Dewalt, Dents, Dessert

Bonfire Run 2020: Overlanding in the Ozarks

Like a rainforest canopy shading the leaf covered trails, the oaks and pines of the Ozark National Forest provide unmatched scenery all along the route each year for the first big trip of the springtime, the annual Bonfire Run.

Named after the typical adventure to Natural State Overland’s Bonfire Rendezvous and Byrds Adventure Center, this year the Bonfire Run wasn’t aimed towards a Bonfire at all. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bonfire Rendezvous was cancelled. Yet we set forth on what can only be described as a slippin’, slidin’, taillight bustin’ epic adventure.

The Bonfire Rendezvous is an informal gathering put on by Randy Putt of Natural State Overland. The goal is to have central meeting place for several groups to plan an overland route for a few days prior to the event, with the goal destination of Byrds on the final night of camp. However as mentioned this year the Bonfire was cancelled. That didn’t ruin our plans however. We limited our group to stay within social distancing guidelines and pushed forward.

We look forward to this trip every year. Since many of us work full time jobs, its a luxury to get a 3 day weekend. So this is really the one chance per year to have a full on overland adventure where the journey is the goal, camping at a different site each night. We get to hone our craft and practice skills that really only see usefulness on these trips. 3 nights camping remotely brings out the man in us all. You experience a small glimpse of survival mode. Putting our trucks and ourselves to the test, we would set out on what would be an unforgettable time away from everyday life to achieve the goal of long distance, vehicle based adventure travel. So enjoy the story as told through photography and memories I’ll not soon forget.


THURSDAY

Bonfire Run is always a 4 day, 3 night trip. It is planned this way to allow for only requiring one day of time off of work, yet still enjoying 3 full nights of camping enjoyment. This isn’t just a car camping trip. We’re not weekend warriors just going wheeling with our buddies. Our goal is to travel through the remote Ozark National Forest 100% reliant on ourselves and each other. Little to no cell service for the majority of the trip means we’re off the grid, as remote as you can get in Arkansas. No hotels, motels, or Holiday Inns. Simply sleeping under the trees and the stars. It’s overlanding and its incredible.

The first night of our trip is easy going. The camp site is typically easy to get to and this was no different. Matt, our fearless leader, planned a great route that would lead us through unknown territory as well as some familiar trails culminating on the famous Big Piney Creek. Our adventure would begin at a large camp North of Hector with plenty of room for the 10 rigs that would be surrounding the camp fire. The skottles and skillets would soon be simmering with steak and fajitas. The aromatic smells of an overland camp are hard to beat. I’ve heard it said many times that overlanding is just driving somewhere to eat something good. No doubt the cuisine was tasty on this early spring evening. With full bellies we gathered around the pop up pit and really began the team building. While many of us had traveled together before, not everyone had fully met in person. It is safe to say lasting friendships grow even fonder around a campfire.

After a few hours spent by firelight, one by one each of use peeled away into our tents, hammocks, and vehicles. The night drew to a close a bit earlier than the next 2 as we prepared for the weekend ahead. Hopefully every rested well. The next day we would certainly need all the energy we could muster.


FRIDAY

Three days of early mornings and late nights would start as peaceful as it ended. We awoke to sounds of the forest chirping and swirling; nature’s alarm clock was beckoning us into the daylight. As I crawled out of the pitch black 23 Zero Breezeway thanks to the Light Suppression Technology, I was surprised that I didn’t see anyone else moving around yet. Fog was lifting off of the trees surrounding the clearing where we camped. I fired up the Jetboil to start up a fresh cup of coffee and only once the water was rolling, I noticed Robert getting ready to make breakfast. Just as we had individually left the fire, we all emerged from our slumber to face the day.

After packing up the skottles and tents and hammocks, we gathered around to get a mission brief from Matt overviewing the trails planned for the day, what to expect, and how to arrange ourselves so that the vehicles with winches were spaced out. The formation was set and after praying for safety and protection we set forth and first full day of our adventure.

Four wheel drive was engaged right away as we hit the trail immediately outside of camp. However we would soon come to stop, and another stop, and another. The trails in this area were legal and open yet not frequently traveled and the spring storms caused quite a bit of deadfall crossing right where we wanted to go. So instead of turning around 10 rigs, we pushed on and got some great use out of the Dewalt electric chainsaw and snatch blocks. It was slow moving and treacherous work. Anyone else who happens to come through this section should pay their respects to the casualties of taillights and and quarter panels that were lost. Add to that an annoyingly cold drizzle and you might can tell the morning didn’t go as planned and certainly dampened the spirits of the crew. Finally we made it to an exit and tucked our tails back to our previous night’s camp to recoup for some lunch and plan the rest of the day. We had to make up for some lost time in order to make it to the camp sites we wanted to hit.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat and we checked our maps for the best route to get back on track. Headed for the Illinois Bayou, our caravan quickly moved up towards some more familiar trails along the Lindsey Motorway. The crossing right off of the highway is a gatekeeper of sorts for the rest of the trail. If you don’t think you can make it through that then you might want to turn around as you’ll be faced with many similar obstacles along the way.

Mud and water abound along the East Fork Illinois Bayou. This stream is sometimes a creek and other times a river depending on the recent rainfall in the surrounding mountains due to the Bayou being narrow and dependent upon its origin further north at Divide Mountain. It snakes its way down towards Russellville and offers beautiful scenery along its banks and dozens of crossings for high clearance vehicles. A snorkel and high mounted breathers for differentials, transfers cases, and transmissions are all recommended during the spring and fall when water is high. We would cross the many forks of this waterway several times throughout the rest of the day as we made our way to our waterside camp along the North Fork.

The trails were wider and trees were still standing for the rest of this day. As I said, lots and lots of mud can be found in this area. A good portion of the trail is mostly swampy forest soup just begging for someone to earn $20 attempting the many holes along the trail. Sure enough, Ben is always up for the challenge and earned some gas money, but not for too long as he found himself buried up to the frame and his slick KO2s wouldn’t take him forwards or backwards. Thanks Ben for the entertainment. We quickly scrambled to winch him out after snapping a quick photo or two while he hooked up his recovery points.

