The International 4WD Trainers Association: Inside the Testing for Certification

This is an inside look at the I4WDTA. My goal here is to provide some level of transparency for an organization I believe in. To that end, I’d like to provide you with a glimpse inside their Testing for Certification process and the extremely diverse knowledge, skills, and aptitudes required to be successful. There were eight Candidate Trainers and a large number of I4WDTA staff present whom I will refer to here as Cadre during this 2021 event.


The beginnings of the Association

The I4WDTA was founded by off road legend Bill Burke of Bill Burke’s 4-Wheeling America, an internationally recognized trainer and recovery expert who teaches back country driving techniques, winching and extrication methods, vehicle preparation and maintenance, land navigation and woods skills through classes and private training. He’s also a permitted outfitter and guide through the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Over the years, Bill has served as a consultant for OEM’s like Land Rover, Toyota, and most recently with Rivian.

A US Army veteran, he also represented the USA during the 1991 Camel Trophy in Africa. His professional resume beyond the I4WDTA is far too lengthy to cover here, but on a personal note Bill also tells some seriously hilarious stories if you’re lucky enough to ever share a campfire with him and his dog Henry.

“The Association began as an idea in 2002, a gathering of like minded off-pavement 4WD driver trainers from around the world who wanted to help establish a high level of educational and ethical standards. Our goal was eventual acceptance by civilian, government, industrial and automotive segments as the top 4WD educators in the world, as vetted by third-party and peer review processes. Many invitations were sent, not all were returned. The first Charter meeting in 2004 had an impressive attendance with several renowned trainers ready to work on the SOP and organization standards. I may be the Founder, but the Association has become larger than life with active committees and a Board of Directors. I could not be happier, or more humbled, to see this growth and the members taking ownership of this Association today!”

– Bill Burke


The President of the I4WDTA today is Chris Cole. Born and raised in rural South Africa, he has extensive personal expedition travel experience with all manner of 4WD vehicles, and his academic qualifications including a graduate degree in Adult Education from Cornell University. Chris is also a Special Forces veteran of the South West African Territorial Forces which benefits his government customers being trained to operate with limited resources in varying terrain conditions and high stress situations. This expertise also covers his industrial customers focused on safe, practical operation for workers on and off the grid in different weather conditions.

Additionally, Chris has some serious chops when it comes to engineering, machining, and manufacturing. His latest brainchild is the Safe-Xtract® Vehicle Recovery System which was recently selected by the 1st Special Forces Regiment to be the training standard within the US Army’s SF Groups and is currently fielded and being trained there at the team level. He is particularly well qualified to lead the Association, and his quick wit and sense of humor are well known along with the legendary hospitality shown by him and his wife Anne.

“Today almost all vehicle manufacturers are producing highly capable “adventure” vehicles. Combine this with the SxS market and the explosive growth in the “overlanding” market, and we are seeing a huge expansion of people and vehicles going into recreational areas. All these new folk can greatly benefit from being trained to drive safely on our trails without causing environmental destruction nor hurting themselves or their vehicles. This is where the I4WDTA and our Certified Trainers come in”.

– Chris Cole


Taken together as a team, Bill and Chris offer an incredible amount of insight and experience that is unmatched in the off-road industry today. From driving to engineering to machining and metallurgy, every topic or question fielded by them is painstakingly addressed. These gifted Master Trainers deliver knowledge in such an effective manner that even the most leisurely learner is quickly brought up to speed. They’ll also happily take anyone in the industry to task if they’re full of bull, which I respect.

Based in New Mexico, today the Association is comprised of Certified Trainers with business experience in motorsports, independent guide services, and off-road training. Some members are also automotive design consultants and engineers while others work in the 4WD industry as after-market vehicle equipment manufacturers and specialty vehicle builders.

The unifying goal among this international group is the promotion of safe and responsible 4WD recreation. This is achieved through a rigorous standards-based curriculum and training development program. This one-of-a-kind program seamlessly integrates Tread Lightly! principles with the latest developments in OEM and aftermarket vehicle technology, recovery techniques, and OHV equipment.

