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  • 10/09/13--06:49: Pronghorn makes the leap
  • To say I "consulted" on the Pronghorn Overland Gear Modular Front End System (MFES) for the Jeep Wrangler JK would be a bit of an overstatement. What actually transpired was, they brought a prototype bumper to our place and mounted it on a Wrangler, we took it out in the desert, and I used the Warn 8274 winch on my Land Cruiser to try various ways to rip it off that Wrangler, or even bend it a little. I failed. I suggested a tweak to the fairlead mount and a few other details, but essentially the Pronghorn MFES-JK was ready to go out of the box.

    At the 2013 Overland Expo, Pronghorn made quite a splash, not just because of the astounding strength to weight ratio of the bumper system, or the innovative details such as their Rotator Shackle or GearMount system, but because of the completely modular nature of the product, which allows a user to choose anything from an unadorned short bumper suitable for the fiercest cross-axle slickrock obstacles, to a full-width unit with brush guard ideal for fending off third-world goats and taxi drivers. In fact if you so choose you can swap back and forth between the configurations.

    This week the company launched its website (go here), and is in full production with the MFES-JK. They're also working on a prototype system for the Toyota Tacoma, which we will be delighted to try out on the JATAC. Other models will follow, as will rear bumper systems, skid plates, and several not-directly-bumper-related-but-fascinating bits of four-wheel-drive kit on which the founder of the company, Trey Herman, and I are trading emails and ideas. Stay tuned, but in the meantime if you own a Wrangler and are in need of the best bumper available for it, take a look. (Full disclosure: I was impressed enough that Roseann and I now own a small stake in Pronghorn Overland Gear L.L.C.)

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    I suspect Richard Bogert is one of those people who keeps a notepad and pen on the nightstand, so he can jot down inspirations that pop into his head at 3:00 a.m. I can’t see any other way he could come up with the volume of ideas he does—for the Bogert Aviation arm of his business, the military equipment, odds and ends such as high-quality bed frames, and the more recent foray into products suitable for overland travelers and four-wheel-drive vehicle owners in general.

    I’ve written about Bogert’s Safe Jack system for the Hi-Lift jack (here), which transforms the Hi-Lift from a versatile but at times unstable lifting device into a rock-solid lifting device. Recently Richard shipped me a new suite of Safe Jack products that accomplishes similar wonders for the ubiquitous bottle jack.

    Bottle jacks have several advantages over the Hi-Lift (or other beam-type jacks). They’re powerful for their compact size and weight, are physically much easier to operate given the hydraulic assist (with no danger of kick-back), and come in a wide range of lifting capacity. They’re significantly easier to use for tire-changing or inserting sand mats, since (sometimes with some excavating) one can place them under an axle and lift one wheel directly. To use a four-foot-long, 30-pound Hi-Lift in the same situation one must either lift the bumper—which requires lifting through the entire suspension travel as well before the wheel rises—or employ a Lift-Mate which attaches to the wheel, suitable for inserting sand mats but useless for tire-changing. 

    But bottle jacks have downsides too, and salient among them is the short lifting range—about six inches compared with thirty six for even the shortest Hi-Lift. Even double-extension bottle jacks (such as the excellent Italian-made Land Rover axle jacks, or the equally excellent German-made Power Team jack I own) top out at around a foot of lift. So if, for example, one needs to jack up a chassis member that sits 18 inches off the ground, and you’re using my eight-inch-tall double-extension bottle jack with a 12-inch lift, by the time the piston reaches the chassis you’ve got two inches of jacking function left. We all know what comes next: a makeshift platform of 2x4s, rocks, or worse to get the jack closer to the chassis. Screw extensions on the piston help but don’t solve the problem.

    A universal base plate and axle cradle vastly enhance the stability of a standard bottle jack.

    Richard solved it. The Bogert Bottle Jack Recovery Kit includes three extensions that slip securely over the typical 1 1/4-inch-diameter bottle-jack piston. One provides 2 1/2 inches of extension, another 5 1/2, and a third is adjustable from 8 to 12 inches. Stack them and you could theoretically lift against something 31 inches high with that eight-inch-tall jack still firmly on the ground. The kit also includes a plate to spread out the stress of the jack’s piston against a frame member or skid plate, and an axle cradle that hugely increases the stability of the jack under an axle tube. It all comes in a stout Husky zippered carrying bag big enough to also hold the (optional) bottle jack.

    This plate disperses the stress of lifting on skid plates or a thin-gauge Land Rover chassis.

    There’s more to the a la carte system. A universal base plate fits most bottle jacks up to 20 tons, and provides 48 square inches of surface area for stability and flotation in soft substrate—significantly greater than the 28 square inches of a Hi-Lift’s standard base plate. Not enough? The universal base plate with jack attached snaps instantly into Bogert’s twin-handled ”Big Foot” base plate, which covers a full 144 square inches of the earth’s surface, exactly the same as the common orange ORB Hi-Lift base plate (or Bogert’s own Safe Jack base plate for the Hi-Lift). If you’re lifting 3,000 pounds that would reduce the 200 pounds per square inch loading under a naked bottle jack to just over 20. The handles make it easy to scoot the jack into and out of spots under the vehicle.

    With an extension and the cradle I was able to securely lift the back of the truck at the receiver hitch.

    The recovery kit enhances the versatility of any bottle jack, making it easier to use the jack to apply pressure wherever it might be needed—straightening a bent tie rod or bumper, fractionally raising an engine to replace a broken motor mount, or pushing on a roof rack to ease a vehicle away from a rock it has slid into sideways. 

    One complaint—more of a suggestion really: Bogert Manufacturing’s red-white-and-blue “Always made in America” stickers are plastered on each and every piece in the Safe Jack system—fine, except that one is also plastered on the made-in-China bottle jack if you order that option. I’d urge Richard to either leave the tag off the jack, or (better) find an American-made bottle jack. That nitpick aside, this is another imaginative and useful product from Richard Bogert’s bedside notepad. Bogert Manufacturing is here.

    (Edit: Richard says the stickers are no longer applied to the jack. Do U.S.-made bottle jacks even exist any more?) 

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  • 10/21/13--12:20: What is it?
  • A teaser - this little tool is intrinsic to a new development of a product I've already reviewed quite favorably. The development makes the product even better. Anyone recognize it? I covered the brand with a Post-it note.


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    by Carla King (

    After my second dual-sport ride my poor little Tour Master street boots were trashed. My friend's motocross boots fit okay, but they were too heavy and noisy to walk in. It was clearly time to go shopping. Looking through the crop of serious four-season, full-height, dual-sport adventure-touring boots, I decided that boots with the features I was looking for ranged from $350 to $550 in price. After a couple of months grilling the adventure riding community about their choices, I decided on the TCX Infinity GTX (Gortex) adventure touring boots, formerly branded Oxtar. This is a review of the TCX Infinitys and it's followed by a review of my shopping experience that includes descriptions of competing boots with reasons for eliminating them from my list.

    Above is a series of photos of my first try-on of the boots. (Click to enlarge.) They were easy to put on, the buckles are very adjustable, and I like the elastic collar at the top. I also like the understated look of them. I'm wearing my Olympia Moto Sports Mesh Tech jacket and pants. The pants unzip all the way to the hip making it very easy to put on and take off your boots.

    The Contenders

    • TCX Infinity GTX Boots $359, X-Desert $399
    • Aerostich Combat Touring Boots $367
    • Gaerne Balance Oiled Boots $395
    • Forma Adventure Boots $299, Boulder $279, Cape Horn $299
    • SIDI Discovery Rain Boots $350, Adventure Rain $400, Adventure Gore-Tex $550
    • Alpinestars Toucan Boots $449
    • Dainese Carroarmato Gore-Tex Boots $369

    Standard on most of these boots are ski boot-type buckle closures, sturdy heel and toe cockpits, and reinforced material that protects the ankles. They're all tall boots, and most have additional padding along the front that protects you from the commonly experienced shin-to-footpeg bashing syndrome. Features I was looking for specifically included:

    • A tall boot with shin protection
    • Sturdy heel and toe compartments
    • Stiff ankle area (little side-to-side bending allowed!)
    • Solid protection for the malleolus (ankle bones) on each side of the foot
    • Waterproof breathable Gore-tex or similar material
    • A padded elastic collar around the top to keep out rocks and dirt and water
    • Maximum flexibility for walking
    • Sticky sole for street, dirt and mud
    • Footbed strong enough to stand comfortably on the pegs
    • Understated look, no logos
    • Ease in putting them on and taking them off

    Picture This

    I collected the boots into lookalike groups (see photo below, click to enlarge) because I think most of us have an idea of the "look" we want. Simple or complex, sleek or clunky, old school or hi-tech, black or brown, understated or colorful. I hope that the review of the boots I chose in combination with my shopping experience and this pictorial comparison of boots with prices will help you choose the right pair. I'd love to hear your thoughts, your concerns, frustrations, compromises, and your experience with boots of your past, present, and future. Did I leave your favorite boots out? Do you agree or disagree with my impressions? I know this is a hot topic, so I look forward to hearing from you in the comments area at the end of this article or via the contact form on my website, or join the discussion on my Facebook page. TCX Infinity GTX Touring dual-sport adventure motorcycle boots

    TCX Infinity GTX Boot

    The TCX Infinity GTX is classified by the company as a "touring adventure" model. It fit my requirements for a dual-sport adventure touring boot crafted from waterproof yet breathable material with an elastic collar at the top to keep out water and debris, a quick and very adjustable buckle and velcro closure combination, a sturdy sole that would not slip on rocks, street, or mud, a flexible heel, and enough comfort to take a short hike. I also liked their understated look in comparison to the clunkier (and more protective) models I looked at. TCX Infinity customers consistently report 100% satisfaction with their boots, without the "buts" or "if justs" that riders wearing other brands often mention. To further recommend the TCX, many told me that they are loyal second- and third-time buyers who purchased the Infinity after many years of dual-sport riding in their Oxtars. (Oxtar was rebranded TCX after the acquisition of the company by Novation S.p.A. based in Montebelluna, Italy.)