Camp on night number two started out as another peaceful evening in a nice clearing a stones throw from the water. This picturesque place offered a few huge boulders that had settled their way into the water likely hundreds of years ago as well as high bluffs extending up on the other side. A small rock beach provided the rock skippers with plenty of flat smooth stones to toss across. Rightfully so, this site would be added near the top of my list for places to sleep, as I’m sure others would claim as well. However Mother Nature had plans to push us into shelter quicker than we would have liked. The fire that Matt started would quickly be put out by a thunderous rain storm with high winds and lightning all around. I sat in my tent for a while listening the train-like gusts blowing through the trees. Because I couldn’t see any light outside the tent at all thanks to the LST, there was little to no warning of a lightning strike close by and the resulting thunder sent shivers down my spine I have to admit. Some of them sounded too close for comfort. That was definitely a night to remember. It wasn’t too long before the thunder subsided and the rain settled in. I think we all knew what that would mean in the morning. Deep water.


SATURDAY

To our relief the rain had quit sometime in the night and the clouds rolled away to let in some sunlight to warm the morning air. While everything was wet, there’s something about the sunlight that makes it a bit less tedious packing away camp. Matt took advantage of the morning light and snapped a few drone shots from above capturing the magnificent beauty of the Ozarks from the air.

Collective rain fly and tarp shaking all over camp was the sound right after bacon sizzling around camp. After we packed up, we headed back out of this trail the same way we entered except this morning the Illinois Bayou had raised about 6” at each crossing which goes to show just how much the stream in the Ozarks change with rainfall. Still no issue for our rigs, we headed North for more water and more mud to begin our second full day of driving.

Have I mentioned water crossings? If memory and my map serves me right, I think on Saturday alone we traversed at least a dozen or more separate crossings along North Fork, many times slowing down to capture the moments on video or photo. Some were deep and others not so much, yet others still caused a few of us with snorkels to switch on the windshield wipers after taking a plunge with some extra skinny pedal. While yes, this was fun, its imperative that you do not try this without the aforementioned diff breathers and snorkel. Even then, you still run many electrical risks taking water over the hood. But it was certainly exhilarating seeing the tsunami wave crash over the glass!

Caravanning north towards Pedastal Rock, the route turned to the west once more venturing further into the heart of the forest and higher elevation before shifting southbound down Indian Creek Road. This is one of the most scenic dirt roads in all of the Ozarks. It winds down the side of a ridge line with a magnificent panoramic view all along the side through the trees. Drivers can see for miles and miles off the their side of the mountain. If you’re an adventurer looking for scenic rather than technical, this is a great place to be.

After stopping for a quick lunch on Indian Creek at the planned campsite for night number two, the team pressed on towards our final campsite for the journey. One we were all looking forward to. We had a few stops a long the way, the first of which would be Pilot Rock. Admittedly this was one spot I had never heard of before and I am now all the more thrilled to have taken the short hike up to the top. At just over 2100 feet, this is one of the highest points in the Ozarks and just simply doesn’t get much better than this. With a nearly 360 degree view overlooking the valleys surrounding the rock tower, the horizon seems to fall off over the trees miles away. Truly breathtaking.

The seat of my jeans were stained during the descent with the grimy black dirt seemingly growing on the rocks after Shadow, eager to get back down to the truck and a bowl of water, pulled his leash a little too hard and sent me sliding on my back pockets. Thanks, Shadow.

Once back in the driver’s seats, the crew looped around and motored north once more towards Haw Creek and just passed that along the Big Piney and the famous landmark, or watermark rather, known as Car Wash Falls. Of course being a fair weather weekend day, the road was quite busy and teeming with explorers like us. The one solitary water crossing at Hurricane Creek had onlookers checking to see if they were able to cross. After our lineup of 9 passed through, we gained a few followers and even became followers ourselves as everyone wanted a glimpse of the car wash and the take the rite of passage underneath. Car Wash Falls is just one of those overlander staples that you have to do at least once. It’s unmistakable as the likely the single most recognizable place in overland circles regarding the Ozark National Forest. If you’re in the area, be sure to pay a visit.

Once everyone got to pose their rigs for a photo op underneath the falling water, the push forward continued so that we could make it to our last camp before sundown. The rest of the trail was not difficult, but winding and slow. A washout on one side of the road right as we approached the rocky banks of our destination did set a bit uneasy with me as I’m not necessarily fond of washed away creek banks. Nevertheless we all crossed with ease slowly but surely and reached camp number three and to our relief it was vacant.

Along the bank of the Big Piney we maneuvered our rigs to level ground and began to setup camp. Soon after more serene sounds of steak sizzling could be heard from nearly every stove. If you’re used to eating hot dogs or canned chili at camp, try having a steak sometime cooked either over the fire or in a cast iron skillet. You’ll be glad you did. After all, overlanding had been said many times to simply driving somewhere remote to eat something good. And that is what we did.

Matthew and Preston tossed a line for a while on the bank but unfortunately came up with nothing. Ben and Matt took a dip into the frigid waters of the Big Piney. Nick, Ryan, and I had one last steak dinner. Robert and John whipped up some more fajitas on the skottle. Grant had a medley of chicken and vegetables. And then Ben had… chicken and eggs? Well I guess at the end of weekend you just eat whatever you have left.

Then came something we had all been looking forward to since the adventure began: Peach Cobbler whipped up in the Dutch oven by Matt. I’m not much a dessert connoisseur but I’ll say that was pretty much perfect as far as cobbler goes. Top notch. Thanks Matt.

With our hunger fulfilled and drinks opened, we settled in around the campfire once more and delightfully so since we were robbed of a fire by the rain the previous night. Knowing it was our last night on the trail we did stay up a little later and let the warm light of the blaze wash over us before finally succumbing to our slumber. Day 3 was in the bag.


SUNDAY

Awaking on the last day of the trip, we were all met with chilly temps and low fog floating over the river bank. The water level had come up slightly but still rolled over and around the rocks which was of course the perfect subtle alarm clock. Breakfast was a quick rendition of the previous the morning with bacon, eggs, and anything else that we had to share. Shadow cleaned up the scraps and we began folding up the RTTs and rolling up sleeping bags and hammocks to get the final day started. Not without a quick drone shot of the crew on the rock beach.

