Trans America Trail- Fancy doing the TAT?

So you want to do the Trans-Am-Trail? The TAT route was created by a dual sport motorcycle rider and therefore designed with motorcycles in mind. There's tons of info on the web for motorcycle riders wanting to do the TAT but as I discovered very little useful info for anyone wanting to attempt the TAT in a 4x4. This post therefore is designed to inform anyone wanting to attempt the TAT on four wheels rather than two.

Reading the motorcycle forums (www.advrider.com is a great TAT resource) the consensus is you can get through most of the TAT in a vehicle but there are sections you will have to bypass. Having driven the entire 5,000+ mile coast-to-coast route, I experienced just one small section in a forest in Oregon that was a single-track suitable for motorcycles only.

The TAT route avoids major highways but North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi does alternate between short sections of blacktop and dirt roads. Nevertheless, even the stretches of 'road' on which you're travelling on are small traffic free two lane rural routes where you can sit back, chill out and enjoy the scenery. The majority of the TAT route uses forestry trails and county roads that for the large part that are plenty wide enough for full size vehicles. One small caveat. The TAT route can and does change subject to land closures and boundary changes etc but more often than not, a TAT route change is more likely due to gas station closures where gas range and the ability to get gas is vitally important to the motorcycles. We had Sam's TAT maps for Nevada and his 2016 Idaho route that now supersedes the original Nevada route where gas availability had become a problem. Kevin's route still goes through Nevada. We chose Sam's Idaho route. Even then gas availability can still sometimes be a problem and we had to divert from the TAT on a couple of occasions when gas stations marked on the map had closed their doors some time ago. Running a diesel engine presented its own problems for myself in that gas stations in the rural areas didn't always have a diesel pump. Indeed even in large US towns and cities it's still not uncommon to find gas stations that don't sell diesel. To a European, this is unheard of.  I carried a small jerry can with a couple of gallons as a 'just in case' back up for peace of mind, but in reality never got close to using it or worrying about where or when I was next going to get fuel. As a rule, I'd always try and start the day with a full tank and would always fill up at the next available gas station when the needle started to get anywhere near half a tank. An auxiliary fuel tank is a luxury rather than a necessity on the TAT. If you run out of fuel, it'll be down to your own poor judgement!

You definitely don't need an expedition prepped round-the-world ready vehicle to do the TAT Ignoring the pop-top roof on my own Defender the only modification from the factory set-up was the addition of heavy-duty springs to counter the weight of the winch at the front and the pop-top and internal units in the back. I ended up running with Wes in his Jeep for a large part of the TAT and similarly his short wheelbase Wrangler JK had nothing more 'trick' than an AEV 2in lift. In reality you could do the TAT in a stock vehicle. Both vehicles were equipped with raised air intakes or 'snorkels' but the river crossings we encountered were either seasonally low or were in the process of having bridges built over them. Interestingly bridge construction sites were plentiful throughout the south in 2016.

One thing you will have to get used to is the dust. The dust cloud created behind your vehicle looks great on pictures but it gets everywhere so be prepared to live in a dust covered environment for at least four weeks. When my external LED camping lights stopped working I traced the fault to the internal switches just inside the rear door. Both switches were full of dust and were preventing the contacts within the switch from working. The central locking on the rear door was another moving component that succumbed to the dust requiring regular squirts of WD40 to keep it working.

The other thing you'll get used to are vibrations. Make sure every suspension component is 100% because your vehicle is going to take a pounding like never before. And then there are the little things. My door mirrors came loose. So did the mirror arms. The door handle striker plate wore so much that the door developed a rattle. The cubby box fasteners came loose and the nut holding the cubby box lock assembly fell off. I managed to catch the rear door handle with each of its four nuts held on by a single thread and even the ball on the SatNav wore enough of itself away so that it required beefing up with a layer of Sellotape! I could go on listing all of the little things that needed tightening but you get the idea. Stuff comes loose. A lot! None of it catastrophic but all stuff that needed to be kept on top of. If you have a roof tent or roof rack I would make checking their fixings an essential part of your end of day routine. Broken roof rails and fractured roof racks are a regular feature of many of the 4x4 TAT reports on the web.

One thing that 5,000 miles of off-road mileage will do is burn through rubber. Prior to starting out on the TAT my own tyres (Goodyear MT/R) had completed 7,000 miles of road only miles. Within 4,000 off-road TAT miles it was touch and go whether they would last until the end of the trail! With the rears wearing faster than the fronts, I resorted to rotating the tyres to push them on until the end in an Idaho motel parking lot. I eventually bought new tyres in Vegas opting for BFGoodrich All Terrain's since the ATs on Wes's Jeep although noticeably worn , held up better than the Goodyear's. I survived the TAT without a single puncture. Wes suffered one in his Jeep. I thought we'd get more. A crew member on Land Rover's own TAT 'expedition' when they launched the LR4 in the US told me that punctures were well into double figures on their low profile rubber. Definitely carry a tyre plug repair kit and a compressor. The compressor is also useful for inflating tyres after the extended rocky sections through Colorado where airing down will aid traction and improve the ride.

