Lessons Learned, Pro Tips, and Tales from the Road: A conversation with Tomer Benyehuda
Growing up in Israel, amidst its intricate desert rock formations, sunlit red canyons, waterfalls, freshwater lakes, and the Dead Sea, Tomer Benyehuda fell in love with the outdoors — a love that only grew as he got older, moved to the states, and started a family. Now, with his family of five and their Australian shepherd, outdoor expeditions have become a familial pastime. We sat down with Tomer to get his take on overlanding and how he’s made the lifestyle his own. He shared with us his expertise, hot tips, favorite equipment, and tales from the road when he took his entire family on an overlanding adventure from Los Angeles all the way up to Alaska.
Let's start with what drew you to overlanding. How'd you get started?
I love the outdoors but don’t like the crowds you usually meet in parks and campgrounds. Being able to get to those remote, isolated places is a huge advantage. Also being able to go further and for a longer time with minimum dependability on the grid is definitely a big part of the attraction and adventure that comes with every trip. I remember driving with my wife through Yellowstone on a backcountry road, and we were amazed by how much we could drive without stopping. I was addicted, and we couldn’t stop.
What was your first rig?
My first off-road vehicle was a Suzuki Samurai 1988, definitely not an overlanding platform but a very fun car. Proper overlanding I started around 2007 with my FJ Cruiser with minimal build-up, and not enough protection, which cost me a lot in body repairs.
What are your ideal types of adventures?
With friends, I like to take more rugged roads and play with rock-crawling. With the family, we enjoy scenic dirt roads especially if we end up on a beach, a lake, a river, or an ocean.
Have you had any memorable misadventures?
The first major misadventure was in Death Valley NP. After 160 miles we tried to cross Hunter Mountain Pass. It was already late and we got stuck in the snow. We had to spend the night in high elevations surrounded by snow without warm clothes or proper sleeping bags. Since then, every vehicle I build has everything for every situation (my wife’s ultimatum to continue to join me).
So you decided to take your tricked-out Land Cruiser (and your family!) from LA to Alaska and back on an overlanding odyssey? What inspired this specific adventure?
For me as a kid who grew up in Israel, Alaska always was the real deal, the topography, the wildlife, the wilderness, it was and still is my favorite destination. After a few years of preparation for the kids with long trips, we felt we were ready for the adventure.
How did you plan your route?
The first decision we made was we are not setting a schedule. We had some milestones throughout the trip, like a ferry departure and flights to see some attractions, but nothing in between. If we liked a place, we would stay as long as we liked, or if we arrived at a place we thought would be nice and we didn't like it, we would leave.
What was the most tedious part about preparing for this particular trip?
I don't need much on the road. On the other hand, my wife had some requests for a hot shower and warm nights. So I installed a shower tent with a portable tankless water heater and secondary battery to support 12V heating blankets to stuff into the sleeping bags, it was definitely a success! Also with a family of four, you need lots of food, so I had to enlarge the refrigerator to a 75L with 2 compartments, and bring two coolers, which caused some adjustments to the drawer system I had in the back. I would say the planning took us 6 months.
What advice would you give fellow overlanders specific to the preparation process for a big overlanding trip?
Every plan you make is just the base for the changes. Try to be prepared for the unknown. Big overlanding trips require a lot of equipment, so it is very important to be organized and try to make everything as accessible as possible.
Going from LA to Alaska you must have encountered a variety of weather during the trip. How did you plan/pack for this? How did you manage it throughout the trip?
Not just the changes between southern California and northern Alaska, but also inside Alaska itself. Even on the same day, the weather can change a lot. First, you need to dress up in layers. Having a good quality warm jacket like down helps a lot because first, it’s lightweight, second, it packs small, and third, it is breathable so you can wear it in different weather conditions. A rain jacket is a must. We packed clothes for a week and looked for public laundry on the road. Everything was packed in separate clothing bags (a different color for each person). PJs, underwear, and socks together, pants and shirts in separate bags.
What did meals look like? Any favorite meals?
In the morning we usually had some eggs, pancakes, cereal, salad, or fruit. For lunch, we packed sandwiches and some snacks. During the day we hiked or went sightseeing, so there was not much time for a proper meal. Most of the time for dinner, we would turn on the grill and have steaks, chicken, or burgers. If we got lucky and caught salmon, we would have fish on the grill. One time in Juneau we arrived by coincidence at a Salmon Bake, We didn't know what it was but it looked good so we stepped in, apparently, it was for tourists that arrived with a big cruise ship, but the lady at the entrance was so shocked we drove all the way from LA, she let us in. The kids loved it. It's an all-you-can-eat grilled salmon with traditional Alaskan sides. Since then, every time we saw one we stepped in.
What were the biggest highlights from the trip? The most memorable moments?
