Ultimate Upland Road Trip
September 18, 2018
A multi-state hunting adventure and the perfect bird hunting rig to complete the journey
“They’re calling this a ‘road.’ Do not try to drive this at night. And don’t freak out. Just take it slow.”
The call came through as I emerged from beneath thousands of tons of granite, steel, and concrete. My Toyota 4Runner had just rolled through an eerie mountain tunnel illuminated faintly by fluorescent lights and the sounds of passing cars bounced off the walls of the cramped space. The end of the tunnel opened onto an expansive green valley. My eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. The sunlight sparked the red and yellow leaves of the trees that covered the mountains looming above the road. Fall was in full swing in western Colorado.
The words of caution from my friend Brian crackled over the speaker, shortly before I began the slow, steady crawl up a logging road outside Durango. The destination was 10,000 feet up a mountain to rendezvous with Brian and our friend Steve. From there, we would leave our rigs and backpack deep into the wilderness, carrying the essential hunting and survival gear for a three-day hunt. We would hike to at least 12,000 feet, searching steep, rocky peaks for snow-white ptarmigan.
And this was only the first leg of the trip.
My journey had begun in Illinois with an adventurous idea: Spend two weeks on the road, hunting across Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana with my Lab, Lincoln. No frills: I would live out of my car and embark on do-it-yourself hunts over the vast amounts of public land found across the West. All that would be required were a couple of friends, their four-legged companions, and an SUV outfitted to feel like home and built to handle the harsh elements I was about to throw at it.
The engine growled as my foot pressed down hard on the gas pedal, coaxing the 4Runner over the loose stones and exposed bedrock of the hairpin switchback. Daring to go no more than five miles per hour or risk shearing an axle, shredding a tire, or worse, 10 miles had turned into two hours. Breaking down on this road would leave a driver walking. No tow truck would dare negotiate the narrow, dangerous switchback.
Tilting hard left as the tires rolled over a particularly large rock, the SUV jolted right and back to even ground, rocking me in my seat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I could see Lincoln anxiously staring out the window, ears perked, anticipating the adventure that was coming. The road flattened out, the 4Runner settled, and the densely packed trees gave way to lush green basins. We had reached the end of the road.
Welcomed by the sight of my companions, the first drive of our crosscountry hunt was complete. Basecamp would be at 10,700 feet. We spent the first night celebrating the start of our journey with grilled blue grouse, baked apple pie, a glowing fire, and a star-filled canopy.
In the morning, we traded the comforts of a pop-up camper and a rooftop tent for loaded packs filled with light gear and dehydrated food. With our dogs leading the way, we hiked higher through lush pine trees, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for blue grouse. The trees fell behind us, opening up to a wide valley and prime ptarmigan country directly beyond: steep mountainsides we would nickname Mordor.
To cut weight off our backs, we set up a spike camp in the valley. We unloaded gear, loaded shotguns, and headed for the treacherous mountainsides. The muscles of my young Lab flexed as his legs bounded upwards, his athleticism showing as he traversed the sharp rocks with ease, his nose hard to the ground. I ran close behind my flusher, all the while carefully navigating the loose stones. A slip would send me tumbling down the mountain, ending my hunt – or worse.
My friends and I finally reached the peak – 12,400 feet. A cold fall wind whipped across my face and pushed against my body. I fought fatigue and the muscles of my legs screamed with the wind.
Slowly hiking the mountainside, I scanned each rock, attempting to separate snow from the camouflaged ptarmigan. Steve’s five-month old German shorthaired pointer, Libby, ran below me, and Lincoln covered the territory out front. Libby was working at a fast trot when she came to a complete stop, locking into a hard point. Body tense, the young pointer stared down the mountain, eyes focused on a small rock outcropping. As I slowly made my way to her, loose rock skittered down the mountainside with every step. I soon spotted what she had smelled. The white head of a ptarmigan appeared from below the rock outcropping. The young pointer lunged and a covey exploded like cotton in the wind – three shots rang out and three birds fell. Our whoops of excitement echoed across the mountain.
That night we dined on ptarmigan grilled on a flat rock over an open flame and savored the taste of accomplishment. The sun had not yet set before we retreated to our tents in complete exhaustion. No longer fueled by adrenaline, every muscle in my body ached. Lincoln lay next to me, licking his paws. I ran my hand over his thick fur, and he paused to look up at me. We shared a moment – we had conquered Mordor.
After crawling back down the treacherous logging road, we headed north for Wyoming and lower elevations. Sticking to the eastern side of the state, we made our way up I-25 to Casper.
