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In the ever-growing outdoor, overland, and off-road gear realm, there's so much out there to either make your life easier, get you further up the trail, or simply keep on working for years to come. So many products to check out, yet so little time to do so. Especially hands-on, and in their intended environment. The TREAD Agency is looking to change that and recently invited me along to experience exactly what some top brands in the industry currently offer.
I, and a dozen or so other members of the media, recently spent two days and two nights camping with a handful of brands in Big Bear, California. Not only try out and see products by Rigid Industries, Lance Camper, Milestar Tires, and many more, in action, but to also to improve our outdoor and off-road skills.
One could call this a product demo event, but that's a little stuffy and limiting for what actually went down: I prefer to call it 48 hours of quality hangs and outdoor education. Here's why it was a lot of fun; think of this as an expanded, narrative-based version of gear news that we normally whip up for your viewing pleasure here on The Drive.
When we weren't chatting with brands, enjoying the campfire, or out on the trail, we had the proper lodging for the occasion.
Upon arriving at the campsite, I was led to my sleeping quarters during the trip. TREAD drew straws for everyone, and I ended up in Camarillo, California-based ModVan's CV1 Ford Transit camper conversion.
The CV1 was outfitted quite well, featuring a stowaway shower/bathroom, plenty of storage, heating, a refrigerator, ample fresh water tank, and more. Getting some shut-eye was an overall pleasant experience, too, as while I stayed in the rear sleeping quarters to get plenty of peace and quiet, I did have the option of staying in a pop-up section overhead, which is essentially an electrically actuated rooftop tent. It was slightly tight inside the van for my six-foot-three self, but given there's so much crammed onto a full-size Transit chassis, ModVans did a great job coming up with the ideal floor plan.
I was particularly impressed by the CV1's connectivity. PJ, the company's founder, showed me how to use the ModVans app and control everything from my iPhone. These ranged from turning lights on and off, checking battery status and temperature, checking interior and outdoor temperatures, switching various other electronics on and off, and raising and lowering the roof-top tent and exterior awning. The floor is one gigantic battery panel, too, which provided ample power for all of its systems over the course of my stay.
Other folks had similarly cozy digs, too, such as Lance Camper's truck trailers and its Enduro overland trailer. Both were outfitted quite nicely, with the latter being a tough model meant to take on more than just a crushed gravel trail. It rides on tough suspension and includes polyurethane mounting between the floor and chassis that helps cut down on big vibrations that could rattle any trailer to pieces. What's more, Lance Camper builds its products not too far away from the campsite in Lancaster, California.
But in the spirit of overlanding's top activity—sleeping on the roof—Tuff Stuff Overland provided its Alpha and Alpine FiftyOne rooftop tents for other participants. This brand prides itself on building durable, quick-to-setup rooftop tents, and also provides a good mix of its intuitive campsite awning and lighting solutions as well. Additionally, SHIFTPOD provided its insulated and UV-reflective tents for other folks, which, according to my colleagues, were quite comfortable inside.
Rigid Industries was also on-hand during the trip, these folks gladly took participants wheeling on nearby trails in the dark of night to demonstrate their powerful LED off-road lighting products. Fun fact: Did you know amber is a great shade for light bars as it's better at cutting through airborne particles than bright white? Well, I'm sure many of us already knew this, but it's especially effective on dusty trails at night.
After waking up and hanging out around camp for breakfast, almost the entire second day's focus would be a several-hour off-roading expedition led by Trail Chasers. I had the immense luck of getting paired up with SoCal-based Milestar Tires' Events and Activation Manager, Martin Castro, who brought along his Certifiably Badass TJ Jeep Wrangler crawler build.
"Peter!" He exclaimed as the group was getting ready to head out on the trail. "You're with me, buddy! You're driving!" I was thoroughly excited. We had an hour or two of open-top fun ahead of us, and on a particularly dusty trail—which didn't bother me in the slightest. I'm all about the open-top Jeep life.
I ungracefully plopped down into TJ's fixed-back driver seat, snapped together its latch-and-link harness, and we joined in the motorcade of other trail-ready rigs: Milestar's Jeep Gladiator, a few Raptors, several generations of Toyota 4Runner, Rivians, and more. Almost all were different brands' example vehicles.
Shortly after leaving the campsite, we got a quick demonstration of MORRflate's intuitive and easy-to-use inflation and deflation system. Castro's TJ sported massive, 38-inch Milestar Patagonia MT02 tires, but it didn't take very long for all four to drop from street pressure down to around 12 PSI, cold. Once every team was good to go, we all got back into formation and headed out.
