Off road camping is a test of man and his machine against nature, so expect some challenges as you hit the trail! Be ready for at least a few things to go wrong, but know that the challenges and frustrations encountered along the way are outweighed by seeing the untouched beauty of our world and the feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction at the end of the road.
It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and that rings true here. Due to the remote nature of overlanding, many of the things that will ensure a safe and successful trip will happen before you pull out of your driveway. So how can you best prepare for a trip into the unknown?
Here are some things to keep in mind as you head out for your first overland camping trip with an off road trailer:
Before you go:
- Check the towing capacity for your vehicle. (This should really be done before purchasing a trailer at all, but the point stands.) Towing capacity can sometimes be found in the owner’s manual for your vehicle, but with all the possible variations and builds for individual models, it is not always listed there. The most reliable information will come from the door sticker with your VIN on it. For more information on how to calculate your towing capacity, see this guide.
- Become familiar with your vehicle’s 4WD system. Learn about which settings you should use in which situations, and be comfortable shifting your vehicle between them, as this will likely become a necessity on the trail.
- Be familiar with the locations of the air intake and internal computers on your vehicle, so you know how deep into water you can trek. This is sometimes referred to as fording depth. This will vary from car to car, and depending on if the water in question is standing or flowing. A general rule of thumb is to go no deeper than three-quarters of the height of your tires, and even that can be risky.
- Familiarize yourself with the ground clearance capabilities of both your vehicle and your trailer. This will help you to know which trails you can manage without damaging your undercarriage.
- Be aware of your length. Towing something behind your vehicle will change the amount of space you will need to safely change lanes, make turns, merge, and park.
- Practice! With 6 wheels, turns will feel very different, as will backing up and parking. Practice jacking the trailer up as well. These tasks will be easier to do in a crisis if you’ve practiced them in a controlled environment. Learn to drive with both feet, as you will often need to use one on the accelerator and one on the brake when towing a trailer over a particularly difficult obstacle.
- Don’t mix rim and tire sizes between the vehicle and the trailer. This will make it easier to navigate obstacles, as well as simplify any necessary repairs. Don’t leave without a spare tire (or two)!
- Ensure that all your vehicle’s fluids and gas are topped off. Fuel economy will roughly halve as you drive in the sand and loose dirt, so be sure to factor that into any calculations for your anticipated fuel consumption.
- Bring plenty of water. Pack 1 gallon per person, per day, as a minimum.
- Pack any tools you may need, including jumper cables, cable ties, a deflator, a tire pressure gauge, an air compressor, a first aid kit, extra nuts and bolts, sand ladders, extra fuel, and a fire extinguisher.
- When packing your vehicle and your trailer, try to distribute weight as evenly as possible, both from left to right and from front to back. Heavy items should be placed towards the middle of the vehicle or over the axle of the trailer, if possible. Strap any loose objects down as necessary.
- Research the area you want to visit, and the trail(s) you want to take. Be aware of the expected weather patterns and how these can affect the driving conditions in the area. Make sure the trail isn’t too difficult or technical for you or your vehicle/trailer’s build. Having a challenge is part of the fun of off-road camping, but damaging your vehicle isn’t!
- Have a Plan B! This goes hand-in-hand with researching the area. Even with extensive research, weather can be unpredictable, trails can change, and information on the internet can be wrong (shocker, I know). So be prepared just in case something does go awry and you can’t complete your desired trail(s).
- Don’t go alone! Travel with a second person, and if possible, travel with a second vehicle. This will make most emergencies much easier to manage. If this isn't possible, make sure that someone knows where you will be and when you will be there, in case of any emergencies.
While you’re out:
- Don’t rush. Most trails are actually easier to manage when moving slowly. Driving too fast can lead to body damage, breakage, or worse. Go as slow as possible and as fast as necessary. Enjoy the ride!
- Be prepared to adjust your tire pressure as the situation dictates. Generally, you will want to lower your tire pressure for most off roading, particularly if you’re driving through sand or over large rocks. Lower tire pressure means more surface area on the ground, increasing traction and decreasing pressure exerted by the tires onto the ground, but keep in mind that this will drop your ground clearance a bit. Airing down is helpful (and sometimes necessary), just remember to air the tires back up before hitting the highway!
- Pay attention to all signs posted and familiarize yourself with any symbols or markings unique to the area.
- Don’t try to accelerate if you get stuck, as this can make the situation worse. This applies particularly to loose dirt and sand. The faster tires spin, the harder it is for them to grip anything. Spinning your tires can also bury you deeper, further complicating your escape. Take your time, assess the situation, then act.
- Exercise caution with quick up-and-downs or small hills, as taking these too fast can cause the trailer to bounce, damaging it or its cargo.
- Don’t hesitate to use spotters to navigate tricky spots. This is a benefit of traveling with multiple people, as a passenger can step out of the vehicle to help the driver find ideal tire placement in tackling an obstacle.
- When preparing to set up camp, try to park so the wind will hit the corner of the trailer rather than the side or the end. This will prevent as much buffeting and rocking as possible
- Don’t be afraid to scout out an area on foot before driving it. If you see a particularly tricky looking hill coming up, hop out and run to the top to see if the trail eases up after the hill, or if this is the new normal for the trail.
- Don’t stray away from trails. Just because your vehicle is an “off-road” vehicle, this does not mean that it will be safe for you to venture off of the beaten path. Your safety aside, this could also damage the nature that people go off roading and camping to enjoy.
- Don’t litter. Remember that you are a visitor to the home of the flora and fauna of the region, and that you aren’t the only one. Any trash you leave behind will be an eyesore to other campers.
- Know the rules for right-of-way. On multi-use trails, large vehicles should yield the right of way to smaller ones, so watch out for bikers, hikers, or people on horses. If two vehicles meet going opposite directions on a hill, the vehicle going down will cede the right-of-way.
- Don’t stop on the trail if you don’t have to. Try to find a safe spot to pull over to the side of the trail if you need to stop.
- Be aware of your spacing. Don’t follow too close to vehicles in front of you, as you may not be able to move out of the way if they slide backwards or tip over on a hill (not to mention that you don’t want to make them feel unduly pressured. Try to keep other vehicles in your group in sight so you don’t get separated. If you are driving past people camping or hiking, slow down so as to not kick up a bunch of dust into their faces.
- Leave gates as you found them. If you have to open a gate to get through, close it before you move on.
The most important part of off road camping is to safely explore and enjoy nature. These trips should be a fun getaway from the routine of your life rather than an additional stress on top of your busy schedule. Proper planning and execution will ensure that your weekend escape is a trip to remember. Don’t be scared away by the unfamiliarity of something new, because everyone has to start from somewhere. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice on an online forum or even on the trail. But remember that the best way to get comfortable with overlanding and to develop a feel of what works for you is to get out and go!