Overlanding for a cause: The Clean Cruiser Project proves off-roading doesn’t have to leave a massive carbon footprint

The duo is spending six weeks on (and off) the road, running biodiesel and planting trees along the way

Photo: Danny Pellissier

It feels strange to wake up somewhere new when you arrived there in the pitch black of the previous night. Peeking through the mesh of my tent window I make out the cracked pink trunks of Ponderosa pine in the northern Arizona dawn light. 

Not only did I arrive at night, but I set up camp with three relative strangers off a dirt road in the woods. Hail fell as we pitched our tents, and I spent the night cocooned in my sleeping bag. My flight had landed in Flagstaff at midnight and Nathan Stuart, one half of the Clean Cruiser Project, picked me up from the airport. His vehicle—a mustard yellow 1982 Toyota BJ42 Land Cruiser—stood out from the pack of cars waiting to pick up other travelers. “Good flight?” he asked, as I settled into the passenger’s seat and reached for a nonexistent seat belt. 

Nathan Stuart and Steve Ploog stand in front of a yellow 4x4
Nathan Stuart (left) and Steve Ploog in front of one of their biodiesel 4x4s. | Photo: Chantal Martineau

He didn’t mention the more than half a metric ton of carbon my flight released into the atmosphere getting here from New York. Stuart and partner Steve Ploog keep close tabs on their own emissions: For the duration of their project, they’re driving two vintage Land Cruisers all the way to Central America, running the engines on biodiesel and planting trees along the way. The goal is a carbon-neutral trip.

For the next three days, I’ll be hanging out with Stuart and Ploog at the 10th annual Overland Expo in Flagstaff’s Fort Tuthill County Park, a former army base that for one weekend in May is crawling with more than 22,000 off-roading enthusiasts. It’s the pair’s only pitstop before they hit the Pan-American Highway. 

We check in at the Expo early and the guys set up their station amid hundreds of exhibitors hawking everything one might need for off-the-grid traveling—designer campers, outdoor grilling equipment, first-aid kits, water purification systems, satellite communications systems, solar panels, composting toilets, and so on. The Overland Expo is where roadtripping nature lovers meet truck and motorcycle enthusiasts. In many ways, it’s the perfect venue for the Clean Cruiser Project to spread the word about its mission and raise some last-minute funds.

Stuart stands in front of a crowd, speaking
Stuart presents at the Overland Expo. | Photo: Danny Pellissier

“We’ll only be planting trees on a few days,” says Stuart as he sets up portable solar panels to chill the beers donated to the project by Sierra Nevada. “We’re OK with letting everyone know that we’re not going to be doing very much. This isn’t some huge self-sacrifice. But that’s the point. Everything we’re doing you can do easily. Oh, you’re going off-roading in Moab? Just plant five trees to offset your emissions.” (You can use an emissions calculator like the EPA’s to figure out what you’re generating on a given trip.)

Pancho and Lefty

In late 2017, the two friends from California’s Central Coast, who had played in an outlaw country cover band together, decided to take six weeks off from their everyday lives to drive to Panama. They planned to make the trip in the two old Land Cruisers they’d spent more than a year restoring. Neither was an environmental activist, strictly speaking, but each was aware of the footprint such a trip would leave. 

Stuart, who works as a shepherd at Tablas Creek, an organic winery in Paso Robles, California, knows a thing or two about carbon emissions. He uses his flock of sheep to put carbon back into the soil. Old-school farming methods like grazing livestock, composting, and mulching have been shown to sequester carbon. Ploog, a U.S. Army vet, hiked both the Pacific Crest Trail and Oregon Coast last year and says that being on foot for so long had the unintended side effect of making him uneasy about all the driving he does. 

Two men stand in front of an exposed engine, checking their phone
Stuart and Ploog check their engine on the road. | Photo: Danny Pellissier

The two decided to turn their road trip into an experiment. Over many months, the plan took shape: It would be more than a vacation. It would be an exercise in reducing their carbon footprint. They enlisted a cameraman to tag along and document the whole thing, which you can follow on Instagram and YouTube.

