Expedition Portal http://expeditionportal.com Fri, 29 May 2015 08:20:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 A Balancing Act: How to Calculate Your Trailer’s Weight and Balancehttp://expeditionportal.com/a-balancing-act-how-to-calculate-your-trailers-weight-and-balance/ http://expeditionportal.com/a-balancing-act-how-to-calculate-your-trailers-weight-and-balance/#comments Fri, 29 May 2015 08:20:49 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=26216 Before I spent my weekends exploring the Arizona back country, most of my time was used training in small aircraft for my pilot’s license. There’s a lot of important information in aviation that crosses over to back country travel, checklists, pre-flight inspections, and maintenance logs to name a few, but one of the most basic things you complete before leaving the ground is a weight and balance of your aircraft. Why bother? Because if you don’t the plane may not leave the ground, or worse, return to it rapidly against your will. While not quite as drastic as in aircraft, these same principles apply to towing a trailer.

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An overweight or improperly loaded trailer can lead to excessive wear, poor mpg, poor handling, loss of control, rollovers, and even catastrophic equipment failure, all of which at a minimum will leave you stranded in the bush without help. So this is all well and good, but how do we remedy the situation and stay safe? How do we know if our trailer is balanced and loaded properly? Well the first step is figuring out where the heck your trailers CG (center of gravity) is. I realize that this is easier said than done, which is why we’ve created this quick guide.  Start with the checklist below.

  1. READ THIS ARTICLE.-  It will give you an understanding of just what these crazy numbers, designations, and ratings mean. I know, reading two articles in a day? The reality is that the theory and reasoning behind everything we’re doing here is explained in there. If you want to make heads and tails of this thing it requires at least a brief glance before proceeding on with this list.Smiley Rock XV2 12971
  2. Weigh your trailer – This can be done at almost any truck stop. Most will just require you to grab a number, park on the scale, and pay a small fee, but make sure to tell them you’re a private party, it may make a difference on your fees. If there are no truck stops near you, the local dump will also have a scale and may allow you to weigh the trailer there.
  3. Visit this wonderful site – It contains instructions, details, and an easy to use spreadsheet for calculating your trailer’s tongue weight and CG. The end result should come to 60% of the trailer load in front of the CG and 40% behind. If you need additional guidance on making this work for your setup, check out this site which contains examples for cargo trailers similar to an m416 or cargo trailer.
  4. Go adjust your trailer! – Chances are that even the best guesser isn’t right on the 60/40 mark the first time. You’ll want to start playing with the spreadsheet and seeing how close you can get.
  5. Feel confident and safe – There’s something to be said for having peace of mind on the road, and now that your trailer is within all its limits you can drive confidently. Additionally, if you have friends with trailers you can do a little bragging about the advanced calculations and balancing you’ve done. If you’re feeling generous you can let them in on the secret or, for a modest fee of beer, offer to balance theirs. The choice is yours.

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Changing of the Guard: Out with the V-Strom 1000, in with the 650XT ABShttp://expeditionportal.com/changing-of-the-guard-out-with-the-v-strom-1000-in-with-the-650xt-abs/ http://expeditionportal.com/changing-of-the-guard-out-with-the-v-strom-1000-in-with-the-650xt-abs/#comments Thu, 28 May 2015 07:09:30 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28496 It was about this time last year when I was handed the keys to our long-term Suzuki V-Strom 1000. That bike proved to be a bit of a surprise and performed better than we expected within a wide range of applications. When the opportunity presented itself to test the newly redesigned little brother to the 1000, the 650XT ABS, we naturally jumped at the chance.

Not one to shy away from a good motorcycle evaluation, I have now ridden this motorcycle through the sweltering heat of the Mojave desert, the winds of the Colorado Plateau, and into the snow capped mountains of Northern Colorado. There is no better way to get to know a motorcycle than to load it up and put a couple thousand miles on it, so that’s precisely what I’ve done. Before I get into the ride qualities of the new V-Strom, we should probably take a closer look at what makes this bike different from its predecessor.

 

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For 2015 the V-Strom 650 underwent its third comprehensive redesign, but one executed with a significant amount of thoughtful restraint as to not upset the popular recipe. The already superb 645cc 90º V-twin engine was retuned to improve torque values with a new 32-bit ECU added to bolster low rpm performance with enhanced fuel delivery. The cam profiles, new dual-spark ignition, and engine timing have been altered slightly to improve fuel efficiency and to offer smoother throttle control.

The chassis received a few adjustments as well with the XT ABS variant of the 650 now wearing tubeless-ready wire wheels. The rear swingarm is constructed of extruded aluminum and the completely revamped bodywork features the prerequisite beak that all adventure bikes seem to need. In fact, the headlights and front fender so resemble Woody Woodpecker it’s borderline embarrassing to swing a leg over it. The XT also comes with aluminum hard cases, crash bars to protect the upper aspect of the tank and radiator cowlings, and a machined aluminum luggage rack aft of the pillion seat.

The instrumentation is packaged in a rather small cluster, but remains easy to read and toggling through the various display options is readily achieved with a single button at the left index finger.

The overall build quality and features remain impressive for a motorcycle priced well below the competition. The wire wheels, crash bars and hard cases add considerably to the price of the XT ABS model but it just barely breaks the $10,000 threshold. All things considered, and with some bikes pushing well beyond $25,000, that’s an impressive feat.

 

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First Impressions

Anytime I throw a leg over a new motorcycle, it’s the little peccadilloes that I notice first. The toy-like handlebars were immediately obvious and are not only scrawny in diameter, they’re too narrow and have a depressing droop. If anything is going to instantly limit the off-road chops of the little ‘Strom it will be the uninspired bars.

 

Although it will be good news to many, the relatively short 32.8-inch seat height feels a bit low slung for my 34-inch inseam. It makes the seated to standing transition a bit extreme, once again limiting the off-road prowess of the platform. On the flip side, it provides a lowered center of gravity that feels appropriate in tight turns.

 

As I have come to expect from Suzuki, the clutch is light and the transmission delivers accurate transitions which are superior to those of machines doubled in price. The engine is smooth and not buzzy at any given rpm, even at freeway speeds with the revs in the upper reaches. As a highway ride, it devours miles with excellent wind protection afforded by the well positioned windscreen and shape of the flared fuel tank.

 

In the twisties the little V-Strom feels playful and handles with crisp predictability. With revs kept high, exiting tight turns at speed belies the V-Strom’s intended purpose as a more utilitarian steed. If there is one minor performance niggle on the pavement, it might be with the somewhat average power and modulation of the front brakes. Whereas I felt the V-Strom 1000’s brakes were excellent, the new Wee Strom’s stoppers are underwhelming, if just slightly so.

 

I am a bit torn on my evaluation of the hard cases. They are if anything, impressively designed and fabricated. With no sharp and unfinished elements, they are of the highest quality. They lock easily, open and close with precision, and are befitting of a motorcycle worth far more than this. My only quip would be with the gigantic span between the outside edges of the cases. Hard as it is to believe, the 47-inch wide side to side width is only 19-inches narrower than that of a Mercedes G-Wagen. So much for splitting lanes.

 

On a final note, the 500 mile run I completed from LA to Prescott, Arizona by way of the San Bernardino Mountains produced a lean burn of just 51.2 miles per gallon. The 5.3 gallon tank gave me a comfortable 250 mile range before the low fuel indicator began flashing. Under full load from Prescott to Denver, Colorado the mileage dropped just a tad, but even with a heavy grip on the throttle through the high Rockies I still managed to eek out a respectable 48.5 mpg.

 

 

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Rocky Mountain High

 

Because my ride into the Rockies of Colorado intersected with the last winter storms of spring, I unfortunately had to eliminate some of the unpaved routes I had planned to travel. I did wiggle in a few dirt roads here and there, the major limitation was the rather modest off-road design of the dual-sport tires, which are decidedly more pavement biased than I would prefer. The other concern, one we’ve had with every iteration of the ‘Strom we’ve tested, is the unprotected oil filter suspended precariously behind the front wheel. Without a proper aftermarket skid plate, my off-road shenanigans were best kept to a minimum.

 

All in all, the first 1,200 miles of riding from LA to Denver have proven this platform is a formidable road warrior, but I’ll need more time on it to fully validate its claims as a dual sport touring machine. Before it sees any serious dirt time, it will need bar risers, proper pegs, better tires and above all––a skid plate.

 

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The V-Strom 650XT ABS versus the competition:

 

Kawasaki KLR: When positioned against the KLR, the V-Strom is considerably more refined on the road. With more power, a smoother engine with double the cylinders, the ‘Strom is a far superior touring platform if dirt is not a consideration. If dirt does play into the comparison, the KLR’s 21-inch front wheel tips the scales in its favor. The KLR is also several thousands of dollars cheaper.

 

BMW G650GS and F700GS: The most direct competitor to the 650 ‘Strom is clearly BMW’s twin-powered F700GS. Although the BMW comes with a more sophisticated electronics package with ABS as well as ESC, it does not come packaged with the extra luggage and crash bars that are part of the full XT ABS V-Strom kit. The wire wheels of the Suzuki are also a nice improvement over the BMW’s cast hoops.

