We have something really great for you today. Bruce Elfstrom, CEO of Overland Experts, an off-road driving and overlanding school based out of in East Haddam, Connecticut, was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.
What is your position at Overland Experts and what does this position entail?
I am the founder and CEO. I develop curricula, consult on projects, train, run the business, lead trips and write articles. Basically it’s like any other business; I am at the computer and on the telephone 10-16 hours a day. My guys get the better part of working at OEX: training and being in the field.
I also run our semi-annual trip to Iceland! I’ve been off-roading there for years.
Tell us a little about who Overland Experts is and what the company does.
Overland Experts started in an organic way. I grew up in the world of Overlanding, spending years living in the Middle East and later working in the field as a biologist. In the late 1980s, I began training people how to drive 4×4 in the field as a tool for their job – for biologists, geologists, vehicle manufactures, etc. Interest grew and prompted me to established OEX in 1997.
Since then, I’ve put together a strong and highly experienced team of trainers. We now have six employee/trainers running two branches – one in Connecticut, the other in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. – and a worldwide mobile training team ranging from experienced 4×4 instructors to former Navy Seals. We divide our efforts between driver training, logistics consulting (usually for films) and 4×4 adventure expeditions overseas.
The driver training centers on 1-to-7-day courses – we teach military, recreational and professional (mostly utility companies) drivers. For the trips, we head to destinations like Iceland, Mongolia and Canada with small groups of off-road enthusiasts.
OEX looks at the 4×4 vehicle as a tool and a means to an end. Clients learn how to get the most of that 4×4 vehicle platform without damaging it, the environment or themselves. In the past, the horse, camel or dog was your overland vehicle, and basically OEX looks at 4x4s the same way: treat it well and it will treat you well.
What got you into overland travel and off-road driving?
I grew up with a father who was a documentary film maker and a mother who was a Middle East cultural expert. At around 6 years old, I began driving off road. Later, when I moved to Lebanon during the war, I quickly learned how to take care of myself while driving in marginal areas and just as marginal situations.
Later, as a biologist back in America, I used these skills for research and teaching. Today, I just cannot see traveling or experiencing the outdoors without wanting to use a vehicle for an expedition or in some off-road manner. I design the OEX trips this way – the way I think people will most benefit from experiencing a new place, as well as the way I like to travel.
Do you have a favorite off-road vehicle brand or model? Why that vehicle?
Not really. I like to use what is used in the local areas. That way, you can get parts and have knowledgeable people around you if you need help. I don’t like to stand out too much while traveling, whether we’re in the backwoods of America or some overseas destination.
Basically it all comes down to one question: will this vehicle take care of me? So if I had to choose a favorite, it would be a tough and simple vehicle. Less is more and function dictates form. So if I am on a trail in Utah, a Jeep is great; if I’m on a glacier in Iceland, I’d choose a Land Rover Defender; if I’m deep in Mongolia, I’d go with a Land Cruiser 80 or UAZ jeep; and for Afghanistan, I’d make it a 4-door Hilux. I like diesel engine with manual transmission, a beam axle front and rear, a high articulating suspension, and a wheel base of about 103-130 inches. Loads of great vehicles fit this bill, so it’s easy to find one that suits those needs.
The Overland Experts website differentiates between overland training and off-road driving. What are the primary differences between the two?
Its funny, but when I started Overland Experts, the word Overland was rarely used in America. I was more popular in Europe and on the African continent. Since then, it has become a more noticeable word, or pursuit. I think this is both good and bad. I see “wheeling” groups wanting to differentiate from Overlanding; or Off Roading from Off Highway. These are all just semantics and grades of definitions and concentration of what appeals to a person.
I chose the name Overland Experts to address a gap I felt the average 4×4 user did not consider: the use of a 4×4 more as a tool and a way to enjoy the outdoors and your surroundings and not just as a sport. The sport aspect was less appealing to me than the long-term adventure of land mobility through the use of a 4×4 or similar vehicle.
Overland Training can be done once you know how to use your mode of transport. In other words, you can take a horseback riding trip through the Rockies for four weeks without knowing how to ride, but it wouldn’t be smart. It doesn’t matter if you can navigate or do basic camping if you can’t ride and tend your horse.
To Overland, you need to drive well, recovery well and repair well. Without these skills, you’re unprepared to pick your vehicle, outfit it, chose a route and take a trip. Your foundation is, to say the least, weak and dangerous. After you have driver skill, then you need to learn how to outfit a vehicle, navigate, use first aid, learn people skills (so you don’t get shot at a border crossing because you’re load and obnoxious), situational awareness, major repair skills, and more.
Many people like to think Overlanding is just driving dirt roads. Some Overlanding is that simple and people tend to think, “Well, if I can drive on the road how hard can it be?” I can tell you that after over 35 years of overlanding, it’s really just long-haul off road driving, which requires the same driver skills and vehicle skills. I also see “wheelers” that think Overlanding is just not difficult and requires no skills. Of course, like everything else, to do something right you should know all about it. To me, a well trained Overlander is just a very good off road driver and technical wheeler that happens to take really long trips off the grid and therefore needs a bit more skills in their tool box of tricks.
So we at OEX differentiate not really because we see delineation, but more so to get people to focus on their own goals and objectives. Our normal 4×4 training tends to push into what some think as Overlanding such as field repair and situational awareness.
What future challenges do you think recreational off-road driving will face in the U.S.?
Land use will be and is a major issue. And vehicles that are just not suited to off road driving.
The trails we use need to be treated well. Simple environmental stewardship needs to be an instinctual thing to the off roader/wheeler/overlander/4×4 hobbiest/etc. If not, the trails will be closed and why shouldn’t they be?
