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Elephant at Camp, Namibia

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Old 13 Oct 2016
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OVERLANDING with an AWD Safari van?

Lessons learned along the way

As a well seasoned “Retired Gentleman of Leisure” and part time SNOBIRD, I am preparing to head South for the Winter … AGAIN! Planned destinations for this trip include driving along the US West Coast, through some Southern states, to Mexico, and Belize. MOSTLY I WILL BE ON ROADS, PERHAPS WITH A BIT OF LIGHT OVERLANDING WHERE REQUIRED. A trip further South to investigate Costa Rica is a possibility. The itinerary is NOT set in stone … spontaneity and serendipity are the main guiding navigational principles. “Not all who wander are lost” is my usual philosophy.

For the next few months I will primarily be living out of my CAMPERISED AWD SAFARI Micro Motorhome / van conversion. I expect to spend some days, maybe even weeks, at camp grounds, or renting a house or cottage, at places I like. The GO-Almost-Anywhere AWD Micro Motorhome will serve as “the Mothership” for transport to various exotic locations, where bicycle and backpack can take over for short term local explorations when the motorhome is parked. While I have decades of experience at “Adventure Touring” with a backpack, bicycle or motorcycle, and with some pretty gnarly 4X4 off road dedicated vehicles, the SAFARI AWD Micro Motorhome provides the blend of capacity, reliability, economy, comfort and SECURITY, I now prefer. At my age, sleeping inside a solid structure, warm and dry, on a 4” thick memory foam mattress, suits me better than “roughing it” in a tent ... in the rain … with jungle critters prowling around outside. BTDT enough!

I have been wandering down various versions of “The Road Less Travelled” for over five decades, long before anyone called it “OVERLANDING”. To me, these days, the term “overlanding” can refer to a short/weekend trip off road to some remote site, to extended week or month long trips away from “civilization”, to serious expedition/exploring through harsh environments, all the way up to a “Round the World Journey of a Lifetime”. All of these are equally as true to the definition, but to me it is still just “wandering”. And the journey itself is the point of the exercise … not necessarily arriving at some specific destination. Although reaching some destinations … warm sunny places especially … can be more fun than others.

I started out as a teenager with my first four wheeled vehicle, an inexpensive beat up VW bug. This was during the 60’s, the VW/Dune buggy crazy years, and even way up North in Saskatchewan, we got the message. That old VW was soon modified by DIY cosmetic surgery, into a very capable BAJA BUG. And the travelling on and off road was GREAT!! Then I found a fiberglass Dune Buggy body, and that ol’ VW was once again modified into a sleek, light, even more off road capable, “Meyer’s Manx Duner”. And it floated quite nicely as well! My very own amphibious ATV.

I found a cheap VW van with a fresh rebuilt motor in it, and was planning to pull the motor and the portal spur reduction geared transmission for the dune buggy, BUT, before I got around to doing that simple swap, I took that VW van up a few hills that were real challenges for the dune buggy. And that VW van, loaded with a foam mattress, camping gear, a 24 pack of , and a saucy young lady, idled nicely up those steep hills with no fuss or hassle.

I have been a van guy ever since.

I’ve made a side few trips to experiment with other more capable/off road specific vehicles … four wheel, and two wheel. Aside from several “Adventure Touring” motorcycles, as in over 60 motorcycles to date, there have been a few more serious, dedicated off road 4X4 rigs, like my Suzuki Samurai, International Scout, Chevy Blazer, Diesel TOY Land Crusher, Diesel Suburban, and a few ¾ ton pick me ups. But eventually, I always seem to come back to the vans, because they provide the balanced compromise between adequate off road capabilities, great road manners, massive amounts of SECURE storage for myself and my other wilderness toys and equipment, and a comfortable and convenient place to sleep, cook and live in for short trips or even for extended tours.

Some of the vans I have overlanded with include the inevitable VW vans. I had about a dozen of these that I camperised, used for a while, and resold for profit.. And, I discovered that just like the VW dune buggies, a VW van WILL FLOAT. An amphibious ATV … with a bed and a stove and, lots of storage space. Then I had a few of the fantastic TOYOTA LE vans, with true 4X4 drive trains. These were available from 1986 till 1989 in 4x4 versions, with an automatic or 5 speed standard, and the 5 speeds had a 2 speed transfer case. When properly modified, these 4X4 TOY VANS were capable of going almost anywhere off road a sane person might want to go, and still do 100 MPH on the hiway …while getting around 30 MPG. And guess what … I discovered that a TOY VAN will also float … for a while any how.

