As I pull the Glacier White 2022 Rivian R1T electric pickup truck off its charger somewhere in western North Carolina overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains, I’m reminded there aren’t many firsts left in this world. Sam Garcia, one of Rivian’s young electric charging engineers, catches me as I walk out of our hotel, loading up for the next day of our epic overland adventure.
“Check it out,” he says, handing me a Rivian wheel center cap and an official-looking business card. It reads: “This item flew to space above the Karman Line on Blue Origin’s fully reusable New Shepard Launch Vehicle.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has ordered a fleet of Rivian vans for his company (not to mention an R1T and an R1S SUV for himself), and just four days earlier he was among the first private citizens to reach outer space on a commercial rocket. A first, but not literally one of this world.
What we’re doing, though, is an Earthbound first. The automobile’s (re)electrification levels the playing field, allowing upstarts like Tesla and Rivian to compete with century-old giants like Ford and Mercedes-Benz while simultaneously providing car enthusiasts a new opportunity to push the limits of possibility. For example, take our historic electric off-road crossing of the U.S., made possible for the first time thanks to the new 2022 Rivian R1T electric pickup and the Trans-America Trail. The TAT is a 5,000-plus-mile route stretching from the dunes of Nags Head, North Carolina, on the Atlantic coast, to the cliffs of Port Orford, Oregon, overlooking the Pacific.
This route winds around the Appalachians, across the mighty Mississippi, through the Great Plains, and over the Rockies, before threading through the west’s high-desert slick rock and redwoods to the coast. Some paved roads dot the trail, but they’re few and far between. Because of the endeavor’s sheer scale and distance, MotorTrend together with Rivian dedicated 43 days to the adventure, split into five legs. We divided into five crews of staffers as we navigated our convoy of two near-production-spec 2022 Rivian R1Ts and our support vehicle, a Ram 1500 TRX, across the Trans-America Trail.
The new 2022 Rivian R1T electric pickup truck is uniquely suited for this overland expedition. The first modern EV pickup to hit the market, the R1T—and Rivian as a whole—is conceived around the idea of electrifying the outdoors. Leaving the Fords of the world to electrify the work truck, Rivian says the R1T is engineered to ensure we can continue to explore the great outdoors long after the world pivots hugely from the internal combustion engine to the electric motor.
Sized somewhere between a midsize and full-size pickup, the new R1T indeed seems tailor-made for overland travel. Its stylish bodywork boasts a covered 4.5-foot bed, a trunk, a gear tunnel between the rear seats and bed, and a large frunk. Under the skin, the Rivian R1T has four motors (two at each axle for torque-vectoring all-wheel drive) with a combined output of 835 horsepower and 908 lb-ft of torque, backed up by a 300-mile, 133-kWh battery pack and a novel height-adjustable air/hydraulic suspension. Rounding out the package, our test Rivian has all-terrain tires and an available Yakima rooftop tent; our “El Cap Granite” support-vehicle Rivian features a full camp kitchen that slides out of the gear tunnel.
We know going into the journey that it’s sure to be many things. Grueling, difficult, and dangerous. Hilarious, stupid, and just plain old fun. No matter what happens, as Rivian engineer Garcia reminds me in North Carolina early in the trip, it’s going to be a historic first. Ride along with us here as we partake in the first-ever electric off-road crossing of the Trans-America Trail. —Christian Seabaugh
Leg 1, July 17-July 25, 2021
Nags Head, N.C., to Dalton, Ga.
“It’s Annoyingly Good. “
Christian Seabaugh: There’s nothing like a little existential dread to kick off a 43-day, 5,000-plus-mile overlanding expedition. I spent the better part of three years putting this project together and considered everything from charging strategy along the route (all via public chargers) to what type of gear we’d need.
But now I realize I never stopped to ask myself the question that kept me staring up at a dank Nags Head hotel room’s popcorn ceiling the night before leaving: What if the 2022 Rivian R1T isn’t any good? What if I just condemned five teams of co-workers (and countless budgetary dollars) to spend more than a collective month in a half-baked science fair project?