Something that most of had been wanting to do for a long time was a vehicle swap while out on the trail. So after we exited the camp site and got back on the main road we each picked a vehicle that wasn’t our own and experienced a different ride for a while. First I hopped in Matt’s JK at the front of the line. You can hear my famous line in his Part 2 video, “Is there anything on a Jeep that doesn’t rattle?” The Jeep handled nicely and was definitely a change of pace from the ZR2. Next up I got to sit behind the wheel of a 4th gen and then a 5th gen 4Runner. Both were well equipped with MTs and metal bumpers and both were very comfortable inside as well as in the feet and the seat. Ultimately each returned to his own rig and we carried on. Gathering a different perspective on vehicle selection definitely adds a new way to think about how the others in your group tackle and obstacle or why they might take a different line or travel at different speeds. I hope this is a Sunday tradition that we continue on future trips.

With everyone planted in their own seat again, we turned off the gravel and hit the dirt, our engines pointed towards the old homestead and the Spurgeon -Warren Cabin, or Bub’s Cabin, as most might know it. I don’t have much of the exact history to report but I do know its over a hundred years old and its nickname comes from the current owner of the cabin and the land, Bub. Bub is someone I’ve never met but heard a lot about. From time to time you can find him out there working on something, cleaning, mowing, or just enjoying the front porch. He’ll almost have something small that you might can help him with if you ask, so be sure to lend a hand. After all, Bub takes care of this place in his free time and keeps it open to all who wish to stop by. It is definitely a must see in the Ozarks as it gives a glimpse of how people lived so long ago.

We didn’t have too far to go, but the trails in between here and out final destination were challenging and rewarding. A few rock ledges here and a few root wads there, the winches were pulled out several times to conquer the hills. The solid axle Jeeps fared well in the off camber washouts and made for some great “Flex” photo ops.

These trails were simple to maneuver but slow and tons of fun! Of course it wouldn’t be a full day without some mishaps, so Ben and I both had the opportunity to showing just how sideways we could get our rigs. Ben went a little too far left and I went a touch to far right. Fortunately, there was no damage and we had quick recoveries to get us moving as lunch was calling our names.

After a few more miles of dirt and ruts we exited onto a gravel road and hammered down towards the Ozone Burger Barn. Luckily they were open and ready to serve group of hungry wanderers who had been merely surviving on low rations of steak, shrimp, fajitas, and cobbler all weekend. Once we arrived to a nice flat spot, the air hoses were hooked up and tires filled back to highway pressures as our offroad adventure had come to its final waypoint. When the hot sun is beating down on your back and dust is flying all around from trucks flying by, the speed of my CO2 tank at filling up my tires really shines. I helped top off some others since I was close and then it was off to the Burger Barn to fill our bellies with delicious food one last time for the weekend.

A thick, greasy, double cheeseburger was the cherry on top of the overland sundae and gave us time to catch up, share pictures and videos, and let those back at home know that we would soon be headed their way. We scarfed down the beef, said our goodbyes, and rolled on towards the interstate, the final “trail” of this trip.

As each of them always are, this trip was truly memorable fro beginning to end. There’s not much better for a human being the being surrounded by the natural landscape that was created for us to enjoy and thrive in. Even if we did spend 8-10 hours of each day in a vehicle, there was not a moment when there wasn’t something to take in, to capture a moment in time to remember forever.

The Ozark National Forest is a special and unique place like no other. Offerings of thousands of miles of offroad trails are bringing many people into the hobby and sport of overlanding. We’re seeing an influx of offroad enthusiasts and explorers in many different types of vehicles. Unfortunately there are some bad actors who wish to see it come to an end, and in some cases they have good reason. So if you do plan to come and enjoy what the Ozarks have to offer, I just ask that you please do so responsibly like I know most overlanders do. Never leave trash and always respect the trail system. Leave it better than you found it. We’ll leave a remarkable place for future generations of adventurers to experience their own memories.

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

the heights of the mountains are his also.


Overlanding 2020

The year is 2020. A fresh new decade is upon us and the term “overlanding” is more popular than ever before for better or worse. More people than ever before are wanting to explore the Earth, to camp outside beneath the dark sky, to go where they never have before. Social media is flooded with vehicles equipped to conquer to harshest terrain or take on the local campground. One might get the sense that this is the newest way of life for an outdoorsman. Take a step back for a moment and look at what this new fad really is. Let’s talk overlanding in 2020 for a bit.

With the rise of popular Youtube channels showcasing premiere overland builds comes the rise of copycats and those who wish the mimic these builds with one of their own. No fault to themselves they have saturated the media landscape with picture after picture, video after video of what is now the modern overland scene. Let’s face it. In this day and age there’s no much left of the world left to discover. Humans have been exploring for millennia. While yes, there are still unreached areas on our giant green and blue ball of water and dirt, humans have for the most part seen and done everything there is to see that could possible fascinate. Yet there are billions who have not wandered beyond where they are now. Many American overlanders haven’t even seen all there is to see in their own state! Guilty as charged right here. Now don’t get the idea that you have to drive to Prudhoe Bay Alaska to fulfill the overlander’s destiny. Sure it should probably be on your list, however fill in the gaps with some closer places and you can have the ultimate 2020 overland experience. I can guarantee you that if you seek out some waterfalls, scenic overlooks, or simply a forest valley within your state you’ll find what you are looking for in an overland adventure.

Please please PLEASE do not throw all of your hard earned money into gobs of expensive equipment. This is the number one thing I dislike about 2020 overlanding. Being rich is not a requirement. Having the latest and greatest stuff isn’t what its about. Equipping your rig to conquer South America doesn’t make you happier. If you stay on social media too long you will get bombarded with ads pointing you to glamorous lifestyle the overland gods live. I have watched and re-watched so many Expedition Overland videos. There stuff is top notch and they have conquered the world as far as I see it. I don’t need any of that and the odds are you don’t need that either. It’s all great, and each piece of equipment they have serves a purpose and is probably a requirement to do what they do. Don’t let that taint your image of overlanding. You can make it as fancy or simple as you want it to be and still be comfortable and enjoy your time.

The best overland vehicle is the vehicle you already have. I’m not going to give you an overland guide to building an amazing truck because frankly I’m not that mechanically inclined. I will tell you this though. If you want to explore, take the vehicle sitting in your driveway and explore! Remote destinations don’t have to always be along a treacherous trail. Personally I do love it when I have to use 4WD to get to where I’m going but there are some great places I would love to see that I could drive to in 2WD the whole way have just as much of a thrilling adventure! I have survived the Ozarks for two years without a winch or metal bumpers and one year without a snorkel. That in fact is due to the group of friends that I choose to explore with that happen to have some of those things. However you can explore great lengths of terrain without needing any of those things. The idea is to just go.