Then there were the incredibly tiny Japanese KEI vans, an AWD Subaru Sambar, and a Daihatsu Hijet. The HiJet was a true 4X4, equipped with a 2 spd transfer case. These are fantastic little rigs, but like the old VW vans they are limited in top speed to about 100 kph. And they are TINY … just about the right size for two friendly people to snuggle up in for a weekend or two, while still carrying some light backpacking or camping gear … and not much else.

I also had a few of the Mazda MPV vans, which are available as 4WD. With a locking differential between the front and rear axles, these vans do indeed provide decent rough road performance. But like the VWs, TOY vans, and KEI vans, while I found the MPV vans great for short trips and light overlanding, they were too small for me on extended long term camping trips.

I also experimented with a couple of full sized 4X4 conversion vans. I had an EX- BC Forests Products, 4X4 Dodge Maxi Van, built specifically as an ambulance for rough logging roads. This unit came with a 318 motor, 2 speed transfer case, raised roof, interior cabinets, SOLID front axle with COIL springs … and it needed about 8” of lift for the solid front axle to clear the oil pan. It handled much better than similar full sized 4X4 van conversions I drove that had LEAF springs in the front This rig was a great logging road explorer, but just too big and too heavy and too high for serious off road use in tight terrain. And at 12 MPG on a good day, too expensive and too awkward for an around town daily driver.

Next up was a PATHFINDER 4X4 conversion of a FORD E-350 12 passenger van, with the Twin Beam/scissors independent front suspension. This IFS rig was even better handling on road, and at speed on rough logging roads. The independent front suspension required no lift, and the supple coil springs and extra long wheel base soaked up the bumps. I drove that rig for several years until the back of the body rusted out. Then I converted it into a 4X4 Mini Motorhome., with a big box cabover style camper. But this rig was once again too big, too heavy, and too high for the type of overlanding I wanted to do. And again, too bulky for daily driving round civilization. And with a 460 gas engine, just too expensive to run around in as a daily driver.

So, after all that, I eventually found the AWD Astro/Safari [ A/S ] vans. So far, with three previous A/S vans that I camperised and used for weekender/ short trip, Gulf Island exploring, these have been the ideal compromise between size, capacity, off road ability, and economy. When I speak of “economy”, I don’t just mean the 20-24 mpg gas mileage and generally low operating costs. All four of my A/S vans, one 2WD, and 3 AWD models, cost me between $ 850 and $ 1200 initial purchase price. With these vans, you definitely can get a LOT of practical hauling and decent overlanding ability for the price. The A/S vans are a mature system, with economical parts supply available almost anywhere. There are all sorts of technical support available on the internet forums, with good advice on how to modify these vans into even better off road/overlanding capable rigs.

After over five decades of experience with dozens of different rigs, modifying them into what I consider better OVERLANDING vehicles, I have discovered a simple truth. For these types of projects, there is a “sweet spot” … aka the 80/20 rule … aka “the point of DIMINISHING RETURNS”. Simply put, you can get 80 % of the performance for the RIGHT 20% of time, money, and effort invested. Unless you are a dedicated off road racer, or you are planning for a genuine expedition exploring the wildest wilderness, where the costs can go up EXPONENTIALLY, that 80% may be all you realistically require… IF you go slow!

IF you are willing to slow down, to really experience and enjoy your journeys, most of the vehicles that I mentioned above, properly modified, will do most overlanding quite well. In reality, unless you truly are exploring the wildest parts of the world, most so called “Overlanding” WILL involve improved roads of some type. My best guesstimate is that 80% … or maybe in an extreme 60 % … of long distance/extended duration overlanding, will be on some sort of road. That good ol’ 80/20 rule again. So, for most of us, a mildly modified rig, if PROPERLY done, will be more than adequate.

So what do I mean by “PROPERLY MODIFIED”?

