When T3 asked me to head off to a mucky field near Liverpool to try out the latest in extreme off-road tech, I jumped at the chance of getting my adrenaline-fuelled dirt fix. I'm putting three petrol-powered offroad rides through their paces to see which one makes my heart jump, and testing a range of waterproof clothing and gadgets that promise to handle the off-roading hellstorm coming their way...
Full disclosure? I spend half my life pelting down mountains on my bike, so on paper I'm perfect for this job. That said, any bravado I mustered on the journey to Hover Force UK disappears the minute I'm told I'll be 'flying' a hovercraft. Do I need a pilot's licence? Am I insured? Did I leave the oven on? I take my time getting ready, but can't stall for long – the Hover Force team are keen to show off their wares.
First, I strap on Polar's H7 heart-rate sensor and waterproof A360 fitness tracker, the latter with a band so bright Tim Peake could eyeball it from the ISS. Syncing the H7 and A360 is easy, as is selecting an activity to track. I zip up my Berghaus Vapour Storm Active jacket and lace the North Face Verbera Hiker II boots, both designed to keep me dry. The Simtoo Follow Me drone is prepped and launched. It stays in position despite the heavy wind, and promises stable footage from its 4K camera, but as the heavens open it's clear the drone won't be flying again today.
I attach the waterproof GoPro HERO Session to my chest mount and wonder what I'll look like crapping myself in 1080p.
It's a terrifying experience stepping into the Marlin II hovercraft. Not only is the fourstroke, 35bhp engine powering a giant, whirring fan behind me, but I'm informed that loose clothing could get sucked in and annihilated by the blades. With the weather worsening, I'm thankful for the water- and windproof layers built into the Gore-Tex Berghaus jacket, and pleased to note the breathability as my nerves kick in.
Engaging the Marlin's throttle fills the skirt with air and propels the hovercraft forward. Steering involves pulling sharply left or right on a handlebar, and leaning to initiate the turn. A smooth turn on the short grass track is satisfying and unexpectedly fast, but misjudge it into the long perimeter grass and the fun stops.
Feeling cocky, I decide to hit the water feature – a huge pool of murky slop on the far side of the track – to test the jacket. In full attack mode, the hovercraft glides across the surface, creating spray, before depositing me back on the grass. So elated am I to see water beading on the jacket's surface, I ignore the upcoming hairpin and glide into the long grass. Game over.
Shred or dead
My next challenge? The DTV Shredder. DTV stands for Dual Tracked Vehicle, and this animal looks like a snowboard perched on top of a mini tank with handlebars. Under the board is a four-stroke petrol engine with auto transmission and six independently articulating coil-suspension shocks. The Shredder can tackle almost any terrain and reach 25mph.
It all becomes boot-quakingly real when my body armour arrives. With my feet at either end of the board, my body in a semisquat position and hands gripping the bars, I push the 'on' button and the Shredder's 196bhp engine rumbles to life. Beyond the initial forward jolt, it's a comfy ride. Ankle support is essential here because turning the Shredder is very physical – tilt the board to your toe-edge to steer right, and to the heel-edge to go left. Again, I'm thankful for the Eva Cradle heel-support tech and compression-moulded midsole of the rugged North Face boots.
With the beginner loop conquered, I head to the big boys' track, doing all I can to keep up with instructor Callum and Hover Force owner Paul, who pop wheelies and lure me towards ever-rougher terrain to demonstrate the Shredder's remarkable capabilities. I'm really getting the hang of shredding, but I'm tired and start making mistakes. At one point I overshoot a corner, hurtle towards T3 photographer Joe and leap from the Shredder just in time to watch all 127kg of metal and rubber make contact. There's blood. It's not mine.
It's still raining. What better time, then, to get strapped into a Blitzworld Vigilante Sport Buggy, equipped with a Fiat Punto 1275 engine. Acceleration is the buggy's strong suit, and it roars off, but mud flies, and with impaired visibility and light steering, I spin out on a corner, obliterating a pile of tyres. The Berghaus's flexibility means I can make the quick movements necessary to drift corners like a pro, and after five laps I've definitely improved.
Finally, I'm treated to a blast around the track as a passenger – Hover Force boss Paul is in the driving seat. We hit top speed and enter long, terrifying drifts, the GoPro HERO Session capturing every stomach-churning gurn I can muster.
Intrigued to learn how my heart fared, I load Polar's Flow app on my iPhone. The A360 and H7 recorded a peak heart rate of 142bpm on the hovercraft, creeping up to 153bpm in the buggy, and rocketing to 174bpm on the Shredder. Considering the average resting heart rate of a healthy person is 40-100bpm, each vehicle gave me a hefty bump; but it's an undisputed victory for the DTV Shredder, and just the kind of buzz I was searching for.