Some of the best overland gear can be purchased at Walmart or on Amazon for pennies compared to the gold bricks you need for the exquisite gear a lot of big names use. Don’t knock Ozark Trail or Coleman until you’ve tried it yourself. If you are just cooking hot dogs put your money towards gasoline instead of the fanciest stove you can get. I must admit that I did splurge a little bit in this area and grab a nice Jetboil Genesis stove but that was probably the most expensive gear purchase that I have made and I had clear purpose in mind with it. I use it weekly even in the garage. It is important to buy gear you can also use at home so that it has multiple purposes other than just when you are out in the woods. From cooking gear to clothes, there’s no need to have separate stuff for overlanding. After all, overlanding is just living out of your vehicle right? Why would you want to try and live differently and be someone else? Dress a bit warmer if its cold out but don’t worry about looking a certain way or buying expensive overland clothes. It’s not a fashion show. Same goes with communication devices, sleeping arrangements, and storage. Good grief its sad to see some people spend countless dollars on expensive boxes and $3000 rooftop tents to use them twice a month or less when that can go towards so many other real life things to further their adventure. Not a knock on those things. All gear even the expensive gear has its place and is going to be useful and worth the extra price to someone. All I’m saying is pick your poison. Throw money at stuff and then lack money to buy gas or food? Or keep a bit more of your bucks and have steak at camp a lot further away from home? If you’ve got the coin to do all of that and then some, I applaud you!

Yes, overlanding used to be about exploring places unknown to anyone or travelling thousands of miles with a specific purpose of getting to a new location for business or pleasure purposes. Now it has become about going offroad on a weekend to eat something and take pictures and videos of it. And really, that’s okay. If you have ever knocked someone because it didn’t mean your technical definition of overlanding then look at yourself and think about what really matters. Does it matter if they only camped one night? Does it matter whether they camp at rec area or by a creek in the middle of nowhere? Does it matter if they go to the same place every time or go to a new state each trip? I’ve been guilty of this as well but I have learned that everyone can enjoy overlanding in their own way and the definitions are expanding to include many different things or at least there seem to be different levels now. You’ve got the one nighters that camp somewhere easy to find and popular, the weekenders that camp a couple nights in different locations but usually within a hundred miles or so of home, the overlanders that are moving from state to state for days on end, and the expedition crews that lead cross continental trips for several months. Truly there are many methods to get your exploration fix. Find what suits your life and your budget.

Take those pictures! Record your adventures! There are a lot of people out there who want to experience what you did even in a small way. Remember to capture what you did and where you went. Don’t let the fear of being called an overland hipster or cache (who even uses that word for real?). You did it and you want to share it. No problem there. Be responsible with it however and try not to spam your content everywhere on the internet. That will for sure turn people away. But please do find some groups that genuinely enjoy what you do and encourage others to do the same. Photos and videos are a great story telling tool as well. You can relive your trip time and time again while looking through your captures. Sometimes it takes you right back to the trail in an instant. I can’t tell you how many times a week I slide through my photo library or watch some Youtube videos that Matt and I have created.

Lastly I would just like to say this: Don’t be dramatic. You’re going to get things wrong and you are going to be corrected. You are going to do big, amazing things that no one thinks is nearly as cool as you do. You’re going to make some awesome memories that only you cherish and some might think they’re silly. At the end of the day, learn from what you do wrong and make sure you are having fun while doing the right thing. You will not be friends with everyone but that’s what is so great about the overland community. There is a group out there just right for your type of adventures and it won’t take long to find them if you put yourself out there. You’ll have those that try to suck the joy out of everything. Push past that. This hobby or lifestyle has so much to enjoy. Don’t waste your time meandering through the trenches of definition warfare. Do your thing and share it with the world.

I’m going to give you 3 goals of mine to get that overland itch scratched this year, and I am hoping to do these things in 2020.

First, explore 10 new places in your state. This can be a state park, a national forest trail, or any other non-developed remote region within the state you currently live in. Unless you live in Rhode Island, chances are you have thousands of square miles just overflowing with spectacular new-to-you areas.

Second, spend one week living out of your vehicle in another state. I’m going to Colorado this summer and plan to camp at least 5 nights under the mile high sky. After a trip like that you will find within yourself an outdoorsman, an offroader, a happy camper, or an explorer. Maybe all of them get rolled up into the overlander that you want to be. There is a key and you will find it. Hopefully I can make that distinction myself this year.

Third, learn to cook with minimal outdoor accessories at least once a week even at home. If you do not conquer this skill your overland experience will dwindle. I don’t mean a 3 course meal, I mean something hearty and quick that is delicious as something you can cook at home on the stove. Steak, chili, chicken, squash, deserts, you name it. Just do it. And do it regularly so that you learn the wrong ways and the right ways to do it.

What does overlanding mean to me? The adventure of driving, camping, cooking, exploring, thriving, and learning about myself all wrapped up into a weekend.

MVUM: What Is It and How Do I Use It?

You may have seen or heard someone talking about the famous MVUM when directing someone to a spot or area in the national forests. Perhaps you’re not quite sure what it is, or maybe you don’t know how to use it to find out where you are going. Hopefully this article can help clear up any questions you have may. It will be in a question and answer format and I plan to update the article with any questions that I may get afterwards. So here goes!

Q: What is the MVUM?
A: The MVUM, or Motor Vehicle Use Map, is a black and white map created by the USFS (United States Forest Service) that designates legal, open trails inside the national forest. In fact, it only shows the open trails and public roads. If it is a closed or illegal trail, it will not show up on this map. The map is usually updated every year but there is no regular update cycle. They update it as needed to reflect trail closures or newly opened trails.

Q: How do I use the MVUM?
A: The trails shown on the MVUM are the only legal trails that you can venture down off of the county or forest service roads. Since the MVUM only shows open forest service trails and not all public roads and highways, you will need some sort of base layer that shows these connecting roads. Whether it be a physical or digital map, you can then find trails on the base map and cross reference them with the MVUM to check their legality and status. Using a combination of forest service maps and the official MVUM PDFs just to verify that the trails are legal, you can piece together legal trails and create a good route to explore the forest. You can find a great video on how to put together a route in the national forest below from my friend Matt.

