Jeeps are highly capable all-terrain vehicles, but it is a fact that 90 per cent of owners never drive them anywhere seriously off-road. A muddy field at a country show, maybe, but not much more than that.
Ah, if they only knew what they were missing. It would probably be a revelation to see just what their vehicles are capable of. I recently spent a weekend having some seriously rough fun in Jeeps, at an event in the foothills of the Alps. Camp Jeep is where off-road enthusiasts from the Jeep Owners Group go to have some rugged entertainment with their cars.
The group is a 30,000-strong international band of enthusiasts, and they are happy to point their cars to where the action is. Events like Camp Jeep began in the United States, home of the Jeep brand, but have spread around the globe.
‘Jeepeys’ at play
This European gathering lures some 2,000 ‘Jeepeys’ – as the owners together with their families and friends regard themselves – to a rocky hillside in wild Alpine terrain. They converge on this grown-ups’ playground from right across the continent, UK included.
There were more than 400 Jeeps on site for the weekend, and they ranged from modern Cherokees, Grand Cherokees and Renegades to historic 1940s early Jeeps that were the predecessors of what became the Wrangler, the core vehicle of the Jeep range over the decades. There were also some monster cars, heavily modified Wranglers with pumped-up suspension and mammoth balloon tyres, that were the go-absolutely-anywhere heroes of the event.
You enter Camp Jeep via a towering gateway with water cascading from the top in seven long plumes – mimicking the iconic seven-slot design of a Jeep’s front grille. Because this is all about ownership camaraderie as well as off-road driving, there is a big central area for evening barbeques and live music. Dominating the scene was a Wrangler decorated with the US flag, and perched with its front wheels mounted high onto a huge log. Nearby was a distinguished veteran, a 1946 CJ that was the first post-war civilian Jeep.
Colour coded difficulty
All the terrain at Camp Jeep is carefully graded in advance to show its level of difficulty, using a colour-coded method like ski-slope pistes. Green means moderately steep climbs and descents that are not too demanding so long as you are in a four-wheel-drive vehicle like a Jeep. Blue denotes steeper section calling for greater expertise. Red tells you it’s the serious stuff for the most capable vehicles and drivers.
Ah, and then there’s black. This is not for the faint-hearted, nor for normal standard vehicles, but just for the most highly experienced owners with monstrous vehicles modified to tackle the very toughest terrain. The slopes they tackle have labels that are by no means tongue-in-cheek in telling you how tough they are: Steel Bender, and Cliff Hanger, for example.
Mountain goat terror
Those are the places where groups of eager spectators gather to watch the action, and egg on the drivers. I went as passenger in one of the monster Wranglers, with a 6.6 litre V8 engine. Just getting into the car was a physical ordeal – it’s high enough off the ground to need a ladder, or at the very least a leg-up.
When we set off, I couldn’t believe where we were heading. “You cannot be serious!” I told my driver, as we powered towards a slope so steep it would have terrorised a mountain goat. Not only that, but it was surfaced with huge boulders you would have thought it impossible to drive over. But somehow we did, and the onlookers cheered their approval.