Long Term Review: Maxtrax Xtreme

MAXTRAX has a great product in their MAXTRAX Mark II vehicle recovery board.  They’ve been proven the world over, and everyone from special forces units to families out on afternoon adventures rely on MAXTRAX Mark II’s to solve vehicle recovery problems and so much more.

In the professional guiding world, MAXTRAX are the only vehicle recovery boards on the market to be endorsed by the International 4 Wheel Drive Trainer’s Association (I4WDTA) Product Recommendation Program – so it’s safe to say they’re a proven product.  Yet just because a company makes an awesome product, doesn’t mean that they can shut down the lab and call it a day.  There’s always room to innovate, and MAXTRAX sought out a variety of feedback, consulted with the I4WDTA, professional guides, military customers, and end users who are using theirs all the time, to figure out how to make them better.

The result is the Mark II taken to the extreme – meet the aptly named MAXTRAX XTREME.  To get to know exactly what makes the XTREME the next big step in the evolution of the segment, I’ve been putting them to the test for the last several months.

The new MAXTRAX XTREME’s take the proven recipe for the MAXTRAX Mark II’s and add plenty of hot sauce by making a few key design changes.  Most notably, all of the nylon teeth found on the Mark II are replaced with hard-anodized aluminum teeth that are user-replaceable.  On the back side of the board, additional structural bracing is added to help the board perform better under severe use conditions like bridging.

The result is a MAXTRAX that’s significantly more resistant to teeth-melting wheelspin, provides additional tire grabbing traction, and can take even more punishment and abuse than the ridiculous amount of use that the Mark II’s can withstand.  To appreciate just how the XTREME’s perform compared to Mk 2s, and even some of “Amazon’s Choice” vehicle recovery boards, I created as many opportunities as I could to extensively test the new XTREME’s in several different environments.

My buddy didn’t make it through the snowbank.  With the sound of wet snow sliding and then returning to its resting state of semi-cured concrete, my buddy’s truck came to a stop high-centered on the snowbank.  And people were watching.  Moments ago, we had assured these onlookers that we knew what we were doing, and that we weren’t some YOLO-seeking idiots out to go further than anyone else had down a road blocked with snowbanks for the ‘Gram.  (Full disclosure:  My buddy owns land at the end of this road.  No road closures or other regulations were violated).

Yet here my buddy’s truck was – drooped out on the top of a snowbank.  No stranger to getting stuck in the snow , he was quick to act, hopping out of his truck for a quick “stuck assessment”, and then went for his shovel and his shiny new Maxsa traction boards (which as you may have guessed, are Amazon’s Choice). I helped as much as I could by staying clear and taking photos.

With a bit of shoveling and his Maxsas in place, my buddy tried to move his truck forward, but his tires couldn’t grip the non-existent teeth featured on Amazon’s Choice for recovery boards.  More shoveling ensued to provide better placement for the Maxsas and less drag on the vehicle.  Speedy recovery wasn’t happening, so I took more photos..

Yet even with the Maxsas driven well underneath the tires, wheel spin still occurred at the lightest application of throttle.  It was blatantly obvious that they just didn’t provide the traction required, so it seemed like a good time to see what kind of difference the other end of the vehicle recovery board spectrum would make.

While my buddy’s tires are admittedly tired (see what I did there) and not aired down as far as they could be, they were still completely unable to grab any sort of meaningful traction from the Maxsa traction boards.  When we placed a pair of MAXTRAX XTREME’s in the snow for both of the rear tires to grab, the difference in performance couldn’t have been more drastic.  The truck’s tires grabbed the alloy teeth like they were magnetically attracted to each other and my buddy’s truck was instantly able to move forward onto dry ground and freedom.

We passed all three of our vehicles over this first snowbank and made it all of 60 yards down the road before we had to negotiate our next snowbank.  Again, we employed the XTREME’s to help us quickly negotiate successive snowbanks as we continued to make progress down the road.  On larger snowbanks and snowdrifts, progress was limited to the length of road we could make with all of our vehicle recovery boards, which provided a great opportunity to compare all of the different recovery boards back to back.  To put it bluntly, the difference in performance is night and day.

The Maxsas required very careful and deliberate placement and more shoveling to be of any value when extracting a vehicle.  With the MAXTRAX XTREME’s we could seemingly just get them near a tire and know that once contact was made there would be traction.  (Don’t take this to mean that you can be lazy with XTREME’s.  You still need to use your tools properly.)

