Go West!

Avid overlander and 4×4 enthusiast, PATRICK CRUYWAGEN, compares the Overland Expo West in Flagstaff, Arizona, to other overland and 4×4 shows around the world. What he saw and experienced there was a bit of a culture shock… quite unlike anything he had ever come across in other countries.

I have been attending Land Rover shows in the United Kingdom for over a decade now, and the most common complaint is that they are all the same, year in and year out. So, when I took up a position as copy and content writer at Front Runner just over six months ago, I was told it would involve attending overseas overland and 4WD events, the first being the recent Overland Expo West in Flagstaff, Arizona. As I flew over for it, I could not help but wonder how different it would be from the UK’s Billing Off-Road Show, an event close to where I live.

The Overland Expo West is the first and most prominent of four annual Overland Expos held in various parts of the USA. The other three are (in chronological order): Pacific Northwest (Oregon), Mountain West (Colorado) and East (Virginia). To get there, I flew into the Los Angeles International Airport and worked at our office in Agoura Hills, California for a few days before packing for Flagstaff. The best way to write this show report would be to look at the differences between Expo West and similar events worldwide. So, join me for a foreigner’s take on the 2023 Overland Expo West.

Big country

If you drove from the Front Runner US headquarters in California to Overland Expo East in Virginia, Google Maps says it would take 38 hours of non-stop driving to cover the 2 549 miles (which is roughly 4 100km). Plus, you would cross nine US states in the process. On the other hand, if you live in John O’Groats, Scotland – the most northern point of mainland Britain – and want to attend the Billing Off-Road Show, it is a journey of only 600 miles (just under 1 000km). Our drive to Flagstaff was nearly the same distance, but we did allow ourselves a few scenic detours, such as the famous Route 66. We were lucky, we realised, when we learnt that other attendees had to drive across the country for several days to attend Expo West.

Even bigger trucks

I cannot believe the size of vehicles in the USA. I felt like a five-year-old when standing next to the new Hummer EV Edition (with a claimed range of 314 miles, or rather 500-odd kilometres). It makes a Land Rover Series III or a classic Hilux bakkie look like a toy truck. Then again, if you live in a country with no Dodge Ram or Ford F-series trucks, your frame of reference is slightly limited.

Very different…

When you land at LAX and drive to Malibu, about 90 minutes away on a good day, count the number of old Land Rover Defenders, Toyota Land Cruisers or Front Runner roof racks you spot on the road. You are having a good day if you need to use more than one hand to count the number. California is certainly not the overland capital of the world. In comparison, drive from Cape Town airport to Camps Bay for a cocktail, and you will see at least 50 Suzuki Jimnys, and you know what? All of them will have Front Runner racks on. Plus, you will see heaps of old Defenders, Land Cruisers and Hilux bakkies. It has to be said that certain US states, such as Colorado, Arizona and Utah, are more overland and 4×4 friendly, though.

…but the same

If you walk around the campsite at Expo West, almost every truck has a Dometic fridge in the back. Fair enough, you also see the odd ARB or National Luna one, but Dometic clearly dominates here. The same happens when you walk around the campsite at Abenteuer Allrad in Germany – Dometic fridges are everywhere. Other well-known overland brands like Alu-Cab and ARB also dominate on both sides of the Atlantic. The US overland and off-road accessories market is massive and highly competitive. You will see some big local brands which are very successful and sold exclusively in that country.

Old Defender love

Everyone seems to love an old Defender… which makes me wonder just what causes this much romanticised allure? Probably the fact that they were not sold in the USA for many years due to the lack of airbags and other safety reasons. We had a rather old Defender 110 V8 on the Front Runner stand, and boy, oh boy, did it attract lots of attention. I only saw a handful of other old (and new) Defenders at the event (quite different from similar shows on the other side of the Atlantic!).

Gas versus wood

In Africa, Outback Australia and at most UK Land Rover shows, everyone likes cooking on briquettes, charcoal or wood. Not so in the US, where gas is king. Also, as the campsite was in the forest, open fires were a no-go.

Another American trend worth a mention has to be the massive number of portable gas fire pits. The Friday of the expo was a washout and loads of people were using them to stay warm and dry. One of my favourites was from LavaBox, which converts old ammo boxes into portable gas-powered campfires. It’s simple, safe, and there is no need to chop down trees to fire it up. Very innovative!

Familiar faces, different continent

I always joke with people and say that it is a small world when you drive a Land Rover. The same can be said of overlanding. Even though I had not been to the USA for a number of years, I caught up with several familiar faces during the event.

Australian 4×4 guru Ron Moon and his wife Viv were finishing their epic multi-year trek around the States. American 4×4 journalist Fred Williams (formerly from Dirt Every Day) and his two pups drove a van to the event and parked it on the Quigley stand. I once attended the Australian Outback Challenge with Jeremy Bergh, the founder of Alu-Cab. We ran into each other at Flagstaff and had a great old chin wag about how to crack America with South African products. I could go on and on, but I won’t bore you.

VIP veterans

As a military veteran, I have the highest regard for how the American people and shows like this treat their former soldiers. I saw loads of stalls offering generous discounts to veterans. I chatted with a group of vets at the campsite, and they could not have been any friendlier if they tried. Rob Lara, a vet with over 20 years of service, parked his beastly 2013 Ram 2500 on the Mile Tires stand and was more than happy to answer my questions about his beefed-up truck.

Look the part

I have noticed a rather perplexing global trend around overlanding; where do all of these impressive rigs and trucks go when not at shows? I often camp and overland but never see many special rigs and trucks when driving across the Serengeti or scooting around Scotland’s remote islands.

Overlanding has developed a broader appeal in recent times. People have realised they can work from anywhere, so they do just that. Mountain bikers, climbers and paddle boarders like the overland look and buy into it, but for them, it is all about finding the new and perfect place to do their chosen thing.

Patches, please

Cloth patches that Velcro or sew onto a bag, hat, or jacket were a massive deal at Expo West. We handed out over 1 000 at the Front Runner stand and ran out of patches on Saturday afternoon. I even saw a trade stand that only sold cloth patches. People in the USA love cloth patches. Who knew?

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