by | Published on October 9th, 2017

As the Overland enthusiast ranks have grown over the last decade, the number of facepalm worthy incidents on public lands, and on social media, is at an all time high.

In recent years, Death Valley in particular has seen a rash of theft and vandalism. Evidently, some people think it’s cool to drive illegally on the salt pan at Badwater Basin and the Racetrack Playa, or to steal fossilized footprints left by prehistoric animals as well as Native American artifacts. Some have even taken to tagging graffiti on rocks. Real cool bro. Real cool.

I’ve led several groups throughout the furthest reaches of Death Valley, and it boggles the mind that anyone would defile such a magical place.

The latest insult came in late October 2017 when unknown vandals scratched graffiti into the mud bottom of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park, an area considered sacred to the native Timbisha Shoshone people. And if you’ve been there, you know it’s a bit of a hike down into the crater (and back) where you are in full view of anyone else visiting. This area took more than just a few minutes to despoil, and yet it happened right in plain sight of anyone above who may have been at the viewing area.

To erase this man-made blight on the landscape, the National Park Service had to lay over 600 feet of hose down into the crater so that water could be sprayed over the dried mud floor. The graffiti disappeared and the natural color and patterns of the crater returned once the water dried up. This method was used instead of raking, which would have been faster, but would have further disturbed the area and encouraged invasion by nonnative weeds. All this because of a few misguided individuals.

And that’s just ONE Park. There are others, with similar misdeeds regularly plaguing the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. And us.

But we have to wonder, is it because people are really that bad and really don’t care? Or is it because they don’t know any better? I’d like to think that it’s because they don’t know any better.

The future of Overlanding aka off-road recreation is in doubt if we allow ourselves to lose access to public lands by not policing and educating our own.

Entities like the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service and the National Park Service have limited capacity to deal with bad actors in the backcountry. Sometimes it’s just easier to throw up a gate than deal with hordes of unruly people. And while we may disagree, what choice do they have when faced with mobs of jerks?

And while I’m sure that we can all agree that closure isn’t management, we all know that’s where this stuff leads. More people crowded into fewer and fewer areas. 

Meanwhile, SEMA was full of Overland builds again this year.

More and more entities continue to jump on the Overland bandwagon. New Facebook groups, websites, events and blogs spring up daily. Amazingly, what was once a minor subset of the off-road culture is now mainstream. An army of hungry “Mainstream Overlanders” sprang up somewhere along the way, gobbling up anything with the word Overland in the title. This has been an awesome evolution to witness, but we’ve also witnessed this army of new folks attract some negative attention, and some predatory types.

But these Mainstream Overlanders aren’t a problem. 

Like all of us they’re just having fun, enjoying the benefits of a free market while following their chosen passion that this fad captures so well. An “overlanding” fad that started out simply as camping or trail riding.

In the beginning, this budding Overland culture represented the good guys. They were all about Tread Lightly, responsible recreation and the thrill that came with exploring remote, forgotten destinations. It didn’t matter what they wore or what thet drove, or if they even took any pictures once they got there. But now over a decade later, this now mainstream community is becoming a target, and a potential liability, as they spread out across the land in search of the perfect campsite or photo op.

It’s up to us to teach new people the right way of doing things, because Social Media can and will be used against you in a Court of Law

Take a look at social media or your local event and it’s hard not to notice the greedy carpetbaggers, InstaFamous social media narcissists, trust fund punks, faux fraternal groups, and pinky in the air elitists looking to profit by fame or fortune from this fad known as “Overlanding”.

Did I say that out loud? I sure did, because it’s true. And most of these folks have very little to offer beginners in the realm of real knowledge or experience, they’re just there for the money and the ‘Gram.

Make no mistake – we aren’t maligning the many great vendors, manufacturers, innovators and fellow enthusiasts offering great products from around the world that are valued additions to our community. We are highlighting those who make a habit of setting a bad example and exploiting people who are new to this pursuit.

