Decisions . . .


It was getting late in the afternoon of what had been a long day driving down the west coast of Tasmania. We were exhilarated but looking forward to camp, sundowners, and dinner. 

We had two choices. Our map showed a developed campground near Zeehan, just a few minutes away. We’d found these surprisingly nice in Tasmania, with decently spaced sites and good facilities—not bad for a transit stay as we needed. We could be set up and relaxing with plenty of daylight left.

However, the map also showed an intriguing spot on the coast called Trial Harbor, about 25 kilometers down a winding road. But it would add at least an hour to the day, and while our map indicated there was camping available, it gave no further information. We’d have to chance that there would be a spot left. 

How often have many of us faced similar dilemmas? It was a close call, but the coast beckoned, so we turned off the C249 and headed west. The road was convoluted but, at first, surfaced, and it immediately dived into a verdant eucalyptus forest. There was a heart-stopping moment when an echidna ambled out in front of us and the Troopy’s brakes—all disc but still less than superb—barely spared the spiny little thing as it did a slow U-turn and waddled back into the undergrowth. Then we broke out into open hills fringed with massive forests blanketing the slopes. The surface turned to gravel, and with zero opposing traffic we wound our way into shaded ravines and out and up again under fast-moving clouds. 

The detour had already proven its worth, but then we turned a corner, topped a rise, and beheld the Southern Ocean stretched in front of us, surprisingly only 50 meters below. Whitecaps hyphened the sea into distant windblown salt mist—sail west from here and your next landfall would be Tierra del Fuego; head south and only icebergs would prevent you running into Antarctica.

A sparse scattering of red and green prefab houses clustered behind the breakers—we later learned that Trial Harbor boasts 19 permanent residents. But camping? A hand-lettered sign pointed right. We followed it down a muddy single-track through the brush, spray from waves nearly misting the windscreen. And then there were openings, and a few campers: a Troopy with a pop-top remarkably similar to ours, a Mitsubishi Delica van—and a miraculous open space at the very end of the track, out of sight of anyone. The ocean crashed on to a rocky beach one wrong sleepy step below, and—more miracles—a gin-clear brook tumbled out of the hills just over a rise behind us. Incredulous, we raised the Troopy’s roof, staked out the Eezi-Awn Bat awning, and went looking for where to pay. There was nowhere to pay, just a clean outhouse reached via a charming wooden bridge, and another hand-lettered sign directing us to the “Ringing Rock”—an F350-sized boulder on the beach, decorated with ancient circular Aboriginal carvings, and which, when tapped with a small rock, rang like a metallic gong. (We found out later these are called lithophones, and are know from anthropological sites around the world.)

Back at the Troopy, we had a visit from fellow campers, a hilarious couple of gay Australian men in their 60s, who joked about whose turn it was to play “wife” and wash dishes or fetch water. I broke out the rum and mixed Dark’n’Stormies—appropriate given the setting—Roseann grilled the lamb we’d kept frozen from the superb Springbok’s Delight butcher shop in Sydney, and I played “wife” and washed up before we gazed up one last time at the Southern Cross winking in and out of view behind the clouds. The crashing surf became white noise as we drifted off to sleep.

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Before we left next morning, we visited the town’s museum, run by resident Shirley Smith. It was a one-room marvel crammed with photos, memorabilia, and history from Trial Harbor’s early and recent days, along with the occasional curiosity such as the giant sunfish eyeball floating in a jar of formaldehyde. Cost? No cost, just a donation box. We left a lot, then turned the Land Cruiser back up the winding road, taking one last look as the colored houses of Trial Harbor faded into the ocean mist.

The moral of the story? I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now.

Take the road.

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Open diffs, lockers, and traction control

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Many years ago I was exploring a trail in the mountains east of Tucson, Arizona, in my FJ40, and came upon a couple in a shiny new 4x4 Toyota pickup. They had managed to high-center the transmission skid plate on a rock ledge, so that the right front and left rear tires of the truck hung just an inch or two in the air and spun uselessly when the fellow applied throttle. The couple, new to backcountry driving, was bewildered that their “four-wheel-drive” vehicle had been rendered completely immobile by such a minor obstacle, and were convinced something was wrong with the truck. I picked up a fist-sized rock from the side of the trail and kicked it solidly under the hanging rear tire. “Try it now,” I said—and the Toyota bumped free. They were astonished and even more bewildered—until I explained how a differential works.