We also came to appreciate just how much easier it was to drop a tire off a Maxsa when driving along a recovery board road.  They were like driving on ice, and even without looking it was easy to tell what brand of recovery board your tires were on at any given time by the difference in grip.

After a full day of MAXTRAX-ing our way through snowbanks, I felt the need to reset my baseline for traction board performance, and so I saved one of the larger snowbanks on our drive out to only use my Mark II’s.  With one on each tire, I was able easily climb up and over a large, rutted snowbank.  Mark IIs are still great vehicle recovery boards, and after a full day of use, my set looked no worse for wear.  The same can’t be said for the Maxsas, which were all showing serious stress-lightening of the plastic.  On a scale of 1-10 in super-wet spring snow, the XTREME’s provide traction performance at 10, with Mark II’s a solid 9.  We’ll just say that Amazon’s choice may not be the best choice here.

With the new XTREME’s proven in the extreme of constant use in the snow, it was time to take them to another extreme, and put them to work in the sand dunes of Southern Nevada in the middle of summer.  With triple digit air temps and the sand considerably warmer, both human and machine were put to the test during a multi-day sand dune driving course.  In these conditions, each time a vehicle would get stuck the recovery was an absolute exercise in making an accurate stuck assessment and efficient recovery.

Here the alloy teeth once again proved their worth, this time by being completely impervious to drivers who were feeling some nerves from being thrown into an environment that they’ve never driven in before.  More than once, a little too much throttle was applied when it was time for a stuck vehicle to drive out, but this was still nothing for the XTREME’s.  If you’ve ever felt trepidation at letting someone else drive on your recovery boards as you’re worried that they’re about to get melted with wheelspin, MAXTRAX XTREME’s will most likely damage tires long before they take any real damage.

In the time that I’ve had the XTREME’s, they’ve proven to be exactly what I hoped they would be – a burlier version of the Mark II’s that retain everything that makes earlier versions great.  At every chance I’ve had or created for a vehicle recovery, they have performed flawlessly and are no worse for the wear.  Since I’m the guy in my group of local friends who has MAXTRAX, I’m constantly supplying them for recovery situations, and it’s great to have the peace of mind that when I’m helping someone out who isn’t dialed in on proper MAXTRAX usage, or is just a little to high-strung at the moment, accidental wheelspin isn’t going to roast my traction boards.  Do I still use and carry my Mark IIs?  Absolutely.  They’re awesome and the ace up my sleeve for when stuck happens to me.  Yet, when I’m heading out knowing that I’m going to be the guy providing the MAXTRAX for any recoveries that may occur, I’ll toss in the XTREME’s.

If you’re trying to decide between the XTREME’s and Mark II’s, know that you can’t go wrong with either.  But, let me offer a few hypothetical questions to help you identify which MAXTRAX are right for you.  If you’re the type of person who isn’t getting stuck every time out, or when you do get stuck you’re not prone to using panic throttle, Mark II’s are a great option that will last you a very long time.

Make no mistake about it – they can take some serious abuse, and I know professional guides and other serial MAXTRAX users who have used the same set extensively for years.  Yet if you’re a guide, or you routinely tackle the hardest routes and trails wherever you go, and your honest enough to admit that you’re hard on gear, the XTREME’s are where you want to look.

The additional performance of the XTREME’s comes with additional costs in several areas.  A single XTREME weighs a couple pounds more than a Mark II (10 pounds vs. 8), and a set of XTREME’s doesn’t stack as tightly as a set of Mark II’s (4x Mark II’s are ~ 4 inches tall, where 4x XTREME’s are ~ 5.5 inches tall).  But the biggest pain point of all is the cost – a pair of them cost $500 whereas a pair of Mark II’s costs $300.  Yet for the folks who truly need the performance of an XTREME, these factors are hardly a consideration when weighed against the benefits.

I’m sure by now someone is getting ready to fire off a smart comment to the effect of “but I can buy X sets of <insert cheap brand vehicle recovery board here> for the price of one set of MAXTRAX”  Well that may be true – but everyone who makes that argument always seems to assume that they’re going to have data coverage and instant Amazon Prime delivery wherever in the world they are when they break their first set of cheapo traction boards trying to get unstuck or get home.  I know Amazon delivers in cool Sprinter vans, but I sure haven’t seen many off-road.  My suggestion would be to do it right the first time and get a product that isn’t going to let you down when it counts.

