Off-Road Camping Basics
Off-road camping is a bit like wilderness backpacking, except with a few advantages. For one, you can get to your destination faster. And second, you can carry a ton more gear, creating a more luxurious camping experience. However, it’s important to set the right expectations, as it also presents many challenges. Ready to experience off-road camping? Here’s what you need to know.
Best Types of Off-Roading Vehicles
You need an off-highway vehicle (OHV) to go off-road camping. Some popular vehicles include dirtbikes, quad ATVs, trucks and full SUVs.
If you don’t plan to go far, an open-air ATV or dune buggy is sufficient for handling just about anything–from rocks to mud to wet sand. However, if you are headed off on a multi-day backcountry excursion, an enclosed 4x4 vehicle, such as a Jeep or Land Rover, is more ideal, allowing you to carry all the supplies and provisions you need safely and securely in a rooftop cargo.
That said, if you want the overland capability to drive over anything, from steep hills to deep mud, you need a four-wheel-drive truck with modifications. Specific modifications for true overland adventures could be anything from a low-range transfer case, steel bumpers and rails and added equipment such as full-size spare tires and an extra fuel canister. As for the interior, you could add air compressors and refrigeration units.
Off-Roading Locations and Terrains
Many imagine off-road driving as bouncing around mud bogging in wide open plains and crawling over boulders. But the truth is that you're not filming a high-budget car commercial. You’ll take designated unpaved roads, except they'll be more like dirt or sand trails. It’s important to stick to these trails, too, due to environmental regulations and habitat protection. Even the most experienced off-road enthusiasts understand and respect the seven “Leave No Trace” principles.
Still, off-roading down a marked trail can be challenging. You may face obstacles like a river impasse and extreme weather. And then, there’s how far you are from rescue or help.
More known off-roading spots offer classification markers for OHV trails, similar to ski resorts. Keep in mind, though, that these difficulty-rating markers can be extremely subjective. Ultimately, get familiar with your OHV and practice controlling it in certain terrain conditions. Take a training class or join a local 4x4 club to gain knowledge from seasoned off-roaders.
When planning a trip, even GPS terrain data won’t cut it. With changing weather and terrain conditions, you never know what road might be washed out. Ask locals how the trail last looked, and be prepared to use sensibility for the safety of yourself and others. If the trail section appears impassable, find a way around or turn back.
Check out local OHV forums. You can find forums specific to ATVs, Jeeps and other vehicles that can tell others of a trail’s conditions and offer helpful advice along with photos to get a sense of the level of difficulty.
Essential Off-Road Vehicle Supplies
When you plan an off-road camping trip, you need much of the same camp gear, food and water you would when wilderness camping–plus, whatever extra supplies you need for vehicle maintenance. Of course, each OHV vehicle varies so it’s important to be aware of weaker parts, as well as your own mechanical knowledge and experience level.
Always keep a set of good tires on the OHV–ones with a thick tread and good traction. However, and no surprise here, but...off-road vehicles are prone to flat tires. When off-road camping miles away from the nearest AAA, you need a few more items:
- Air compressor
- Tire repair kit
- Off-road jack
- CO2 tank (for altering tire pressure)
- Full-size spare tire
- Jerry cans and extra fuel
Aside from fixing tires, you need to have an adequate amount of fuel. As a general rule for off-road camping and dirt trails, you should expect about half your average fuel economy. Plan your route and add up the mileage, carrying more than enough fuel in jerry cans when gas stations are far and few between. Also, a headlamp comes in handy if you need to perform maintenance at night or need to send an SOS alert signal.
Off-road camping requires certain skills. While it’s freeing to be far from civilization, you also need to know first aid, wilderness survival skills and simply how to fix your vehicle when it breaks down or pops a tire. Once you trust your off-roading experience and gain more knowledge, it is highly rewarding.