    Carla King Carson Valley Tahoe Adventure Motorcycle Rendezvous

    Let me first state that I can wear men's sizes because I have a wider foot than the average woman. Luckily for me, most boots start at at European size 40, a woman's size 9. The TCX starts in size 38. However, most stores stock size 42 and up, but can order them from the factory. Plan ahead, because this can take six weeks or more. My size 40 with a cushy sole insert fits great. I put them on and forgot about them, and that's the best recommendation I can give for any piece of gear. As I mentioned in my review of the Schuberth C3 modular helmet, the best gear both protects you from a possible mishap and provides enough comfort to forget about it and enjoy the ride.


    Women who wear smaller than size 38 and women with narrow feet will not be able to wear the TCX Infinity or any of the boots mentioned in this review. The boots I shopped for were designed for men, which means they are constructed for wider feet in larger sizes. (I never appreciated my feet so much until now!) The pickings for women in the dual-sport and adventure category are slim. All I could find were SIDI's Vertigo Lei and Fusion Lei, which are, of course, compromises. As a side note, I hope that the industry catches on to the numbers of women who want boots in this category. The number of women who attend adventure motorcycle events like Overland Expo, Horizons Unlimited, and the Carson Valley / Tahoe Adventure Rendezvous is approaching fifty percent and we're all wearing boots designed for men's feet.


    The TCX Infinity had all the features I wanted: Reinforced heel and toe cockpits, stiff ankle area with malleolus protection on both sides, sturdy footbed and sticky sole, shin protection, reinforced toe and heel cockpits, rubberized shift guard, two cam-lock buckles, thermal heat-resistant suede on the inside of the shin, a velcro closure, and a Gore-tex fly or gaiter.


    TCX Comfort Fit System for Dual Sport Adventure Motorcycle Boots

    All TCX boots are made with an anatomic, replaceable footbed that is manually fitted around a foot-shaped mold. There is no break-in period, and the boot flexes easily at the front and back of the heel. This means walking is comfortable, though the footbed is stiff enough that you wouldn't want to trek more than about a mile without a break. It's stiff enough to stand on the footpegs for hours but, unlike many of the stiffer MX boots, you can still feel the pegs under your feet. The sole is patterned in a sticky black tire-tread pattern that channels water out to the edges so you don't slip in water and mud.


    The boot feels custom-fitted with its combination of adjustable cam-lock buckles, the wide velcro closure, and the padded elastic collar. It fits snugly with your pants in or out of the boot, or even with a motocross knee and shin guard tucked inside. A couple of inches of Gore-tex on the inside at the top of the boot keeps the foot cool and dry. In the past few months I've ridden in both very hot and very cold conditions, through water crossings and across desert sands, and on miles and miles of tarmac, with no discomfort at all.


    I throughly tested the safety features of the Infinitys at the Carson Vally / Tahoe Adventure Motorcycle Rendezvous in August. The first ride was a challenging day along the boulder fields and shale trails far into the hills and valleys. I opted for the "medium-level" off-road instead of "beginner," but it turned out to be a rather advanced run. Still, I made it, after bouncing off a few times (at slow speeds). This amused most, but irritated a few, of my fellow riders. And they were all fellows, making it all the more embarrassing for the sole woman in the group, even after one rider was trucked out after a collarbone-breaking fall 18 miles into the hills. Because someone else rode my bike down a particularly steep descent, I can also attest to their comfort while picking your way down a rocky trail. Carla King at the Carson Valley / Tahoe Adventure Motorcycle Rendezvous - Too Technical for Me!

    Yeah, yeah, I see the boulder. Now where's my bike?


    Since then I have instinctively chosen the TCX Infinitys over my comfy but battered old Tour Master street boots, even for all-tarmac rides. It's pretty clear to me now that I will never go back to street boots. Today's touring boots have so much protection embedded into a not unstylish product that I don't find it necessary to choose. In comparison, the street boots, though they're safety conscious in their class, seem much too short and flimsy. Perhaps if I had chosen one of the more clunky models made with a lot of TPU (Thermoplastic polyurethane) like the SIDI Rains ($350-$400), Alpinestars Toucan ($449), or TCX's X-Desert ($399) I wouldn't be as willing to wear them for a spin on my Guzzi cruiser. But I think the Infinitys are good looking enough to pass for cruiser wear.


    Carla King, TCX Infinity Adventure Boots, Moto Guzzi 1100 Stone Cruiser

    I choose the TCX Infinity boots over my street boots when I cruise on my Guzzi.

    TCX Urban Trend / X-Rap Waterproof


    If you're the kind of rider with multiple bikes and multiple sets of gear, you're going to love looking through the stylish selections that TCX offers. The brand provides a full range of foot protection for all kinds of riders including categories for custom bikes, street, touring, enduro, motocross, and ATV. I especially like their high-top sneaker style boot. Check them out. They have a great reputation for comfort, safety, and style. TCX X-Desert Gortex motorcycle adventure touring dual-sport boot

    I also glanced briefly at the TCX Touring Adventure / X-Desert Gore-text ($450) with lots of plastic hard parts, but they were too clunky for my taste. Riders attracted to the Alpinestars Toucan or the SIDI Adventure series should take a look, though. If you're on a budget, consider TCX's Track EVO Waterproof boots. They have all the safety features, are lightweight, and the $239 price point is rather surprising. They're waterproof but without breathable Gore-tex those prone to swamp foot will need to pass.


    Because shopping for gear is such a journey, I'd like to share it with you, explaining why I eliminated the contenders from my list before I decided on the TCX Infinity. Aerostich Combat dual-sport adventure motorcycle boots


    I'm going to start with the Combat Touring boots ($367) made by SIDI for Aerostich, which are a very popular boot with the adventure riding crowd. People love their Combats but there are several reasons I ruled them out. First, though they're padded, they are the only model that does not have a reinforced shin guard on the front of the boot, and I seem to hit my shins on the pegs a lot when I'm riding off-road. So the Combat seemed to me to target the dual-sport rider who rides the occasional fire road, unlike most of the others in this quality/price point, which offer true off-road protection in the single-track class. Another factor that determined that this boot was not for me had to do with the fact that it's made entirely of untreated leather. It's incredibly heavy, stiff, and difficult to walk in until a very long and painful (according to many reviewers) break-in period. I think there are two camps when it comes to boots: high-tech and old style. I love sloshing through puddles and mud and being able to just hose them down and forget them between rides. I'm not crazy about the constant maintenance involved in keeping leather soft and waterproof. The Combat is fastened by a single buckle at the ankle which, in comparison to the other boots, seems unusually stingy for a boot in this class. Many reviewers report that the dual velcro fasteners wear out, too. I wonder why they don't add a second buckle, like most everyone else, with a single velcro fastener at the top? On the Combat, adjustment depends upon a lace-up cord between the outer and the gaiter that looked to me to be fumbly and futzy. Indeed, reviews commonly state that the laces stick to the velcro closure, which eventually frays them into oblivion. But the feature I loved on the Combats was the elastic collar at the top. Brilliant! When I saw it I remembered how, on a recent ride through a deep water crossing, water literally poured into the boots I was wearing. I imagined that this elastic collar would solve that problem, along with deterring the large quantities of pebbles and sand I was constantly dislodging from my borrowed MX boots. In the end, two factors killed the Combats for me: Lack of safety features, and the leather material. Leather's lack of immediate-gratification flexibility requiring a long break-in period and constant maintenance. Not to mention the lack of a breathable Gore-tex lining. The Combat is a 100% old-school boot. Enjoy, luddites! Gaerne Balance Oiled adventure motorcycle dual-sport boot


    When I put the word out on Facebook that I was shopping for adventure touring boots, I received more recommendation for Gaernes than any other brand. I'd already ruled them out for many of the same reasons I ruled out Aerostich's Combats, but wow, do they ever have a wildly dedicated fan base. The consensus is that the break-in period is almost non-existant, they're lighter, extremely comfortable, and they're brown, not black. I wouldn't mention this except that so many men point out the rugged mountain-man look of them. "The kind of boot Steve McQueen would wear," was one review. This glimpse into male vanity gave me a little laugh, but I understood. They do have a "rock-star adventure rider" vibe about them, and I'll bet they look great with one of those workmen's kilts. Gaerne's Balance Oiled boots ($369) are pre-oiled and fully waterproof right out of the box. They claim that oil-tanned leather is more breathable than the PU (polyurethane) coated leather that "modern" boots use, and the "Aquatech" membrane inside keeps your feet totally dry. Originally created for trial riders (hence the name "Balance"), this model has hard inserts in the heel and toe but no reinforcement in the ankle. This means they are a bit too bendy for someone in the habit of putting herself at risk of frequent dual-sport get-offs. However, the leather is much thicker than street-boot leather and, in combination with the interior padding, gives you a fair amount of cushion. Like most of the modern, high-tech boots I looked at, the Balance Oiled do have three buckles and a shin guard. Resellers tout it as the most comfortable boot they've ever worn, claiming a five-mile hike is not a problem. Gaerne also uses a modified MX boot midsole that's reportedly stiff enough to protect against folding when striking a hard object, but flexible enough to feel your footpegs. I must admit that the combination of old and new school features tempted me, even in spite of my logo-itis -- they put a big white G across the front. What to do? Probably just have a go at it with my fat black Sharpie. Sizes start at an American 8, but smaller sizes are available by special order for about $40 more. A budget version of this boot is the Gaerne Pro-Tech ($284) which is not waterproof. Forma Adventure dual-sport adventure motorcycle boots