Navigating the TAT was easy using Sam's route files downloaded onto a micro SD card and plugged into my Garmin Nuvi SatNav. I also had KevinGPS' route on the Sat Nav as an alternative. Sam's route you will have to pay for. Kevin's route is free and offers alternative start and end points.  I'm not going to get into the whole who's route is best argument here since you can spend hours on the ADV Rider website reading a million tit-for-tat posts on the subject. I used both routes. The routes do differ but where they do align, the one thing we noticed was that Kevin's route would always take you through towns where there may be food and gas whereas Sam's route ploughed on regardless and bypassed the same towns. KevinGPS 'easy' routes were often cleverly synced to coincide with the end of a day when you might be tired or running short on light to speed you to your evenings' destination.

Sam's paper maps were great for getting a handle on the 'big picture' and the quoted mileages between points on the maps were useful for planning daily schedules and motel, meals and fuel stops.  Sam also provides roll charts with turn by turn tulip diagrams and split distances between the instructions. Yes, they are fiddly and the ticker tape reel of paper is a pain to wind onto the roll chart holder but they were useful if only for the luxury of being able to enter specific coordinates from the roll chart into the GPS/SatNav to pinpoint exactly you are or on the map or which direction to head at confusing junctions. The Roll Chart holder is designed for a motorcycle but I easily adapted mine for use with the RAM Mount system by fixing a RAM 1in ball mount to the back of the holder.

Be prepared to re-route. You're travelling the entre breadth of a continent so guaranteeing every mile of the TAT route will be clear coast-to-coast is impossible. The trails through Oregon are heavily forested and it's the one state where drivers and riders traditionally run into blockages from heavy tree fall and forest fires. You could carry a chainsaw but it's overkill unless you're blessed with lots of spare room within your truck. A bow saw is however a necessity for clearing smaller overhanging branches. A Silky Saw (the choice of real woodsmen) offers a more compact solution when space is tight. As I sit and type this, the Smokey Mountains are still smoldering after the huge forest fires in late 2016 that are certain to have resulted in re-routes through the Tennessee TAT sections in 2017.

You will definitely encounter road and trail closures somewhere along the route but the nature of the county roads and forest trails you're travelling on is that it's always easy to create a workaround and besides, this is an adventure remember so it's all part of the challenge - right?  Signs stating road closures are often passable so it's always worth a look to see just how closed a road really is. At weekends and out of regular working hours it's sometimes easy to drive through 'blockages' on quiet rural routes.  I even heard stories from other TAT users of construction crews clearing aside their equipment just to let TAT drivers/riders through their site.

We had to divert in Oklahoma and Idaho when rain turned some of the dirt tracks to mud. The TAT mud is infamous in Oklahoma, Utah, Nevada and Idaho. The clay based surface turns the normally hard dirt roads into horrible impassable skating rinks that should be avoided. I winched a motorcycle out of the mud in Utah who I heard later had burnt his clutch out when the mud clogged his rear wheel. After the TAT I bumped into another TAT rider who had suffered the exact same fate in Utah. It's worth carrying a shovel just in case! A winch is all well and good but when you're stuck in mud in Oklahoma I can tell you there isn't anything for 100 miles around you to attach a winch cable to!

When to go is a crucial decision. You can never predict rain storms in the desert and on the prairies but to successfully cross the Rockies in Colorado you'll need to hit the summer window of August/September when the high altitude mountain passes above 10,000 feet are clear of snow.

The TAT route travels through some remote and rural areas but both Sam's and Kevin's routes offer suggestions on where to stay, even if the town only has a couple of motels. You'll travel through National Forests and BLM land which provide plentiful camping options but down in the southern states in the summer months the heat and humidity can make camping an unpleasant ordeal. You'll get into the natural rhythm of the TAT route that tends to mean you'll start and end in a some place that has somewhere to stay, no matter how small the town. Worth a mention is LJ's Bunk House in Wheeless, Oklahoma, a couple of hours west of Elkhart, Kansas. An unmanned oasis for the TAT rider/driver this immaculate single story strip of buildings had a lounge area, kitchen with local produce for sale, bedrooms and a study area with a computer hooked up to the internet. It even had an outdoor pool and a fully equipped covered workshop. There was a charge for staying but it was one of the only two stops (that I'm aware of) that caters specifically for anyone doing the TAT and was a credit to its owners.

Aside from keeping on top of rattles and a solitary puncture, the only damage to our two cars was some scuffs from the occasional low hanging tree branch. Rest assured the TAT is a non-damaging route that you'd be quite safe in taking the kids along, although they'll probably get bored sitting through endless miles of desert and prairie!

The Trans-America-Trail is guaranteed to provide you with the trip of a lifetime and a million lasting memories that you'll be talking about years later. No two TAT trips will ever be the same. Even people running two or three days apart from one another will all have a different experiences and stories to tell. What will always remain the same is the luxury of enjoying a unique view of small town America and its remote landscapes, that's quite literally, a thousand miles away from the 'Interstate scenic viewpoint' view of the world that most motorists and most American's will only ever see.

 

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