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How I Got Started with Offroad Adventuring

I don't know how useful this post will be, but it's not uncommon that people ask me some version of how I got comfortable going off into the great outdoors as much as I do. Sometimes it's about how I got started; sometimes it's about how I am able to do so many trips; other times it's about how I developed the ability to feel confident in dealing with anything that comes up on the trail.

So today, I'm going to try to talk about how I got started with all the adventuring that I do, and a few things I think anyone who is interested in camping/off-roading/camping can keep in mind as they get started themselves.

My First Camping Experiences

I got started camping when I was a kid. A small kid - as in, I have memories of camping when I was three or four years old - and I have no idea if that was my first camping experience. But this wasn't the kind of camping I do today - not by a long shot. Rather, it was the same kind of camping that everyone did way back in the old days: car camping, in a campground.

We had an old blue Chevy Malibu station wagon, and we'd load it up with all of our gear - a big old tent with poles that seemed as thick as a child's arm, a Coleman propane stove that you can still buy a variant of today, a white gas Coleman lantern, a big green Coleman cooler (that I think my dad still has!), and of course a charcoal grill and our fishing poles.

We never found ourselves camping on the beach. This was a luckier family than mine.

We were your typical family of the 80's. I guess.  I mean, it's not like I had any choice in the matter. In fact, I'm pretty sure there were times I was dragged kicking and screaming - until I got there and had a great time. A lot like @mini.turbodb these days.

So this is how it went for maybe 8-9 years of my life - two or three times a summer we'd head up into the Sierras, to one of two or three campgrounds that my family seemed to like. Sometimes it'd be just the immediate family, and sometimes the extended family would join. We'd always have a - mostly - great time, because what kid doesn't love running around in the dirt and fishing. Plus, there were fires to build and marshmallows to roast - and Junior Ranger Badges to be earned.

Even in these early years, I was quick to pick up - and even master - new skills. I was curious. It's probably why I liked things like Junior Ranger challenges and fishing, which I presume can be frustrating for others. And, though I didn't realize it at the time, that ability and curiosity would continue to serve me well for the rest of my life.

The Middle Years - Me and My Personality

So, when my age hit double digits - or round about there - I got way too cool to go camping with my parents and team sports started to take over my life. It wasn't that I didn't go camping anymore, but now it was as part of the Boy Scouts - which for me was really more about hanging out with my friends (and some of their cool parents) and getting to do all the awesome stuff that came with being a Boy Scout - archery, riflery, wilderness survival, leatherwork - the list goes on.

I don't know if being a Boy Scout is cool anymore, but for me it was - until I was 15 or so - and as I made my way through the ranks, I learned a ton about myself, about what it meant to have really good role models and leaders, and about how to be a good mentor and leader to others.

As I alluded to above, these were also the years where I played team sports like a maniac. Really, unless we were in school or sleeping, my brother and I were out on the field - practicing or playing with our friends. Hoping that we'd make it to the pros.

Surprise - we didn't!

But, like Boy Scouts, I learned the importance of a team - of working with, relying on, and trusting others - and, of the selflessness of doing one's best to ensure that the team is successful.

All this time - like anyone - I continued to pick up new skills, though looking back now it might have been more quickly and easily than it is for the general population. Normal to me, I'm sure that it built my own confidence in myself - a feeling that I could do anything (well, except play in the pros) if I just put my mind to it.

And going off to college was the same way. I didn't go to the most prestigious university, or the coolest party school - but I did go to a place that I really liked - both from an education perspective as well as a place to live. Still curious, I did well - learning not only new skills and the random facts that I was taught in class, but also the importance of how and what to learn. It was during these years that I realized there was a difference between what was important to know, vs. what was important to be successful.

I learned it was important to know who I am and how I learn. To be happy with myself and my actions. And I learned that being successful is being able to please others - essentially, follow their instruction/get to their requested outcome - while maintaining my own identity and integrity.

Also worth mentioning is that it was during this time - right around the beginning of it in fact - that I went on what was probably my first big outdoor "overland" adventure. As I recall, it was just OK. I don't recall all the places we went, but my mom took me and my brother (a couple years younger) to Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and I'm sure a few other parks in the southwest United States as part of a multiweek trip. My main memories are of the car overheating in Death Valley, and playing whiffle ball with my brother in camp .

From Camping to Offroad Adventures

From the time I went to college until 2016 or so, I didn't do a ton of camping, and I wasn't into offroading at all. I mean, don't get me wrong - I loved the idea of it, and it was always fun to go to my uncles houses (in the woods) and drive their Jeep CJ6's and whatnot - but I wasn't mod-ing the Tacoma in any way.