We were chasing the Aurora (Northern Lights) for several weeks without success. On our way back we stopped in Wrangell - St. Elias NP, which is located in the south of mainland Alaska, and saw on the Aurora Forecast app that there was a good chance to see it. I asked one of the rangers where the best place to see it in the park was, and she told me it would be a better chance to see it in Tok (a city in central Alaska, 80 miles north). Immediately we packed everything and started driving. We passed Tok on the 5 HWY toward the Canadian border. I looked for the highest mountain peak facing north on the topo map, and there was a very clear sky, which was a good sign. We found a dirt road to the west in very poor condition and we drove approximately 50 miles on it, then another 20 miles, making ourselves a path with a machete until we arrived at the top of the mountain around 11 PM. We set up a camp, turned on the grill, and waited.
So were you successful?
Something important to know about the Aurora is that a camera with a low light setting can see the green color long before the human eye can. My wife told me she thought she saw it, but I thought it was a cloud. I took a picture and there it was — a thin green line. After a few mins, it arrived in full power for 20 plus mins and it was absolutely amazing. I’m sure that a big part of the unforgettable experience was the adventure that took us to the place, but it was something that the kids will never forget. After that, we saw it every night for a week on the Alaskan Freeway in Canada, but still, it was amazing.
What were the biggest obstacles during the trip?
I upgraded the wheels to be able to carry the extra weight of the car as one of the first upgrades I did on the build. Right after we crossed the border to Canada on week 2 I noticed that I was losing air from one of the tires. I thought it was flat. I filled up the tire with the onboard compressor, and after a couple of days, it happened again. I stopped in a tire shop and they tested the tire and everything looked good, but then it happened again. Then we got the whole wheel into a tub to find that the leak was from a tiny fracture in the wheel and not the tire. I contacted the manufacturer to claim the warranty, but of course, they didn’t ship to Canada, so I had to find a dealer in Alaska where they could ship it in two weeks.
What did you end up doing?
I found a very nice guy in Anchorage, Alaska, Tire & Rim that agreed to accept it until I could arrive there. On the way there, I had to fill up the air twice a day. Luckily I have the compressor. By the time we got there, it happened on another wheel, so then I got a new wheel and had to find a replacement for a second one. I got a Tundra rim with new tires that are the same overall size as my Land Cruiser 285 70/R17. The third one broke right after we passed Yellowstone NP on the way back. After we arrived in LA the manufacturer replaced all the 5 wheels with new ones without any charge, so in the end, I’m happy with their service.
What gear was absolutely essential? Did you pack anything that you later realized was unnecessary or overkill?
The gear I used the most was an onboard twin compressor by ARB. I had lots of issues with my wheels. Also for emergencies, especially with the kids, I have a satellite communication device by Garmin inReach Explorer+, which I also use for navigation. I have a water filtration system to fill up the water tank, and for daily use, Clearsource Ultra, which is overkill but better safe than sorry.
How does the COMBAR make a difference in your overlanding adventures?
As part of my recovery gear, I always had a full-size shovel and an ax, but I was too lazy to use them all the time. I tried to find excuses not to use them, they were locked in the roof rack and it was a hassle to get them. The COMBAR™ is a tool that combines them all in the right size for most daily tasks. It’s easy to store right in the driver side compartment and it is accessible all the time and very quickly. I carry the PRO version, which has a knife and saw that changed my life. Until I started using it I didn't realize how much it is necessary. On my vehicle, I still have the big shovel and 25” axe, because it can carry them, but on my backpacking trip, it is really a game changer. Real-size tools in a lightweight and reasonable size to carry in your backpack. I don’t know anybody that can carry a working size ax for a multi-day backpacking trip, that really works. The COMBAR™ also has a knife, saw, shovel/pick, and hammer, for those remote camps with rocky ground where it’s almost impossible to stick a stake.
What's your favorite COMBAR feature?
The materials they use to make each part of the tools. You can see and feel that they thought about every detail. It is lightweight without compromising on strength and hardness. I've been using it for a year and the blade is still sharp without any noticeable damage. The fact I can carry five useful tools in one small light package is amazing.
What are your top 3 tips for overlanders? (these could be basic tips, advanced tips, or unexpected ones)
1. Build yourself a good quality emergency kit, including first aid, and upgrade it according to your knowledge. As a side note, take a first responder and CPR class. You never know when you will need that knowledge. Have a tool kit to make basic repairs on the road.
2. Learn your (and your passengers’) daily capability for the length of the drive and plan the route accordingly. It can make a big difference between a fun drive and a nightmare.
3. Learn the area you are heading to in detail. Whether there are changes, traffic problems, fires that can block the road, or just because you heard from a fellow on the trail about a beautiful place that takes you off your path, when you are familiar with the area it is easier to handle any situation.
So, where are you headed next?
54.8019 S, 683030 W (Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego Argentina)
There will be more overlanding to come. If you want to follow along with Tomer’s and his family’s adventures, be sure to follow on Instagram @expedition_family. Have any overlanding tales or tips of your own? Leave a comment below, or join the ACLIM8 overlanding family on our Facebook and Instagram.
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