Today there are innumerable bad role models on social media promoting unsafe, illegal, and unethical use of vehicles, equipment, and public lands. Completely resistant to any suggestions, corrections, or cautions either through arrogance or ignorance.

No doubt the BLM and USFS enforcement roles are made easier when these individuals and groups self-incriminate on social media. But if left unchallenged, their dramatization and monetization of this community of interest has potential negative impacts for everyone.

If we support or condone the aforementioned behaviors, we should expect even more locked gates to go up on public land.

As bad practices are glamorized and subsequently emulated, new or less experienced adventurers will eat this up; they will likely mirror this behavior off-highway. And why not… they saw “Overland Hucksters” do it on YouTube, so it must be right.

These exploitative attitudes and actions may not matter to some reading this. As for me, I want no part of it. American Adventurist will not look the other way and neither should you. We refuse to tolerate any individuals or groups perpetuating unacceptable and unsafe practices.

The challenge for all of us today is to set a positive example for new people. And what it takes is Leadership by Example. Acta non verba.

The future of the community of interest depends on adherence to Tread Lightly ethos and a common respect for one another and the environment. It depends on welcoming new people into our hobby and making sure that they learn how to do things right. And it depends on all of us doing the right thing, even if that means being the guy or gal to speak up on the trail when no one else will and say “Hey! Pick up your trash dude!”

How can you help? Be a good steward of the land, know and follow the rules where you are, demand that your buddies do the same, and use the T.R.E.A.D. principles:

Travel Responsibly
on land by staying on designated roads, trails and area. Go over, not around, obstacles to avoid widening the trails. Cross streams only at designated fords. when possible, avoid wet, muddy trails. On water, stay on designated waterways and launch your watercraft in designated areas.

Respect the Rights of Others
including private property owners, all recreational trail users, campers and others so they can enjoy their recreational activities undisturbed. Leave gates as you found them. Yield right of way to those passing you or going uphill. On water, respect anglers, swimmers, skiers, boaters, divers and those on or near shore.

Educate Yourself
prior to your trip by obtaining travel maps and regulations from public agencies. Plan for your trip, take recreation skills classes and know how to operate your equipment safely.

Avoid Sensitive Areas
on land such as meadows, lake shores, wetlands and streams. Stay on designated routes. This protects wildlife habitats and sensitive soils from damage. Don’t disturb historical, archeological or paleontological sites. On water, avoid operating your watercraft in shallow waters or near shorelines at high speeds.

Do Your Part
by modeling appropriate behavior, leaving the area better than you found it, properly disposing of waste, minimizing the use of fire, avoiding the spread of invasive species and repairing degraded areas.

Let’s make sure that future generations get to visit all these places we love, not just view them from afar, barred by the fences and locked gates that went up on our watch. Because there’s another army clamoring for closure and pursuing litigation to forever lock out the freedom loving folk. They are well organized and well funded, their cause reinforced by every bad example shared on social media.

Please consider supporting groups like the Blue Ribbon Coalition and Tread Lightly! as they fight the good fight to educate and maintain access for ALL of us whether we choose to go by boots, wheels or paddles. We’re all in this together.

Land use and abuse photos from Google. Closure isn’t Management logo by Gallowbraid and Jay Stahl. Racetrack Playa photo by Jeffery Aiello.

About the Author

Dave BennettAmerican Adventurist Founder and Adventurist Life Editor

Dave Bennett is the Founder of American Adventurist, a North America focused adventure travel lifestyle Forum and Independent Magazine.

Currently based in the Midwest, Dave is an avid outdoorsman and traveler with over 30 years of back country experience in the most remote and challenging environments in North America, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.

Engaged in all facets of the offroad industry, Dave is an International 4WD Trainers Association Certified Trainer and a proud Tread Lightly Alliance Member.

Dave Bennett | Website | Instagram | Facebook | More articles »

25 Comments

  1. Will Gillette says:

    Well Said Dave.