Rather, I was living life - the important thing to me at the time. I poured myself into my work at a great job, into buying and completely remodeling my first home, and into setting myself up for the future. I was using the truck for truck stuff.

The day I discovered that the Tacoma loved landscaping.

I definitely camped during this time, but it was really camping in order to do something else. Whether it was a hike, rafting down a river, or just getting out for the day, we would sleep in the back of the truck, which was all stock.

It wasn't until 2016 that I realized I really wanted to do something more - I wanted to do some offroading to get to camp spots. By this time, I was also lucky enough to be in a position to be able to afford the ability to make some changes to the Tacoma to better enable that offroading.

I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.Thomas Jefferson

My "big" breakthrough at this point was getting "invited" - really, I just responded to the open invitation -  to go on The De-Tour. It would be one of my first big trips where dirt roads were the priority. And, even though I didn't know anything, I knew I would be with people who did... and that - as had been true for my entire life to this point - I'd learn.

Before the trip, I didn't know what I'd learn exactly - I could have discovered that I hated the cold, wet, sometimes tortuous slog of long days driving, and below-freezing temps at night. That trucks covered in mud just weren't my thing.

But that wasn't the case at all - quite the contrary. I discovered that I enjoyed the challenge that offroading presented - the challenge of learning (and hopefully mastering) a whole lot of new things:

  • How the Tacoma works (and doesn't) on the trail.
  • How to drive on roads that I might initially look at and think, "seriously?"
  • How to modify and maintain the Tacoma (which to this point, I hadn't even learned how to changed the oil on).
  • Learning how to fabricate bits for the Tacoma to make it more capable.
  • How to find my own places to explore.
  • And things I never even thought would be part of the "deal" - learning how to be a better photographer, how to put together a journal of my adventures, learning the history of many of the places I'd travel, learning how to travel with @mrs.turbodb and other friends, and not-at-all lastly - helping @mini.turbodb learn how fun it can be to get out into the "wilderness."

Immediately after The Detour, I started offroading with much more urgency. I started planning my own routes, and saying "yes!" to any invites from others who offered (which wasn't a lot of folks). I tried to get out at least once a month - even during the winter.

With each trip, I learned - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I did a lot of listening around camp fires; I asked dumb questions - and got answers that had likely been shared a hundred times before. At least to my face, no one ever thought they were dumb questions - because it was clear that I was trying to learn.

And I'm still learning today (where "today" is whenever you are reading this).

Developing My 1st Gen Tacoma (or Any Vehicle)

Part of being able to "do offroading" is knowing my vehicle (and making it work for the things I want to do). As I noted above - before 2016, my truck was stock and I knew next to nothing - I'd never even changed my own oil, hahahaha.

Stock Tacoma on May 28, 2016.

The last few years have included a lot of learning about my truck. I spend what @mrs.turbodb would likely classify as all my free time on this. While it's likely not quite that much, it has been a lot and I'd still say I'm a novice in this space... or maybe only a bit more than novice. Definitely not expert. But - as I hope is clear by now - I love learning and using my hands, so this is fun for me.

But I think it's important to back up to before the modifications started, and talk about how my approach to the build has changed over time. Because I think it was a healthy progression, and I definitely learned a lot in the process.

Looking back now, my first few mods to the truck were probably not what I'd recommend to someone just starting out. Instead, I wish I'd taken the truck on more trips in it's stock configuration. A stock Tacoma is so capable - way more capable than I was as a new driver, and probably more capable than I am even today - that the most important thing is to just get out there. If I'd done that, the truck itself would have told me what I needed to do, and what was important to me for the types of trips that I do.

Instead - and I believe, like many - in the beginning I was just after a more aggressive look for my truck. As such, I started with a lift and a winch. And, as often happens, the winch led to feature creep - a @RelentlessFab front bumper to mount it. And that bumper led to sliders - because if I was going to drive to get the bumper installed, I might as well do sliders at the same time.

While I was able to muddle through the suspension installation, I knew I didn't have the knowledge to make or even install the armor - and so, I had Eric take care of that for me.

This shirt made a lasting impression on me. Ultra competitive, I couldn't let this stand.

From that point on, I approached the build in a healthier fashion - I'd say. I started going on trips - and allowed those trips to influence changes that I made to the truck. On our trip to Owyhee Canyonlands, we realized it would be much more convenient if we didn't have to completely empty the bed of the truck in order to setup our tent. That realization is what led to my deciding to build a bed rack and @Cascadia Tents Mt. Shasta RTT were in order.

And that decision meant that it was time to learn to weld, and to get the tools to do so. I would become a (passable) fabricator.

Even at that point, I hadn't really done all that much work to the truck itself; I didn't really know how the various components worked, or have the ability/knowledge/confidence to tackle mechanical/maintenance work.

