Studying the mistakes and misfortunes of hikers' survival stories can...
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Photos by Patrick McCarthy, Rob Curtis, John Schwartze, Mark Han, and Glen Castle
Each year, the staff members for all our magazines — RECOIL, RECOIL OFFGRID, CONCEALMENT, and CARNIVORE — get together for a little R&R and a few days away from our normal duties. Working for these publications is a lot of fun, but it also requires a lot of long hours, late nights, multitasking, and adherence to tight deadlines. These yearly gatherings offer a way for us to see each other, since our staff is scattered across the country from coast to coast, and have some fun doing what we love. Anyone who has read our publications can guess what that is — shooting, hunting, hiking, camping, cooking good food, drinking beers and bourbon, smoking cigars, and telling stories of past exploits around the campfire.
In 2018, we got together in Texas to hunt some wild hogs. This year, we planned an event in my home state of Arizona. It was informally dubbed the Bug-Out Challenge, since we’d essentially be going through a dry run of an off-road escape route leaving Phoenix. Our staff met up just north of the city, packed our gear into an array of vehicles, and spent two full days on backcountry trails before reaching our planned destination in Prescott. During this journey, we brought along survival gear to test, guns to shoot, and cameras to document the journey.
Today, I’ll share a recap of the RECOIL OFFGRID Bug-Out Challenge, as well as some of the emergency preparedness lessons this trip reinforced.
Those of us who already live in Arizona met up the day before our event for some pre-trip prep. We had already coordinated to borrow a pair of Mahindra ROXORs — refer to our previous article for a detailed run-down on these small off-road vehicles. In short, they’re based on the original Willys CJ series, with dimensions similar to those of a modern-day side-by-side. We loaded the two ROXORs with our backpacks, guns, food, and fuel, and headed out for a quick shakedown on the trail before the designated meet-up.
I had a blast driving the ROXOR. I’m a big fan of simplicity, both from a practical standpoint and as a survivalist, and the ROXOR feels bare-bones in the best possible way — it has no stereo, climate control, automatic transmission, or other complex electronics. It doesn’t even have windshield wipers. What you get instead is a proper 4WD system with a Dana manual transfer case, solid axles, leaf spring suspension, 5-speed manual transmission, and a 2.5-liter turbodiesel engine.
It’s not going to win any drag races with 62 horsepower and a capped top speed of 45mph, but the 144 foot-pounds of torque will pull this light vehicle over surprisingly large obstacles, especially in 4-Lo. Also, aftermarket tuners have proven that the platform is capable of 100+ horsepower and 70+ mph after a simple engine computer re-flash.
After getting some mud on the ROXORs and stopping to top off the diesel, we drove to the rendezvous campsite. The rest of the team had already arrived.
From left to right, we had the ROXORs, a 2017 Ford F-350 courtesy of Hellwig Products, a Global Expedition Vehicles Pangea-LT custom overland rig, a new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, a new Ram Rebel, and a modified Ford F-150. We’ll delve more into some of these vehicles below.
After eating dinner, we finished off our first night with some drinks and conversation at the edge of the lake. Then we retired to our tents to get a good night’s rest before the journey.
On the first morning of the Bug-Out Challenge, we packed up camp, double-checked the vehicles, aired out the tires, and headed into the desert. Today, I’d be switching from the ROXOR to a modern platform with a similar spirit — the 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
The two-door JL-series Rubicon is small by present-day SUV standards, but felt substantial next to the diminutive ROXORs. Of course, as a premium-trim new vehicle, it comes with plenty of creature comforts — dual-zone climate control, touchscreen stereo, heated seats, and so on. However, our test vehicle also had a 5-speed manual transmission, so we enjoyed the old-school feel of rowing through the gears.
The Wrangler fared well on the trail, with its electronic lockers and sway-bar disconnect feature making obstacles feel easy. While the ROXORs scrambled up steep trails successfully, their light weight and small size sometimes made them feel bouncy and frenetic. In the Jeep, there was no drama in the rocky desert terrain — just throw it in 4-Lo and smoothly accelerate.
Within a few hours, the Wrangler that had been clean and shiny that morning was appropriately muddy.
At one point, RECOIL editor Iain Harrison spotted a rattlesnake crossing the trail, drew his carry pistol, and killed it. We posted this photo on Instagram, and a few people got upset that we would do such a thing. We posted a photographic response to these comments later — more on that below.
