A Guide to Choosing an Expedition Rig

I have spent a lot of time thinking about expedition rigs. I started looking for the perfect one to see if I could find something better than the 4Runners and Tacomas Expedition Overland uses. Less than a year later, I bought a 4Runner. I resumed my search a few months later, and almost bought an RV instead of a house. As a home owner I have started searching again — and this time, I decided to talk about my process. I hope this guide will help those looking for adventure choose the right platform for their way of life.

Dimensions for an Expedition Rig that Fits in a Shipping Container

I have spent a lot of time researching, planning, and designing a full-size, custom-built expedition rig. I hope to start this massive project in the next few years. A few weeks ago, though, I took a brief detour down a different path. Rather than a huge RV based on the M1083 LMTV chassis, I spent a few days thinking I would go with a medium-duty utility vehicle instead. The Mitsubishi FG4x4 and the Isuzu N-series, I reasoned, had a few advantages over the LMTV.

Why Does Infrastructure Cost So Much?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Government brought its best intentions and a bottomless bag of money, removed all incentive for fiscal responsibility, then left us all wondering why an entire industry got so expensive. No, I’m not talking about higher education — or health care, pharmaceuticals, or agriculture; I’m talking about infrastructure.

Charles Marohn points out that the United States has used infrastructure spending to boost its economy for decades, without considering the long-term costs of those projects. Those bills are now coming due in the form of expensive upkeep. Thanks to an environment that did little to incentivize fiscal responsibility, we find ourselves saddled with these massive maintenance projects and equipped with a cost-insensitive workforce to handle them. He falls short in offering a helpful solution, but his analysis of the root problem is excellent.

You Might Not be The Smartest

Many developers have a tendency to consider themselves smarter than everyone else — or at least, smarter than the person who wrote the platform they build on. Web developers have made a habit of this, but as Carter Sande points out, that just might not be the case.

“I think it’s best to build small, simple, standards-based web pages. Browser developers are really good at their jobs, and they’ve spent a lot of time on features like progressive rendering that help your sites feel fast without any effort on your part. It’s not worth it to try and go behind their backs — premature optimizations like client-side navigation are hard to build, don’t work very well, will probably be obsolete in a couple years, and make life worse for a decent portion of your users.”

I try to be a smart developer, but not a smarter developer than I actually am.

Reframing PRT

Most Soldiers hate organized Physical Readiness Training, or PRT. They tolerate it. Few enjoy it, and even fewer get anything out of it. I have a 1,600 word draft of an article titled “Army PRT is Garbage” that explains why — and outlines a few ways we could make it better — that will never see the light of day. Public critiques tend to reflect poorly on those who post them. I expect most Soldiers could speak at length on this subject, though, so ask one sometime. Today, I want to talk about the shift in mindset that helped me come to terms with this program.

Performance Matters

Hillel Wayne explains why EMT’s continue to use error-prone paper Patient Care Reports even though they have digital replacements: the software is too slow.

“It wasn’t even that slow. Something like a quarter-second lag when you opened a dropdown or clicked a button. ... Did that quarter-second lag kill anyone? Was there someone who wouldn’t have died if the ePCR was just a little bit faster, fast enough to be usable? And the people who built it: did they ask the same questions? Did they say ‘premature optimization is bad’ and not think about performance until it was too late? ... Most of us aren’t writing critical software. But this isn’t ‘critical software’, either: nobody will suddenly die if it breaks. You just switch back to paper PCRs. But it could have saved lives. At scale, it could have saved people dying from PCR errors.”

This struck a chord with me. I once spent the first three hours of my day signing 10 PDFs on a horrendously underpowered thin client — and it shocked my co-workers when they heard I got through all of them before lunch. None of that work was critical, but the work I had to put off to get it done was. No one thought that through when they bought these machines, though: they saw small numbers in the “Total” and “Recurring” costs columns, and signed without question. Someone made a similar poor choice for digital Patient Care Reports, and although no one will ever take the time to know the true cost of either miscalculation, make no mistake — in both cases, it is high.

Setting Yourself Up for Vanlife Failure

I make a conscious effort to get out of my bubble as much as possible, so when I saw a Jalopnik article proclaiming Vanlife Can Be Cheaper, Weirder, And More Accessible Than Instagram Would Have You Believe, I bit.

