Dinosaur Bones, Calamity and Gear: Exploring the Gobi Desert

An epic Mongolian adventure with Infiniti and The Explorers Club

by Jason Harper

After the sixth hour of a biblical sandstorm, we’re feeling fairly confident about the $1,800 Hilleberg tent that we’re huddled inside—especially considering the rest of the campsite blew down hours ago.

During the desert storm, two members of our expedition were injured and needed to be evacuated: one suffered a concussion, the other a scorpion sting. So while it’s the middle of the night, we’re wearing sturdy boots, a headlamp, and desert-ready clothes in the shuddering, sand-filled tent. As it turns out, when you’re looking for an adventure in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, you’re likely to find one. And the gear you bring really matters.

Our adventure searching for dinosaur bones in the famed, stunning desert was inspired by real-life explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews was the director of the American Museum of Natural History, and in the early 1920s he and his team went looking for dinosaur fossils in the Gobi while using cars—the first time the new technology was used for an archaeological trip. In doing so they reached far into the south Gobi, discovering the fossilized dinosaur eggs that would prove once and for all that the dinosaurs were reptiles.

Nearly 100 years later, the Explorers Club, Hong Kong chapter, teamed up with the pre-eminent Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology (IPG), to recreate Andrews’ route. But this time, they brought along new tech of their own—drones that produced the same kind of imagery used in Mars Explorer missions. The idea was to find new fossil sites using advanced drone mapping. The automaker Infiniti served as both sponsor to the scientific expedition and the provider of the vehicles.

We got to go along as chroniclers, but soon realized that while out in the Gobi wilds, some heavy-duty gear was going to be necessary. The Explorers Club had strict weight limits for baggage, but the conditions are no joke—so our packing list had to be pretty serious, too.

Upon arrival, we exit a small prop-plane and into a vast desert plain near the Gobi outpost of Dalanzadgad. There is an Infiniti QX50 SUV waiting. A good thing, because there are no actual paved roads leaving the airport—just scant tracks across the desert in all directions. Nothing resembling a road sign.

If you’re recreating a notorious expedition using “motor cars,” as Andrews did nearly a century ago, you need a reliable vehicle to do it in. In Andrews’ case, he used early Dodge vehicles—many without roofs—that had as little as 29 horsepower, and were notorious for getting stuck. The Infiniti has considerably more power than that. The automotive company provided plush QX80s and QX60s to explore the desert.

The QX50 crossover is nimble over the hard-packed desert floor, even when there isn’t much in the way of actual roads. It has a new 2.0-liter VC-Turbo engine, the first-ever variable compression ratio motor on the market, which provides the power of V6 but the gas-savings of a miserly four-cylinder—an important point when gas stations are almost non-existent. At one point, faced with the world’s biggest parking lot (otherwise known as the flat desert), we couldn’t help ourselves and sent the QX50 flying around in the world’s largest set of doughnuts. Pure desert bliss.

We open the QX’s tailgate, and throw in our two backpacks, and then start shedding clothes. Packing has been key. We were instructed to bring less than 90 liters of gear overall. That means one pair of travel clothes for the extremely long journey—more than 50 hours from our NYC door to the Gobi desert. We’ll wear the same clothes on the journey home, too. So we went with the Vapor Snorkel Hood, Vapor Tee, and Vapor Briefs from Duckworth, a Montana-based company which has changed the way we travel. The Merino wool is entirely grown in Big Sky Country, and sewn in the US. It is mega-comfortable and stink free. It couldn’t have been more comfy on our long plane hours. For pants that made sense at both the airport and in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, we chose North Face Motion pants, in a bright military green.

We trade our wool finery for even tougher wool gear from SmartWool, including another wool hoody so lightweight that we’ll wear it continually to shield us from the sun. Smartwool’s Merino 150 Micro will cling to our body continually over the week, with North Face’s aptly named Men’s Day Three Tee underneath. (The T-shirts are dosed with anti-odor technology.) Unfortunately we had to sacrifice one North Face tee during the dust storm, as it fell under the blade of our Leatherman to make a scarf to cover our mouth from the driving dust.

We could only bring only two pairs of pants for the entire expedition, so we turned to our hands-down outdoor favorite, Kuhl, sourcing the Revolvr and Silencr. The trousers are cut in a way that cradles the hips, so won’t fall down even with heavy gear attached to your belt. They never rip nor appear terribly soiled. We also brought along our favorite vest for chilly desert mornings, the Spyfire. Lastly, on our feet, Guerrilla boots. We’ve worn these all-leather, work boots for years. They are made in Pennsylvania by union workers. They have steel toes, and we felt impervious to the deep sand, poisonous spiders, stinging scorpions around. Best of all, even after wearing them day after day in the sweltering heat, they never stank.

As for luggage, we needed highly durable backpacks that would withstand being thrown around planes and SUVs deep in the desert. For the bigger bag, we turned to Gregory Packs and its Baltoro bag. We are highly picky about our bags, and the Baltoro has a zipper on the sides that allows you to load it like a suitcase (which is key). A front stuffsack is good for loose gear, like a jacket, and side pockets are perfect for socks. The internal frame is aluminum so its lightweight and tough and just damn smart. Our go-to day-bag is a Thule, and this time we chose the AllTrail, which has a hip belt you can attach accessories like a bottle sleeve and DLSR camera holster. All of it went into the Infiniti, and then we blasted off, headed toward the caravan of paleontologists and Explorer Club members who were already out there, somewhere, in the Gobi, looking for unfound dinosaur bones.

