Overland travel. That's a simple uncomplicated term. We all do it every day, just going to work on the freeway--and it isn't all that exciting. But take away the blacktop, and overland travel acquires a whole new meaning. Now you're on dirt roads in far-off places: crossing the two-tracks of the Mojave Desert, exploring backroads in Baja California for a week, or driving around South America for two years. And that can also mean mud, rain, high winds, dust, snow, deep sand, questionable food and fuel supplies, insects, and strange diseases. Does this sound more like what you'd want to do?
Turns out there is a large group of individuals worldwide who thrive on this kind of adventure, and nearly all of them have one thing in common: They drive trucks. Whether it's a Land Rover Defender 110 with a rooftop tent, a Ford F-250, or a $500,000 Unicat built from a Mercedes Unimog with all the comforts of home, a truck is an essential tool for the serious overland traveler. These are not four-wheelers or rock-crawlers, and they are not off-roaders. They follow roads, however bad they may be at times.
As demand has grown, an entire industry has formed, dedicated to providing the accessories that make traveling into remote areas safer and easier. There are vehicle and camper manufacturers and outfitters, schools and books that can teach you the special skills needed to get off the beaten path, and hundreds of companies offering specialized equipment.
| 4x4 test course simulates backroad conditions.
Recently all that was organized under one roof at the Overland Expo 2009 in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Being overlanders ourselves, we welcomed the opportunity to attend the three-day event.
Much of the choice in an overland vehicle depends on answering a few key questions: Where do you want to go? For how long? How comfortable do you need to be?
How much money you can spend? The last item on the list is probably the most important. At this show, there was a large selection of smaller trucks, including Land Rovers, Toyotas, and Jeeps, all typically equipped with rooftop tents or tent trailers. Some of these fold out to the side, some to the front, and others rise straight up like a clamshell. For their simplicity, we especially liked the Italian pop-up tents offered by Autohome (www.autohomeus.com): Four clips, one crank, and you're home!
| Big Michelin tire lowers to ground at push of a button.
| Tom Collins shows technique for righting 500-pound BMW bike.
| Smaller trucks include Land Rovers, Toyotas, Jeeps with rooftop tents or tent trailers.
| Tire repair is a well-attended class.
For those with very deep pockets and a yen for luxury on and off the pavement, there were a couple of Unicats made in Germany. Unicat is one of the premier builders of expedition campers. We use the word "camping" loosely. Normally built on Mercedes Unimogs or MAN 4x4s or 6x6 trucks, Unicat Americas, the U.S. division of Unicat, displayed two models, one built off an International MXT 4x4 and its big brother, built on an International 7400 4x4. The 7400 Unicat has a cool feature that allows its roof to tilt up over the master bed, great for those starry nights in the Sahara.
Equally equipped for the long haul, the latest version of the mammoth GXV was on view. Based on a Mercedes U 500 Unimog, at 13 feet tall, the GXV looks a little top-heavy, but owner/builder Michael Van Pelt assured us it can go anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. The GXV was captured in a previous issue of Truck Trend, but we're not sure if that model had the Gaggenau electric barbecue that slides out from a side compartment.
| For smaller vehicles, self-contained tent trailer is practical solution.
We did mention "deep pockets." These three vehicles will run in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $500,000, depending on your choice of wine in the refrigerator. Are these still not big enough dream machines? Check out www.unicat.net. Some of the Unicat 6x6 models will easily take you down the road of luxury for over a million bucks. Just as big but slightly used was a well-outfitted DAF from Holland on display, which later sold for $80,000.
In the midsize range were a few Fords, Dodges, and Chevys. Sportsmobile's 4x4 van conversions and Four Wheel Camper's slide-ins have proved them-selves on many Baja adventures. The new XPCamper featured an interesting partial hard-side telescoping design. Because these are all pop-ups, they have their limitations in extreme cold or windy conditions.
| DAF 4x4 from Holland, an adventure-proven vehicle.
The up side is that you need not sell your firstborn to drive one away. Only slightly larger was our own Turtle V with its European-designed Tortuga Expedition Camper. Built on a Ford F-550 4x4, it has all the comforts of home with the mobility and load capacity of a full-size American pickup truck.
For those who attended the show looking for that special accessory, more than 60 companies displayed their wares. These retailers, ranging from Adventure Trailers and KC HiLites to Viking Offroad and ZMW Adventures, had everything from cookstoves and rearview cameras to high-powered driving lights and tire-changing tools--and roof racks to carry it all.
| Odd-looking Pinzgauer: a curious but capable overlander.
| Rooftop tents fold out to side: some to front, others rising straight up like a clamshell.
| Proper management of overland travel gear is important hands-on class.
| Unicat, built on International MXT 4x4.
Perhaps the main goal of Overland Expo 2009 was education. Whether you're exploring in a Unicat or on a motorcycle, or dreaming about it, there are many skills that can make your adventure a success. Enthusiasts came from all over the country to sign up for three days of intensive learning.
Experts from many fields held indoor seminars on a wide range of subjects: A Couple's Survival Guide to Overlanding; Overlanding: A Chick's Perspective; Overland Photography and Videography; High-Tech Communication, (blogs, tweets, Facebook, and Web sites); Food: Preparation, Storage, and Local Supply; Cultures: International Diplomacy; First Aid Kits; Security in the Real World; Overland Navigation; Family Overlanding with Infants, Young Children, and Teenagers; and more.
| HID driving lights by KC and Soltex (Baja Designs), on display.
Meanwhile, on the infield of Prescott Valley's fairgrounds, there were hands-on classes covering tire repair, loading and lashing, trailer repair, four-wheel driving, and winch and vehicle recovery. Not to exclude the two-wheelers, many courses were specifically for overland motorcycling, starting with how to pick up a fully loaded 500-pound BMW or KTM if you fall off. Adventure Motorcycle Riding was tailored for both beginner and advanced riders.
In between classes, wandering through the equipment manufacturer's exhibits, and checking out the exotic trucks and motorcycles, visitors to the show had the opportunity to watch several slide shows of attendees' personal adventures.
On Friday and Saturday evening, everyone enjoyed the complimentary happy hours sponsored by Four Wheel Campers, Sportsmobile, and ARB. Students, exhibitors, and instructors had the chance to mingle and chat over cold beers.
After the farewell banquet Sunday night, steps, tents, and chairs were folded up, and loaded vehicles departed to all points of the compass as if off on a grand overland expedition. Some actually were! As interest grows in the adventure of overland travel, we look forward to next year's Overland Expo 2010. Rumor has it that it may be held in Southern California, but wherever it takes place, there are sure to be plenty of trucks--and folks ready to take the first step on an incredible journey.