Overlanding in Nissan’s Project Basecamp Titan XD
When President Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, he couldn’t possibly have fathomed what 35-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers would do over a rocky trail. Champions of the great outdoors such as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt may never have intended our soaring mountains and jagged peaks, which seemed all but inaccessible a century ago, for modern off-road adventure. But Americans have something of a love affair with driving on dirt, and contemporary truck manufacturers and the makers of aftermarket modification parts wholeheartedly think they should. With any luck, it’s done responsibly.
Nissan’s Titan XD doesn’t come standard wearing the above-mentioned 35-inch knobby terrain gobblers, but the one we drove from Salt Lake City to Moab did. Nissan’s Project Basecamp, conceived to demonstrate to Nissan truck customers one way its products could be fully used, started life as a stock, Cummins-powered Titan XD Pro-4X straight off the factory floor. Now, it’s transformed into a self-contained, self-sustaining overland expedition rig. Basecamp was miraculously built out in six days for its debut at the 2017 Overland Expo West, an annual event for do-it-yourself adventure enthusiasts.
We peeled off Interstate 70, which cuts its way across the U.S. from Baltimore to Cove Fort, Utah, and turned on to U.S. 191. As we headed south, Salt Lake City’s pine-festooned Wasatch Mountain peaks, which stretch 160 miles from Idaho to central Utah, wearing their first caps of powdery snow, slowly disappeared. As we rolled closer to Moab, layer upon prehistoric layer of compressed sandstone towered above us in rust-colored canyons. Each wide seam of pale orange, lavender, reddish-brown, and gray-green rock stacked on the next like a birthday cake.
The Titan’s 5.0L Cummins turbodiesel engine is a 555 lb-ft of torque monster that churned us along beside the Colorado River then 1,500 feet up through a mountain pass. We turned off Island in the Sky Road at the northeastern tip of Canyonlands National Park and skirted across a one-lane dirt trail that on one side hugged a vertical cliff face and dropped off into sheer oblivion on the other. Shafer Trail etches a precarious hairpin scar from the Colorado Plateau to the Colorado River. Originally a cattle trail, it was turned into a more substantial access road for uranium miners to haul ore from the White Rim area in the mid-1950s. Designed to accommodate small Jeeps, the trail’s tight switchbacks proved challenging for the Titan XD’s 243.6-inch length. Through the dozens of turns, we descended 1,000 feet back down into the valley, following a route similar to the ancient glacier that helped carved this massive canyon. It was winter, and there was no one else on the road. Nature’s solitude was a healing salve from the feverish pulse of normal life.
Halfway down the Potash Road, named for the potash mine built just east of Dead Horse Point State Park in the early 1960s, we pulled over to the side of a cliff. Without feeling it, we’d climbed back up 1,500 feet, and below us the Colorado River curled around a mesa like a horseshoe. We stood still, stopped talking, and listened for the gurgle of the water against the rocks, like the faint whispers of happy voices and ice cubes clinking against glass at a distant cocktail party. Wind brushed over the jagged cliffs, imperceptibly shaping them—with their whispers like the finest sandpaper.
We continued the drive back to Moab in the dark, the sun already moved onward west like a stoic pioneer. While the Titan XD boasts enough merits on its own accord, Basecamp is a meatier animal. Its Rigid Industries 20-inch lightbar illuminated the moonless night and the Icon Vehicle Dynamics 3-inch Stage 3 lift kit gave us extra clearance at each wheel for unseen obstacles as we navigated through the dark.
Arches National Park earned its designation in 1929. Its otherworldly stone arcs and formations of impossibly balanced rocks, sharp pinnacles, and razor-like fins are the stuff of futuristic sci-fi movies. Basecamp glided along the smooth asphalt curves of the main road, past the visitor’s center and into the park. Utah’s marketing department has been too effective in the recent past, and the National Park Service now must weigh options to curb the summer traffic congestion problems that currently plague the popular destination. Edward Abbey, environmental advocate and author of the book “Desert Solitaire,” which chronicled his time as a park ranger in Arches during the 1960s, staunchly believed all motorized vehicles should be banned from national parks. Surely, Abbey’s turning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken.