    We, as a community, are the only ones that can truly effect change in the behavior of other members of our “community of interest” as you call it (I like that term). No governmental authority is going to be able to do it, and truthfully I would hate to see platoons of Trail Police deployed into the back country. The most cost effective thing, when an area is abused will be to close it to all access. It is up to us to establish the bounds of acceptable behavior and to define and educate others about what is unacceptable or Taboo. It is going to take all of use saying loudly, clearly, and often what is acceptable behavior. Sure we have to say it to our buddies on the trail, but we also need to say it to the IG warriors whenever we see those posts. We need to make sure that others see them as the asshats that they are, and not something to emulate.

  2. buckwilk says:

    There is a coarseness in our society that reaches for outrage, for attention, for celebrity. I think we should give it to them. Whenever we see an example of this disgusting behavior get the facts, cooperate with law enforcement to see these people punished. Those of you on social media insist that those platforms understand that they are complicent in damaging these places by allowing the posts. There are a lot of people who hate this country and the folks who love it. They advertise themselves with decals, stickers, attitude. If they are your friends or children of your friends, coworkers, neighbors, call them out. Nonviolent confrontation educates and can work. Most of these types have been enabled and coddled all their life. Perhaps now is the time to see they are shut down by shining the light on them.

  3. Bryanseye says:

    Beautiful land with scenic road in the Carolinas… behind locked gates. Grab a NC gazateer and try to follow it through national forest and you will find yourself doing lots of 5 point turns. Responsible use and publicizing service is more important than ever.

  4. Haggis says:

    Bravo and well said @Dave!

    And it is good to remember that Tread Lightly principles can be applied to any outdoor activity from hiking and paddling to hunting and spelunking.

    View attachment 35080

    For cripes sakes I remember exploring far back into a beautiful cave system in WV only to find that some rat bastards had slupped in cans of spray paint to tag a cathedral room. Good I wish we would have caught them in the act..

  5. richard310 says:

    Excellent read and well said Dave. We are all on the same page and quite sick of where the industry (and society) is heading and the example it is portraying to the newcomers. Honestly though, I find it more along the lines that the people defacing nature are ones who simply don't care. They know better, but to them, it's just to get their name all over instabook and get 'likes.' These neglectful folk are willing to put everything at risk for their own selfishness. Such a sad trending of events which, that I am sad to say, is probably going to get worse…

  6. The Raven says:

    Well said Dave. Honestly I hate how the overlanding niche has exploded, how every Joe, Jack and Jane have to advertise themselves on the vehicles. How now overlanding is vehicle dependant travel, not how you do it. I belong to one group that I initially supported but now abhor as it’s bringing far too many people into the “overland” lifestyle and adding acceptance of reckless wheeling or mudding as an overlanding pursuit. The entire thing just saddens me immensely.

  7. Dave says:

    I’ve had several folks reach out to me on the back channel regarding this article. A common complaint by many is that certain groups actually look the other way on things like vandalism, trail blazing, and drinking or smoking pot on the trail.

    Clearly, there seem to be more and more of these incidents now that social media blasts it around the world in 30 seconds. They’re having similar issues in Australia as well.

    My expectation is that our membership here sets the example for all other groups and individuals. We’re certainly on that path.

  8. Fantastic article! I can say with confidence that every Adventurist feels the same way.

  9. Herbie says:

    Bravo, Dave, bravo.

    Your article perfectly articulates my own fears about our favorite wilderness areas in danger of being "Loved to Death". We can make all the noise we like about "the land belongs to the people", but the fact is that if the public using the land can't do so as good stewards, those lands will be closed to us. At best, they'll be taken away as a toy from a destructive child – until we're grown enough to treat our things better. More likely, though, we may lose general access altogether – with land use parceled out on an increasingly stringent basis.

    None of us want that. We owe it to ourselves, and our children, and their children, to act to protect our lands. This means calling out bad actors, and having no tolerance within our community for same. This does not only mean helping to identify vandals. It also means not saying things like "lighten up, it's no big deal" when one of our community tries to educate another user who may have (through ignorance, rather than malice), erred and caused damage. It means taking every opportunity to encourage stewardship and care in the use and enjoyment of public lands.