When any four-wheeled vehicle makes a turn, each wheel needs to rotate at a different speed because it travels a different line than the others, and thus a different distance. If, for example, the two rear wheels were locked together with a solid axle, the tires would scrub horribly every time the vehicle turned, and handling would be affected dangerously. Thus we divide that axle in two and connect them with a differential—a system of gears that transfers power from the driveshaft to the wheels while allowing them to rotate at different speeds in a turn. In a four-wheel-drive vehicle we add another driveshaft and differential at the front, so those wheels can be driven as well.

But an open differential, as this is known, has a major inherent flaw, especially for those of us who own 4x4s: If one tire loses traction, the differential gears, in effect, route all power to that side of the axle. Thus if you stop with one wheel on a solid surface and the other in mud—or hanging in the air—the tire with grip will remain stubbornly motionless while the other just spins. (Technically both wheels are receiving the same amount of torque, but the amount required to spin the low-traction tire is not enough to move the vehicle with the other tire.) So my friends in the Toyota pickup found themselves in a situation in which the power being delivered to the front axle was expended on the tire that was off the ground, while the same thing happened in the rear. Once I stuffed that insignificant rock under the hanging rear tire, the full torque of the engine was available and the truck pulled itself free.

Ironically, the drawbacks of open differentials became more apparent with the advent of so-called full-time four-wheel-drive vehicles such as Land Rover’s Defender. In a part-time 4x4, the front and rear driveshafts are locked together at the transfer case when four wheel drive is engaged, so power is always equally distributed to both axles and therefore to at least one wheel in front and one in back—but you cannot drive on pavement with four-wheel drive engaged or the tires will scrub and the gears will bind. The Defender (along with other vehicles such as the Mercedes Benz G-Wagen) allows engine power to be directed to both ends of the vehicle, regardless of the surface, by employing a third differential in the transfer case to allow the front and rear driveshafts to turn at different speeds on pavement and prevent binding. To ensure equal power to both ends of the vehicle on trails, the center differential can be locked manually. But if that lock fails—as happened to me in a Defender 110 on a remote route up the west wall of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley—you are left with a one-wheel-drive vehicle. When my front axle unloaded on the steep grade, all power went to that axle through the open transfer-case diff, and as soon as one front wheel unloaded I was completely immobilized with a single tire spinning fruitlessly—on a scary 40-percent grade with a steep dropoff. (I was towed the rest of the way up the escarpment when, improbably, a battered Land Cruiser appeared driven by none other than Philip Leakey . . .)

Over the decades, various attempts have been made to allow the differential to function properly in turns while maintaining full traction when needed. Way back in 1932 the engineering firm ZF, at the request of Ferdinand Porsche, invented a “limited-slip” differential to prevent the high-powered Auto Union Grand Prix cars Porsche had designed from spinning their inside tires when exiting turns. In the succeeding decades, many American manufacturers installed limited-slip differentials in their trucks to help enhance traction on slippery surfaces, and several types were developed. Some used clutch packs to transfer power, others (Torsen, Quaife) used gears, and some—especially those designed to be installed in transfer cases—used hydraulic fluid. 

But limited-slip diffs are just what their name implies—they cannot completely prevent loss of traction in challenging conditions. The best way to ensure full traction when it’s needed is to lock both halves of the axle together, thus ensuring ideal power delivery even if one wheel is off the ground. But once you do that you’re right back to our initial problem with tire scrub and gear windup. The trick, then is to have the differential lock only in conditions where it would be beneficial—or to have it locked all the time except when turning. This can be accomplished either automatically or manually.

In 1941 a fellow named Ray Thornton patented an automatic locking differential he called the  Thornton NoSPIN Differential. It was manufactured by the Detroit Automotive Product Corporation and installed in many WWII military vehicles. The NoSPIN employed a series of clutch packs and a spring-loaded cam gear, which kept the axles locked together unless the vehicle was turning a corner, when the cam disengaged the clutch packs from the spider gears and allowed the wheels to rotate at different speeds. In the 1960s American truck manufacturers began installing the NoSPIN in light-duty trucks as an option—and it gained its nickname, the Detroit Locker. While extremely effective, the Detroit Locker suffered from noisy operation on pavement as the gears engaged and disengaged, and handling that could sometimes be jerky as power transferred between one and two wheels. (Later models have attenuated these characteristics somewhat, but the transition is still noticeable to the driver.) A similar product made by the Eaton Corporation was introduced on 1973 General Motors light trucks, and Eaton subsequently bought the parent company of the Detroit Locker. 

