Behind The Scenes At Ford Bronco Off-Road Driving School (Bonus: Free)

I was on a rocky incline so steep I couldn’t even see through the hood, but in my ears I heard Greg McKinney repeat, “Don’t be afraid to be awesome.” One lap at a time, I inched forward slowly but smoothly and mustered up the confidence to navigate my Ford Bronco up the granite-studded trails at Gunstock Mountain Resort in New Hampshire’s Lake Territory.

McKinney is the site director for Off-Roadeo, the one-day off-road driving school that Ford offers when you buy a new Bronco. The Ford Bronco—which was originally launched in 1965, then retired in 1996—was relaunched last year to much fanfare. Motortrend called it “absolutely perfect” and Forbes named it the SUV of the year for 2022. No wonder there’s been a waiting list for more than a year.

I’m a former Jeep Wrangler owner—but after buying a Ford Bronco last year, I’ve become a rabid fangirl. I am a member of countless Bronco Facebook groups, including the disallowed Bronco Women’s Club, with 10,000 equally obsessed members. Aside from the fact that I get high fives everywhere I go for owning the coolest SUV on the market, one of the other major advantages of ordering a new Bronco is going to this free off-road driving school—yes, for free. .

According to Bryan Guldi, marketing manager for Bronco Experiences, Ford is on a mission to turn the Bronco into a lifestyle brand, which is where Off-Roadeo comes in. It is held at four locations across the country, including Moab, Texas Hill Country, Mount Potosi in Nevada (not far from the Las Vegas Strip) and Mount Gunstock in New Hampshire. Guests can spend 10 hours a day studying to unlock the vehicle’s full potential over rough and dramatic terrain.

I chose New Hampshire, considering that since I live on the East Coast, it would be best to practice in a forest landscape. 80-year-old Mount Gunstock—home to Off-Roadeo—was the first resort in the Eastern US with a ski lift, but when there’s no snow on the ground, it’s converted into a large outdoor adventure park with hiking trails and ziplines and chairlifts to carry. You climb to the top for stunning views of Lake Winnipesaukee. Having Off-Roadeo here completes the experience. There’s nothing cooler than bomb-diving at the back of a ski mountain with a tight, winding rocky trail.

“We want each location to be epic, beautiful, build great memories and we need it to be challenging, but we also need challenges that are passable for all skill levels,” said Guldi. “And it’s not just off-road. We want people to go out and learn all they can about their Bronco and have fun. Then you can do all these things while you’re out there—rock climbing, fishing, white water rafting, mountain biking, you name it.”

Ford also wants to make sure that everyone feels welcome on Off-Roadeo, whether you’re an auto lover or a soccer mom who has decided to upgrade her driving skills. “We wanted Off-Roadeo to be an experience where everyone felt they belonged,” says Stephanie Simon, who helped come up with the Off-Roadeo concept when she was an intern at Ford and still works with the company in marketing roles.

Inside the basecamp, there is plenty of merchandise for sale and the walls are covered in memorabilia (including a copy of Lee Iacocca’s memo that lit up the first Bronco in 1965). Each guest gets a free carry-on bag filled with swag, including a sleek Yeti water bottle. Off-Roadeo also keeps you full, with snacks and lunch and dinner, plus s’mores to grill around the campfire at the end of the day.

But the best part of the Off-Roadeo experience is—obviously—learning how to get the most out of your Bronco.

The day begins with a pow-wow with a trail guide and a meet-and-greet with the fellow owners. The day my husband and I left, there were seven other people in our group, and everyone was surprised to hear what kind of Bronco everyone had—or ordered. It was a mix of men and women, but the company is also launching women-only Off-Roadeo sessions, such as the one to be held in Nevada in October. (There’s also talk of opening the program to potential buyers at some point, but for now, you’ll need to own a 2021 Bronco or later or own one in order to attend.)

The first is to stop at the demonstration area to get a primer on various functions, including Locking Differentials, Trail Turn Assist and Trail Control (which is like cruise control for off-roading). The Bronco is a Swiss Army Knife SUV, and Ford wants you to learn how to use it in all different contexts.

Next it’s time to choose a Bronco to use for the day. Ford provides a range of killer models, all equipped with accessories you can order direct from the company and all capable of handling mountains. I chose the jacked-up two-door Badlands because it most closely resembles my own Bronco. Then it was time to hit the back road.

First thing to know about off-road: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is stable,” advises McKinney, who is not only director of the New Hampshire site, he also doubles as trail guide. McKinney has quite the pedigree: He used to train special operations soldiers in high-speed loose gravel driving.

“When we train the soldiers, these are big, tough, double-secret, super-athletic guys,” McKinney said. “Most people think of driving performance as intuitive, but actually, it’s a rational exercise. You need to think about things. Where’s the weight? What happens if I turn the wheel?”

According to McKinney, the technique is the same as off-road. On trails, he suggests moving a block of tread at a time, making small movements with the steering wheel.

This helped with our first major trail—the Fire Cut, a very meandering section of forest that includes the spot where the back of the Bronco is raised high above the ground. I have to put my trust in McKinney, who sees me here because my tendency is to just come out and walk away. I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone. But I felt a sense of confidence as he guided me down the trail, showing me how to press a single button to activate the front and rear locking differentials and reassuring me: “Your vehicle is your savior. You can’t damage this car.”

On another rocky incline, I winced as I crawled over the boulders and heard a scraping sound at the bottom. Luckily, the Bronco comes with an off-roader’s favorite accessory: a skid plate.

We splashed through rivers, kicked up lots of mud and navigated narrow obstacles. I never knew how cool it was that using a sway bar or locker could be so much fun. Brittany was one of the other guests, and even though her husband, Mike, was driving, she said just being a slash-watcher was enough to seal the ring on her Apple watch.

The last trail of the day was the Cobble Crown, a nail-biter with thin granite slabs and an incline so steep that I didn’t think I could walk, much less ride it. But by this point, I had gained enough confidence in Bronco physics that I could actually pull it off. As McKinney said, slow is smooth, smooth is stable. And of course, it helped me finally know what to do with all the buttons on that dashboard.

Back at basecamp, we settled for a decent dinner, followed by s’mores over the campfire. The other guests and I sat around and exchanged photos and videos and contact info and marveled at how far we’d come in just one day—and how grateful we were to have a new set of skills that would change using our Broncos at home. It was the best test drive.

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