Wyoming is covered in land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, national forests, and grasslands – millions of acres are open to the public for hunting. The western side of the state is home to the Rocky Mountains, and the eastern side is high prairie. We planned to hunt the rolling hills covered in short grass, scrub brush, and prickly pear cactus for sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge (Huns), and, in some areas, ring-necked pheasants.
Our dogs had different plans. Fatigue from covering the extreme vertical miles in Colorado showed itself, and the sharp mountain rocks had exacted a toll on their pads, resulting in raw, sore feet.
As we made our way through the first field, Lincoln walked tentatively behind me, more concerned with where his paws landed on the dry grass than in hunting birds. Cactus plagued the area, and Lincoln stopped every few yards, using his teeth to dig relentlessly at his legs and extract the sharp cactus spines from his already sensitive feet.
What cactus he couldn’t get out by himself, I could with pliers, and after the third stop in less than an hour, we headed for the 4Runner. Instead of hunting Wyoming, we would use it to rest and recover for Montana.
Heading northeast, we made our way across Wyoming and into Montana. A good night’s rest and a day of driving was the proper cure to take on the last leg of our hunt.
Our final camp would be on the eastern side of the state, set in a state park known for its beautiful sandstone structures. Rich with Native American history, the area was used often as a gathering place for hunting parties, and in the late 19th century a young Theodore Roosevelt would declare it “as fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.” It was fitting that we spend the final days of our road trip camped in this park.
Lincoln was rested and ready to hunt. He hit the prairie hills with passion and persistence. Head low and nose hard to the ground, his tail stood at attention, circling rapidly as he made his way through the tall prairie grass searching for scent. I followed closely through this uplander’s paradise, anticipating the cackle of a rooster, the chuckle of a sharptail, or the whoosh of a rising covey of Huns.
The rolling prairie hills were interspersed with harvested cornfields, creating a perfect mix of upland bird habitat. Lincoln’s body disappeared between the tall, dry stalks. I listened intently as the “whack” and “swish” of stalks and leaves brushing against his body grew faster, his quickened pace indicating a bird was near. I followed the noises until a bird flushed from the thick cover.
A sharptail would fall as my first bird in Montana. The white underbelly shined bright against the blue sky as it flushed, chuckling above the cornfield. Quickly raising my shotgun, I fired. A plume of feathers erupted, and the bird curled into itself and fell to the ground. A proud Lincoln came back to me at a full trot, feathers caking his tongue and nose, and placed our bird in my hand. After a quick drink, he turned and disappeared back into the cornfield – there were more birds out there to be found.
My friends and I, along with our faithful companions, hiked more than 25 miles in three days, the late October weather drifting between blue, clear skies, with abundant sunshine, to cloudy, cold temperatures and flurries of snow. The Montana prairie rewarded us with sharp-tailed grouse and Huns, feeding hungry hunters and dogs in camp.
Star-filled skies hung regally overhead as a roaring fire warmed us each night, and our laughter echoed off the sandstone. Our bounty would be made into sharptail stew, fajitas, and grilled partridge breast as we shared stories in the flickering firelight. Chocolate chip cookies, freshly baked in a Camp Chef Oven, satisfied our sweet tooths before heading to our beds. A breakfast of eggs and bird hearts the next morning fueled us for the day’s hunt.
On the last morning of our two-week journey, we combed the hills, as bright sun illuminated the yellow prairie grass. Looking in the distance, I watched my friends as they followed their dogs. Quick steps approached, and Lincoln’s head appeared through the grass, looking to me for water. As he drank, a shot rang out in the distance. Lincoln’s body turned in the direction of the noise, muscles tensed, searching the skies for the falling bird. Without letting a second escape, he jumped into action, his natural instincts taking over. No time for water – we had birds to hunt.
Ultimate Upland Rig
When it was time to purchase a new SUV, the choice for me was simple: Toyota 4Runner. My family has owned 4Runners for decades. As my avocation of hunting and camping became my vocation, an SUV that could handle the brutal conditions I planned to throw at it – and fit gear, game and dog – was required.
The rugged construction of the 4Runner comes with more than 30 years of Toyota durability and reliability and is one of the few remaining body-on-frame SUVs. What does that mean? It means the body and frame are two separate pieces, which allows the SUV to serve better as an off-road vehicle. The design makes the SUV resistant to twisting forces, so crawling over rocks and boulders can come without worry. Because 4Runners have become popular with overland enthusiasts, an endless supply of aftermarket accessories is available. All of that makes the 4Runner an ideal overlanding rig.