 

 

 

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Head to Head: Refrigerator or coolerhttp://expeditionportal.com/head-to-head-refrigerator-or-cooler/ http://expeditionportal.com/head-to-head-refrigerator-or-cooler/#comments Wed, 27 May 2015 07:21:49 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28456 Every few months, with almost clockwork precision, a discussion pops up on the Expedition Portal forums pitting the virtues of the refrigerator against the time-tested ice chest. Which is better is not an easily answered question. As we tenuously approach a verdict, it is important that we understand everything we can about coolers and fridges.

The modern cooler is produced in a multitude of variations using materials as basic as styrofoam to stainless steel and now rotary molded plastic. The latter is fast becoming the most popular format for a number of sound reasons. Rotary molding is a process by which plastic pellets are melted and introduced into a mold which is then rotated at high speed to evenly distribute the molten material. The result is a molded form with intricate shapes, consistent thickness, and enough durability and strength to be used for the construction of not just coolers, but protective cases and even white water kayaks. For this exercise, we won’t compare the $5 foam cooler to the $900 fridge for obvious reasons. Rotary molded coolers make for a more attractive option for the demands of overland travel.

 

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Coolers

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing list of manufacturers making rotary molded coolers. There are dozens of offerings from Yeti, Engel, Pelican, Esky, Grizzly, Canyon Coolers, Ice Hole, NRS, Black Rock, True Blue, Igloo and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. These coolers are largely the same in many aspects. They all feature rugged rotary molded bodies with matching rotary molded lids. The shapes may differ, the thickness of the walls may have some variability, and there will be different hinge and latch designs employed, but it is somewhat safe to say most rotary molded coolers have a host of similarities. This is not to say they perform equally, but there is a lot of consistency in the rotary molded cooler world.

Cooler Pros:

If you have shopped for a rotary molded cooler recently, you have most likely experience knee weakening sticker shock. Prices for rotary molded coolers can range anywhere from the mid $200 price point to an eye bulging $500 or more. It is hard to believe that such prices represent a budget option, but compared to the price of a refrigerator, they certainly are more attainable. Fridge prices seldom start below $750 and can easily break the $1,000 mark. Invest in a premium refrigerator and you’ll have to part with upwards of $2,000.

Another benefit of the rotary molded cooler is the simplicity of use. Fill your cooler with snacks and suds, top with ice, and close the lid. It really doesn’t get much easier. That simplicity of design matched to the brawn of the rotary molded construction, makes these coolers virtually indestructible. Yeti has an entertaining video of a huge grizzly bear clawing at one of their coolers in a desperate and unsuccessful bid to access its contents. It’s nearly impossible to damage a rotary molded cooler, but there are some limitations to consider.

Cooler Cons:

It is an obvious caveat––coolers are nothing without ice. For most weekend getaways and even some protracted journeys, this isn’t a big setback as ice is easily found at most corner stores and gas stations. That is if you travel within North America and most developed countries. For the international traveler, finding ice on the edges of the Sahara or in remote corners of Baja might be a little tricky. On the upshot, these newer rotary molded coolers can often retain ice for up to a week if used properly, even in summer temperatures. All the same, a cooler without ice is just a fancy box. On more than one occasion, my five day trip has been paired to four days of ice.

One of the less obvious drawbacks to a cooler is the weight of the cooler and ice. Ice is simply heavy, and a 50 quart rotary molded cooler can weigh up to 35 pounds on its own. Although a refrigerator is no lightweight option, most larger coolers will need anywhere from 15 to 20 pounds of ice to work properly. In all fairness, that’s still a couple pounds lighter than a refrigerator, but it’s still darn heavy for such a simple cooling solution.

The last potential negative, and this is getting pretty nit-picky, is the size of the average cooler relative to the amount of contents it can store. Rotary molded coolers have a large exterior size due to the thick walls required to retain the ice. An average cooler is considerably larger than its refrigerated counterparts. Plus, all that ice factors into the storage volume of the cooler. A 50 quart refrigerator provides 50 actual quarts of storage. A cooler must forfeit some of that storage capacity for ice.

If I had to interject my own personal opinion here, it would have to be with my biggest cooler pet peeve––swimming food. Having all of my food dunked in a slurry of ice and water is a hassle and requires everything to be wrapped in waterproof bags or containers. Memories of my feta cheese that escaped its Tupperware container come to mind. Stinky cheese water is not a good thing.

 

 

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Refrigerators

Portable 12-volt refrigerators are one of the best things to ever happen to overlanding. Because all four-wheeled rigs have an alternator and battery, harnessing that power to chill our eats and libations is pretty convenient. When discussing 12-volt refrigerators, it is important to cull out the cheaper electric coolers on the market. Those inexpensive devices can seldom cool their contents more than 20-30 degrees below ambient temperatures whereas a proper fridge/freezer can often cool up to 90 degrees below ambient temperature.

To achieve the impressive performance provided by a modern 12-volt refrigerator, most units will employ highly advanced internal motors and compressors, not too unlike those used in your home fridge. They also use well constructed bodies with excellent insulating properties and in most cases, complex thermostatic regulators and electronics to maintain temperature and maximize energy efficiency. Many are designed to shut off if they sense they might be pulling too much juice from the host power source. Because many popular 12-volt refrigerators were purpose-built for use in overland vehicles, they’re also relatively durable, but do require a touch more love and care than a cooler.

Refrigerator Pros:

The single biggest advantage a refrigerator has over a cooler is independence from ice. With a steady supply of power, a refrigerator can cool and even freeze indefinitely. For the extended journey, this is an unparalleled advantage. As one drives by day, the alternator supplies the power to cool the fridge. By night, the battery supplies ample power to keep things cold. At no point does a hunt for ice enter the scenario.

Another advantage of the refrigerator is the ability to moderate precise temperatures. If you want your IPA chilled to an exact 42ºF, that is easily achieved. If you need to keep your Ben and Jerry’s frozen rock solid, that too is possible.

Because overland vehicles have limited cargo space, the smaller physical size of a fridge is always appreciated. Although the inner workings of a refrigerator do take up some space, those components are relatively small leaving maximum space for food and beverage storage. The walls of most refrigerators are usually quite thin, again giving the refrigerator a significantly smaller footprint.

And again, to me the biggest plus is the lack of ice water and the threat of floating feta cheese. I can neatly load my refrigerator efficiently without calculating for ice, melted ice, and floating contents.

One additional minor advantage I like about the refrigerator is the ability to load it days in advance of a given trip. This simplifies the “get ready” aspect of travel. A cooler has to be loaded with contents and ice at the very last minute to maximize the life of the ice.

Refrigerator Cons:

Without beating around the bush, refrigerators are very expensive. If there is a reason why those who want a refrigerator do not have one, it’s likely because the purchase price is prohibitive. Spending up to $1,500 to keep your juice boxes chilled is tough to justify for most, and understandably so.

There is also no denying that a refrigerator brings with it a level of complexity that can’t be dismissed. A fridge is a machine with many parts, some of which are capable of failing, and they sometimes do. I had one refrigerator malfunction resulting in everything inside the fridge frozen hard as marble. There were no beers for me that night. Then there is the added complexity of providing power to the appliance.

For those travelers who drive day in and day out, power is seldom an issue. For those prone to park for a few days, supplemental power supplies will need to be factored into the system. This could be achieved with more battery storage or solar solutions, both options adding even more cost and complexity to the bottom line. An average fridge paired to modest solar panels and backup battery storage system can chew through $2,000 in short order.

The verdict:

If the thought of spending $750 or more is too much to justify, and no one would blame you for that assessment, a cooler is the clear choice. Although a $300 cooler is still expensive, they genuinely do perform much better than their cheaper cousins. We’ll save that discussion for another day, but rotary molded coolers are worth the additional outlay of cash.

If you have limited storage space, find yourself on multi-day or even multi-week travels, and have designs on international travels, you can’t beat a refrigerator for convenience.

Having had this discussion with literally dozens of fellow overlanders, I have to concede that once you commit to using a refrigerator, the nuisance of ice will never have you going back to a cooler again. Not unless circumstance forces it.

This wasn’t really a close race at any given point. The refrigerator is hands down the most convenient option and on nearly every measurable metric. It’s the fridge for the win.

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Jeep Wrangler, Then and Nowhttp://expeditionportal.com/jeep-wrangler-then-and-now/ http://expeditionportal.com/jeep-wrangler-then-and-now/#comments Tue, 26 May 2015 08:27:21 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28371 Humans are creatures of habit. We hate change; it’s in our DNA. So when Jeep announced the Jeep Wrangler would be going under the knife yet again, the anxiety in the off road world quickly became palpable. Since Jeep is keeping the beloved Jeep’s fate close to the chest so to speak, let’s ease our anxieties by exploring the evolution of the Wrangler thus far.  It would certainly be justified to begin with the 1940 Willys Quad, but the Quad wasn’t a Wrangler, nor was the CJ-5 or the CJ-7. The Willys Quad was created as a wartime effort and the CJ series (or Civilian Jeep) was a transitional vehicle that was intended to see more farm road than paved road. The “Wrangler” designation didn’t appear until 46 years later when, in 1986 the very first Jeep Wrangler was introduced as the YJ. So, let’s start there.

