I love camping. Kinda. 

I love getting away from the heat and noise and batshit consumer crazy that is city life. I love being up in the mountains, breathing in that fresh, pine-scented air, and feeling the buzz of nature’s relative silence. I love the crackle of the campfire and the symphony of crickets and frogs under starlit skies miles from anywhere with an app or wait for a table.

And yet, I often find myself hesitant to commit to the simplest of overnight adventures.

Continuing my exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, I’m trying to notice when my stories are impacting my experiences—and make sure I’m telling myself better stories. One life to live, right? It’s a lot better when I’m not telling myself how much everything sucks.

The simple life, it seems, takes quite a bit of planning.

Honey, where’s the chainsaw? | image: mine

Who’s going? When are we going? Where are we going? What are we bringing? What are we eating? When are we leaving? Can I take Friday off? If not, how early can I sneak out? (Never mind I’ve been out of PTO since January.)

Worse still, I can’t shake the certainty that I will return home filthy and exhausted.

In any case, Friday comes and, if I’m lucky, I’m packed and ready to roll straight from work. Camp’s a little over two hours away—but it takes nearly three hours to get there because I live in a sprawling, 500-square-mile, desert heat island with effectively only one road outta town in each of the cardinal directions.

Everyone else has the same idea. An interstate system planned in the 1970s chokes 21st century traffic to a crawl. Self-righteous assholes fly up on the right and cut back into the left lane at the last minute, shaving seconds off their three-hour drives while adding hours to those stranded by the accidents they cause where there are no alternative routes.

I roll into camp more than a little shell shocked, my concern for humanity on fumes. Miles of washboarded forest roads rattle my already frayed nerves and I usually keep my hellos brief until I’ve spent an hour setting up camp—the last of my commuting effort going into making my bed in the back of the truck.

It’s only when I settle into my Kelty couch by the fire, a cold, koozie-wrapped beer in hand, that I finally feel the weight of the world start slipping away.

And it’s magical.

Basking in the LED goodness. | image: mine

Except when it isn’t.

Half the ice in the cooler has melted by the time I reach camp. Something’s always waterlogged, and the cooler smells like spinach artichoke parmesan dip (read: boot full of vomit). I’m borrowing use of the skottle I sold JP because, even if I had bought the fancy bags for it, it’s still a lanky pain in the ass to pack. I could have brought my own—vintage—Coleman stove, but that means dishes, and the last thing I want to do at camp is wash dishes.

A few beers later, though, Friday night is in full swing.

Camp is magical.

This is what it means to be human, ya know?

Sitting around the campfire, telling stories, laughing, snacking, sharing in the wonder that is feeling small on this brilliant blue-green ball of paradise spinning through an endless universe.

The fire dies down and we make our way to our compromised sleeping arrangements. I don’t know about you, but I’ve pretty much never had a good night’s sleep at camp. Peace, quiet, fresh air be damned—my $3,000 memory foam mattress at home has spoiled me. (Then again, I’m not exactly sleeping that great in general these days, but I digress.)

[ Skip a bit, brother. ]

And none of the sprayers work. | image: mine

Two days later, covered in dirt, baptized in smoke, and slightly hungover, we pack it all back in the truck and trudge reluctantly, yet eagerly, back into town. If I wait too long to break camp, I catch the traffic coming back into town after a weekend up north where it’s not oppressively hot.

36 hours of respite, book-ended by 3-6 hours of road rage.

See what I mean about the stories we tell ourselves?

You might be thinking, “Well, if you enjoy camping, investing in better gear would make your camp life easier, maximizing your experience!” And you’d be right! But you can’t fill the hole in your soul with dope, or rather by consuming more stuff.

In an interesting turn of events, I recently had the best sleep ever at camp.

In a 22-foot RV trailer.

It got me thinking. About my setup. About better gear, even.

But, again, more (expensive) stuff isn’t the answer. The gear is important—totally—but only when it’s the right gear for the situation. It’s kinda like GPS. GPS only helps us know which way to go because it knows exactly where we are. So where, exactly, am I, when it comes to camping?

Camping GPS

I’ve been giving some thought to what I really want and need in my camping setup. There’s no escaping opportunity cost, though, so let’s start with what I’ve currently got.