On the other hand, I told myself, Rivian’s confidence in our Trans-America Trail expedition is reassuring. From the instant I pitched the story back in 2018 until now, Rivian never wavered in its support for this boondoggle. It’s even dedicated a rotating crew of engineers and technicians to join us so we can suggest ways the company might iron out any last-minute issues as the R1T neared its September on-sale date.
The trip’s first leg, running from Nags Head, North Carolina, fittingly just a stone’s throw from the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, to Dalton, Georgia, will prove what I’ve gotten us into. This section of the Trans-America Trail is among the easiest, purely by virtue of its location. The trail passes through North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, three of which were among the original 13 colonies, and aside from their most remote reaches, all are well maintained.
My sense of dread faded after senior editor Aaron Gold and I met Rocky and Holly. Like all Rivian pre-production vehicles, the trucks are named for national parks. Our white 2022 R1T, Rocky, is named after the Rocky Mountain National Park, while our support truck is Holly, after Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park.
After meeting our companions, we pulled Rocky off the Nags Head Woods Preserve’s charger, put North Carolina’s Outer Banks in our rearview mirror, and crossed back onto the mainland. Our first stretch—leading to our planned Level 3 DC fast charge during lunchtime—was a narrow, tight, twisty ribbon of asphalt that cut through the countryside, the perfect place to get familiar with the R1T.
Despite being loaded with four people, a rooftop tent, a frunk full of bags, a gear tunnel full of Shift Pod Mini tents, and a bed containing yet more luggage and an ARB refrigerator, the 2022 Rivian R1T—which, mind you, is an electric pickup riding on 20-inch all-terrain tires—was shockingly good to drive on asphalt. Power, courtesy of four permanent-magnet motors capable of spinning up to 18,500 rpm, is delivered in one big, smooth, effortless gob, like soft-serve ice cream.
The R1T handles well, too. Its quick and precise steering, roll-free suspension system, and quad-motor setup result in instant and incredibly precise torque vectoring. It’s capable of diving hard into corners and rocketing out of them. On pavement when driven hard, the Rivian feels more like a sports car than pickup.
That probably helps explain why Gold and I rolled into our first charge stop with about 4 miles of electric range remaining. Rivian engineer Garcia looked a bit stressed as he told us we used somewhat more of the battery’s range than he anticipated. But what do you expect with a truck like this?
Once plugged in and chatting over lunch from Holly’s kitchen, Rivian’s staffers asked us what we thought of the R1T.
“It’s annoyingly good,” was all we could think to say. No brand-new automaker has any right to build a vehicle this competent right off the bat. And that initial impression held true as the pavement increasingly gave way to gravel, mud, and water crossings the farther west we traveled.
We first hit gravel later that afternoon, soon after our charging stop. The rural road disappeared beneath us without fanfare, and we were off-road for the first time on the Trans-America Trail. During the next few days, the TAT would consist largely of gravel, dirt, rocks, and the occasional water crossing as we zigzagged up mountains, skirted gaps, and shot through valleys.
Rocky seemed happy no matter what we threw at it. Switching from All-Purpose to one of the off-road drive modes (Off-Road Auto, Rock, Rally, and Drift) loosens the reins on the stability and traction control systems, and it also changes the R1T’s power delivery and ride characteristics. This all makes it easy to generate, as Gold put it, “surprisingly good speed on bad surfaces.”
We learned rather quickly the trail was a bit more difficult than it seemed in those early days. One evening, as Gold piloted the 2022 Rivian R1T down the rocky two-track, we debated whether it was worth slowing down to protect the tires. Gold, cruising at about 15 mph, thought he ought to lose some speed. With 20 miles (and yet still many hours) to our overnight stop, I thought he could bump up his speed a bit. Fate decided for us before we reached an agreement: A sharp rock caught our Rivian’s tire right between the treads. The full-size spare, stored in the trunk in the R1T’s bed, went on quickly. But changing a tire in the middle of the woods as the sun set was no more convenient.
