Words/Photos: Darren Roberts | @darren_explores @reika4x4tours
Hello, I’m Darren Roberts. I’m married with a family consisting of four kids and a Bernese Mountain Dog. We used to live close to the mountains of Banff, Alberta, Canada, where I spent the last 12 years shooting adventure-based elopements. I would hike to the tops of mountains or take a helicopter to cool locations with couples to document their day. It was a great chapter, but I recently accepted the Director of Marketing and Sales position with Wilderness Vans in Lethbridge, AB.
My beautiful wife has always supported my adventuring, and while we do our own family adventures, she lets me pursue the more technical stuff, which I find fulfilling. I also use the more adventurous trips to get some one-on-one time with each of my kids. It allows me to do some fun camping trips with them.
I don’t have much of a background in vehicles at all. So anything I have done to my Nissan Xterra was just a result of wanting to learn something and then attempting it. It’s been a fun journey, and I’ve learned a lot, picking up new skills and knowledge along the way.
The Xterra Evolution
I originally bought the Xterra because I needed something with 4×4 for my commute to the mountains, especially for winter driving conditions. Later, I learned I could lay the seats down and sleep in the back. Once I did that, I realized I could save on hotel costs by sleeping in the Xterra after a long day of shooting weddings and elopements. That ultimately led to slowly building out the cargo area for camping. Once that was done, I started looking into other places to camp. After spending so much time in the National Park for work, I ultimately wanted to camp in more remote locations, and that’s what slowly got me into 4x4ing and discovering the trail systems in my local area.
I had no plans of “building it out.” It kind of just happened, and I utilized the vehicle I had to do it. The first mod was good tires and later a lift. That was followed by some bumpers, armor, and, eventually, the Titan swap.
I’m currently running 35” tires on a Titan Swap with Elka Suspension. A Titan swap is basically swapping out the Xterra upper and lower control arms for the Nissan Titan upper and lower control arms. This gives you a 3” wider stance on each side and as a result of the increase, more travel. It’s a unique thing about the Nissan platform. It essentially allows you to get into a mid-long travel system very easily.
Being in Canada, it’s expensive to bring things across the border. When you use a platform that isn’t often utilized for overlanding or 4x4ing, it’s harder to source parts locally. Most of the locals run Tacomas or Jeeps, so there’s a good amount of parts for them, but it makes it hard to find shops willing to build out the rig the way I was hoping to. Ultimately, that’s what led to me doing more work on it myself. Over time, I developed a good relationship with my tire shop (OK Tire), and they were great to work with on some of the bigger projects I wasn’t comfortable doing myself.
In regards to the interior build, I’m someone that likes to refine things. Every winter, I re-do the cargo area and tinker with it. Sometimes that’s because I have new ideas I want to implement, and other times it’s just because I want a project to be working on. I’m extremely happy with the way the Xterra is currently. Down the road, I’d like to do the VK swap where you drop in a V8 Titan engine in, but I’m in no rush for that one. The Xterra gets me everywhere I need to as is. That’s just a thing that would be nice to have at some point.
The Photographer’s Evolution
About a year before COVID, I was looking for a new subject to document other than couples. I was always in cool locations for work, so I started documenting my Xterra and the places I was going to. It just gave me something else to shoot photos of and another way to be creative.
Later, I started posting it to Instagram, and the account slowly grew among other Xterra owners. Then COVID hit, and I had a ton of time on my hands as many of my couples couldn’t come up to do photoshoots because the borders were shut down. So that led to a lot more time on the trails and camping. Once I got to know my local area, I started venturing further out, always looking for cool places to explore and awesome camp views. Documenting it all and posting it on social media. This led to a larger following, and I think most people have enjoyed seeing unique places and trails that exist in Canada. Most of my following is from the US and from like-minded individuals. I knew many of them would like to hit the trails here, which ultimately led to me starting REIKA 4×4 Tours and offering a 5-day trip here each summer. Just as many of us in Canada like to go to Moab and off-road, I realized many from the US would like to come up here and have a local show them around.
