Morning mist hung low to the ground, the nearby cows exchanged their morning greetings, and the smell of cinnamon rolls wafted through the sea of rooftop tents. The sun had scarcely risen over the campground, and Dan Cressall, a participant from Logan, Utah, had the oven in his '08 Dodge Ram fired up, cranking out gooey morning treats. If you're just joining us, this is Morning Two of Four Wheeler's inaugural Overland Adventure.
From the stacks of applications submitted through fourwheeler.com, we selected 20 overland vehicles of various sizes, makes, and models; all were equipped with true four-wheel drive and unique sleeping accommodations, and they came from all corners of the United States to join us on our inaugural expedition.
Overland Adventure was a journey you likely would not experience by simply heading off into the backcountry on your own. Not only did our route traverse the awe-inspiring mountains, rocky canyons, and thick forests between Wickenburg and Flagstaff, Arizona, the trip also concluded at the largest-ever Overland Expo West (the official event partner of Overland Adventure) with a celebration banquet, raffle, and VIP camping on-site at the Expo. That's not all. Nena Barlow is celebrated in the off-road community for her many years of 4x4 experience, recognition as an International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers' Association Master Trainer, and also for her shining attitude on the trail—and she was the professional guide leading the way on Overland Adventure. Nena's infallible enthusiasm, extensive knowledge of the American Southwest, and acclaimed 4x4 acumen are only a handful of the reasons why we selected her to lead the inaugural Overland Adventure. Alongside handling many of the nuances of the expedition, Nena kept the group engaged and informed using her Rugged Radios GMRS radio as we traveled, calling out turns, pointing out pieces of history along the way, and inserting well-placed humor.
If you ask Jen Usinger and Jared Simpson of Portland, Oregon, about the yellow striping across their '07 Jeep Wrangler and Conqueror UEV-440 trailer, they'll tell you about the vehicle marking laws of Africa. The pair shipped the trailer and 4BT-powered Jeep across the ocean and explored the African continent at their leisure. We sat down in front of the trailer's kitchen and pantry and listened to tales ranging from magnificent local produce to struggles with keeping Malaria at bay.
But wait, there's more! Overland Adventure even had gourmet meals at camp each night! Since we squeezed so much adventure and excitement into each trail day, we made sure to appeal to each overlander's sense of taste with a sizzlin'-hot, freshly cooked meal with some hinterland-inspired zest—and we didn't forget dessert. The food wizards at Overland Gourmet prepared it all, and it was served in fine-dining style.
As the event kickoff date of May 13, 2019, drew nearer and the overlanders were preparing for adventure, some chose to take advantage of offers from Overland Adventure's sponsors. BDS Suspension, Bubba Rope, Canyon Coolers, Conqueror Off-Road Campers, Dick Cepek, KC Lights, Offroad Power Products, Power Stop Brakes, Rugged Radios, Superwinch, and VTX Wheels extended everything from gift certificates to product discounts to the participants of Overland Adventure. In addition to helping participants outfit their 4x4s, each sponsor had a vehicle on the trek to represent their brand as well.
One by one, fingers peeled back the zippers on rooftop tents, trailer doors swung open, and participants buzzed about camp brewing coffee and building morning meals. The driver's meeting oriented the group to the day's plans—leaving the pastures behind and gaining some elevation. Traci Clark, the event's medic, reminded the audience of the severity of the region's drought and its sensitivity to fire. The adage—"It only takes a spark"—is gospel in the Southwest. Soon, engines joined the sounds of bellowing bovines as our herd of overlanders proceeded onto the wide-open trail.
Yeti Norvell, a partner of KC Lights, lets the LS3 do all the work on the way to Dogtown Reservoir in his extended-body, '10 Wrangler-based Adventure Dream Rig rocking 1-ton axles, 40-inch Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ tires, and a suite of overlanding modifications.
The climb into the higher elevations showcased some essential points of Overland Adventure. At the morning's lowest point, the altimeter read 4,200 feet, increasing to over 6,800 feet as we traveled 10 miles into the hilly country. Strain on the vehicles was almost as constant as the panoramic views. Cody and Cade Jones spent the previous evening troubleshooting the cooling system on their '94 Ranger, but to no avail. To alleviate some stress on the Ranger, Stephen Garrett, a participant from Owasso, Oklahoma, offered to tow the trailer with his '18 Wrangler JLU. This way, Cody and Cade could remain with the group until parts to fix the cooling system were available.
