Land Rover Defender TRĕK is Not for the Faint of Heart

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Gruelling, Rewarding, Unforgettable

It was over before it even really started. Our teammate had been missing for an hour now, forgetting to take any sort of communication with him. We had no idea where he was on a sprawling 3,000-acre wilderness park. Thoughts of the competition were eroding as our minds turned towards concern. This is how easily, and quickly, it is to get things wrong in the Land Rover Defender TRĕK competition.

What is TRĕK

The matte wrap loves attracting dust

For those unfamiliar, the Defender TRĕK is an annual competition put on by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) for the brand’s retail employees. Through a series of physical and mental tasks, one of the event’s goals is to better familiarize staff, hands-on, with the capabilities of the manufacturer’s products. By engaging in tasks like rock crawling, winching, and navigation, it assists JLR employees in better relating to 4X4 enthusiast customers.

Another benefit of course is team building. Each JLR retail store sends a team to the Defender TRĕK competition annually. There are several qualifying rounds where roughly 10 teams compete head-to-head. The winners from each round move on to the Defender TRĕK finals, where a North American champion is crowned.

Getting a Taste of Defender TRĕK

Our chariot for the event

For a few years now, JLR has put on a media Defender TRĕK event for folks like us. It’s a chance for automotive writers and journalists to get a taste of what retailer staff go through. We get to see how the brand showcases the vehicle’s capabilities close to their limit.

This year, AutoGuide was invited to the event near Austin, Texas. Unsure exactly what Defender TRĕK was at the time, the call to go camping and off-roading were enough for me to sign up. I had no idea what I was in for.

(un)Prepared for Defender TRĕK

Official TRĕK badging

From a brief promo video online, and a few second-hand accounts, I knew the event was somewhat physical and would involve a night under the stars. I scrambled to acquire all the necessary items we were instructed to bring…and got most of them. Do you know how hard it is to find travel bug spray in the snow-belt during late October?

Also on our pre-trip instructions were a few skills we should be familiar with. These included things like advanced navigation and compass reading abilities that I cannot even pronounce, never mind perform. Some of the more specialized off-road equipment, like an off-road long jack, are things I figured I could learn on the fly how to operate. Woefully ill-prepared, I boarded my flight and headed off to Texas.

The Night Before

Our tents are on the far right, incorrectly placed under a tree

This year’s edition of the Defender TRĕK event is held at Hidden Falls Off-Road Park about an hour outside of Austin, Texas. It’s a 3,000 acre off-road park with sections designed to test even the most extreme home-built machines. We arrived around 5 pm and got a quick brief from the organizers.

It is here I met my team, simply called Team 5, for the first time. We were three strangers so unfamiliar with each other, we had all arrived on the same flight and didn’t even realize it. As we talked, it turned out I had the most experience driving in off-road conditions, which isn’t much at all. As green as we all were, we were ready to try our best. The first task is to set up camp in a field a few hundred feet from the main pavilion.

It’s a mostly dusty and rocky patch of land, with a few grass spots here and there. We all set up our three person tents on some grass near one of the few trees. This would be our first of many mistakes to come over the next 24 hours.

Prepping for the Event

The items we received the night before the competition

After camp was set, we headed back for dinner and a briefing on what would happen tomorrow. Here we learned all about the various hazards around the facilities, including scorpions, coyotes, rattle snakes, and tarantulas. The giant spiders are of particular note as they come out at night, usually near trees. Like the tree our team had set up camp under.

After that cheerful briefing, we received our gear for the event that was to follow. It included a compass, map of the park, and a handheld GPS unit. Next, it was time to learn about the vehicles we would be operating. They are 2023 Land Rover Defender 130 P400 SE models. The organizers claim this is the best edition of the Defender for this type of off-roading. It may not have as good breakover or departure angles as its smaller siblings, but it is better balanced weight wise.

They have all been identically upgraded to handle some of the more extreme elements of the adventure. Besides the obvious matte black wrap and TRĕK badging, the Defenders have a lifted suspension and beefier off-road tires. In case that’s not enough, there is an electronic winch, hitch-mounted high-lift jack, roof-mounted traction boards, and more. Despite the enhancements, the Defenders still operate as they would from the factory floor, just with a bit more capability.

Learn from the Pros

All of us listening intently to instructions

During the night before, we had about an hour to learn from JLR’s various experts on how to use items like the Defender’s winch, long jack, handheld GPS units, and more. Besides being greatly informative and interesting, this is invaluable to know for the competition. Our team soaked up information like a sponge and felt confident about the day’s events ahead of us.

