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Taking Red Oxx gear on a new Overland Adventure, CEO Jim Markel knew not where he was going and that this was a new kind of test for Red Oxx Soft Sided Luggage. Would it endure the rigors of overland travel, assuredly much harsher than mere air travel?
Says Jim, “Jumping into a new hobby’s a lot like jumping into a foreign country. Leaping into the unknown leaves you not knowing just what you may find upon arrival. Being prepared is the key to any successful adventure.” Let’s find out if soft sided luggage is truly suited to overland vehicle travel…
Since I wasn’t being handed live rounds and the Rules of Engagement, I figured this was going to be the way to learn about Land Rovers. Having some experience with the outdoors, negotiating back roads in the mountains of Montana, I expected an easy trip and a good time.
While my 4×4 experience was limited to my old school Toyota FJ 40 and an early ’70s Chevy Cheyenne pickup, I was excited to check out the iconic Land Rover brand. The principles should basically be the same: taking your toys out and running them to their outer limits. Then, if you find yourself in a tight spot, do your best to extricate yourself.
It’s the obstacles that appear out of nowhere to challenge us that make it interesting. While my recent travels have been framed around planes, trains and traveling light I hadn’t explored the vehicle based overland expedition travel lifestyle. Taking inventory of my camping equipment, I noticed my gear was a bit long in the tooth, some worn out. We had a saying in Recon, “Travel light, freeze at night.” No more! Time for a change.
I gave our expedition leader Gustaf Kupetz a call to see what kind of kit he was bringing along. I’d concerns about weight and capacity. He assured me there’s plenty of horsepower; bring whatever I want. Not convinced, I pressed him for exactly what he was taking. My big need was a new sleeping bag, but from whom? That’s when he told me of his new find from a small company in Utah.
Butler Bags has perfected the traditional cowboy bedroll to be practically a shelter unto itself. Heavy canvas, flannel and a pillow. All said 22 lbs of sleeping luxury. You can gator roll in this thing all night and not even touch the sides. It was going to take our biggest bag to transport this monster and even that took some stuffing to fit it into a Big Oxx for transport. Just enough room, even after stuffing in the Big Agness Sleeping Pad. I tossed in an old GI mess kit and mug. Once again, soft sided luggage triumphs over the hard sided wheeled variety.
The explosion of new outdoor gear over the last 20 years means you could go crazy trying to decide what to take. Sometimes I opt for the new gear and other times I pull out a classic like my 50 year old mess kit. Some companies seek to reinvent their product line every year; thereby making items obsolete.
Red Oxx has taken a different approach by building classic well thought out designs. We seek to have sustainability in our line of carry-on bags and assorted safari luggage. The diversity comes from the 12 colors. Variety allows for you to change your travel style while maintaining your packing style. Like having several pairs of the same Levi’s jeans, each with the same classic 501 cut but in varying colors and states of wear.
My checked bag all packed, so all I needed to do was sort out my personal gear for carry-on. As always I travel with my carry-on luggage in the likely event of my checked bag being delayed.
Packing your carry-on can pose challenges when you have an extended expedition with varying climates. In keeping with the overland expedition based travel theme I opted for Flying Box Car. This bag barely meets the legal carry-on specs once full, as it has a tendency to just expand with the more gear you stuff into its cavernous maw. The lack of cross-sectional pockets is the cause of this but allows for stowing of larger items.
Organizing your clothing in layers helps accommodate for multiple climates. Ibex has a fabulous line of wool clothing that I’ve come to rely on. From thick to thin, they have the layering aspect down and the natural properties of wool have been lauded for generations.
I stashed my Tri-Fold toiletry kit into the largest of the three external pockets. I keep my plastic bag on top with the liquids. While I’ve found some work-around products for toiletries I still find this wash kit indispensable in the field. Being able to attach your toiletries to a tent pole or handy branch is easy with our Fastex buckle strap.
Jumping through hoops for the TSA folks these days has made flying less fun. As the rules state you’re allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item carry-on. This mythical beast is something about the size of diaper bag as I spotted this description once from one of the airlines. Well the Gator is the quintessential “personal item” since I designed it to follow these rules.