Q: Where can I find the MVUM?
A: If you’re wanting to explore the national forests whether it be the Ozarks or Ouachitas, you will need to obtain a copy of the current MVUM. There are many ways to do so, but the only official version is the one that you can download from the USFS website. I will leave a link below for both forests in Arkansas. Another way to get the MVUM is to download the Gaia GPS mobile app on your phone or tablet and subscribe to the premium membership giving you access to their premium layers. The MVUM layer is one of those premium layers. You can then use this layer on top of whichever map source you want and it will show you the MVUM trails in the area. (Disclaimer: The MVUM layer in Gaia GPS maybe not be 100% accurate. Trust it at your own risk. You will want to verify your route against the official MVUM PDF to make sure.) You can also download and app called Avenza which will allow you to import the PDF from the forest service website and will show your location overlay on top of the map. Although I have not used this app, I do hear it is a great free alternative to Gaia if you’d rather save $40 per year.

Q: Why do I need the MVUM? Can’t I tell which trails are open when I get there?
A: Many trails in the forest are not marked open or closed. There are some that have a trail marker, but even then that doesn’t necessarily mean it is open. There are some trails with no gate, no sign, and no marker that are still illegal to travel on. Using the MVUM is the only sure way to know whether a trail is open or closed.

Q: What are seasonal or special designations?
A: Some trails are only open certain times of the year. Each trail will have the dates that it is open listed on the PDF versions if you look close to the legend. In Gaia, you can tap on any trail with the MVUM layer added and it will also show you the seasonal openings. Some trails are closed during certain hunting seasons or logging seasons. Others are closed when flood waters may be high or the road may be unstable or unusable during that time period. Also, some trails are only open to certain vehicle types whether it be highway legal or OHV (UTV/ATV).

Q: How do I know if a trail is open or closed?
A: Well that is exactly that the MVUM is for. The simple answer is: If it is on the MVUM as a designated trail, and it doesn’t have a seasonal closure, its open. If it is not on the MVUM it is either closed, or not a forest service trail and may possibly be a public county road. One example of this is a popular trail in the Ozarks that leads to Spainhour Falls called Spadra Creek Road. It is not listed as an open designated trail on the MVUM because it is actually a public county road not maintained by the forest service.

References:
Ozark National Forest Maps including the MVUM: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/osfnf/maps-pubshttps://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzDRI9yUkwjwK7rBHRHdkcw9uBMW7Mgxi

Matt’s YouTube Video series on navigating with Gaia GPS: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzDRI9yUkwjwK7rBHRHdkcw9uBMW7Mgxi

Looking Back on 2019

The past two years have definitely been the most adventurous years of my life. I’ve been so many places and seen so many amazing things. I’ve met the greatest friends I could ask for and spent a lot of quality time with family on vacation. Specifically in 2019, I have spent more time outdoors than the past several years combined. My love for exploring has grown and the search for myself has just begun. I believe each trip changes you, even in some small way. You learn something, you forget something, or you figure out something you’ve known but couldn’t grasp. Nature has a way of setting our mind straight.

So let’s take a trip down memory lane and talk about all of the overland trips I have taken in 2019.

To start the year off on the right foot, the second weekend of the year was the first of many overland trips in 2019. After trying to rally a team for a trip, no one could make it, so I had set my sights on having my first solo expedition through the Ozarks. At the last minute, my good buddy Cody decided he could make it but would be rolling in late Friday night. I took the day off work on Friday and headed west from my home in Northeast Arkansas towards the southeast section of the Ozarks. I had several trails I wanted to explore and I was anxious to get the truck muddy.

I started off near Hector, AR and explored several trails east of the small town including Blue Hole Road and East Fork Illinois Bayou. After a quick trail side lunch of hot dogs in my brand new cast iron skillet ,which of course, I would soon after learn to love, I set my sights further west towards Byrd’s Adventure Center and the surrounding area to secure a great campsite that Matt and I had found several weeks before in the fall. It was right along the Mulberry River and had plenty of space for Cody and I. I setup the tent, awning, and started a fire. Cody rolled in around 9 PM, and we both crawled into our RTTs and awoke the next morning to a slight mist which quickly turned into a steady rain. Our plan was to explore one trail I had done before and then take a longer trail over the mountain that would dump us out right by Oark Cafe to have lunch before making the trek to Spainhour Falls, which neither of us had been to before. We were in for a terrible surprise, but that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say that I now have a huge dent in my bed side and a great respect for winches, which neither of us had. Here’s a few snapshots of that trip.

Next up in February, I traveled over to the Ouachita National Forest for an all day expedition across the mountains with Justin and Chris. This was a much more relaxed drive with the Ouachitas being much less technical, yet with some great views along the way. This was only the second time I cooked chili on the trail, and we enjoyed bowl after bowl at what would turn out to be the most epic campsite in the forest we’ve ever come across. The next day we got unlucky and the trail I decided to take became extremely narrow and made for a terrible exit from the forest, with only one small break of the pine tree car wash with a stretch of power line. Although the second day wasn’t all that enjoyable, this was another trip I’ll never forget. Check out these pictures:

A month later, it was back to Spainhour Falls on a Sunday afternoon to camp one night with Matt and his two daughters. Cara brought her Jeep along but headed back home before dark. Spainhour is hard to beat for a campsite beside a waterfall. It might just be the coolest waterfall in the Ozarks because of its stair step rocky face and large pool at the bottom. After settling into my tent, we got a startle that led to yet another nice surprise at this waterfall. A group of older Subarus bounced their way through our camp, and after hearing car doors open, Matt and I quickly hopped outside to see what was going on. They were nice enough but it was still an unwelcome surprise after dark in the middle of nowhere. This marked night #4 in the tent for the year. The next day I set out to explore some new areas and and enjoy the great weather.