The mechanism of the Detroit Locker and its relatives replaces a large part of the differential, requires precision resetting of pinion backlash, and is thus expensive and time-consuming to install as an aftermarket option. Not so with so-called “lunchbox” lockers such as the clever Lock-Right, which replace only the spider gears and can be installed in an afternoon by a competent home mechanic. The Lock-Right and its kin keep both axles locked together until the vehicle turns, at which point the internal drive plates ratchet past each other and allow the outside wheel to turn faster than the inside wheel. On the trail, full power is available to both wheels, even if one is airborne.

The Aussie Locker is typical of so-called "lunchbox lockers."

The Aussie Locker is typical of so-called "lunchbox lockers."

Opinions differ on the “lunchbox” nickname—some claim it’s because the unit will fit in a lunchbox, others because you can install one in the time it takes to eat a sandwich and chips (somewhat optimistic). Regardless, this type of locker is the most affordable and easy way to gain true diff-locking capability for your 4x4. However (there’s always a however), the Lock-Right-type lockers are restricted in strength depending on what the carrier is designed for, and are generally not recommended for tires over 33 inches in diameter. They can also be noisy on the street, as the ratcheting becomes noticeable around corners. And I would strongly dis-recommend them for installation in the front axle, as steering will be significantly affected (and, as with the Detroit Locker, they should never be installed in a front axle that does not have free-wheeling hubs).

Automatic lockers have their fans, but arguably the best locking differential is one the driver can control. The Australian company ARB popularized the air-activated locking differential after buying the rights to the Roberts Diff-Lock in 1987—and it transformed the capability of the Land Cruisers and Land Rovers in which it was first deployed. For most driving, a differential with an ARB unit installed acts as a normal open differential—no noise, no steering effects or increased tire wear. But when traction is lost—or, significantly, when the driver observes a spot ahead of the vehicle where traction might be lost—the locker can be engaged and the obstacle traversed smoothly and easily. Once back on a solid substrate the diff can be unlocked and returned to normal function. A small compressor (which can double for filling tires) activates the locker by pushing a sliding pin in the differential. The ARB locker is now available for a huge range of vehicles, and while its installation is as complex as that of the Detroit Locker (with the wince-inducing addition of needing to drill and tap a hole in the differential housing for the air line), its reliability and astounding capability has been proven over millions of miles.

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It took a few years, but vehicle manufacturers caught on to the benefits and capabilities of selectable diff locks. Toyota introduced an electrically operated rear differential lock in its TRD package for the Tacoma, and optional front and rear diff locks in the 70 and 80-series Land Cruisers. The Mercedes G-Wagen has front and rear locks, as does the Rubicon version of Jeep’s Wrangler, and the Ram Power Wagon, among other vehicles. Until you’ve climbed a 45-degree slope in a vehicle with both diffs locked—and, thus, true four-wheel drive—it’s difficult to imagine the gravity-defying traction available. Even experienced passengers gasp and scrabble for handholds as high-noon sun floods through the windshield. (Showoffs are advised to keep in mind that with the front diff locked steering is very difficult; it should only be employed when absolutely necessary and for as short a distance as possible.)

To explore the next step in making four-wheel-drive vehicles truly four wheel drive we need to do a 180-degree turn and look at . . . brakes: specifically anti-lock braking systems. 

While ABS has been around in one form or another since 1929, when a primitive mechanical system was developed for aircraft, it was Mercedes Benz that introduced the first fully electronic, multi-channel four-wheel anti-lock braking system as an option in 1978. ABS relies on a deceptively simple system of sensors at each wheel, individual hydraulic pumps for the calipers, and a computer control. The sensors do nothing more than count the number of rotations per unit of time for each wheel. When one or more of the sensors detects a wheel turning slower than the others during braking—as when a tires locks and stops rotating altogether, increasing braking distance and hampering steering control—the computer reduces braking force to that wheel, pulsing the pressure many times a second to maintain static friction between tire and surface. Soon this system was exploited to provide electronic stability control (ESC), to help road cars maintain traction in slippery conditions.