When it comes to the Astro/Safari vans, I can give some specific advice on what I have found to work well. I am not a trained professional mechanic, nor am I any sort of expert, and any advice given here, like most internet advice, may be invaluable, and/or, worth less than you pay for it. It is your job as the reader to decide which advice is worthwhile and personally relevent to your requirements, and what is not useful for you.
As we say,
YPMMV [ Your Personal Mileage May Vary ] (;-{)


WHICH ASTRO/SAFARI Van to start with?

The Astro/Safari vans have a well earned reputation as durable, reliable, economical, and mostly trouble free cargo and people haulers. They are quite popular as fleet vehicles because of these characteristics. However, there are some well known common weak spots in these vans, most of which can be repaired or upgraded fairly simply and cost effectively.

There are three “generations” of the A/S vans, PRE-1996, 1996 – 2003, and 2003 -2005. There was a significant change in the AWD system in 1999, from a mechanical, silicone based “slushy” drive, to an electronically controlled power on/power off type. Given the low initial purchase price for these vans, there is no real practical reasons for selecting the older. Less sophisticated first generation over the later models. The 1996 and later models had some significant upgrades. Notably, the inclusion of an OBD 2 port, which allows code readers to display specific trouble shooting information. Also the layout and controls for the instrument panel and dash were vastly improved. The significant 1999 change included the previously mentioned ELECTRONIC AWD, which can be turned off by simply removing one fuse, converting the AWD into a 2WD. Not much practical use for this feature, but it is there. The 2003 to 2005 models had improved brakes and 16” wheels with SIX studs. The rear brakes were upgraded to discs.

Besides these model year changes, there are many different trim and accessory packages available, which can make a significant difference in the suitability of a particular A/S van for upgrading into an OVERLAND capable unit. First, and most important, is the AWD. AWD adds a significant amount of weight, and extra complexity and maintenance costs, but for going into rough places, it is almost always a great investment. There are some who prefer the 2wd A/S vans for their off road/overlanding builds, but these are specialists, who custom build in much greater suspension travel, and more ground clearance, which allows higher speeds in poor terrain.

Like the sign on the shop wall says,


In most cases, the 80/20 rule still applies here. Simply slowing down and driving cautiously will potentially save you EXPONENTIAL costs in customization and repairs. And in most cases, a lightly modified AWD A/S van will give you the capabilities you actually will need and use … at much less cost.

While the single speed transfer cases used in the A/S vans are not perfect, they are a great improvement on 2 WD whenever traction is poor. Both of the A/S van AWD systems provide much better traction in loose terrain, and in some situations, the “ON DEMAND” AWD will actually outperform true 4WD. For an overlanding rig as big and heavy as a van, getting into seriously GNARLY tight, ugly, off road conditions, at high speeds, is not what they were designed for. So careful driving, cautious route selection, and GOING SLOW are well advised. Given these constraints, a single speed transfer case and on demand AWD will take you most places you NEED to go.

However, for those with more boldness, with more $$$ to spend, there are some TWO SPEED TRANSFER CASE swaps available. These replace the later single speed electronic transfer cases with a two speed version from another GMC/Chev donor vehicle. The simplest such swap is basically a bolt in project, with some electronics and wiring involved.

The stock suspension on the A/S vans comes in a wide range of spring rates. Most of these vans, especially high mileage units, will have beat down, sagging, possibly worn out or broken rear springs and/or torsion bars. This is one area where some upgrading can be very beneficial, so for any overland or off road A/S van, budget some $$$ for replacement HD shocks and springs. This is where an investment can really pay off in increased rough handling performance, comfort, and SAFETY.

The basic GVW of these vans is about 6000 lbs, with each side rear LEAF spring pack rated at about 1400 lbs. Some cargo versions came with upgraded heavy duty rear springs, rated at 1700 lbs. Also, IF PLANNING ON TOWING A TRAILER, consider the OVER ALL WEIGHT CAPACITY. There were various “trailer towing packages” available as factory installed options on these vans. Some of these packages are quite comprehensive, including transmission cooler, receiver hitch, heavier springs, shocks and tires, and perhaps more. If in good condition, such HD packages can add considerable value to the basic van purchase price. But remember, a 5000 lb rated hitch can add 500 lbs equivalent load on the rear springs, and this weight is as far back as you can get, exerting even greater leverage. So heavier rear springs, not necessarily with more arch or height, may often be the first place to start any overlanding modifications.