In April The Crew set off on our first true overland expedition together. Our goal was to start at Hector and make our way across the forest to Byrd’s Adventure Center taking only dirt roads and trails. Ben and I set out one night early to do some exploration after dark before finding a campsite. Little did we know, we’d take some epic trails with deep ravines to flex through and more water crossings than planned for. We ended up turning around at the Illinois Bayou crossing, and making our way around to the Bayou Bluff Rec Area for the night, which actually turned out quite nice. The next morning we met up with the rest of The Crew in Hector to stock food and gas before the caravan took off. Winding our way up Mill Creek, we hit some of the deepest water most of us had been through. Springtime in the Ozarks is no joke. Surprisingly, we never had to turn around. Heading over to Indian Creek, we ventured north towards Car Wash Falls where we would make camp for the night just before crossing Hurricane Creek. This was truly an epic spot to camp. Early Saturday we packed up and continued to explore west towards Haw Creek. Unfortunately, one of our rigs had a brake malfunction and had to be left there to await a tow truck, but we all hammered on towards Byrd’s. Once we arrived there, we said our hellos at the bonfire and quickly said goodbyes as we had planned to camp down near our favorite waterfall. Driving through creeks and rocky slopes after dark is extremely exhilarating, and one of the most fun nights of driving I’ve ever had. Leaving on Sunday capped off the perfect weekend to what was more or less the first full on overland trip I’ve ever taken. 3 nights, 4 days, camping somewhere different each night, with scenery on both sides of the trail the whole way to our final destination. You simply can’t beat it. A few more pics this time, for the longer weekend.

A month later, I met up with Brandon, his wife Haven, and their buddy for a couple nights of relaxed camping at Byrd’s Adventure Center. It’s a good thing the camping was relaxed, because on Saturday I got the scare of my life. While driving down to Spainhour Falls to meetup with Nathan Aycock and his friend, the bank along the creek gave way and my passenger front tire was completely off the ground hanging over the water. Luckily, with a couple of tow straps and a hi-lift jack, we were able to secure my truck to a tree to prevent it from tipping over, and using the front and rear lockers, I was able to climb in reverse fully back up onto the bank. Needless to say I turned around and headed out. We got back to base camp a little earlier than normal and enjoyed a warm evening by the Mullbery River. A day I won’t soon forget, that’s for sure. The next day I decided to set off solo to visit White Rock Mountain before heading home.

A few weeks later, I returned to the same campsite for a solo one night stay to explore some places, take some pics with a nice camera I borrowed, and relax. It was a busy weekend at Byrd’s, but it didn’t phase me too much. Although the goal was to have an adventurous weekend alone to clear my thoughts, it was nice to people watch for a night and drive to the beat of my own drum with no plans in mind. Every once in a while it’s good for us to get out alone in nature and just look around at what there is to offer in the forest. You get to notice everything in front of you as you go as well as anything you pass. You get to stop whenever you want, and there’s no agenda to follow. Although I do love exploring with The Crew, I’ll always take a chance once a year to be alone in the woods.

In August, the heat started to really set in. It never cooled off at night and stayed 90+ during the day. Camping kinda sucked, but we went out anyway. It was a great chance for me to make some new lifelong friends. I met Ryan on this trip as well as his buddy Nick. Justin and I met up the night before, and I can’t remember when we rolled into camp, but we enjoyed the campfire and sounds of the river rushing by until after 1 am. Bright and early we had breakfast and Ryan and Nick rolled in soon after, as we headed down towards the falls to let Ryan and Nick truly test their rigs. As mother nature would have it, we enjoyed lunch while standing under the hatches of Ryan’s and Justin’s 4Runners in the pouring down rain. It had not rained all morning, and shortly after it stopped again. The rain made things pretty slippery, but all in all everyone had a great time.

I thought the time would never come, but finally my wife gave in and let me take my son Kellin on his first ever camping trip. It was still hot in mid September, and the mosquitoes didn’t cooperate. It wasn’t the best of times, but we got to be outside for a night and that’s what matters. Coincidentally, this was shortly after we brought home our adventure pup, Shadow, who went with us too. The next morning, Kel got his first camp award from me as he helped make bacon and eggs. It was a success, and I look forward to more adventures as he grows up.

Three trips in September? Yep. At the end of the month, Shadow and I sat out on our first overnight adventure in the Ozarks. At this time he was only 3 months old, but I really wanted him to get accustomed to adventuring with me. I plan to take him everywhere, and hopefully Kel too if he wants to. On this trip I had two goals. I wanted to accurately map out 3 of my favorite trails with way points, pictures, and video, as well as make sure Shadow wasn’t going to hate overlanding. Both goals were met. Hundreds of pictures, a couple hours of video, and one tired dog later, we camped at Byrd’s and enjoyed the evening with steak and kibble.

The 2019 Rendezvous in the Ozarks presented by Natural State Overland was one for the books. Much larger crowd and way more vendors and rigs. These were also the most consecutive nights I spent sleeping in my tent so far. I arrived solo on Wednesday night after dark and quickly popped the tent open and crashed. Thursday morning there were very few rigs there, and it looked like a normal weekend. Matt rolled in first with his Jeep and trailer then Justin and Chris setup camp shortly after in their 4Runners. Later that afternoon the campground starting filling up to capacity, and soon the camping area and the vendor area were both full and booming with activity. Friday was more of the same with trail rides in the morning and vendors and classes in the afternoon. I finally put the tent away for a night ride down to the falls as is Rendezvous tradition. With the full group finally arriving on Saturday, we had a nice big ring around the fire filled with laughter and good times. You just can’t beat it. Seriously, there are few things better in this world than sitting around a campfire with your best friends.

The Crew’s annual birthday bash ended the 2019 overland season for me on a high note. We explored the area north of Hector again but traveled down some trails we’d never done before with some epic water crossings. We found a few campsites along the way. You can read more about this trip in detail here: https://ozarkoverlandadventures.com/2019/11/27/the-crew-goes-overlanding/

I’ll never forget the memories I’ve shared with the friends I’ve made. I’ve explored so much of this state that I would never have been able to do before I purchased my truck. I’ve learned how to be self-reliant, yet also learned how to work as a team to accomplish a goal. Camping is slightly new to me so I am still gaining the knowledge required to make it easier and more efficient. Learning how to drive off road was something I have always wanted to do since I was a kid, and when I’m out there, it feels like the pinnacle of success being able to conquer the unknown.

I’m looking forward to 2020 and the adventures that await!