 

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YJ (1987-1995):

Fitted with the iconic seven slot grille, easily one of the most recognizable fascias in automotive history, and a pair of square headlights, the YJ earned its spot in history as the first Jeep Wrangler. Like its predecessors, the YJ had many of the same external cues that dated back to its roots. There was a removeable top and doors, boxy external dimensions and a scant utilitarian design that harkened to simpler times––a time before HVAC and audible sound systems. Other than a nip here or a tuck there, the YJ was as equally unrefined as its predecessors. The trailer-esque tail lights jutted out and threatened to break off at the sight of each passing rock or tree branch, the top leaked and loudly buffeted at speeds above 5 mph, and the leaf sprung suspension kept chiropractors busy. The alarming lack of basic creature comforts (which curiously added to the charm of owning one) didn’t seem to bother off road enthusiasts who purchased them to the tune of nearly 60,000 units per year. Between the 1987 and 1995 model years, Chrysler was able to sell a total of 557,412 Wranglers without making any major improvements over the course of production.

 

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TJ (1997-2006):

Despite relatively decent sales (for a niche market), nearly half of the individuals who were interested in Wrangler ownership were turned off by the loud, harsh ride and lack of amenities. Evidence of this appears in the close to doubled total sales figures (965,465 units) of the greatly improved next generation Wrangler: the TJ. However, discerning customers would have to wait a year for the highly anticipated YJ replacement as there was no 1996 Wrangler.

By the end of its first year in production the TJ had sold 149,073 units, nearly tripling the average annual sales of the YJ. This was mostly due refinements such as coil spring suspension at both ends, an improved hardtop, and stiffer frame. These changes immensely increased driver comfort over the agricultural driving experience of its predecessors thus, quieting many of the of former critics of the model. If the YJ was the transitional vehicle from the farm to the roads, then the TJ would transition the platform into a modern road-worthy vehicle. To the delight of Jeep enthusiasts, the coveted round headlights reappeared, and to the confusion of some, the front turn signals were moved from the grille to the fenders. As a complete redesign normally entails, the interior also saw improvements. The row of individual gauges that once spanned the dash were replaced with a modern, easier to read gauge cluster and the seats received increased bolstering to lessen driver fatigue.

TJ Rubicon (2003-2006):

The improvements made from the YJ to the TJ were substantial, but Chrysler engineers still had plans on the horizon. In 2003, Jeep released what they called the “most capable vehicle in its storied history”, the Rubicon. Drawing its namesake from the popular Rubicon Trail, this upgraded Wrangler came with a fixed yoke 4:1 Rock-Trac transfer case (compared to the NP-231 which was outfitted with ratio of 2.72:1) and selectable lockers located in a pair of Dana 44 axles. The Rubicon also came standard with Goodyear MTR P245/75-R16 tires mounted to 16 inch aluminum alloy wheels. To ease the larger mud terrains into place Jeep fitted 1 inch wider fender flares at all four corners and increased the suspension ride height. To help with the effects of  turning larger diameter tires, Jeep also fitted the axles with a 4.10:1 ring and pinion. These changes proved to be a potent combination for rock crawling enthusiasts and once again demonstrated Jeep’s mettle in the hardcore off road community. Unfortunately, the low gearing that made the Rubicon such a potent rock crawler became its Achilles Heel in loose terrain where high revs are sometimes required for forward momentum.

TJ Unlimited (2004-2006):

One of the major drawback to owning a Wrangler up to this point was a lack of interior space. The tiny platform left little room for passengers, a situation that was amplified for those who dared contort their way into the back seats, let alone trunk space for gear or groceries. In 2004, in a successful attempt to alleviate this drawback, Chrysler stretched the wheelbase ten inches improving the wheelbase from 93.4 inches to 103.4 inches thus, giving birth to the “Unlimited”, or LJ Wrangler. This extra length not only provided back seat passengers with much needed legroom, but also turned the rear cargo area into usable space. The extra wheelbase also provided better road handling as well as a slight bump in towing capacity. The Unlimited could also be ordered in Rubicon trim for the ultimate Wrangler experience. Testifying to its success, the LJ Rubicon still fetches a pretty penny with stock examples doubling the asking price for a standard TJ at nearly $18,000 dollars.

The Wrangler has steadily evolved over time with each new addition bringing a better experience for the enthusiast. The LJ fulfilled the need for more space, but there was still an untapped market. Many a Wrangler owner had to sell off their prized Jeep once their first child was born leaving them to purchase the coffin nail to their youth: the dreaded minivan. Fortunately, in 2007 Jeep released the next generation of Wrangler affectionately known as the JK. With the advent of their newest model, Jeep included for the first time a four door Unlimited.

 

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JK/JKU (2007-present):

The JKU has proven to be the most successful Wrangler to date. The numbers of happy owners continues to grow as JK’s continue to roll out of the factory and spill over onto trails across the globe. For those seeking a contemporary touch, the JK can be outfitted from the factory with virtually any modern option including GPS, satellite radio, Bluetooth radio with 40 gig hard drive, heated seats, etc.. Having recently tested the hill descent control in Moab, I can only sing its praise. Purists will say that the electronic nannies take away from the driving experience but I have to strongly disagree. The difference between holding the brake while your rig helplessly slides all four wheels down a steep obstacle vs. a safe controlled descent is more than a luxury it’s a great safety feature and has far less impact on the environment. Dealer modified Wranglers are also available with many of the typical aftermarket modifications already installed.

Jeep Performance Parts, an arm of Mopar, now provides Chrysler with a share of the massive Wrangler aftermarket with their own line of bumpers, wheels, recovery gear and other off road related items (although, many appear to nothing more than licensed copies of popular aftermarket brands such as AEV or Warn). Jeep will also be offering axles directly from Dana Axles including the popular Dana 60 for both front and rear drive duties.

Not unlike the Wranglers that came before it, the JK and JKU come in many different trim levels including the Rubicon. They have been available in many different limited color schemes from military-esque greens to Earth tones or even bold neon paint coatings. As of late there has been major speculation as to what the next model revamp will look like. Many worry as to the fate of its signature solid axles and removable top. It’s no secret that increasing safety and fuel economy restrictions placed on all vehicle manufacturers will certainly create challenges for the Wrangler in the years to come. Perhaps, with fingers crossed, we may even see a diesel Wrangler for sale in the United States -only time will tell. History has shown Jeep’s loyalty to its customers over the years, hopefully this will provide some comfort for Wrangler enthusiasts as we await the next generation.

 

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Image credit (below): Brandon Libby

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The Roads of Costa Ricahttp://expeditionportal.com/the-roads-of-costa-rica/ http://expeditionportal.com/the-roads-of-costa-rica/#comments Mon, 25 May 2015 07:52:56 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28334 We were cruising down the Pan-American Highway on a new water-cooled BMW 1200GS, as the tropical vegetation whizzed by in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of green. Although we were traveling at a decent clip, it wasn’t fast enough to outrun the oppressive midday heat. Things will cool down once we make it to the coast, I remember thinking. Just then, I caught a glimpse of something red and blue in my side mirror and suddenly, alongside me in the opposing lane, roared a police pickup truck, inexplicably and frantically honking its horn. Ignoring the road in front of him, the driver was wildly gesticulating at me through the tinted window to pull over. “Well, shit”, I said, as I pointed the bike towards the dirt shoulder ahead, “This should be interesting.”

Megan and I arrived in San Jose six days ago. After months of careful planning, our long-awaited trip to Costa Rica was finally underway. The plan was to spend nine days exploring the country by motorcycle, riding two-up, and carrying all our own luggage with us as we went. The bike rental and hotels had been booked ahead of time through the travel company Costa Rican Trails, but we would be in charge of getting ourselves from one place to another. While it was far from a self-supported expedition, it wasn’t exactly an all-inclusive tour either. Instead the trip fell into that pseudo-risky yet not-entirely safe gray zone commonly referred to as Adventure Tourism – something for which Costa Rica has become world-renowned.

 

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We arrived in San Jose at dawn, red-eyed and jet-worn, but the city’s vibrant energy – along with a few cups of strong coffee – revived us.  The streets were bustling with taxis jockeying for position while a steady stream of foot traffic poured down the main pedestrian boulevards. Close to our hotel, the local city park was being so fully utilized that it looked like the overly optimistic renderings of some fresh-faced city planner. It had slack lining, a skate park, stilt walking, foosball tables, a drum circle, poetry reading, parkour lessons, silk aerial acrobatics, and rows of people playing chess. It felt as if there were an energy pulsing through the warm tropical air and the people here had found a way of tapping into it. Later that night we went out for a drink and by chance caught the championship game of Costa Rica’s national soccer league, an event that ended in a citywide celebration after the hometown team pulled out a win.  As we staggered back to the hotel at the end of the first day, we concurred that if the rest of the trip was this action-packed it might just kill us.