I’ve had requests to make it larger to fit laptops but this would kill functionality of this bag. Even fully stuffed it slides easily under the seat when those overhead bins are maxed out. More than once I’ve experienced this and have been glad I’ve resisted the pressure to ruin a great utility bag. If you’re in need of a laptop case then simply grab up one of our two briefcases and you’re set. The Gator can chow down a serious amount of gear including other Red Oxx bags. Having to tote a boat anchor of a camera like the Nikon D 300 can be a drag but the reward of some stellar images is worth the hassle.
The digital age has brought about resurgence in the love of photography. Instead of canisters of film, we now tote around the digital electronic detritus associated with this new generation of toys. iPod charging adapters and specialized storage devices for holding thousands of images. It all adds up to a fat pile of stuff that needs to be corralled into a small packing cube bag like the Lil Roy. The two internal pockets of the Lil Roy Packing Cube have stainless steel snaps at the top each pocket. These pockets are great for cords, polarized lens filters and headsets. Once full, I place this bag in the bottom of my Gator and it makes a great pillow for my DSLR. With room left for a pair of Leica 10×42 binoculars ensconced in one a Bino Case.
All that’s left to pack is my Surefire light with battery pack. To keep from losing these items you can half hitch the parachute cord around the handle or D rings of the bag. Then tuck the light into the little slip pocket set behind the exterior pockets. I also re-purposed one of our Cable Locks to attach ear plugs to handle. These wire Cable Locks are now available for individual purchase on our site as well as one being issued with your bag. Simply spin the knurled lock to remove the Dog Tag and insert your own personalized tag or re-purpose the cable lock like I’ve done.
Deploying the back pack straps on my Big Oxx and shouldering my Gator and Flying Boxcar I took a spin around the living room and was satisfied with the weight. While bulky, the new Butler sleeping bag and ground pad fit easily inside the Big Oxx. My Gator had some heft due to the optics, but I was ready to hit the skies and see what this thing called vehicle based expedition travel was all about.
Swooping into Aspen I detect the distinct buzz of people going on holiday. I’ve observed this same energy infecting flights into tropical locales but never quite expected to find it here in the Rocky Mountains in the middle of summer. I had so completely zoned in on the Land Rover expedition that I had not considered that there might be other reasons for going to Aspen besides skiing. Funny how a place becomes so associated with that one thing that once you have an impression so embedded into your mind that it’s hard to shake.
Our pilot pulled off a tricky landing to be proud of in the turbulent air. Gathering my gear I texted Doug Evilsizor of LRL for my pickup and two minutes later he rolled into the lot in a new Land Rover LR3 emblazoned with sponsor stickers. We were on our way to Land Rover Roaring Fork to attend the Camel Trophy Kick-Off. This event was our launch party for 1st Descents and a great opportunity to familiarize myself with the Land Rover lifestyle.
Lurking around the dealership I had the opportunity to scope out some mighty fine rolling stock. While I’ve had the opportunity to shoot some ads with a couple of local customers’ Land Rovers I really had not had much of a chance to really check them in detail. Back in Montana you just don’t see too many of these unique trucks on the road. As I familiarized myself with the different grades and nomenclature it all seemed a bit confusing. More like clicks and whistles as I heard the numbers like D90, 110 and Defender 130. Then it got worse, a Disco was a Discovery and Series III and so on.
Circling around to the front of the lot I was greeted by the special Sand Glow paint of the Camel Trophy vehicles. Racks and stickers, big fat tires all combined to satisfy the gear junkie in all of us. Total coolness, yeah, I was starting to get the idea of what these folks were all about. Oh, I had stepped right into the mud this time; starry eyed fanatics circled the vehicles. Moving through the crowd I listened to snatches of conversations all revolving around the honored guests. Some had been restored to show room condition while others bore the scars of trails passed and continents crossed.
I’ve seen glimpses of these events throughout the years. From Borneo to Mongolia the history of each was impressive and epic Camel Trophy tales were told. The owners were all so familiar with the history of their particular ride, each to the point of being encyclopedic.