And then—lucky for us—a light went on in an engineer’s head that this system could also be used to enhance traction in four-wheel-drive vehicles. It’s accomplished by exploiting the characteristics of the open differential.

Recall the offside wheels on that poor Toyota pickup spinning helplessly in the air. With an electronic traction-control (ETC) system, those versatile ABS sensors send that information to the computer, which applies braking force to the spinning tire or tires. The open differential is “tricked” into increasing torque to the tires on the ground, and the vehicle pulls itself free. Land Rover debuted ETC on its 1993 Range Rover, and off-road driving has never been the same. Advances in programming and technology have since brought us to the point that some vehicles can maintain forward progress with traction to only one wheel.

That would be miraculous on its own, but engineers weren’t finished yet. One of the most challenging conditions facing a driver on trails is a steep descent. In an older vehicle such as my FJ40, if you stomped on the brakes in a panic on a steep downhill section, the unloaded rear brakes would lock and the vehicle would instantly try to swap ends. Descending such slopes meant using first-gear-low-range engine braking and careful cadence foot-braking to make it down safely. In a vehicle with automatic transmission (and thus little engine braking) the situation was even dicier. Enter hill-descent control: Punch a button, point the vehicle downhill, and steer. The ABS and computer can selectively brake individual tires if necessary to maintain a steady walking pace and prevent lockup on truly hair-raising slopes. No driver, no matter how skilled, can equal that.

I remember my initial experience in a vehicle equipped with ETC and hill-descent control. At first the chattering, juddering progress up and down steep ridges was alarming—it sounded like something was seriously wrong. But I soon got used to it and realized how effortlessly I was conquering obstacles that had required all my attention in the FJ40. 

Is electronic traction control, then, superior to manually lockable differentials? The definitive answer is: It depends. Remember that a skilled driver using manual diff locks can anticipate the need for extra traction and respond in advance, thus frequently avoiding drama of any kind. By comparison, a traction-control system must detect a difference in wheel speed before it reacts, and the computer must decide if action is required or if the driver is simply turning. In some vehicles I’ve driven a considerable amount of throttle—and trail-damaging wheelspin—is necessary before the system kicks in. Increasingly, however, manufacturers are incorporating driver-selectable, terrain-specific algorithms that quicken response when the vehicle is in low range, for example. These algorithms can also modify throttle response and shifting to suit conditions. Land Rover was a pioneer in this technology with their Terrain Response dial. Some vehicles, such as Jeep’s Wrangler Rubicon, incorporate both ETC and manual diff locks—the very best of both worlds.

The Nissan Titan XD's traction control will pull it through situations such as this, but not without some wheel spin.

The Nissan Titan XD's traction control will pull it through situations such as this, but not without some wheel spin.

One could argue that these computer-controlled tricks reduce the skill formerly required of the driver. Indubitably true to an extent—surely I feel I paid my dues with my leaf-sprung, open-diffed 1973 Land Cruiser over the years. Yet in the sybaritic, climate-controlled cockpit of a Land Rover LR4 or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon I can traverse terrain that would have the FJ40 struggling. If technology makes it easier for new enthusiasts to get out and explore the backcountry, I’m all for it—even if I don’t get to show off as often getting them unstuck with a fist-sized rock. 

Headlamp restoration

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I hate plastic headlamps.

Mind you, I’m delighted with the output and beam pattern of most modern headlamp* assemblies, which are as far ahead of sealed-beam technology as sealed beams were ahead of acetylene. But plastic is plastic, and while you might argue that polymer headlamp lenses are more resistant to stone chips than glass lenses, they eventually will discolor, renedering them semi-opaque and compromising their otherwise excellent performance—and also making them look like crap.

Our 2002 Tacoma Prerunner’s lamps were already well into the jaundiced phase when we took it over from my brother, and I recently decided to do something about it. So I went to the Griot’s Garage site.