I’ll give Anna Merlan the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she started with the idea that vanlife could be cheaper, weirder, and more accessible than Instagram might lead you to believe, then set out to prove that by living in a 19-year-old Chrysler Town and Country while she travelled from Los Angeles to New Mexico. She spent a lot of time complaining about heat in the desert in the summer, the inconvenience of not having a shower or toilet in a van she did not add a shower or toilet to, and mediocre meals from mediocre food, though, interspersed with complaints about the vanlife community’s homogeneity. For the most part, it read as a hit piece. I agree and support her point that this lifestyle does not require an expensive luxury van or expensive accessories, but if she actually set out to show that, her general lack of preparedness set herself up for failure and made sure that she did a poor job of it.

So what should she have done? Without spending a dime, she could have dealt with the heat by staying out of the desert in the middle of summer, lined an old bucket with a trash bag for a makeshift toilet and used an elevated water container for a makeshift shower, and invested some time planning for tasty, easy camp meals. Basic camping tricks. She could have had some better, long-term solutions for the price of a few dollars, but her point was that this lifestyle does not require expensive things; she could have actually made it for the price of a bit of effort.

Violence is Golden

I haven’t read Jack Donovan’s work or listened to his podcasts in a while, so I forgot how good some of his stuff is until I re-discovered Violence is Golden this morning. From his article:

“A rule not ultimately backed by the threat of violence is merely a suggestion. States rely on laws enforced by men ready to do violence against lawbreakers. Every tax, every code and every licensing requirement demands an escalating progression of penalties that, in the end, must result in the forcible seizure of property or imprisonment by armed men prepared to do violence in the event of resistance or non–compliance. ... Without action, words are just words. Without violence, laws are just words. Violence isn’t the only answer, but it is the final answer.”

Ours is a comfortable reality — but just barely.

The Shortcut Is: There Is No Shortcut

Another great piece from a few years ago, this time by Brendan Leonard at Outside Online in 2017:

“You want a shortcut, here’s one: Stop believing that anyone who’s successful at anything has some secret other than focus, drive, and a shitload of hard work. There’s your shortcut.”

I love this. Every few weeks, someone stops me in the gym to ask for a shortcut. “Man, that’s an insane deadlift. How did you get it that high?” Others say things that make me want to smack them: “I could never do that.” The truth is, you could if you wanted to — and as for how I got it that high, the un-sexy answer is months of long, hard, back-breaking, and grueling work after 5 A.M. wake-ups and ten hour work days. I got here because I put in the work and the effort to achieve my goals — not because I discovered some shortcut that you didn’t.

As I said about weightlifting, “Effort, and nothing else, decides success. More than diet, macronutrients, workout gear, or even your training routine, the most impactful thing you can do is workout every single day, as hard as possible, for as long as possible.”

Get out there and do the work. Stop looking for a shortcut.

Adventuremobile Wisdom You'll Probably Ignore

Wes Siler has some advice for those looking to buy an adventure vehicle. I agree with almost everything he says, even if most of it just applies to those who already have one: get good tires, have a tire repair kit and recovery gear, get advanced driver training, pack less, don’t try to force an inadequate car into the role of a much more capable one, and understand the difference between AWD and 4WD — but the rest, not so much. He also suggests leasing instead of buying (say goodbye to things like bumpers and roof racks, and don’t get too adventurous), defaulting to a truck (too large and heavy unless you choose a mid-size pickup, at which point you might as well get an SUV like a 4Runner), and avoiding a Tacoma — one of the most capable off-road trucks in North America — at all costs. Take the good from this piece and ignore the bad. I plan to post a guide of my own soon.

Don't Overthink, Act

Leo Babuta of Zen Habits wrote about a great way to combat overthinking the other day: just make the best decision you can now, given limited information and time to make it. Many will scoff at this idea, for making important choices in particular, but I disagree: I like his approach a lot, because it has worked well for me for almost everything.

A guide to Web Scraping without getting blocked

I threw together a web scraper the other day for a project at work. Since web scraping is easy, I had extra time, and I needed to poll a few hundred pages from a single domain often, I rotate through a pool of user agent strings and randomize my request pattern to make it less likely that the server will block me. Hacker News once blocked me after I did not take precautions like these, so I made sure to avoid that this time around. Pierre over at ScrapingNinja talked about these and a few other strategies yesterday. Looks like I have a few features to add.