    Such are the consequences of timing that if Forma had been on my radar when I was shopping for boots, this review may have featured their Forma Adventure boot ($299), with the TCX Infinity description placed about here. Forma is very popular in Europe and Australia but virtually unknown in the USA because they didn't have a US distributor until recently. Like the Gaerne, the Forma Adventure is made from beautiful pre-oiled leather and it comes in brown or black. Plus, it has all the hi-tech features of the TCX and others in this roundup: adjustable buckles, a shin plate, and sturdy heel and toe compartments. It's a beautiful combination of old school and new tech and I definitely want to try it on. The Drytex liner in Forma boots is, like Gore-tex, completely waterproof and breathable. It has great ankle support with molded inserts on the inner and outer ankle. So it's rigid and supportive, but built for comfort. In fact, it's more flexible at the toe than other adventure boots, and fans say it feels much more like a hiking boot. This really attracts me because I, like a lot of adventure touring folks, like to spend a significant time off the bike to explore, whether it's a short hike in a state park or a trek through a new town. Retailers stock sizes starting at 42 but you can special order sizes 38-41. And for you Steve McQueen types, yep, it also comes in brown. The only down side for me is that the Formas, like the Gaernes, Alpinestars and one of the SIDI models, suffers from logo-itis. Honestly, I'd pay more for a version without logos. For $20 less you might consider the Forma Boulder ($279), which does not have waterproof, breathable lining, but the untreated breathable nubuck suede leather is naturally breathable. If you like the look of the TCX Infinity but it's too expensive for your budget, take a look at Forma's Cape Horn ($299) touring boot, which looks a lot like it, though it lacks the elastic collar and the same level of heel and toe reinforcements. SIDI Adventure Gore-tex dual-sport adventure motorcycle boots


    I have a few friends who have invested in SIDI Adventure Gore-tex ($550) and swear that everyone else should wear them, too, even though they complain loudly about the squeak. In fact there's an entire thread on "The SIDI Adventure Squeak" in ADVRider, with wearers recommending solutions from furniture polish to baby powder. The SIDI squeak is background music at any adventure motorcycle event, no apologies required. But with all the complaints on this defect I can't imagine why SIDI hasn't solved the problem, especially as their boots are among the most expensive in the bunch. If they don't do something about it soon, I predict that all the other manufacturers will start to brag about their anti-squeak technology. The feature set of the more expensive two versions of this boot - the Adventure Gortex and the Adventure Rain - seemed too over the top for me, too "MX" for the kind of riding I'd be doing. Very reinforced. Lots of plastic. Clomp clomp. But unlike the SIDI Adventure Gortex ($550) or the Adventure Rains ($400), the Discovery Rain ($350) has the coveted elastic collar around the top, which made me look twice. (By the way, the SIDI website no longer lists the Adventure Rains, so they may have discontinued the model. However, many of the superstores still carry them.) SIDI Armada Gore-tex convertible street and dual-sport adventure motorcycle boot I was tempted, but in the end did not choose the Discovery Rain because of 1) the SIDI squeak and 2) logo-itis. I simply do not like wearing corporate logos. Logos on the more expensive Adventure Gore-tex and Adventure Rains are more subdued. The Discovery Rains have large white letters emblazoned across the front of the boot. To further complicate the shopping experience I discovered SIDI's Armada Gortex ($400), a beefy and good looking waterproof "convertible" boot in black leather with Gore-tex lining. The outer dual-sport sleeve provides ankle and shin protection and, once removed, reveals a fully-finished, good-looking cruising boot.


    Alpinestars Toucan GTX boots


    The Alpinestars Toucan ($449) is well-respected for their MX line. The Toucan is rich with safety features and it's also an extremely light weight boot at 2.12 lbs. You'd think that a boot of this weight would have greater flexibility but actually they're quite stiff, and they also lack the elastic collar around the top edge. Like the SIDIs, they were somewhat clunkier than I could live with. If you like this boot but can't afford the $449 price tag, take a look at their Scout model at $249. Also take note, the Alpinestars don't squeak. Dainese Carroarmato Gore-tex dual-sport adventure motorcycle boots


    I don't know anyone who wears the Dainese Carroarmato Gore-Tex boots ($369) but they're gorgeous and very comfortable. I might have considered them except that I was by now committed to the idea of that elastic collar around the top of the boot. I would certainly recommend taking a look if you're more street touring oriented than dirt. These boots are so good looking that you could wear them with normal clothing, and they also come in white with turquoise buckles. Now that's Italian!


    The range of dual-sport or adventure boots is staggering, and this selection is as far as I got without getting completely overwhelmed. I know people who wear BMW's dual-sport boots and they probably belong in this lineup, too, but they don't advertise online and I didn't get to the dealer. If you bought a BMW from a dealership, you may well have them, along with a lot of other branded BMW gear. What other boots did I leave out? Offerings from Europe - Wulfsports, for example, which a few of my British friends love. What boots do you love that I left out? I'd love to hear about them in the comments section at the end of this post. I'll also continue the discussion on my Facebook page.


    The overlap in touring, dual-sport, adventure touring, trials, and motocross is as varied as there are companies who provide them. Most of the trials boots I looked at online seem to have more protection than the Aerostich Combat boots, which are marketed as adventure touring boots. Your decision will vary according to the type of riding you do, size, weight, style, and price. I think the final decision comes down to these three factors:

    • Safety - What features can't you live without? Mine included shin guards, heel and toe reinforcements, and ankle protection.
    • Riding style - I ride mostly street and dirt roads, with enough technical trail riding to warrant seriously protective gear. And I aspire to ride more dirt. But if you ride mostly street with the occasional fire road you'll need less protection than someone who rides to search for good single track.
    • Price - Adventure touring boots are expensive, but even if you need to watch your budget you don't need to sacrifice safety. There are plenty of options in the less expensive trials and MX boot categories to choose from. And don't forget Craigslist, eBay, and check out the selection of used gear in my friend Jessica's Yellow Devil Gear shop in Los Angeles. She ships!

    Final Thoughts

    Despite lusting a bit over the Forma Adventures and the SIDI Armadas, I don't regret choosing TCX Infinity. They've already proven themselves on long tarmac rides and single-track challenges. They've protected me from a fall in a boulder field, from a slide on shale, from water crossings and desert sands. I have forgotten that I'm wearing them for very long periods of time. Cleaning them requires a quick swipe with a sponge and the occasional touchup with black shoe polish. And they're understated enough that I can get away with wearing them off the bike with tights and a skirt. In adventure motorcycle touring, less is more, so if I wear these and pack my flip-flops, well then, it looks like I'm ready for Baja.

    Join the Discussion

    What boots do you wear for adventure touring? Join the discussion.

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  • 11/23/13--06:25: Embracing the wheel

    Filming Samburu blacksmiths in northern Kenya.For years and years I refused to use rolling luggage for airline travel. My personal creed went something like, If I can’t carry it, I’m carrying too much. I made month-long-plus trips for magazine assignments carrying nothing but a medium Filson duffel, a rucksack, and a Lowepro Omni Pro Extreme camera case inside a Pelican 1500. I looked down with arch superiority on tourists pulling wheeled suitcases the size of hide-a-beds, and rolled my eyes when dodging rolling carry-ons on the way to the gate. It was satisfyingly stylish . . . usually. I remember one jog to catch a flight in the full-summer-humidity of Miami when I arrived at the ticket counter unstylishly drenched in sweat, while a Hawaiian-shirted bloke almost totally hidden by his full-suspension Samsonite looked on in bemusement. 

    In the last couple of years, however, several things have changed about the way I travel and what I need to take on extended overseas journeys. On the carry-on side, my camera equipment has expanded, and I’ve had to add the impedimenta required to fully exploit the Canon 5D MkII for video work—electronic eyepiece, shotgun mike, etc. A laptop is now de riguer for writing, staying in touch, and updating websites. (Random confession: I’ve also become helplessly attached to the Bose noise-canceling headphones I got as a birthday present.) And while I’ve kept my personal checked baggage under control, the increasing number of projects and friends Roseann and I have in East Africa means we often take on the roles of diplomatic couriers, except without the immunity part. For example, on the trip during which I’m writing this, we’re carrying 125 books documenting a recent project (and weighing a pound each) to a Maasai community in the South Rift Valley; plus 36 syringes of equine de-worming medicine, a set of four rubber Cavallo hoof boots, an anti-wind-sucking collar (another equine device; too arcane to explain here), and two 12-volt spotlights, all for friends in Nanyuki who are starting a horseback safari business. (Apparently, in distinct contrast to human medications, veterinary drugs are vastly cheaper in the U.S. than in the developing world.)

    The 1510 makes a fine impromptu desk for downloading images to the Mac Air.