I4WDTA Certified Trainers have demonstrated both the professional knowledge and training standards needed to become certified by enduring and passing the most stringent written and practical examinations in the off-road industry. The I4WDTA is the only 4WD Training Association of its kind in the world today that requires members to pass detailed examinations in order to become a Certified 4WD Trainer.

With current members on five continents actively performing 4WD driver and recovery training in every climate on Earth, it’s an undeniable fact that there is nothing else like it today. Maybe that’s why OEM’s like Ford and Rivian are taking notice by encouraging their personnel to engage with the Association.

How do YOU become a Certified Trainer?

No, you can’t simply buy your way into the Association. And this is not “Training for Certification”. Quite a few people confuse that important detail and assume that they will receive the training here or extra instruction that they will need to pass the final exams. The TESTING FOR CERTIFICATION is the only pathway to membership in the Association, a week-long test where success is earned. You will be challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally at a TFC.

My advice? Consider leaving your ego at home, and bring some humility and a willingness to be evaluated with brutal honesty. Bring a thick skin. Start preparing NOW. Read everything you can find that’s 4WD related. Drive everything you can in every environment possible. Manual transmission too. Get stuck and learn how to extract yourself and others. Because anyone who says they’ve “never been stuck” is a damn liar.

If you are out of shape, work on it now. Because you will be outside, in rough terrain, on your feet while spotting, rigging layouts, and working with your hands each day. You will be working with HiLift jacks, Pull Pals and other tools as the situation dictates. Vehicle recovery is hard, physical work.

When you think you’re ready, you can submit an application to attend the next available Testing for Certification. Full details on prerequisites and the complete TFC application process can be found at this link HERE.

What happens at a Testing for Certification (TFC) event?

During my own TFC in Arizona circa 2015, I arrived confident. After all, I’d been wheeling all over the western US for over 20 years and blah blah blah. I’d even been to the University of YouTube. Going into it, I honestly felt like I had a solid foundation.

During my TFC we were evaluated on knowledge, problem solving, didactic presentation and practical exercises. In the classroom and during Cadre led scenario driven events, my own knowledge gaps, misconceptions and flaws were painfully revealed. I endured raised eyebrows and knowing looks from Chris and Bill as well as the other Cadre. They would huddle daily and speak in hushed tones about how my group was performing, comparing notes on our progress and deficiencies. We needed that thick skin I mentioned earlier because we were on the struggle bus.

When they handed me the final written exam, much to my dismay I noted several hundred fill in the blank, essay style questions. This was no multiple choice cake walk like I’d hoped for. We were then given a four hours to complete the final while simultaneously awaiting our turn to be called out individually for the selection board style interview. Other than the northern Arizona mud, that may have been the least fun part of my TFC experience.

When it was all over, I was relieved to have survived this week long process, to have at least made it through to Testing Day 5 without being run off. I was all smiles when Bill and Chris affixed their stately signatures to my certificate making me an I4WDTA Certified Trainer. It was a happy yet humbling moment for sure, especially considering the energy expended in pursuit of this goal.

The TFC begins in the classroom at the Cole Learning Center

Today, Candidates are able to camp near the classroom at the Cole Learning Center, and an excellent food truck was on site the entire week providing three meals a day for both Candidates and Cadre alike. Arriving early and camping on site during the TFC provides many intangible benefits, and enables a higher level bond among the Candidates right out of the gate which becomes a force multiplier later on in the process.

The testing starts in the classroom on Day 1, but after that most of the time is spent testing and teaching outside in the training areas, rain or shine. Topics range from basic to advanced 4WD systems knowledge, trail repair, problem solving ability, navigation, ethics, environmental awareness, and presentation skills to include the conduct of practical exercises.

The days are long at the TFC.