My current setup is largely built around Fezzik, my 1998 Mitsubishi Montero. V & I can both sleep in the back. We might be able to fit P, too, given a bit of finesse, but it’s not particularly comfortable if I’m honest. I mean, it’s very comfortable for sleeping in the back of an SUV, but it’s still rough sleeping.

Beyond Fezzik, I have an 8-person cabin-style tent I’ve never used. I’ve also got a 4-person dome tent I’ve used twice, maybe three times. I’ve even got a one-man bivvy I like to think I’ll use one day.

The bedding situation consists of a couple Alps Mountaineering, self-inflating pads, which get a lot of use, along with two Coleman sleeping bags, several heavy quilts and blankets, and an entire Rubbermaid bin full of retired pillows.

Kitchen at AAV’s Big Bear event, 2015 | image: mine

I’ve got Dad’s old Coleman 2-burner stove. It still had white gas in it and lit on the first try after nearly 20 years in storage. I filled the tank for American Adventurist’s SoCal Mountain Rendezvous 2016 and still have a mostly full tank. At this rate, the gallon of white gas I bought should last the rest of my life.

I keep things cold with one of those larger, gray-and-orange Coleman coolers. It’s decent, at best.

Kelty’s made an impression on me, and so I have the previously mentioned couch, a kid’s chair for P, a decent sized Noah’s Tarp, and a cute little LED lantern. Ooh, which reminds me, I have an REI Black Diamond headlamp, too.

All told, I’ve got a very decent setup. I know this.

But I’ve been thinking about other potential setups that might suit me better—especially in light of getting the best sleep I’ve ever had at camp recently. Here’s what I’ve been chewing on.

Maybe I’m an RV guy?

Earth Cruiser. The dream. | image: Earth Cruiser

Pros: Fully self-contained. Decent beds, cushioned seating, basic kitchen and bathroom facilities, refrigeration, heat, and air conditioning, not to mention square footage.

Cons: About as expensive as you can get, especially anything capable of going anywhere beyond maintained dirt roads or trailer parks. Construction materials and build quality are seriously lacking below six-figure price points. See also: Fezzik is slow enough uphill. Towing performance would suck.

I could go #overlandaf?

The always inspiring Expedition Overland crew. #nobodydoesitbetter | image: TRD, Expedition Overland

Pros: Expensive, high quality gear can be assembled piece-by-piece, making the investment less painful. Roof top tents (RTT) deliver a decent sleeping experience, and self-contained sleeping apparatus topside means the back of the truck can be repurposed for a refrigerator and stove tucked neatly beneath lightweight seating arrangements quickly deployed beneath an onboard awning. Hang curtains from the awning and there’s protection from the elements, along with privacy for changing clothes or using Homer’s Bucket.

Cons: Aside from overall vehicle performance degraded due to weight that, while removable, is seldom, if ever, removed, it’s all still expensive. It’s hard to justify $3,000-plus worth of roof rack and tent on a $2,500 truck for less than monthly camping, imo. See also: awning curtains aside, there’s limited square footage during inclement weather.

What about an #overlandaf adventure trailer?

Turtleback Expedition trailer | image: Chris Cordes, Overland Journal

Pros: I really like this idea. RTT, fridge, kitchen, house batteries—the whole shittery, as Toybreaker would say—neatly packaged for quick deployment when needed, secure storage when not. Stock the fridge, top off the water tanks, hitch it up, and hit the road. Bonus: chain it to a tree and leave camp to explore in a relatively unloaded truck.

Cons: Anything actually built to handle primitive roads and light trails is going to cost $10,000 to $20,000 and up. If those prices include tent, fridge, etc., it’s a bit easier to swallow, but it’s more than I want to spend. I guess I could build one myself—many people do—but that seems like a hassle at this point—even if I could use the back half of another Montero for my platform.

Optimize what I’ve already got?

Where I sleep when I’m solo. | image: mine

Pros: Least expensive option. Makes the most of my existing investments. A good roof rack and storage box could free up interior space for a fridge and basic kitchen. And an awning could serve dual purpose as shade cover and a tent-like space to setup cots for sleeping at night.

