Essentials for backcountry road trips

Tips and tools for backcountry road trips and camping

My rig, not fully stocked yet, on a ride in the Wyoming backcountry

Soon to be a resident of Las Vegas and concurrently, a full-time purveyor of all things canyon country, I am already planning a number of weekend expeditions. Obviously Zion, Red Rock and the Big Ditch are on the short list. I also plan on traveling as many of the unmaintained state roads as I can, both in car and on bike.

While getting there is half the fun, it too requires preparation. I came across this list of Ten Backcountry Road Trip tips on Popular Mechanics’ Web site. It’s a good one, but could probably be extended to 20. Like, where’s the extra gas suggestion? Or the basic pre-trip car checks?

Nevertheless, it’s a list worth keeping handy. And here is what I would add to it:

  • Roof rack: either a cargo box or one of Thule or Yakima’s baskets.
  • Extra gas: fill a 5-gallon Jerry can and rack it. Pick one up at an Army surplus store or at
  • First-Aid kit: keep that sucker up to date and handy
  • Tarp: for shade and shelter in case the rig breaks down. Kelty has good options, as does Eagles’ Nest Outfitters. The Pro Fly can be used as a stand alone tarp shelter.
  • Tools: based on what you think you could fix, don’t bring what you don’t know how to use.
  • Maps: NOT your GPS. In remote backlands, reliability on sat nav is a risk. Get some from AAA if you’re a member or
  • Jack: The standard, included car jack may not be enough on loose gravel or un-level ground. Consider an upgrade, maybe a Hi-lift.
  • Fix-a-flat: something that could extend the life of a tire for even a few miles could really help, even when you have a spare.
  • Duck tape: Come on, of course there will be a need.

What am I missing? Any other ideas?

Your GPS doesn’t know everything. Trust in it accordingly.

Map of incidents in Death Valley

Image from The Sacramento Bee, TOM KNUDSON/

I have a large atlas under the seat of my truck. It sees a lot of use because I don’t own a GPS. I have to find the need for one, actually. Between Web-based maps, the wonderful folks at AAA and a bit of common sense, I feel confident in my ability to find just about any place I want to go.

I have a buddy who swears by his GPS, especially when it comes to timing his arrivals. The text will read: “Be there at 1:47.”  That’s cool I guess. But hey, isn’t that why we measure automobile travel in miles per hour? Thus, in that context, his GPS is nothing more than a directionally-savvy calculator.


In yet another example of how the underlying spirit of getting away from it all doesn’t overlap too smoothly with the use of technology, rangers and national park officials, in whatever spare moments they have, are trying to work with GPS device manufacturers to ensure that desolate and dangerous roads don’t end in the lexicon of their products. Turns out, people put more faith in the voice of their windshield mounted map maker than they do the ones in their heads. It’s even reached the point where rangers have created the informal explanation of “Death by GPS.”

Is anyone surprised?

The Sacromento Bee pointed out that the problems are becoming much worse than just ending up in the wrong part of town. It’s more like ending up at the bottom of a ravine, bleeding, alone and being scorched to death by the heat of a thousand suns.

Love your iPhone. Just don’t love it too much.

It’s time to Campout Carolina. Get on out there.

The boss enjoying some grub in Canyonlands

This weekend, October 8-10, is the Campout! Carolina event created and sponsored by EarthShare North Carolina. Consider it the Tar Heel State’s localized version of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Backyard Campout.

I grew up camping. Ultimately, it was the best way for my parents to take their four wild animals on a vacation that wouldn’t result in trashed hotel rooms or firm requests from amusement park security to “Never come back again.” So we spent a couple of weeks every summer in a Coleman pop-up Griswolding around the St. Lawrence Seaway, wooded sections of New Brunswick, Canada and just about any place in northern New York State that had enough open space for me and my brothers to run freely without the need for a consistent law enforcement presence. To me, camping was something you just did. Like playing little league baseball and riding your bike in the street. We fished, hiked, had fires and crapped in a plastic green canister. It rocked.

Once I became an adult (which is still up for debate), I found it odd to learn that some people have never been camping. Never. Been. Camping. Seriously, that’s how odd that sounds to me, it makes me write in single-word sentence fragments. The mere mention of a weekend in the woods around a few of my friends elicits reactions not unlike those I would collect by suggesting we spend the weekend clubing rescue dogs.

I can understand why a person has never been backpacking, that’s entirely different. Car camping though? It’s a scratchy comforter and 17” tube television away from a Days Inn. And the coffee is way better.

Ultimately, I most sad about the fact that so few of us really ever know what exists above the shingled plywood roofs under which we slumber or beyond the drywall that encloses us. And even beyond those barriers, far away from city limits and school zones. We need to get out there more, folks. And this weekend is a great time to start. Get the kids, find some friends and go rent a tent if you need to.

The REI in Durham has a lot of the details and ways to get started enjoying the outdoors. Give it a shot.