Our route briefly joined the pavement in Chino Valley, testing the convoy's communication skills as we proceeded through traffic signals and into a fuel stop. Participants were reminded that this was the last opportunity to fill gas tanks and jerrycans before we made camp for the night, and nobody wanted to be "that rig" stranded with an empty reserve. As we rejoined dirt tracks, the winds picked up and carried with them the wisps of dust swirling behind each vehicle as we filed toward the mountains. The hills in the distance began to show a rusty, red hue as we drew closer to the red rocks of Arizona's northern half.
Climbing to Camp
Perkinsville, Arizona, was founded in 1900 by cattle ranchers, and during its booming times was home to between 10 and 12 families. Nowadays, the area is known for its use in the 1962 film How the West Was Won and for its single-lane steel Pratt Truss bridge spanning the Verde River. After crossing the bridge, we paused in the shade to enjoy afternoon snacks and prepare for the climb to the night's camp. Before the sun burned away at the horizon we had climbed from the river, which was at 3,800 feet, to Dogtown Reservoir, just above 7,000 feet. Why's it called Dogtown? The grasslands near the lake used to be home to communities of prairie dogs. That evening, the master chefs at Overland Gourmet sizzled and dazzled the crowd with meat, veggies, potatoes, and dessert; and before long, sweaters and jackets were brought out so the campfire stories could continue into the night.
Lily and Travis Chrystal of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, called their '71 Chevy K10 home during Overland Adventure. In addition to cross-country exploration duties, the truck serves as a daily driver and a hunting rig. Travis told us his 33-inch tires give him all the clearance he needs for the off-road predicaments he gets into, while reducing strain on the driveline so he doesn't need to upgrade to chromoly axleshafts. He does, however, want to add solar panels to the truck to power an electric fridge.
The Superwinch Jeep was rolling wide and with pride, showcasing the company's Tiger Shark 9500 winch.
Early risers on the final trail day of Overland Adventure were greeted by chilly mountain temps, blue skies, and perhaps another gooey cinnamon roll from Dan Cressall's overland oven. Nena Barlow gave the final orientation over the Rugged Radios and the procession began out of camp. After 20 miles of red dirt, crushed cinders, and towering Ponderosa pines, we paused to take in the spellbinding panorama of Sycamore Canyon and the Verde River some 2,000 feet below. Onlookers absorbed the layers of Coconino Sandstone, white limestones, and even darker lava formations that made up the canyon walls, many taking note of how the scenery was in direct contrast to the sandy arroyos the group traversed during the first day of the trip.
Filing Into Flagstaff
With the canyon views behind us and the miles between us and Overland Expo West dwindling, we made sure to savor every silty dirt corner, roadside cattle tank, and whiff of the vanilla-hinted Ponderosa pine bark before pulling into Flagstaff. And it wasn't long before we entered Fort Tuthill County Park, where the excitement certainly was not yet over. Each Overland Adventure participant was given access to Overland Expo West along with a VIP camp spot near the event's front gate, with their rig poised prominently for all to see.
We didn't stop there, because before turning everyone loose to explore the Expo, we corralled the group one last time at the Horsemen Lodge Steakhouse. Dinner was served in a rustic ambiance as the weary adventurers shook a light coating of dust off the memories of the past few days. Following the evening meal, Four Wheeler Editor Ken Brubaker stood before the smiling faces and announced the raffle. BDS Suspension, Bubba Rope, Canyon Coolers, Conqueror Off-Road Campers, Dick Cepek, KC Lights, Offroad Power Products, Power Stop Brakes, Rugged Radios, Superwinch, and VTX Wheels stacked the table with prizes that found their way into the hands of overjoyed overlanders one by one. Whether it be a box of prizes, a new friend, or a sliding drawer system chock-full of stories, everyone left the banquet richer than they came—and that was the core of Overland Adventure 2019.