A wise man once said, “buy once, cry once”.  

In summary, you can’t go wrong with MAXTRAX.  Yeah, you’re going to pay for them up front, but the first time you use them in a recovery and get to fully appreciate what a powerful tool they are you’ll find yourself saying “worth it” when your mobility is restored.  In my experience, the difference between cheap alternatives and the genuine article has been night and day, and there’s plenty of good videos on the internet that corroborate my experience.  I certainly don’t want to roll the dice on my family’s well being just to save a couple bucks.  You can’t put a price on the peace of mind that comes from knowing you have quality tools with you to see the world and then see your friends and family back home safely.

MAXTRAX has a great product line, and anyone who uses them properly will enjoy years of reliable service from them.  For the folks out there who really push it, or the professionals out there who are guiding or working in harm’s way where every second counts, MAXTRAX XTREME delivers that extra serving of performance that will make all the difference.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The vehicle recovery boards used in this article were not provided by MAXTRAX. They were privately purchased by the author and his Amigos.

TESTED: Ruggedized Deadman Earth Anchor

Hi internet:  My name is Chad, and for the last couple of months, I’ve been burying dead things. That last sentence could make for some interesting search engine optimization, but it’s the truth.  You see, I’ve been testing out the new ruggedized Deadman Earth Anchor, which is as you might have guessed, is a beefed-up version of the original Deadman.  The original Deadman wears many hats, all of which expand the functionality of your winch and recovery kit.  You can bury the Deadman when there are no trees or rocks around to create an anchor point anywhere you need one, or you can use it as a tree saver or rock strap when such features exist or need removed from the trail. You can also use it to do a castaway with a Hi-Lift jack and all kinds of other things that help facilitate a vehicle recovery, making life outdoors a little easier.  The original Deadman has proven to be a versatile piece of gear, and now it’s time to get to know his burlier brother.

Despite what some folks on the internet may tell you, the world isn’t a place where there’s always a tree or big rock conveniently in reach of your winch when you get stuck.  Even if there are trees or other possible anchors near where you’re stuck, will winching to said features help you out, or are you setting yourself up for more work and or problems by having to make a less than ideal pull?  Being able to place an anchor exactly where you need it can be game changing – and that’s exactly what the Deadman Earth Anchor allows you to do.  To create an anchor, start by laying the Deadman out on the ground next to where you want to place your anchor to get an idea of how big of a hole you’re going to need to dig.  This will also help you with orientation so that you’ll end up with the Deadman’s arms and legs pointing the right way when it comes time to winch.  Depending on the surface you’re digging into, how heavy your rig is, and how stuck you are, you may have to dig a fair bit, or surprisingly little.  Having a good shovel with you will make all the difference here, so make sure you’re packing one that can actually dig a hole and not just look good on the ‘Gram.

Every recovery situation is unique, so there’s no way I can say if you’re stuck on X-surface dig down to Y-inches and you’ll magically get out.  There are just too many factors in play for a hard and fast answer like that.  The general guidance is that if you’re in soft surfaces you’re going to need to dig deeper than in harder pack surfaces.  When I was using the Deadman in wet beach sand, I was able to get away with digging a ~16 inch deep hole on my second pull, after realizing that my first hole at over two feet was way more than I needed to do.  Good thing my inner child likes to dig holes.  Likewise, in spring snowpack (a very wet, packable snow that’s great for making snowballs) I started with a hole that was nearly three feet deep which was seriously overkill too.  But, I’d rather err on the safe side – and besides, digging is good exercise.  The good news is, that if you pull the Deadman out while winching, you can just bury him deeper, which is more than can be said for other earth anchors which can only hold on to so much soil.

Before you use the Deadman for the first time, I would absolutely recommend that you spend a few minutes with the manual to get up to speed on everything that goes into properly burying dead things.  The manual is a triple-fold brochure that can be consumed in a matter of minutes, and is so entertaining to read that I had to give it a mention.  Once you’ve armed yourself with the manual’s wisdom, you’ll be able to employ your Deadman to greater effect and the get most out of it.  The process of using a Deadman isn’t complicated, but you need to know how the whole process works – if you don’t you could hurt yourself or even the ruggedized Deadman.   Likewise, you should know how to use your winch and all of the other items in your recovery kit.  Knowing how your gear works and what it can endure, before you need it, can be the difference between making it out or having to call in a lifeline.

