Part 1 - Overlanding 101 (or camping for some of us)
In this three-part series we will break down several pieces that are important in this world called Overlanding. Do not let it overwhelm you. It’s easy to get caught up. Don’t.
During the course of these writings I will note personal, Lightbulb moments. These are times when I was humbled a bit and realized maybe I was overthinking things. They were, and continue to be, simple reminders for me to chill out.
Part 1 below we will discuss the big part...Where do I lay my head? Part 2 will be about the gear you really don’t need; and part 3, we’ll chat about some of the planning.
Lightbulb Moment - Many years ago I was in Miami, AZ with a friend. His contact there knew everything, and I mean everything, about the Toyota Landcruiser. Every make, model, add-on, tweak, engine, body style…everything. He knew the different make/models just by looking at the body lines. He was a weathered, rough-looking older gentleman who still worked like a mule building aftermarket bumpers for Landcruisers; even during the brutal Arizona summers. His shop was strewn with Toyota LC parts, tools, debris, a big oven for powder-coating, and of course, old Landcruisers. We were looking at his facility and making small talk when he mentioned he had just returned from 7 days scouring eastern Arizona forest roads all while living out of his old LC. I was very new to the “Overlanding” world and coolly asked, “So, how long have you been ‘overlanding’?” He replied, “Hmmmm, I always just called it camping.” Gotcha ~
I will tell you that, once you enter this fray, it’s hard to maintain a cool head. You will see more crap that you want, not what you need, but you’ll be told you need it. One visit to the Overland Expo near Flagstaff, AZ and you will see a plethora of gear and equipment you think you need. You don’t. But you will think you do.
After purchasing more than you need you’ll either stay at it, or, like a few of my friends, cash out in short time. What’s interesting is, while the OX displays some of the most exotic and most expensive overlanding gear in the world, their keynote speakers are ironically a lone individual or couple who are traversing the globe in their beater Toyota Corolla or ancient VW Van and just returned to CONUS after 6 months exploring Latvia. It's an interesting contradiction to the aura surrounding the OX.
I started camping with my then 3-year-old daughter many years ago. I was in an older Jeep TJ, ground tent, coolers, and lots of toys that found a lot of mud. My next rig was a 2010 Jeep JK Rubicon, roof top tent, Fox Wing Awning, expedition cooler, homemade kitchen created out of plywood and way too much gear. This rig went everywhere. Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and even a 3-week trek down the Baja to Cabo San Lucas and back. I even started a Jeep Overlanding Rental business called, Sonoran Trails. We were up to three rigs before I shut it down. Now, I’m in a 2021 Jeep JLU Rubicon EcoDiesel pulling a Taxa TigerMoth Off-road Trailer and less gear, but still equally prepared. Having been through the overlanding phases I thought I’d share what I’ve learned and offer some unsolicited food for thought.
Lightbulb Moment - My 2010 Jeep JKU Rubicon was very capable. She had an AEV 3.5" suspension, 37" KM 2 Tires, AEV front/rear bumpers, lighting, and with a ton of overlanding gear, she was heavy. She sported a CVT Roof Top Tent sitting on a Frontrunner Slimline II Roof Rack. Off of the driver side was a Foxwing Awning that wrapped 270 degrees around the side and back of the Jeep. It was a nice set up. Fast-forward to 2015 and this beauty was now beaten and I struggled to keep up with not just routine maintenance, but mechanical parts began breaking. On one trip we were crawling and exploring around Box Canyon near Florence, AZ. I proceeded to go up and over a gently sloping rock in the trail when a large crack/bang/pop echoed throughout the slot canyon. My buddy heard it and began backing up. I nervously looked underneath the rig for the culprit; and then I found it. The axle tube had broke. Literally snapped into two pieces on the front passenger side. I couldn't believe it. I was recovered but my days of overloading this rig were over. She had spoken loud and clear. I didn't know it but I was on my way to a future off-road trailer. Gotcha ~
Part 1 of this series we will talk about the big piece. As in, where do I sleep? That means very different things to many different people. Some feel the Earth Roamer is required, others a Sports Mobile, others a small trailer, and others, a tent is all they need. The diehards will continue to explore in their Toyota Corolla doing crap and going places we can only dream of.
As I got older I was done with any tent and wanted an off-road capable trailer. My key requirements were: I wanted to be able to sit inside and change clothes without laying down, compact design, a good kitchen, solar compatible, and storage. I found most of these in the Taxa TigerMoth. Now, I am not trying to sell the TM, I’m only saying it worked for me and it’s those selling points that I’m offering to you for your consideration. So, my first question to you is, what are your needs? Answer that and you’ve solved most of your problems but remember, there's a fine line between equipping a vehicle, and decorating a vehicle.
First of course is budget. If you’re good with a ground tent those can get pricey but it’s the cheapest option. Roof-top tents (RTT) are very available post-pandemic. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry seems to be making them, but they still aren’t cheap. The bottom line I’ve learned is this – you’re still in a tent! A RTT will set you back $1k for a decent one, or thousands for a top of the line, but you will also need a roof rack capable of handling the static and dynamic loads. These racks are not cheap. If you decide on a hard-shell RTT these are insanely expensive and for me, you’re still in a tent. The biggest drawback of the RTT is once you’re set up, that’s it. There’s no heading out later to explore. You’re stuck. And besides that, try descending a ladder at 0300 after too much scotch to take a leak when it’s snowing and 20 degrees. Trust me, you’ll turn around and pee off of the ladder.