  10. Joel La Follette says:

    Well said.
    Our public lands are under attack and those who would wish to take them from us don’t need any more reasons to do so. We all are stewards and need to do everything in our powers to protect them for future generations.

  11. Dave

    I’ve had several folks reach out to me on the back channel regarding this article. A common complaint by many is that leadership in certain groups actually looks the other way on things like vandalism, trail blazing, and drinking or smoking marijuana on the trail.

    Clearly, there seem to be more and more of these incidents now that social media blasts it around the world in 30 seconds. They’re having similar issues in Australia as well.

    My expectation is that our membership here sets the example for all other groups and individuals. We’re certainly on that path.

    Just one of the reasons this group differentiates itself.

  12. taugust says:

    An excellent read. I have shared it with a community of interest down here in Texas. A few individuals have made it clear that they don't care about the fallout from their actionsbut the leadership has taken a stand.

  13. The Raven says:

    The big question is how do you balance responsible 4 wheeling with sustainable activity. In Vermont, Vermont Overland does a Camel Trophy event and a rally. In both cases they are using unmaintained vermont roads and ripping up the ROWs. Having lived at one point on a similar road in Maine I can understand how the situtation can escalate.

  14. TangoBlue says:
    The Raven

    The big question is how do you balance responsible 4 wheeling with sustainable activity. In Vermont, Vermont Overland does a Camel Trophy event and a rally. In both cases they are using unmaintained Vermont roads and ripping up the ROWs. Having lived at one point on a similar road in Maine I can understand how the situation can escalate.

    You're referring to the "Vermont Overland Challenge". Yes, your observation is correct and the residents along those class 4 roads are often disturbed to the point of bearing arms on rare occasion. The owner of the event and the "Vermont Overland Rally", is a lawyer as well and quite versed in their rights to use those right-of-ways and it has been a delicate balance of entertaining both parties interests. Their enterprise also sponsors several cycling events and naturally this, and the "Vermont Overland" events, brings in tourist dollars, which Vermont is sensitive to since so much industry has left that state in the last few years.

    So now we have an even more complicated issue that borders on the political, not just stewardship of the environment. What can we do as individuals? I used to go to these events… it's a nice drive there from Virginia; the state is beautiful; Maple Creamees; I have relatives there I can visit. However, what you describe is one of the reasons why I choose to no longer support the event with my dollars.

    We have the option to always "vote with our feet". That's one option… another more "activist" is to question their practices on social media. Be that voice. That voice may embolden others to do the same and potentially influence others to pressure event organizers to adopt more responsible policies.

  15. Herbie says:
    The Raven

    The big question is how do you balance responsible 4 wheeling with sustainable activity. In Vermont, Vermont Overland does a Camel Trophy event and a rally. In both cases they are using unmaintained vermont roads and ripping up the ROWs. Having lived at one point on a similar road in Maine I can understand how the situtation can escalate.

    Well, as far as I know, Tread-Lightly and 4-wheeling aren't mutually exclusive. One of the principals of Tread Lightly (at least, as I remember it from my backpacking days), is to minimize damage by (a) travelling on hard-wearing surfaces and (b) using existing trails to keep the damage localized. The back-end of this is that trails are repaired and maintained.

    4-wheeling can apply the same principals – in particular by focusing on keeping users onto a set of routes that can be remediated, repaired, and maintained. In the case of events that put a large amount of wear onto these routes in a short amount of time, adding in some work to repair them before walking away would go a LOOOONG way. I know very little about Vermont Overland specifically, but I'm wagering that if they were able to demonstrate to the local community that they're doing maintenance and repair as a part of bringing in large numbers of people, then the locals would have a lot less to complain about.

