Think back to your best memories in a car. I’d venture to say that our most memorable moments behind the wheel were not spent alone. And maybe they weren’t even spent behind the wheel at all, but our passion for all things automotive served as its own vehicle to lasting friendships and happy memories. I recently spent a weekend at Destination Defender 2023 and was reminded how important our community of enthusiasts is.
What is Destination Defender?
Destination Defender takes place on a 2,400 acre ranch in Somerville, Texas, and is a casserole of outdoor and automotive activities prepared by Land Rover, for Land Rover enthusiasts. There is camping, glamping, lodging, more food than you can possibly eat, plus every outdoor and off-road activity imaginable. Land Rover has done the all legwork for your automotive-oriented vacation; all you have to do is buy your ticket and show up.
The highlight of the weekend was the Defender Service Awards dinner. Six non-profit organizations were awarded brand-new Defenders of their own to better serve their cause. Ranging from search and rescue teams, wildlife rehabilitators, and Veteran organizations, these public-voted winners will now all use Defenders as their vehicles to make a difference in the world.
This year, awardees were given specially-upfitted Defender 130s to ensure each Defender was ready for anything these non-profits could throw at them. And throughout the weekend I got some time in Defender’s newest off-road oriented trim, the Defender 130 Outbound.
2023 Land Rover Defender 130 Off-Road
One automotive-related activity of the weekend was an off-road course that used Defender 130s built similarly to the Defender 130 Outbound. And even though we’ve had many Defenders to test before, this was my first time getting to really test one off-road. The course was extremely muddy and wet thanks to an overall rainy weekend. Anybody on street tires found them reduced to slicks once they quickly became absolutely packed with mud. Even those of us on all-terrains were starting to struggle a bit. But this made me particularly happy because it meant I had a chance to really feel how the Defender’s hardware and software worked together to tackle some seriously slick conditions.
Unlike most off-road oriented SUVs on the market now, the Defender uses a mechanically locking center differential and doesn’t rely on software to mimic one. This means the software the Defender does have is given a serious head start. It also has a real low-range gearbox to help crawl you through mud and inclines without needing to “momentum drive.” The Defender is more than a street-oriented SUV given a few off-road bits, it’s a purpose-built adventure vehicle with increasingly-rare factory-equipped hardware combined with software that is nearly impossible to mimic in the aftermarket.
Hopping in my off-roader, I noticed Land Rover already had the drive mode selected to “mud”, the transfer case locked, and low-range selected. Setting off I immediately realized I had never driven an 8 speed gearbox with low-range. Predictably it was a little clunky, but low-range always is. In order to make the experience smoother, you can feel the software slipping the torque converter way more than usual. Flipping the gear selector over into manual mode made it much more predictable and easy to modulate the throttle where it mattered.
Being from New Jersey, the muddy bits off-road scare me. I’ve been burned one too many times somewhere deep in the pine barrens by an unsuspecting sink hole of mud. This Texas clay was bringing back bad memories, but the Defender truly didn’t care. There was a moment where I thought that maybe I didn’t give it enough throttle going through mud almost as deep as its axles, but I kept a steady throttle and immediately felt the computers sort it all out.
Once through the mud the last notable obstacle of the trail was a literal tree trunk. Some serious overlanders have had to cut fallen trees out of their way before. And though I’m sure this one was strategically sized to fit under a Defender, the rain and previous trucks on the trail made the earth around the trunk even lower, which meant I unexpectedly tested out the factory skid plates on the entire underside of my particular Defender 130.
Once I was able to get out and inspect for damage, I was relieved to discover the big Defender entirely un-fazed. The lack of running boards on the Outbound trim is a big reason for that. Nothing really hangs lower than the skid plates, which means there is nothing to rip off. And it means you get to drive home – or in my case, the airport – with an undamaged SUV.
Leaving Destination Defender for My On-Road Return
The thing that makes any Defender so great as a daily-driven off-roader is its manners on-road. A Jeep Wrangler may take you incrementally further off-road, but it sacrifices some skills on the street to get you there. The literal and figurative beauty of the Defender is that it is just as comfortable around town or on the highway as it is in the dirt. And after a weekend of outdoor fun, the Defenders at the event wore their new mud-splattered exteriors like trophies.
Once back on the road, I realized that in order to fit the Outbound’s added ladder and storage boxes, the rear windows have been covered with color matched paneling. This does hinder visibility ever so slightly, but the windows really aren’t needed due to the Outbound’s lack of a third row.
Eight-passenger seating has been ditched in order to ensure you and four of your closest friends can pack everything you need in its massive 47 cubic foot cargo space, or 89 cubic feet with the seats folded. And with a 16-foot overall vehicle length, an air mattress could easily fit in the back if you really wanted to camp inside – in which case, the lack of windows means more privacy.
The saying that “everything is bigger in Texas” holds true for both its speed limits and its gas stations. With highway cruising speeds nearing 80 miles per hour in most parts of the state, the Defender 130 Outbound’s Goodyear all-terrains howled a little louder than the standard Pirelli all-seasons, but that’s the only downside to the Outbound trim. Everything else feels unchanged on the road which is the biggest compliment I can give. Besides, asking an off-roader not to wear all-terrain tires is like asking a tap dancer to trade his taps for moccasins. They’re not the right tool for the job.
The Journey Home
Even though my journey home ended at the airpot, I talked to countless Defender owners who had traveled hundreds of miles for Destination Defender. They all traveled with family or friends, and made even more friends once they got there. Black Horse Ranch became its own little community of automotive enthusiasts over the course of the weekend, which was a constant reminder just how important it is to make memories with your people as well as your vehicles.