The next morning we went to pick up the bike from the BMW Motorrad dealership of San Jose. It was unclear when I made the reservation what version of the 1200GS we’d be getting, so naturally I assumed it was going to be some old beat-to-hell rental. My only hope was that it wasn’t one of those mid-2000 models with the annoying servo-assisted brakes. But much to our surprise, we found a brand new water-cooled 1200GS sitting out front, all polished and waiting for us. After we did a basic rundown on the bike and pushed and prodded our gear into the less-than-spacious Vario cases, the representative from Costa Rica Trails scrawled out our route for the next week in meticulous and occasionally legible detail on a paper map. With this precious piece of paper as our guide, we signed on the dotted line and rode off the lot with a $17,000 motorcycle onto unfamiliar streets, in a foreign country, the language of which neither of us could speak fluently. The smell of adventure was in the air.

 

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A few general notes about the roads in Costa Rica. A few years back, the government made a nation-wide push to repave, or, more correctly, pave for the first time, many of the major roads that run throughout the country. While streets in the cities were pretty dismal, the main connecting routes were in absolutely pristine condition. However, despite all the careful planning that went into building these roads, it seemed that the signage needed to label them had been tragically forgotten. In fact, it was virtually impossible to figure out where you were using the names of streets, because even if the street did have a name, nobody else seemed to know it. When we had to ask for directions– which was pretty frequent– the response invariably came in the form of distance plus some context clue, such as: go 8 kilometers, then turn right by the billboard, then go another 5 kilometers and turn left by the restaurant with the Coca Cola sign. However, if the advertisement on the billboard had changed or if all the restaurants we passed had Coca Cola signs, we’d be forced to inquire again and receive an entirely new set of directions. And so in this way, we bumbled forwards towards our destination with precision of a game of Marco Polo. All these observations, and many more, were made in the short time it took us to travel from San Jose to our first stop: the volcano of Irazu.

Sharply rising off the valley floor and twisting up a magnificent mountain road, we snaked our way through terraced pastures and hillside hamlets. For us, coming from drought-stricken Southern California, the sight of these lush verdure fields was as refreshing as a tall glass of water on a hot summer’s day. As we continued to climb, the greenery started to give way to dark volcanic rocks and we ascended into a thick wall of fog. Speed was reduced and brakes were covered, but we cautiously pressed on. As we rose higher, the fog grew brighter and brighter until finally we could make out small patches of blue in the churning sea of clouds.

 

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At the summit we dismounted and walked along the volcano’s edge. There, swirly waves of white crashed down upon the hard black sands, like rolling waves at a beach.  While beautiful and serene, the place had an eerie, almost otherworldly quality to it. Were it not for the occasional fern or bush, it could have easily been mistaken for the barren surface of a far distant planet. We took in all the limited visibility would allow before heading back down into the valley below.

 

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Later that day, we rode up a long dirt road to our hotel outside Turiabla. The first to greet us was a colony of Oropendolas – large blackbirds with brilliant yellow tails – who were nesting high above in the branches of a massive fig tree. Absolutely incredible to listen to, these enthusiastic birds sounded something like R2D2 playing the kazoo and left little doubt we were well within in the tropics.

Shortly after checking in at the Villa Florencia, we began to realize just how seriously Costa Rica takes the whole “eco-tourism” thing. Solar-powered LEDs orbs lit the path to our room, which was set up with a self-regulating sink, low-flow toilet, low-volume showerhead, and electricity that only worked when your keycard was inserted. Even the elusive WiFi signal felt like it was being rationed. Naturally, as an American, my initial reaction was to feel oppressed by such environmental concerns, to which I defiantly exclaimed “I’m on vacation, damn it! I’ll save the planet later!” But thankfully, with Megan’s help, I was able to come to my senses and appreciate their earnest efforts towards conservation. In the US, we place almost all of our focus on the “recycle” part of the equation – so not to damper our relentless rate of consumption – but in Costa Rica they seem to be making a real go at trying to “reduce” their waste in the first place. To do this requires occasional moments of personal awareness and self-restraint, which, we’re happy to report, left us no worse for the wear.

 

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As we continued through the lowlands during the next couple days, it became clear we were passing through motorcycle country. Out here, nearly every house had a bike parked in front of it and other riders were a constant sight out on the road. For the most part they were all riding small cc Japanese imports: Yamaha YBR 125s, Suzuki DR200s, Kawasaki KLR 250s, or for those who wanted to consider themselves real cowboys, 250cc Honda Rebels. But what these little bikes lacked in horsepower, they made up for in sheer numbers.

With the locals so well versed in motorcycle culture, we found that our comparatively massive 1200GS would create quite a stir whenever we pulled into town.  At one roadside restaurant, known collectively throughout the country as “Sodas”, the entire kitchen staff piled out to get their picture taken with the bike as I attempted to field questions the best I could.  Far from the glassy-eyed indifference or even faint contempt with which the majority of the non-riding public display towards motorcycles in America, everyone we met in Costa Rica seemed to be genuinely excited about them, which, in turn, was really exciting for us.

 

Midway through our trip we arrived at the town of La Fortuna, located at the base of the famous, and still quite active, Arenal Volcano. Here the country’s resplendent adventure tourism industry was on full display. All around town were brilliantly colored billboards advertising zip lining, white water rafting, canyoneering, kayaking, horseback riding, and ATVing, while fleets of air-conditioned vans shuttled wide-eyed, fanny-packing tourists from one action packed activity to the next. It was as if the taste of adventure – in all its tropical flavors – was being served buffet-style to anyone with a wallet deep enough to afford it.

 

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Upon seeing the telltale signs of a well-oiled tourist town, our initial contrarian impulse was to go off and do our own thing. We wanted to be a part of something real, not some slickly marketed, mass-produced Costa Rican “experience.” Wasn’t that the whole point of touring the country by motorcycle anyways, to get away from the fake commercialized façade?  But then another thought came to us: Was it really possible to visit Costa Rica and not go zip lining? Had all these iconic activities become so synonymous with the place itself that they were now inseparable?

Some clarity was brought to the question when it was revealed to us that nearly all the country’s tour companies are owned and operated by Costa Rican citizens, thanks to protective government regulation. This meant that instead of having the whole tourist business foist upon them by some foreign corporation, the people of Costa Rica were both the facilitators and the beneficiaries of the recent influx of tourism dollars. This put an entirely new spin on things. Perhaps the burgeoning adventure tourism industry is, in fact, the most authentic thing happening in Costa Rica right now, for it’s occurring naturally of its own accord. Furthermore, as outsiders, who were we to insist the people here maintain an agrarian existence indefinitely just to satisfy our romanticized expectation of pastoral country life? If the people of Costa Rica have chosen adventure tourism as their path to deliverance, then who were we to oppose them?  And so at last, with our delicate moral compasses aligned and our hypersensitive consciences cleared, we went zip lining – and, as one might expect, it was awesome.
Dawn comes early in the tropics. Costa Rica doesn’t observe daylight savings, which meant that the sun rose around 5am in the morning and set just before 6pm at night. If one was to avoid the heat of the day, it was imperative to get out on the road as early as possible. Megan isn’t normally much of a morning person, which meant that “vacation Megan” was even less inclined to the notion, yet somehow we were able to shift our schedules to wake before sunup. On the day we were to depart from La Fortuna we managed to drag ourselves out of bed in time for a dawn patrol run along Arenal Lake, an endeavor that was well-rewarded. On most days, a thick layer of clouds hides the volcano’s peak, to the point where even the locals say they only get to see the top a few times a year. Either we were there on the right day or the fun-loving, late-partying locals of La Fortuna aren’t morning people either, but we caught a few fleeting glimpses of the bare summit in the early golden morning rays. However, by the time we turned the bike around, the head of the mountain king was already adorned with a puffy crown of white.

 

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We were cruising down the Pan-American Highway as the tropical vegetation whizzed by. It was getting late in the day and the air was starting to get hot. We were settling in for a long haul down to our final destination: the Pacific beach town of Quepos, when suddenly I heard the frantic and sporadic horn and saw a police pickup truck come racing up along side me.  At first I thought he was just trying to pass, but the menacing stares and commanding hand gestures made it all too clear that we were the ones he was after. A part of me sensed something was not quite right about the situation, but going full-throttle on a rental bike in a foreign country just didn’t seem like a reasonable alternative, so I decided to pull over.

I put the bike over on the dirt shoulder and Megan and I dismounted. The pickup truck pulled up alongside us. After a momentary and dramatic pause, the door opened and out heaved a rotund man with a gruff, determined look across his face. He looked vaguely annoyed, and inexplicably out of breath, as if he had been chasing us on foot. I had no idea what he wanted, but nothing about his facial expression boded well for us.  In fact, the way I saw it, we had only one chance of this ending well. So it was with great trepidation I played my one and only card. “¿Habla Ingles?” I said, with an expression outwardly hopeful yet quietly desperate. His face contorted into a scowl of vexed agitation before curtly responding with “No, Señor.”

That’s it, I thought, we’re screwed. He’s going to confiscate the bike, take our travel documents, and send us to rot in some local gulag until our next of kin pay for our ransom. I was cursing myself for getting Megan mixed up in this whole thing, when the cop said sternly “Necesitan ropa mas reflectiva” as he motioned at our jackets. It took a moment before I realized what he was talking about, but then finally it clicked. Thankfully we were in Costa Rica, not Mexico, and he was only telling us we needed to be wearing reflective clothing.

