Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide: fourth edition?

I remember waiting in line to pay for my first copy of Tom Sheppard’s Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide, at the decidedly upscale Land Rover dealership in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was 1998, the first, hardbound edition of the book had recently been released, and I’d driven 120 miles with the express purpose of securing a copy. At the counter in front of me, a woman was agonizing (trust me, that’s the right word) over whether to buy the giraffe or rhino-illustrated spare tire cover for her new Discovery II. She vacillated for at least five minutes while I flipped through the thick book, skimming Sheppard’s exhaustive sections on vehicle selection and modification, communications, loading and lashing, navigation, and team selection. I had decided I would definitely not select Disco woman for any team I led, and was about to suggest aloud that, since she had dropped $40,000 on the vehicle, why not buy both the stupid $30 tire covers, when the giraffe won out. (“He’s cuter.”) The gulf between her universe and that in the book I held could have been measured in parsecs.

Back home, I discovered that within the 500-plus pages of the VDEG (say “Veedeg”if you wish to be counted among the cognoscenti) was virtually everything one might need to know to plan, organize, and conduct a vehicle-dependent expedition, whether of 100 or 10,000 miles duration. The stunning level of detail was what one would expect if the author were, say, a former test pilot for the Royal Air Force, or had, for example, led the first lateral crossing of the Sahara Desert in prototype Forward-control Land Rovers, or had driven a further several tens of thousands of miles in that same desert, much of it solo and completely off-tracks. All of which was true of Squadron Leader Tom Sheppard, whose articles I’d been reading for almost two decades. Random example from Section 2.6: two full-page spreads on engine oil characteristics, service categories, and labeling. It seemed excessive—until you realized that oil is quite literally the blood of your vehicle’s engine. There were similar in-depth investigations into wicking fabrics, camping stoves, high-frequency radios, electrical loads, water purification—on and on—plus extensive sections on shipping, 4WD systems, provisioning and cooking, and navigation.

But it wasn’t all technical jargon. The book was liberally sprinkled with personal anecdotes and photos from four decades of exploration. For several weeks my writing schedule suffered as I detoured into Tom Sheppard’s world, and learned as much as I ever did from any university textbook—while having much more fun. 

Copies of the original VDEG now sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay (a fact that rankles Tom, who has since become a friend). Through his one-man publishing company, Desert Winds, he has since produced a second and third edition, bound in paperback and printed in black and white to keep them affordable for both Tom and readers. Each was subjected to meticulous updating to reflect advances in vehicles, communications, GPS technology, and countless other details—and even these have been subject to price-gouging. (The original was also published in association with Land Rover; succeeding editions have been independent efforts, arguably allowing Tom more scope when discussing vehicles.)

The third edition of Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide recently sold out. Tom originally thought (swore!) it would be the last, but now he is considering a fourth edition, which would once again be thoroughly updated. If, like me, you own every previous edition, you’ll certainly want this one. If you don’t have a copy of any of them, your overlanding library is tragically incomplete. 

Now, here’s the thing: Whether a fourth edition comes to pass is entirely up to you. Tom is tallying the number of people on his email waiting list to determine if he can commit the substantial time and energy to another round of test-pilot-level scrutiny and revisions. You can bet I’m on the list; if you wish to be as well, send an email to him at mail@desertwinds.co.uk. Use a suitably pleading tone, but gently remind him of his duty to the worldwide overlanding community. That works really well on retired RAF squadron leaders.

Desert Winds—i.e. Tom—also publishes several other books, some useful, some merely lovely. You can order them directly from him here

And an update: It seems Tom's printer found a box of VDEG ed. 3 in a corner. Available while supplies last, probably not long. Then it's on to VDEG ed.4!

Schuberth C3 helmet: 12 months and 10,000 miles review

by Carla King, CarlaKing.com

My last helmet squeezed my jawbone, giving me a headache after about an hour. The previous one pressed on my left temple. Another rattled, another fell forward over my eyebrows, and yet another let a constant stream of air up the back of my neck. Helmets have made me itchy and sweaty, the visors have popped off, and the air flow controls have never quite worked properly. I've worn half-helmets, full helmets, modular helmets, dual-sport helmets, other people’s helmets, cheap helmets, medium-priced helmets, and expensive helmets. But in Spring of 2012 I started wearing a Schuberth C3, and since then I have stopped to look at a view, to ask directions, to fill up my gas tank, to buy snacks at a convenience store, to make phone calls and to take photos, all with my helmet still strapped on.


I’ve always liked the idea of a modular helmet. I travel a lot and interact with people on the road, and it’s nice to be able to slide up the chin bar so people can see my face when I’m talking with them, especially when attempting a foreign language. But helmets have always been so uncomfortable that I've removed them every opportunity, sighing "aaahhhh" in relief from pressure-points, itching, and sweating. The Schuberth C3 is the first helmet I've owned that I don’t rip off my head as soon as the wheels stop turning, and that’s saying something, because I have been riding since I was a teenager.

