Growing in popularity in the Northeastern United States are several overland/off road events that seek to present new challenges to those interested in a fun and lightly competitive overland style event.
Exploring New Hampshire’s new Overland Challenge was the group’s first foray into such a challenge.
The event presents a four day challenge pitting twenty teams of two trucks each against each other, albeit gently, to score points and hopefully win the Overland Challenge trophy. Or maybe some free candy.
Each vehicle had a set of requirements to adhere to, including solid recovery points, first aid kits and basic safety equipment. A co-driver/navigator – while not required – was encouraged.
My teammate and I mulled over team names and finally decided that “Free Candy; Seems Legit” was both family-friendly and humorous enough to project our teams carefree attitude. I’d attended several events of this nature before, so we kept our expectations real. New events can be, for lack of a better term, buggy, and my expectations were padded by that knowledge going in so as a simple set of guidelines:
- Have fun
- Play the game
- Repeat #1 or #2 as necessary
Twenty teams were in the event. Teams were scored on a point system where points were awarded for overcoming certain obstacles, answering challenging test questions and collecting pictures of local landmarks and animals. There were some unclear rules about point collection up front which drew some justified criticism from teams along the way – especially after a couple of teams were spotted taking dishonorable advantage of the gray areas.
For example, landmarks such as covered bridges were worth 40 points initially. For a team to collect the points for a bridge or animal, they had to travel to the landmark and take a picture (or show GPS tracks.) This was exploited by less scrupulous teams when they were spotted (and filmed) splitting up to collect more points. The event organizer did not penalize these teams, but made them compromise on a reasonable amount of landmarks collected for the day. This also created some discontent among the other teams, who expressed these teams should have been penalized.
There were also some recovery and first aid test questions – presented sometimes on a trail, sometimes at camp.
The off road challenges were exactly that; challenging, as is expected. However, some of these challenges were not friendly to vehicles purpose-built for overland travel. For someone travelling abroad off road, or in a remote area, a driver wouldn’t even attempt challenges such as this – it would be too risky and end a trip fast for some. Simply put, if you were 7000 miles from home in a rented Land Cruiser on a stock all-terrain tire size and a modest lift, you wouldn’t attempt most of these trails.
Therefore, the challenges were tilted in favor of vehicles built for trail performance vs. vehicles built for overland travel.
Overall, the terrain presented just about every scenario imaginable. New Hampshire’s Class VI roads are unmaintained and sometimes abandoned roads which are legal to drive…if you can. These roads exist on maps, sometimes, and if you can find them they can be quite fun for off road driving. The terrain is very typical of the Northeastern United states; tight trails, sometimes winding through trees or overgrowth. Large vehicles can have the most trouble, yet long wheelbases can often make a difference. The soil is very rocky like most of the Northeast United States, so trails can be fields of tennis ball sized stones to boulders larger than your vehicle and everything in between. Decades, and in some cases centuries of erosion have turned some Class VI roads into rock crawling paradise. There’s a few deep mud pits, deep ruts and washouts that are slowly turning into ravines filled with wet, loose earth. Luckily for some, there is no shortage of stout trees to attach a tree saver to, and an overstuffed bag of recovery gear and the training to use it is recommended no matter what your build is.
The first day was mostly a pavement day; teams collected their photos of landmarks and animals. As a requirement, we climbed Mt. Washington’s auto road as far as we were allowed to. Due to the weather that day the summit had been closed to traffic. There were 80mph winds and the temperatures were dropping into the 30F (-1C) range with an ugly wind chill on top of it. On the ground level, temperatures were in the high 40’s (F) with pouring rain. The staff respected our vehicles and skills, but would not allow us all the way up. The clouds and fog prevented us from getting a nice view from the top, so we’ll have to return one day when the weather is clearer.
Day two got down to increasing off road challenges but we were able to overcome everything thrown our way. The day ran long and we got back to camp just before sundown.
Day three was much like day two, with some increasing challenges on the trails and? …more bridges. At the morning driver’s meeting, the event organizer changed the point system. So where on day one, bridges were worth 40 points but on the third day the bridges were worth only 20. This was heartbreaking for teams that decided to put off collecting bridges for later times and widened the point spread between teams, effectively locking teams into their places with no hope of regaining a better position in the standings. Talking to some teams around camp, some talked of throwing in the towel while others hardened up and made the best of it. After all, we were all still among friends and having fun doing what we love. The solution was simple; more meat went on the grill, the third bottle of whiskey was opened and fridges & coolers were restocked for the next day.