 

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We were told at the beginning of the trip that it was required by law in Costa Rica to wear reflective gear at all times. I was wearing a Skyline jacket by Aether Apparel and Megan was wearing a Café Mesh jacket by GoGo Gear. Both jackets have matte reflective piping built-in to their seams, but in the sunlight these features are designed to disappear. The intended result is a stylish-looking jacket during the day, but one that is also highly reflective when you need it – at night. However, the explanation of technical fabrics and their reflective properties was not something we spent much time on in high school Spanish. And so, in butchered Spanish along with highly animated hand motions, I began to make my case to the officer that we were, in fact, wearing reflective gear, even though under the blinding noonday sun it didn’t appear that we were. He gazed on in quiet, contemplative bemusement.
Finally, after a frantic, disjointed, and undoubtedly incoherent appeal to the officer’s sympathy, which at one point had me showing him a blurry picture of the jacket at night on my iPhone, I was able to somehow talk us out of getting a ticket. While I’d very much like to think he was moved by the soundness of my arguments, in reality, I suspect he just got worn down by my unrelenting blathering and wanted to get on with his day. We were free to go, but on the condition that we purchase some more reflective gear as soon as possible. This we immediately took care of at a nearby Honda dealership, where we bought bright yellow reflective sashes, which we donned for the rest of the trip like gilded hall monitors.

 

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It was a long, hot grind down to Quepos. In the broiling heat of the afternoon, we blitzed through mile after mile of palm plantations containing countless rows of perfectly spaced trees. We were hot, we were uncomfortable, and we both wanted to be done with the bike for the day, yet the rows of palms kept coming at us like the endless looping background of a video game. At last, we pulled into the tiny coastal town of Quepos, where upon I immediately got lost looking for our hotel. Despite feeling like we had both hit a wall, another thirty minutes was required in order to discern the seemingly contradicting scribbles in the margin of our provided map. These were tense, desperate moments. Finally, we arrived at the Costa Verde hotel. We checked in, stripped down, and collapsed face-first into the closest pool we could find.
The cool water revived us and we were able to appreciate our surroundings with fresh eyes. Our hotel, along with many others, was perched high upon the cliffs that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Small bungalows were tucked away on terraced levels, but the most noteworthy room was a converted 727-passenger plane that the resort had retrofitted into a master suite. Its orange emblazoned fuselage jutted out from the green jungle undergrowth like a beacon calling out to aviation buffs and retro-kitsch admirers alike.

That afternoon we sat on the back porch of our bungalow watching distant towering thunderclouds parade their way down the coast. Golden light from the setting sun cast down upon their dark, billowy contours and reflected off the shimmering surface of the water to create a scene both heroic and serene, like some seascape oil painting by a 17th century Dutch master.  As trying as the day’s travel had been, we both felt this majestic display was just compensation for such a hard long day on the bike.

The next morning we set out to investigate the nearby Manuel Antonio National Park, which is set apart from the mainland and connected only by a narrow isthmus. Here we found an impressive collection of wildlife: sloths, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, toucans, scarlet macaws, iguanas, and a particularly rambunctious raccoon-like creature known as a coati. We attempted a short hike around the peninsula, but quickly found that the steamy tropical heat, terrarium-like humidity, and hilly coastal terrain made even the most leisurely pace felt like an arduous death slog. We therefore abandoned our hopes of hiking in exchange for extended time at that beach, where we set about practicing our floating in the warm Pacific waters.

 

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The next day it was time to depart Quepos and make our way back to San Jose. The instructions from the tour company advised us to retrace our steps along the coast, however a careful examination of the map revealed that there was an alternate route further inland, which passed through the mountains. Still smarting from the grueling haul down the coast and looking for any possible way to get out of the heat, we inquired at the front desk about the feasibility of this route. When asked, the jovial manager behind the counter turned grave and began to express his concerns.

 

He said it was very cold up in the mountain, with little visibility due to constant cloud coverage, and a lot of oil spills from trucks. The road also passes over one of the highest points in Costa Rica, known throughout the country as “Cerro de la Muerte” or Mountain of Death. With each new hazard he listed it became clear, maybe not to Megan, but certainly to me, that we had to go that way; there was no other choice. Like the foreboding warning given to the main character at the beginning of the movie, it was now a matter of dramatic destiny that we ride out and face whatever it was we were explicitly told to avoid. There was no other way.

The temperature started to cool as we ascended from the coast and began to make our way into the foothills of the mountains. We fuelled up at San Isidro del General, the last major town of note, and likely the last gas station we would see before we got to the outskirts of San Jose. On the way out of town we passed by a giant statue of Jesus, who, from his hillside perch, looked down over the road with outstretched arms, perhaps in loving embrace, or perhaps to flag us down and tell us to turn back. However, we passed him by all the same.

The road began to climb dramatically, twisting and turning through cliffs as it continued its relentless incline. Rolling waves of fog intermittently reduced our visibility, but as we continued to ascend, their frequency increased until we were fully enveloped in a dense, misty cloudbank. The temperature continued to drop too, so much so that we had to close the vents on our jackets and throw on another layer. I even went so far as to turn on the bike’s heated hand warmers, although this was more of a luxury than a necessity. Perhaps spending the last several days acclimating to the warm weather had thinned my blood more than I thought.

Along the side of the road we saw clusters of modest homes, small rural markets, and the occasional church. These highland communities, shrouded in thick fog for much of the year, were completely different from the rest of the sunny postcard Costa Rica we had seen. The people up here had a slower, simpler style of life due greatly to their relative isolation, but also a calm, unhurried repose that I chalked up to the more humane climate. This style of life was captured fully at one of the sleepy roadside Sodas, where we, and few other travelers, lazily sipped coffee on the back porch while watching banks of fog drift through the valley. It seemed very peaceful up there in the mountains and was one of the many places in the country I could envision myself living for a period of time.

 

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While we didn’t come across any of the infamous oil spills, we did manage to find a backlog of traffic as we were approaching the Mountain of Death. There, an army of road workers had reduced us down to a single lane, which required traffic to be alternated through a single corral of cones. The line of idling cars and tractor-trailer trucks looked like a haunting apparition in the passing mist, calling to mind the type of mass exodus seen right before an impending zombie invasion. And so it was, in this rather undistinguished way, that we crawled over the Mountain of Death. Waiting in a line of traffic on the top of a mountain was not the type of final showdown I had envisioned when I set out on this route, but perhaps it was the nemesis I should have expected all along.
Our ears popped as we started to descend into the San Jose area, as warm air wafted up from the valley like heat from an open oven. The toll road that we rode into town on was the first multi-lane highway we had been on since the beginning of the trip, and it became apparent that we were exiting the countryside and entering the maze-like urban sprawl of the city. We were scheduled to drop the bike off at the BMW dealership that afternoon, but had got turned around more than once on the narrow one-way roads. As fortune would have it, we had arrived in the city during rush hour, which meant that even a single wrong turn required a grueling roundabout correction through near standstill traffic. At last, we were able to break free of the vortex-like suction of downtown and found out way to the drop point.
The 1200 GS had performed admirably throughout the trip, and I couldn’t imagine touring the country as we did on any other bike, however, at this particular moment in time, both Megan and I wanted nothing more than to get off it. It had been a long trip and we were very much looking forward to sitting on anything other than a motorcycle seat. Still, it was an amazing vehicle to ride and in many ways ideally suited to access all Costa Rica had to offer.  From the twisty mountain roads, to the long slabs of straight highway, to the gravely dirt driveways, the 1200 GS proved again and again to be the perfect bike for the job. So it was not without a twinge of sadness that I popped the kickstand, leaned the bike over, and got off it for the last time.

 

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With the bike finally returned and our flight back to Los Angeles leaving at some ungodly hour the next morning, there was an overwhelming sense that our time in Costa Rica was coming to an end. However, despite our mental and physical exhaustion, we somehow managed to rally for one last drink out – which is to say we trundled down to the bar next to our hotel. In hindsight, the swinging saloon doors and classic rock karaoke should have given it away, but in our weary state of mind it wasn’t until we ordered that we realized we had stumbled straight into an American expat bar.

Upon seeing our fine northern-European complexion, we were immediately surrounded by a bunch of red-faced, grey-haired men, who were keen on extolling all the virtues of Costa Rica, the likes of which we had just seen. Originally, these folk had come from all over, but now were well-paid managers at call-centers, freelancing for large tech firms, or just living off their retirement package. They were in complete and utter rapture over Costa Rica’s great weather, gorgeous beaches, relatively modern infrastructure, laid back lifestyle, and affordable cost of living. “Why would anyone live in the states when they could be living the dream down here?” they asked, “Everyday is just another day in paradise.” And, basking in the after-glow of our trip, we found ourselves inclined to agree.

Yet, despite their boisterous attitude and cheery disposition, a faint sadness seemed to hang about their eyes. Like a thin coat of paint covering a piece of rusting metal, their glossy exterior barely hid the trouble beneath.  It didn’t take us long to find out that all of these guys were alone, the result of a messy divorce, a career-ending layoff, or a life of chronic estrangement. They had visited Costa Rica on vacation at some point or another, and, remembering the good times they had, struck upon the idea to move down here permanently. Now they spend their nights in expat bars drinking, laughing, and telling their tale to anyone who will listen, trying to recapture that fleeting sensation of being on vacation.  We finished our drinks, thanked the gentlemen for their acquaintance, and headed back to our room, feeling strangely out of sorts.