The original Deadman has arms and legs that are made of polyester, much like you would find on a quality recovery strap.  While polyester straps can certainly take some serious use, they’re also prone to damage by abrasion and grit exposure, which is why the ruggedized Deadman has his arms and legs sleeved in beefy Cordura nylon.  Think of a Cordura winch protector for your synthetic winch line, and you’ll get the idea.   Soil loves to work it’s way into your straps and abraid them from within each time the strap is put under tension, and likewise running a strap over a sharp root, rock, or other sharp thing can cut the fibers and compromise the strap.  The ruggedized Deadman has completely sleeved straps, so everything from the loop ends at the ends of his arms and legs to the middle of his body is protected.  That’s right, there’s no exposed polyester to worry about damaging.  Whether you’re burying the ruggedized Deadman in soil that has sharp embedded rocks, or using it to ‘hug’ something like a tree (think tree saver) or boulder, the addition of Cordura nylon “armor” allows the Deadman to better withstand use in abrasive conditions.  If that perfect anchor point looks like it might hurt if you were to hug it, tag the Deadman in to do the hugging for you.

Even when you’re not in need of a winch anchor, the Deadman can prove to be a useful piece of kit.  If you’re just a few feet short of where you need to tie your winch into, the Deadman can also work as a winch extension.  Tree down in the trail?  Use the Deadman to drag it out of the way.  Need to haul a boatload of firewood back to camp?  Get a buddy and use the Deadman as a giant litter.  Taking on some trail repairs on your rig?  Unpack the Deadman and use it like a tarp so you don’t have to crawl in the mud under your rig.  It’s extremely versatile – just remember to respect his Working Load Limit and you’ll be good to go.  NOTE:  Although both the original Deadman and the Ruggedized Deadman can be used as winch extensions, they are NOT rated for use in snatching a vehicle or in a kinetic recovery situation.

About the only downside to the Deadman, ruggedized or not, is that you have to provide the hole to bury him in in when you’re burying dead things to create an anchor.  Depending on the type of surface you’re digging in, this can be a quick process, or something that’s going to take some real work.  If you have serious aversion to physical labor, make sure you’re aware that the Deadman doesn’t just automatically create an anchor for you – you have to do the burying.  And likewise, make sure you’ve got enough water on hand to keep yourself in good order if you’re going to be working hard digging a hole on a hot day.  As with any recovery situation, doing a proper stuck assessment before wasting any energy can make a significant difference in how much human powered work is required to get out.  For example:  If you’re stuck in sand up to your frame, taking the time to remove resistance (sand) from the underside of the vehicle and around the tires, will mean that you need less winching force to get out, which means that you won’t need to dig as big of a hole to bury the Deadman in, and your winch won’t emit the dreaded magic smoke.  Each recovery situation is unique.  Do a good assessment, and figure out how to best employ the tools and skills you have.

If you’ve been turned off on the idea of carrying a portable winch anchor in your rig because of the space (storage volume), and weight, know that the Deadman packs up fairly small into a bag that’s just as beefy as the actual Deadman.  Unlike other anchor systems that like to clank around when all the parts are hanging out together, the Deadman and a couple of shackles (Speaking of shackles, you’ll need two to properly tie into the Deadman, and the shackles that Deadman Off-Road sells are top shelf.) can ride in total silence in the included bag that can be strapped to a roof rack or roll bar to keep everything easy to get to.  Even if the Deadman is stashed in his bag, the whole system is light enough that you don’t have to worry about gear that’s adjacent to, or under the Deadman getting beat up or damaged as you’re bouncing down the trail.  This means that you can actually have the Deadman somewhere that’s in reach as opposed to the folks who in my experience like to bury their portable anchors at the bottom of their vehicles where a serious gear explosion is required for access.

The Deadman Earth Anchor is like a Swiss Army Knife for your winch – and that makes it value added.  When trees or big rocks are around, the Deadman is the go-to piece of gear for tying into such anchors, and after repeated use on Ponderosa, Doug Fir, and Blue Spruce bark, he’s a little sappy but no worse for wear.  I can’t say the same for the polyester tree saver I recently retired.  Likewise, the Deadman holds onto boulders and rocks much better than a single tree-saver strap that could slip on the anchoring feature.  When you want to impress your buddies with your fancy Hi-Lift skills, the Deadman can also be used to do a castaway with a Hi-Lift jack, and be employed to help out in so many ways in a recovery situation.  Adding ruggedization to the original Deadman takes a great product and armors it up to withstand even more use.  If you’re the type of person who uses their winch regularly, or who regularly participates in recovery situations, the ruggedized Deadman is a no-brainer.  If you have either Deadman with you, you can travel the world knowing that as long as you’re not afraid of a little exercise, you have a light weight option with you that can save the day.  The question is, how will you use your Deadman Earth Anchor?


