its the size of a small house, with so much power its ridiculous. It just shouldn’t work on paper, but in the desert its a sight to behold. When you add a Baja 1000 winner behind the wheel you basically do your best to give chase, and stay out the line of sight of someone who might want to pass you. I’m a Toyota fan, however this trip caused me to reevaluate my priorities, and consider Ford’s latest offering. For sale, one long-travel 4Runner, only jumped a handful of times.
Each type of vehicle had their moments to shine. The Raptor is fast, but a little awkward in technical terrain due to a 130” wheel base. The Toyotas weren’t as fast, but balanced road handling and technical terrain very well. The Jeeps had a more limited range and horsepower, but are narrow and nimble off road in a way even the Toyotas could only dream.
Maintaining those speeds meant running tires at low pressures, as the transition from on-road to off-road could happen at a moments notice. My Nitto Ridge Grapplers were run at pressures below 18psi, at speeds well over 75mph, without a single flat or blow out, despite a few nails and screws doing their best to try and cause a flat.
Mexico is incredible, and the people there are humble in a way I may never understand. Here we are as a group of almost 70 people, support vehicles, medics, photographers, filmmakers, and a helicopter. And yet everywhere we went they greeted us with open arms.
I will never forget buying gas that’s siphoned out of barrels in someone’s house, or using my best spanglish to barter for ice-cream, or watching as handing out a sticker to a child made their day. It truly puts in perspective how much we have as Americans, and how lucky we are to have access to a peninsula of people who are steeped in so much culture.
Regardless if you’re religious or not, being able to see missions built hundreds of years ago, in the most rugged of terrain, by shear will and determination…is humbling. Even if you don’t understand someone’s faith, you can understand their conviction as a result of seeing monumental structures built in the middle of the desert. Awesome is a word that is misused in modern society, but these missions are awesome.
Besides knowing your vehicle, a critical component is having a co-driver. Navigation, and communication, even in a convoy of this size is critical. Your co-driver both works the radio to alert and relay information about hazards, turns, fuel information, while monitoring GPS path information to keep you on the road.
More importantly they’re an extra set of eyes. It’s easy to develop tunnel visions as you barrel down the road at speeds that feel impossibly fast. From my perspective I was focused on the terrain 20-50’ in front of me, while my co-driver was looking for hazards further up. Essentially I was focused on the trees, while he was focused on the forrest.
Even then you’ll find yourself hitting terrain that will absolutely shake the truck, stuff tires, and make you realize you’re going to be coming back with a repair bill.
I’ll be absolutely honest here, I brought a linebacker to an agility contest. My 4Runner is what I consider to be a well built and balanced overland style build. However this was pure off roading. If I were to do this again with my vehicle, the truck would lose a lot of weight, the cargo system would be removed, the swing arms stripped down from the rear bumper, with simplicity being the key word.
It’s very hard to come back from a trip like this and not in some way feel like Overlanding is boring by comparison. That’s likely just coming off of a high that only Baja can provide. But it does provide some key insights into a style of travel that is a bit more simplistic, and without some of the complex solutions required in the overlanding world. Complex solutions fail in complex ways.
Pay to play
A lot of people have asked, can your vehicle do Baja? And without any hesitation I would say absolutely. At what speed is the critical question. The faster you go, the more stress you put on yourself as a driver, and the more wear and tear you force upon your vehicle. A more leisurely pace would have been no more damaging to the vehicle than any other trip. However to keep pace with Ford Raptors is to ask a lot of vehicles not designed from the factory to handle the terrain and speeds for what feels like hours of abuse.
Baja is as challenging as you make it out to be. There’s a price tag that comes along with it though. There’s something untamed about Baja, something wild and dangerous, that balances out the natural beauty and culture that still feels undiscovered and un-tainted. It’s a land where the only way to truly appreciate it is to drive the trails between towns, and shake the hands and soak in the culture of local people. Baja is big, and as a result it makes you feel small in the best way possible. It reminds us to be humble, and appreciate what we have, by seeing a country and a landscape that is rich in ways beyond words.
There’s a reason why people visit Baja, and decide to never come back.