    So something had to give. Since the camera equipment was inching toward 30 pounds on its own, and was unthinkable as checked baggage, it was the sensible choice to go wheeled. But I had further criteria. Given the value of the lot, maximum protection was necessary from those people who will cram their own baggage against whatever is already in the overhead bin. I also wanted something fully dust- and waterproof for more remote flights off dirt strips, and for use as a vehicle-based case in the bush. Okay, let’s be frank: I also desperately wanted something that didn’t look like a normal rolling carry-on. Pathetic.

    Thus I regretfully consigned my superb but wheel-free Billingham 550 camera bag to more local duty (carrying it was beginning to give me a gait even more like Quasimodo than my usual off-kilter walk), and ordered the obvious solution: A Pelican 1510 carry-on. Wheels, extendable handle, check (sigh). Crush, dust, and water-proof, check. Über-cool look, check—and of course the very first time I stood in line with it, the guy behind me remarked favorably, then asked, “Camera equipment?” So I suppose you could also call it an über “steal me” look—but then that’s half the point of carrying it on, right? The other being to spare it from the care of baggage handlers—although if I’m forced to check it on some overbooked flight, the contents now stand a way-better-than-average chance of surviving.

    The 1510 is comfortably under the size of so many carry-ons I see these days, which barely fit into an empty overhead bin, much less one already occupied. It fit end-on into the bin over our seats on the 767 that took us from D.C. to Brussels; in fact, two of them fit side by side with room left for other passengers’ items.

    Two? Yes—after seeing how well the 1510 worked for camera equipment, Roseann ordered another while we were in D.C. (one-day delivery via the brilliant and facilitative Amazon Prime) to use as her regular carry-on. All the same characteristics that worked for cameras worked just as well for her laptop, iPad, backup hard drives, journal, GoPro, and spare clothes.

    Wheels are sturdy, but noisier than some. Since Roseann might be the consummate connoisseur of carry-on bags—she’s been through . . . six? eight? . . . looking for the perfect model—I can give the Pelican 1510 no higher praise than to note her nod of approval. 

    I found the case’s extendable handle to be very quick to deploy or stow; however, the grip is strangely squared-off and less than comfortable—no big deal, as I’ll simply fire up the Dremel when we get home and round it off a bit. The newer Pelican latches are much easier to use than their originals, although still not quite as effortless as those on the old Hardigg Storm cases (since Hardigg was bought by Pelican; why not just copy them?). The over-center hinges easily hold the lid open even on a bouncy road.

    Handle is uncomfortably square - but hackable.

    As I write this, we’re in Isiolo, near Samburu country in the north of Kenya. The 1510 and its TrekPak divider system (see below) have been performing superbly as a vehicle-based camera case. It’s been riding on the rear bench in the Land Rover, and I strapped it to the back of a Boda Boda taxi (the ubiquitous Chinese motorcycles that carry people everywhere in East Africa) for a spine-jarring cross-country ride to a hill where we wanted to do some filming. When the exterior gets dusty we either brush it off or douse it with a bucket of water. The contents are nearly as easy to access as they were from the Billingham, although in the configuration as I have it now I can’t store a body with lens attached inside, as I could with the soft bag. It would be possible with less equipment, but the trade-off has been worth it.

    Strapped in the back seat of the Defender. We’re also near enough to Somali bandit country that the first thing I spotted (and, er, bought) in town was a long-bladed stabbing weapon known locally as a “Somali sword.” If by some remote chance we need to flee from a dodgy looking roadblock in the bush farther north, I can be sure our camera gear will shrug off all the dust and banging around and vertical G-forces one experiences inside a Defender with its 300 Tdi at redline on a corrugated Kenyan two-track.

    Two-piece latches are much easier to operate than Pelican's originals. Steel padlock insert is another improvement. 

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  • 11/24/13--04:39: Welcome home . . .
  •  . . . after a research trip to northern Kenya filming traditional Samburu blacksmiths. At Dulles Airport we had the following exchange.

    Customs officer: "What's in the long tubes?"

    Us: "Four spears, two bows, knives, and a bunch of arrows."

    Customs officer: "Have a nice day."

    Great to be back in the U.S.


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  • 11/29/13--06:04: Storing camper jacks
  • Reader Steve sent the following question:

    I noticed that you don't have jacks mounted on your FWC. Did you not purchase these items, or did you just take them off? If you did take them off I was wondering where you stored them? I was going to get clever and replace the bolts holding mine onto my Hawk with clevis pins and lock pins but discovered this was almost as fiddily as dealing with the bolts and nuts. I always have a socket set and wrenches with me anyway. Do you store them in the camper or in the truck when you travel? I was just wondering if you had a preference? I have a Ford F350 diesel crew cab with a 6.5 foot bed and the area behind the front seats is bigger than some apartments I've lived in so I turned it into a storage area with a bench. Anyway, I was just wondering if you had any brilliant ideas for dealing with this problem that I hadn't thought of.

    Steve, we didn't buy camper jacks for two reasons: First, we have the luxury of being able to leave the camper on the truck all the time, rather than needing to remove it for utility when not traveling. And second, should we have to remove the camper for maintenance or repair, I have a friend who owns a set of jacks who is a remarkably cheap date - a pound of good coffee or a six-pack of quality beer is enough to get all sorts of stuff out of him, including professional welding and, recently, replacing a broken window in our middle-of-nowhere cottage when we were out of the country. I'll probably have to pay him for the glass, though.

    Where was I? Right: We did make sure to buy jack brackets when we ordered the camper, as adding those later would be a real pain.

    It sounds from your question that you occasionally remove the camper while traveling, to establish a base camp and leave the truck free for exploring - a great idea. It would be nice to avoid taking up interior storage space with them, no matter how generous that space is in your F350. Looking back at a couple of projects we've done on the JATAC, I wonder if you could exploit the underside of the camper overhang, as we did for our table (here), and fabricate a bracket that would securely hold the four jacks. Musing on the issue, I looked at Yakima accesories and found their Rattler Wheel Straps (here). Depending on their rating and the weight of your individual jacks, you might employ those plus some sort of safety backup.

    Another spot might be the side overhang on your camper, if there is one, where we store our Hi-Lift jack (here). I also know several people who've fabricated a Hi-Lift jack mount on the rear wall of their camper, to the right of the door. Finally, if you have steps to access the camper's roof, it would be simple to make a mount to store them there. Sorry for the lack of a definitive answer, but I hope this gives you some ideas. Let me know what you wind up with. And if you need some fabricating work, I have this friend . . .  

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  • 12/03/13--09:04: Vintage pocket compass
  • I admit to a bit of an obsession with always being aware of cardinal directions—even in the briefest and most inconsequential of circumstances, such as while transiting between gates in a strange airport. I have a good sense of direction and can remain oriented through multiple turns in unfamiliar terrain (such as, for example, during a recent densely overcast day in downtown Brussels), but I need a base map in my head to start with, and I’m not deluded enough to think I can instinctively tell which way is north in such conditions. In fact, my first guess in Brussels was just about 180 degrees off—oops. 

    Meet my friend, the pocket compass. It’s a WWII-vintage Wittnauer with a jeweled flat needle, a push-button lid and needle lock on its nickel case, and a ring in case I ever want to attach a fancy silver chain to it (in case I ever start wearing a waistcoat while traveling). There’s nothing elaborate about it—it pretty much points toward magnetic north, period. 

    I know what many of you are thinking: An iPhone (or, I imagine, any smartphone) can do exactly the same thing with a free app. Technically, you’re right, but trust me, it’s not the same. 

    First, I can deploy and check this compass in a couple of seconds, far more quickly than the slide-to-unlock and multiple-step sequence of the iPhone. Plus, if one employs the iPhone compass one appears to be just another dullard staring mindlessly at one’s iPhone. Flip open the Wittnauer on a foreign city street, and complete strangers (at least, those not staring at their iPhones) stop and inquire admiringly of it, then go on to offer detailed directions and/or tips on where to go and what to see. This happened to me on the supposedly aloof streets of New York City. Twice.

    The Wittnauer company dates from 1890, when Albert Wittnauer immigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland and opened a watchmaking shop with his brothers. The U.S. Navy adopted the company’s precision timepieces for early aviation tests, and in 1941 (after merging with the Longines company in 1936) Wittnauer won a contract to produce pocket compasses for the military—mostly to be included in aircraft survival kits. I’ve yet to determine how many nearly identical compasses the company produced for that contract, but it must have been a zillion, because they’re still easy to find in perfect working order. Some are stamped “U.S.” on the outside of the case; others (mine included) are not—it seems random. You can buy decent examples for around $40, or spend $150 for a mint example in its original pouch and box. 

    If that seems steep for a simple seven-decade-old instrument, just remember that your iPhone won’t be worth $40 in five years. If you’re like me, I’m willing to bet you’ll soon be loath to leave the house without that reassuring lump in your pocket.

    An excellent source for pocket compass history is Korneila Takacs's book Compass Chronicles. She also sells selected vintage pieces (including the superb example above) on her site, here.

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    They’re not unreliable. They’re simply co-dependent.

    I arrived at this conclusion in a single flash of realization after driving Land Rovers many thousands of miles in East Africa, and putting in equal time in Land Cruisers on many of the same routes. Unlike the passionately monogamous fans of either vehicle, I love them both and see their individual strengths and weaknesses with what I feel is a nearly complete lack of prejudice. 