Candidates work from daylight till dark and are expected not only to pass any given quiz, and there are many of them, but to also demonstrate their ability to transfer knowledge and skills by teaching others. The mastery of group dynamics and the ability to work well within small teams is equally as important as an individual’s teaching prowess. A big ego, attitude, or defective moral compass will get you down checked quick by the training Cadre here.

Kurt Williams teaching Recovery Resistance
I4WDTA Vice President Izzy Sanchez demonstrating proper hand signals

The TFC is much more than classroom work.

Most of the time is spent outdoors at the TFC. Conducted at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, the desert environment in New Mexico provides it’s own set of challenges that must be dealt with. The physical and mental effort required by each Candidate to make it through the day is considerable. And the importance of being of sound mind and body is paramount if you expect to be safe and successful on the trail here.

Candidates are repeatedly tested on everything from off-road driving skills to basic 4WD knowledge, HiLift use, and complex rigging for vehicle recovery. A variety of vehicles are used to simulate the diverse needs of future clients, and to ensure proficiency across a broad spectrum of vehicle features and functionality.

As stated earlier, Candidates are required to teach classes on all topics “on the spot” when tasked by the Cadre. The ability of each Candidate Trainer to teach anything and everything, and to effectively transfer that knowledge from Trainer to Student, is constantly evaluated while in the classroom and out on the trail. Ever changing environmental factors, fatigue, and the ingenuity of the Cadre to devise challenging scenarios adds to the fun here.

Critical Thinking is a Requirement

Real world scenarios are designed to challenge the critical thinking skills of each Candidate. Textbook answers, and winches, don’t always work out here. Moving groups of people and vehicles safely through the desert is hard work. Unexpected mobility issues and mechanical failures usually present themselves at inopportune times. When they do, the Candidates are evaluated on their ability to maintain control of the situation to include safety issues and “helpful” bystanders that are sometimes encountered on the trail.

In the back country, a loss of mobility can mean life or death, so failure is not an option for an I4WDTA Trainer.

As the late I4WDTA Master Trainer Scott Fields used to say, “Keep it moving!

The Final Selection Board

Before the written exam is scored and the final decision is made at the TFC, Candidates are engaged on a personal level by a board of seasoned Certified Trainers. The board covers topics ranging from open ended questions to individual performance throughout the week to perceived strengths and weaknesses. Candidates are also asked direct, pointed questions about future plans for continuing education, goals in the industry, and training others if selected to join the Association. For some, this peer review is the one of the hardest parts of the entire week.

Standards and attrition are high. During the 2021 TFC, there were eight Candidates from across the USA and Canada. Every one of them is an experienced off-roader, trail guide, and leader in their own community. And they all showed up and worked hard in New Mexico.

After all the scores were tabulated and discussed, the Association announced the final decision on site.

Kevin Burden was awarded Certified Trainer status. Probationary status was awarded to Mike Brent and Ben Maher, who will now pair up with a Certified Trainer for remediation, and testing, again next year.

The others didn’t make the cut.

Kevin Burden, I4WDTA Certified Trainer

If you’re interested in receiving training from a Certified Trainer, or if you’re ready to attend the next TFC, you can learn more HERE. Get trained and get out there!

FULL DISCLOSURE: This article is not sponsored. My travel to and from this event was entirely funded by myself for the purposes of my own continuing education, and this article I’ve written here for you. Special thanks to Chuck Davis at Survive Off Road for some of the photos featured here.

Long Term Review: ARB Jack

ARB successor to the Hi-Lift jack

Re-inventing the wheel isn’t an easy task.  Many companies try and try to bring a product to market that completely redefines the standard of a given item, and fail.  So when a company actually comes up with something that brings about considerable increases in user safety, ease of use, maintenance, weight savings, and increased portability over a long-accepted standard you have to spend some time with this new item to see how it really compares to the old standard.  In this case, I’m happy to report that ARB has come up with a worthy successor to the Hi-Lift jack – and they’ve named it after one particularly rugged and dapper looking fellow. Meet JACK.