Deadman Off-Road provided a sample Ruggedized Deadman Earth Anchor at no charge to the author or American Adventurist for the purposes of this review.

Overland Expo West 2019

Photography Credit: Richard Soohoo took the vast majority of the photos.

Overland Expo West 2019 may have just ended, but here at American Adventurist we’re already looking forward to Overland Expo East 2019 and beyond.  That’s because Overland Expo continues to be an event that raises the bar year by year with more and more awesome people, new gear, and epic vehicles.  The big news of course is that Overland Expo turned ten in 2019, and after nine years of cultivating an outstanding global event, Jonathan and Roseann Hanson have passed the torch over to Lodestone Events

At the time of this writing, feedback has been extremely positive on the new management which is a huge feat in and of itself considering the cult following surrounding this event.

By the numbers, this tenth birthday was by far the biggest Overland Expo event yet with over 22,000 people attending to check out the more than 400 exhibitors, 1,500 adventure vehicles, and 330 classes.  In other words, Overland Expo just continues to grow with no plateau in sight– and things are only looking up from here.  Based on the number of new faces and vendors we saw at this year’s event, there are obviously a great deal of people who are getting the appeal of this car camping overlanding thing that we love so much.

This year, Flagstaff did a great job of showing why the locals say “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes”, and I’m pretty sure someone out there has already started calling OXW19 Snowblowverlandchanceofrainandsomesun Expo.  We’ve had Blowverland Expo and Snowverland Expo, and now we’ve had Just a Little Bit of Everything Expo – but even with the changing weather, the show was still awesome, and thoroughly enjoyed by so many people – so lets dig in to the photos, because we all know no one really reads these articles anywho.

Speaking of photos, BIG thanks to Richard Soohoo for all of the amazing photos here. He worked very hard to help cover everything for you!

The Venue

Fort Tuthill County Fairground was packed full of Overland-Awesome for the event.  Well planned changes in layout from last year provided a larger continuous vendor area, and a nice new skills area which were huge hits with old hands and first-timers alike. There was definitely a more centralized feel to the venue this year.


Overland Expo is the place where you can learn anything that relates to the skills you need to adventure and travel.  With over 450 session-hours of instruction at this year’s event, there was no shortage of expert mentors and new things to be learned.  From classes on obvious topics like first-aid and vehicle recovery to more advanced topics like international fly-and drive-trips and how to not end up in jail at border crossings, Overland Expo assembles some of the best subject matter experts on the planet to teach you what you need to know before you go.


One of my favorite things about Overland Expo are the rigs that come to the event each year.  From Sherps to the Rivian R1T electric truck, to monster military trucks to scramblers and Honda Trail 90’s, there’s something here on two wheels, four wheels, or more than four wheels to blow any enthusiast’s hair back.  OEMs, complete vehicle builders, one-offs and plenty of company vehicles compliment the assortment of awesome DIY rigs on display.  More than once, I’ve found inspiration for one of my vehicles from a vehicle on display at Overland Expo.


There’s so much awesome gear on display at Overland Expo.  From well established names in the industry to small companies just getting started, there are so many cool things to see.  This is where new ideas see the light of day for the first time, and little projects become big sellers.  Here’s just a small sampling of the awesome newness that was on display.

Goose Gear will soon be importing these awesome, German-made 50TEN modules.  We can’t wait to see one of these fully built out with their interior know-how.

The Poolahoop keeps your bog roll exactly where you need it when you’re answering the call.  This isn’t a new product, but we love the display and seeing people’s reactions to a mannequin on a can.  Check out Hinterland Industries to get your own Poolahoop.

Dogs on motos is a thing, and Rex Specs makes a whole line of goggle sizes for your furry, four legged adventure buddy.

Pack rafts are an awesome way to add a new waterborne option to your overland travels.  Hike in and raft out.  Check out Kokopelli Rafts for more.