Cody and Cade Jones of Tyler, Texas, sorted out the cooling issues in their '94 solid-axle-swapped Ford Ranger, with some help from fellow Overland Adventure participants. After grabbing a new thermostat as the convoy made a fuel stop, the Ranger was ready to tow its trailer, and the pair had no problem finishing the trip.
The following day, participants and sponsors alike dove into Overland Expo West and were immersed in the largest show to date, where 22,000 overland enthusiasts, 405 exhibitors, and 135 media outlets gathered at Fort Tuthill County Park. While the weather ranged from hailstorm to bluebird sky, spirits climbed high, and we heard people whispering, "Will there be another Overland Adventure in Arizona?" The answer is yes, and more info regarding the 2020 Four Wheeler Overland Adventure will be available soon at fourwheeler.com. If you joined us on this journey, you're no stranger to the invaluable experiences filling these pages. For anyone considering coming with us in the future, it's a one-of-a-kind adventure!
Rugged Radios National Sales Director David Hamilton (and others) stops to enjoy a vista along the climb into the hills.
Patrick James of Palm Coast, Florida, is no stranger to 30-plus-hour drives across the United States in his '18 Ram Power Wagon. John Hubbard was his co-pilot for the ride and the two soaked up the desert views, amazed that such a desolate landscape could be so alive.
BDS Suspension, one of the sponsors of Overland Adventure, rolled across the Verde River looking sharp in the company's '19 Ford Ranger dubbed Project Ranger X. The BDS suspension lift helped clear the 35-inch tires, while the Knapheide service box stored overlanding gear.
Ben Gardner used to enjoy driving lowered cars—until his maiden off-road foray in a '90 4Runner, and then he was hooked. The crown jewel of Ben's '99 Toyota Land Cruiser, as he explained, is the Rhino Rack, because it holds his kayak, solar panels, sunshade, tent, and many other outdoor essentials as he explores the lands in and around Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nick Savatgy, member of Rogue Overland adventure company and Expert User/Product Tester for Bubba Rope, kicks up some gravel on the road up to Dogtown Reservoir in his '17 Toyota Tacoma.
Scott and Krista Lewis of Midway, Utah, do wheel their '08 Lexus GX 470, in fact, and they have taken great care to make sure their rig is outfitted and protected for exploring off-road. The hood-mounted solar panel system is as much a conversation piece as it is a lifesaver, keeping the vehicle's battery topped off and ready to power the couple's electronic wares.
Kyle Bickley (Offroad Power Products) works the controls of his '18 Chevy Colorado ZR2 equipped with 35-inch tires and a full suite of overlanding gear.
"They simply don't break!" is what John Marshall of Moab, Utah, told us when we asked what he liked most about his '05 Mercedes-Benz U500 Expedition Camper. His solar system also lets him power all his electrical needs without requiring a single electron from outside sources. He plans on adding a pass-through from the Unimog's cab to the custom-built camper box in the future, but until then, he's content exploring North America. His future trips include the Baja Peninsula and Overland Expo East 2019, which is in Arrington, Virginia.
Yolo Freeman, partner of Dick Cepek tires, was rocking the company's 35-inch Trail Country EXP tires and Dick Cepek Matrix wheels on her Jeep.
After many years of rigging rain flys and piecing together poles, Al Maurine of Tucson, Arizona, vowed to never again sleep in a tent. He bought his '01 Ford Explorer with 87,000 miles on the clock, promptly removed the rear seat, and converted the back to a mini-RV, where he happily sleeps. Al told us a story of a less-than-satisfying batch of camp noodles that he cooked one night in camp, which he then beefed up with some emergency Spam—and Spamghetti was born, much to the delight of him and his boys.
Marco Hernandez, representing VTX Wheels, could tear down his camp setup in a heartbeat thanks to his Freespirit Recreation rooftop tent and Gobi roof rack.
Caryn Jackson could sit on the lefthand side of the '89 Land Rover 110 and kick up her feet on the dash as it cruised down the trail while Matt Jackson sat on the righthand side, driving. Matt's from Paso Robles, California, and he has always been infatuated with Land Rovers and even told us a story of his first trip off-road, where he "borrowed" his father's Land Rover. He didn't make it too far from home before a transmission problem left the rig crippled and he had to call Dad for help. Rather than scare him away, the experience roped Matt into a lifetime of off-road exploration. The 110 holds on to its Australian Defense Force paintjob and boasts a rooftop tent, lifted suspension, and a Superwinch Tiger Shark 9500 winch.