As I continued to use the truck, two things continued to happen - regularly.

  1. I found myself getting more and more comfortable with trails that I'd previously have found difficult, nerve racking, or even impossible. And these trails highlighted weaknesses of the rig - weaknesses that needed to be addressed if I was going to have fun without worrying that I was harming the truck (too badly).
  2. Things started breaking or needing maintenance. Some of them were simple - tire rotations and oil changes for instance; others were more complex - changing out the lower ball joints (LBJs) and doing the timing belt/water pump for example.

Both of these things were fine with me - in fact, I thrived on them. Well, except for the cost - I wasn't a huge fan of the cost. But - I reminded myself - the costs here were just like any other hobby, and in the long run I would save a ton of money by learning how to do these things myself. Plus - for me - building something with my own two hands - being able to point at it and say, "I did that." is one of the most rewarding aspects of life. Especially once I've gotten good enough that whatever I did is really good.

The more work I've done on the truck, the more confident I've become. And that confidence spills over, allowing me to dip my toes into areas that I may not know as much about... because if I could learn how to change the timing belt, maybe replacing the rear axle seals shouldn't be all that daunting.

Not only that, but as I learn more about the truck from working on it in the shop, I've learned how more of the bits work, and how they might fail on the trail. Knowing how they might fail gives me - at least a little - confidence that I could possibly fix them, at least enough to limp back to a town or a tow truck.

And so, the development of the Tacoma continues. I don't have that first set of suspension that I installed anymore - it's all been changed out for higher-end ADS components. But again, that was done because I used - and learned from - my original choices.

I continue to do that, and it's one of the reasons I now write up regular Rig Reviews - that's me learning to learn even faster and more explicitly.

Oh, and my favorite (couldn't do without) mods of all time aren't even the stuff that I generally think of as rig badassery. They are the ARB fridge and the Exped Megamat Duo LW - those things have literally changed the way we approach our adventures. And GPS of course.

Confidence to Go Into the Unknown

OK - so if you've gotten this far and digested all my blabber, you now know how I got started camping, a bit about my personality and approach to life, and how my truck has gotten to where it is today. And, while you might then be able to draw some inferences into how I've got the confidence to go out into the unknown, I figure there are a few more things worth sharing. These are probably just extensions of me and my personality, but hey - I'm no professional writer.

First and foremost, I'll reiterate from above that I'm generally pretty quick to pick things up. As such, I have a lot of confidence in myself - something that's served me well through life - and that confidence is a big part of what allows me to "just go." I know that if something goes slightly sideways, I can usually problem-solve my way out of it - and have fun doing it.

If something goes even more sideways, that's when things start to get really interesting. I know I've got my limits as far as fixing something on the trail, and there are absolutely things that would mean I'd have no way to get back to civilization using hydrocarbons and hrsprs. Even then, there are two things that I know to be true.

  1. I'm reasonably fit. This gives me what almost amounts to a get out of jail (but not for free) card - the "ultimate out" in case something happens to the truck, rendering it immobile. If that happens, know I can walk ~25 miles/day to "get out" assuming I'm not injured. So, there's always that fallback.
  2. I have accepted that there are large rescue costs in my future. As I alluded to previously, there are things I will never be able to fix on the trail. In that case, I'm already comfortable knowing that there might be a $2000+ tow truck trip to pay for. For me, that's OK - it's just part of the hobby, and part of learning.

But what if I'm injured? Well, that's one that I'm probably not fully prepared for. An injury would surely slow down my ability to walk back to civilization, perhaps even preventing me from movement at all. For now, I don't let it stop me - I know I can't be prepared for everything. Instead, I try to make good choices throughout the trip - taking fewer (and/or smaller) risks when the downside is greater and there's only one truck on the trip. As time progresses, even this may not be enough for me. I can easily see myself buying some sort of PLB in the future, or deciding that I don't even want to go on single-truck trips anymore.

But again - I don't want to have a plan for everything that could possibly go wrong. If I needed that, I'd never get out to see the world. Because no matter how much we plan, there's always something we don't know to plan for.

So in the end, it really comes down to being confident in my ability to problem solve and learn should the need arise. I've been doing that my whole life - and so it's ingrained in how I approach every situation. That, coupled with my desire to see cool stuff makes this a perfect hobby!

That's my story, what's yours? Anything here resonate or seem crazy? Let me know in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Adam Verwolf
    Adam Verwolf October 9, 2019

    awesome story. you really should get published.

    • turbodb
      turbodb October 9, 2019

      Thanks man, appreciate it. Problem is all the photos - hard to get that kind of thing published :).

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