Overland Expo celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and the 2019 show proved more than ever that "overlanding" has exploded from barely-recognized travel alternative to aspirational lifestyle. The largest Overland Expo ever welcomed more than 22,000 attendees and 1,500 registered vehicles (and plenty of cool non-registered vehicles, too). We've seen the camper vans of the show, and here we take a tour of everything from neatly packaged utility vehicle campers, to big expedition trucks, to that amphibious Russian rover staring at you just above.
We first attended Overland Expo in 2014, right at the midway point of its 10-year journey. Although the Flagstaff-area show was in the midst of strong year-to-year growth during that time, it still had the feel of a small gathering of weathered world travelers, each bringing little more than the bike or truck he rode in on and enough travel stories to fill a nightlong fireside chat or three.
The roughly 8,000 people that meandered their way around the grounds of Mormon Lake Lodge in 2014 represented just over 1/3 of the horde that flooded this year's event at Fort Tuthill County Park a little ways northwest through Coconino National Forest. At those Mormon Lake shows (2015 and 2016, too), we felt like we were peeking into a tiny but passionate subculture otherwise witnessed only in safari documentaries or travel novels. It was very much a meet-up of like minds, not as much a "trade show."
But those like minds were rapidly growing more numerous, as were the number of people peeking in. As Overland Expo grew, so too did America's perception and idealization of the overlanding lifestyle, which sort of converged with the thriving #vanlife scene in opening the public's mind to the idea of ditching plane tickets and cruises for more visceral, rubber-on-the-ground forms of travel. No longer is overlanding solely a novelty entertained momentarily while watching a Nat Geo documentary, but a market force that's helping shape outdoor product development, marketing and adventure tourism.
In turn, all that growth has changed the face and feel of Overland Expo. The 2017 move to larger, more sterile grounds at Fort Tuthill saw the show starting to feel more like any other trade fair. The show's center shifted to the numerous rows of exhibitors hawking everything from military trucks-turned-adventure campers to compact lights and multitools, the less business-focused demo areas and owner vehicle showcase sections pushed to the outskirts. This year counted 405 exhibitors all together, among them major auto brands like Honda, Nissan and Jeep.
Whether the fast growth proves a long-term boon or bane for overlanding and the community that loves it remains to be seen. Is overlanding just the latest fast-burning trend, or is it now a normalized outdoor activity, an established alternative to standbys like backpacking or mountain biking?
Either way, the Expo's fast-moving evolution felt quite evident this year as we walked briskly up and down the numerous aisles trying to check out every one of the hundreds of booths. On one hand, we missed the old days when we could saunter and chat much more casually, interacting not only with business owners and sales reps but with the attendees who were there to simply fuel their own passion, often as a short pit stop on a much greater road trip. On the other, we travel to Flagstaff each year to bring back news of cool vehicles and innovative products, and a growing show means more of both.
This year's record-breaking show certainly didn't disappoint with its innovative expedition vehicles. Its impressive slate encompassed everything from the type of massive 6x6 motorhomes we usually have to travel to Germany to see, to some very efficiently packaged compact truck and 4x4 motorhomes, plus plenty in between. So step into the photo gallery, and experience the thriving overland scene for yourself, through the lens of the rumbling, ultra-rugged adventure rigs that set it into motion in places near and far.
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