When they weren't luxuriating on their inflatable Canyon Coolers couch, the crew was rolling through the trails in a decked-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 rocking a set of Dick Cepek Fun Country tires.
In the beginning, Adrian Holmes of Iowa City, Iowa, wasn't pleased with the stark white look of the Ursa Minor rooftop tent atop his '12 Wrangler Rubicon. His solution was designing a graphic wrap depicting his favorite bits of backcountry—Valle Vidal and the North Country of Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. Adrian recalled a time in 1998 when he was guiding at said Scout Ranch and was offered a ride by a chaplain in a K2500 Suburban. The narrow shelf road had an 800-foot drop on the passenger side, which delighted Adrian, who feared not of heights. The chaplain, however, unbuckled his lap belt and white-knuckled the steering wheel as the 'Burban hit a tippy spot. When Adrian asked why, the chaplain replied, "So I can jump out if we start to slide I'm praying we both make it out of this, but if we go over, you're on your own!" What's up next for the Holmes family? Flying to China and driving into Tibet to Mount Everest's Base Camp.
Paul Cameron lives right around 9,000 feet in the town of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, so he was no stranger to the higher-elevation climbing in store for the group on the way to Dogtown Reservoir. Paul's Nissan Xterra Pro-4X didn't complain one bit pulling a trailer up the steep grades while the Dick Cepek tires held onto the dirt.
President of Conqueror North America David Bates hauled his Conqueror UEV-490 Extreme Platinum Edition up and down the Arizona mountains with his four-wheel-drive-converted, Duramax diesel-powered '15 Chevy Express 3500. If you were lucky, David's co-pilot was quick on the draw with a frozen ice cream treat to pass out the window, helping beat the Arizona heat.
Bart Miller was bitten by the off-road bug back in 1989 after his first Jeep purchase and subsequent ramblings through gravel pits and forest roads. Now, living in Salisbury, Maryland, he cannot get enough of the West Coast, and his '17 Mercedes Sprinter is well-equipped for that task. The van is protected with a bumper and winch, fit with a set of all-terrain tires, and Bart's favorite feature, the electric fridge/freezer, has been running almost nonstop for over two years thanks to his roof-mounted 375-watt solar panel. Sometime in the near future, Bart and the Sprinter will make it to the Australian Outback, but until then, annual cross-country trips within the United States will suffice.
Guido Kimble of Firestone, Colorado, calls his '97 Stewart & Stevenson M1078 LMTV (Light Medium Tactical Vehicle) a rolling Swiss Army knife because of its many useful tools such as a 15,000-pound PTO winch, custom rear step bumper, and a crane—but one standout feature is in the cab. "The LMTV typically has a three-seat cab, but I built a metal plate mount that replaces the center seat with two narrow seats out of an MRAP, so that both my kids can ride along. It's always fun to be sitting at a stoplight, and people see the truck and think it's just a military vehicle, but then they look up in the cab and see my kids and a huge smile comes across their faces. How fun would it have been to be a kid and your dad had a truck like this? I'm glad I can share that with them!"
Aaron and Stacy Meyer of Zionsville, Indiana, know what it's like living out of the confined space behind their red '06 TJ's front seats; that is why they enlisted SunFire Off-Road to help build them a trailer. Aaron and Stacey now enjoy figuring out "what's down that next trail," and at the end of the day, stretching out in their trailer-mounted Tepui tent after dining on their favorite camp tradition—pan-fried pizzas and white wine.
Andrew Dauscher of Mesa, Arizona, has come a long way since the days of mud bogging Jeep Cherokees through South Carolina slime. He did, however, remain in the seven-slotted, solid-axle, six-in-a-row community with his '04 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Andrew and his co-pilot, Abbey Walsh, love their new Canyon Cooler, and they are quick to extoll the virtues of their potato chip holster/gear net strung behind the driver seat. The pair can also bring any backwoods campsite into daylight with remote-controlled perimeter lighting mounted to the Jeep.