“This was an old rust bucket from Vancouver,” says Stuart, affectionately stroking his rig before pointing to Ploog’s olive brown 1979 BJ40 Land Cruiser: “And that was an old chicken coop from Costa Rica.” Both came with the original diesel motors, both needed to be rebuilt piece by piece. The guys named their rigs Pancho and Lefty after the band they played in. 

As Stuart lifts Pancho’s hood to expose the guts of the engine, fellow car enthusiasts start to gather round and the conversation shifts gears—pun intended—into a new sort of language that’s hard for me to follow. My car knowledge can be summarized by what I drive at home: a 2016 Honda Fit. But it turns out that 40 Series are pretty straightforward machines. It’s what the guys like best about them, their simple design and classic look. These are iconic 4x4s.

Two 4x4 trucks parked along the roadside in a forest
Pancho and Lefty, Stuart and Ploog’s iconic 4x4s. | Photo: Chantal Martineau

So, I catch on quick enough. The new turbo diesel engine delivers 167 horsepower, 310 torque—just what you want for off-roading. A new transmission is more fuel efficient, upgraded from four-speed to five, which runs lower RPMs. The car enthusiasts want to know all about the parts used in the rebuild, and Stuart and Ploog are happy to oblige. 

Many of the components have been donated by companies in support of the Clean Cruiser Project so, by talking up the brands, the guys know they’re keeping their sponsors happy. Folks are especially interested in the engine, a crate motor donated by Cummins, marketed for retrofitting four-wheel-drives and other vehicles. Like most diesel engines nowadays, the Cummins R2.8 can run on biodiesel.

“What’s interesting about the R2.8 is that it lets you take these old cars and, instead of throwing them away, recycle them into fuel-economic vehicles,” says Stuart. “If you’re into old cars, that’s cool.”

Biodiesel and baby trees

A steady stream of attendees at the Expo stop to talk shop; either they’ve rebuilt off-roading vehicles from scratch or want to. “I love what you guys are all about!” shouts a passerby and Stuart responds with a thumbs up. But some are skeptical—especially about biodiesel. 

A common misconception is that biodiesel can hurt an engine; it actually has better lubricity than conventional diesel, which is why up to 5% biodiesel is often added to regular diesel at the pump. Or they associate it with hippies. They’re not wrong there: Willie Nelson has a company that produces biodiesel. It’s called BioWillie. 

Two vehicles rest parked beside a barn
Pancho and Lefty rest their wheels on a foggy day at Pico de Orizaba in Mexico (elevation: 14,000 feet). | Photo: Danny Pellissier

That stigma illustrates the paradox of overlanding: It’s all about exploring the great outdoors, but how do people do it? They drive. The vehicles you see at Overland Expo—pickups, RVs, even tricked-out multipurpose trucks—mostly run on diesel. Almost all of them could run on biodiesel. But suspicions about biofuels loom large.

“A lot of people don’t understand what biodiesel is,” says Ploog after a particularly wary man stopped to ask what he and Stuart were up to. “They think it’s SVO, which is straight vegetable oil. In the ‘90s, there was this huge movement for collecting used cooking oil, filtering it in your backyard, then throwing it into your fuel tank. It would smell like french fries when you were driving down the road. But that movement didn’t go anywhere.”

SVO is also where Ploog and Stuart started. In the earliest version of their plan, they were going to collect enough cooking oil to get them to Panama and filter it themselves. They soon realized the SVO fad was dead. Restaurants now sell their used cooking oil to waste recyclers, who in turn sell it to biofuel companies, so the source of SVO has pretty much dried up. Besides, they wanted the Clean Cruiser Project to inspire others to reduce their own emissions in ways that are easily achievable. So they started looking into biodiesel.