How can a brand illicit such passion? Sometimes it is not so much the product as it’s the people who’re drawn to it. I’ve seen this with the Red Oxx herd, to say our customers are loyal is an understatement. “Rabid” is something I’ve heard before and it’s stuck with me. Building that kind of loyalty takes time and great products to carry it forward. A common thread binding a diverse group of adventure enthusiasts throwing in their lot with the “muddy green oval.”
Heading out of Glenwood Springs I see a view to become quite familiar throughout the next week; the back end of a Rover. In formation I’m excited to finally be moving out. Our caravan’s causing serious rubbernecking as we trundled our way to the Stout Ranch, home to the World Snow Polo Championships the Stout Ranch is situated high in the mountains at an elevation of 8,000ft. This side of Colorado is practically lush compared to the Front Range. Barry Stout had us all set up at the cow camp on the back half of the ranch. While folks were trying to decide on where to pitch tents the seasoned rogues moved into the bunkhouse. Throwing my monster Butler Bag onto the couch I staked my claim with sheer mass.
Sitting around the fire later that evening I listened in as Steve Mills of British Motor Car Service told me about his lifetime of experiences with both Rolls Royce and Land Rover. This cat was certainly what I would describe as a “character of note.” Over the coming week I’d find this was an underlying trait among this group of enthusiasts. No matter what, they all seemed to have a distinct aura. Steve is a mountain of a man gregarious and outgoing British expat with a love of the finer things in life.
Sitting around the fire smoking my first Cuban cigar I had to wonder at how I came to be here in the inner sanctum of the Land Rover fraternity. It’s like trying to learn Spanish on the run instead of taking lessons. One parallel is the Harley Davidson fans. Learning to turn a wrench is essential with both groups but more importantly it’s that sharing of knowledge at the core along with distinct pride in being an individual yet part of something bigger.
A brand culture built on challenging yourself, your equipment and then if necessary reaching out to a brother for a hand. This is something I understand well from my days as a Marine. Later I spent some time among the Harley Davidson tribe of southern Colorado but my restless spirit is always having me move on to new things like a move to Montana. Change can bring about some unexpected benefits like becoming an entrepreneur or rediscovering a love for something you thought lost. So maybe it was no accident that I found myself sitting around a mountain campfire on the verge of discovering a new passion in life.
One thing that I’ve always enjoyed is cooking. It is a great way to maintain your health and get a decent meal every now and then. Our expedition leader Gustaf is no slouch in the culinary department either. We fired up the gas stove and between the two of us we knocked out a killer breakfast in short order. There are two types of people in this world, the quick and the hungry. The smell of bacon in the cool of the morning had them rolling out and lining up fast.
Our photographer was a bit slow on the draw and ended up going hungry. It was a mistake he would not make again or let us forget about. Ben Edmonson was our designated photographer for the expedition but he might have just as well been on vacation from Saturday Night Live. A hard working photographer who’s comical personality plays a large part in his success. Ben would have us in stitches for the duration. No need to worry about getting that million dollar shot with Ben running the camera.
It was time to put the Camel trucks and the new LR3s through their paces. Roaring Fork Land Rover owner Randy Tuggle had arranged to take us through a dealer event day ride in the Grand Junction area. Randy has these runs on a regular basis and they are a big part of building the Land Rover community. On the highway the handling of the LR3 was no stranger to the upper limits of legal speed.
Having to slow down for the Defenders had the guys chatting about the innate differences between the two vehicles. One was more akin to farm equipment while the other was a 21st century evolution. With 26 on-board computers the LR3 is as sophisticated as it is comfortable. While the age old rivalry continues between traditionalists and those who embrace the new all jesting was done in good sport. As they compared the differences I was starting to catch onto the nomenclature.
IFS meant independent front suspension which was the fundamental difference in the war between old and new school. To me each vehicle has its own positive and negative aspects when it comes to leaving the city streets behind. Eventually it all boils down to personal preferences that are influenced by what you actually plan to do with it. Kitting these vehicles out to leave the soccer fields behind started with getting rid of the front bumper. Replacing them with an ARB after market bumpers and installing a Warn winch. Looking at the winch I noticed the lack of a steel cable, instead synthetic line was in use. Being a rigger I’m always on the lookout for high strength textiles and there has been some amazing advances in industrial fabrics in the last 30 years. Viking Offroad Gear makes synthetic winch cables and assorted recovery gear with such high performance textiles.
