Trans-America trail: some thoughts and tips for Jeep drivers

May 19, 2018  •  2 Comments

So, one year ago right now I was in final prep mode for taking off on the Trans-America Trail. I've managed to get all the sections for the trip reports posted over the last couple of months but thought I'd add one more blog with some thoughts about equipment and practicalities of running the TAT.

Maps, routing, and re-routing

As I mentioned earlier, I used Sam Correro’s maps and GPS tracks.

TAT planningTAT planningGetting organized for my first Trans-America Trail trip, April 2017. I talked to some TAT bikers enroute who were using the free KevinGPS route and they were definitely covering terrain that was not suitable for jeep travel (i.e., single track biking routes). Sam’s maps were pretty well spot on for the entire trip, although there was occasionally a really old trail that he had mapped that now had a more recent alternate route. Most of those revisions were minor and easy to figure out on the fly. In a couple of places, there were trail closures that obviously had been in place for a long time (a lost bridge in Oklahoma and a logging gate in Oregon immediately come to mind).

When you drive the TAT, you have to be prepared for route closures and re-routing. Don’t think that following Sam’s maps is a kind of visionquest that has to be followed to the letter. There will be mud, flooding, snow, washouts, trees down, etc… that necessitate re-routing. I used GPS for navigation but frequently consulted Sam’s paper maps to get the bigger picture of where I was. I laminated all the paper maps (and chopped up the roll charts, laminated them too – they had GPS coordinates for each junction, which I thought might be useful if lost – but I never once used them on my crossing).

My biggest diversions were due to snow closures. 2017 was a very heavy snow year in the West and even though I was travelling mid-June, I had closures in Colorado (Marshall and Ophir pass), Idaho (virtually all of the Sawtooth Mountains but that was a combination of washouts caused by snow and snow itself), and Oregon (Windago Pass was still closed late-June). Yes, the Carolina Car Guy was desperately unprepared thinking he could do the TAT in April.

Trip timing

I had done the first two days of the TAT in April 2017. I was working in Atlanta, so could get to Andrews in only 3 hours; the first two days make a very nice loop out of Atlanta. For the main part of the journey, I left Atlanta on 25 May, picking up the TAT up on I-75 where it crosses. I had stops in Clarkesdale MS and Westcliffe CO for photo workshops, so spent extra time compared to most people. I ended up doing 21 days actual driving and I thought that was rushing too much - there were many areas I would have liked to have stopped in, or even have taken more time for some restaurant meals. If I do this trip again, I'll be looking to take 24 or so days driving time. 

While it was a particularly heavy snow year, I only barely got through Cinnamon Pass just after it opened. On the TAT Backwards trip in mid-July, there was still snow on Hurricane Pass, just outside of Ouray, and on Cinnamon Pass. I was then entirely blocked on Antelope Pass, Idaho due to snow and road washouts (but did get through almost all the sections that were closed when I reversed the route on my July TAT backwards trip).

Antelope Pass washoutWhen I was on the Trans=America Trail east to west in May/June 2017, I encountered a lot of snow and numerous closed passes (one Oregon pass was still blocked by snow in mid-June). The entire Sawtooth range in Idaho ended up being closed (I came back in July on my TAT backwards trip and got through most areas closed on the trip west). I tried to get up Antelope Pass but it was hopelessly blocked higher up. It was warm with heavy snow melt and was raining heavily, so when I reversed my earlier course conditions were actually significantly worse only 90 minutes later. This clip was taken while coming down through the washout, 16 June 2017.

My recommendation would be to do the east-west trip, leaving Andrews somewhere right at the end of May or early-June. That should maximize odds of the passes being opened and still hitting western sections before baking hot (hottest I hit on the way west was 99 F in central Oregon).

If you are doing the TAT west to east (completely feasible with Sam’s GPS – I’m not sure why more people don’t go this way), I’d say go for a July 1 start and just suck up the heat, and plan on staying in hotels a little more than camping when it gets really hot. That should be okay for getting roads free from snow, and it would also put you through Colorado right as wildflower season hits full stride. The mid-west might be hot and stormy, but it was flooded and stormy when I came through in early-June so I’m not sure if it would ever be feasible to plan on a time where weather might be best.

Camping and hotels

Camping spots are sparse through Arkansas and Oklahoma, and hotels are cheap, so be prepared to hotel it some through this area. Once further west, it is possible to camp almost the whole way once you get past the Westcliffe / Salida region, a good thing as hotels can get quite expensive in some spots. It is a nice extra to get a hotel in Moab even though rooms there are pricey - you should book in advance as Moab can fill up (there's lots of camping options in the area though). Be careful about counting on hotels over the weekend in southern Colorado - I had one Friday night I ended up driving for 5 hours extra as there was nothing available anywhere I stopped.

You can check out the prior blog posts to get specific GPS coordinates for places I flagged as campsites. If you're going west to east later in the season, be prepared for some heat at night - I had really warm evenings in the Sawtooths and near Moab, and I skipped the western Utah desert on the return trip.