Camp Kitchen Tips

Joe Jackson has some good tips for better camp kitchens. I like to keep everything for cooking, eating, and cleaning in one container, packed at all times. I keep a second one empty for dry goods. This makes trip prep a breeze: I just load the first tote in my car, then fill up the second tote and my cooler in the grocery store’s parking lot on my way out of town. Along with two dining tables, two water jugs, and my storage system, this setup makes cooking tough meals easy, and eating them fun.

Redemption on the Appalachian Trail

Ben Montgomery took his three kids on a 250 mile section of the Appalachian Trail, and wrote about their journey. I don’t have much to say about this other than that it made me smile, and made me want to get back into backpacking.

How to Assess the Quality of Garments

I work in a technical profession, writing code and inspecting network traffic all day — and I found Anuschka Rees’ two-part series on garment quality fascinating. She approaches this topic as a technical one, with the exacting attention to detail I have come to appreciate in my line of work. I have devoted a lot of time to learning subtleties like these as a way to choose better adventure clothing, and could have seen myself writing something like this someday. Now I may never have to. Check out part one here, and part two here. She also posted a handy cheat sheet as well. Great stuff.

What Did You Do with All That Time?

A little over a year ago, I moved to Fort Gordon for the Cyber Basic Officer Leaders Course. I saw one of my former classmates in the gym this morning, lounging on a bench press near two of his Soldiers. He once said that he did not have hours to spend in the gym every day, and that he had better things to do with his time.

Misunderstood Technology

Although a few weeks old now, I still think addressing this may have some enduring value.

Regulus Cyber got some attention a few weeks back for tricking a Tesla Model 3 into making a premature turn. Not an unsafe one, just premature. I almost didn’t read the post, though, let alone write about it, because of course you can trick a Tesla into turning early. The article’s popularity made me come around, though, and so here we are. Evidently this is still 1) surprising, and 2) interesting, and I would like to address both of those here.

Let’s tackle #1 first. This does not surprise me because at best, autonomous systems will drive as well as you do on an unfamiliar country road at night. Consider that scenario: you can see no more than a few feet ahead, know nothing about the road beyond your headlights, and have nothing but a questionable GPS route to guide you through the darkness. At any moment something could jump into your path, or you could find your way blocked by something no map will ever identify. These conditions are the human equivalent of the conditions under which the autonomous Tesla system operates at all times. Given that, of course Regulus Cyber tricked it into turning early.

Put yourself in that scenario. If you found yourself on an unfamiliar country road in the middle of the night, able to see maybe twenty feet ahead of you and navigating with a GPS that said to turn in a mile, would you turn early, onto another road, if that GPS told you to? I would. And that’s why this is neither surprising nor interesting to me, and why it should be neither to you as well. Of course you can trick a Tesla into turning early, because you could trick me into doing it, too. Instead of focusing on the weird edge cases where this miraculous technology fails(?) by doing the same thing a human would, how about we focus on all the lives it saved driving better than we do?

On the topic of misunderstood technology, I have another point to make about the ridiculous notion of “planned obsolescence” — but I will leave that for another day.

Greatness is a lot of small things done well

Steph Smith, on what it takes to become great. Emphasis mine:

“I realized that it was not the sporadic highs that were exceptional, but instead the long hauls; the sequences of events that seemed minimal at each juncture, but compounded into major gains. This led me to think further about what greatness truly means. I’ve come to learn that it’s not about overnight successes or flashes of excellence, but periods of repeatable habits.

I cannot agree more. As I said before about weightlifting, “Effort, and nothing else, decides success. More than diet, macronutrients, workout gear, or even your training routine, the most impactful thing you can do is workout every single day, as hard as possible, for as long as possible. Before worrying about anything else, worry about doing that; that is the single most effective way to reach your goals.”

Do not try to explain away others’ successes, or try to excuse your own failures, by calling them anything other than the results of long, hard work — or a lack thereof. Anything else would be a lie, to yourself and anyone else to which you justify your actions.

This post’s title comes from Ray Lewis. I love that line, and I encourage you to take it to heart. I did many years ago, and it has served me well.