I remember the early days of Griot’s, when most of their offerings were exotic and superb tools not available at Sears. My first exposure to Facom and USAG tools were through Griot’s. However, as time went on, Richard Griot (pronounced gree-oh) obviously discovered that the real money was in boutique car-care products such as cleaners, waxes, polishers, clay bars, and a myriad of accessories down to the level of oversize Q-tips for cleaning those pesky crevices in your alloy wheels. Only a few token mechanic’s tools remain among the latest offerings, but you can choose from among no fewer than five power buffers.

Still, any product I’ve bought from Griot’s has been first rate, so I ordered their headlamp restoration kit and set out one afternoon to see how it worked.

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And it did, excellently. The entire process—masking the surrpunding trim, wet-sanding the headlamp lenses until the slurry turned from yellow to white, drying them off and prepping with an alcohol pad, and spraying on the new coating—took less than 30 minutes, and it was satisfying to watch the lenses, alarmingly cloudy-white from the wet sanding, turn sparklingly clear under the coating (said to be good for 24 months).

Was it worth $29.95? In terms of sheer results and ease of application, sure. Yet I found myself bemused by the contents of the box, which totalled:

One two-sided sanding pad, helpfully labelled “driver side” and “passenger side”

A couple of lint-free paper towels

Three alcohol prep pads

One 1.5-ounce spray can of the magic coating, good for exactly one set of headlamps

Coating aside, it would be stretching it to claim there was a dollar’s worth of material in the box. That leaves twenty nine bucks for an ounce and a half of coating. It works, but I suspect Griot’s is printing money on this kit.

*As an aside, technically the correct term for the device that lights the road in front of your vehicle is headlamp, not headlight. 

Griot's Garage is here.

Winch access . . . please? Pretty please?


An open note to all manufacturers of winch bumpers:

PLEASE stop making your bumpers without manual or even visual access to the drum!

Once again, cruising the vendor area at the Overland Expo, I was struck with the extremely high quality of the various winch bumpers displayed, and once again I was disappointed that so many of them seemed to have been made with a mandate to hide as much as possible of the winch, especially the drum and its layers of line. On many, the only indication there was a winch back there was a hawse fairlead and thimble.


I’m not hiding brands here, because it’s a universal trend. The current ARB bumper on our Tacoma has terrible access to the winch—and anyone who’s read any of my posts, articles, or books knows how much I respect ARB’s products. 

To repeat what I’ve repeated before (and it's not like I'm some lone prophet here): It is critical for effective and safe winch operation to have visual access to the drum as line is spooled on to it, and it is nearly as critical to be able to manipulate the line on the drum to correct issues. Even, tight wraps and layers of line ensure smooth payout and retrieval, and during off-angle pulls you need to be able to ascertain instantly if line is bunching up on one side of the drum.

The Warn 8274 on my FJ40 sits right out where you can see everything. On newer vehicles, providing this much access is challenging.

The Warn 8274 on my FJ40 sits right out where you can see everything. On newer vehicles, providing this much access is challenging.

If some urge to put style over practicality coerces you to hide the winch, at least provide—as some I’ve seen do on top—a removable access port just in case someone at some point wants to, you know, actually pull something with the winch.

Thank you.


Many overlanders would scoff at this "rock-crawling" bumper on a Wrangler—but access to the winch is excellent. (However, as long as we're here, I don't like the shallow radius on that hawse fairlead.)

Many overlanders would scoff at this "rock-crawling" bumper on a Wrangler—but access to the winch is excellent. (However, as long as we're here, I don't like the shallow radius on that hawse fairlead.)

Broken bits . . .

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The ugly stub of metal you see above is the end of a Jeep Wrangler axle—actually the end of a custom-manufactured, aftermarket chrome-moly Jeep Wrangler axle. It met its fate at the Overland Expo—not on a driving course, or one of the rocky, off-camber obstacles in the Camel Trophy Skills Area, but while the owner attempted to simply drive up on one of the sets of rollers we use to demonstrate the effects of differential action, lockers, and traction control. Normally getting a wheel up on one of these rollers is little more difficult than climbing a curb if your vehicle has either traction control or a diff lock.

So what happened? I’m told the owner hadn’t done anything wrong—his speed was correct and he hadn’t applied any overenthusiastic bursts of throttle. But the sound of the axle self-destructing was clearly audible to bystanders and the instructors.