Another thing I kept hearing was the word “armor” in relation to making some improvements to the standard issue LR3. Were these things literally bulletproof as well? I would not put it past this group of well prepared enthusiasts. Armor is the description given to all the reinforcements that are added on for defending against the terrain. Things like Rock Sliders from Rovers Specialties protect the undercarriage and lower door frame when stepping off rock ledges. Their variety of highly specialized niche products for the Land Rover aficionado is truly remarkable.
Lining the Rovers up before the run I jumped at the chance to shoot so many unique vehicles in their natural element. Falling in behind a vintage Camel Trophy “Disco” I began to put the LR3 through its paces. Winding our way through the rugged terrain it was a bit of stop and go as the lead vehicles negotiated the obstacles. While nothing seemed to be that challenging until we came to a rather large boulder situated on a steep incline.
Taking a look at the obstacle I was having some doubts as to our ability to negotiate the course. The spotter could read the look on my face plain as day. He just smiled and pointed where he wanted me to put the front wheels. Glancing out the side window I could see the front wheel at an insane angle, yet the surefooted LR3 made the obstacle with ease.
As I put the vehicle through some rugged washouts the suspension and traction control made it all very easy to handle. Towards the end of the ride we did some sliding. It is a bit unnerving to just drop a vehicle off a large rock step and just let it grind. While we were airing up I took a minute to walk around the vehicle looking for any damage. The armor had performed beautifully, so it was time to make tracks back to the Stout Ranch for the evening meal and some special entertainment.
Cresting the hill onto the plateau I spied a large white tent and polo ponies warming up on the playing field. Land Rovers of every make and model were lined up down the fence line. Backing the LR3 in I made my way over to see if I could give our Chef Brian Lehr a hand. Having started and sold several successful restaurants in his life he had things moving along nicely. So I took the opportunity to learn some tricks of the trade.
Making it look easy is what being the master all is about. With well practiced steps and the ability to multi-task on several levels he had it all moving in symphony. Keeping an eye on the roasting ducks simmering in their fat skins it was almost more than I could stand. After a long day on the trail my stomach was trying its best to consume itself. Rather than get caught sampling the chow, I felt it prudent to step out to the edge of the field to observe the polo match.
Polo Since we were at 8,000 feet in elevation both riders and horses were getting some serious conditioning. Even though I live in Montana my horse experiences could be counted on one hand. I’ve always preferred the iron horse over the hay bags after receiving a nasty bite from one in my formative years. After the match I was speaking with Barry Stout, when he said to me that “polo has been my passport to the world” something about the look in his eyes just struck me. The delivery was given with the reverence of someone who had truly lived and loved every minute of it. While my Polo knowledge is a bit weak that is to say non -existent I gathered that he was a rated 5 goal player. From what I saw that night he swings a mighty mean mallet and can sure make those ponies hustle.
Assembling the caravan in Rabbit Valley we prepared to depart for our first day on the Kokepelli Trail. The group would be made up of a diverse selection of Land Rovers. The new generation was well represented with LR3s and even a Range Rover wide body. Support was being handled by Land Rover Roaring Forks Defender 130 being piloted by Randy Tuggle himself. Cory Paulger was there to represent the great state of Canada with his Camel Trophy Discovery. Meals on the trail were being handled by Chef /Rover Salesman Mark Murray. Mark would be piloting his very own Trek Discovery painted bright orange. All in all a very diverse cross section of the Land Rover offering each vehicle with a distinctive look and feel.
One of our principle goals was to provide support for the mountain biking team joining our trip. They would be setting out in the morning each day trying to make it to camp before the vehicles. Team High Maintenance is captained by Amy Hermes, a world renowned mountain bike rider. Amy and one of her teammates would be taking us on with their single speed competition bikes. While we were busy lining up and taking photos the ladies lit out at a fair clip. Piling in with our expedition leader Gustaf Kupetz we dropped into the valley towards the Colorado River.