 

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As we quietly rode the shuttle back to the airport the next morning, the thought of the expats lingered with me like the bittersweet moral at the end of a story. The trip had been tremendous success by all accounts, a near perfect vacation in my mind. Furthermore, as a country, Costa Rica had exceeded our every expectation. In such a diverse tropical haven, brimming with a youthful vigor and sanguine optimism about its future, it was hard not to be taken in completely. To tell the truth, there were many times I wished the trip would never end, that we could cancel our flight back home, quit our jobs, and just keep riding the roads down there forever – endlessly chasing the next immaculately-paved turn. Yet, in my heart of hearts, I knew it had to end. Unlike the expats, who were desperately trying to cling onto that feeling of excitement, of adventure, I knew, in back of my mind, that we had to let it go. For paradise is not a really place, but the road you take to get there.

 

 

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Megan McDuffie:

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Megan McDuffie will jump at any opportunity to get out of the city. She took a break from photography after college, but fell back in love with the medium while thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.
Determined to combine her passion for visual expression with an outdoor lifestyle, she’s currently taking as many adventures as her day job will allow. Her latest project is the camp-food blog Fresh Off the Grid that features recipes designed specifically for cooking in the outdoors. freshoffthegrid.com
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Bikepacking Southeastern Oregon’s Big Countryhttp://expeditionportal.com/bikepacking-southeastern-oregons-big-country/ http://expeditionportal.com/bikepacking-southeastern-oregons-big-country/#comments Fri, 22 May 2015 07:09:44 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28389 If you haven’t lived here awhile you probably hear “Oregon” and think of its lush, rained soaked coast and stark volcanic cones. Though once you start poring over topo maps or fire up the engine and head east you realize that the entirety of Oregon’s vast eastern half is a rugged sagebrush desolation. It’s too hot, too dry, too boring. Definitely not worth the drive.

Unless of course you have the inclination to poke around. Every time I’ve steered east of the Cascade Range I’ve found something — or just as frequently not found something — that draws me back. Last spring Jason Britton and I from Limberlost teamed up with Donnie Kolb of VeloDirt to ride our mountain bikes across the Oregon border into Nevada’s Sheldon Antelope Refuge and then back to Frenchglen via Hart Mountain. It was an eye-opening trip. (Route details here.)

 

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I wanted more. More antelope, more hot springs, more abandoned ranches, more sunsets over dry lake beds, and more secret glades in high desert ravines. Donnie, being the expert route sniffer that he is, was also on the case. He cooked up a route that followed forgotten military roads over Steens Mountain, across the Alvord Desert, and through the Big Sand Gap to Willow Hot Springs. Nick Sande from Cielo was also on board and showed us a video of an upside down lake that we needed to find.

We couldn’t dig up any information on the mountain pass, and were banking on snowmelt for water. The playa conditions could drastically vary even with the slightest rain. The only report we could find of the Big Sand Gap was “Big,” “Sandy,” & “Gap-ish.” We knew Willow Hot Springs were nice but once we continued into the Trout Creek Mountains would we encounter impassable snow at 8,000′ this early in the season? Could we carry enough — but not too much — calories for 4 days of riding without resupply?

 

There were a lot of variables both planned for and unexpected. 

 

Each of us were well-seasoned bike travelers and all had stoic adventure bikes with 29+ wheels— a factor Donnie had designed into the route. I heard him say: “If I can see a squiggly line on the satellite maps, I can ride it with this bike!” And frankly it’s more or less true. I had ridden my loaded Krampus all across Idaho last summer on the Idaho Hot Spring Mountain Bike Route and over the famous Oregon Dunes and central Oregon snow in November.

 

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Our first day began with a hearty communal breakfast at the historic Frenchglen Hotel exchanging drastically different vacation itineraries with the many birders that had convened on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge for the spring waterfowl migration. They were a courteous, easily distracted bunch whom no doubt thought we were insane. After 30 easy gravel and asphalt miles on the bikes we were surprised by an oasis in Diamond. Even though they only boast a population of 5 we were served some of the best tasting food and cold beer I’ve had anywhere between Bend and Boise. Leaving Diamond we progressed at a much slower, yet satisfied pace. Slowly we climbed the gradual western flank of Steens Mountain past curiously skittish herds of the wild Kiger Mustangs and abandoned hunting shacks before pulling into camp on the side of our cow path in Paddler’s Meadow. As we lay down our rigs we were treated to a glorious sunset on one side as the swollen full moon rose into the twilight on the other.

 

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Awaking sluggishly before the sun we quietly went about our morning rituals waiting for the first rays of sunshine and Stumptown coffee to soak in. The eastern flank of the Steens is the opposite — almost immediately after leaving camp we crested and descending the blisteringly steep Stonehouse Road. We dropped the 2,500′ it had taken us most of the previous day to gain in about 15 minutes. And then we rode south, along the base of the mountains for 30 miles, enjoying stunning views of snow-covered ridges high above us before some warm whiskey, an afternoon siesta in some shade, and a brisk bath in the shallow waters of Pike Creek.

 

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Ahead of us was the 8 mile overland crossing of the Alvord Desert. Riding across the playa is one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had on a bicycle. The scale is impossible to grasp even when on the desert floor itself. It’s perfectly flat, dry, hard, smooth. We took the short way across — the lunar landscape stretched 21 miles north to south. No words I write here would do the experience justice: go ride it.

But then the carnival ride was over and the playa highway literally fell out from beneath us and turned to deep sand. Yes, the Big Sand Gap lived up to its moniker. It was unrideable, so we got off and pushed our heavy rigs, trudging for 2 miles until the vague path leveled back out onto a nice hardpack with no discernable tracks from recent humans. We eventually met some cattle and zig-zagged along piecemealed fence lines (only getting lost once) before rolling up in the purple dusk on a very surprised and very nude couple of old timers at the Willow Hot Springs. It had been a long, shadeless day and we were ready for a big meal and a hearty soak. Not to mention a some trepidatous mulling over the big climb into the Trout Creek Mountains the following day.

 

 

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Upon waking we discovered a major mechanical: my tire’s sidewall had separated from the bead and the tube was dangerously bulging out. We made the call to limp 80 miles back to Frenchglen instead of venturing any deeper into the wilderness. We got to Fields midday and gorged on their famous burgers and shakes. And then Hopworks beer (and another) in the parking lot while we tried to thumb a ride. Soon we realized hitchhiking isn’t a great option if there’s only one vehicle every 30 minutes. The sun was going down again and we had almost begrudgingly re-mounted our weary steeds when a young, bearded vet “Ray Ray” with a Glock on his hip offered to give us a lift up the pass in his truck. His truck turned out to be a Bronco whose back didn’t open. But Ray Ray wasn’t deterred, he threw our bikes on the roof and hood, tossed a rope over them and instructed us to hold the other end as his truck sputtered up the mountain. Ray Ray all the while nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, brandishing his pistol, drinking out of a suspicious pint glass, and mostly forgetting to hold his end of the rope while down shifting around blind corners. He saw a jackrabbit and Donnie was frantically instructed to load the Glock’s clip as I eyed the numerous empty ammo boxes and beer cans. Somehow all of us, the bikes, and even the jackrabbit arrived at the summit alive.

 

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Well except for the Bronco. “No matter what, even if he’s your best friend don’t let anyone borrow your rig! That’s the first rule of Fields!” Ray Ray emphatically instructed us while cursing the billowing steam and dripping coolant. Seemingly the cure was more cigarettes and booze — and who were we to argue — we ain’t from around here after all. So we sat there in the middle of the highway in the emptiest corner of the state and emptied clip after 9mm clip into an old propane canister while Ray Ray rolled his eyes at our marksmanship and waited for his engine to cool down.

 

 

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Eventually we parted ways and bombed down the car-free and tumbleweed-littered pass into the blindingly golden sunset with huge grins, ears still ringing and brain still buzzing realizing that the best things happen after you’ve let go of your itinerary, rules, and comfort zones.

 

I can’t wait to back and find that upsidedown lake.

 

You can find more reports of incredible wheeled adventures at: www.limberlost.co or click on the Limberlost banner below.

Gabriel Amadeus, Donnie Kolb, Nick Sande

200 Miles
8,200′
4 Days
Resupply: Limited
Water: Scarce
Hot springs: 2
Traffic: ??
Wild mustangs and pronghorn: 113
“Sage Rats”: 35,956
Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/7311882

 

 

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Field Tested: Primus OmniFuel Stovehttp://expeditionportal.com/field-tested-primus-omnifuel-stove/ http://expeditionportal.com/field-tested-primus-omnifuel-stove/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 07:02:07 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28438 When purchasing a new camping stove there are a number of critical decisions to be made, the most important of which is selecting the fuel source you plan to burn. This is less of a concern if you happen to own a Primus OmniFuel stove, in which case you can burn just about any fuel you can get your hands on.