A hand turns a steering wheel
Stuart driving his Land Cruiser. | Photo: Chantal Martineau

“Come smell this,” Stuart says, unscrewing the top off a jerrycan filled with B100—pure biodiesel—on the back of his trailer. He plunges a finger in and takes a theatrical whiff of the viscous substance that coats it before rubbing it into his palms. “You could eat this stuff!” 

I’m not taking his word for it, but I dip a fingertip in. The oily substance is made from animal fat and has a faintly meaty aroma, but is surprisingly clean-smelling. About half the biofuel in the U.S. is made from soybean; American farmers produce a surplus of the crop. Animal fat and cooking oil are the other two main sources of biofuel.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, a gallon of B100 burns 86 percent less carbon than regular diesel. Stuart and Ploog will be running B20—a blend using 20 percent biodiesel—in their vehicles because that’s what’s readily available in many places, including their home state. It will reduce their emissions by 17 percent, which only gets them part of the way to a carbon-neutral trip. Planting trees with reforestation groups along the route will make up the rest. 

It may sound overly simple, but trees sequester some 50 pounds of carbon within the first year of their lives. Stuart and Ploog are aiming to plant 10,000 trees over the course of the year, around 50 times what’s required to offset the miles they’re putting in on the trip. They’ll put some 600 in the ground themselves; the rest will be planted by non-profits with money the Clean Cruiser Project has raised.

“We’re only counting the first year of the tree’s life, which is important because you could plant a tree now and say over the next 40 or 50 years, this will more than make up for all your emissions. But we made the mess this year so we have to clean it up this year. We’re not talking about saving the planet or [ending] climate change. We’re just saying, clean up after yourself.”

“We’re not talking about saving the planet or ending climate change. We’re just saying, clean up after yourself.”

I’m starting to see that Stuart and Ploog might be the perfect ambassadors for reducing one’s carbon footprint among the overlanding community. For most people at the Expo, cleaning up a campsite after they’ve used it comes naturally. But air pollution goes unseen, so it’s harder to get folks to think about it. Stuart and Ploog don’t come off as preachy. They love old cars and can talk torque and horsepower just as easily as they can spew CO2 stats. The message isn’t that diesel trucks are dirty; it’s that, if you love off-roading, there’s a way to do it without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Overlanding responsibly

After two days at Overland Expo, chatting with people in attendance and schmoozing with their sponsors—big brands like Cummins, but also small companies like SportsRig, a one-man operation that makes the lightweight trailers the guys are pulling to Panama—Stuart and Ploog are ready to hit the road. The sun has been trying to break through the clouds all morning, but now that the wind has picked up the guys are dreaming of Ensenada, Mexico, which they hope to reach in a couple days. They spend the morning packing up the trailers and tinkering with the trucks’ engine lines and radio intercom systems. Shortly after noon, it’s time to go. The rigs head out of Flagstaff toward Mexico.

A dozen people pose in front of a Clean Cruiser Project banner
The Cummins Megamak team and the Clean Cruiser Project in Merida, Mexico. | Photo: Danny Pellissier

Stuart and Ploog urge anyone looking to follow in their footsteps to seek out legitimate reforestation groups. (In the gold rush for carbon credits, a number of unsavory practices have emerged.) But you don’t have to get down on your hands and knees to plant trees yourself. You can donate to nonprofits that will do it for you. The Clean Cruiser Project is working with Kanan Kab, Tree Sisters, and AIR Guatemala. You can also support the Clean Cruiser Project directly—they’re registered as a non-profit and will plant trees in your name.

“We want to be transparent about what we’re doing and what we aren’t doing,” says Stuart. “One commenter on Instagram was like, ‘Why don’t you just take one truck, if you’re trying to be carbon neutral?’ It’s a really good question. We never said this is the most carbon-neutral way to travel. Obviously, it would be more carbon-friendly just to walk. We’re just saying that people should be responsible for what they’re putting into the air. It’s that simple.”