We drove the paved roads that Abbey cursed. Basecamp shuttled us as close to the towering Double Arch monument as possible. We climbed out of the Titan’s heated leather seats, and as a compass magnet is drawn to north, walked toward the behemoth flaming-red triangle the two arches create. Overhead the heavens stretched behind it like a cornflower blue canvas. Surely, this was our forefather’s purpose behind the national park system, the rush of wonder that surged within the human heart when standing beneath such a spectacle, dwarfed utterly by nature’s magnificence. Humanity needs to feel small every so often, especially now.
The sun faded after our second day, but not before we were tucked into a small valley close to Fins & Things, a moderately difficult trail of steep-ish slick-rock inclines and loose, sandy turns that posed no problem for Basecamp to navigate over. It was a cold night, one that would dip into the single digits before the last star disappeared and the sun peeked over the mesa once again. Project Basecamp didn’t just look at home here, it was home here.
Elevated above Basecamp’s bed by a Rhino Rack Pioneer rack system sits a CVT Tents Mt. Rainier Stargazer tent. Even though it boasts two skylights and 360-degree views, we slept with them closed. Single-digit temps! All together with its Foxwing awning, Black Forest portable fridge, and enough tables and chairs for a proper sit-down dinner, Basecamp set up in about 15 minutes, after which we cooked up an epicurean feast of pan-roasted salmon, sautéed potatoes, and broccoli. The winter constellations put on a spectacular light show as we ate. After the fire died to an ember, we crawled beneath piles of subzero sleeping bags for the night, our breath turning to ice crystals inside the tent.
Hell’s Revenge trail, a mere 11-minute drive from our camp, always warms the blood. It’s 6.5 notorious miles of steep slick-rock descents and climbs, covered in obstacles with names like Tip-Over Challenge and the Hot Tubs, which are depressions in the sandstone large enough for small off-road vehicles to swill around in. Taking on the first of many uncompromising climbs, Basecamp’s Cummins heart solidly pumped as the grille pointed skyward.
Usually, this infamous trail teems with Jeep Wranglers and every heavily modified UTV under the sun. But more than half an hour into the trail, we hadn’t seen another soul. We needed to be smart, picking the right lines for Basecamp’s 151.6-inch wheelbase, because there wasn’t anyone around to help pull us out if we got stuck. Basecamp’s suspension has an extra level of bulletproofing with its Hellwig Big Wig Air Springs, an auto-leveling compressor, and E-Z 990 Helper Springs. In the rear, a 1-inch-diameter sway bar and heavy-duty endlinks were added for trails such as this.
Competitive as the Titan XD is for a fullsized pickup, we wouldn’t have tackled Satan’s home-turf trail with a stock XD. But for the modified monster it is, Basecamp absolutely proved its mettle. Other than some scrapes to its skidplates, plus one too-steep approach angle on a step that would have buried the nose if we hadn’t throttled out, that was the closest we got to disaster before heading back north from the beautiful wilds of Moab.
As to what Presidents Grant and both Roosevelts would think of how we enjoy the great outdoors now, we can only speculate. What we do know is that land was designated for everyone, so best to keep that in mind when getting out there. The reality is trucks like Nissan’s Project Basecamp exist and will be used, so just make sure to use those 35-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers, or whatever tires your off-roader sports, wisely.
We rolled back toward Salt Lake City. The 3-hour drive was quiet, contemplative. Basecamp hummed along the highway and delivered us safely home, but not unchanged. This adventure was over, but even when it’s in the rearview, there is something about nature that stays within you and makes the soul long to return. Naturalist and environmental author John Muir more eloquently said, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. The mountains are calling and I must go.”