Designed to burn a variety of liquid fuels including white gas, gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and aviation fuel, it also burns compressed cartridge fuels like Primus’ own isobutane/propane/butane cans. For the international traveler, this holds obvious advantages as not all fuels are readily available in all countries. For the last several months I have had the opportunity to test the OmniFuel in a variety of settings using multiple fuels, and I can say with conviction, it delivers on its design mission far better than I expected.

 

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At a full pound with the pump (excluding the liquid fuel bottle) the OmniFuel stove is not heavy by any stretch, nor does it fall within the realm of ultra-light stoves. Compromises have to be made somewhere and the OmniFuel trades a small amount of weight for its multi-fuel burning capabilities. Stoutly built to endure countless cooking sessions in the world’s most demanding environments, it has what I would say is expedition grade build quality. Whereas some stoves are almost toy-like, the OmniFuel is solid, robust, and feels like a backcountry tool should.

 

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The heavy-duty nylon case contains the stove, multi-fuel pump, windscreen, and servicing tool. For maximum convenience, I have been using Primus fuel cartridges which contain 25% propane, 25% isobutane, and 50% butane. I have also used the stove with similar cartridges from MSR and Jetboil with equal success despite slight variances in the fuel blends. The advantage to cartridge fuel is the ability to quickly ignite the stove with no priming, pumping or other additional steps. Simply thread the cartridge onto the stove and light the burner. It’s that easy.

To burn liquid fuels, the user only needs to implement the fuel bottle and included liquid fuel pump. I tend to avoid burning kerosene or diesel as they‘re relatively dirty fuels and require more frequent stove cleaning and maintenance. Gasoline has the disadvantage of being rather volatile making priming tricky at best. White gas is my standard go-to and not only burns well, it burns cleaner than other fuels.

Aside from the multi-fuel benefits, the two additional elements that make the OmniFuel such an ideal cooking solution are the larger than normal pot supports and the variability of the flame for proper temperature control. Simmering rice is the cooking challenge I put before all of the stoves I test and the OmniFuel’s precise flame control allowed me to not scorch my rice, nor did it require constant attention. The stove shoulders a 2-liter pot without feeling overwhelmed or tippy and once the cooking duties were over, it folded up quickly and slipped into its oversized stuff sack.

Having tested many Primus stoves over the last year, I’ve come to expect an elevated attention to detail. The OmniFuel is no different and features unique design details that I never would have thought of. For example the critical burner components are held captive to the stove via a small spring retainer as to eliminate the possibility of losing those parts during servicing. The entire stove can be disassembled with the removal of one hex-headed retainer, and the fuel line is covered in braided stainless steel.

There is a lot to like about the OmniFuel and I am eager to put it to more use in the coming months. An ideal solution for extended travel, particularly for international travels, it is also a perfect stove for small groups where space and weight are a critical consideration. With its ability to boil a liter of water in as little as two minutes, the performance is impressive as is its ability to achieve those boil times at altitude and in colder climates. Primus continues to produce stoves worthy of their long and well respected legacy. The OmniFuel is one of their best creations to date. MSRP: $182 with fuel bottle.

 

primuscamping.com

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Westx1000: Secrets of the Straithttp://expeditionportal.com/wextx1000-secrets-of-the-strait/ http://expeditionportal.com/wextx1000-secrets-of-the-strait/#comments Wed, 20 May 2015 07:18:36 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=27369 I met Andy Audette on Washington’s western coast one summer, maybe four years ago. The sound of a big cylinder diesel is what I remember most.  A cream colored Ford with an Alaskan Camper stuffed into the truck bed pulled up and tucked itself into a spot right in front of the ocean. From inside the cab came an attractive young woman carrying a newborn baby, an eight year old boy and Andy. The top of the Alaskan came up and the young woman proceeded to cook a belated breakfast, baby sitting by her side. Andy walked over and introduced himself. Stoked is how I’d describe him.

The next time I saw Andy was at a New Year’s party – a pretty normal encounter all things considered. Drunken chat about dual-sport motorcycling lead me to believe this guy was game for some off-road exploring. Little did I know that he was not only a more accomplished motorcyclists than myself, but also some kind of Indiana Jones reincarnate, having explored every corner of the Pacific Northwest aboard his Honda XR650L motorcycle.

 

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Fast forward a few months and I am sitting beachside yet again, waiting for surf, when Andy rolls in atop his Honda. A quick wheelie across the campground was followed by tent pitching, tiny camp chair sitting and wine swilling from the plastic apparatus Andy had packed amongst his things. This time, fireside chat fueled by booze lead us to another topic: Austin Vince. Now, if you don’t know about this guy, you should dig a little deeper. Some might say he is the father of Adventure Motorcycling, the now overly popular excuse to pack all your shit onto a bike that’s too big and ride off into the sunset… Or just down the street to Starbucks. Austin, however, had done it first. And as far as Andy and I were concerned, he’d done it the right way (read: cheaply).  As it turns out, Austin was headed to Portland, OR to debut his latest film, Mondo Sahara, which documented his semi-unassisted crossing of the Saharan desert by motor bike. It also turns out that I know Austin, and was able to sneak Andy, his brother and myself into an otherwise over-sold theater a few weeks later to witness Austin at his finest. This gesture set into motion a visit to the Andy’s property, as well as a search for secret military structures on the Olympic Peninsula.

 

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We arrived at Andy’s place on a Thursday. It was mid-day, and Andy was just leaving for work. “Make yourselves at home,” he said. “I’ll be back around two o’clock in the morning.” We stayed up later than anticipated that evening – drinking beer and discussing the things we hoped to see the next day. Unfortunately, we were startled awake early the next morning by the sound of a KLR 650 firing up right next to our tent. Andy, who had come home in the middle of the night, and hearing the sound of a motorcycle, sprang out of bed, threw on some riding gear and came rushing out of the house. He looked both confused and excited to see it wasn’t us making the noise, but his father.  Instead of going back to bed, however, Andy brewed a pot of coffee and showed us around the property – an eight acre parcel located about twenty minutes outside of Port Angeles, upon which Andy , his brother and their father have all built cabins.

An hour later we hopped aboard our bikes and headed west. Washington’s Highway 114 runs parallel to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, swinging on and off the coastline as it travels from Port Angeles to Neah Bay. I’ve driven this road countless time while searching for surf, and almost always notice an assortment of two-track spur roads that lead south into the woods. In our van, however, these seem impassable. But on bikes… Well, that’s what we came here for! The first road we turned down went from rough pavement to loose gravel, and lead us through a small neighborhood of houses. No more than five minutes later and we were surrounded by tall pine trees. The gravel road swayed left and right and then headed uphill. Save for Kyra’s small spill courtesy of a rather large rut, our race to the first of many abandoned military bunkers was otherwise accident and event free.

 

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Sitting high atop the Strait of Juan de Fuca, noticeable from only one side, sat the largest of the four bunkers we’d find that day. Parking our bikes on top of it, we climbed down the hillside and came around the back of the bunker to find a huge cement opening littered with graffiti. It was dark inside, but Andy was on it – leading us into the cement shrine with his headlamp. We followed with cell phone flashlights. “This is the biggest one we’ve found so far,” Andy announced. “You could get lost in here.” I snapped a few photos of the different rooms.  Cement mounting structures were scattered across the floor. Perhaps once home to… ? We wandered about for a while and then boarded our bikes, leaving a trail of dust behind us as we disappeared down the dirt road.

 

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The next bunker Andy was kind enough to show us was buried deep in the woods. An otherwise overlooked right turn down a dry and rather deep creek bed filled with large rocks, turned to single-track and slithered through the woods. Andy lead the way, while Kyra, our friend Chris, my father and I followed.  Single track took us to a long water crossing, which we forged quite quickly. Another tight right turn took us through tall overgrown ferns and into a clearing where a massive bunker sat, looming. Covered completely by moss and vegetation, this would be the biggest bunker we’d see all day. Unfortunately, though, it was sealed shut with some kind of ironclad gates installed in the 1950’s (?).  We wandered about, looking for an entrance. Maybe a small opening we could send Kyra through? The only thing we found was an underground generator room that she was able to access via a short ladder. “There’s just a bunch of garbage and some lackluster graffiti,” Kyra noted on her way out. Unlike others we’d see that week, this bunker did not sit directly on the Strait. On the backside, which faced north toward the water, was a huge entrance, presumably where munitions could be unloaded and moved inside. A long since overgrown dirt road wrapped around the bunker, disappearing into the woods. We chatted about the sheer size and security of this particular bunker. “I bet there are multiple levels in this one,” Christopher guessed. “It’s so massive, it was probably used as a distribution point for all the other bunkers out here,” my father added. “I bet there are underground tunnels that lead to all the other bunkers!” Kyra exclaimed.  Our speculations lasted another half-hour. By the time we were ready to leave and look for the next piece of overgrown  American history, the amount of daylight remaining had dwindled considerably. “Perhaps we’ll save the rest for another day?” Andy asked. “There are so many of these things out here, we could spend an entire month looking for them.”  Now that’s what I like to hear! Tip of the iceberg, if you will.

