We’ve been relying on Blue Ridge Overland Gear products in our vehicles for years now and each product is made in the USA and backed by a lifetime warranty.
Warning: Consumers who are better at coming up with reasons to buy mass produced, overseas-made knock-off’s than supporting quality, domestically made gear, need read no further.
When you grow up in Appalachia, one of the lessons you learn is that some people are Ok with trashy. And some aren’t. Some people make excuses for poor quality. Some people don’t. The overland/off-road/4×4 marketplace is no different. It is very much a free market. And so brands emerge to meet the standards of all manner of enthusiasts.
Lead photo by McAllister Imaging
Many of those companies have a cool logo (available as stickers and patches, of course), and possibly a profitable business model. But a contract with a factory in Shanghai or Guangzhou that’ll replicate others’ designs – from an Autohome rooftop tent to Treds traction boards – does not mean a brand has a personality (even after slapping on that cool logo). Why? Because they’re missing a fundamental ingredient: a soul.
Make that two things. The other is a story worth telling. And because I’m a fan of a good story, and not a fan of shining the spotlight on knock-off artists, this article is about a good ole Appalachian success story.
Southwestern Virginia (not to be confused with southern West-by-God-Virginia, my native state) is home to bluegrass music, fine-crafted wooden furniture, NASCAR and the Virginia Tech Hokies (as well as some other schools, I’m told). I studied there, saw our first kids born overlooking the New River*, and experienced the craftsmanship and down home friendliness so common throughout this region.
While known for both moonshine and Mr. Jefferson, one thing that many don’t associate with the Blue Ridge Mountains is overlanding. Call me blind, but I, too, don’t see its likeness with the Serengeti, the Silk Road or the much-photographed American Southwest. In truth, the Appalachian Mountains, run from North Carolina up until New Yorkers start calling them the Catskills, and hold a vast array of natural treasures. The region has also produced one of the up-and-coming outfitters for those who pursue adventure with their trucks.
Table of contents
Blue Ridge Overland Gear (BROG) is, despite the seeming disconnect between Virginia and overlanding, unabashedly proud of its location. And of its mission to help others – wherever they’re based – get out and explore. I learned of its gear before I knew its story, seeing it time and again on rigs at Overland Expo. Matt Akenhead, founder/owner/historian of BROG, was kind enough to help me dig deeper into what makes the company and its of gear different.
As a product design professor, I study the outdoor market to find unique products and companies, testing their gear and sharing what I learn through classes and articles. Call me a Luddite, a patriot or whatever, but hand-crafted, Made in the USA products always make me stop and take notice. In today’s economy, that approach is too challenging to work unless the brand is doing something right.
Blue Ridge Overland Gear officially launched in 2012, an outgrowth of Matt’s product development work in canine gear, coupled with his involvement in the defense industry. In reality, the seed for company first emerged in the (previous) Great Recession. Finding a gap in available off-road gear for interiors, Matt began making his own. He had previously learned sewing from an Amish tack maker in Ohio, and soon was huddled over an industrial walking foot sewing machine and a bar tacker in a makeshift shed.
The classic business evolution ensued: friends began seeing and wanting his creations, and before long an idea began to take shape. From working in that original “thread shed”, which provided not much more than a roof and walls, BROG grew to 17 full-time employees and, as of May 2020, has expanded into a new 7,000-square-foot space in historic Bedford, VA.
The Essence of BROG Products
Blue Ridge Overland Gear’s evolution, while easy to quantify in growth (e.g., doubling both April and May numbers from a year ago, despite the pandemic), is more interesting than spreadsheets alone can show. Somewhat like the quiet character of Appalachia, you need to probe and prod to get more out of Matt, and thus to grasp his company’s vibe.
From the outset, Matt focused on tough, sewn products to help organize and tame the mounds of gear that otherwise end up in a mish-mash of Action Packers, milk crates and duffle bags. Using ubiquitous MOLLE systems from his military days, the resulting core products were simple, modular, customizable, and secure. Velcro-attachment (of labels and pouches) was another central design strategy for his everything-in-its-proper-place philosophy.