Our support Ram 1500 TRX was the next casualty, suffering a similar puncture when we picked up the trail the next morning. Although the unplanned (but not necessarily unexpected) tire changes were a pain, they were hardly the biggest challenge we experienced on the first leg.
After four days of Gold and me trading seven-hour stints behind the wheel, we found ourselves at a fork in the trail somewhere in North Carolina’s western woods near the Tennessee and Georgia borders.
We had two paths forward: Bear right and hook up and around the mountain ridge on what appeared to be dirt and gravel roads, or bear left and take the shortcut, dropping straight down the gap and following a creek to pick up the trail again on the other side. Highlighted ominously in red on the official TAT map to signify its difficulty, we chose the left route.
The first obstacle set the tone for what was to come: an offset, slick, muddy berm that dropped steeply toward the stream. The Rivian R1T took it all in stride as we twisted and turned down the increasingly vertical wet trail, the trees and brush closing quickly around our convoy’s trucks.
The trail devolved into a narrow, muddy, soupy, rocky mess. Heavy tree cover and damp air led to a Jurassic Park feel as we piloted our R1T down the trail. The TRX roaring in the distance behind our two electric pickups as it struggled over obstacles only added to the impression. Together we pressed on, scrambling up slick rocks caked in sludge, down soft embankments that dropped from underneath before climbing back up again, and over and through the flowing creek as we funneled gradually toward the other end of the gap.
The 2022 Rivian R1T felt unstoppable as we crept silently through the woods; the only sounds were a tire’s occasional sneaker squeak over slick rock, the creek alongside us, and photographer Darren Martin’s footsteps as he sprinted through the woods to shoot. The trail became more difficult and more fun as we worked our way through the bypass, crisscrossing through mud pits and up over boulders. The R1T was incredibly impressive, ambling up and over everything in its path, never lifting a tire, never stumbling, and never letting us see it sweat.
We finally rejoined the trail as the sun began to dip behind the Appalachians. We still had four more hours and 35 miles of hard off-roading ahead of us before we’d hit our evening campsite. Although the effort was grueling, the dread I had felt the night before we left Nags Head was long gone, replaced by excitement. Realizing how lucky we were, Gold and I pointed the R1T’s nose toward the next trailhead, put the hammer down, and pressed on.
Leg 2, July 28-August 4, 2021
Dalton, Ga., to Bartlesville, Okla.
“The Rivian R1T Saves Our Ram TRX. “
Miguel Cortina: A rooster tail of dust caused by two camouflage-green Honda ATVs coming toward us was the first sight of civilization we had seen all day. But as they neared, I couldn’t take my eyes off the poker-faced guy carrying a rifle. His partner, a blonde woman in her late 40s wearing camo cargo pants and a gray T-shirt, drove the ATV. Behind them came their children, also displaying impassive expressions. MotorTrend photographer Renz Dimaandal and I stood in the middle of the trail deep in the northern Mississippi woods while the rest of the team waited a few steps away behind a blind turn.
“Renz, what’s going on?” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman asked through a walkie-talkie. “Stand by, Jonny,” Dimaandal whispered, his eyeglasses fogged by 106-degree weather as sweat ran down his face. “Uhh. Can’t you tell me what’s going on?” a confused Lieberman asked. Our photographer didn’t reply.
Surprised to find us on the trail, the family’s attitude quickly changed from suspicious to cordial. After explaining our Trans-America Trail journey, the locals stood in disbelief.
“They’re electric trucks!?” the lady shouted in a peculiar Southern accent we hadn’t heard before, even after our breakfast that morning at Waffle House.
“The trail is completely washed out just up ahead. Big storm dropped 17 inches in one day,” she said. “Y’all are not gonna get through unless you have a chain saw.”