Curtis Cole almost didn't make it to Overland Adventure. His '91 four-door Toyota Hilux RHD suffered a catastrophic engine failure only a few days before departure, leaving him scrambling for a way to get from his home in Monmouth, Oregon, to Overland Adventure—1,200 miles away. Luckily, his diesel-powered daily, a '93 Toyota Hilux Surf, was a willing recipient of overlanding gear. After building and installing rocksliders, adding new tires, bolting on a winch and bumper, filling the Canyon cooler, and giving the Surf a snorkel, Curtis was ready for the 20-hour drive to Wickenburg, Arizona, to join Overland Adventure, where he and the Surf were right at home.
Stephen Garrett of Owasso, Oklahoma, wasted no time preparing his dream overland vehicle, an '18 JLU "Swampcat," for Overland Adventure, getting his hands on a Canyon Cooler, a set of 37-inch Dick Cepek Extreme Country mud-terrain tires, and a 25-watt radio from Rugged Radios. His favorite part of the trip was the first day when the convoy twisted through the tight canyons, eventually climbing out and gaining elevation. You'll find Stephen exploring Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and anywhere else he points his JLU.
Joy and Paul Perry of Conway, South Carolina, told us this was their first time wheeling out West, and they were ecstatic to check it off the bucket list, as it was drastically different from the coastal landscapes they are used to. Paul says he loves the challenge and nostalgia of driving the '77 Ford Bronco, but fuel injection is an absolute must for the obstacles he frequents. In addition to the scenery, the couple enjoyed the company and new friends found on Overland Adventure, as well as the historical knowledge and off-road experience brought by Trail Leader Nena Barlow. Paul and Joy look forward to exploring more of the remote areas in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
When Jason Naparalla of Phoenix, Arizona, realized neither his '12 Shelby Cobra or Honda Ridgeline were quite outfitted for getting him to his favorite adventure trailheads, he looked to something a bit more functional—a '10 Ford Raptor and Conqueror UEV-390 trailer. The truck and trailer combo is enough to make stays in the backcountry more luxurious, and a great base camp to return to after a long stretch of canyoneering. The Conqueror's kitchen is the perfect place to cook up his favorite—pork medallions in a white wine mushroom sauce with asparagus, seasoned with sea salt and lemon.
Dan Cressall of Logan, Utah, was up with the birds, even on the chilliest mornings, with his oven working full-tilt, making cinnamon rolls to share with the group. When looking at the plethora of overlanding modifications on his '08 Dodge Ram 1500, he thinks about what he would miss most if he was on a trip without it, and the needle lands on the onboard water system. Gone are the days of juggling 5-gallon jugs, and it's on-demand hot water, backcountry showers, and happiness for all trips to come. Dan looks forward to someday adventuring up to the Arctic Ocean and across the pond to Africa, but in the meantime, he's planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies through Glacier National Park. What's Dan's favorite place to explore? It's always the next place.
Jason Lewis, Trail Partner from Power Stop Brakes, finishes the last few dirt miles before Flagstaff in his '09 Dodge Ram 1500 sans 4WD due to a breakage on the first trail day.
From the Logbook
Highest elevation (ft. ): 7,200
Righthand drive rigs: 2
Lowest elevation (ft. ): 2,050
Number of tires: 221
Miles driven: 217
Cinnamon rolls consumed: 72
#overlandadventure19 Instagram tags: 503
Total miles driven by participants to get there: 20,196
Fire extinguishers deployed: 2
Patches displayed: 386
States represented: 15
Hottest day in Wickenburg: 99 degrees F
Coldest night at Dogtown Reservoir: 40 degrees F
Fire extinguishers, among other things, were required on every vehicle participating in Overland Adventure. Like other pieces of safety gear or recovery equipment, carrying them might not always immediately benefit you—but having them could save someone's life. While on the trail to Dogtown Reservoir, a vehicle fire literally rolled up next to some members of our group. Without hesitation, the Overland Adventure participants closest to the scene first ensured the vehicle's occupants were safe and that the engine was powered off, and then they reached for their respective fire extinguishers and suppressed the flames. The occupants were unharmed, the vehicle was still operational, and thanks to the preparation and swift response of the Overland Adventure participants, harm to human lives and the surrounding forest was prevented.