 

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And so with the sun setting at our backs, we headed east toward town, riding the same rock-strewn roads that lead us in. Campfire chat that evening was quiet and thoughtful; each of us filling in the blanks about these bunkers, the men that once occupied them and the amount of time they’d sat unused. It was an adventure, that’s for sure, one that would last a few more days…

 

www.westx1000.com

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First Drive: 2015 Ram Rebelhttp://expeditionportal.com/first-drive-2015-ram-rebel/ http://expeditionportal.com/first-drive-2015-ram-rebel/#comments Tue, 19 May 2015 11:15:52 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28272 When Ram Truck announced that they were working on a “sporty” new 1500 4WD, it prompted a tornado of speculation and debate. The most commonly heard comment, at least from the standpoint of this journalist’s ears, was that Ram had its sights set on the Ford Raptor. Though I didn’t have any doubt that the brand could go head-to-head with the Raptor if they wanted to, I’ve always thought of Ram trucks as heavy-duty, haul-or-tow-anything, run-forever work trucks. What I expected was a platform rooted in solid Ram DNA, but with more pizzazz and backcountry savvy. Last week I traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I got to spend a couple of days in the Rebel. I was not disappointed.

Prior to climbing in the Radar Red Rebel (there are a number of color options), its proud heritage was immediately noticeable. Rather than presenting the traditional crosshair-style grill, the letters R-A-M are emblazoned across a blackout honeycomb lattice. More subtle changes are black-bezel, bifunctional projection headlamps and LED marker lights, which are complemented by Ram’s new LED fog lamps. This Rebel red/blackout theme carries around to the side, through the interior (check out the Toyo tire tread pattern and stitching on the seats), and back to the rear bumper. With backcountry travel in mind, Ram fitted the front with a proper skid plate and legitimate recovery points. Out back, bedrail Ram Boxes utilize normally lost space and provide plenty of room for recovery gear, a Hi-Lift jack, and tools.

 

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Though the base motor will be Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar aluminum-block V6, under the aluminum hood of my Rebel was the optional 5.7-liter HEMI V8. I’m quite familiar with the HEMI and the advantages of its 395 horsepower and 410 lb-ft torque. Though you lose a bit of fuel economy (17/25 mpg vs. 15/22 mpg), the benefits when towing a trailer, merging onto the highway, or powering up a long, loose lava field will plaster a wide grin across your face. The ZF Torqueflite 8HP70 8-speed automatic transmission shifts through the gears like a hot knife through butter—seemingly transparent from the driver’s seat. The exhaust system lets you know it is a HEMI when you get a happy right foot, but doesn’t prompt you to reach for earplugs during normal driving. Another option to note is the availability of 3.92:1 ring and pinion gears (standard is 3.21:1), which adds additional low-end grunt and puts the HEMI in appropriate rpm range in most situations (the 8HP70 features a 4.71:1 first gear and .67:1 overdrive).

As with many new vehicles these days, the transfer case selector is a dial on the dash. While I’ve griped about dials and buttons robbing me of the tactile joys of slipping a lever into the 4H or 4L position, after spending three days in the Rebel, it became quite natural to reach down and just push “the button.” I’ve got to roll with the ages I suppose. The transfer case is an on-demand BW 44-44 with a 2.64:1 low range, which provides a respectable final drive low-range ratio of 48.74:1.

 

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On the Trail

 

Our test area was the Cinder Hills OHV area near Flagstaff, Arizona, a 13,000-acre playground of cinder cones, lava flows, and seemingly endless fields of pumice gravel. The region was in the midst of a one-off spring storm, and by the afternoon we were trekking through several inches of freshly fallen snow. While the Rebel is not a Baja racer, able to absorb 3-foot rollers with ease (trust me, the Raptor can’t do this either), the vehicle’s air suspension (which adds an additional inch of ground clearance), five-link rear axle configuration, and custom tuned Bilstein shocks did an impressive job skipping through the 6- to 8-inch whoops at speed. The rear stabilizer bar is slightly less aggressive, and when combined with the Rebel’s aluminum front A-arms, allows for respectable articulation in technical terrain.

Rather than fitting the vehicle with slicks to appease the EPA and urban mall cruisers, Ram wrapped the Rebel’s sporty new 17-inch aluminum wheels with 33-inch Toyo Open Country all-terrain tires (285/75/R17E). Knowing we were heading for long climbs up lava scree, Ram actually allowed us to air down the tires. It is quite uncommon for an OE to deviate from the maximum recommended tire pressure (I’ve actually never experienced this), and it is nice to know that Ram actually “gets it” with regard to airing down when you head off the pavement. The pressure change wasn’t significant, but allowed the Rebel to walk right up extended steep climbs through loose pumice.

The afternoon found us sloshing through mud, snow, and sleet while en route to the lava tubes below San Francisco Peak, an extinct volcano that rises to a 12,633 elevation. The Rebel took no issue with the weather, and the combination of powertrain, tires, and suspension allowed for an exciting afternoon of snow/mud play.

Ram’s president and CEO Bob Hegbloom said, “Offering an off-road-style package on the Ram 1500 has been on our to-do list for some time.” The Rebel fits a niche that enthusiasts were waiting to have filled, and Ram did a great job on this one. If a Rebel landed in my driveway next week I’d add a rear ARB locker, Four Wheel Camper, and some recovery gear, and be ready for an extended trip south of the border to Baja.

 

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Specifications (click to enlarge)

 

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Overland Expo 2015: Day 3http://expeditionportal.com/overland-expo-2015-day-3/ http://expeditionportal.com/overland-expo-2015-day-3/#comments Mon, 18 May 2015 15:40:01 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28265 The final day of this year’s Overland Expo brought with it the warm temperatures and sunshine most people expected of Northern Arizona. Despite a slightly thinned crowed, vendors and attendees filled the walkways and the driving course again resumed its activities. The better weather gave us a chance to look closer at some of the show’s more interesting offerings.

 

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The demand for adventure bikes of all sizes has seen a number of manufacturers scrambling to develop new platforms. Honda, despite having a legendary history with bikes like the XR650 and Africa Twin, are relatively quiet in the adventure segment. This has left consumers wanting for a reliable Honda and now there is an option to fill that void. Rally Raid Products of the UK has a comprehensive kit which converts a Honda CB500X into a formidable travel platform. Soon to be made available through their US partner, Giant Loop, this bike is sure to gain more attention with those riders looking for smaller displacement options.

http://www.rally-raidproducts.co.uk    http://giantloopmoto.com

 

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The Ram pickup is continually gaining attention with the overland travel audience. Its capability off-road is clearly a primary driver behind this newfound popularity, as is the ability to shoulder a slide-in camper. AEV’s Ram is one of the most attractive full-size trucks we’ve ever seen.

 

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They are rare, but they are still plying the roads and backroads around the world. The Unimog in its various iterations is always an intriguing element to every Overland Expo. This year was no different with a dozen of these behemoths on display.

 

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If there was one noticeable difference to this year’s show it would be the explosive growth in the number of trailer offerings. This once niche corner of overlanding is seeing a number of quality offerings enter the segment. From sleep-in tear drops, to pop-ups and simple cargo haulers, there is now a trailer for every need.

 

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And so another Overland Expo is in the books. For those willing to endure a little rain and mud, the show was a complete success. For those who ducked out early, they missed out on a beautiful day in the sun on the final day. We’ll see you all next year at Overland Expo 2016.

 

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Overland Expo 2015: Day Twohttp://expeditionportal.com/overland-expo-2015-day-two/ http://expeditionportal.com/overland-expo-2015-day-two/#comments Sun, 17 May 2015 14:06:18 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28168 Day two of this year’s event started off under a blanket of fresh snow, but that didn’t stop the crowds from showing up bright and early to take in the many exhibits and classes. While the campground had thinned overnight as some attendees retreated to warmer and dryer accommodations, most held fast and endured the worst of the storm.

 

If there is a noticeable change in this year’s event it would be with the increased number of campers and trailers, a trend we have seen on the rise in the last few years. The ground tent appears to be on the downward slide as more overlanders embrace the creature comforts of hard walls. Sportsmobile’s latest 4WD Sprinter was a popular attraction as was Four Wheel Camper’s 2016 Toyota Tacoma. With one more day to take in the sights, the final day promises to be warmer, something that can’t come anytime too soon.

 

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Phoenix based Turtleback Trailers brought two trailers showcasing their latest innovations. Fully featured and robustly built, these trailers are some of the nicer trail haulers at the show.

 

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The Land Rover driving course is always a popular attraction.

 

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Overland Expo 2015: Day Onehttp://expeditionportal.com/overland-expo-2015-day-one/ http://expeditionportal.com/overland-expo-2015-day-one/#comments Sat, 16 May 2015 14:46:11 +0000 http://expeditionportal.com/?p=28132  

 

For those of us who have never missed an Overland Expo event, we recall years with high winds, hot temperatures, plenty of nice blue sky,  but not one with snow. As the first day of the 2015 show came to a close, fat snowflakes started to accumulate. Overlanders being who they are, took the weather in stride, bundling up and smiling through weather’s worst.

 

Despite the marginal weather, the attendance was better than expected, and today should bring with it much a little sunshine.

 

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