As a biologist, I was hired to train other departments because a researcher found I had been driving over his vegetation study site for over a year and he did not know it. In other words, it’s very possible to drive off road and leave little trace. It is impossible to leave no trace no matter how a human moves through the world, but it’s a nice goal. Only when the people driving off road learn how to minimize their impact can we then take that and combine it with public awareness to save the trails we love to use. If that is not fixed, then no amount of PR effort will work. And I don’t feel like off roaders should be able to use any area we’d like. Some areas should just be left alone.
A pet peeve of mine is newer model vehicles with inadequate design. These vehicles are not made for the uses they are being marketed to and being subjected to while off road. A case in point is electronic traction control. One main focus of our training is a simple statement: “If you can learn to never spin a wheel, then a lot of my job as a teacher is done.” Wheel spin is bad driver technique and poor preparation for an obstacle. Traction control takes this issue to another level. In order for traction to know when to engage, a wheel must spin. Spinning has now made a hole (erosion), tweaked your suspension for unequal weight distribution, taken power from the wheels that did have grip (loss of ¼ contact with earth), made your tire less effective, and so on. So one thing that could make us step back in time relative to environmental stewardship is technology applied in vehicle designs without a clear understanding or concern. Worse than that, the use of the technology without understanding and ignorance is no defense. All these bells and whistles have great uses that can be used to drive better and impact nature less, but only if you learn how to use them and the people that write about it understand their subject.
How is technology changing overlanding and off-road driving?
Technology is driven by the market. 4x4s are not used off road really, not by the majority of those that purchase them. Until the utility is put back into the Sport Utility Vehicle, I think the advances we are told help us off road actually do more harm to the environment and to the vehicle as well.
Reliance on technology breeds a lazy driver. It’s just like teaching someone to shoot a gun or hunt; it’s best to start with a single shot rifle so each shot counts. If a driver goes out in a vehicle with front and rear lockers, traction control, and a system that chooses a response to the conditions; then learning is so shadowed by the technology and vehicle ability. There is little chance that person’s skill can progress very far. Pull the plug on that vehicle and its driver will be dead in the water as will the vehicle itself. At OEX, we do not teach the use of bells and whistles until the basics are cemented and mastered. No lockers until you get wheel placement and a flat suspension, no threshold braking until you get engine breaking, and so on.
That said, they are, of course, great things happening. Tire technology is light-years ahead of where it was when I started. Automatic transmissions are tough and reliable and much better in many conditions than manuals. The technology is there to make our trail vehicles and overlanding vehicles much better, but most of it is not applied to vehicles we can get. The manufacturer is satisfied with selling 99% percent of vehicles to look at if they can go off road, but can’t. Until we ask for it loudly we may not always get what we could use. How about torque sensing and weight sensitive traction control that modulated power to wheels through less powerful gears and before spin occurs?
I also think technology will lead to more breakdowns and harder use of trails until it catches up with the need for it to be bulletproof. Until then, keep it simple and drive logically and with prior understanding of the ramification to you, the vehicle, and the environment. Use your technology as one tool in a big box of tools.
What does 2012 have in store for Overland Experts?
We expect an increase in our role with the Military and utility companies. We are known as the go-to place for military, utility companies and relief agencies, those that must use a 4×4 well to be effective in their jobs. We also expect a steady increase in recreational use.
Our World Wide Mobile Training Team will be more busy as companies and organizations look for ways to still get the safety and effectiveness training they need, but with a smaller budget – so we go to them.
We will increase our trip offerings, but still keep our favorites, like Iceland and Canada. In addition, the focus and feel of our trips will evolve to more hands-on applications and a lower cost. Trips, in my opinion should be about “doing” something, not just seeing the world go by. So we have a Wolf Conservation project we are starting in Mongolia and our Iceland trip will be almost 100 percent off the grid and expedition-based fueled by Bio-diesel.
On a similar note, where is the next “great overland destination?” China? South America? Elsewhere?
For us or for the world? Unfortunately overland destinations’ variety will decrease over time, not increase. There really is no place on earth new, and the places that do exist will become more modern and fast changing every day. Some areas will be easier for more people to be able to overland in, but that does not mean they are truly new.
For us, we will concentrate on making our current destination trips more affordable, more meaningful and designed to give back to the local communities. OEX plans more work in South and Central America, the African Continent, and here at home in North America. My favorite destinations, as many know, are Iceland and Mongolia – these, for me, represent landscapes that require a 4×4 vehicle to see and therefore the 4×4 vehicle is an acceptable means in which to see them. That’a not to say you cannot hike or ride a horse in these locations. You can, but it’s tough for the average person to get that much time off work.
And finally, a question specific to Land Rover. As a professional in the off-roading industry, what’s your opinion on the DC100 replacing the short-wheelbase Defender in 2015?
You’re putting me on the spot! First off, it will not affect America since we have not had the D90 since 1997. But if I was Land Rover and I was looking at who was buying my vehicles and for what they were being used, well, I think it’s a winner for a D90 replacement. I work closely with Land Rover and other manufactures so I do not want to put my foot in my mouth. But I am confident that if you or I or anyone reading this was the market that Land Rover wanted to target the DC100 would not be designed the way it is right now. I have stated what I want and need in a vehicle, and I don’t think it is at all like the DC100, to put it mildly.
However, I hope to see some good things come out of this concept, such as a well designed and tough all independent air suspension, better traction control, components that will last (our D90 has been beat senseless for over 15 years and still keeps going), reliable electronics capable of being a bit moist, etc. I do know one thing, it will not have great visibility and I would not walk behind one while on the trail! I also know this might be the end of Land Rover as a true field usable vehicle. Oh, and Toyota is very happy with the DC100.
Overland Experts LLC
112 Hemlock Valley Rd.
East Haddam, CT 06423
Online: Overland Experts
Photos by Overland Experts.
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