We've been attending Overland Expo West for the past three years, getting a closer look at the fascinating world of on/off-road overland expeditions, and the purpose-built vehicles, gear and tech that goes into it. After a great 2016 show in May, we found ourselves hungry for more, so this year we attended the newer Overland Expo East show in Asheville, North Carolina, which was held last weekend. The show isn't simply an East Coast rerun of the West show, as it has some exhibitors that we haven't seen in Arizona. It also has the same great sense of go-anywhere adventure and "no-obstacle-too-big" innovation. Here are the highlights.
Domesticating restless nomads
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This year's Overland Expo East moved locations, and for the first time was held on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate, one of Asheville's premier tourist highlights. Built by George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of famed industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, over a six-year period between 1889 and 1895, the home is the largest in the United States. The massive 175,000-sq ft (16,258-sq m) house includes 250 rooms, among them a banquet hall with 70-ft (21-m) ceilings. The land of the estate is a fraction of the original 125,000 acres (50,585 ha), but at 8,000 acres (3,237 ha) it's not exactly cramped, encompassing gardens, vineyards, a winery, a touristy village, active farmland and plenty of open space. We didn't have time to tour the Biltmore home, but we did drive by to snap a photo.
As you can tell, the Expo wasn't planted out front on the Biltmore lawn, and you didn't even have to drive past the home to get to that corner of the estate (we took the long way 'round above). But hosting a show of roaming wanderers, some living full-time on the road, at the largest home in the country still made for an interesting dichotomy. We suppose the same love for scenic, wide-open spaces, like North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, that drove George Vanderbilt to stake his own sprawling piece also drives modern-day explorers to spend their own fortunes compiling gear and venturing out for weeks, months and years on end. One simply nested, the others stray about. The inner space of that massive hunk of real estate is undoubtedly in a very different galaxy from the compact, multifunctional space of even the largest, most luxurious off-road motorhome, though.
New Atlas' favorites
Once we arrived at OX East, all pondering about huge mansions and wealthy elite quickly came to an end, as we were greeted by the same familiar crowd of khaki- and chaps-clad explorers that we know quite well from the Arizona show, not to mention the same kinds of vehicles built to climb rock, wade rivers, summit mountains and survive the extremes. The vehicles seemed a bit more compact overall, with fewer rolling off-road monoliths and more tent-topped Tacomas and Wranglers. There were a few monsters, though, and one stood out as a clear favorite, an Army green military truck-based rig nicknamed Bravo 1.
Last year, Bruce Kibler purchased a 1990 BMY M923A2 6x6 surplus 5-ton military truck and set to work converting it into an absolutely bad-ass expedition vehicle. The reconditioned base truck was actually a flatbed, and Kibler built it into a motorhome from the floor up, extending the bed by 5 ft (1.5 m) and dropping the insulated steel-plated, steel-tube-framed camper box on top.
Instead of transforming it into something more modern, Kibler took care to let the truck's military roots shine through in virtually every facet of the design, with a touch of nautical and industrial flair thrown in. The windows are military grade, and sleeping accommodations are barracks-basic bunks with cold metal frames. The entry and bathroom doors are actual 5-psi-rated Navy ship doors painted to match the body, and they have the muscle-cramping heft to prove it. There's also a Navy wardrobe and pair of safes with combination locks inside. The metal countertops and industrial-style lights add a touch of workshop feel to the cabin.
It's not the coziest motorhome, but it does have a few comforts of home, including a full-size, residential-style toilet and the pièce de résistance, a cabover observation deck. Campers climb up the cabin ladder and through the roof hatch before emerging back into the fresh air atop the roof, taking a few steps forward onto the deck. For us, this truck-top perch provided a nice view of the show and the photo at the top of this article, but we could imagine how grand it would be to sit out and sip a beer or coffee while above the diving depths of the Grand Canyon or below the soaring heights of the Canadian Rockies.
Kibler's conversion took about 14 months, and the Bravo 1 recently passed motor vehicle inspection in North Carolina and is legal both on the streets and in the backcountry. And it could be yours: Kibler said he's looking to sell the 8.3-liter Cummins diesel-powered expedition truck. Price: US$120K.
It was clear that Kibler was very proud of his work, as well he should be, and a bit disappointed that the Bravo 1 didn't gain more traction in the pre-expo "Cool Ride Contest." Based on the enthusiasm we saw from everyone checking out the exterior and interior, it did seem to be the frontrunner for the unofficial title of "favorite rig on show grounds," though, and it definitely earns our unofficial "best of show." It appears it's not too late for more-official recognition – Kibler said once he sells the truck, he'll get started on the next one.
For all the details on the Bravo 1 build, read Kibler's explanation in the Bravo 1 Cool Ride Contest entry.
Land Rover Defender Alu-Cab Pop-Top
Dropping down to a smaller scale, another one of our favorite vehicles of the show was this brand-new pop-top Land Rover Defender. The booth was swarmed when we made it through taking photos, so we didn't get to talk details in-depth with the folks behind it, but from what we could glean looking it over and chasing down social media posts about it, it's a Land Rover Defender Heritage Edition with an all-new Alu-Cab Icarus pop-up camper roof with two-person bed. As one attendee pointed out, it wears Mexican stickers because that's the route it traveled, given the Defender hasn't been available in the United States for nearly two decades.
South African gear debuting in the US was a trend at the show, as we observed with the trailers, and Alu-Cab was yet another example, albeit in the roof-top tent/accessory market. The brand is establishing a presence in the States through NJ off-road/overland gear supplier OK4WD, which was the one at the Expo showing the retro-styled Defender camper. Alu-Cab's American lineup also includes the $3,700 Expedition III aluminum shell roof-top tent and $1,495 270-degree Shadow Awning. Given that it's a more complex conversion, the Icarus is a "contact for pricing"-style product.
Those were our favorites, but there are many other highlights in our full photo gallery, so take a look and pick out your own.View gallery - 136 images