Cons: It’s still an easy $5,000 to get there from here, and I’m pretty sure I’m not getting the best sleep I’ve ever had at camp on a cot. #prissy

So now what?

Thinking through all of the above, I kinda feel like I’m back in Square One, ya know? Sure, if I had $30,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I could just fix everything on Fezzik and buy all the upgrades at once. But at this point in my life, spending $20k on camping stuff—something I only seem to do a couple times a year—falls into the same bucket as buying a $100,000 Sportsmobile or even a $200,000 Earth Cruiser.

It strikes me that I need to build on this thinking. I’ve had my ideal camping solution visualized for more than a few years, now, but as it hasn’t been—and effectively remains—unfeasible, I wonder if I’ve wandered too far down rabbit holes trying to piece together a happy compromise.

Project Delica

ZOMG YES. | image: Derick Yan

How’s that for a blast from the past, eh? As far back as 2014, I was imagining myself driving a 4WD, turbodiesel van—a Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon (P35W)—with a roof rack and awning up top, and a fridge/kitchen out back. Crawl through the bush to the secluded camping spot, deploy the awning, drop a couple chairs, and fold the seats down into beds, with a neat little kitchen in the back under the tailgate.

Everyone and their brother being a Delica importer these days means that Delica prices have stayed north of $10,000 (closer to $20,000 for the super nice ones). Again, that’s serious coin for what would amount to a painfully slow daily driver that was never sold in the States, has relatively zero domestic aftermarket support, and might be used for camping a couple times a year.

Fast, Right, Cheap—Pick any two, right?

There are no shortcuts here. If I had a $30k camping setup, you bet your ass I’d be out in the woods at least monthly—if not seriously angling for that #vanlife in general. But I don’t have $30k for camping stuff. Even if I did, I’d probably find myself looking at sailboats instead, but again, I digress.

I guess I’m back where I started, then.

Fezzik at camp. | image: mine

I love camping. I love being out in the great outdoors, away from it all. But I want to be more comfortable while I’m there. I want the good parts to so far outweigh the bad and deliver such sublime respite that that I actually come home feeling refreshed, if not still a little dirty.

Is that too much to ask? Perhaps—but if it’s worth doing, isn’t it worth doing right?

I’ve still got a lot to figure out. And I’m looking forward to the eventual conversations around this subject in the TGP forum. Maybe I’ll see you there…

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  1. While you’re busy thinking about what to do next, subscribe to Slim Potatohead on Youtube if you haven’t already – he’s really good at the share & show storytelling style instead of getting dry, instructional or preachy.

    I like keeping it backpacker lean partially as a challenge to keep myself from becoming too soft and incidentally because it’s less money to spend and less stuff to give-a-f about. But I also don’t have a 3rd member of the family to consider.

    As for the glamping options I saw some $50k “ultimate” off road camp trailer a while back that had its kitchen outdoors and no room to stand inside. Fifty grand and you’re getting flies in your spaghetti, waving your magic wand around in the breeze while sponge-bathing, cooking your morning coffee in the rain… fifty grand. Capital letter F about all that. If I’m pulling a trailer at all I’m standing up and cooking indoors, period.

  2. Ahh, I miss that (everything from part one). Too much hotel time with the gig I’ve been on, I think I’m on night 127 this year? The weather is perfect right now too, but heading out for the weekend means not making progress on what is currently the world’s most capable tin can (a gutted Disco). I might just go anyhow…

    I’m smack in the middle of another tear-down and rebuild cycle, so I’m asking many of the same questions right now. This time around I’m headed more toward what Shovel is preaching. It’s not just the price point, but that convenience factor too (especially sticking with a standalone SUV “camper” where both pack and work space is such a premium). Big Colemans are great, but will never come close to the flexibility of use and storage a single-burner backpacker stove has (or two of them, as I’m carrying). Fridge, water, and power will likely be the only onboard systems for me this time, emphasis on multi-purpose flat space and storage cubbies.

    Sounds like a great conversation to have over a few pints, a campfire, or both. When are you headed up the hill next?

    • Yes to all of the above. Not sure when I’m next headed up the hill again, but will start looking to get something planned. 😉

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