Continue reading the full review here

We will be running more motorcycle and equipment reviews from Carla, a longtime Overland Expo instructor and one of the most accomplished riders we know. Carla's been riding motorcycles since she was 14, and has ridden every kind of bike on most continents.

The trusty Motorola 9500


Shortly after we published the story of our BGAN review in Mexico (here), which became a real-life test of the technology, I got an email from our friend John Knights, a senior Land Rover Experience instructor in the UK who’s also been on and led many major expeditions in Africa. John bought one of the very first Motorola 9500 satellite telephones in 2001, and has been using it since. 

The 9500 was a bellweather in the development of satellite telephones. When I made my first sat phone call in 1999, from a camp in Zambia, the device I used required a bulky tri-fold antenna which had to be precisely aligned, and which came with dire warnings not to stand within three meters of the front of it. Just two years later, when the financially troubled Iridium network finally got up and running for the final time, you could make the same call with a one-piece handheld 9500 and stand anywhere you wanted (as long as it was outside). 

Since then, John has used his 9500 on more than one occasion to manage emergencies in the bush—some of them mere inconveniences, some of them more serious. Here are a few of his recollections. 

Zimbabwe 2001 (chasing a total solar eclipse in the north of the country): The Defender 130 we had hired blew out two tire sidewalls. Although it was equipped with two spares, once both were used we would have been stranded had we suffered another blowout—highly likely on remote African dirt roads. A quick call to the hire company office had two spare tyres and inner tubes on a light aircraft to a nearby safari lodge, who dropped them off in a powerboat to where we were camped on the shores of Lake Kariba. 

Death Valley 2002 (touring the scenic Wild West in a rented SUV): We had journeyed off the beaten track to see the famous moving rocks. Returning down the rough dirt track, we were passed at speed by another SUV. They shot off into the distance, and I commented, “He must have much better suspension to travel at that speed on this road.” A few corners later we found the SUV, wrecked—he had lost control and hit an embankment, launching the car airborne, going end over end twice before landing back onto its wheels. Thankfully the occupants where unharmed, but had no supplies or recovery gear with them and were surprised their mobiles did not work. I produced my trusty Motorola, rang the ranger station number off the park map, gave them our exact position from my GPS, and waited until the rangers arrived. In the meantime we found out the family concerned were also in a rented SUV and were due to fly home that evening. I’d love to know what he told the hire company! 

Australia’s Blue Mountains 2003: Touring in a hired car we came across a 4x4 on its side. The driver had gotten into a skid on the loose gravel road, and aimed for the embankment rather than the drop off. Again everyone safe but no mobile coverage, but a swift call from the Iridium had a rescue on the way.


Namibia 2003: We set a new record on this trip for number of days without a puncture (seven I think), but that meant we were in the middle of nowhere when the first one happened. The puncture itself was not a problem, but when the locking wheel nut key split while reinstalling the wheel, it did create a problem when we had a second puncture and could not remove the locking nut. Again an Iridium phone call to the hire office had a man with a hammer and chisel on the way, although we did have to spend an unexpected extra night out on route. Our journey was not actually saved by the man with the chisel, but buy the sister vehicle to ours from the hire fleet. The guests driving it rolled it over a couple of miles from where we were. Armed with their wheel nut key we were able to remove our flat tyre, and we then took normal wheel nuts and spare tyres from the wrecked 110 to allow us to continue.* 

Whilst I would love to have an all-singing-all-dancing satellite communication set up that gave me calls, high-speed internet, and a wifi hotspot, at the end of the day the ability to raise any help is a blessing and I’m sure my trusty 9500 will see a few more adventures yet.

Ocens (here) carries the full line of Motorola satellite telephones, including the current 9555.

* An easy trick (no doubt discovered by wheel thieves) is to find a 12-point 1/2-inch drive socket that's just too small to fit over the locking lug nut, hammer it over the nut, then use a breaker bar to remove it. I've used the technique a half-dozen times and have yet to fail. JH


On the worthlessness of door mats for sand recovery

It’s surprising how much flotation you can get out of a 235/85/16 BFG All-Terrain in soft sand—even under the mass of an HJ78 Land Cruiser Troopie—if it’s properly aired down to around one bar (14.7 psi). At that pressure the contact patch elongates significantly, providing vital surface area without the frontal resistance produced by a wider tire. 

However, at one bar you’ll also get pretty significant sidewall bulging—not a problem in pure sand, but a very real one if that sand hides the vicious limestone outcroppings the Egyptians call kharafish. In such terrain you have a choice: flotation or sidewall protection?


