Rubber boots. Why, oh why, didn’t I bring my rubber boots? The thought circled through my head, over and over as I sat in our tent watching my feet steaming in the glow of a propane lantern. The little lantern didn’t exactly pump out the heat, but it took the edge off as the temperature hovered around freezing at Mormon Lake Lodge near Flagstaff, Arizona.
This is not what I had expected. We’d planned our trip to Overland Expo 2015 since January, and I expected it to be the perfect spring getaway from the cool, wet and unpredictable weather that comes with spring at home in Calgary, Alberta. Instead, we hit the first rain and snowstorm to visit Mormon Lake on that particular weekend in decades (or so we’re told). The unexpected weather turned the field where hundreds of overlanding enthusiasts were camping for the weekend into a soggy, muddy mess. It made every morning a battle of wills as I built up the courage to sink my feet into my soaked hiking shoes that were caked in mud, and now freezing after spending the night banished from our tent in a plastic bag. There were plenty of moments as I slogged to the Porta Johns (which seemed to have just as much mud inside as out) that this wasn’t worth it.
Aside from the conditions, however, we got exactly what we came for: An education. While the weather is completely out of their control, the organizers of Overland Expo really do put on a fantastic event if you’re looking to learn.
We were fortunate enough to get our time reserved on the Land Rover driving course for first thing Friday morning, before they had to shut it down later that afternoon due to unsafe conditions. A brand new G Wagon sliding into a fence seems to put a damper on things. I had former Camel Trophy racer Tom Collins riding shotgun in the JK as I navigated the course and he opened my eyes to the value of using the six-speed’s higher gears in 4-Low for more effective climbs and effortless crawls. One trip around the course with Tom, and I immediately noticed a smoother ride and a lot less wheel spin. The course also called my limited slip rear differential (or anti-spin rear axle, as Jeep likes to call it) into action on a regular basis and I was really pleased with how it kicked in with little to no hesitation to pull me through the muck.
With our additional offroad driving confidence, we headed to our class on marshalling with the ever-energetic Jim West, another former Camel Trophy driver and an excellent teacher. I have to give credit to Land Rover for putting together a great team of instructors. They really were the highlight of the weekend. Jim walked Kevin and I through the finer points of using hand signals to spot each other through difficult terrain. While the marshalling course was intended to be a fairly simple place to practice, the rain turned it into much more of a challenge, with many duos getting stuck. I’m pretty sure a few friendships and marriages were put in jeopardy that afternoon. After observing others trying to navigate the course in the pouring rain, we really saw the importance of using big, clear and assertive hand signals. Our runs went fairly smoothly, although apparently I’m a tad eager on the throttle and don’t react to the “stop” hand signal as quickly as some would like… I also tend to walk backwards while directing traffic. Another big no-no because one tends to end up on one’s ass.
On the second soggy day we learned the finer points of backcountry tire repair (again courtesy of Tom Collins). After that tutorial, a set of tire pliers and quality patch kit went to the top of our must-have list. Nothing like hearing stories of stuffing sleeping bags into tires and limping out of the bush to make you want to perfect the art of tire repair, and make sure you have the right equipment. For the record, it’s also the first time I’ve seen someone take an electric drill to an inflated tire. Highly entertaining.
I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about winching, until I spent two hours with the Land Rover teaching team. Collectively I’m sure they’ve winched for the same mileage my Wrangler has driven. “Recovery With a Winch” is, in my opinion, a must-take session for newbies like us. From the physics of how to get the most out of your winch, to ensuring the equipment isn’t damaged, to (most importantly) not killing yourself while getting out, this course really opened our eyes to how much we really need to practice proper winching techniques before we really need it. Thanks to the great teachers at Overland Expo, we’re off on the right foot.
All these lessons culminated with the Terrain Management course in “The Pit” where we were taught to read difficult terrain and spot other vehicles through. Unfortunately two thirds of The Pit had to be closed due to the recent monsoon, but the remaining area was good practice. It didn’t take long to realize that the short sessions of instruction from the pros had Kevin and I communicating well, and plenty of trust built up that he would place my wheels in the right spot, if I followed his signals. Two smooth runs through The Pit confirmed it. Other than Kevin purposely dropping my Wrangler into a rut because he thought “It would be entertaining for the people watching.” Fortunately I crawled out with no problems. Hopefully the photo opp was worth it.
Not every session was a gem, however. Since we are planning a trip to Alaska next year, we were looking forward to the panel discussion on overlanding in Canada and Alaska. But it was sadly hijacked by a contingent of the audience whose main concern seemed to be that bear attacks were inevitable and their only interest in Canada was if they could get their gun through to Alaska (I’m assuming to fend off the hoards of bears… at least I hope that’s why). Having lived on the doorstep to the Rockies my whole life, I can tell you, if your main concern about travelling to Canada and Alaska is bear attacks and whether or not you can shoot them, your priorities are completely out of whack. Perhaps you should consider Disneyland for your next trip… I hear the Pirates of the Caribbean are terrifying. On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to see a bear of any kind during your trip, be sure to shoot it… With a telephoto lens and a high shutter speed. You don’t want to miss a moment. It’s a rare and magnificent sight. In addition, if you’re planning a trip to Alaska and are simply viewing Canada as an obstacle to get through as quickly as possible, then again, you need to check your priorities. If the journey is the goal of overlanding, then be sure to enjoy the journey through some of the most stunning wilderness you will ever see in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon.
The second disappointing session (for us) was Route Planning. For anyone that has never used Google Maps or a spreadsheet, this class would have been a revelation. I’m willing to bet, however, that most people sitting in the class used the exact same process to plan their way to the Expo in the first place. We were hoping for some first-hand knowledge of getting off the beaten path, finding out-of-the-way trails, evaluating their safety, determining what equipment would be needed, sourcing local knowledge, etc… but maybe we read too much into the class title and description. It did however provide my compatriot with some much-needed sleep, and his head bobbing thoroughly entertained me for the class’s duration.
Finally, the Expo attracts a wide range of vendors from nearly every major brand you can think of, and a lot we’d never heard of but were happy to find. Again, the atmosphere throughout the vendor area is one of education, not high-pressure sales. We learned a lot and were able to evaluate products hands on, instead of staring at a screen and reading dubious reviews. It helped immensely. Some of our choices in upgrades were confirmed, and for others we found better options. Stay tuned for the latter in our gear reviews as the bank account allows. For the most part, our wallets remained in our pockets, but they found company with plenty of cards and info packets that we will be contacting shortly.
The Nooblanders’ first round at Overland Expo may not have been what we expected, but we definitely had a sense of pride in sticking it out in the mud and cold for three days. Lessons were learned… cold, wet, muddy lessons. But that’s the point of this. Right?