Truck and gear

In 2017, I ran the TAT with 33” mud terrain tires on my Jeep and a soft 4” lift. Much of the TAT terrain is quite pedestrian, but some is not! I would be hesitant to run a stock JK through a few of the sections. I did find with my rig, the 3.73 gearing and 33” tire combo was great for 98% of the trip, providing good highway and backroad gas mileage and lots of power for mild terrain. But, I did – literally – power out in 4WD high range on some of the steeper sections of the trail (Corkscrew Gulley, Hurricane Pass) and had to go to low range when there should have been no need for it based on road conditions. My Jeep 2.0 incarnation that I used for the TAT is pictured below.

The TAT stopThe TAT stopJust into Arkansas, doing the official TAT stop. I was #33 for 2017, Many 28, 2017. In late-2017, prior to a winter overland trip from Atlanta to Vancouver Island, I had Fortec, who are based in Atlanta, do some major upgrades on my Jeep. I upped the tire size to 35", added a tire carrier on the bumper for the spare, upgraded to 4.56 gearing (which means I could go to 37" tires in the future if I wanted), and replaced the saggy Zone Offroad coils with a much heavier set of Icon Dynamics coils, which brought be back up to a true 4" lift when fully loaded. I also picked up one additional alu-box for the roof and some Frontrunner rack-mounted flood lights that helps with setting up camp after dark. And I replaced the cable (that out on the Port Orford beach became uncrimped from my Warn winch spool) with synthetic rope. Jeep 3.0 is below.

Jeep changesJeep changes Definitely put on a high-quality roof rack for the trip. After much debate on Gobi versus Frontrunner, I went with the lower profile Frontrunner system and have been very happy with that. First, I could still get my truck into my carpark in Atlanta and did not have to leave it on the street, as I would have had to with the Gobi rack (I had 6’ 11” clearance in my carpark and just squeezed in). The canopy worked like a charm, and I found that it was easy to attach lots of stuff up top (MaxTracs, 2 jerry cans, 2 alu-boxes, hi-lift jack, and a Frontrunner canvas bag). The only change I would make for the TAT next time would be to add my extra alu box and scrap the Frontrunner canvas bag (in which I had 2 wolf pack plastic boxes and room for firewood). I found the canvas bag leaked some but most importantly the Alu-Boxes lock, whereas you can't put anything in the canvas bags you would not be too sad to see someone walk away with. I have a Frontrunner extendable ladder to make working up top easier, but the bottom rung fell off after limited use so I was not very impressed with quality.

On the White RimOn the White RimThe White Rim Trail is a 2-3 circuit on a jeep trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. It follows along, and above the Green and Colorado Rivers, offering spectacular offroad driving and views, and gives photographers a whole different perspective on the landscapes that many of us have photographed many times from up top of Island in the Sky. March 18, 2019.
I have a TruckVault drawer and extendable heavy duty table installed in the back (my first purchase when going from Jeep 1.0 to v2.0), which is great and secures all my camera gear. The table works very well for cooking, organizing, and for acting as a platform to stand on when getting recovery gear off the roof. I can confidently leave the truck unattended knowing the critical things I have are safe – I cannot imagine traveling with expensive camera gear if it was not absolutely locked down.

Coffee break on the White RimCoffee break on the White RimI'm always up for a brew and love brews with a view. Snack stop on the White Rim trail, Canyonlands, March 2019.

My recovery gear mainly stays on the roof in an Alu-Box. As I travel alone, I carry recovery gear that I may need to extract myself from situations going forward or backward. I installed JCR Offroad Vanguard bumpers front and back during the 2.0 upgrade, and they have holes for jack lifting built in. I also put in a basic Warn winch but went with cable initially instead of synthetic rope, a mistake which I rectified prior to my 2017 winter trip with the 3.0 upgrade. I carry a tree protector, 2 snatch straps, one winch extension strap, numerous soft and metal shackles, a hi-lift jack fitting for rim lifting, a pulley/block for the winch cable, a unit from JeepNeeds (a DLA) that binds the hi-lift to the bumper via a shackle (thereby decreasing the odds of the jack slipping), and a top fit-on piece for the hi-lift that allows for a more direct pull when using the jack to do a backwards extraction with chains.

I carry a portable compressor (much to my delight much faster to use than a friend’s onboard compressor system), 20’ and 12’ chains (in case I need to use the hi-lift to extract in reverse direction), tire repair kit, and basic tools. All this adds some weight, but I don’t see any way to solo travel overland without all this stuff. I’m not mechanically oriented, so do just face up to the fact that I may at sometime end up having to accept a very steep towing bill. But if I have to do that, I want it to be from a major mechanical breakdown, not me getting myself stuck in some remote mudhole.
My favorite piece of gear on the whole trip was the JeepNeeds Hurricane manifold - I found I was changing air pressure often as I went from pavement to gravel to mud. This works great and makes airing up and down way, way faster than it would normally be with an on-board unit. Hats off to JeepNeeds for a great addition to the compressor bag! 