The Kokepelli Trail runs through some of the United States greatest public lands. It was time to turn off the cell phone and dial up the Ham Radios. With our expected route we were set to cover almost 150 miles of off-pavement travel. Gustaf had covered this ground before while testing the new Toyota FJs. After an exciting detour around the dunes we picked up the trail again in slow but steady pursuit of Team High Maintenance.
Before long we were coming upon signs of their passing but no sign of them. There was no way they were going to beat us to camp, not a chance. As Gustaf regaled me of his days spent adventure racing Land Rovers and Toyotas I was amazed at how far his passion for overlanding went. The same could be said of each of the participants, even the mountain bike team sported a wildly decorated LR3.
Midday and still no sign of the girls. I did see a bit of concern creep onto Gustaf’s face. Dropping the pedal he began to put the LR3 to the limit. The ride that followed was something that I will remember for a long time. Before long the G forces were pushing me around as we drifted from one corner to the next. At one point I swear we only had one wheel on the deck as we charged the course. Cold sweat started beading on my forehead as my mouth went metallic dry.
Oh yeah, I was going to hurl if this didn’t stop soon.
Getting to know Gustaf Kupetz is a bit like getting to know a test pilot for fighter planes. The ride ended in the nick of time and I had 20 minutes of respite before we spotted the group ambling along. Pulling into Fish Camp Ford we’re greeted by the triumphant smiles of Team High Maintenance. The ladies had taken the day with pedal power and the celebration over a gourmet meal was one of respect earned. Settling in under the stars we gathered our chairs around the fire with the iTunes rolling out a mix of blues. Sliding into my bag later that night I found it hard to sleep as magnificent vistas rolled across my imagination.
With a crisp dawn rising over the Colorado I was up early while soaking up the first warmth of the day. Team High Maintenance was up and getting ready to depart before breakfast. The ladies flashed me a smile and said they would see us at Top of World for lunch. Soon the rustling of nylon and the low growl of tent zippers indicated the camp was starting to awaken. Mark our chef fired up the grill and presented a gourmet breakfast that made the morning all the more brilliant. Slurping down my second pot of Jet Boil coffee I’m stoked to find out what kind of adventure lies further down the trail.
Up and out of the river bottom we drive into a no man’s land of scrub and cacti winding our way across a jagged landscape. The change in terrain creates a big drop in our rate of travel. We’re making ground on the girls as we eventually catch them in a valley full of fantastic red rock formations. I was now behind the wheel of Ben Clark’s Range Rover. The wood and leather interior was more rap star than off road and the interior was spotless. Picking my way carefully among the rocks I was happy to relinquish the wheel at the river crossing.
While Gustaf waded the river, I made my way out to a sand bar to shoot the crossing. First across was the Defender 130 which got a little sideways and I had a good look at the undercarriage. Keeping a cool head and pouring the power on Randy just made the crossing. With a flow levels pumping right along the Delores river crossing was not going to be a cakewalk. I stood on the edge of the hole to spot for the next vehicle to make the crossing. Wading back across Gustaf asked me if my insurance was paid up? “Hell yeah!” Loaded with photographers Ben & Ben on the roof rack and Gustaf in the right seat I eased the vehicle in the water…
Then things happened quickly: I was bearing off to the right to avoid the hole. Gustaf was not aware of the near miss of the Defender. Dropping into reverse in an effort to escape the clutches of the river brought a shout from above as our photographers were nearly pitched into the swift moving water. Hesitating on the throttle caused a stall. It was all “downriver” from there.
First we became buoyant as we were swept into the very hole I was seeking to avoid. Then the Rover became flooded with cold river water. It was time to un-ass the area quick. Gustaf dropped the transmission in neutral as we abandoned ship. Looking back into the vehicle I spot my Nikon and decide that there was just enough time to save it.
Now on the scale of one to stupid, this move has to be about the dumbest thing I’ve done in recent memory. Staring down into the windscreen which had now formed an aquarium view of the river it occurred to me that it would make a great photo. People now screaming at me to get the hell out the truck I launched myself out the driver’s window like a Polaris missile as the river sucked the vehicle under. It quickly went from being a fun day to a complete bummer.