    The 70-Series Troopie is the undisputed king of load-hauling, its cavernous cargo area capable of swallowing a scandalous mountain of kit if the third row seat is removed (remove the second row and it could double as a hangar). The running gear is mightily overbuilt, and the naturally aspirated, six-cylinder 1HZ diesel engine—still the powerplant of choice in Africa—provides all the lazy momentum one needs and will seemingly run forever, while remaining simple to service (unlike its powerful but much more complex twin-turbo V8 descendant). With a factory rear locker the Troopie will conquer any obstacle one is likely to encounter on safari, and with 180 liters of fuel in the stock tanks it has country-crossing range. The Troopie’s biggest disadvantage is its stiff suspension, even with the move to front coils and longer rear leafs in 1999. Parts, on the rare occasions you need them, are also extremely expensive, at least in East Africa.

    The Defender soundly trumps the Land Cruiser in ride comfort—more of an advantage than you’d think if you haven’t done 300 miles of Tanzanian B-roads in one day. The Defenders we normally use are further enhanced with TJM coils and the superb Koni Raid shock absorbers, and are simply unflappable in any conditions and under any load. The 300Tdi—like Toyota’s 1HZ since supplanted but still the favorite of bush mechanics—is a good old plodder and provides excellent fuel economy. And—again not to be underestimated—the squared-off internal configuration of the Defender makes it a perfect blank canvas for installing all sorts of platforms and cargo barriers, which allow packing more equipment than mere measurements would indicate. The ubiquitous Wolf Pack boxes slot in particularly well.

    That boxy Defender shape is efficient. It holds all this.

    Downsides? The Defender retains the driving compartment dimensions of its earliest progenitors, designed when the average Englishman was probably not much taller than his more famous compatriot Thomas Edward Lawrence, whose height was variously pegged between five-four and five-six. Legroom is only adequate even for my five-nine frame, and all proper Defender owners can point proudly to the calluses on their outside elbows where they repeatedly slam into the door during normal operation of the steering wheel. It doesn’t help that Defender “seats” should always be described inside quotation marks.

    Land Rover: Comfortable ride, but watch that right elbow.

    Then there’s the reliability thing.

    First let’s bin the snide dismissals of Land Cruiser disciples who’ve never driven, much less owned, a Land Rover yet claim personal encyclopedic statistics of fault-ridden Defenders. We can also dismiss those amusingly irrational Defender defenders unwilling to admit any flaws in their cherished British steeds. One fellow I know whose Land Rover blew a differential on a cross-Africa trip categorically refused to call it a breakdown because, as he insisted, “Differentials are maintenance items.” Okaaaay . . .

    Troopie: Cavernous, but an inferior suspension.

    Nevertheless. On a purely personal—and, admittedly, too-small-to-be statistically-significant— level, out of three major trips on which I’ve driven Defender 110s, I’ve experienced a notable mechanical fault on . . . three trips. During the first, the vehicle we drove would sporadically and completely unpredictably simply . . . stop running. The engine would die and the starter would turn healthily but futilely. Yet, oddly, after a nap of ten minutes or so (discovered completely by accident the first time), it would start right up again and run perfectly. As yet unfamiliar with the vagaries of the 300Tdi, I quickly learned about part #RTC6702, the fuel cutoff solenoid. Apparently, when this part is nearing the end of its life the electromagnet inside will randomly lose connectivity and cut off the fuel supply, only to randomly reconnect after a brief hiatus. It’s a ten-minute replacement job once you know about it.

    On the second trip, with a group of ConserVentures volunteers and a pair of Defenders, we faced the challenge of ascending the Nguruman Escarpment—the 2,000-foot west wall of the Rift Valley—via a private, little-used, and in places very steep track. Shortly into the climb, it became obvious I had virtually zero traction in the 110 I was driving. The center diff lock was not operating—and when the center diff lock on a full-time-four-wheel-drive vehicle is not operating, you have a one-wheel-drive vehicle. We were rescued by none other than Philip Leakey of the anthropologist clan, who towed me (with his beat-up 80-Series Land Cruiser) 15 kilometers to his property halfway up the escarpment, after which Roseann towed me the rest of the way in her 110. 

    In a twist of irony, the next trip resulted in the exact opposite problem. To access the farm of some friends down a muddy and slick road, I engaged the center diff lock to ensure traction to both axles. When we left and hit tarmac again a few days later, I moved the lever back to the right to disengage it. The next hundred kilometers went smoothly, but then, as I had to negotiate a tight roundabout and was admiring a brand new Kenya Wildlife Service Land Cruiser pickup, I heard and felt the squeal of tires protesting at being forced to turn at different speeds—the diff lock was still engaged. I climbed under the 110 with a flashlight and quickly found the problem: The lever that engages the lock had popped out of its arm. Repair took a couple of minutes.

    Lever (right arrow) fits into arm (left arrow)

    And then it hit me. At the exact moment the trouble had manifested itself, I had been experiencing, as Jimmy Carter once put it, “lust in my heart” for that spanky new Land Cruiser. Could it be . . . ?

    I lay there and thought back to other situations. East Africa is rich with lustable (to coin a word) expedition vehicles. On the previous trip, the day before we were to climb the escarpment we stayed in a research camp run by the local Maasai community. I distinctly remembered a German couple who had visited in a well-kitted turbodiesel Toyota Hilux, which I had inspected approvingly—while the Land Rover in which I was shortly to be immobilized stood by silently. Broodingly . . .

    And the trip before that? I had stopped by the Toyota dealer in Nairobi and picked up a couple of brochures, which I casually and heedlessly stored in the center console of the Land Rover

    The more I thought about it, the more suspicious parallels I found. The beat-up Series III 88 I’d brought home a few years ago to a house already occupied by two Land Cruisers, and whose rear prop shaft had blown a U-joint two days later? Of course . . .

    Lying under the 110 with its diff lock now free, I mused on what Land Rover disciples frequently point out as the salient difference between their vehicles and Japanese pretenders: the so-called “personality” factor. Land Rovers, it’s argued, have it, while Land Cruisers, however competent and reliable, are simply appliances with no more soul than a refrigerator. I’d always viewed this idea dubiously—now I wasn’t so sure. Land Rovers, it appeared, did have personality, and that personality included the clairvoyant ability to detect the slightest hint of disloyalty, and to react in the most immediately petulant way possible. Nothing major, mind you; just a reminder of your interdependent relationship.

    Come to think of it, it does sort of look like a tipped-over refrigerator . . .

    An obvious experiment presented itself. We still had several hundred miles to drive before reaching Arusha, where we were to return the vehicle. I resolved to remain utterly faithful to Solihull products for the duration. As we drove south toward Namanga, whenever I spied a Land Cruiser or Hilux coming toward us I did the mental equivalent of closing my eyes, sticking my fingers in my ears, and repeating lalalalalalala to distract me from the approaching “appliance.” That worked for a while, but then I went active: At the first hint of a familiar approaching Japanese silhouette, I concentrated, envisioning instead a customized Defender 130 Crewcab with Michelin XZL tires, a Superwinch Husky, and a full Safety Devices roll cage. Or I imagined a completely restored 101 Forward Control equipped with a Bagnold sun compass. Or I pictured Sarah Batten, the lovely director of the Land Rover Experience training division (whoa, careful with the “lust in the heart” thing there, Jonathan).

    Anyway, call it coincidence, but it worked. The 110 purred along happily through Kenya and into Tanzania, carried us down the long, brutal track to Lake Eyasi and back with what seemed like even more perfect suspension control than usual, and gave me the distinct impression that the needle on the fuel gauge was retreating at a slower pace than it had been. Was there a bit more get up and go in the 300Tdi on the road back past Ngorongoro? Whatever—I was convinced I had uncovered the secret to the “unreliable” Land Rover mystique.

    We parked in front of the excellent Café Barista, in downtown Arusha, to get a cappuccino before returning the 110. As we came out I noticed a really nice Mercedes G-Wagen drive by—the bare-bones turbodiesel African version, not the leather-wrapped U.S. model. I would have given it a closer look, but the damned key was refusing to open the Land Rover’s door, and . . .  

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  • 12/15/13--08:18: Last-minute gift ideas

    When it's 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the only adventure you can think of involves a warm drink in an armchair by the fire, it's time to grab some adventure reading:

    OUTDOORX4Charter subscription, $25.