ARB’s JACK competes with the Hi-Lift jack that has been around for more than 100 years, and in that time the Hi-Lift has become the gold standard recovery item that’s carried on all manner of rigs for good reason.  A Hi-Lift is a very dynamic tool that can be used in a multitude of ways to help solve all kinds of recovery problems.  Unfortunately, many Hi-Lift jacks live their lives exposed to the elements, and the only time these outdoor-dwelling jacks have ever seen lubricant was at the factory. Like any tool that isn’t cared for, a Hi-Lift doesn’t work as well when it’s neglected, and rust build up and/or dry running gear can turn a very capable tool into a boat anchor – and that won’t help you solve a recovery problem

Using a Hi-Lift can be the clutch tool you need to get unstuck, but they’re also tools that can seriously harm you if you fail to respect the forces associated in using one.  A Hi-Lift uses mechanical means to raise and lower a load, and as such has a number of places to pinch, smash, and otherwise impart damage to your body.  In a lowering situation, the lever arm can runaway from the jack operator and turn into a body-smashing runaway arm.  Google “runaway Hi-Lift” if you want to see what I’m talking about.  Yet for all their faults, Hi-Lifts have been getting folks unstuck for decades, because they work well in all kinds of situations.  So ARB’s JACK has to bring some serious advantages to the table to compete with the tool that’s been king for over 100 years.

Regular maintenance and training can mitigate many of the risks associated with using a mechanical jack.  Yet taking these risk factors out of the picture all together is a better solution, which is exactly what JACK does.   JACK uses hydraulic power to raise and lower a load, which means that the steel standard bar, running gear, steel handle, and all the effort required from the operator to use a mechanical jack, are replaced with a lever that requires a fraction of the effort to operate.  To raise a load, simply pump JACK’s lever and watch hydraulic power do all of the work.  When it comes time to lower the load, simply press the red lever to engage one of two circuits; a high speed and low speed depending on how quick you need to lower said load.

Folks who are lightweight will really appreciate how much easier it is to use JACK to raise and lower a load compared to a Hi-Lift jack where the operator is the weight imparted on the lever that causes the Hi-Lift’s running gear to climb or descend the standard bar.  JACK also lets you make much more finite and precise adjustments to load height, as opposed to the Hi-Lift which is limited to the spacing of the holes in the standard bar.  Then there’s the weight and packed size of JACK to consider – JACK may look big and imposing in photographs, but he packs up to a compact 36 inches long and weighs in at 23 pounds which is roughly 7 pounds less than a 48-inch top-shelf Hi-Lift.

When it comes to lifting loads, JACKS’s body has nine notches where you can position the tongue to interface with your load, which leaves the piston stroke for actually lifting the load.  In terms of packed size, a 36-inch Hi-Lift will top out at 22 inches, while JACK can go all the way to 48 inches.  Likewise, a 48 inch Hi-Lift will top out at 34 inches, and the 60-inch Hi-Lift will get you 46 inches.  It’s important to note here that a Hi-Lift can run its entire range (length of standard bar) in one go, while JACK is limited by it’s piston stroke of 21-22 inches.

If you’ve taken a class on advanced Hi-Lift technique, you’re aware that a Hi-Lift can winch, clamp, and spread, which are things that JACK would be unable to do without modification or some ‘solution-engineering’, so be aware that JACK only lifts, it does not provide power in both directions to clamp and spread.

Folks who are well-versed in Hi-Lift will also key-in on the fact that a number of tongue-mounted accessories that work with other recovery devices will also work with JACK.  I need to point out though, that if you try and use such accessories, that you can’t blame me if your improvised solution fails and someone gets hurt.  JACK has eliminated a number of risk factors over a Hi-Lift jack, but the fact that you’re still lifting thousands of pounds from a single point means that significant risks still exist.