-Nathan

The Crew Goes Overlanding

A Base Camp Birthday

For the past two years now, I have had the opportunity to spend a nice, relaxing weekend exploring a small section of the Ozarks for a whole weekend in November. We like to take this time of the year to celebrate November birthdays by eating lots of great food and enjoying early bed times as well as sleeping in past the sunrise. As usual, I’m surrounded by the best friends I could ever ask for. This year I got to take my buddy Shadow with me! It’s that one weekend a year where we pick a base camp and stay there for a few days with no real agenda. Just camping, eating, and wheeling a bit, strengthening friendships that will last a lifetime.

This year our crew consisted of myself and Shadow, Matt and Cara, Brandon and Haven with their kiddo Weston and the tiniest wiener dog I have ever seen, Gus, Justin, Ben, and his buddy Jack. Some of our friends were unable to make the trip due to various circumstances and we missed them greatly. All of these folks are fantastic people who I am happy to call lifelong friends now.

Shadow and I packed up Friday evening after work and pointed the ZR2 west. I had been itching to test out the new Carplay functionality on the Gaia GPS app! We stopped for some gas, firewood, and chicken strips, before hopping on the interstate for a few hours.

Matt and Cara had arrived at base camp earlier in the day with Matt’s Jeep and their VRV teardrop camper, and got a great location to setup by the Illinois Bayou. This turned out to be the perfect spot for base camp operations for the weekend. Justin, Brandon, and Haven set out in the late afternoon, with Justin’s 4Runner and VRV and Brandon’s Tacoma. We finally arrived at camp after dark around 10pm and quickly setup a few things before settling in around the fire for a bit. you get to know more about your friends and grow closer together around a campfire, like no other place in the world. Ben and Jack arrived in early hours of Saturday morning after driving for a while after midnight. Needless to say they were the last ones up!

After light rain showers and sprinkles all day Friday, after dark there was a light drizzle that maintained all night. The ground was wet and the tent was wet too Saturday morning. The overcast sky allowed just enough light to fill my rooftop tent so that I could look around and see Shadow ready to get out of this thing and go pee. So was I. I had already heard the footsteps and doors opening from others that had gotten up earlier than us. We rolled out of bed to get the day started.

Our base camp was one that we had passed a few times before but never camped there since we usually passed in the middle of the day. You can hear the rolling Illinois Bayou all night long and there’s a great water crossing just around the curve to get to the other side and continue on exploring. Water levels were higher than normal, but still lower than the last time we had come through this area. Nevertheless the blueish-green tint to Ozarks streams in always a fantastic sight to see. From Arkansas.com:

The Illinois Bayou has its origins high up on the south slopes of the Ozarks. As the stream works its way toward Russellville and the Arkansas River, there’s nothing slow and lazy about it. It may be the only bayou in the country featuring class II/III whitewater. From the backwaters of Lake Dardanelle to the headwaters in the Ozarks, the Illinois Bayou really is not one stream but four: 1) the North Fork; 2) the Middle Fork; 3) the East Fork; and 4) the main stem (downstream from Bayou Bluff).

After a breakfast of champions consisting of bacon and eggs in the cast iron skillet, I had decided it was time to replace the cover on my Smittybilt RTT. It was heavily worn from 1 year of use on my truck and 3 years from the previous owner, had a few patched holes and some rips along the seams. The Velcro was very dirty and not sticking as well as it should. I do have to say though, that for 4 long years of hundreds of miles of Ozark trails, it has stood up well. Luckily that didn’t take all that long and we all headed out to explore some of the forest trails in the area.

To start our exploration, Matt decided to take us across the Illinois Bayou through a water crossing that is a bit intimidating at first look, but one that we had done before when the water was much higher. All 5 of us crossed with no issues. Matt, Justin, and I all have snorkels. Ben and Brandon do not, but Ben’s Jeep is lifted and running 35” tires, so he has quite a bit more clearance than Brandon’s stock suspension Tacoma. Because of this, Brandon was of course a bit leery of the deeper crossings that were to come. But he conquered them just as well as the rest of us!

November is one of the most popular months of the year for deer hunting in the Ozarks so we had planned a few extra possible camp sites just in case the main spot we picked was already taken by a deer camp. Luckily it was open and we were able to claim it for ourselves. So our first stop the next day was spot #2 that we had yet to see. A water crossing and a few mud holes later we stumbled upon an epic spot that we’ll be stopping at for camp from now on. This spot was large enough for at least 10 rigs and right next to the stream, with huge boulders in the water and a nice rock bar to walk along and skip some rocks. The spot was clear and not too many trees, and far enough away from the main trail to offer a secluded weekend getaway. Nothing beats hearing the water flow by over the rocks all night long. It’s a wonderful lullaby and a peaceful easy alarm clock.

After exploring and marking the GPS location, Matt fired up the drone to take some shots up and down the stream, then we packed up and moved on down the trail.

The name of the game that day was “water crossings”. On the east side of the forest, around every corner is another stream to cross. The Illinois Bayou area takes this to another level. It’s a constant of back and forth trails that go over and come back on the other side. One can easily build their confidence with water in one day. Unfortunately we came upon one crossing that was just flowing a little too fast. It was not too deep, but the main section of current had some white water caps going over the deeper part with large rocks. Ben and Matt having the most well equipped rigs for this crossing decided to walk out into the stream a bit to see just how deep it was a gauge the current for the rest of us.

With the current moving so fast, we decided that the lower rigs, Brandon, Justin, and myself, wouldn’t fair well against the water pushing on our doors. With nothing to prove, we all turned around.

All of us except Ben.

Ben of course loves the challenge, almost too much sometimes, and dove off hood first into the water. And made it with little to no issues. His higher clearance with 35” tires helped to let the water flow underneath instead of catching the doors. A story he will love to tell from now on, for those of us stayed on the near side.

We turned around and checked out a few other trails in the area before heading back to camp. Once we arrived it was found that Brandons Tacoma had a brake issue that needed to be repaired before getting back on the trail or the road home. So he hopped in with Justin in search of new parts to mend the limping truck. Soon enough the brakes were fixed just in time to huddle around the campfire.

I had volunteered to make a big pot of chili for the group before our trip and decided instead of cooking it before and warming it up, it would be a good experience to whip it up on site on the propane stove. I had prepared for around 15-20 people including kids, but there were only about 10 of us. Still, at the end of the night, there was not a spoonful of chili left in the pot. I would say it was good, and Cara even said it was the best chili she has ever had. I do believe it might have been the best chili I’ve ever had as well, but only because of the people I made it for and shared a campfire with while scarfing it down.

