Thursday, May 30, 2013

Overland Expo 2013 - Classes, Cool Trucks, and Camping

This was my first Overland Expo. In fact I'd never even heard of it, or overlanding, until sometime last December when I was reading truck-camper forums and thinking about the pop-up camper that I had not yet even ordered. The Expo was being held at the Mormon Lake Rodeo Grounds not too far south of Flagstaff, AZ in the middle of the Coconino National Forest. You could buy a single-day ticket which would allow you to view the exhibits, open demos, and try the driving course, or buy a three-day pass which would also allow you to attend as many of the classes as you wished (some specialized training and certifications were also offered, as separate cost items.)

What is overlanding? Wikipedia states, "Overlanding is the self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, accommodated by mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping; often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries."

For me overlanding means visiting natural wonders and seeing & photographing amazing landscapes and wildlife while camping along the way. It means being off the beaten track, finding the backroads that allow a sense of wonder for nature. My interest is in traveling in the US, especially the southwest, but there are overland adventures on every continent and folks who dedicate their time and resources to exploring the world.

Overland Expo promised a window into a realm with which I was unfamiliar, yet very curious in learning about. Visit the link to learn about the wide variety of subjects offered, as my focus and this post will be only about a small part of what was available.

A big attraction was also the overland driving course on which one could drive under the instruction of an experienced Land Rover driver. As I hadn't been behind the wheel of a 4x4 since high school, getting a refresher and instruction on doing it right seemed like a great plan. For more information on the driving course and photos, visit my blog post on the subject.

Attendees were invited to come on Thursday afternoon to check-in and find a camping spot in order to be ready the next day to dive into the Expo experience itself. I knew beforehand that camping would just be a bunch of folks haphazardly setting up in a big open field. I didn't realize how lumpy that field would be - it was hard to drive across and even harder to walk across to get to the main Expo grounds, but camping was included in the 3-day package and a good way to make new friends. I found a good spot on the edge of the campgrounds, next to the fence, figuring that would keep a vista clear.

Looks like the three of us are all alone, but that is just an illusion. This first morning there were lots of folks, but that is nothing compared to how full the area was by the time I returned at the end of the day. I would not have been able to get this view Monday evening due to many more campers being in the area. 

Day One, Friday

After attending a Welcome Ceremony, I made my way to my first class, How to Weld in the Field. Years ago I'd seen a couple of engineers weld an accelerator cable back together in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada, so was interested in how it should be done. Amazing how "easy" it was to strike an arc for welding and how much practice would be required to lay down a smooth bead.

After initially demonstrating the power of three batteries in series, the instructor shows that 24volts can also be effective in drawing a bead and welding two pieces of metal together.

The exhibition area was on the way to the overland driving course, where I drove a fancy Range Rover. See the separate post on the driving course.

Here are some of the cool trucks I saw that morning:

This customized vintage rig was for sale.
More military surplus trucks outfitted for overlanding.
When I was wandering through Flagstaff trying to find the road to the Expo, I spotted this safari-decorated truck on the road I was following; I was comforted that I was indeed on the right path.
I later learned the truck is a Unimog, made by Mercedes-Benz.
Another Unimog, sporting a pop-up camping top. Note also, the spare tire storage & lifting device behind the cab.

After lunch I attended the class, Recovery without a Winch, taught by two seasoned Land Rover Drivers. Very informative! For those who don't know "recovery" refers to the techniques to extricate a vehicle stuck in mud, sand, water, rocks, etc. This class introduced us to recovery tools such as specialized straps so one vehicle can pull another out of trouble.

Straps, ropes, chains, and jacks, oh, my!

My next class was Basic Navigation and Compass Skills which I found to be very interesting. I know how to use a GPS device, but never navigated using a compass and maps. The instructor was an experienced Search & Rescue volunteer for the county. He had a baseplate compasses, sample maps and hand-outs for all the students to practice with. The wind was blowing hard making it difficult to hold the maps flat and I neglected to get a photo of the class.

There were so many new campers in the camping area that I almost couldn't find my way back to my truck - could have used some of those new navigation skills, here. Fortunately, there was a ham radio operator with a tall mast that made a good landmark.

A couple of spaces down was another Tacoma with a self-contained Fleet on it, owned by an interesting fellow named Roy who was from Canada. We exchanged tips and ideas about our campers. We ran into each other later that evening at the Happy Hour and exchanged other stories. (Hey, Roy, did you make it home safe?)

Day Two, Saturday

My first class on Saturday was Conservation Driving taught by Jonathan Hanson, co-owner of the Expo, owner of the famous JATAC (Just Another Tacoma And Camper), and all around nice guy. This was held off-site and we were to bring our own vehicles, so I packed up tight and left my campsite.