Typically, a rising company like Blue Ridge Overland Gear begins to show its real ethos when name recognition (and subsequent sales volume) kicks production and hiring into high gear. This is where BROG again breaks the mold. The company stayed entirely based in small town Virginia, shunning Asian cut-and-sew mills, but it also began branching out. BROG’s web presence gives a glimpse of this decision, showing its commitment to customer learning. The BROG team “punches above its weight class” when it comes to producing quality, meaningful content related to both entertaining social media and how-to videos.
To hear more about Blue Ridge Overland Gear roots, see this profile of founder Matt Akenhead.
By percentage, fully 20% of Blue Ridge Overland Gear employees are focused on creating this information for those in the overland community. That’s impressive. With a light-hearted, decidedly Blue Ridge shtick, their team creates a steady stream of information (mostly video-based) on topics from using gear, to cooking, to exploring. Why invest in time-consuming content like that, I had to ask? Matt’s response, and its underlying point, reflects his usual cut-to-the-chase business ethos: “will this benefit the customer and benefit us?”
Here’s another bold stance that’s true to form for BROG: ‘If you’re not our people we don’t need you.’ In other words, do your adventures, and your shopping, the way you want. Blue Ridge Overland Gear is about rugged gear, targeting people who value having their lives/$&@# together more than trying to save a few bucks. This is one area where the company’s defense/military roots reveal themselves with simple values: utility (e.g., modularity; fitting multiple platforms), durability, sustainable function, and efficiency (think getting you gone on Friday evening).
To be clear, Blue Ridge Overland Gear is not a tactical-just-for-show brand. Despite an abiding link to firearms (Matt shot competitively for Ohio State; his daughter is nationally ranked with .22, and the Mt. Rogers Backpack was first created as her range bag), as well as military contracting roots, the brand strives to be the ‘quiet professionals’ of off-roading. I appreciate that. Because any company can spec olive drab or OD Cordura. But do they bar tack seams when it’s critical, or simply back stitch a seam because the consumer won’t know the difference in tensile strength? Think of this distinction as “tactical quality” gear vs. tactical looking. Does BROG offer any tactical gear? Yes! See their “Tactical Beard Tamer” bag. Did I mention Appalachian humor?
Securing Exterior Gear
A handful of Blue Ridge Overland Gear products have been on/in our 4x4s since 2017. Each is unique, and bent towards augmenting the function of an existing structure (e.g., seat back, spare tire, sun visor) and/or compartmentalizing a necessary but cumbersome piece of kit. Some of the brand’s products are even made for other 4×4 brands (e.g., TemboTusk, Deadman Offroad). Mind you, these are not flashy items. They don’t scream “overlanding.” Rather, like the light-hearted videos and product descriptions produced by the BROG’ers, they don’t take themselves too seriously (look elsewhere if you want grim, muscular models posing with black rifles), but take product quality very seriously.
In fact, most Blue Ridge Overland Gear products are easily overlooked unless someone happens by when you are un/packing. Its products tackle simple, unsung jobs, but those are the jobs that prevent your outfit from going FUBAR. On the exterior, BROG is about securing unwieldy, often messy items. One of the most useful is BROG’s MaxTrax Transport Bag. It works alone or in conjunction with its Tire Storage Bags (regular or XL). Both can be kept outside of your vehicle, as they are intended to mount on a spare tire. These and numerous other BROG products are constructed with 14oz vinyl-coated polyester truck tarp.
In the case of the Transport Bag, which will hold other brands of traction boards as well (though not always holding 4, as it will with MaxTrax), the design is simple and effective. Its opening allows easy insertion or removal of boards. Alternately, it will fit a shovel along with a pair of traction boards (handle down, to avoid blade abrasion). In terms of durability, the Utah sun and snow have been beating on our bag for over two years. The only impacts on it or its straps have been modest fading of seam tape and exposed webbing. Other than that, the tarp material remains supple, and even the leather BROG tag hasn’t become stiff. This durability is essential for a product that’s intended to be in the elements 24/7.
