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 “The Overland Adventurer Series,” TAP’s monthly feature on individuals who genuinely embody the Overland Life. Today we’re sitting down with Grant Willbanks of ARK YouTube channel notoriety.

Let’s dive right in. 

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Thanks for sitting down with us Grant. Tell us a about yourself and what led you down the overlanding career and enthusiast path you’re on? 

I work full time as the Marketing Director of Backwoods Adventure Mods, and I have a YouTube channel, ARK Offroad that I do on the side for fun. I’ve been married for 7 years and have a 1.5-year-old son named Henry. I’ve been an Arkansas native my whole life and have always loved what the Natural State has to offer as far as the outdoors. Growing up, I’ve always been fascinated with anything that has wheels. I can remember being obsessed with construction equipment and amazed at the machinery in general. As far as my career into overlanding, it’s something that has been somewhat recent, over the last 5 or so years. I am a professional graphic designer and am obsessed with form, function, and detail. Up until overlanding, my main hobbies were playing drums, skateboarding, mountain biking, and camping. While working in the graphic and tech design industry, I was pursued by a local offroad accessory manufacturer called Backwoods Adventure Mods because of my YouTube channel. I was actually very reluctant to switch into this industry and take a job with Backwoods, but after much consideration it made so much sense. I realized I would be able to combine my graphic design/marketing skills with my passion for vehicles and the outdoors. I’m sure I’ll touch more on this later in the interview, but I always want people to know that I consider myself an enthusiast and not an influencer. I’m truly fascinated by this sort of stuff whether I’m successful on social media or not.

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You’ve created quite an exciting and authentic YouTube channel in Arkansas Off-Road. Congrats on just topping 100k subscribers! When did you start ARK and what’s been the driving force behind its success? 

Well, to start off, I’ll say that the whole YouTube thing and even having success on social media at all was a complete accident. It was never something I set out to achieve. Like I said earlier, I consider myself an enthusiast and not an influencer. My goal in making a YouTube channel was never to be successful or make money or be “famous”, and my goal is still the same today. My goal for my YouTube channel was just to capture the memories I made while camping and building offroad vehicles so I would have them one day to reflect on, kind of like a photo album or something, but with video. As far as the driving force behind its success, truthfully, I have no idea. I never researched any special tips or tried to figure out algorithms or anything like that. But I will say the number one thing that people continue to say to me is that they love how real and authentic I am, and I think that’s because I don’t have any pressure to look or act a certain way. I sort of do my own thing and I think people resonate with that because it seems casual, and they feel that they can relate.

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Was ARK an overnight success or did it take time to catch on? Any advice for people thinking about setting up a channel? 

I remember posting my very first video (see below). It was a little solo overnight camping trip with my dog. I remember somehow it got a thousand views or so in a day or two, then five thousand, and then ten thousand in about a month. I was insanely shocked. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody or anything. So that fueled me to make a couple more. I remember being qualified to be monetized by YouTube in about a month or so. At the time I was just filming random videos, but after looking back, I realized that the quick success was because overlanding wasn’t really a thing yet. Additionally, and probably the most important thing was that there was zero content about the vehicle I was driving at the time. When I started the channel, I had a 2000 Jeep TJ, and my first several videos were me doing DIY mods to it in my driveway. But I realized after about a year in, that I sort of had this niche all to myself. You could type in “Overland Jeep TJ” and nothing at all would pop up but my content. There were no other YouTubers doing content on that vehicle or like I was doing. As a designer and creative person in general, I used YouTube as a medium to share my ideas and solutions to making camping easier. I was obsessed, and still am, with gear and making it all efficient and work flawlessly together. I think the combination of all of those things contributed to my success as well as just being a regular dude.

As far as giving advice to people starting a channel, none of my advice is technical or a formula you can follow for success. I think if you’re genuine, do what you love, and have some sort of differentiator or niche you can make content about people will be attracted to that. Best thing to remember is people subscribe to you because of you, not your content. And if your goal in starting your own YouTube channel is to get free parts, you won’t get far at all. People can sniff that out a mile away. Do it because you love it.

Any future and or big plans for ARK we should know about? 

I’ve said this many times and still hold this thought. I have no plans on going full time with YouTube. I like working a full-time job and doing this on the side. I have seen it multiple times…when you turn your passion into a job or into something you solely rely on for income, it can change you and it can change how you feel about your passion. The last thing I want is to feel pressure or obligation to make content because I need to put food on the table for my family. I hate the feeling of forcing content. I feel extremely fortunate to work a full-time job in the industry and do what I love on the side, with full creative control. I never want to leave that position because I feel the most freedom here. Some people have great success going full time, or at least appear successful, but it’s just not for me personally. 

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So, let’s talk about your rig. I’ve watched it go through many iterations. Tell us about all the changes you’ve made over the years and are you finally finished? (Is a rig ever complete?) 