Turns out the driving portion of the class had to be cancelled due to a large tree that had fallen across the appointed course. Nonetheless, Jonathan demonstrated the affects of 2 wheel drive versus 4 wheel drive versus front & rear differential lockers, which was interesting new info to me presented in an organized and understandable manner. Seems I failed to get a photo.

Since I was all packed up, I decided this was the time to try my hand at the overland course in my rig. See the separate post.

I attended the one hour Recovery with a Winch demonstration before lunch. It was excellent. Taught by two Land Rover drivers who not only covered the subject well, but also instilled a real sense of the hazards in winching and the necessary steps to take to stay safe.

Left: showing how to keep tension on the cable while paying it out, without load, to keep the cable dressed.
Right: showing how to use a snatch-block (pulley) to double the winch capacity.

After lunch attended the 2 hour Recover with a Winch Class which wasn't as well organized, but they did have time to set up an actual winch task (though for safety sake, with all us standing around, they didn't put full tension on the winch cable.)

Left: the "winch master" giving the signal to reel in the winch cable.
Right: manning the winch vehicle & running the engine to keep from discharging the battery.

As the camp had been a bit noisy the night before, with people socializing and a few dogs barking, I decided I'd camp in the National Forest that night. There are many nearby forest service roads leading into the hills with a number of dispersed campsites available.

The Expo site is surrounded by the Coconino National Forest. Here is the site I found.

Day Three, Sunday

Sunday started with an Exhibitor Walk-about with the exhibitors serving food and treats for attendees. I missed most of this as I was relaxing in my camp off-site. But did get there in time to talk with Terry at the FWC exhibit area about my camper.

The first class of the day was Wilderness Bail-out Bags (or survival bags. What you need to survive in an emergency, or be more comfortable in a tight situation.) It was taught by Andrew Moore, the same excellent instructor as presented the compass and navigation class. Very interesting and I took notes.

The pink backpack is a bag Andrew made up for his young daughter to keep with her.

Bush Mechanics: 4WD Vehicle Maintenance was the next class I'd signed up for. Wasn't exactly what I was expecting as it didn't actually cover maintenance, but rather Land Rover driver Fred Monsees told stories of how he had patched together various vehicles that broke on the road or trail, then explained how that might apply to our vehicles. Much more entertaining than changing oil. No photo.

Fred is a genuine character, a very helpful and nice guy who has obviously had years and years of off-road and overland experience. He was also my instructor the first day on the driving course and had encouraged me to try it in my Tacoma.

Here is a photo of a couple of Mercedes-Benz trucks that I thought were interesting. As one walked among the exhibitors or to classes, there were always interesting things to see. I didn't photograph even a small fraction of all the cool things and pretty much neglected all the more common vehicles, such as campers, expedition tents & trailers, and vehicle & camping accessories.

On the truck on the right they were using "unleveling blocks" at the corners to show how the truck will articulate with the terrain.

After lunch was Solar Essentials 101. It was presented by a fellow from SolarFilms, Inc. which is the only thin-film, amorphous silicon solar-panel manufacturer in the U.S. He discussed the various types of solar panels used in mobile applications, their pros and cons. He attempted to keep it technology- and company-neutral, but it was clear he thought the advantages of thin-film trumped the others. He provided a comprehensive hand-out on the various technologies covering efficiency, thermal losses, etc., so we can evaluate our own applications. No photo.

The last class of the event was Advanced Tire Repair. Another excellent, fun, and very interesting class. Earlier this year, as I was waiting for my camper to be manufactured and delivered, I purchased a good tire repair kit, but had never seen one used in person. Plugging a hole, repairing a sidewall, and removing & mounting a tire in the field were demonstrated.

Using a Hi-Lift jack to break the bead on a tire.

A delicious BBQ dinner was served in the big tent behind the main lodge as the Expo finale. I had the sirloin steak, baked potato with sour cream, corn on the cob, beans, salad, sourdough roll, cookies and iced tea. Enjoyed visiting with new friends made at the event.

I've no photos of the BBQ so will end with one of a Camel Trophy Land Rover to honor all the great Land Rover drivers, many of whom had, in the past, participated in Camel Trophy events. They did a fantastic job both on the driving course and also as skilled instructors in the vehicle classes!

And what do Land Rover drivers always advise? 

Drive "as slow as possible and as fast as necessary."

Excellent advice which served me well in days to come. Stay tuned to this blog for those adventures.

Yes, that is a roof mounted tent. Many expedition vehicles (even small ones such as Jeeps and Toyota FJs) had roof-mounted, clam-shell or pop-up tents mounted.

The Overland Expo was a great experience; fun and very informative, filled to bursting with people eager to learn or to teach. If you've never been and have even a small interest in this type of adventure, then you owe it to yourself to go next year!

Thanks for visiting my blog!

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