    One of the things that I've always loved about the Desert Rendezvous events here in SoCal is that, while the 100+ rigs definitely have a visible impact on the area where we camp (even if we don't leave one speck of trash, just moving that many vehicles through a small area has an effect) – the net effect of our cleanup work has made American Adventurist an appreciated asset to those who manage the area.

  16. The Raven says:

    Yes, that is the one, I was there in 2016 to get a feel for what it was. What I saw was generally appalling, involving significant stream sedimintation, reckless driving, littering, excessive noise, property destruction and even someone deciding to block a road, lighting a fire in the middle and cook lunch. As I am currently involved in a lawsuit involving rights of ways on unmaintained roads in Maine I can tell you that I would be very surprised if Peter was an expert in the nuances of road law as it’s a VERY complicated issue, or at least it is in Maine.

    At the moment I’m considering attending Vermont law school due to their environmental law program…but i need to further evaluate my motivations.

    Regarding where to put my money; I agree and perhaps a certifying approval could be created to guide those wishing to maintain standards of responsible overlanding?

  17. The Raven says:

    Herbie,
    One big issue about VT overland is when it occurs. Usually in the fall, during the NE rainy season and after the growing season. This results in bad erosion, stream damage and significant damage to the public ROWs

    Herbie

    Well, as far as I know, Tread-Lightly and 4-wheeling aren't mutually exclusive. One of the principals of Tread Lightly (at least, as I remember it from my backpacking days), is to minimize damage by (a) travelling on hard-wearing surfaces and (b) using existing trails to keep the damage localized. The back-end of this is that trails are repaired and maintained.

    4-wheeling can apply the same principals – in particular by focusing on keeping users onto a set of routes that can be remediated, repaired, and maintained. In the case of events that put a large amount of wear onto these routes in a short amount of time, adding in some work to repair them before walking away would go a LOOOONG way. I know very little about Vermont Overland specifically, but I'm wagering that if they were able to demonstrate to the local community that they're doing maintenance and repair as a part of bringing in large numbers of people, then the locals would have a lot less to complain about.

    One of the things that I've always loved about the Desert Rendezvous events here in SoCal is that, while the 100+ rigs definitely have a visible impact on the area where we camp (even if we don't leave one speck of trash, just moving that many vehicles through a small area has an effect) – the net effect of our cleanup work has made American Adventurist an appreciated asset to those who manage the area.

  18. Al Swope says:

    Back in the early 90s, I was serious into organized caving. We did digs trying to find and map new cave systems. Often, we'd dig open new passage in existing cave. To find passage, you look for air movement and typically dig through breakdown (piles of rocks). If you found new passage, you'd carefully survey and map it. If the passage was through a delicate area, we'd use flagging tape to mark the trail. Even a hand print on a white formation, just to maybe get your balance, would do damage. Delicate unbroken small formations would be flagged. These new finds were really only known to other organized cavers, but invariably with in a year, the passage would be damaged if not trashed. This occurred within a pretty formal group that had good understanding of the process and the impact. Ultimately the only way to limit damage was to gate the cave or keep it secret. Both work to a point.

    The reason for this ramble is that I often cringe when I see trip reports on-line for any type of adventure. I've written them my self. Posting enticing pics of a remote destination should be done extreme caution, no matter whether they be on public or private land. I posted a while ago that I didn't like the State by State guide for that reason. I have no problem with sharing info among trusted friends but do not see the value spoon-feeding step by step directions to the general public.

  19. The Raven says:

    Yes, us too. I used to be a member of ADVrider, gained a lot of motivation from the ride reports but with the recent explosion of outdoor use I have been hesitant to create my own. As we travel I have been disheartened by the lack of suitable locatons that have not been destroyed by overuse. One dirt road out of the Grand Tetons was actually bumper to bumper with cars and RVs….It’s gotten so bad that we are considering writing off the US for travel and sticking to Canada and Mexico for the best remote travel.

  20. TangoBlue says:
    The Raven

    <snip> I agree and perhaps a certifying approval could be created to guide those wishing to maintain standards of responsible overlanding?