Warn had a bunch of new gear on display.  From new rigging with their Sidewinder and Hyperlink offerings to new Warn winch covers and bags.

Again in 2019, the #Patchgame continues to be a big part of the Overland scene.  If you didn’t walk away with at least a handful of relevant morale patches or utilitarian gear tags you missed out on an Overland Expo tradition.

Blue Ridge Overland Gear had a new backback on display. This bag works with the same style of packing pouches that the tool bag and first aid kits use. BROG has also updated their pouches to make the contents easier to see. We also spied this fridge cover in the back of their van…

Mosko Moto makes some of the best motorcycle luggage around.  They’re now stepping into the apparel market and I have to say that I’m really eager to try their riding gear out.  Cut to fit over armor (versus having it as part of the garment) the Mosko apparel looks and fits great.

There were a number of Ford Rangers at Overland Expo as well as lots of new Jeep Gladiators.  It will be interesting to see how the aftermarket industry adopts these workhorse trucks.  We’re keenly interested to see how they hold up long term when used off road as advertised.

Adventure Imports is a solid company known for bringing Aussie and South African brands like Maxtrax, Indeflate, and MSA 4×4 into the US.  Their display was chock-full of rad new kit ranging from the new Maxtrax Extreme and Maxtrax recovery gear, to MSA’s line of well made outback accessories. Of note are their excellent drop fridge slides and drawer systems which were both very impressive.  The MSA 4×4 drawer system is different than most as it is made from aluminum extrusions which allow for much bigger drawers, which are lockable with interior lighting.  These drawer units have also been crash tested in Australia so they’re built for real world use. Consider us impressed!

Step 22 Gear continues to expand their quality line of recovery gear and soft goods.  Their anchor straps are now offered in several lengths to fit any need and unlike some lesser brands, all their recovery gear is independently tested to failure.  Step 22 also had a number of new bags, packing cells, and backpacks on display that feature all of the small touches and superb attention to detail that you would expect from Step 22.  Did we mention that all their gear is Made in USA?

It’s always awesome to see what new vendors show up each year at Overland Expo, and this year we were pleased to see Flagstaff-based Wet Dreams River Supply at the show. Wet Dreams sells all kinds of top shelf gear to support the Grand Canyon river outfitters that are based in Flagstaff.  From Cook Partner stoves, to custom made “river-rated” Aluminum boxes, their gear has proven to be Grand Canyon rated.

Rivian had their R1T on display at Overland Expo, and it drew quite a crowd. Say what you want, but EVs are coming to the Overland-O-Sphere very soon. Now if only I could afford one…

I’ve had the opportunity to see what a Sherp can do in the field, and they’re every bit as awesome as they appear on YouTube.  It was great to see them at the Overland Expo West 2019.

Exhibitor Awesome

The main exhibitor area was a dizzying bazaar of gear and people.  Words cannot do it justice so enjoy a few more photos from around the sprawling exhibitor areas at Overland Expo West 2019.  You can ask questions in the comment section below if you want to know something in particular!

American Adventurist

We’re grateful that we had an amazing location to interface with our own American Adventurist community members and the greater global adventure travel community.  This year we worked with kickass companies like Prometheus Design Werx, Exploro and Adrift Adventure to host a treasure hunt that sent our followers scrambling on foot across the San Francisco peaks in northern Arizona, and we worked with Falken Tires to host a give-a-way for a set of their tough as nails Wildpeak tires.  

We were also given the opportunity to honor the men and women who wear the cloth of our nation for Armed Forces Day.  We were honored to address members of the Arizona National Guard and all those currently serving at a brief commemorative ceremony at Fort Tuthill.  American Adventurist and Overland Expo also produced free, limited edition Overland Expo West 2019 commemorative decals for active and retired service members.  Freedom is not free – thank you for your service!

In closing, Overland Expo is an experience.  Overland Expo West 2019 was three solid days jam packed full of awesome rigs, gear, and most importantly, cool people.  If you want to learn about this Overland thing, this is where you need to go.  If you want to meet smart people, this is where you need to go.  If you want to check out some new gear and purpose built rigs, this is where you need to go.

Hopefully we’ll see you at Overland Expo EAST, October 11-13, 2019 at Infinity Downs in Arrington, Virginia. With a brand new venue and Lodestone Events in the game, we’re convinced that 2019 will be the best Overland Expo East yet.