During the day, our convoy racked up more off-road miles, passing through small towns and ascending into the mountains. There, we visited one of the many abandoned mines that are scattered throughout these hills.
By evening, we reached our planned camp site in the mountains. The change in elevation brought a chill, and there were remnants of snow on the ground in the woods nearby — a reminder that Arizona isn’t just scorching desert heat as many assume.
On this trip, I tested out a pair of items from Sierra Designs, the Synthesis 20-Degree mummy sleeping bag and the Studio 2 tent. The sleeping bag kept me nice and warm despite temperatures dipping close to freezing during the night, and the tent was lightweight and compact enough to fit easily into my pack. We’ll be posting a full review of these items in the near future.
After splitting some wood and igniting our campfire with the aforementioned flamethrower — a convenient and spectacular way to start a fire — we cooked some dinner. Iain had brought some barbecued elk from a recent hunt, as well as a few tasty side dishes. We also addressed the Instagram critics by showing what we did with the rattlesnake from earlier:
The snake was skinned, cleaned, marinated in some of Iain’s homemade habanero BBQ sauce, and grilled on a hot rock next to the fire. If this were a real bug-out situation it would’ve been a much-needed source of calories, but in this more relaxed context it was just a delicious (and organic!) addition to the evening’s menu.
The morning of Day 2 started with some more supplies from the cooler — bacon, peppers, onions, and eggs on the griddle. Once we were fed and packed, we set out to ascend even further into the mountains. The road started out tame, with sandy dirt and limited mud from the melting snow.
However, as we continued, more and more snow began to appear on the trail. Soon there was six inches, then a foot, then more. Beneath the crust of soft snow was slick ice that made navigating the trails a delicate task, especially since the edge dropped off into a steep ravine at many turns.
It wasn’t long before some of the vehicles began to get bogged-down in the rutted snow tracks, leaving us to dig or winch them out. This isn’t the terrain most would expect to see in Arizona, but it was there nonetheless — and we needed to get past it before nightfall.
We planned for some snow, but recent storms brought far more than we had expected. Progress slowed to the point that we began to wonder if we’d make it over the mountain, or if we should turn back and find an alternate route while there was still daylight.
Fortunately, shortly after this point the snow began to recede and the roads began to clear. We were through.
Above: The Hellwig F-350’s ICON Suspension, aired-down mud tires, and heavy-duty winch helped it traverse some difficult trails, despite the truck’s substantial size and weight.
Our journey ended with a late dinner in Prescott’s historic Whiskey Row and a good night’s rest. The following day, we said our goodbyes and returned home to get back to work.
Although the trip was clearly more of a recreational event than a hardcore simulation of a bug-out scenario, it still helped us map a course, trail conditions, and alternate routes. We learned the gear we needed, and items we wish we had. Most importantly, the Bug-Out Challenge brought us together as a team.
Simplicity is beneficial. In technical off-road settings, lightweight vehicles with short wheelbases excel. Full-size, heavy-duty vehicles tend to bog down, high-center, or simply can’t navigate tight switchbacks. While trucks like the Ram Rebel and Hellwig F-350 are great for hauling lots of gear through unpaved areas, there’s an unavoidable point where the terrain will cause these large vehicles to struggle. If your bug-out location is on the other side of a rock garden or a perilously-narrow mountain path, you should choose a vehicle accordingly.
Rescue equipment is a worthy investment. Some may think the shovel and Maxtrax strapped to your roof rack are just for decoration, but when you’re bogged down in snow, mud, or sand, they’ll be worth their weight in gold. If you can equip your vehicle with a winch, even better. Tire chains are a great asset if there’s any chance of snow.
Have a multi-layered communication plan. The mountainous terrain interfered with cell reception as well as our radios. Always be prepared for this. A few members of our team had emergency satellite communicators (such as the SPOT Gen III) as a last line of defense in case something went terribly wrong — it’s an added expense, but well worth it in an emergency.
Know your vehicle’s limits. As the snow got deeper and the trail got steeper, the GXV Pangea-LT eventually had to turn around and find a different route. Its colossal size and weight were simply too much for that terrain. Being realistic about this and knowing when to tap out will prevent you from pushing ahead until you’re hopelessly stuck. The trail isn’t a competition, so don’t let your desire to overcome it get you into danger.
There’s strength in numbers. Many of our setbacks on this trip were made less challenging through teamwork. It’s a lot harder to dig your truck out by yourself than it is with friends, so look for co-drivers and convoy members you trust, and be ready to help each other.