This would certainly be a weekend to remember for years to come. I’m glad to be able to share the trails with these awesome friends.

Overlanding: A Beginner’s View Part 1

Sand Creek in the snow

Back in the good ole days when I was just a kid who loved riding the beat up Yamaha Timberwolf, we’d often venture to a well known area of Greene County, AR called Sand Creek. There were many discussions about who actually owned the property, but nevertheless it was a popular hangout spot on the weekends for anyone who wanted to get away from the highway and do some off-roading in the sand. There was a main trail that has some high bank turns that were fun to get a little sideways on, some shallow yet fun creek crossings and swimming holes to get a little wet during the summer, a few trails that explored the top of a landslide where you could see over the main meetup spot, and places for 4 wheel drive trucks to show off their capability in hill climbs. Everyone respected this way-out-of-the-way-hideaway and did their part to keep it enjoyable for everyone, even the littlest of us. Sand Creek has apparently been popular for several decades. Around the time I was 12 it was began to be found by weekenders out for a good time. What was once a nice secluded destination was soon overflowing with beer cans and trash and brand new vehicles with loud vulgar music blaring so loud you could hear it a mile away down the creek. We didn’t go back much after all this started happening, and not long after that, the sheriff department declared it closed, and anyone caught down there would be fined.

You hate to see it, but more and more of our public (and private) land is being overran by those who don’t think, or can’t think due to being under the influence of alcohol. Places that once held sentimental value become vandalized or trashed, and eventually closed.

Even as a kid, riding the 4 wheeler down trails was my absolute favorite thing to do. I was always begging to go. To sand creek I went. I always knew that being off of the pavement would be my favorite past time, but I had no idea that Overlanding existed, and never thought I would join groups that had been all over the country exploring and eventually become an amateur Overlander myself.


Go outside and do something.

Dad

“So where do I start?”

Well, that’s a tricky question. You see, recently the term “overlanding” has been washed and dried to become something different. It seems that today overlanding has different levels, rather than an overall theme. You will have those who say that overlanding is simply getting in your vehicle and go drive somewhere for a few days, maybe get a hotel, drive up to a scenic view, and come home. Some think finding some mud holes and drive your Jeep with 40″ tires around and then sit around the fire drinking beer is overlanding. Then there are the full-time overlanders who have $100,000 rigs with showers and $4000 tents, refrigerators, 20 gallons of gas, camp kitchens, winches, shovels, traction boards, silverware for 8 people, awnings, annexes, heaters/AC, etc. that can live on the road for weeks, months, even a whole year. And that’s where we get the question, “Where do I start?”

As I’ve stated, there are many definitions, which in turn means there are different starting places for each definition. My best option it seems is to share my personal viewpoint on how I got started, what I have done wrong, and what I have learned to do right. (NOTE: My experiences only take me to places within Arkansas)

Friends. No not the TV show. I mean real life, down to earth, reliable friends. Ask pretty much any overlander, and they will tell you that without friends, overlanding doesn’t much more than just travelling. Travelling is great, but overlanding with true friends is where its at. Before you buy a Jeep or a truck, before you start watching YouTube videos on how to figure out Instagram, before you even buy a vehicle, try to find like-minded friends. Those people that are always willing to lend a spare pillow or chair. The ones that always have more than enough food or socks if you didn’t bring enough. They’re never going to turn down the chance to air up or down your tires for you, even its just so they can show off their cool new tools. Good friends will have you back and encourage you to make good choices when it comes to your overland build and lifestyle. Good friends are a must have.

Social Media. Be sure to checkout the plethora of content on YouTube and other social platforms as well. They’ll give a glimpse of what its like to be an overlander, whatever that really means. This option allows a sneak peak of what goes on during overland trips, without leaving your home. While the camera truly never captures what its really like, at least you know a bit of what you are getting into.

Vehicles. Now let’s slow down before we go any further and talk about your vehicle choice for overlanding. “Why are talking about vehicles before camping gear, recovery gear, food choices, destinations, maps, or patches?” you may or may not ask. Well, all of those things really don’t do you any good if you don’t have something to drive to your destination. A good base for your overland build is essential. So what do I think?

A few key points to remember when looking for a vehicle for overland use: Off-road Capability, Storage Capacity, and Mechanical Reliability. These three components should be top of the list when considering which vehicle you want to buy. Each comes with their own questions. Do I want to do more rock crawling or low land mud bogging (or somewhere in between)? Do I want to take everything plus the kitchen sink, or go with a minimal approach? Do I plan on trading and upgrading often or keeping this vehicle for the long run? All great questions and important ones to research. There are so many options available and an abundance of overland forums and people willing to help that there’s no reason to jump in without doing a bit of asking around before dropping cash on something that doesn’t fit your needs.

I chose to purchase a 2017 Colorado ZR2 in Silver Ice Metallic. Front and rear selectable locking differentials, DSSV off roading racing shocks for a smooth, enjoyable ride, and 2″ of lift over a standard Colorado were a few of the components that helped this decision along. I wanted something different that everyone else, something new that wouldn’t require much work to get it ready for overlanding, and lots of great technology to back it up. The ZR2 checks those boxes and much, much more.

Ride-Along. Another option to get your feet wet is simply going along for a ride on weekend trip. This is essentially just you going camping with some friends. If you like camping and already have the gear (we’ll talk about gear in another post) then just go camping! You can easily determine whether you enjoy spending hours on a bumpy trail, or you’d rather be doing something else with your time. Sure, being a passenger isn’t quite as thrilling as pushing the pedals and turning the wheel yourself, however you might be surprised how much fun it is getting to know the hobby by learning from those who do it regularly.

So, to recap, some great places to start your journey into overlanding are finding good friends to share the lifestyle of overlanding with, watch Youtube videos, go for a ride along overland trip, and then begin to research vehicles.

All that said, I still consider myself a beginner. I have many things to learn and many places to see. Having only explored the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests, I’ve only seen a glimpse even of what Arkansas has to offer. I have plans next year for Colorado, Moab, and other places outside the Natural State. Please be sure and let me know your thoughts!

Life is meant for good friends and great adventures.
-Nathan