The INDEPENDENT front suspension on the AWD A/S vans is on torsion bars. If prepping an A/S van for serious use, replacing the torsion bars with new parts can be beneficial. Otherwise, most builders simply crank up on the torsion bar adjustments to get the ground clearance and handling and level they like. Once again, remember the 80.20 rule here. Front axles and steering parts work best and last longest with the axles close to horizontal. While extra clearance can be dialled in with aftermarket adjusters, going too high here can definitely result in EXPONENTIAL wear, with much more expensive parts replacement.

Interior options are mostly regarding style, but many options can add significantly to long term COMFORT. A tilt wheel, cruise control, and the deluxe seats with arm rests and adjustable lumbar support, are good things to have on any long trip, or any van used often. Rear A/C and rear Heater are available, but consider how these bulky, heavy units might interfere or co-ordinate with you camperising plans.

Factory exterior trim packages, including running boards, are more of a nuisance in overlanding or off roading, where brush and other impediments tend to rip such protrusions off. Power windows, power door locks, and power mirrors, are debatable options, with convenience being balanced off against more weight, more complications, and more things to break or fail. The “DUTCH” style rear doors, while very stylish and convenient, are not as leak proof or durable long term in rough conditions. The rule for overlanding and off roading with any equipment, is K.I.S.S [ Keep It Simple Stupid!]. aka, “Parts left out cost nothing and rarely break.”
The ultimate choice for an AWD A/S van to start an overlanding build, is probably the lowest mileage vehicle you can find. Mileage, condition, and maintenance history are more critical than precise year or options. Having the van run through a pre-purchase mechanical inspection by a reputable and knowledgeable mechanic, is always a good idea before investing $$$ and time into a build. However, as a generalisation, the 2003 – 2005 A/S vans have significant features that may make a difference. These vans came with 16” rims and tires, SIX lug rims, and stronger DISC brakes at the front and also new discs at the rear. It is more likely that there may be some heavier suspension components as well. And of course, the newest units are most likely to have the least wear and tear, with the best looking interior and exterior.

Tires and wheels

Keeping the 80/20 rule in mind, most A/S vans prepped for overlanding will not require immensely huge tires. Larger tires require more clearance, stiffer more expensive shocks and springs, and involve more front end wear. They also reduce power and gas mileage significantly. Going past a moderate tire size upgrade will increase these factors EXPONENTIALLY. And such extremes are rarely required … if you go SLOW!

However, consider that rough roads, camping gear, and other recreational equipment can quickly load up on the weight. All that immense internal space in the van can be filled up with more than the stock sized tires can handle. These vans weigh in at about 4200 lbs empty, and may have a GVW max of 6200 lbs. The stock rear springs are rated for about 2800 lbs, and in general most of the load will be carried by the rear axle. So a stiffer, heavier, sturdier tire, with more load capacity, is highly recommended, especially for the rear. Just do not go TOO TALL!

If the van has 15” rims, consider upgrading to 16” rims, which will allow a much wider selection of durable, heavier duty, more aggressive tires. The selection of suitable 15” tires for these vans should be restricted to only the LIGHT TRUCK rated types. The LT tires can be inflated to higher pressures, up to 50 PSI, which can handle weight and rough roads better. The ideal size for a 15” tire on these vans is LT 235/75/R15.

Two of the top 15” LT rated tires for these vans would be the BFG Mud Terrain K2, and the Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs. The BFGs are more aggressive, have great dirt performance, are louder on road, and have poorer performance on ice. They would be ideal for a rig that was used more extensively off road. … but not ideal for Winter. The Duratracs are slightly less aggressive, quieter, and rated better for ice. I chose the Duratracs, partially because they were on sale when I bought them, but also because my tire shop guys had them on their 4X4 rigs, and recommended them highly. I run my tires at max pressure, 50 PSI, and they are rated for 2000 lbs per tire at that pressure. They have been great on my very heavy Safari Micro Motorhome, which weighs in EMPTY at 6000 lbs, and loaded at about 6500 lbs, with 3500 lbs of that weight over the rear tires.

I am running these tires on aftermarket ALLOY rims, which are lighter and stronger than the stock steel wheels. While there are several different alloy rim options originally offered with these vans, most of them are designed for appearance rather than toughness. Pre-2003 A/S vans came with FIVE BOLT 15” rims, but these are readily available in five bolt 16” sizes. If swapping over to aftermarket alloy rims, seriously consider going to the 16” size, but try to keep width and backspacing close to stock.