The most likely explanation is that the axle splines had been partially sheared by previous, more difficult excursions, and were primed to fail at the slightest stress. Another possibility is that the axle was improperly heat-treated and was actually too stiff—an axle shaft with a bit of torsional flexibility can sometimes absorb shocks that a harder axle cannot. Either way, it brings up some points to consider.

I loaned the owner of the Jeep a couple tools he didn't have, and in doing so got a very brief look at the way it was set up. It was clearly modified toward what I’ll call the rock-crawling end of the 4x4 spectrum—a lift higher than two or three inches, and tires that looked to be at least 37 inches or so in diameter (I did not get their exact size). While such modifications are useful for Class 5 trails, in areas where outside assistance is nearby or the vehicle is in a convoy, they are contraindicated for an overland vehicle, where reliability is the number one priority and one might be traveling solo and a long way from help if a breakdown occurrs that one cannot repair on-site with on-hand spares.

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Installing larger wheels and tires probably puts more additional stress on a vehicle than any other modification. To gain ground clearance, ledge-climbing ability, and—perhaps—extra traction, you are adding significant rotational mass and inertia, which has measurable deleterious effects on acceleration and braking, and puts extra stress on the suspension, wheel bearings, steering components, and . . . axle shafts. Our Wrangler owner had conscientiously upgraded those axles, but clearly a combination of things, including but perhaps not limited to the larger wheels and tires, had nevertheless overstressed them. 

Another modification often done at considerable expense after buying larger-diameter tires—installing lower-ratio (i.e. higher numerical) differential gears to compensate for the increased rolling circumference—can drastically reduce the strength of the differential, since the only way to get a lower ratio is to decrease the size of the pinion gear. This not only weakens it, but can reduce the number of gear teeth in constant contact with each other. The sole alternative is to completely replace the axle with a larger unit.

Notice how much smaller the low-ratio pinion gear on the left is.

Notice how much smaller the low-ratio pinion gear on the left is.

These issues are why experienced long-distance overlanders strongly advise sticking as closely as possible to stock tire and wheel sizes. Going up an inch or so in diameter is unlikely to cause any trouble, but jumping up five or six or more is very likely to do so.

Our Jeep owner accepted the mishap with remarkable aplomb. He rolled the vehicle into an unpopulated corner of the training area, removed the axle, and cut off all but the outer stub with a borrowed angle grinder. This allowed him to reinstall it securely enough so the Jeep could be rolled on to a tow truck. 

Tough equipment for tough jobs

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I’ve been a fan of Pelican/Storm cases for decades. My first one—back when they only came in grey—carried my camera equipment on the decks of my sea kayaks for years, exposed to frequent splashing and the odd full slam from a wave. A later, larger case with a LowePro insert did photographic duty in Africa, including one trip when a careless fellow journalist knocked it (fortunately closed) out of the back of a moving Land Rover, while I gasped and then watched it tumble until it came to rest in a large pile of elephant dung. Contents secure.

Pelican cases have their downsides: They’re heavy for their volume, and not cheap. But when you absolutely must trust that your equipment will survive in working order, nothing surpasses the peace of mind afforded when you snap those latches closed.

Consider this one. Wally Stoss of P3 Solar showed it to me the other day when I was picking up one of his Dynamo AC600 power packs, which we use along with a 200-watt PV panel to power the headquarters at the Overland Expo. Wally builds similar, DC-only units for BLM fire crews, so they can charge batteries and radios in the field. Recently a crew manager called and asked if he could drop off a Pelican Storm case, because, “The charge controller and battery came loose inside.” Further questioning revealed that the unit in question had been parachuted to a ground crew—except the parachute had failed to open.

The case was still in perfect working order, as was Wally’s charging system. A credit to Pelican and P3 Solar’s products.


Quality camping gear: when (and when not) to economize

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A recent Facebook dialogue regarding the post “OCTK Lite part 2,” and its comparison of quality in outwardly similar tools, reminded me of a column I published in OutdoorX4 some time ago regarding equipment quality in general. I thought it was worth revisiting. Herewith:

I’ve been reviewing outdoor equipment for 30 years now, and using it for a lot longer, in conditions ranging from 115ºF Sonoran Desert summers to Beaufort Sea storms. In a few situations I’ve felt the sharp realization that my life was quite possibly hanging on the quality of my equipment—lost in a winter storm skiing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, caught seven miles offshore in a sea kayak in a Sea of Cortez chubasco—but in the overwhelming majority of circumstances it’s only been comfort, or the lack thereof, that has been affected by the gear I was using.