We faced that choice in Egypt early this year, when we took three Land Cruisers up the Dakhla Escarpment, a 1,000-foot cliff only (sometimes) negotiable by vehicle because the Abu Moharek dune chain—the longest in the world—spills millions of tons of sand over the edge, forming a loose and shifting series of ramps. The climb intersperses sand and limestone with such unpredictable frequency that there’s simply no possibility of airing down, then back up, then down.  

Given the very real specter of seriously damaging several tires, we let a few token pounds out of each corner. Then, with 1HZ diesels roaring, we took turns tackling each section of sand ramp, sometimes succeeding, sometimes churning slowly to a halt before backing down to try again. On one section I got off line and slid in ignominious and hilarious slow motion off the crest and into a trough. Only the steepness of the terrain enabled me to back down without assistance to make another attempt. 

In a couple of hours we’d gained the top of the escarpment, with the loss of just one tire against a cunningly buried razor edge. Once through another, flatter section of kharafish, the terrain smoothed out into more homogeneous sand flats and dunes. Time to air down properly? Apparently not—Mahmoud and Tarek simply took off at speed, counting on momentum to keep the tires on the surface. I followed, and we enjoyed several minutes of proper LRDG stuff.


However, very soon another local desert term popped up. “Habat” is the word for “soft pools of sand” that merge imperceptibly with the surrounding firmer sand. Mahmoud found one, and in a heartbeat his vehicle was immobile and buried to the axles. Tarek and I circled away and parked, then we all walked over to help.  

In general we’d been delighted with the Troopies we’d rented from a local outfitter. They were impeccably maintained and equipped with two spare tires each. However, the sum total of recovery aids comprised a single shovel and a stack of heavy-duty red carpet rectangles, like those you buy at Home Depot as door mats. I’d looked askance at them in Cairo, and now watched with interest as Mahmoud, after we’d excavated around the tires, stuffed one in front of each. He climbed into the driver’s seat, added a bit of throttle, gently released the clutch—and with flawless synchronicity each section of carpet was sucked under its respective tire and spit out the back. Total forward movement of the vehicle: precisely two inches. It was like Land Cruiser moonwalking—the abrupt shifting of four red rugs from the front to the back of the tires gave the visual impression of forward travel. But it was an illusion. 

Another trial resulted in another two inches of movement, and some Arabic terms from Mahmoud which I don’t think referred directly to sand conditions. But by this time Tarek had pulled his Land Cruiser to the edge of the firm rhamla (sand); we hooked up the tow rope and slowly eased Mahmoud back to solid footing. 

In those conditions, I learned, tire pressure really makes no difference—hit a habat going too slowly and you’re going down. The only defense is momentum and the fact that, blessedly, habats seem to generally be only a few yards across. We successfully made it across dozens more that trip, and got mildly stuck in a few. But we never bothered pulling out the door mats again.

Moral: Those conspicuously shiny perforated aluminum sand mats you see bolted conspicuously to the roof racks of Discos and Land Cruisers parked at Starbucks really do have their place. Effective sand recovery requires a rigid ramp to let the vehicle power its way out of the trough.

Besides, carpet squares bolted in the same spot would look really lame . . . 

Aluminum sand mats, or PAP (for perforated aluminum plate)—frequently called sand ladders although not really the same—are available from a number of suppliers such as OKoffroad. A less expensive and very effective substitute (lacking only the stylish Camel Trophy appearance) is the plastic MaxTrax, available from Outback Proven.  

For more videos of driving in Egypt, including a completed Egypt Overland promo, go to: https://vimeo.com/conserventures/videos



Historic bodge fixes: T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence, on right, enters Damascus in the Blue Mist.

Here’s a bit of history David Lean left out of his epic film Lawrence of Arabia: In addition to the camels T.E. Lawrence and his Bedouin allies used on their spectacular raids against Turkish outposts and railroads in what is now Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, Lawrence employed a fleet of automobiles. 

An unabashed romantic, Lawrence was nevertheless also an utterly practical (and brilliant) military strategist, despite having no training whatsoever beyond the written accounts of historic campaigns he had devoured since childhood. He was the first battlefield commander to recognize and fully exploit the value of aircraft used in support of ground troops, and he pioneered aerial mapping techniques. His guerrilla tactics are still studied today by insurgents as well as counterinsurgents, yet at Tafileh in January of 1918 he proved himself equally capable of commanding a pitched conventional battle. 

Lawrence also quickly realized that on the wide, flat deserts he had to cross with heavy loads of explosives and weapons, an automobile could cover ground much faster than a camel. After his stunning victory at Aqaba, he had the clout to request and receive a small detachment of armored cars, accompanied by automobile “tenders.”