American Adventurist would like to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who has worked to make Overland Expo what it is today.  A special shout out to our members, supporters, industry partners, and of course, Overland Expo Directors Emeritus Jonathan and Rosanne Hanson, for making Overland Expo a thing.

Long Term Review: ARB Jack

ARB successor to the Hi-Lift jack

Re-inventing the wheel isn’t an easy task.  Many companies try and try to bring a product to market that completely redefines the standard of a given item, and fail.  So when a company actually comes up with something that brings about considerable increases in user safety, ease of use, maintenance, weight savings, and increased portability over a long-accepted standard you have to spend some time with this new item to see how it really compares to the old standard.  In this case, I’m happy to report that ARB has come up with a worthy successor to the Hi-Lift jack – and they’ve named it after one particularly rugged and dapper looking fellow. Meet JACK.

ARB’s JACK competes with the Hi-Lift jack that has been around for more than 100 years, and in that time the Hi-Lift has become the gold standard recovery item that’s carried on all manner of rigs for good reason.  A Hi-Lift is a very dynamic tool that can be used in a multitude of ways to help solve all kinds of recovery problems.  Unfortunately, many Hi-Lift jacks live their lives exposed to the elements, and the only time these outdoor-dwelling jacks have ever seen lubricant was at the factory. Like any tool that isn’t cared for, a Hi-Lift doesn’t work as well when it’s neglected, and rust build up and/or dry running gear can turn a very capable tool into a boat anchor – and that won’t help you solve a recovery problem

Using a Hi-Lift can be the clutch tool you need to get unstuck, but they’re also tools that can seriously harm you if you fail to respect the forces associated in using one.  A Hi-Lift uses mechanical means to raise and lower a load, and as such has a number of places to pinch, smash, and otherwise impart damage to your body.  In a lowering situation, the lever arm can runaway from the jack operator and turn into a body-smashing runaway arm.  Google “runaway Hi-Lift” if you want to see what I’m talking about.  Yet for all their faults, Hi-Lifts have been getting folks unstuck for decades, because they work well in all kinds of situations.  So ARB’s JACK has to bring some serious advantages to the table to compete with the tool that’s been king for over 100 years.

Regular maintenance and training can mitigate many of the risks associated with using a mechanical jack.  Yet taking these risk factors out of the picture all together is a better solution, which is exactly what JACK does.   JACK uses hydraulic power to raise and lower a load, which means that the steel standard bar, running gear, steel handle, and all the effort required from the operator to use a mechanical jack, are replaced with a lever that requires a fraction of the effort to operate.  To raise a load, simply pump JACK’s lever and watch hydraulic power do all of the work.  When it comes time to lower the load, simply press the red lever to engage one of two circuits; a high speed and low speed depending on how quick you need to lower said load.

Folks who are lightweight will really appreciate how much easier it is to use JACK to raise and lower a load compared to a Hi-Lift jack where the operator is the weight imparted on the lever that causes the Hi-Lift’s running gear to climb or descend the standard bar.  JACK also lets you make much more finite and precise adjustments to load height, as opposed to the Hi-Lift which is limited to the spacing of the holes in the standard bar.  Then there’s the weight and packed size of JACK to consider – JACK may look big and imposing in photographs, but he packs up to a compact 36 inches long and weighs in at 23 pounds which is roughly 7 pounds less than a 48-inch top-shelf Hi-Lift.

When it comes to lifting loads, JACKS’s body has nine notches where you can position the tongue to interface with your load, which leaves the piston stroke for actually lifting the load.  In terms of packed size, a 36-inch Hi-Lift will top out at 22 inches, while JACK can go all the way to 48 inches.  Likewise, a 48 inch Hi-Lift will top out at 34 inches, and the 60-inch Hi-Lift will get you 46 inches.  It’s important to note here that a Hi-Lift can run its entire range (length of standard bar) in one go, while JACK is limited by it’s piston stroke of 21-22 inches.

If you’ve taken a class on advanced Hi-Lift technique, you’re aware that a Hi-Lift can winch, clamp, and spread, which are things that JACK would be unable to do without modification or some ‘solution-engineering’, so be aware that JACK only lifts, it does not provide power in both directions to clamp and spread.

Folks who are well-versed in Hi-Lift will also key-in on the fact that a number of tongue-mounted accessories that work with other recovery devices will also work with JACK.  I need to point out though, that if you try and use such accessories, that you can’t blame me if your improvised solution fails and someone gets hurt.  JACK has eliminated a number of risk factors over a Hi-Lift jack, but the fact that you’re still lifting thousands of pounds from a single point means that significant risks still exist.