    ADVENTURE MOTORCYCLE MAGAZINE – Digital subscription, $8.99. 
    ANXIETY ACROSS THE AMERICAS – by Bill Dwyer, $13.99

    CRAMPBUSTER $9.86. This stocking stuffer will be much-appreciated by anyone who cruises long distance on a bike. From

    HYBRIDLIGHT 150C, $50This is the first solar-powered flashlight I’ve tried that produces a beam useful for more than reading or walking. Its 150-lumen output elevates it to the status of a practical security light—sufficient for, say, checking the bush for the eyeshine of hippos on the way from campfire to tent—and it will do so for eight hours on one charge. Not only that, the 150C can be stored for seven years with only a ten percent loss in charge. Need more? A USB and micro-USB port allow you to quick-charge the light—or charge your cell phone while the light soaks up energy from the sun. Hybridlight

    TEMBO TUSK EXTREME DUTY LANTERN HANGER,  $95. If the idea of an “extreme duty” lantern hanger strikes you as humorous, you’ve never used some of the lame examples I’ve tried over the years. This one will last forever and effortlessly support your heaviest vintage Petromax. A mid-pole bracket takes a roll of paper towels, and auxiliary hooks hold kitchen utensils. The hanger  disassembles into an easily stowable 12-inch-long case. TemboTusk



    SNOW PEAK MICRO OVAL DUTCH OVEN, $86. Snow Peak’s products show up in my product guides as often as BMW cars show up in Car and Driver’s Ten Best lists, and for the same reasons: Both companies are driven to engineer excellence into the most ordinary product, be it a sedan or a backpacking stove. This compact Dutch oven is no exception. It’s hand-crafted in the famous Iwate region of Japan, using a proprietary silica/sand casting technique, and is just the right size for cooking dinner or dessert for two. Snow Peak 


    BAJA RACK JEEP JK EXPEDITION RACK, $970. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is America’s world-class expedition vehicle, and Baja Rack manufactures a roof rack worthy of that stature. The full-length rack has a dynamic load capacity of 300 pounds (600 pounds static, if you want to stand on it for photography or game viewing), and mounts to the chassis and A-pillar of the JK with no drilling required. A flat platform in the rear is designed to accept a roof tent, and numerous accessories allow attaching everything from fuel cans to Maxtrax sand mats. Whether you’re pitting your JK against Moab or Mozambique, the Expedition Rack will live up to its name. Baja Rack (Also for Land Rover, Toyota, Mercedes, Hummer)
    National Luna Weekender 52-liter fridge/freezer, $1470. I’ve never figured out why National Luna calls this the “Weekender.” It’s fully capable of handling enough food for a full-on expedition—as one just did for us on a three-week excursion through Tanzania and Kenya. We kept plenty of fresh food cold in the fridge, and the freezer compartment, in addition to maintaining ice cream at the proper chill, also handily re-froze blue-ice packs for Roseann’s sprained ankle. The aluminum cladding saves six pounds (and $180) over the stainless model, but as far as we could tell is just as rugged. The National Luna repays its premium price with a micro-processor controlled combination of fast chilling and extremely efficient energy usage. Equipt

    FORCE K9 TACTICAL VEST, $150. It had to happen: A tactical dog vest. Kidding aside, the Force K9 vest’s PALS webbing allows easy attachment of  a myriad of MOLLE accessories, from pouches suitable for Purina to water bladders. You can even have one custom-tailored to your Black Ops dog’s measurements. They’re missing a bet if they don’t introduce a doggie shemagh. Force K9

    OVERLAND TRAINING, $CUSTOM. The gift of training keeps giving for years, in confidence and competence down the road. May we suggest a couple of our partners for great training experiences: Through teamwork and the execution of strategic decisions in naturally challenging settings, High Trails Expeditions will teach you and your team—whether business or expedition—how to understand the consequences of actions to yourself and others. This is the ultimate leadership course built for people like us, around overland skills. If your passion is adventure motorcycling, then look no further than Jim Hyde's offerings at Raw-Hyde Adventures. Now with an outpost in southern Colorado's Continental Divide country as well as SOCAL, you can learn with the best, in the most beautiful places. High Trails Expeditions, Raw-Hyde Adventures.

    TRIUMPH TIGER 800 ABS, $11,000. The reborn Triumph motorcycle company has risen to the same legendary status as its progenitor did half a century 
    ago by offering stylishly different takes on its competitors machines, and the Tiger 800 ABS continues the tradition with a three-cylinder engine in place of the twin more common in this displacement range, and a minimalist approach to bodywork. The hardware is all there for adventures anywhere on earth: fuel injection (contributing to 93 horsepower), a six-speed transmission, a twin-tube trellis frame, twin-piston calipers on the dual floating front disc brakes, adjustable seat height, and much more. Triumph at  SunandFunMotorsports (an Overland Expo partner)

    ALL-TERRAIN WARRIOR BRAVO ($TBA)Shipping-container houses are becoming popular among the alternate lifestyle crowd. Well, here’s a four-wheel-drive house/expedition machine that will fit inside a shipping container for extra-continental adventures. The All-Terrain Warriors Bravo pops its rigid roof to reveal a complete living area (and an out-of-the-mud porch) for a luxurious campsite anywhere on the planet. When you’re ready to move, fire up the fuel-efficient Mitsubishi turbodiesel—with 63 gallons of fuel on board (and 80 gallons of water) you can cover a lot of the planet at a go. All-Terrain Warriors USA

    The perfect gift: Overland Expo 2014. Give the gift of 300+ session-hours of classes, programs, demos, discussions, and films; shopping close to 200 exhibitors of adventure gear and services; and meeting thousands of like-minded adventurers. Still a bargain at $270 (single), $485 (double) 

    CLICK HERE for details.
    Contact us to arrange a GIFT CERTIFICATE or

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    If you’ve done much exploring around the backroads and four-wheel-drive trails of Arizona in the last few years, odds are you’ll remember at some point noticing a silver Jeep Wrangler being led by a black lab mix with a white chest patch, either trotting along at a good pace on a dirt road or scrambling up a 4+ obstacle. This was Brian DeArmon’s Cherokee, who for a decade served as companion and canine overland ambassador extraordinaire. Cherokee got along with just about any human, any dog, and any thing—with the notable exception of scale RC models, which she despised and attempted to forcibly disassemble whenever one dared to buzz through a group camp.

    She also had a fine-tuned sense of diplomacy. Most other dogs she would bound right up to, tail wagging. But at a camp six or seven years ago, when our border collie Rob was old, half-blind and deaf, and frightened of other dogs, we watched Cherokee gallop up to the margin of our site, then wait, tail wagging, until Rob noticed her. She then tiptoed in slowly, still wagging, until Rob was able to take full measure of her and relax. This, we realized, was a dog that grasped senility.

    As she got older and grayer, Cherokee’s extra-vehicular excursions became fewer and shorter, and she got used to riding in the cab of Brian’s Dodge pickup, to be lowered to the ground where she could wander around camp with just as much joie de vivre but a bit more dignity.

    There will be an empty space in those camps from now on. Cherokee RIP. And say hello to Rob for us.

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    There are certain things I’m good—even very good—at learning intuitively. Bicycle and car repair, plumbing and electrical systems, carpentry, leatherwork—these are examples of skills I learned by simple trial and error, or with a book. I picked up adequate welding pretty quickly with some tutoring from Master Brian DeArmon. No “assembly required” toy or piece of furniture has ever given me the slightest trouble. 

    Sadly, computers, smartphones, GPS units, and similar devices are not among those things. My wife could sit down with a laptop manufactured by Alpha Centaurians who use click language and a base 7 numbering system, mess around with it for about five minutes, then exclaim, “Oh! Okay . . . got it.” Not me—I still struggle with basic keyboard shortcuts on my Mac Air, and the single most frequently uttered line from my desk in our office is, “Honey, can you come here and make this damn thing work?” It’s not that I’m a Luddite—I’m in awe of the new world represented by these tools. I simply have no aptitude for them.

    Which, of course, makes me the ideal person to test them. If I can master, say, a GPS unit, it’s a safe bet an average three-year-old can as well. I’m referring here to a three-year-old bonobo.

    When I stopped by the Text Anywhere booth at the Outdoor Retailer show last summer, the device on display certainly looked Jonathan-friendly: It had exactly one operating button, for “on” and “off.” (Oh! Okay . . . got it, I thought.) The information claimed one could send and receive text messages from virtually anywhere on earth through the Iridium satellite network (Fantastic, I thought) by synching with a Wi-Fi-equipped smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

    Sigh . . . I should have known there’d be a catch. Nevertheless, I asked to take home a unit to test, and arranged with Gary Harder of ROM Communications to walk me through the setup later over the phone. 

    Unlike some similar devices, the TA uses a web app rather than an OS-specific app, which gives the user more flexibility in the choice of paired devices. Also, critically, it can be activated with a $29.99 monthly rate (which includes 100 text or email messages, each up to 160 characters long), or the account can be idled for $5 per month—extremely handy if, like most people, you only take a few trips per year when satellite messaging would come in handy or essential. The 4 by 4 by 1.5-inch cuboid device works off four available-everywhere AA batteries (alkaline or rechargeable) or an included 12V cigarette-plug adapter. The Iridium satellite network ensures true global coverage, unlike systems reliant on the Globalstar or Inmarsat networks.

    I called Gary a few weeks later, and (after teaching me how to use the speaker function on my iPhone: “Oh! Okay . . . got it”), he figuratively held my hand through a sequence most people would do on their own with the quick-start guide included with the device, after setting up an account. I powered up the Text Anywhere on the hood of the Land Cruiser (as with any satellite-dependent system you need a clear view of the sky), found its network on the iPhone, then used Safari to connect to the Text Anywhere site, and add a bookmark for it on the phone’s home screen. 

    “All right, what now?” I asked. 

    “That’s it,” he replied.

    “Um, say again?”

    “That’s it; you’re ready to go. When you want to send a text or email, just power up the device, call up the Wi-Fi on your phone and choose the Text Anywhere network. Then tap the Text Anywhere icon on the home screen, and hit the mail icon. Type in either an email address or a phone number, then type your message. The red status light on the unit stops blinking when the message has been sent successfully. If someone sends you a message while it’s off, it will be stored in the system for five days until you log on again.”

    I made a vaguely bonobo-like sound of amazement. Could it possibly be that easy? I hung up, powered everything down, started it up again, and sent a text to Roseann, who was in town (I do have opposable thumbs). A couple of minutes later I got a return text. 


    Since then I’ve sent and received messages in various locations outside cell range and have yet to have a failure (unlike some devices, the Text Anywhere only connects via satellite, rather than bouncing back and forth between cell and satellite networks). I’m hoping to hang on to the review sample long enough to take it to Africa later this year.