I do not have a fridge onboard. I use a Yeti 45 cooler, which is fine for my needs – on the TAT, one is never too far away from food and ice so I just don’t see the need for a fridge or freezer. Even in the heat, with the Yeti it will be 3 days between changing ice. I will rethink this if I go north to Alaska and the Yukon in the future. 

For camping, I use the same set-up I use for backpacking. I have a small 2-person MSR tent (below) that will withstand any weather, along with a 5-person MSR basecamp tent for times when I will be in one campsite for awhile and I know the weather is going to be foul (I've used these in the Himalayas and was super impressed). I know many overlanders are enamored with roof-top tents, but to me they make absolutely no sense. First, I can set up and break a camp very fast; second, I’m sure the MSRs are far more weather proof than any rooftop tent will ever be; and third, because I’m getting old and need to pee at least once during the night, I don’t want to break my leg or neck crawling down a ladder in the middle of the night. A tent on the ground is far more convenient and safer - specially after evening beers around a campfire!

Logging road campLogging road campAfter the summer TransAmerica Trail trip, I spent 3 weeks on Vancouver Island. I shared this camp with a mean sounding pack of wolves just across the valley, on the road to Port Renfrew, Canada Day, 1 July 2017
From an electronics perspective, I have a simple set-up. I use Garmin Inreach so that I have emergency tracking, signaling, and satellite text capacity when I am out of cell range – a good portion of the TAT. I use Bluetooth to connect my phone to the Garmin. I carried Sam’s paper maps as well. My Jeep has the Uconnect 430, so I had a second independent GPS system, which worked well as I was able to compare routes on the different systems (even though the Uconnect uses Garmin maps, they are not entirely the same) and had a backup in case I lost the Garmin InReach. I carried a standard laptop as well, with which I was able to update my tracking on the Garmin webpage whenever I had web access. Prior to my winter trip, I added a heavy duty dash mount system by Vector Offroad and an iPad mount by RAM so I had a bigger map screen (below). 

Cab viewCab viewNavigation and communication equipment in the cab of my Jeep. I travel solo a lot, so use a Garmin Inreach - there's a surprisingly large swath of the USA where there is no cell signal.
Other than that, I had one small box of clothes, standard camp cooking equipment, extra durable food, one small box of bathroom stuff, and one small box of work-related stuff I needed to bring along. I added an extra Alu-box for the winter trip so that I could free up back seat space. 

Solo?

I love doing stuff by myself. It is so much more flexible, which I really like. I have always been solo-oriented, even when it comes to activities like backcountry skiing or, occasionally, climbing.

Despite what many jeep enthusiasts say, to always go with someone else offroading, I'm not inclined to do that. I would say always go with someone else offroading if you are not prepared to (1) survive on your own for a number of days and (2) pay for a big towing bill that comes as part of the cost of your solo travel.

There are some parts of the TAT that are remote and did cause me to think about them - particularly Craters of the Moon (below) and the last section of the Oregon TAT (I ran that part in 2017 with Brad Self, an overlander who I met on the trail mid-Oregon  there's some video of one of the remote sections in my prior blog entry). But because I travel solo, I don’t venture in to some terrain where I am more likely to get stuck and am super careful about watching for other vehicle tracks on the road (to see when I’m getting into uncharted territory) and making sure I retain turnaround options.

Big landBig landA photo stop part way through the passage across Craters of the Moon, Idaho. Taken during my TAT Backwards west-to-east USA crossing, 16 July 2017.
Re. animals, I did camp in some areas with bears and wolves this summer (heard a really mean sounding wolf pack near my camp up on Vancouver Island). I keep my keys in my tent all the time, so can fire up the jeep remotely along with all the lights and I can lock and unlock the doors to beep the horn. That should put the fear of god in any animal near camp.

Photography

Without going into all the details, I’ll just say I went with full kit this summer and it was a little excessive. For bodies, I had my Canons (1DX mk ii primary; 5DS landscape/backup; and 6D converted to infrared). I had 2 big telephotos (300mm f/2.8; 200-400mm + 1.4 convertor zoom) and really never used the zoom other than a couple of times. Other than that, I had utility zooms (15-36, 24-135 and 70-200mm Canon f/4s; 2 good Zeiss lens (21mm Distagon; 55mm Otus), and one 100mm Canon macro. Plus I had a tripod and 2 heads (Arca Swiss; Wimberly) plus a range of normal accessories. I also had 2 Garmin Virb video cameras, though one was crushed after the hood mount shook loose on Colorado washboard roads.


Comments

John(non-registered)
Great article. I'm planning on doing the TAT within the next 2 to 3 years. Any thoughts on the feasibility of towing an off-road trailer? It's loaded weight will be around 1100 lbs. The trailer itself is very stout so I'm not worried about it; Timbren axle, 33's, plenty of ground clearance. I'll be towing with a Jeep JK Unlimited with the 3.6 and 4.56 gears and 34's.

Thank you for taking the time to consider this and reply.
Rick(non-registered)
Thanks for your insight. I needed to see this detail and still have questions. Where can I get the maps by section?
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