Around 10 pm, it was off to bed as we had a 6 am wake up call to get ready for our Defender TRĕK competition. Two of us decided to drag our tents a bit further away from the tree before calling it a night. The one member who did not received a sizeable, hairy eight-legged visitor on top of his tent in the middle of the night. I woke up to one scratching in the dirt around my tent at 4 AM. Or that could have been a scorpion, or maybe a snake. I sure as hell wasn’t about to pop my head outside to look.

Behind the Eight Ball

Sample image of teams trying to figure out what to do next

In the morning the event was set to start at 7:25 am. The teams were all eager to head-out and find the ten activity stations we were told about the previous night. But, before we could begin, there was a task to be completed. All teams needed to find a treasure located at some coordinates we were given, then go to a second set of coordinates to find our Defender 130s.

The teams could all go together on foot, or one member could go on a bicycle to speed things up. One of our team members volunteered to do it, grabbed the handheld GPS, and took off. As mentioned though, he did not take his phone. Most teams found the treasure and were in their cars within 30-40 minutes. After an hour, our teammate was nowhere to be found and no one could contact him.

Aerial shot of the 3,000 acre park

As we debated where he went and if we should send a rescue, he finally arrived after an hour and ten minutes. He had taken a wrong turn. In a park this size, it’s an easy mistake. Hey, that’s just part of the game.

He apologized profusely, but we were equal parts happy he was ok and impressed he had been biking for over an hour and didn’t look even a bit tired. By the time we got to our Land Rover, we were over an hour behind the other teams. With only seven hours to compete in total, we knew we were out of the running to be competitive. We didn’t care. We were here to have fun and all kept a positive attitude, setting out on the adventure.

Challenging Challenges

Another team performing a reversing challenge

Everything we had learned about the night before proved to be useful during the day. Our winching tips helped at two stations. The first, we had to move a log out of our vehicles pathway at an odd angle using pulleys, shackles, and straps. The second we were required to set up a series of pulleys to enable our winch to lift a water barrel off the ground and put it on a trailer. These were physically and mentally exhausting. The Defender’s remote winch worked flawlessly and we saw how crucial one of these can be when traveling far from civilization.

Two other challenges included teamwork like remembering a map on a tight driving course. Whether it be polls or pylons, we were impressed at the large Defender’s turn radios and agility. The various exterior cameras were an immense help to ensure we didn’t hit anything. Penalty-free we continued on.

Me unsuccessfully lassoing a 'bull'

Not all challenges included the Defender. There was one where we skied in tandem on woodblocks and then had to lasso a fake bull. Another involved starting a large enough fire with just flint to burn a hanging string. Oh, and one we needed to transport a team member through rough terrain as if they had a medical emergency.

Of Course, There’s Off-Roading

Probably the least extreme road surface we faced en route to the tire swap challenge

Getting to and from the challenges involved driving on a variety of surfaces. They ranged from groomed gravel roads to crater-filled, beaten trails most SUVs wouldn’t be able to handle.

The biggest display of the Defender’s capabilities came enroute to a challenge where we had to deflate a tire, change it with hand tools, and pump it back up with an oversized bicycle pump. To get there involved traversing up a massive hill, across extreme terrain. Canyons and craters multiple feet deep, large boulders, rock steps, and steep inclines really tested the TRĕK Defenders.

See, it's getting dusty on the matte wrap

This is probably the most extreme off-roading I have done. I’m not a regular off-road enthusiast and no press-event-vehicle-launch would ever push the vehicles this hard. Unfortunately we didn't get any photos of the really gnarly sections as we were more concerned about keeping the SUV shiny side up than photo ops.

No matter what was thrown at the Defender though, it just brushed it off. Some rock steps looked way too large for the SUV to climb. But put the Terrain Response in Rock Crawl mode, have the transmission in 4LO, apply generous amounts of throttle, and the Defender 130 just saunters up the obstacles. The large crevasses felt half their size while the vehicle’s air suspension was lifted to its highest Off-Road setting. It's so capable, and easy to drive, it makes even the most novice off-roader like myself feel like a rock crawling champion.

There isn’t much else we can think of that could handle these conditions. A Jeep Wrangler Rubicon or Ford Bronco Everglades come to mind. Neither of those purpose-built off-roaders are as comfortable and posh behind the wheel as the Defender though.

If You’re Not First, You Still Had a Blast

Coming home to the finish

At the end of the day, our team finished seven out of the ten tasks. It placed us at an unsurprising fourth out of four teams. But that didn’t matter at all. The experience is what matters and that’s hard to put a price on.

Complete strangers before the event, our team of three worked well together. We had plenty of laughs, struggles, and triumphs. By the event’s end, we got to know each other, as well as the Defender’s capabilities, quite well. That's the entire point of the Land Rover Defender TRĕK competition.

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Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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