The 2003 to 2005 A/S vans came with SIX BOLT 16” rims, and incidentally, upgraded the rear brakes to DISC types. In 16” tire sizes, again stay away from too tall. The 235/75/16” tire size is plenty big for most use, and with even with these, some lift/fender clearance modifications may be required with some vans. With the 16” size, tire selection is much much greater, so make your choice based on cost vs value, and what your local tire guy supports.


While some 2WD A/S vans have been set up with immense amounts of lift, designed to go fast in the rough [ pre-runners ] the majority of overlanding type A/S vans will have AWD. The front suspension on the AWD A/S vans uses TORSION BARS. These bars are easily adjustable for a slight increase in ground clearance. There are also aftermarket add in adjusting tabs which will provide more angular rotation, and more lift. However, the handling on and off road will be best with the weight as low as possible. PLUS, the axle/CV / bearing / front end component wear, will be minimised with the axles as close to horizontal as possible.

My AWD Micro motorhome conversion has 3000 lbs on the front end, including a massive custom front bumper and grill guard. The motorhome body is quite a bit taller and heavier than a stock van body. I kept the weight as low as possible, without using torsion bar adjustment for lift. I have the front axles set at horizontal. Handling is excellent on the hiway … much better than my previous commercially built 21’ FORD 2WD motorhome. Hitting the bumps is manageable … lots of play in the front suspension to flex full range up and down.

Adequate front tire clearance is achieved by using two simple, inexpensive methods.

First, I added 2” of body lift using inexpensive frame to sub-frame spacers, and longer tougher bolts. This process is well documented, well proven, and pretty easy, with almost no negative issues. I also upgraded to URETHANE body mount bushings at this time, for a tougher, more rigid connection here. However, if you use larger than 2” body lift blocks, these lifts can get more complicated, and more expensive quite quickly. The 2” body lift is the “sweet spot” for these vans.

I also increased tire clearance by re-radiusing the front wheel wells, adding another 1 ½” here. Chopping [ or in my case throwing away ] the front bumper gets rid of most of the rubbing at the front wheels. Drilling a series of holes 1.5” outside the stock wheel well opening, cutting the holes into slots creating a series of tabs, and folding in the tabs, creates the extra clearance here. A bit of time with a hammer, and some pop rivets, with the addition of a plastic lawn edge molding as trim, results in a very neat and professional modification. I filled in the front fenders with expanding insulating window/builders foam, which increased rigidity here, and minimised rust traps. Very low cost, and the benefits are immediately apparent. My big tires have never rubbed anywhere, even with all that weight up front, and some good bounces. But as I said, I GO SLOW in the rough stuff.

At the back, EXTREME duty aftermarket rear springs are also available with a 2000 lb rating. Carefully consider the need for such XD springs. Keep in mind that 15” LT tires are rated for a maximum of 2000 lbs each, so 4000 lbs over the rear axle will be close to the absolute maximum these rigs should be carrying, FOR BOTH TIRES AND SPRINGS. My 1999 AWD Safari van, with a massive Mini Motorhome type body on the back, fully loaded with EVERYTHING I own, weighs in at 3500 lbs on the rear axle. Other specialised vans, set up for specific recreational activities, such as dirt bike hauling or geology [ rocks are HEAVY ] may actually require the XD rated rear springs, but such units will definitely ride harsher when empty.

Where I spent money on my suspension was for the best shocks I could find, and heavier rated [ plus 700 lbs ] rear leaf springs. The shocks, front and rear, are the Bilstein brand, and they are highly recommended. Because I stayed with stock torsion bar angles, and similar height [ but heavier ] rear springs, no complicated or expensive longer shocks or re-located shock mounts were required. The rear springs are the stock three leaf, re-Arced to original height, with an additional leaf inserted. The extra two leafs add about 700 more lbs of carrying capacity. Just about right on my 3500 lb rear axle loading. And … surprise, surprise …my massive overweight van rides level, and rides comfortably. That good ol’ 80/20 rule again. You could go with more lift, more shocks, and wayyy more $$$$, but so far my 6500 lb rig is bouncing along just fine, on the highway, and also on a test run of about 100 kms of harsh washboard. Harsh enough that I broke loose the heat shield over the muffler … which sounded much more serious and expensive than it was. I also spent a few extra dollars on replacement Urethane bump stops at the rear.