Yet, JACK isn’t without fault.  You can still smash a finger on the lever (prevent this by pushing with an open hand, like you’re pushing a wrench), and operationally speaking you’ll find that lowering the running gear on your Hi-Lift is much easier that compressing JACK back to his storage size when you don’t have a few hundred pounds of load to fully compress the piston.  So how do you compress the piston when your load is back on the ground?  Well you make a game out of it – essentially what you need is weight to compress JACK, so stand on the tongue and start balancing while holding down the red lowering lever.  If you’re good, you can get the piston fully compressed without having to dab for balance with your other foot. If your balance isn’t so good, have a friend help stabilize you while you’re JACK-standing.

While you’re balancing on JACK, take a second to appreciate the JACK’s foot, which thanks to a beefy ball joint, is actually EXTREMELY stable.  Yet, the foot can still sink into the ground if you try and lift a heavy enough load on a soft enough surface, so you you may need something to distribute the load further when working on soft surfaces.  ARB does make an off-road base for JACK, so if you’re going to be using JACK in dune sand or soft surfaces this base is a good thing to pick up as well.

Yet compressing JACK’s piston isn’t the biggest piece that needs addressing – it’s the price tag that is going to be the challenge for JACK.  With a quick Google for ARB JACK turning up prices around $775 USD, this isn’t a small purchase – so let’s think about this by considering some alternatives.  On one hand, you can buy a Hi-Lift for a fraction of the cost, and if you take care of your Hi-Lift and learn how to use it, there’s no reason it won’t take care of you.

But, let’s say that you don’t really take care of your Hi-Lift, or maybe you like it, but don’t want to pay for training by an I4WDTA Certified Trainer on how to use it correctly. And then, one day you get to experience a run away Hi-Lift.  Depending on how bad the Hi-Lift gets you, $775 could be a steal compared to what an EMS response would cost you.  But please, don’t think that high quality training or buying JACK makes you invincible – you’re still playing with thousands of pounds of force and working against gravity.

Off road recovery isn’t cheap, and while I’ve never had the privilege of footing such a bill, I do know that it’s easy to spend a four-figure sum, so a three-figure recovery device sounds like a better deal to me if it means you’re going to have said tool with you, instead of leaving your Hi-Lift at home because it’s too big, rattles too much, or destroys your vehicle interior.  JACK does pack up small and rides quietly, and the included bag means it can ride inside any vehicle without trading paint with your interior.  Hopefully, this means you’re more inclined to bring it with you on your adventures.

Even when you’re not in a recovery situation, JACK can prove to be quite handy for work, such as when you’re trying to lift a grooming implement up so that you can hook it up to your Ranger with Tracks, because letting JACK do the work is way better than letting your back do it.  I know this is a random example, but stick with me.  This is something I’ve considered doing with a Hi-Lift for years, but I’ve never felt quite safe doing it.  Yet, JACK is easier to use and stable enough that I feel comfortable using it to lift this implement – and my back is quite happy to not have to make that lift.

I have to hand it to ARB – they’ve succeeded in reinventing the wheel, or the high lifting jack in this case with JACK.  Yes, its going to cost you a pretty penny up front, but you’re getting a safer, easier to use (especially if you’re a smaller or lighter person), easier to transport option for a tool that’s been the standard for a very long time.  As mentioned, JACK can’t winch, or clamp, or spread, but I’d wager that with some clever thinking, a good recovery kit, and a solid understanding of physics, you could employ JACK to do just about anything.  Aside from the limitation of the piston stroke (with is more than enough stroke to lift the vast majority of vehicles that will carry JACK), the ARB JACK can lift higher, pack up smaller, and weighs less than a Hi-Lift.  There’s less maintenance, and cleaning JACK is as easy as wiping it down.  The fact that JACK lives in a case inside your rig means that it’s not going to let you down due to rusting or getting gummed up with dirt and debris, and you’re never going to have to improvise some form of lubricant to get the thing to work.

The upfront purchase price of JACK is definitely something to consider, but in the time that I’ve had JACK, I’ve put it to use many times and found real value added in it’s ease of use and safety factor.  So I can confidently say that JACK pays for itself in short order.

Full Disclosure:  ARB USA provided a JACK on loan for an independent review by American Adventurist.