You’re in an unfamiliar country. A crowd of locals is gathering around you, and half of them look drunk. You need to drive your vehicle, maybe a convoy, out safely. And now the car won’t start.
Sounds like a scene from a Jason Bourne movie. At Overland Experts, based in East Haddam, Connecticut, it’s part of the curriculum. The idea is to simulate conditions that students—mainly soldiers, contractors, and non-government-organization workers—encounter in far-flung places.
“It’s tiresome, and we drill and drill,” says founder Bruce Elfström, who first got behind the wheel at age nine and was driving Range Rovers through war-torn Beirut as a teen in the 1980s. “Then I get a Christmas card from a guy saying, ‘Thank God you put us through that!’ because it saved his life in some awful corner of the globe.”
Although the training scenarios are hyperspecific, the basic lessons benefit anyone. “These skills have taught me how to drive a shitbox Civic on roads most Americans wouldn’t take a Jeep Rubicon on,” Elfström says.
Every skill hinges on situational awareness. “It starts with don’t get stuck,” Elfström says. “Because [if you do], you’re at the whim of somebody else, or you’re going to get hurt getting unstuck.” Always have a plan, he adds. “And then what if plan A fails, and plan B fails?”
With that in mind, some tips to stay safe, no matter if you’re extracting hostages in Tripoli or hopelessly lost on vacation:
ASSESS WHAT YOU HAVE: Whether driving your own car, renting a vehicle, or hiring a driver, don’t just pile in and head for the hills. “The only way you can have a plan is if you know the capabilities of that vehicle,” Elfström says. “You need to understand everything it can and cannot do, long before you drive it.” That includes what’s onboard. “Did you check what tools you have? Do you have a first-aid kit? What kind of jack is in the vehicle? Does it even have a full-size spare tire? Does the lug wrench fit the bolts on the wheels?”
Also consider the optics of your vehicle. Nothing says “not from here” like an ostentatious ride. Overland Experts teaches in diesel Toyota Hilux pickups—not sold in the United States but cleared for import by the U.S. Department of Defense—because they’re similar to what soldiers seek overseas. “Our special-forces guys don’t want to be seen in a Humvee,” Elfström says. “They want to blend in. The second they land, they pay cash for a Hilux, so they look like everybody else.”
TAKE IT SLOW: One way instruction at Overland differs from action movies is the emphasis on going slow, especially off-road. “Yes, you can gun it. But what happens to the next vehicle in your posse now that you’ve torn that line to pieces?” asks Erik Eisensmith, director of training at the school.
The take-it-slow approach is also about understanding how your car makes and loses traction. Most differentials, even limited-slip designs, initially send torque to the wheel with the least resistance, […]