In my teens and early 20's, I was an avid backpacker and hiker. Since then, I've gained a few pounds, found a real job, got married, etc., all the things that make getting out into the wilds a little more difficult. I've traveled the world for work and spoiled my wife by staying in 5 star hotels. But, no matter what country we visit or how nice our accommodations, I have always felt the pull to get back Outside.
I needed to get into the wilderness for a significant reset. To unplug my digital life and 24 hour work cycle. We decided to run away to the rocky mountains for our next vacation.
I began with the questions of, "How do we take our families on an adventure into the wilderness with no electricity, running water, or soft beds? How can we possibly carry enough stuff to keep everyone comfortable when they are used to A/C, Netflix, and good food?"
I dug out my backpacking checklist and loaded up our packs for a two week trip into high altitude back country. I then reduced my wife to hysterical laughter when I asked her to lift one. Obviously, we weren't going backpacking any time soon.
The Problem - Car Camping?
Earlier in the year, we had scored a great tent at the REI garage sale, the Kingdom 8. It really is like a mobile apartment. The tent had enough room to store all our gear safely away from cold, critters, and rain, and set up a full sized queen air mattress with room to spare. We took it for an overnight test and were amazed at how comfortable we were. We even set up our chairs and a little table inside! Only one problem: there was No Way we were going to lug that thing around the back country.
Further, overnight testing confirmed my wife's disdain for backpacker food. We would need fresh food in order for her to enjoy our big trip. With the added weight and bulk of a cooler, my idea of backpacking through Wyoming and Montana was officially over. If we were going out west to camp, it would have to be car camping. But, car camping was for front country folks with 2.5 kids, gaudy lawn chairs, and picnic table covers, right?
The Solution - Jeep Camping!
Jeep Camping is Not Car Camping
So I gave up on the idea on backpacking, and started thinking in terms of car camping. But, if we were going car camping, we were doing it my way. We were taking the Jeep!
With an installed roof rack, we were able to carry almost all of our gear outside the jeep and keep wife /dogs comfortable for a cross country ride. Extra fuel, water cans, giant Pelican Elite cooler, complete camp kitchen, and backpacks all would ride on the rack. The back seat was folded down, and a blanket/some pillows were tossed in the back for the dogs and whichever human that wasn't driving.
Gas Mileage was an issue. We anticipated getting around 17 mpg for the majority of the highway miles, and we did so long as we stayed under 65. At 70, mileage fell off dramatically. Upon arrival, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon (Hard Rock Edition) had plenty of power to get us up and over the mountains, and the 4 wheel drive smoothly took us off the paved roads and into the back country.
We were incredibly mobile. We saw more animals and beautiful landscapes while traversing the dirt paths and climbing rocky hills than we could have dreamed of seeing from the road, even in Grand Teton National Park. It was truly a north American safari.
We drove along non-maintained dirt roads with our tires just inches away from 200 foot cliffs. Pronghorn leaped out of the tall grass just in front of us, and sheep munched along the road so close we could touch them. Most of the time while we were off the main roads, we never saw another person, even from our hilltop lookouts. Many of the roads we took in the Jeep would be impassible for other SUV's and trucks. Some of the trails were technical challenges and we would not have made it without locking differentials.
Jeep Camping in Style and Comfort
We had a wonderful time, but Jeep camping is just like any other camping: preparation matters. What you bring with you is all you're going to have in the back country.
Just as critical as having something is knowing where to find it when you need it. This is more difficult while jeep camping since you will tend to bring more stuff. Lost your cooler lock key somewhere in the camp kitchen? Have fun being hungry, that cooler is bear proof; you're Not getting in. Cut yourself and can't find the first aid kit that you SWEAR you brought with you? Hope you don't bleed out.
A few back country tips to make your Jeep camping trip more enjoyable:
- Label Everything. On the inside of every box lid and at the top of every bag, have a packing list of all the gear inside it. A quick glance will confirm if you are digging through the right gear box.
- Bring spares. Weight is not an issue, so bring a few spares of everything that can break. If you think you need one stove, bring a small extra just in case. Bring double your required food and water. Do not forget to bring spares for the Jeep! Extra oil, a set of tools, coolant, and all the usual off road accessories are required items. Do not leave the pavement without them!
- Be comfortable. Jeep camping is not backpacking. Don't rough it; bring all the little trinkets that make life easier. Folding chairs, folding table, solar shower, large spotting scope, anything that will make your mornings more comfortable and your evenings more enjoyable.
- Be safe. Everyone knows Jeeps can roll so be careful. Jeeps are far more likely to roll with hundreds of pounds of gear on the roof. Pick your lines carefully in rugged terrain and whenever possible, take the gear off the roof rack to lower center of gravity. Also, when in bear country, please remember that soft top Jeeps do not count as "locked in a vehicle", if bears want in, they're getting in. At night, we unzipped the top so if a bear climbed in, he was less likely to destroy the Jeep in the process.
Whenever possible, find a campsite early and deposit your gear. Setting up camp properly can take over an hour. With practice, we were able to set up our tent in minutes, but it still takes time to de-lash and unpack all the gear. Late afternoon is never a good time to set up camp, and the problem is amplified while Jeep camping.
Tips on base camp:
- Don't tie the Jeep down. Roof rack awnings and roof top tents are really cool, but once deployed, your Jeep is stuck in one location. We opted for a more standard tent and were happy we did. Once base camp was established, we were able to select a much wider array of day hikes and had access to OHV trails. We covered a lot more ground than a pair of hikers could on foot.
- Lower your center of gravity. Dropping off gear lightens the jeep and allows you to be safer on the trail.
- Don't drop All your gear! Remember to bring your day packs. Even with the Jeep, you are still in the back country and need all essential supplies for survival.
- Bear safety. Again, a Jeep does not count as a bear proof container. Understand bear safety measures or you may have an unscheduled visit from your friendly neighborhood omnivore. Yes, you're on the menu.
Overnight from Base Camp
You may find yourself too far away to safely return to base camp before sundown. Not to worry, you have brought a rolling tent with you. It is a little tight, but we have successfully blown up a queen air mattress and slept in the back of the jeep. Simply unzip a few air holes and snuggle up for a warm night. If you are even more adventurous, you can take the top down and sleep off the ground, and under the stars. It is beautiful!
National Forests are Better for Jeep Camping
Lastly, there are very few places to back country camp with the Jeep inside the national parks. The parks are not enthusiastic about allowing vehicles into the back country for a number of reasons (most of them sound), so I recommend spending at least some time outside the parks in the many amazing national forests.
National forest land is less crowded, free, almost as accessible as the parks, and you can bring your Jeep. We greatly enjoyed out time in the Bridger-Teton National Forest around Yellowstone.