Whether holding rough-edged tools or trash, these types of bags need to handle abrasion, shed moisture, sand and mud, and handle constant wind buffeting. Vinyl-coated tarp materials are perfect for this task. Other materials, less so. For instance, I’ve mounted and seen fail three successive “spare tire trash bags” from a popular brand. Each replacement bag – all of which were covered on warranty – has had its materials degrade, first becoming faded and brittle, and then easily tearing (main body canvas) or disintegrating altogether (webbing). These failures took as little three years to occur.
The XL Tire Storage Bag is, as its clever name implies, a big black hole into which nasty, bulky or last minute gear can be dumped, attaching it to a rear-mounted spare. Like other Blue Ridge Overland Gear products, the Bag is short on bells-n-whistles, but built to perform. Like the Transport Bag, it features a daisy chain structure of 1” webbing bar-tacked atop 2” webbing on both the bag itself (front and rear) and on the included twin mounting straps. The resulting system allows a variety of secure configurations for attaching the straps to your spare, while full-strength carabiners allow easy removal of the bags.
Blue Ridge Overland Gear’s recommended strapping method is simple, strong and foolproof. At least until we mounted Titan Fuel Tank’s Trail Trekker II. After that we had to reconfigure them, but still ended up with a bomber system that does not budge. Perhaps being a bit too cautious, BROG’s instructional videos don’t suggest mounting the XL-sized bag atop the MaxTrax Transport Bag. I’ve done so with no issues, though it takes a variation on strapping so that the provided carabiners suspend it from webbing straps, and not from the Transport Bag’s daily chained webbing.
Organizing Your Rig’s Interior
The majority of Blue Ridge Overland Gear products are, however, for the interior. As a result, many are overbuilt. I’m OK with that, insofar as they remain pliable and easy to install/reposition. The classic BROG item is the Seat Back (and now Headrest) Panel. As the name implies, the semi-rigid panels attach to front seats to create a vertical platform for attaching (via Velcro and/or MOLLE) smaller items: organizing pouches, fire extinguishers, water bottles, first aid kits, etc. All of these options and more are offered by BROG to outfit the panels, and clear up vehicle clutter. The next on my wish list is their trash bag.
Why else are the Seat Panels functional? The panels and all their attachments easily swap from one vehicle to another. If you switch between rigs, this is a must. Their other boon is avoiding the train wreck of kids’ gear on a trip. As a rear facing product, the various pouches give your smallest adventurers their own compartments for survival gear (e.g., crayons, water bottles, Gameboys…remember those?).
Over time, the panel’s MOLLE system has proven more reliable when the objects being attached, such as a fire extinguisher or tools, have significant mass. They stay reliably in place despite the shocks and vibrations inherent with off pavement travel. The universal MOLLE system also lets you attach gear from other manufacturers. For instance, our MyFAK first aid kit from MyMedic.com connects easily, assuring that it’s both secure and handy. For lighter items, the panel’s Velcro-only attachments have been adequate. They are also helpful when a pouch contains items you may want to quickly remove for use outside the vehicle.
Looking upward, Blue Ridge Overland Gear provides creative, simple solutions for stashing items up near the ceiling. Its line of vehicle Attics are netting platforms that attach to factory structures and components (e.g., passenger handles, JKU roll bars). Those upper spaces in many vehicle cabins go unused. With the Attic in our Land Cruiser, that space has become the go-to location for hats, jackets, helmets and wet PFD’s needing to dry. With a cord-lock/paracord system for helping support heavier loads, BROG Attics are a thoughtful design that “just work”.
Similarly, Blue Ridge Overland Gear produces its own version of the classic sun visor organizer. Velcro-based, and with simple features, their Visor Organizers hold easily misplaced odds-n-ends, and allowing personalizing with patches or attachable accessories (e.g., Velcro-secured pen holder).