But these weren’t just any automobiles. Lawrence’s desert raiding machines comprised nine Rolls Royce 40/50 Silver Ghost motorcars, including a personal vehicle he named the Blue Mist. 

At the beginning of the war, Rolls Royce was already established as a maker of the finest automobiles, catering to the upper crust of society. But in those early days, such a reputation had as much to do with reliability and durability as it did luxury. In 1907 the company had entered one of its 40/50-horsepower models in the grueling Scottish Reliability Trials, and followed up the performance by driving the same car between London and Glasgow—27 times. The Autocar magazine declared it “the best car in the world”—still Rolls Royce’s motto a century later.

A Rolls Royce 40/50 Silver Ghost in more genteel surroundings. (Image courtesy www.ritzsite.nl) 

That tremendous strength served Lawrence well in terrain and conditions far removed from what even Henry Royce had envisioned. In one passage from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence describes an exploratory excursion: “Their speedometers touched 65 mph; not bad for cars which had been months ploughing the desert with only such running repairs as the drivers had time and tools to give them.” 

Alas, even the mighty Rolls Royce proved not completely immune to damage from constant, crushing abuse. 

On September 16, 1917, Lawrence and a small team set out to demolish a railway bridge south of Amman, in what is now Jordan. The Blue Mist was “crammed to the gunwale” with explosives and detonators. While his companions, who had followed in another tender, engaged the Turkish post guarding the bridge in a brief but ferocious firefight, Lawrence coolly placed 150 pounds of charges in the bridge’s support spans, ignoring desperate signals from the two British officers supervising the cover fire that Turkish reinforcements were on the way. The explosion sent twisted shards of the bridge plunging into the ravine below, and further enraged the pursuing Turks. 

And at that moment, as the group raced away from the rising smoke, one of the Blue Mist’s rear spring brackets snapped, dropping the body onto the tire and instantly halting forward progress. It was, as Lawrence later described it, the first and only time a Rolls let him down in the desert. 

Anyone else would have simply abandoned the car, but Lawrence was loath to lose not only his faithful Blue Mist (“A Rolls in the desert was above rubies,” he wrote), but the extensive explosives kit inside. With the Turks perhaps ten minutes away, he and his driver (who was nicknamed “Rolls”) jacked up the car, and untied a length of wood plank kept with each car for deep sand recovery, with the idea of wedging it between the axle and chassis. It was too long, and “Rolls” estimated they’d need three thicknesses of the wood to support the car. They had no saw, but Lawrence solved the problem by simply shooting crosswise with his pistol through the plank several times in two places, until the board broke in three pieces. The Turks heard the firing and paused their pursuit, which lent Lawrence and “Rolls” time to rope the planks in place, using the running board as a mounting point, and make good their escape. Lawrence wrote: 

“So enduring was the running board that we did the ordinary work with the car for the next three weeks, and took her so into Damascus at the end. Great was Rolls, and great was Royce! They were worth hundreds of men to us in these deserts.” 

So, if you don’t already have them on board your own Rolls Royce, I suggest adding to your recovery kit one (1) wooden plank and one (1) pistol. 

My Machete "Build"

I’ve been a fan of machetes since I was a kid. They fill a unique niche somewhere between a hatchet and an axe, yet can do things neither of the others can.  

But I’ve found two problems common to a lot of commercially available machetes, especially in the U.S. First, many of them are too long for most uses. The longer the blade, the more imprecision is introduced to one’s swing (and if the blade is sharp you don’t need the extra momentum). Second, the upswept tip on the typical U.S.-style machete is useless and frequently dangerous. If you’re swinging at, say, a branch you need to sever, and rather than hitting it with the meat of the blade you instead make contact near that tip, the angle can deflect the tool back toward you at considerable speed.

Overland Tech: Battery welding in the field

Welding with automotive batteries is one of those near-mythical skills, like seating a tire bead with starting fluid, that most people never even attempt. But unlike explosive bead-seating, which a quick YouTube search will confirm can go wrong easily, battery welding is pretty straightforward. Recently, Doug Manzer had an opportunity to try it in the backcountry of Utah. 

Overland skills: Fire without matches

I’ve always been fascinated by bushcrafting - those guys who can build a shelter, gather and trap food, and make a fire with nothing but a knife. The firemaking part always seemed the most magical, so finally I decided to try it, using the bow drill method. 

The material of choice here in southern Arizona is sotol, a plant in the agave family that grows at elevations over 3,800 feet or so. Specifically you want the dried flower stalk, which forms a tough, fibrous pole. I hiked up the hill to the south of us and brought back a few, then prepared, first, a hearth by splitting a length to get a flat piece, then a spindle by smoothing out a narrower piece near the tip.