Lightbulb Moment - I have a good friend who tricked out his Toyota Tundra for “overlanding”. He installed an outrageous suspension, Toyo Tires, rear rack, storage capacity, RTT, MaxTraxx, kitchen set up, fuel/water cells, and recovery gear. He said, “I just want to be able to head out whenever I want.” I laughed. He was young, newly married, and had a plan. About a year later he dumped everything. He was tired of a daily driver that looked like a zombie apocalypse recovery vehicle and got 9mpg. And after my first Rubi, so was I. Gotcha ~
So, really (really) ask yourself what you need and be honest.
Off-road Camping Trailers 101
Trailers can get tricky, and expensive. A few places in Arizona build what are spectacular off-road camping trailers, upwards of $15k, then stick you in a RTT. I looked at them all, but it really came down to a few basic designs. There are those that unfold like a Swiss Army knife only to deploy a RTT, then there are hard sides, add to that the neat tear drops, and then the larger travel trailers trying to act like you would really take them off road. Then, the Australian-inspired models that couldn’t make it into half the places we drag our little trailers into, but man are they cool! Here goes my thoughts ~
Tear Drop Trailer
I looked at a lot of these and they were really cool. The biggest downside for me was twofold. 1) You crawl into the interior and you’re in bed, and, 2) The kitchen was always out of the back. Unless you had one helluva' awning you’re getting wet if it’s raining during chow prep.
“Off-road” Travel Trailers
Folks, you ain’t gonna get some of these longer rigs on the backway to Swansea Mine in AZ. And, with minimal ground clearance you better love maintained dirt roads ‘cause that’s as far you’re going to go. With no approach and departure angles you’re left to really nice Forest Service Roads. That’s it. They will however support you comfortably in a dispersed site at a park requiring reservations (pun intended).
Okay, look. These are really cool. Very. Cool. I love them. I wanted one. The suspension alone is incredible. Like drool-inspiring incredible. But, like you, I assessed what I really needed, what I really was going to do, and where I was really going to go, and sorry, these behemoths wouldn’t make it. Maybe they’re great at cruising the Australian Outback behind a G-Wagon at 60mph but I don’t do that. It’s usually us squeezing through a small wash or slot canyon, or a sticky U-turn because we went the wrong way and we’re struggling to avoid desert pinstriping while not rolling the vehicles onto their sides. True story.
This is my boring, generic term for those small and nimble off-road trailers where you can actually do something inside besides sleep and lay down to change clothes. Here, the Taxa and nuCamp brands are two lines that allow this.
Again, I am not pitching for either; however, the Taxa layout was/is perfect for me and my daughter, or me and her and too many of her friends where I’m then relegated to my tent cot outside. The amenities below may be available in other brands so look around. Here are the Taxa selling points for me but more so, ideas and options for you to consider.
The really big deal was the available sitting in the TM. Three can sit in this small area if you were, say, riding out major rain, for example. For me, I’ve enjoyed countless evenings when winter/snow camping with my Buddy Heater going and sitting with my feet propped up listening to an audible book.
Food prep and cooking are key components of my trips. I love to do it. The kitchen on the TM pulls out at the back of the trailer with an awning that covers the area well. It holds my 25-year-old Coleman stove perfectly with lots of storage. One of the two covers is a restaurant grade polyurethane and can be used as a cutting board. When finished, depress the lock and close the drawer.
Okay, the damn trailer is small, but I get everything I need packed into this thing. Inside there is a small, functional headboard. It holds charging cords, Kleenex and charging ports for devices. There is a lockable, steel storage box on the tongue and behind it is space for a cooler or for me, the ARB fridge/freezer with a power point right there. On top is a steel (and sturdy) platform with plenty of grooves and slots to strap down more gear.
Plenty of steel plating protects from flying rocks, but these pale in comparison to scraping against a mesquite in tight quarters. It leaves a mark. And I have them.
Okay, this isn’t a rock crawler with massive amounts of ground clearance, but the TM has about 10” from the axle to the ground. Good enough for me.
The TM has three windows each with a sunshade and bug screen. Close the sunshade at night and this puppy is blacked out…excellent sleeping. There is a rear door that opens wide and the kicker, the side door opens up in a gullwing fashion. Unless you’re sitting outside by the fire, you can’t get any closer to being outside than sitting in the TM with these two doors open.
Mud Terrain Tires + Spare
These are off brand M/T tires but they’ve held up well. The kicker is there is a spare! Not too many trailers offer this and it’s mounted at the tongue. I haven’t used it yet but I’m glad it’s there! It’s mounted too low and I’ve had to take it off several times as it was dragging during articulation so I’ll have to figure out a new location. But I have one!
Look very hard at what’s installed on your potential purchase. I didn’t and the TM suspension sucks. It’s a torsion axle and I swear the axle was assembled years ago and sat in storage for several more years before getting stuck on this camper. The rubber needed for softening the rough road is evidently in a solid state; as in hardened. No compression. No twisting. Nothing soft about it. Nadda. Zip. Not there. I stay aired down to 18#’s just so the TM doesn’t fall apart while airborne traversing rough dirt roads over 30mph.
For me, the above mentioned points were key elements in my decision. You will have other needs and that's fine; but honestly assess what those are. If you're fine with a RTT, outstanding! If you want to have one self-contained vehicle, more power to you. If you feel that a Black Series HQ 15 is in line, by all means! Evaluate your needs and start there.