    That's a good thought… I wonder who the certifying body could be and if there are any pecuniary or legal liabilities to that authority? If only we knew somebody specializing in environmental law or someone in a program? 😀

    The closest I think anyone in the community of interest comes to certification of their members or events is I4WDTA and American Adventurists (AAV) – both with closely aligned relationships Tread Lightly!. The Rendezvous events are sponsored in part by Tread Lightly!. I4WDTA teaches the TREAD principles at all levels of instruction and many of our instructors are already Master Tread Trainers and the curriculum for entry level training requires the Tread Lightly! 101 Online Awareness computer-based training (CBT).

    This isn't coordinated with @Dave, nor is it AAV policy, but I posit that American Adventurist should make taking the "Tread Lightly! 101 Online Awareness Course" computer-based training a, (1) strong recommendation for our members and perhaps even a, (2) requirement to attend Rendezvous events. How's that for "putting your money where your mouth is"? [Just like all that online military training… :D]

    Thirty to 45 minutes of training is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of time most of us spend on social media. In case you want to learn more about that CBT I mentioned, I encourage you (or any other forum reader) to go to: https://tread-lightly.teachable.com/p/online-awareness-course

    American Adventurist (that means all our members) has taken the challenge of leadership by example in this community. The first rule of leadership is to lead from the front… this CBT is the first tool to equip our "Adventurist Leader Brain Housing Groups" with the necessary information to, "talk the talk, and walk the walk".

    I've done it and I'm not even among the bright stars of this AAV constellation. :tango

  21. TangoBlue says:
    The Raven

    Yes, us too. I used to be a member of ADVrider, gained a lot of motivation from the ride reports but with the recent explosion of outdoor use I have been hesitant to create my own. As we travel I have been disheartened by the lack of suitable locatons that have not been destroyed by overuse. One dirt road out of the Grand Tetons was actually bumper to bumper with cars and RVs….It’s gotten so bad that we are considering writing off the US for travel and sticking to Canada and Mexico for the best remote travel.

    Hmm… it depends upon where you go. I've often found my travel to be absent of any traffic. IT's all about route planning or picking the right travel mate with first-hand knowledge of the "lay of the land". That is what this site is about – building the relationships with like-minded individuals around North America.

  22. The Raven says:

    I’ve mentioned to Dave that I personally would love to get involved with tread training and LNT. Biggest issue with LNT is the $600-$800 entry fee to be a trainer with no output on getting that $ back as far as I can see. I’ve tried for thier scholarship, but although I make under $5k per year and I technically live out of my car lol It’s still not enough. Not sure what they are looking for. I’ll probably spring for it eventually though.

    On the certification thing. I imagine it would be similar to LNT and Tread. A goveroring body, willing participants. I could almost see it similar to Rainforest Alliance cert. If participants want to be concidered sustainable they would pursue certification. That being said I don’t see responsible use as a profitable funnel in the current crop of overlanders or their suppliers. So the whole idea may be a nonstarter…i would love to be wrong though.

  23. TangoBlue says:
    The Raven

    I’ve mentioned to Dave that I personally would love to get involved with tread training and LNT. Biggest issue with LNT is the $600-$800 entry fee to be a trainer with no output on getting that $ back as far as I can see. I’ve tried for thier scholarship, but although I make under $5k per year and I technically live out of my car lol It’s still not enough. Not sure what they are looking for. I’ll probably spring for it eventually though.

    On the certification thing. I imagine it would be similar to LNT and Tread. A governing body, willing participants. I could almost see it similar to Rain Forest Alliance cert. If participants want to be considered sustainable they would pursue certification. That being said I don’t see responsible use as a profitable funnel in the current crop of overlanders or their suppliers. So the whole idea may be a nonstarter…i would love to be wrong though.

    I'm sorry… LNT… I have no idea what that is, hence brain lock has occurred and I can't wrap my head around anything else you said. 😀

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