My 1999 Safari AWD van was in relatively decent over all condition, but this van had been used occasionally for launching a boat into salt water. Aside from the usual regular replacement parts like front rotors, pads, rear drums, and shoes, there were problems with corroded ABS sensors, and a sticky proportioning valve, and most of the brake lines were corroded, brittle, possibly overdue for catastrophic failure. In addition, both front wheel bearings [ with the embedded ABS sensors ] were worn out. It ended up costing me $2500 to get the brakes and front wheel bearings replaced. Much of this cost was due to paying a professional mechanic to replace the corroded brake lines, one line at a time.

The front brakes on any vehicle usually end up doing the majority of the braking. The original equipment front rotors on my 1999 Safari van were made as “composites”, with thin sheet metal mounting brackets embedded into cast steel housings. These thin mounting brackets can flex, which can lead to wobbly or warped rotors. Replacement rotors come in many different qualities, at many different prices. Since my Mini Motorhome conversion is much heavier than most A/S vans, I wanted quality rotors and pads. I ended up replacing those wobbly, warped OEM rotors with some that were PREMIUM QUALITY, CAST ONE PIECE, coated for rust prevention, with channel grooves. These were the ATE brand, on sale at 50% off. IMHO, this is one place where quality should over rule economy, and I “economised” sensibly, by buying premium rotors at sale prices. I consider that money well spent.

The down side to using cast one piece rotors, is that they have a thicker mounting surfaces than the thin sheet metal composite type. This means the lug bolt studs will not protrude through quite as far as before the thicker rotors are mounted. IF you combine this with thicker alloy rims, the lug bolts may be too short for complete wheel nut engagement. Theoretically, the strength of a nut and bolt connection is near maximum when the length of the thread engagement is equal to the diameter of the bolt. The wheel nuts have about ¾” of internal threading, and about ¼” is left exposed. The diameter of the lug bolts is about ½”. So in theory, these connections are just about as strong as they can get. But it is disconcerting to see the exposed threads. LONGER LUG BOLTS ARE AVAILABLE, and these may be used as replacements. Tapping the shorter bolts out while the hubs are mounted is possible, but installing longer lug bolts as part of the wheel bearing/ hub replacement procedure before mounting the hubs, is probably easier.

NOTE: the 2003 – 2005 wheels are 16”, and the wheels, hubs, and rotors are SIX bolt. The front calipers have been upgraded with TWO pistons instead of just one. The rear brakes are fitted with proprietary rear rotors now instead of drums, with only a small internal drum for the parking brake. These newer brake parts are a significant improvement over the older 15”/five bolt/ single piston at the front, drum brakes at the rear brakes. This one feature alone makes the 2003 – 05 A/S vans a better choice for heavier duty overlanding type builds.

While brake pads can vary tremendously on quality, price, materials used, and expected life span, this is again another place where quality rules over economy. I spent extra for WAGNER, made in USA, EXTREME DUTY pads. These higher quality components should pay for themselves in the long run with longer life, and possibly in the short term, by accidents avoided.

The back drums and shoes were also replaced with brand new parts, but I got medium quality, OEM equivalent



Transfer Case

Drive Train … Axles, CV & U Joints, Differentials



Protection … Bumpers, Skid Plates, Rock Guards, etc

Last edited by LAZ 1; 15 Oct 2016 at 00:25. Reason: addition
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Membership - help keep us going!

Horizons Unlimited is not a big multi-national company, just two people who love motorcycle travel and have grown what started as a hobby in 1997 into a full time job (usually 8-10 hours per day and 7 days a week) and a labour of love. To keep it going and a roof over our heads, we run events all over the world with the help of volunteers; we sell inspirational and informative DVDs; we have a few selected advertisers; and we make a small amount from memberships.

You don't have to be a Member to come to an HU meeting, access the website, or ask questions on the HUBB. What you get for your membership contribution is our sincere gratitude, good karma and knowing that you're helping to keep the motorcycle travel dream alive. Contributing Members and Gold Members do get additional features on the HUBB. Here's a list of all the Member benefits on the HUBB.

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