    Besides the utter simplicity of use and ease of idling the account, there’s another difference between the Text Anywhere and, for example, the DeLorme inReach or SPOT devices: The Text Anywhere includes no SOS emergency button, so it’s up to you to arrange help by communicating with friends or local emergency services. Frankly that’s fine by me, as it will eliminate expensive false alarms such as the incident we had at last year’s Overland Expo, when a visiting motorcyclist accidentally activated the SOS on his SPOT (he was found by local rescue services having a beer in a Flagstaff pub). Also, while it’s more trouble than hitting a single button, you can arrange far more effective and relevant assistance by making potential rescuers aware of the exact situation. Response might vary considerably depending on whether you’re lying with a broken leg at 16,000 feet on Mount Kenya, or sitting 10,000 feet below with your arm swelling from a puff adder bite.

    Mostly the Text Anywhere will simply enable you to keep in touch with friends and family no matter where you are on the planet. Two-way communication means they’ll know you’re okay and you’ll know they’re okay. You can also post to social media to update hundreds of “friends” at a time about your adventures.

    After several products have attempted with varying degrees of success to provide global text communication for travelers to remote locations, the Text Anywhere finally has made the concept accessible and simple, even for those of us lacking basic technological aptitude.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have a banana.


    The Text Anywhere is $399 and is compatible with almost all Wi-Fi-enabled devices. An iSE version, compatible only with iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, and iTouch) is $339. Text Anywhere is HERE.

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    Truck and SUV manufacturers are incorporating more and more technological gadgets into their vehicles with the goal of enhancing off-highway performance and safety. One that is becoming nearly universal is hill-descent control. I was dubious of the system at first, but after driving several vehicles equipped with it, I have to say it does a better job than I can do in my manual-transmission FJ40 using engine braking along with threshold application of the brake pedal. Yes, you're relying on a mechanical aid, and I believe you should also practice the skills to do without it just in case something fails, but otherwise it's a brilliant invention and makes negotiating a very steep downhill slope child's play. 

    I'm going to be publishing a series of short videos on various systems such as this, for those not already familiar with them. Here is the first one, on our Vimeo channel (click on the title to go to the full-size version):

    Overland Tech and Travel - Hill-descent control from ConserVentures on Vimeo

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  • 01/06/14--15:51: Coming soon to the JATAC

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  • 01/13/14--10:21: The über camera strap

    The camera straps included with pro-level DSLRs from the Canon/Nikon/et al factories have improved significantly over the years, from the stingy half-inch-wide strips of yore to reasonably comfortable nylon webbing an inch and a half across. However, at the same time we’re carrying cameras increasingly burdened with additional battery packs and massive lenses. So overall comfort has scarcely advanced. 

     For those of us who pursue photography in the outdoors, especially in active or even hazardous situations, the stock straps fall short in several other ways. Adjusting the length from a cold morning under a down jacket to a warm afternoon in shirtsleeves is such a pain as to be not      worth the trouble. And the only way to get the camera off is to lift it over your head and whatever headgear you might be wearing. Usually this is simply inconvenient, but what if you need to ditch it right now in a real emergency?

    These considerations and others inspired William Egbert of Vulture Equipment Works to start from scratch and design the A2 and A4 camera straps.

    The Vulture straps are made from true military-spec nylon webbing, an inch and three-quarters wide. The weave is tight but extremely pliable; I found the A2 strap conformed to my shoulder comfortably even burdened with a 5D MKII and a heavy lens. It’s also adjustable for length in seconds. But that’s not where the innovation is. The connection to the camera’s stock strap eyelets is accomplished with two short “lower risers,” which then clip to the main strap via a pair of carabiners. Not the cheesy little things you find in the jar at the counter of the hardware store—these are stout mountaineering-grade items.

    The carabiners perform several functions. You can unclip one to remove the camera and strap without having to go over your head. You can also convert the system to single-point carry by clipping one carabiner to the other. Traveling alone in a vehicle? Clip the risers to the posts of the headrest on the passenger’s seat. Your camera will be instantly accessible, yet immune to bouncing off the seat. You can also easily rig slings to suspend the camera inside vehicles or aircraft, or attach extra sets of lower risers to other things you might want to carry with the strap—heavy tripods, for example.

    For me, their most useful function is realized by clipping them to the Vulture Equipment Works “A2T” strap. This cunning device is best described as a reverse monopod: Picture an adjustable length of nylon webbing with a loop at each end. Clip the lower risers on your camera into the upper loop, step into the lower loop and put upward pressure on the camera. I was astonished at how much stability it adds and how much camera shake was eliminated for video work, all from an accessory you can roll up and carry in a bush-jacket pocket. A brilliant accessory (and which could be used with a standard camera strap by looping the strap through it).

    Monopod in a pocket: the VEW A2T

    The A4 camera strap is similar to the A2, but adds a true one-hand quick-release. Normally secured with a safety-wire loop, this buckle will instantly free you from the camera with a single squeeze—assuming you find yourself in a position where you’re willing to instantly free yourself from $5,000 worth of camera and lens. I can think of a couple times I’ve been close. There was this elephant in Zambia . . .

    While the Vulture straps adjust for length quickly, the shortest setting was a bit long for me. I found I could easily reduce the length beyond that setting, but then a tail of strap hung loosely. I’m considering simply cutting it off and burning the end; however, that would eliminate the nice factory-stitched end. Perhaps Vulture will offer optional strap lengths in the future. I also worry about those stout carabiners damaging the camera itself—I noticed that, with shorter lenses, the carabiner could theoretically whack the front element. Whether it could do so with enough momentum to cause damage is speculation. 

    If you think you’ve got a need for the stoutest, made-in-the-U.S camera strap on the planet, Vulture Equipment Works is HERE.

    Remove before flying: A safety wire secures the quick-release when you're unlikely to be chased by elephants. 

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  • 01/15/14--07:31: An unexpected truck review
  • The Ram 1500 in front of the Very Large Array in New Mexico

    Christmas day found Roseann and me driving a rented pickup from Tucson to Cubero, New Mexico, due to an unexpected family situation. We wound up with a 2014 Ram, a two-wheel-drive 1500 Quad-cab (four doors but a slightly smaller rear passenger area than the Crew-cab). I’m always interested to drive new vehicles, and it had been some time since I’d been in a current Ram.

    Mostly it was familiar and unremarkable big-truck territory. Plenty of room, a well-organized if ordinary dash and interior. The ride was on the excellent side of very good, as were the seats. But what got my attention was the drivetrain: a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and a six-speed transmission.

    The engine of course had more than enough (395) horsepower, although the “Hemi” hype is a bit misleading. Hemispherical combustion chambers were fairly advanced stuff 50 years ago—in addition to their cross-flow design, the dome-shaped combustion chambers allowed larger intake and exhaust valves to be fitted, and the centrally located spark plug enhanced flame propagation. But the configuration inhibited fuel quench - the turbulence generated when the piston reaches the top of its compression stroke - and thus struggled to achieve complete burn. Modern overhead-cam, multi-valve heads have eclipsed the design in most aspects - power, fuel economy, and emission control—at the expense of complexity and weight, of course.

    Nevertheless, Chrysler has made the 5.7 work, using various newer tricks such as variable camshaft timing and variable displacement (cylinder deactivation at highway speeds) to keep it competitive.

    The biggest problem with the truck we drove (and of course it was a single example, albeit quite new with fewer than 20,000 miles on it) was that six-speed transmission. Accelerating from a stop at part throttle, there was a massive hesitation between first and second gear; it felt like a manual shift performed by a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit. Floor it to the point of burning rubber and the syndrome went away completely, but one does not want to drive that way all the time, especially in one-streetlight New Mexico towns with bored sheriff deputies hanging around annoyed at having to work the holiday. 

    Then, once to speed, on any sort of ascent the transmission hunted schizophrenically between ratios, constantly downshifting one gear, two gears—then upshifting again if the grade flattened by one percent, only to drop back down again. Really, I would have thought given 410 lb.-ft. of torque such eager downshifting would be superfluous. I finally began using the manual shift rocker on the lever to hold the truck in one gear on ascents.

    However, the tranny foibles were (nearly) forgiven once I tallied the fuel economy for the 1,000-mile journey, which came out to almost exactly 20 miles per gallon. For a 395-horsepower, 5,200-pound pickup on a real-world trip involving lots of mountainous terrain, that’s impressive, and made me think the "Hemi" has some life in it yet. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the Ram’s new 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 will deliver. 

    It’s nice to see the American truck makers back at the forefront of innovation in full-size trucks. Ford’s 2015 F150 is set to be a stunning example with its extensive use of aluminum. I can’t help but wonder if Toyota is ever going to step up and do something equally revolutionary with the Tundra.


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  • 01/17/14--06:30: Et tu, Filson?

    Lumberjacks well-equipped in early C.C. Filson clothingThe history of exploration in the 20th century is littered with outfitters that got their start and earned fame by offering high-quality, durable clothing and equipment suitable for demanding use in the field, and which then devolved into mere fashion outlets flogging branded urban wear showing little if anything in common with their heritage.

    Walk into an Abercrombie and Fitch store today and tell a clerk you’d like to be fitted for a new 16-bore sidelock shotgun. You’ll probably find yourself chatting with a policeman in short order. Yet for seven decades A&F was the premier U.S. outfitter for outdoorspeople, whether they were headed out for a weekend of flyfishing or, as one customer and former U.S. President was in 1909, off to Africa for a year of shooting and collecting for the Smithsonian. One could figuratively walk into an A&F store in one’s underwear and leave ready to tackle the Dark Continent. But in 1976 the company declared bankruptcy, and the hallowed name was bought by Oshman’s, which relaunched it as a mail-order shadow of its former self. That was a mild fate compared to the eventual acquisition by The Limited, which has morphed Teddy Roosevelt’s outfitter into . . . well, something he would not recognize.

