The joys — and perils — of off-roading in an electric vehicle
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I had a strange experience earlier this year. I was driving through the woods in an 835-horsepower SUV with 908 pound-feet of torque, a 7,000-pound behemoth capable of sprinting to 60 mph in three seconds. (That’s over a second quicker than a Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, for the record.)

This monster offered 15 inches of ground clearance and was making short work of every obstacle the trail threw at me. A roided-up Wrangler with squinty headlights couldn’t have fared better. 

However, despite the extreme overkill of the whole situation, I felt at total peace with nature. With the windows down, I could hear the birds chirping and the babbling of a running brook. Only the alerts of a few angry squirrels ruined the serenity, but they’d have been chirping just as loudly had I been strolling instead of rolling by.

Despite the extreme overkill of the whole situation, I felt at total peace with nature

As a lifelong wildlife lover, I couldn’t shake the perception that this whole thing felt a lot more like hiking than an adrenaline-filled rampage through the woods. 

That vehicle was an all-electric Rivian R1S, and while it wasn’t my first time running an EV through the mud, it certainly was the most profound. I’ve long been familiar with the practical benefits of battery-powered off-roading — easy torque at any speed, no shifting or clutch-slipping, no intake to keep dry — but this was the first time I really appreciated the more esoteric side. Ignoring the performance, EV off-roading was simply a nicer, calmer experience.

I got another taste a few months later at the launch of the Zero Motorcycles DSR/X, an all-electric, dual-sport motorcycle with a strong focus on off-road performance. I was cruising through the forest, silently scrabbling up a rocky and dusty trail, when a side-by-side UTV blasted by with only a token exhaust pipe between my ears and its engine’s combustion chamber. The experience went from serene to shattered instantly, and it was a long time before the echoes of that damned thing finally faded. 

I was struck by the curious cultural divide at play. Nature lovers, hikers, and campers shouldering packs laden with granola and dog treats generally enjoy the peace and silence of getting Out There. Your average off-roader, meanwhile, also wants to get Out There, but they often want to kick up as much commotion as possible along the way.

Zero electric motorcycles on an off-road trail

Zero Motorcycles was founded on the premise of silent off-roading experiences.
Image: Zero Motorcycles

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but with EV off-roading, I feel like there’s an opportunity to bridge that gap. “When you take a Rivian vehicle off-road, you can hear birds chirping, leaves rustling, and the sound of tires engaging with the ground beneath you,” Lilly Macaruso told me. She’s a senior special project engineer at Rivian and half of one of the teams that the company entered into this year’s Rebelle Rally, an off-road navigation rally event for women held annually in Nevada. “It also makes for a less intrusive experience for the inhabitants of the area.”

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but with EV off-roading, I feel like there’s an opportunity to bridge that gap

By “inhabitants,” Lilly is talking about locals of the fauna variety, but human inhabitants are well worth considering, especially as urban sprawl creeps closer to the trails. I spoke with Matt Caldwell, executive director at Tread Lightly, an organization dedicated to minimizing the impact of off-roading: “We feel that EVs have the potential to address some challenges related to noise impacts, particularly in areas where trailhead access requires travel through residential areas.”

This is integrated into the very DNA of Zero’s off-road bike. Dan Quick, director of communications at Zero Motorcycles, reminded me that the “origin story” for the company was Zero founder Neil Saiki “wanting to ride without [his] neighbors calling the cops.”  

The benefits don’t stop at the HOA. “Especially in fire-prone states like our home in California, there are spark controls that can be a bit onerous on ICE riders that electric riding never has to worry about,” Quick said. Many places around the world require so-called spark arrestors on the exhaust of any internally combusted vehicle. These capture flame or spark to prevent forest fires. Non-compliant vehicles risk thousands of dollars in fines, even jail time. EVs, meanwhile, are inherently spark-free — assuming they’ve had the right recalls, anyway.

Rivian R1S on a nature trail

Rivian is one of many companies explicitly marketing its vehicles’ off-road capabilities.
Image: Rivian

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some negatives to EV off-roading. Headed far out into the backcountry? Like, way out there? It’s easy to strap an extra fuel can onto the back of your Jeep. Recharging in the bush is impossible, but you might be surprised how far out they can reasonably get.

Based on Zero’s testing, the DSR/X is good for a whopping 13 hours of continuous trail riding before depleting its battery. That sounds almost impossible for a bike rated at 115 miles of combined, on-road riding, but since off-roading is generally done at lower speeds, the aerodynamic penalty is dramatically reduced. The range, therefore, is dramatically increased.

Thirteen hours is plenty enough for me, but others will want more, and that leads to an interesting offshoot of the ever-popular EV infrastructure discussion: trailhead charging. “I have personally seen solar charging stations placed by Jeep in two locations,” Tread Lightly’s Matt Caldwell told me. Jeep is deploying plenty more where those came from, while Rivian’s Adventure Network aims to cover 600 adventure-ready sites — though only six are actually online as of now.

The infrastructure is coming, the practical benefits are there, and other startups are starting to emerge. New Brunswick-based Potential Motors recently unveiled its Adventure 1, a tiny, electric 4×4 built for overlanding on trails previously inaccessible by full-sized off-road vehicles. Greenger Powersports, meanwhile, just partnered with Honda to introduce the E2 CRF, an electric dirt bike for kids that’ll make sure the next generation of riders doesn’t have any hang-ups about silent riding. 

Other startups are starting to emerge

It’s the older generations I’m worried about. Will today’s most dedicated off-roaders willingly swap their internal combustion for clean, silent electrification? I wish I were optimistic, but I feel like there’s a long, bitter fight ahead that will ultimately require legislation. With California banning the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, it’s not hard to imagine the state’s Vehicular Recreation Areas going emissions-free.

Those sites will never be peaceful havens for nature lovers, but maybe with a little goodwill, backpackers and off-roaders worldwide can both get Out There without ruining each other’s fun.

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