On day four, the last day, we were informed bridges were now worth only 10 points. Even collecting them all at this point would make very little difference for teams lagging behind — even with tight point spreads.
An extremely difficult trail was presented with a bonus of 800 points for making it, on top of the daily 200 point route + landmarks. While team Free Candy was able to make it through, not all teams did.
In the end, trophies and prizes were awarded to the teams who earned the most points. Even considering the broken points system, teams that earned their place did work hard and deserved their places and everyone was happy for them. While some muttered they would not return, others vowed they would despite the growing pains of a new event.
We had a great time at this event, and my team really rose to the occasion. We placed 6th for our efforts, and all excuses aside, a couple of the teams that did better than us were friends and we were happy to see “our guys” up high in the standings because we know they worked hard and honorably to get there.
Those looking to do an event like this must be prepared both mentally, physically and have some experience in driving and recovery. Unlike other events, this was not only about the vehicle and driver — co-drivers/navigators had to work hard, plotting a day’s course that maximized exposure to landmarks while still working in the required route. Trails located off main roads could easily be missed by eye and turnarounds were not uncommon. The most heard phrase over our communications setup was “Where is this ***** bridge?!” Co-drivers were also the ones jumping out to examine the depths of holes, pull winch line, spot the drivers and wipe spilled beverages off the steering wheel. Making the co-driver’s role more important was something that was unique about this event.
The quiz questions presented on-trail or at camp were also a great idea. They were challenging questions which sometimes had multiple answers.
The event wasn’t without some cons, and hopefully the event organizer will work on these points for the future:
- Point systems should be established and presented up front.
- “Changing it up” is cute and all, but when a team in 10th place has no hope of breaking out and pulling forward it’s not going to encourage a return visit.
- Penalties have to be handed out to teams who bend the rules, even if the rules are unclear. Shaping the rules around a team (for whatever reason) isn’t making a fair game for all teams.
- Teams should all have equal access to bonus points.
- Challenges that favor one type of vehicle build over another don’t provide equal access to points for all teams
- Bonus points awarded to teams for “random” occurrences should be done away with; not all teams will be able to “rescue a local pregnant woman.”
- Bringing in a trail rig for an event like this sort of takes away the whole “overland” feel. If it’s an “Overland Challenge” then competing vehicles should have to be driven to, through the event and home. Most other events such as this will DQ (disqualify) a team who brings in a trail rig for an “overland” style event, but Overland Challenge didn’t.
- While the event was marketed as “Overland Challenge,” the event’s challenges were mostly off road driving related. We approached this event with certain expectations due to the choice of words. While the terms “overland” and “expedition” often generate groans from the most seasoned veterans, the terms imply a certain type of travel; a certain type of vehicle and of course, a certain type of person. This event was more in the realm of “WHEELIN!” Most of us can go “WHEELIN!” up the street, or at the nearest off road park. Wheeling is fun, yes, but the title of the event implies a certain type of travel as well as generates an expectation that a certain type of competition will take place. It did not deliver that.
We’re all watching this event and hoping it grows into something more mature that will attract a wider variety of vehicles and driving styles. If it stays the way it is, it would have to be renamed to “Wheeling in New Hampshire, oh and also Collect Pictures of Bridges” because that pretty much summarizes the experience.
I’ve love to attend Overland Challenge again because I have faith that Ryan will work hard to fine-tune and revise the event. Our team is looking forward to running again next year, with our own revisions. Each one of these events is a great learning experience for “that big trip” that you hopefully take sooner rather than later.
The Northeast has some great events that capture the overland travel feel, and readers might want to look at what Northeast Overland is up to with their Moose on the Loose event, as well as some of the offerings from Vermont Overland. These groups have been running events for a few years up here and have set the standard. If you’re in the Northeast United States, or want to visit, look into these groups and see what we have to offer. Please, be careful going out alone, as trail closures in the Northeast United States are a harsh reality, unlike other parts of the USA. You do have to be careful where you go, and if you’re from out of town, connecting with one of the local groups. They will be happy to show you around, keep you out of (legal) trouble and show you the do’s and don’t of enjoying the Northeast off road offerings & local, historical culture.
Photo Credit’s – Friends of Rich LaRusso