There’s a certain kinship that comes with driving a Jeep.

The signature seven-slot grille that adorns every one of the brand’s products grants automatic entry to a club. It’s not all that exclusive these days, mind you, with Canadians buying Jeeps by the tens of thousands each year; but there’s a camaraderie that comes with flying the flag. Whether it’s the classic Jeep Wave from one Wrangler driver to another or simply an acknowledgement of a shared love of the lifestyle, the connections these vehicles create is very real.

Yet for all the passion and companionship that comes with the Jeep experience, members of the Central Ontario Off Road Jeep Club (COORJC) taught me a thing or two – not just about four-wheeling, but about the ties that bind us car people together.

Membership in the unofficial Jeep club at large may be free, but joining the ranks of a properly organized group like the COORJC is a natural next step if your ambitions extend beyond the pavement. It’s a great way to connect with like-minded Jeep owners, yes; but more importantly, it’s a great way to learn – about trail etiquette, and how to realize the full potential of your rig.

Those reasons are what prompted COORJC founder and past-president Mark Sims to take to Facebook in the first place back in 2015. He’d bought his first Wrangler – a Stinger Yellow two-door he still drives to this day – and wanted to use it the way the Jeep gods intended.

“I bought a Jeep and had no friends that had Jeeps,” he said. “I went out on my own a couple times and realized that wasn’t a good idea, so I created a page on Facebook … with the hopes of meeting five or six people local to me to get out and wheel with.”

Six years later, the COORJC is among the largest clubs in Canada with some 350 registered members, while the Facebook group Sims created has roughly 2,500 Jeep-driving members. This isn’t some sort of insular group that isn’t accepting of others, though. These are unofficial ambassadors – not just of the brand but the great outdoors. It may well be a Jeep Thing, but if you don’t understand, club members are happy to help.

“We’ll never turn anybody away on the trail,” Sims said. “Especially if they’re alone and they aren’t really sure where they’re going or what they’re doing (we’ll make sure) they get through safely.

“If we can promote the sport that way I think it’s a benefit to everyone, so we have no problem and we enjoy sharing our knowledge … with as many people as we can no matter what they drive.”

Having connected with Sims in the hopes of putting the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Jeep Wrangler 4xe through its paces with the help of a couple knowledgeable Jeepers, to my surprise some seven rigs and 12 members were waiting for me outside Minden, Ont., for our morning rendezvous. After exchanging pleasantries – and a few laughs – we got down to business, with a safety briefing before we reached the trailhead.

The trail itself was home to some serious obstacles that tested not just my skills but also my nerves. No auto writer wants to be the one responsible for damaging a press demo vehicle, let alone one in such high demand. But the COORJC crew was confidence-inspiring, providing encouragement and guidance while never pushing me beyond my comfort zone. (For the record, I did manage to catch a little rock rash on one of the rims – likely during a water crossing.)

There’s a seeming impossibility here between how much fun this group has, but also how safe, serious, and skilled they are as a collective. Prepared beyond belief with tools, torches, radios, and recovery gear, if the zombie apocalypse arrives, this wouldn’t be a bad crew to cozy up with.

I was lucky enough to spend the day with a handful of the COORJC’s trail guides, all of whom know how to properly spot for obstacles and safely negotiate the terrain. And they don’t take their responsibility lightly – to each other, of course, and the great outdoors. Occasionally during our trail run, the CB radio would crackle to life as someone in the pack announced an impending stop to pick up beer cans and other trash left behind by others.

But they’re also not averse to a good joke here and there – mostly about each other’s rigs, but just about everything’s fair game. To be with this group is to be amongst friends, and the sense of camaraderie is tangible, with the connections they share running as deep as their love for their Jeeps.

It was the group’s ability to walk the walk – cleaning up existing trails and scouting new ones – that drew David Bradshaw back in 2019, and it’s what has kept him involved ever since, graduating from his first newbie run to becoming a trail guide himself.

“That’s what really hooked me,” said Bradshaw, whose 2019 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon strategically led the way for my PHEV tester. “It wasn’t the vehicle, it wasn’t the off-road driving – it was the people.”

We spent the better part of six hours together on the trail, and all the while the group was gracious, patient, and helpful as I carefully crawled up and over obstacles as video producer extraordinaire Will Johnson captured it all on camera. It was an experience I won’t soon forget, and one that taught me a great deal – both about four-wheeling in general and the Wrangler 4xe.

And now we’re planning our next adventure together, with a different non-Jeep vehicle on a different trail. And that suits me just fine. Because just like Bradshaw, it wasn’t just the Jeep that hooked me, or being out on the trail. Most importantly, it was the people.