Right off the bat, we were met with two options on the same trail: A smooth easy bit on the left, or some deep ditches and whoops on the right, which was probably more meant for dirt bikes. "Take the party line, dude!" Castro said with all the enthusiasm, so I swung right and immediately got a taste of how thoroughly fun very-long travel off-road suspension and aired down 38s are.
Along the way, I got a crash course—no, not like that—on features that make an excellent off-road compound, as well as the technology that's behind Milestar's proven recipes. The Patagonia MT02 sports a three-ply design, plus an aggressive tread that confidently grips and keeps mud and debris out of its channels. It's also designed to be quiet and very street-friendly for an MT, though I didn't get a chance to feel this out, but I'd love to in the future.
The stint also included some solid off-road driving instruction. Though I've done a decent amount of wheeling in my short tenure in this industry, Castro offered up a lot of knowledge on how to pick lines, select the right drivetrain setting, clean up my inputs, as well as rip through certain sections where the much larger rigs in our group dared not. It was also comical seeing folks ahead of us do three-to-four-point turns in one particular hairpin, whereas the TJ simply cut right around it in one quick, fell swoop.
The following day, we enjoyed a thorough demonstration by local off-road instructors Trails 411 on the dos and don'ts of off-road recovery. I hope to work with them in the not-too-distant future on a more comprehensive informational piece. I've never wanted to sell my beloved BMW 128i and embrace the modified Jeep life more. It's such an addictive, accessible, and fun form of performance driving.
During the day expedition, we stopped midway through and gathered around for lunch. This was whipped up—as were most of the meals throughout the entire trip—by the good folks at Santa Cruz, California-based Hitchfire, who sell cool grill and meal prep systems for any vehicle sporting a trailer hitch. We also got a great instructional presentation on outdoor/off-road safety by Steve Barron, a fire safety and medical response professional.
After that, I sat shotgun with one of Optima Batteries' partners, Michael Weiss of Weistec, in his Rivian R1S and headed back to camp. I talked the poor guy's ear off over everything from quick-swapping battery technology, to reasons why the Mercedes-AMG A45 should've come to the US market.
Around the Fire
More neat presentations went down throughout the weekend at base camp. Optima discussed its recent developments in lithium battery technology, how its AGM units are produced, as well as what makes its overall catalog so durable. To make a very in-person point, one rep utilized an Optima AGM battery to level their Rivian R1T and make camp. The case was cracked and left like that overnight, but they still pulled out a cell and were able to get a few volts out of it the following morning. Cool stuff for sure.
In camp, Melanie Hellwig White of Hellwig Products gave a great presentation on the nuances of sway bars and why they're a great first modification for any vehicle. They're also made in California. In case you haven't noticed, I really dug the fact that most of the companies have at least some, if not all of their manufacturing in the USA. A few proudly set up shop in the great state of California, too. I'm all in favor of shouting out American small business wherever possible.
We also had a great fireside chat about fire safety with Stuart Palley, a brilliant wildlife/outdoor photographer and outdoor educator who's spent a lot of time documenting our country's wildfires. Steve Barron was on hand to help expand the discussion even further, as was Joey Anderson of Anderson Overland—both of whom have extensive professional firefighting experience.
Finally, to highlight a few more great folks who had a substantial hand in the event, Canyon Coolers provided its well-built and insanely well-insulated coolers to keep our refreshments—including the Montucky Cold Snacks lager—cold all trip long. But we couldn't sip on suds exclusively during the event, that wouldn't be the healthiest idea nor the safest, so Guzzle H2O provided a compact yet effective filtration system to give us access to clean, delicious water.
Bringing You the Scoop
Hangin' with TREAD and this comprehensive list of solid brands and individuals was an overall excellent time as it's not too often that we get to engage with a host of brands from a single sector.
To actually stay out in the field and spend an ample amount of time learning more about what's out there, and why the off-road and overland industries have become so incredibly popular in recent years, was awesome. I'm stoked to report on who each of these brands are, and, if you're inclined to learn more, there are some solid channels to do so.
Firstly, The Drive has covered these industries with some consistency in recent years, but get ready for more. Secondly, all of the brands on this trip are run by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts, and I highly recommend checking out their catalogs.
Finally, keep an eye out for expos and other consumer-facing events in your area that cover the off-road, outdoor, and overland industries, as they’re a great way to stay up on technology, get some solid education, and be more prepared for the next time you head out the trail. Plus, you might meet some really nice folks along the way, as I did.