Nevertheless, in that time I’ve become convinced of the near-universal truth of this axiom: The best gear is also the least expensive in the long run. Spend more in the beginning on a quality piece of gear, and it will not only perform better, enhancing your comfort (and potentially your safety), it will also last longer, justifying its price over and over. Just one example is the Marmot Gore-Tex Grouse goose-down sleeping bag I bought in 1983. Scandalously expensive at the time on a penurious college-student budget, it has since seen untold nights of use, and has lost, as best I can estimate, perhaps a half inch of loft. I could go on with many other examples.

Okay, as I’ve been adminished many times, that’s fine in theory. But what if one simply does not have, say, $500 to spend on a sleeping bag, and $200 on a stove, and $50 on a double-wall titanium coffee cup? Am I suggesting that person stay home and leave travel to those who can afford bespoke equipment?

Not at all. My overriding goal in being in this business is to encourage people to get out exploring. One can only truly appreciate something if it is experienced in person, and if we are to preserve the most beautiful parts of our country and the world, we need people there seeing those parts and developing a bond of stewardship. And traveling and experiencing other cultures is the best way to stave off the xenophobia and isolationism that seems to be gripping our country these days.

Thus when I offer equipment advice to those just starting out, or looking at replacing worn out gear, and who are on a budget, I emphasize a strategy of priority. There are areas where economizing can be done without much compromise in comfort (or safety), and others where compromising would be foolish. Here are my ideas of where you should and shouldn’t economize. 

Tent: This is the big one. While traveling and camping your tent is your home—your last line of defense against rain, snow, wind, and bugs. You can survive with a cheap sleeping bag, but if your $39.95 dome tent leaks in a shower, or collapses in a breeze, the best sleeping bag in the world won’t keep you comfortable—or safe. Whether you’re after a lightweight backpacking tent for motorcycle or bicycle travel, or a room-sized, stand-up model to carry in a vehicle, buy the best tent you can afford, and care for it well. (For an in-depth look at how to choose a good lightweight tent, see here.)

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

These are not good tents.

These are not good tents.

Sleeping bag: I own an exquisite, U.S.-made Western Mountaineering Sycamore MF sleeping bag stuffed with superb 850-plus fill-power goose down. It’s spacious, has a waterproof shell, is rated to 25ºF, and weighs barely two pounds. It cost $460, and I fully expect it to last the rest of my life. Yet, quite frankly, the $55 synthetic-fill Blue Jay bag from Wenzel, rated to the same temperature, would be just as warm, and cozier given the flannel lining. No, it won’t last as long, and it weighs over five pounds, which would be an issue if you’re motorcycling or pedaling, but for tossing in the back of the Tacoma, it’ll work just fine.

Sleeping pad: Yes, that $130 Thermarest LuxuryMap inflatable mattress is a dream to sleep on. But for about $70 you can buy a queen-size three-inch-think memory foam pad on eBay and cut two 30-inch wide sleeping pads from it.

Stove: Connoisseurs of outdoor cooking swear by the dual-burner Partner Steel stoves, made to survive professional river guide abuse and stout enough to be employed secondarily as a tire ramp for working under your vehicle. But in my FJ40 I keep a single-burner Stansport propane stove that cost me $12.50 ten years ago and is still going strong.

Camp chair: No matter how active you are, you’ll spend a lot of time in camp sitting. Do yourself a favor and skip the $20 specials with 30 plastic joints on them. I’ve lost count of the broken ones I’ve encountered—cleaning up after each Overland Expo we always find a half-dozen of them in dumpsters, a criminal waste of the planet’s resources. Look at the brilliant (and handsome), made in the U.S. Kermit Chair, which can be carried on a motorcycle or transformed into a full-size chair, the fine GCI Pico, or the bulkier but sturdy Picnic Time Sport Chair with its built-in cocktail table.

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Coffee mug: Motorcycling or bicycling? Go for that Snow Peak titanium model. Driving a truck? If you spent more than $10 you’re just showing off.

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45