    Abercrombie and Fitch, then . . . . . . and now.

    There was Willis and Geiger, founded in 1903, who supplied Roald Amundsen, Amelia Earhart,  and the Flying Tigers, among many others. When Charles Lindbergh needed a shearling suit for his flight over Antarctica, he turned to W&G, and when Ernest Hemingway wanted a bush jacket made to his own design, he did likewise. I still have several carefully hoarded W&G shirts and bush jackets in their bespoke, tough Bush Poplin.

    In a twist of fate, W&G was Abercrombie and Fitch’s largest creditor when it filed Chapter 11 (because of branded merchandise), and it did not survive the writeoff. A new owner, Richard Avedon, revived the brand, the products, and the quality, but the writing was on the wall. Various takeovers ensued, production of new items moved offshore until the company was purchased by Lands’ End, which let it fade away ignominiously. (Speaking of which, does anyone here recall that Lands’ End got its start selling foul-weather gear to offshore sailors?)

    There are others. Eddie Bauer was a sportsman who patented the quilted down jacket, supplied the military in WWII, and outfitted Jim Whittaker on the first U.S. ascent of Mt. Everest.  Once the company was sold in 1968, new corporate owners General Mills turned its focus to everyday clothing and began capitalizing on the evocative name, a marketing assault that hit its nadir when several Ford 4X4 vehicles—and eventually a minivan—received outdoorsy cosmetic packages and were sold as the “Eddie Bauer Edition.” And although Banana Republic’s history dates from just 1978, the company quickly gained a reputation for fine and practical outdoor clothing, only to lose it just as quickly after selling out to Gap Inc.

    Jim Whittaker atop Mt. Everest, in an Eddie Bauer parka.

    A page from a Banana Republic catalog.

    One company weathered all this with standards intact. Clinton C. Filson was born in 1850, homesteaded in Nebraska, then opened a loggers’ outfitting store in Seattle in 1890. In 1897 his business expanded to outfit prospectors on their way to the Alaska gold rush with sleeping bags, boots, and clothing. With the end of the rush, it was natural to shift emphasis to equipping sportsmen with gear for hunting and fishing trips. The family ran the company and the catalog remained small for the next seven decades, until a skiwear manufacturer named Stan Kohls bought the name and expanded the line hugely, while retaining the original design philosophy and maintaining exceptional quality. 

    This period was arguably the golden age of C.C. Filson. The company produced clothing ranging from heavy-duty outerwear for winter duck hunting to Feathercloth shirts suitable for the hottest African savannah, and luggage seemingly immune to wear. Through the 90s and into the 2000s, Filson shirts became nearly a uniform for me. One medium Filson duffel has made, as near as Roseann and I can figure, 13 trips to Africa between us.

    One of our Filson duffels on its . . . 10th? . . . trip to Africa.Sometime around 2005, I noticed some production had shifted offshore. Although the quality remained, to be honest, apparently the equal of the U.S.-made predecessors, prices not only did not drop but began rising to heights at which tearing the sleeve of a Feathercloth shirt on an acacia really hurt. If I’d looked, I would have discovered that at this time Filson had been purchased by a California-based private-equity firm and a former Ralph Lauren executive.

    Uh oh.

    Still, I remained loyal because the products seemed to stay consistent, they lasted long enough to make the investment worth it, and there was really nothing else I found that I considered equivalent. 

    Then, a couple of months ago, in preparation for a trip to Kenya, I went to the Filson website to buy a couple of new Feathercloth shirts, steeling myself for the $70-per-shirt hit on my bank account.  I found, to my chagrin, that the feathercloth shirt had been discontinued. 

    No, it was worse—it hadn’t been discontinued, it had been rebranded. It’s now called the “Seattle Shirt”—and the price has doubled magically to $140. Each. So much for a shirt to wear in the bush—clearly this one is no longer intended to risk danger worse than having a latte spilled on it.

    Expedition to Starbucks, anyone?

    A little research reveals a disturbing development: “Filson Holdings” was sold in 2012 to Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, which is backed by the founder of the fashionable accessory manufacturer Fossil. Note that “fashionable accessory” part. As if to confirm my worst fears, it was just this time I happened to catch the news of the “Filson Edition” AEV Brute, a $130,000 customized Jeep pickup outfitted with twill and leather seats (Filson logo prominently displayed), brass trim, and a rear-seat organizer equipped with special Filson bags.

    Sigh . . .

    It’s actually too early to write off Filson altogether. For example, the company has moved production of many products back to the U.S., a commendable effort. However, the prices of those, and other, items have ballooned so comically that it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion the company is targeting an entirely new customer base—one with whom a name such as “Seattle Shirt” will resonate. 

    I know I’ll be looking elsewhere for my Kenya shirts. 

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  • 01/20/14--16:52: British reserve . . .
  • I'm reading Valerie Pakenham's book shown above. 

    She references a letter sent by Joyce Cary, a district commissioner (and later a well-known novelist) in northern Nigeria in 1916. Comparing conditions in his district to those in southern Nigeria, he wrote his wife:

    "Northern Nigeria is a paradise compared to those parts. And the people are gentlemen. Not that slaves aren't seized up here and men eaten, but it is done in a polite manner - not obtrusively."

    What could I add to that?

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    Once you've installed better tires, the number one modification you can do to a four-wheel-drive vehicle to improve traction is to add a differential locker. Lacking traction control or lockers, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is actually only a two-wheel-drive vehicle: In any situation in which one rear tire and one front tire lose traction, the mechanics of an open axle differential mean all the engine's power will be directed to the tires with no grip. Ironic but inevitable. Traction control, which uses the vehicle's anti-lock braking system to apply braking pressure to a spinning wheel, redirects power to the opposite wheel effectively. However, traction-control systems are reactive—they only start working once wheelspin is detected. A manual locker not only distributes torque equally to both tires (which traction control does not), it can also be used proactively, when the driver sees a difficult spot ahead. With just one differential locked, you have increased your available traction by fifty percent. Install a diff lock on a two-wheel-drive vehicle and you've doubled your traction. (See also the comments section on this post.)

    Our 2012 Tacoma lacks traction control, and we did not get the TRD package, which includes a manual-locking rear differential. So we planned from the start to add one, and the ARB was a natural choice. 

    Designed by an Australian engineer and four-wheel-drive enthusiast named Tony Roberts, the Roberts Differential was purchased by ARB in 1987. Originally made for the Toyota Land Cruiser, there are now over 100 applications in the ARB catalog. Needless to say it's been well-proven in the field.

    The ARB requires an air source to operate, and ARB offers three compressors, from a basic model only suited for that purpose, to a twin-piston design capable of providing a large volume of air. We got the mid-range, single-piston, heavy-duty compressor, which can also inflate tires.

    Since I'm a rank rookie on setting up differentials, we plan to have our master mechanic, Bill Lee of Bill's Toy Shop in Silver City, New Mexico, do that job with my assistance (meaning I'll take photos). Besides Roseann's nephew, Jake Beggy, Bill is the only other person we trust implicitly with our vehicles. In the meantime, I installed the compressor and operating switches, and ran the air line to the back axle.

    I had to cut off the clip securing the wiring loom (just left of the bracket) to make room for the compressor's air filter.

    There was exactly one spot in the engine bay of the Tacoma where the compressor would fit. Fortunately it was nearly ideal, and did not impede access to other components. I could have used self-tapping screws to secure its mounting bracket to the sheet metal there, and in all probability they would have been adequate. But I confess to a prejudice against those things—I wanted stainless-steel bolts and nuts. That meant undoing part of the plastic inner fender molding so I could worm one arm up inside the fender to blindly fit and hold a wrench to the nuts once I'd drilled the holes. Two hours of blasphemy and bruising ensued, but eventually it was accomplished.

    The compressor in place, with the quick-release fitting for a tire-inflation hose on top. The black box to its right is the relay. I deemed a self-tapping screw sufficient for that.

    The compressor's wiring loom comes in two parts, so there is minimal wiring to push through the firewall. Just four male wiring tabs needed to be pushed through a rubber grommet sealing off the truck's main wiring loom where it passes through to the cab. I taped the tabs to a fat nail normally used as a tent peg, and poked that through the rubber, which seemed to close up satisfactorily around the hole.

    With those wires connected to the inside wiring loom, the next task was to mount the switches for the compressor and locker. This can be accomplished easily with the small auxiliary switch panel offered by ARB, which simply screws to the bottom of the dash, but I wanted something that looked a bit cleaner. Two blank switch holes on the left side of the dash offered themselves, and—after some judicious work with a Dremel (would it kill manufacturers to make these holes a universal size?), and some upside-down winkling to get the wires up there—the result was satisfactory.

    Next stop: Silver City.


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    We're back from Silver City, New Mexico, where Bill Lee of Bill's Toy Shop installed an ARB locking differential in the rear of the JATAC (see below for part 1). We've created a 13-minute video detailing the installation and a bit of trail testing afterwards. Watch an ASE Master Technician at work, then see how the increased traction works in the real world - from underneath the truck. Watch it here, or click on the video title for the full HD version on Vimeo.



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