The Origins of TrailRecon
How did a retired Navy master chief end up being the creator of one of the most popular off-road and overland channels on YouTube?
That’s a question Brad Kowitz, creator of TrailRecon, gets asked a lot.
The easy answer is that it was a happy accident. But, as you might imagine, for a channel that has more than half a million subscribers and 90 million views, there’s a bit more to the story than that.
On a September afternoon in 2015, while still on active duty and stationed in San Diego, Brad pulled out of his driveway in a blue Ford Mustang GT and returned a few hours later in a new silver Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
He thought he was trading in a fast, fun ride for a vehicle that would be more practical for his family of five.
He thought he was trading in a 2-door car for one with 4-doors and more space for his twin boys (both over 6-feet) and all their gear when he picked them up from football practice.
He thought he was trading in a sports car for a capable 4x4 vehicle that he and his boys could use to explore some out of the way places in Southern California.
What he did not think was that trading in his Mustang for a Jeep would change his life. But it did.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have a YouTube channel with half a million subscribers,” said Brad. “It’s pretty crazy, and pretty humbling, to have that many people who want to follow our adventures.”
In fact, Brad never expected to be making YouTube videos at all, let alone be doing it as a post-military retirement career. After retiring from the Navy in 2016, he had a perfectly fine job working as a government contractor at the Naval Health Research Center in their health and behavioral sciences division.
“I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to be a YouTuber.’ Honestly, I don’t think I even knew that was a thing back then.”
Off-Road Adventures and Father-Son Bonding Time
Off-roading in the Jeep was simply a way for Brad to bond with his sons, Devyn, Jordan, and Justin, after spending so much time away from home while serving in the Navy. As an Independent Duty Corpsman, Brad deployed a lot during his 26-year career, including multiple shipboard assignments, tours with the Marines, and a combat deployment to Fallujah, Iraq in 2006.
“I knew I couldn’t get back any of the time that I missed when the boys were growing up,” said Brad. “But I knew we could have some fun new adventures in the Jeep, make new memories, and it would be a great way to reconnect with my sons by spending time outside and off the grid.”
So a month after buying the Jeep, Brad and Jordan went on their first father-son off-road adventure to the mud caves in Anza-Borrego. Unknown to Brad at the time, Jordan was filming the entire adventure on his cell phone.
“By the time we got home, he’d put it all together and edited it with music. I was blown away. I was like, this is so cool. Let’s do this every time we go out to make a video diary,” Brad said.
An Accidental YouTuber
There was no intent or strategy for building a YouTube channel. Their only thought was keeping a record of their adventures and sharing them with family and friends. In fact, there was no “TrailRecon” back then, only the “Kowitz Adventures” YouTube account. And if you scroll all the way back through the videos, you’ll even find a few family hiking trips as well as Brad’s Navy retirement ceremony.
After about six months of recording his off-road trips around Southern California and uploading them to YouTube, Brad noticed something—people were watching his videos. And they were asking questions—lots of them.
“They wanted to know about the trails in the videos, if I thought their vehicles could make it, and what modifications I’d made to my Jeep,” he said. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of off-road channels on YouTube and even though this was really just a hobby for us, we decided to try and answer some of those questions for folks.”
Somehow, without any plan to do so, he’d acquired 1,000 subscribers by June 2016. That’s also the point when he thought he should start taking things a little more seriously.
“I thought, wow! There’s a thousand people who want to follow us and watch our videos. That just blew my mind. I had no background in any of this stuff, I was a medical guy from the Navy, what did I know about making videos? But this motivated me to really figure out how to film and edit better.”
And so Brad began to learn everything he could about video production and storytelling.
“I listened to a lot of podcasts on how to make interesting YouTube videos. I watched a lot of YouTube videos in many different genres to learn what was and wasn’t working for others. It’s been a lot of trial and error, and I’m still learning, figuring things out, and making changes to how I create content,” he said.
Growing a Successful YouTube Channel
As Brad continued to learn, the channel began to grow even more and he changed the family’s account name to “TrailRecon.”
“I considered a lot of different names but TrailRecon just stuck because that’s what we doing—searching for trails, doing some recon on them, and providing that information to our audience,” said Brad.
He also started changing up the content he was creating. Instead of just videos of a Jeep on a trail, he started filming the camping, the cooking, and even what he was doing in the garage.
“In the beginning it was just about the trails, but there is so much more to getting out on these adventures than just the trail,” Brad said. “I love every aspect of what we do, whether it’s about finding the right gear, the food we’re eating, the camaraderie around the campfire, or the installs and vehicle modifications…I just enjoy all of it. And I thought, maybe I should turn the camera on while I’m doing all these other things because other people might enjoy it too.”
And they did. Because 1,000 subscribers grew to 10,000 by January 2017, and then to 100,000 by September 2018.
“It was so humbling that this many people were following us, and I took it as a responsibility to make sure that I was delivering good content,” Brad recalled.
Seizing a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity
Even though TrailRecon was still just a hobby, Brad’s commitment to creating quality content, responding to comments, and everything else entailed with running a YouTube channel, as well as an Instagram account, a Facebook page, and a private Facebook group, quickly became a second full time job.
“It started to consume my life a little bit,” said Brad. “I had my full time job as a Navy contractor, and then I’d come home and start editing or filming video, and responding to social media comments. On the weekends I’d be out having an adventure on the trail or in the garage making more videos, and it got to be quite a lot.”
At this point, the beginning of 2019, Brad started thinking about quitting his “day job” because something had to give—either his job or the YouTube channel. And while Brad really enjoyed his job, he loved what he was doing with TrailRecon. And being able to create videos about off-roading and overlanding full time would be living the dream. He had a once in a lifetime opportunity within his grasp, all he had to do was take a leap of faith.
Add revenue from YouTube was good, if inconsistent, but he still had his military retirement and health benefits, and his wife Regena had a great full time job working as a civilian for the Navy.
So, in August 2019, with just over 200,000 subscribers and Regena’s support, Brad decided to take a chance and he quit his government contracting job to go all in with TrailRecon.
And he hasn’t looked back.
Inspired to Adventure
Nearly two and a half years later, the channel now has more than 500,000 subscribers, that silver Jeep has been joined by several other off-road vehicles in the garage, and Brad is a familiar face in the off-road and overland communities.
But more importantly, he is still doing what he set out to do when he first started making videos—spending quality time outdoors and off-road making incredible memories with his family and friends, and sharing his experiences on TrailRecon to inspire others to get out there and have adventures of their own.
“Every time someone tells me they started off-roading, overlanding, getting out in nature and spending more time with their families because of the videos we make, I’m so grateful to have had some small part in that. I never imagined the positive impact we would have on people’s lives and I hope we can continue doing this for many years to come.”
For your viewing pleasure, below is the very first TrailRecon YouTube video, shot and edited entirely on an iPhone. Oh my! We've come a long, long way since then!