Before they bade us bonne route, her partner looked at us and warned: “There’s big rattlesnakes where y’all are headed. Big … 13, 15 rattles.” I looked behind me. Dimaandal’s shirt was already drenched in sweat, and now his face turned pale, eyes wide. Before leaving Los Angeles, he confessed that snakes are his biggest phobia. This was the beginning of our Sunday afternoon in Mississippi.
Up until that moment, the 2022 Rivian R1Ts passed each obstacle effortlessly thanks to their Jeep-like approach, breakover, and departure angles. But the 5-foot-deep sinkhole caused by the recent storm indeed prevented us from going forward. Locals had carved a narrow passage through the forest next to the trail, but at first sight it looked only wide enough for ATVs, not trucks. A glimpse at the Rivian’s range estimate indicated we had to give it a try; turning around would disrupt our charging plans.
With Lieberman carefully maneuvering our dust-spattered Rocky, I spotted his every move while he navigated through the woods. Once the R1T cleared the narrowest obstacle, Lieberman had to circumvent the stumps the locals had left behind if he was to avoid puncturing a tire. I don’t remember hearing any cheers, but there was a palpable collective sense of relief when Rocky made it through to the other side. Holly was next, and Rivian engineer Kenneth Tsang snaked the other R1T accurately through the forest, avoiding any scrapes or dents.
But our relief evaporated when we realized our Ram support truck was simply too wide. No matter how many angles we tried, there was no way it could fit through. A tree had to go.
I admit we brought too much recovery gear on this adventure, but a ray of sunlight illuminated the electric chain saw when I took it out of our gigantic Pelican case. Our new friends happened by to see how we were doing, and they helped us cut the timber.
With the chain saw plugged into the Ram TRX’s 120V outlet, Rivian’s technician and former U.S. Marine Jordan Alvarado tried to fire it up. Nothing happened. Everyone cursed. “Let’s hope it works in one of the Rivians,” Lieberman said. When the electric chain saw’s song interrupted the sound of cicadas, we lifted our arms in celebration. And then we realized our macho, conventional support truck had been bailed out by the newest player in the pickup game. Now who’s the chaperone?
That wasn’t the only time the Rivian R1Ts played good Samaritan. Just a couple of days earlier, a Chevy S10 truck was stuck in a ditch on the side of the trail about 30 minutes outside of Waterloo, Alabama. Its owners—a couple in their late 50s—were loading tree branches into the bed in an unsuccessful attempt to put enough weight on the rear tires to gain traction. They cried for help when we arrived. Pete Herath, one of Rivian’s development engineers, strapped the S10 to Holly and towed it out of trouble effortlessly; the Chevy’s four wheels were back in business in less than 10 seconds.
What’s more, the 2022 Rivian R1Ts delivered more moments of joy and friendship with strangers than any other car we’ve driven across the country. The R1T is a natural conversation starter, not only because of its unique styling and electric motors but also because of its capabilities. As we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas, we came across a Trans-America Trail rest stop, which was as much antiques emporium as a place for downtime. A few local friends having coffee on the porch were blown away by encountering the Rivians.
“We’ve seen bikers, overlanders, and even a few cyclists, but this is the first time we’ve seen an electric vehicle swing by,” one of them said. Their faces brightened even more when we mentioned the Rivian R1T’s 11,000 pounds of towing capacity and showed them how much interior space the truck offers.
We visited one hut that revealed part of the TAT’s history: thick photo albums full of travelers, stickers from all over the world, and much more. After we signed our names in the visitors’ book and had our obligatory picture taken, one of the gentlemen pointed toward a wooden sign on the porch’s roof.
“Port Orford, Oregon 3,598 miles,” read the west-pointing sign. We had a long way to go, but more epic adventures and eclectic experiences lay on the horizon.
Editor’s note: Come back to MotorTrend.com on Monday, September 13, to read the concluding Part II of our Rivian and Trans-America Trail journey.