I use the 4Runner mainly as my everyday wheels to and from work, so my goal was to outfit it with gear to make it a secret weekend warrior without busting my bank account. For traveling cross-country and making my car home for multiple days at a time, I knew exactly what I needed: extra storage, sleeping capabilities, muddy dog seat protection, more clearance, tougher tires and safety.
Awing and Table
For this trip, I added two accessories to my roof rack: an under-rack bracket to hold the Front Runner Stainless Steel Camp Table and an Easy-Out Awning. Instead of a table taking up precious cargo room, I could slide the camp table under my roof rack for easy and secure storage. The awning would serve as extra shade or a rain blocker and the perfect spot to set up a camp kitchen.
The one thing the 4Runner lacks is storage space. There are plenty of aftermarket drawers made specifically to fit a 4Runner. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was finding drawers that didn’t sit too high so that I could stack items on top and, most importantly, would still allow Lincoln to sit in the cargo deck.
The ARB Roller Floor was the perfect option. The drawer sits only 5.5 inches off the floor of the vehicle and features a slide-out storage tray – just enough room for me to fit boxes of shotgun shells, my Browning Citori Over/Under, and other miscellaneous gear. The top of the drawer glides out, so I could easily access gear sitting on top or use it as a table to clean birds.
Dust, mud, water, sand, snow, blood, and a wet, dirty dog – just a few things my seats take on frequently. A tough, water-resistant Cordura nylon seat cover was the answer to keep my factory seats in perfect condition. The Cabela’s Custom-Fit Cordura Seat Covers came fitted for my 4Runner and installed easily thanks to nylon straps and quick-release buckles.
Extra safety when traveling cross-country was important to me, and I also needed a place to store my concealed-carry handgun (a Kimber Micro) when getting in the car. The Ohai Modular Holster from CrossBreed Holsters is handmolded to fit the firearm of your choice, and it’s backed with Velcro so it can be mounted almost anywhere. I mounted the holster near my right leg for a quick, easy draw if need be.
You shouldn’t take your rig off-road without an air compressor on board – period. The ARB On-Board 12-volt air compressor mounted easily in my engine compartment, hidden away until needed. This little unit is wired to my battery and has enough power to inflate four 35- to 37-inch tires in one cycle. Paired with the ARB Tire Inflation Kit, which includes an 18-foot high-heat pressure hose and an assortment of different attachments, this air compressor is perfect for blowing up tires and various camping gear.
Roof Rack and Tent
The stock roof rack rails on my 4Runner weren’t going to cut it. Extra storage can come in the way of a durable roof rack, and for that Front Runner’s Slimline II was the perfect option. Made of black epoxy powder coated aluminum, the Slimline II is rated to carry 660 pounds while weighing less than 60 pounds and maintaining a low profile. I planned to use the rack for extra storage or, in the case of some of my overland adventures, a rooftop tent.
After driving for hours, the last thing you want to do late at night is find even ground, set up a tent, blow up the sleeping pad, and unroll the sleeping bag. A quick set up and comfortable place to sleep comes in the form of a rooftop tent. The Roof Top Tent by Front Runner is both the lowest profile tent on the market and the lightest. The tent opens in one swift motion for an instant bedroom. It fits two easily and includes a mattress. It is made of a special heavy-duty poly-cotton that is strong, breathable, mold resistant, and waterproof. Four windows come with mesh panels as well as zippered privacy panels.
Extra lighting on your rig is always welcome – especially on dangerous mountain switchbacks. For that, I turned to Lightforce and their Gen 3 Dual Wattage Double Row Light Bar. Utilizing 3w and 10w LEDs, this light bar is made with durable aluminum, a UV-resistant anodized coating, and a high-impact-
resistant polycarbonate lens coating. I opted for a 30-inch length to fit perfectly behind my front grill.
I turned to ARB 4x4 Accessories for their expertise on the perfect lift for my 4Runner. They put their trust behind Old Man Emu, Australia’s leading 4x4 suspension brand. Opting for a 3-inch lift to keep me at just the right height to handle rough terrain and to maintain average gas mileage, I outfitted my 4Runner with front and rear coil springs, and front struts and rear shocks. The end height would keep me well within alignment specs and wouldn’t affect any components, such as control arms, CV shafts, or differential.
The stock tires on my 4Runner SR5 were good for everyday use, but not for climbing a mountain. I needed an all-terrain tire that would be good for both on- and off-road performance. The Toyo Open Country R/T tire is designed for all-season use and is made of a 3-ply polyester for durability and handling. The pattern arrangement of the tire design helps reduce noise, and the aggressive sidewall design enhances traction and side-impact protection, while the open, scalloped shoulder blocks help grip mud, sand, and snow.