During the process of documenting my own vehicle, I had worked on some photography projects for Wilderness Vans, documenting some of their vans in the mountains and creating content for them. Over the years, we got to know each other and followed each other on social media. After photographing brides and weddings for 12 years, I was looking for something new and realized I had developed a new skill set in photography and social media marketing. If I was going to make a career change, it had to be something that I enjoyed and in a field that I was passionate about. This ultimately led to the new chapter working for Wilderness Vans.
While Wilderness Vans creates a ton of great products, they were not well-known on social media and relied mainly on word-of-mouth referrals for their builds. I reached out to them, expressing my interest in a career change and my ability to help grow their business. This led to an in-person meeting and, the following week, I was hired to be their in-house content creator. While the bulk of my work involves growing their social media presence, I’ll also be showcasing at expos with their rigs in the summer and visiting other van builders to showcase our in-house products. Wilderness Vans operates on two fronts: van conversions and developing/manufacturing products for the van builder community, which are sold under our in-house brand, Broad Arrow.
Mixing Business with Adventure
For a while, my favorite places were trekking up to the alpine. But over time, my experiences on trails and working on the Xterra have grown, leading me to seek out more technical aspects since I now have the confidence to do it correctly without wrecking my vehicle. I enjoy the rush that comes with accomplishing some of the harder sections. I also really enjoy seeing someone accomplish something technical that they had no idea their vehicle was capable of. They just needed to have someone properly guide them through a section so they could build the confidence to do more of it. I’d say that’s a big highlight for me.
Now with that being said…I still very much enjoy longer trips; one to two nights is fun, but multiple days on new trails exploring is something I still enjoy. So I think as time goes on, I’ll spend less frequent time on the local trails but spend more time planning out longer trips that are further away and in new regions (both in Canada and the US).
It’s great that two of my passions tie into my work – I would pride myself on finding big epic views for my wedding clients, and the same is true for my off-roading clients. Nothing beats 4x4ing to a remote location with unbelievable views and camping there. I always remember my first time going to these types of locations and it’s exciting to take people and see them light up, experiencing it for the first time.
When I lead 4×4 tours, I aim to ensure everyone has a blast on our adventure, regardless of their experience level. So if you are new to off-roading, you can opt to take bypasses when you aren’t comfortable. If you have experience, you can fully immerse yourself in the technical aspects of the routes and trails while still taking in the big scenic views.
Experience Is The Best Teacher
I see too many people getting caught up in the idea that they need a certain level of modifications or equipment to start. My advice is to start getting out there and exploring, even if you haven’t built out a rig. There are plenty of places you can go in a stock vehicle and a tent. Let your experiences dictate how you will do your build and what you will really need. My own build happened over five years, and as things wore out or needed replacing, I would upgrade them. It’s been a slow intentional process, but many people just see the end result and think they need all that equipment to start exploring. That’s not the case. Go explore, and let the rest happen.
If you are just starting, that’s okay too. For the longest time, I didn’t know anyone that went 4x4ing, so I did everything solo. I always made sure I had a way to get myself out. That meant carrying a shovel and TRED recovery boards in the first few years. As time went on and my build progressed, I moved on to quicker options. However, those two items are the best value for money when you are just starting out and exploring. So, in the beginning, I made sure I had some form of recovery gear so I could always get out and those two items can get you out of most situations.
When it comes to venturing out, my preparation goes into planning out new areas to explore and routing everything out on GAIA ahead of time. As for the items I always have with me, my tool kit, recovery gear, air compressor, tire repair kit, first aid kit, full-size spare tire, and Zoleo are a few of the essentials. I carry a few other things, but those are the major ones I make sure I have with me.
I believe that being prepared for adventuring is crucial. Growing up doing scouting, the motto ‘Be Prepared’ has always stuck with me. The same holds true for hitting the trails. So if you have plans to head out and explore, make sure you have what you need for worst-case scenarios as well.
To wrap things up….I have been fortunate to work alongside some great companies who have helped with my build and continue to be a big part of it. So I’d just like to acknowledge a few of them here: TRED 4×4, Yokohama Tire, Black Rhino, Pelican Canada, Vivid Lumen, ASFIR, Adventure Trail Gear, The Mounting Co, and Z1 Off-Road.