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Northwest Overland Rally: Family Style Exploration

Former Overland International staffer Ray Hyland has been organizing the Rally Series for nine years. Now in the seventh year at Plain, Washington, the Northwest Overland Rally (NWOR), which occurred from June 20-23, is one of the more intimate weekend gatherings for vehicle-based exploration and related equipment. This assembly of overland enthusiasts and gear vendors is set against a stunning alpine backdrop in central Washington State.

It’s less than two hours drive from Seattle, and the local settlements comprise picturesque townships accessed by twisty two-lane tarmac roads, nestled amongst the mountainous setting. The event is very family-oriented, and the venue grounds are easily traversed. It’s clear that the promoter and his team strive to keep the event on-topic. Merchants and exhibitors focus on specialty products intended for overland vehicular exploration (as opposed to off-road racing or rock crawling).

Eight-year-old Tao (father is Owen from MSR) taught a well-attended water purification class for kids. He colored cartoons illustrating bacteria and used absorbent polymer beads with a variety of MSR water purification kits to show how water purification systems operate. Stephanie from Dragon Fly Tarps brought ukuleles and taught children’s classes every afternoon, under the shade of her products. Veteran Overland, founded by two combat vets, ran a series of survival classes for kids that included knots and wilderness shelter building. Canines of every size and breed, tethered to their owners, canvassed the event grounds. At one point, someone’s cat escaped and took shelter above the exhaust of an AT Overland display truck. 

This year, Hyland designated a “Van Village” which had around a dozen vendors with wares geared toward outfitting Sprinter, Ford, and Nissan vans. One evening, the village hosted a German-themed barbeque featuring smoked ribs, bratwurst, and naturally, German beer. Like pretty much all the NWOR food events, attendance was free for anyone who could make the easy stroll from one side of the venue to the other. 

Overland Gourmet held a pre-dinner single malt Scotch whisky tasting. At least, this is how Mario from AT Overland initially pitched it to pique my interest. Not wanting to cover that gathering completely uninformed, I launched a preliminary reconnaissance and discovered that attendees should arrive with a highbrow distillate of choice, and be prepared to “present, taste, and discuss.” This wasn’t mentioned when Scott Brady approved the assignment, and I don’t normally consume those libations, but someone had to cover it. 

I was taught in Scotland that vehicle extrication begins with a “wee dram” of single malt to initiate planning and logistics. Consequently, a bottle of 14-year-old Oban Scotch usually resides in my vehicle recovery bag. Erudite overlanders arrived with boutique tequila and whiskeys, rare small-batch blends, and affordable yet quality variants from retail outlets. I had waded in too deep and attempted a sneak read of the Oban label to glean some facts. Unfortunately, the flowing cursive script was illegible without reading glasses. My Oban discussion was therefore influenced more by gonzo journalism than qualitative adjectives. Other attendees had excellent descriptions, some of them almost poetic, for their preferred selections.

The NWOR overland chef cook-off always draws a crowd. Most teams were dismayed when the secret ingredient was announced: marshmallows. The adjudicators grinned and watched some competitors squirm. In years past, the ingredient comprised a locally grown, seasonal item. I would be put off too, as marshmallows occur year-round in hermetically sealed bags. Teams nevertheless overcame this diversity with ease, and amazing meals were prepared. The celebrity judging panel, comprising various off-highway driving instructors, was certainly hard-pressed to select the ultimate winning team.

Women Overlanding the World had a series of fantastic classes. The Rebelle Rally crew ran the women-only driving clinics and led the trail rides for the NWOR weekend.  On this note, it is important to recognize that all the trail routes were scouted, organized, and guided by women, throughout the entire NWOR venue.

One highlight everyone looks forward to is the nightly prize raffle at the camp bonfire. Hundreds of items collectively totaling well into five figures (possibly more) are given out over the three nights at NWOR. It’s great to see overland aficionados and professionals come together, pull up their favorite camp chairs, and cheer on the raffle. The draw isn’t just for exhibit booth swag; high-end coolers, water cans, vehicle recovery gear, a top-tier winch, and two rooftop tents are just some of the quality items that stood out. Like years past, there are plenty of raffle items for kids too. 

A guest speaker kicked off each night’s campfire raffle (full disclosure here). Prior to the 2019 NWOR, Ray asked if I could give a brief fireside chat about archaeology, mainly focused on anecdotal pick-and-shovel stories. I scribbled a few notes and felt solid. Dusk encroached on opening night, and people gathered near the bonfire with their folding chairs. “Hey Ray, is this for the raffle?” I queried. “No man, it’s for your talk. And hey, could you stretch it to more like 45 minutes?” 

Paul May from Equipt Expedition Outfitters then quipped that about 900 people were present; hardly the quaint fireside chat for which I had prepared. I consequently ditched the lackluster academic angle, which would interest only a few, and instead recounted other events that happened while working in austere locales (challenging latrines, disconcerting stomach issues, unisex bathroom facilities, and innovative ways to pay traffic violations).

Australian Dan Grec, who spent the better part of three years driving his dialed-in Jeep JK Wrangler Rubicon around Africa, kicked off the second evening’s campfire and raffle. His adventure isn’t a month off work to see part of the world. He is, for all intents, still underway with his trusty JK. The rig was also present, with a very unique map on the hood illustrating his route and the countries visited. Like Camel Trophy competitors, he represents next-level overland travel at it’s finest.

Former Army Ranger and founder of Combat Flip Flops, Matthew Griffin, ushered in the final evening session. He spoke about his company and its mission. Assembling former combat veterans, his team of unarmed forces has established product manufacturing in areas of previous and current conflict. Products include footwear, clothing, and jewelry. His company promotes peace through trade and cross-cultural contacts, espouses respect for fellow humans, and advocates doing the right thing, by doing the right thing.

The fine details and the sociable crowd are what I particularly enjoy about the NWOR. Visitors can witness various subspecies within North American overland vehicle evolution, and also appreciate traditional platforms. A keen eye will spot small nuances like original Toyota BJ40 Land Cruiser diesel fuel stickers and FJ40 morale patches. Overall, it’s a great venue for meeting people with like interests. Camp grub is everywhere, and if you cook within eyesight, new friends will surely surround you within minutes. Being a family-oriented rally, the venue includes designated quiet areas for those who need to sack out early, and general lights-out and whisper mode across the camp is at 10:00 p.m.  

(Drone aerial image taken by, and with permission from, Bob Wohlers for NWOR)

Resources to get your overland rally on:

NW Overland Rally (Plain, WA): nwoverlandrally.com

BC Overland Rally (Whistler, British Columbia): bcoverlandrally.com

Rocky Mountain Overland Rally (Gunnison, CO): rockymountainoverlandrally.com

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For Bryon, overland travel is often vocational necessity rather than a purely adventurous pursuit. To accomplish field research for a PhD in archaeology, he frequently rode a gear-laden BMW R100GS/PD roundtrip from Scotland to Croatia. He then worked as a contract archaeologist, taught field survey and excavation, and collaborated with the Department of Pre-and Protohistory, University of Zürich, before starting a consulting company. Work has led him to the Middle East, South Pacific, Americas, Africa, and Europe. Bryon is a photographer, scuba instructor, pilot, wilderness EMT, and certified public safety off-pavement vehicle operations instructor. He also conducts specialized safety courses for workforce members deployed to adverse locations, is on a search and rescue team, and serves in a law enforcement diving unit.