Oh man, well this could go on forever, haha. Like I said earlier, I had a Jeep TJ and really turned that into something special because nobody had really ever done it before, at least for overlanding. It was a small 2 door vehicle that people largely considered a strict offroad only type vehicle. After building that, I wanted to experience a new platform and push myself to do something totally foreign to me. Plus, I wanted to start a family and simply needed more room. That’s when I bought a Tacoma, and it has been the best vehicle I’ve ever owned. It still impresses me today.

The above video talks about all the different variations of the truck that I’ve built. I’ve learned a ton from switching up gear and running different brands, camping styles, suspensions, etc. And no, a rig is never complete no matter how many times you tell that to your wife. I started off basic with a camper shell and roof top tent, then switched out tires, wheels, suspension, bumpers, etc. Learned what I liked and didn’t like about that setup and then moved on to more of a live in camper style. I installed a GFC camper and swapped out suspension, wheels, tires, bumpers, etc. yet again. I did this process 4 times until reaching my current setup, a Dirtbox Overland Flatbed Tray and Canopy. It’s given me ultimate versatility and functionality. It’s my dream to own one of these and I still can’t believe it’s real. And no…definitely not finished yet.

Your rig has obviously been a lot of work, so if you had to do it all over again, would you still choose the Tacoma platform?  

Great question. I actually went back and forth between a Tacoma and 4Runner. The main reason I went with a Tacoma was because of the truck bed, all of the aftermarket support, and the reliability. I realized that you can really only outfit SUVs one way for overlanding…a tent on the roof, bumpers, and some drawers/internal storage. A truck bed allows tons of different style setups, which like I mentioned earlier, have experienced in my build. A truck bed also keeps gear completely separate from the cab, which I love. So, as far as my vehicle choice is concerned, a truck fit the bill, and I specifically chose the Tacoma because it was midsized. In the Ozarks, where I wheel most often, it’s very dense and I had to keep size in mind. When you choose an overland vehicle, it’s super important to consider where you’re going or where you’ll be most often. If you’re out West, it makes sense to get a full-sized rig. The one thing the Tacoma lacks is power, that’s my only complaint. You can do things like re-gear, which I’ve done, but it still is a bit sluggish with everything loaded. Still wouldn’t trade it for anything else currently.

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So, what does 2024 look like? Any major trips planned? 

I can’t really ever plan my year out besides shows I do with Backwoods for work, but I’ll be going to Colorado and some other places here and there. I usually find myself doing a couple big trips a year, but always look forward to wheeling in my backyard in the Ozarks. There’s just something special about it. That’s why I named my channel Arkansas Offroad because I love Arkansas so much.

What’s been your most exciting trip to date and why? 

It’s really tough to pick one single favorite trip, but I’ll sort of pick 2 that really stood out to me. One of my favorite trips was actually to Colorado for our 2nd Backwoods company camp ride. It was so awesome because we went when some of the major passes were closed, at least closed officially to the public. I remember us camping at the base of one of the passes when we ran into the Forest Service crew. They told us that they just officially opened and cleared Engineer Pass and we would be the very first ones up it that season if we’d like to go for it. I remember that feeling being the first tire tracks up there passing all of these bull dozers thinking I was the first one on the moon. It was so cool to me because at camp I was in a t-shirt and it was around 70 degrees, but after driving up the pass for an hour or two, it was a full-on blizzard, and I was in a coat freezing my butt off. That was an insane experience. One other trip was the one I took with my Wife right before we were about to be parents for the first time. I think she was around 5 or 6 or so months pregnant and we wanted to do one last big trip together. We spent a week on the road from Arkansas to Flagstaff, AZ where she flew home out of AZ, and I stayed and did a show with Backwoods. We got to see so many cool things and it was sort of our last time together without a kid. I have videos documenting both of these trips by the way if you’re interested. I might go back and watch them after this now, ha.

Finally, any fun trail stories to share? 

So many trail stories! The most recent trip we had was a Backwoods content trip in the Ozarks. We called it Toyotality because we all went to the woods in our Toyotas to see the total eclipse. Long story short, we accidently flooded our company Tacoma in a very unsuspecting mud hole. The truck ended up dying and we had to do an alternator change in the middle of the woods. It’s crazy when tensions are that high and you have to be totally self-reliant and get an entire vehicle out of the deep woods. And it was even more nerve racking because it was our company truck. Anyway, we were able to source an alternator and swapped it late one night at camp. It was an absolute mission, but we made it out and the only thing wrong with the truck is a muddy interior, which is literally getting fixed as we speak. I think when things like this go wrong, it builds so much character and gives you these challenges that you have to overcome. Yes, its nerve racking, but the reward of conquering a difficult or scary thing is next level.

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Thanks for your time today, Grant. Stay healthy and safe and see you at the shows and hopefully in the backcountry! 

For more in the Adventurer Series CLICK HERE