Yet, JACK isn’t without fault.  You can still smash a finger on the lever (prevent this by pushing with an open hand, like you’re pushing a wrench), and operationally speaking you’ll find that lowering the running gear on your Hi-Lift is much easier that compressing JACK back to his storage size when you don’t have a few hundred pounds of load to fully compress the piston.  So how do you compress the piston when your load is back on the ground?  Well you make a game out of it – essentially what you need is weight to compress JACK, so stand on the tongue and start balancing while holding down the red lowering lever.  If you’re good, you can get the piston fully compressed without having to dab for balance with your other foot. If your balance isn’t so good, have a friend help stabilize you while you’re JACK-standing.

While you’re balancing on JACK, take a second to appreciate the JACK’s foot, which thanks to a beefy ball joint, is actually EXTREMELY stable.  Yet, the foot can still sink into the ground if you try and lift a heavy enough load on a soft enough surface, so you you may need something to distribute the load further when working on soft surfaces.  ARB does make an off-road base for JACK, so if you’re going to be using JACK in dune sand or soft surfaces this base is a good thing to pick up as well.

Yet compressing JACK’s piston isn’t the biggest piece that needs addressing – it’s the price tag that is going to be the challenge for JACK.  With a quick Google for ARB JACK turning up prices around $775 USD, this isn’t a small purchase – so let’s think about this by considering some alternatives.  On one hand, you can buy a Hi-Lift for a fraction of the cost, and if you take care of your Hi-Lift and learn how to use it, there’s no reason it won’t take care of you.

But, let’s say that you don’t really take care of your Hi-Lift, or maybe you like it, but don’t want to pay for training by an I4WDTA Certified Trainer on how to use it correctly. And then, one day you get to experience a run away Hi-Lift.  Depending on how bad the Hi-Lift gets you, $775 could be a steal compared to what an EMS response would cost you.  But please, don’t think that high quality training or buying JACK makes you invincible – you’re still playing with thousands of pounds of force and working against gravity.

Off road recovery isn’t cheap, and while I’ve never had the privilege of footing such a bill, I do know that it’s easy to spend a four-figure sum, so a three-figure recovery device sounds like a better deal to me if it means you’re going to have said tool with you, instead of leaving your Hi-Lift at home because it’s too big, rattles too much, or destroys your vehicle interior.  JACK does pack up small and rides quietly, and the included bag means it can ride inside any vehicle without trading paint with your interior.  Hopefully, this means you’re more inclined to bring it with you on your adventures.

Even when you’re not in a recovery situation, JACK can prove to be quite handy for work, such as when you’re trying to lift a grooming implement up so that you can hook it up to your Ranger with Tracks, because letting JACK do the work is way better than letting your back do it.  I know this is a random example, but stick with me.  This is something I’ve considered doing with a Hi-Lift for years, but I’ve never felt quite safe doing it.  Yet, JACK is easier to use and stable enough that I feel comfortable using it to lift this implement – and my back is quite happy to not have to make that lift.

I have to hand it to ARB – they’ve succeeded in reinventing the wheel, or the high lifting jack in this case with JACK.  Yes, its going to cost you a pretty penny up front, but you’re getting a safer, easier to use (especially if you’re a smaller or lighter person), easier to transport option for a tool that’s been the standard for a very long time.  As mentioned, JACK can’t winch, or clamp, or spread, but I’d wager that with some clever thinking, a good recovery kit, and a solid understanding of physics, you could employ JACK to do just about anything.  Aside from the limitation of the piston stroke (with is more than enough stroke to lift the vast majority of vehicles that will carry JACK), the ARB JACK can lift higher, pack up smaller, and weighs less than a Hi-Lift.  There’s less maintenance, and cleaning JACK is as easy as wiping it down.  The fact that JACK lives in a case inside your rig means that it’s not going to let you down due to rusting or getting gummed up with dirt and debris, and you’re never going to have to improvise some form of lubricant to get the thing to work.

The upfront purchase price of JACK is definitely something to consider, but in the time that I’ve had JACK, I’ve put it to use many times and found real value added in it’s ease of use and safety factor.  So I can confidently say that JACK pays for itself in short order.

Full Disclosure:  ARB USA provided a JACK on loan for an independent review by American Adventurist.