Yes, it’s the desert, and it’s hot. But it is easy to shrug off that heat when you’re doing something as special as searching for dinosaur bones. Chinzo Tsogtbaatar is one of the experts at the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology (IPG), and we’ve been following him around the desert, trying to see the various rocks through his eyes. Most of them simply look like rocks. Poking around the earth, looking for bones, and just dealing with camp projects, there’s nothing like having a good knife and multi-tool along. You can’t beat the classic Leatherman brand and its uniquely handy Wave Plus. At one point we saw something we were sure was a significant find—a white piece sticking out of red clay, so we carefully extended our Wave’s file/pry tool thingee to work around it… and found a bone all right. A goat bone. Oh well. Meanwhile, Tsogtbaatar wanders over and proffers something in his hand. There’s no mistaking it: A very long, very ferocious looking tooth. “From the Tarbosaurus, the Mongolian cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex,” he says gleefully. It’s a hell of a find, and it sends a shiver down our backs.

You can’t take the bones with you. It’s illegal to remove any natural item from Mongolia. So taking a photo must suffice. That’s why we brought the Olympus Tough TG-5. Often enough we rely on our iPhone, but out here, without a cell signal, it was basically a lump. The Olympus was great in macro mode, and has its own GPS settings, so if we showed the scientists a shot of a bone that they though potentially significant, they could return to the exact spot.

Speaking of GPS, we didn’t want to get lost on our dino wanders, so our best bit of kit may have been the Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro. Not having a cell along meant that having a watch to note the time was handy, but the Spartan allowed us to mark our location with GPS and it could guide us to our starting point. (Many of the areas we were in are actually not on a map.) Strapped next to the watch is something we wear 24/7 on any dangerous trip: Our Road ID band. A unique internet code on the underside will send medical personnel to a website with all your pertinent info, including insurance numbers, blood type, emergency contacts, and home address. All the info travels with you in a tidy package. Since there was no place to plug our electronics into—but plenty of sun—we brought along a Goal Zero Venture 70recharger, powerful but lightweight, and the foldable Nomad 28 Plus solar panel, which attached to the outside of our Gregory pack as needed.

Lastly, a big concern was water. We toted a Mizu V12 with us everywhere, which holds 36 ounces of cool water in its wide-mouth, stainless steel case, but we also carried a survival option, the LifeStraw Flex. LifeStraw’s water filters allow you to convert even the nastiest water source into a clean source of potable water, and the Flex comes with a foldable bottle attached. The small kit takes out bacteria, parasites, and even reduces lead. Worse case scenario, we could have found one of the scummy sites where the goats and camels were drinking. (Luckily we never needed to resort to those methods.)

The team had set up a wonderful movable campsite, including two large tents for relaxing and cooking. Then came the dust storm. It was like nothing we had ever seen before, something out of a Brendan Fraser “Mummy” movie. We all ran out to hold down the big tent’s supporting ropes, thinking it would pass. We’d brought along “tactical” gloves from 5.11, a California-based company that supplies gear to police and military around the world. The TAC A2 gloves kept our hands from getting torn while holding the ropes—until it was finally decided to bring the big tents down. It was at this point that a tent pole fell and whacked one of our team members, giving him a serious concussion. And it was at this same, that another member got stung by a scorpion.

As the light fell and the storm hadn’t abated, we hauled out two more pieces of gear: The EDC and Response flashlights, also from 5.11. The company makes the best flashlights we’ve ever used: small, super bright, and reliable. We distributed them to members running around who couldn’t find their own gear, and then put on our own Black Diamond Revolt headlamp, which showed us the way in the swirling wind.

Finally all we could do was to crawl into the tents. When we’d first seen the Saitaris tents from Swedish brand Hilleberg, they’d seemed unnecessary. Four-season tents with extensive tie-downs, they came with a seriously high price tag. Matt Prior, the director of the Explorers Club HK Chapter, and an renowned outdoor adventure expert, had told us that he’d spent a week in one on a frozen lake in Siberia. Now we were supremely thankful for them, as the wind sheared all around us. We curled into the Nemo DiscoTM 30 sleeping bag—a lightweight down bag which still allows you to sleep on your side, and the accompanying Tensor ultralight sleeping pad, and realized we were pretty damn comfortable. It blew all night.

The next morning, incredibly, brought rain and chill. It had seemed bizarre when we’d first packed knowing we’d go into the desert, but we’d known to bring a warm hat, insulated coat, and rain jacket. So we donned them now. Each piece was, fittingly, from Arc’teryx, whose logo is a dinosaur skeleton. The Rho LTW Beanie, Cerium SL Jacket, and Norvan rain jacket had packed into such a tight ball in a corner of our pack, we’d forgotten about them. Now we walked outside, warm and dry. There wasn’t much left of the camp. We’d have to walk far into the desert later, reclaiming bits of equipment and paper that had been scattered for miles.

It all looked a bit grim, with two of our members evacuated and only the red Hilleberg tents still standing. And then the rain stopped and out came a rainbow. The most glorious rainbow we’d ever seen, actually, stretching from one side of the earth to the other.

As it would turn out, the expedition would be a grand scientific success. Three potential new dinosaur species were found; 250 new significant bone locations found, and hundreds upon hundreds of bones excavated (and our injured members ultimately recovered). A great grand trip indeed. And turns out, we packed just right.

Images by Mike Sakas