No time to cry over sunken Land Rovers as this crew snapped to a recovery effort that in the course of 5 1/2 hours would test the limits of our gear and stamina. Standing in the waist deep water shoveling gravel out from under the vehicle I had a front seat view to some awesome winch technique. With a series of vehicles hooked together we had a virtual lifeline of Land Rovers.
LR3s connected to Erik Dalton’s Defender 90 in turn connected to a Discovery II. Inch by inch we pried the LR3 from the icy embrace of the Delores. Then in a vulgar display of power Randy Tuggle hooked his Defender onto the dead vehicle and proceeded to drag it from its watery grave. One and half miles back to Dewey bridge with a locked rear wheel. First the tire burst then the rim and axle were ground flat as he grabbed for third gear. So this is what it is to be a Land Rover, this gentleman had just entered his nirvana.
It was decision time: do we quit now or press on? It was really only a formality as the group was all for continuing the trip. We sent a crew to retrieve the ladies who by now were on Top of the World and hungry. Our new plan was to meet up at the Hideout campground and regroup from there. This meant not making the full off-road portion of the trip, pulling into convoy as the sun set on a display of sweeping red rock vistas. An incredible look into the back door of Moab as we raced against the waning towards the camp the ride was quiet as radio chatter was at an all time low. Making camp as the sun set I spread out my soaked gear until our campsite looked like a Red Oxx yard sale.
Gustaf borrowed a pair of Levis two sizes too small and I think he also had on Amy’s sweater. I wasn’t going to poke fun. But I swear he looked like a young John Wayne trying out to be in Grease, I had to stifle a laugh. I rolled up the collar on my still damp wool coat tried to look busy. There’s no way out of this one, in the middle of nowhere with Land Rover fanatics after I killed one of their babies. I had the feeling this could go all Lord of the Flies rather quickly. This society of adventurers has a much more understanding attitude when it comes to what happened.
A.P.O.T.A. or “All Part Of The Adventure” really sums it up from their perspective, yet I still felt a huge sense of dread over the whole incident. Camp had a roaring fire and one by one I spent some time talking with everyone. Slightly mollified, I crawled into my bag and just before falling asleep I heard Mark utter an ethereal philosophy of life that suited the moment yet darted from my memory as exhaustion finally took me smiling into sleep.
Repacking my trash in the morning I had little to say about the previous day’s events. The consequences of which I could deal with on returning home to Montana. For now, I had to scrounge a seat with Mark Murray in the Trek 3-Chuckwagon. With the trail now more of an improved road, we’re making good time towards our final destination. Mark and I chatted about our mutual love of food and cooking. We stopped along the trail for another outstanding meal and I had a moment to visit with some of the other participants.
The outpouring of support and acceptance into their fraternity was a bit unexpected. I began to see that getting to do something outside of your life was the real reason to venture. Letting go and turning it all off to focus on something like a large group experience is pretty intense. Then throw in knowing absolutely nothing about Land Rovers and we have a recipe for fun.
Friendships have been born of less and in this case I had made quite a few. Coming together in such a way is a rare event in Overlanding. Our arrival at Gates Pass Resort was sweet but I would rather have been under the stars, the shocking luxury seemed out of place after what we had been through. Turning on the brain drain machine I was acutely aware that I was back in the other world. Working the river sand out of my best shirt I was able to at least be presentable for drinks and dinner. He who sinks the truck buys the drinks. Fair enough. Guess I’ll come back and finish the job. Kokepeli won the first round and taught some serious lessons. Who knows what else there is to learn in natures incredible classroom? Best of all, new friends!
Adventure Disclaimer –
If you’re crazy or stupid enough to try to live the Markel’s lifestyle, Red Oxx is in no way responsible for loss of life or limb.
All of Jim’s Red Oxx Bags provided purpose and reliability in the harsh environment of overland vehicle travel. These nylon cordura soft-sided bags were as tough and dependable as any so called “specialty” Land Rover Luggage. And while fancy leather luggage would have likely been ruined, Red Oxx “Overland” Equipment Bags were water resistant enough to get the job done, even while on the roof rack of a partially submerged Land Rover.
Cheers, Jim Markel CEO