The radio in my 1955 Willys M38A1 ex-Army Jeep crackles to life and I hear, “You’re gonna want to be in four-low for this next part of the trail. These rocks can be pretty slippery.”
The voice is Eli, the group leader for a pack of six Jeeps, including mine, traversing a trail called “Stick in the Nose” in northwest Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest. It’s raining lightly, which is typical for this part of the world in early June. “Also, watch for elk and deer,” Eli continues, “they can come out of the brush at any time.”
Honestly, the wildlife is in no danger, as we’re traveling at a 5-mph walking pace on a steep, narrow trail. Eli and the rest of the staff of Jeep Jamboree have been in the woods for most of the past 10 days, clearing the overgrowth on this and about a dozen other trails.
Still, the salmonberry vines and scotch broom grow so quickly this time of year, they’re brushing the sides of our Jeeps like a mile-long toothbrush. If you have your windows down (or no doors at all, as on the antique I was driving) the reason for the trail’s name soon becomes apparent. But don’t take that as a complaint; every person in this group was having a glorious day.
What is Jeep Jamboree?
Jeep Jamboree USA is very likely the oldest Jeep enthusiast organization anywhere. The very first Jamboree was organized by Mark A. Smith in 1953, when he took a small group of Jeepers (as they were known) on the Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
When he organized the second Jeepers Jamboree in 1954, Jeep manufacturer Willys Motors (pronounced “Will-iss” not “Will-eez”) got involved as a sponsor. Both the Jamboree and Jeep corporate affiliation have been going ever since. Willys became Kaiser-Jeep, which became part of AMC, which ultimately became part of Chrysler and is now part of Stellantis.
Smith became known as the “father of modern four-wheeling” and worked closely with Jeep over several decades, helping to develop the brand’s now-legendary off-road capabilities. He designed and built the four-wheel-drive test facility at the Chrysler Proving Grounds.
He did the same for test facilities for law enforcement agencies, tire manufacturers, and the Severe Off-Road Track at Quantico Marine Corps Base, plus over 250 other off-road demonstration and training courses. Further, he was known for his own daring adventures, including a Jeep expedition from Tierra Del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Jeep Jamboree has grown steadily since its founding, and this year offers 41 events from March to November across America. Most Jamboree events fill up quickly, and at press time, only 5 have available spaces. “We have more than 5,000 Jeeps participate in our events every year,” says Jake Horne, director of registration for Jeep Jamboree USA.
The requirements to participate in a Jeep Jamboree are pretty simple. You need a road-legal Jeep with rollover protection and some basic safety and recovery gear like tow points and a GMRS radio for communications. All modern Jeeps have rollover protection from the factory. Any Jeep with a dual-range 4×4 system will qualify, including the new 4xe and the Gladiator pickup. It costs between $350-$500 to register for a given event, but for what you get, it’s a bargain.
When you arrive at the event, the first thing that happens is a technical evaluation. Jeep experts take a look at your rig and ask about your personal experience level. When they determine that you have all the required equipment, they make a determination of the maximum trail rating your Jeep can handle.
Some trails have deep holes or large rocks and jeeps with smaller tires and no aftermarket body lift simply won’t make it. Trails are rated 1-10 with 1 being essentially a flat gravel road and 9-10 being incredibly challenging. To give you an idea, my basically stock 1955 Jeep was rated up to level 7 trails.
Once registered, each driver can choose from about a dozen trail options on each of two days in the woods. Each trail option was rated from 1-2 up to 7-8 on the Tillamook Jamboree. On some trips you camp out along the trail, but for the Tillamook event we returned to town each night to a catered dinner and campfire at the fairgrounds. Some participants camped out, but most took advantage of a hot shower and a bed at nearby motels.
It’s not always like that, though. On some Jamborees, like running the Rubicon Trail, the trip is point-to-point on a single route with increased capability requirements. To run the Rubicon, you need 37-inch to 40-inch tires, front and rear locking differentials, and skid plates over the entire undercarriage. There’s a reason Jeep calls its best off-road package the Rubicon.
The real value of the Jamboree is in the support you receive. Many participants at each Jamboree are first timers with limited off-road experience. Even those with a moderate amount of trail time benefit from the very experienced guides leading the group. Expert off-roaders are available to spot you through the tough spots, and to help recover your vehicle if you run into trouble. That, and simply traveling with a group, gives newer Jeep drivers confidence to tackle some off-road driving that would be foolish to attempt alone.
Full disclosure: I live in Tillamook, Oregon, so this Jamboree was held right in my back yard. I bought my 1955 Jeep a few years ago, and I’ve had it out on some of the less demanding trails before. I’ve also had plenty of curated and well-supported off-road experience on press trips over the years. I prepared my Jeep for the Jamboree by installing the required radio and installing a set of Firestone Destination M/T tires, since my existing tires were old enough to vote.
For the first day of my Jamboree, I chose the Stick in the Nose trail, rated 5-6 and without any obstacles that my stock Jeep couldn’t handle. For the second day I planned to run “Firebreak Five,” a 6-7 trail and an ambitious goal. But Firebreak Five is a “Jeep Badge of Honor” trail and you get a nifty dash plaque for completing it, and I wanted the trophy.
My Jeep was at least 30 years older than any other Jeep on the event, and it performed admirably. The vintage 4WD system and the new Firestone tires scrambled over the rocks and up the hills to the top of the mountain just as well as any of the modern Jeeps. But, part of the experience of old cars (and Jeeps) is that they break down, and that’s what happened to me.
But here again, the value of learning your off-road skills at a Jamboree is that you have support. We towed my ailing Jeep to a main logging road and parked it, while I rode the rest of the day with Eli, our guide. Then I hopped into a truck with Bruce and Jill, our sweep crew, and we went back and put my Jeep on a trailer and brought it back to town. We didn’t even miss dinner.
All Jeep Jamboree events are designed to tread lightly on the trails they use, including provisions to pick up trash that others may have left on the trail, and events stick to legitimate maintained trails created for the purpose of outdoor adventure. So if you’re one of the millions who have purchased a Jeep with dreams of really using the four-wheel drive and off-road tires you paid for, joining a Jeep Jamboree is a great way to get off the beaten path and learn what you can do.
If you want to know more, check out the organization’s website at www.jeepjamboreeusa.com.