Blue Ridge Overland Gear is also a provider of bags that support other brands’ products. Love your Skottle? BROG offers bags for them. Wondered how to organize kitchen kit for your fridge/freezer? The Blue Ridge sewers make organizer bags that easily attach. Partner Steel stove need a stout cover? The Blue Ridge crew sews one to fit using 1000D Cordura and a padded interior. But why so much camp kitchen gear?
Talking with Matt, what he points out is that BROG’s commitment to camp cooking is part of its broader customer philosophy. That same mindset has led the company towards helping outfit enthusiasts with gear that accentuates other brands’ products (e.g., recovery gear, fridges). In the process, Blue Ridge Overland Gear has become a dealer as well for a few reputable brands. Will BROG become a full-service off-road outfitter with time? Perhaps. I think it’s more likely that it will continue to offer selected items for the convenience of customers, while also expanding BROG’s sewn accessories that support basic off-road functions and activities.
In that same vein, Blue Ridge Overland Gear today offers pouches/bags that are modular and made for organizing a variety types of tools. Its Tool Bag (yes, more clever naming) has earned its place as my core, grab-n-go kit, as it swallows an amazing amount of wrenches, screwdrivers, sockets, tape rolls and such. Using a half dozen Velcro-in-place pouches, it’s surprisingly effective at keeping your tools organized. When loaded, the bag routinely has 15-20lb of tools, handling it easily. A version of the same basic bag (sewn in red 500D Cordura, rather than black, tan or grey) serves as BROG’s larger First Aid Bag [Note: actual medical contents not provided].
In the recovery realm, Blue Ridge Overland Gear sews up a slew of bag, pack and strap products. Each fills a niche, and is amply sized. For instance, a 50’ synthetic extension line, 2T Maasdam comealong, and set of soft shackles all fit in the Recovery Strap Bag with room to spare. The company will also outfit the bag with essential recovery gear for customers who want it trail ready, packed full of high-quality gear (e.g., Amsteel Blue synthetic lines, ARB straps, Factor 55 hardware).
Though it may be the smallest portion of the Blue Ridge Overland Gear-made product line, its navigation offerings includes a courier style map case that will swallow several Benchmark atlases, a six-pack of Butler or National Geographic maps, and an iPad Pro, and still have room for Helmick’s San Rafael Swell Off Road trail guide. Mind you, this is a tough, no frills case. Lightly padded and wrapped in a double layer of Cordura and waterproof truck tarp, you won’t find zippered pockets or a water bottle sleeve. But it also doesn’t consume unnessary space like a full-sized laptop case or briefcase.
Our Final Verdict
Buy-once-cry-once applies to Blue Ridge Overland Gear products for two reasons. First, you’re paying for a lifetime warranty, built around mil-spec fabrication and materials (its website is transparent on all those specs), and each item having gone through routine destruction testing. And, second, you pay for pieces of gear that are each handcrafted in a family run business. Whether that matters to a consumer is a personal choice. But it’s an option that’s increasingly rare in an off-road marketplace that’s saturated with replication, particularly in the soft goods sector. Clearly, however, there’s a buyer to fit all manner of brands. But as Matt is happy to point out, BROG is fine with doing things differently. Because, he quickly says, “Our [buyers] get it.”
What’s next for Blue Ridge Overland Gear? Cooking/food support is emerging as the newcomer to the BROG lineup, though its roots go back to Dutch oven bags from years past. Interior solutions also continue to expand, as designs being developed for a range of vehicles. Less driven by pseudo-essentials, and more by fundamental needs, the trend from these Virginians is to stay on the forefront by asking what’s missing in the market. I hope we’ll see them continue that habit. There are already too many brands that think R&D stands for “rip-off and duplication”.
*The oldest river in North America, and one of the few that flows north.
About the Gear Doctor: Dr. Sean Michael has been designing, abusing and testing outdoor gear since the 1980’s, and began reviewing products for Off-road.com in 2000. Today, he is Professor of Outdoor Product Design & Development at Utah State University, a product consultant, and a frequent Instructor at Overland Expo. And a proud Hokie alum. Follow his trips and gear (ab)use @thegeardoctor on Instagram.