Step 5: Take a Moment

After leaving Stillwell RV park, we headed back to Big Bend. We should note that the 20 dollar pass to Big Bend buys you entry for the week, so you’re free to leave the park as you please. We started into the park  at about 10am and were again in amazement as we headed towards a fuel station, and then, the Chisos Mountains Visitors Center (also a trailhead for The Window). While you are bordered on both sides by mountains, the initial interior of Big Bend is quite flat and low, however, the Chisos just kind of spring up out of nowhere. We made a turn and started our ascent into the basin, greeted with astonishing views on all sides as we disappeared up into the pass. After Chris did some work remotely from the Chisos Basin Store while Emily bought maps, stickers, and other paraphernalia for friends back home, we decided to do a medium-length hiking trail called The Window. Before taking you on our adventure down the trail, we would like to point out that even if you are not keen on hiking, the Chisos Basin area located in the Chisos Mountains is absolutely gorgeous. If you are looking for a picnic table with a view, there are a few here to pick from, and that view….it’s…well just go ahead and take a look at the pictures below! There are also camping and RV hookups in the basin if you’d like to camp somewhere with a higher population. The drive into the mountains is amazing, lots of tight switchbacks surrounded by nearly vertical rock faces, protruding far above, keep this in mind if you tow a trailer or have a large RV. Now, back to the hike!

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We both usually like to do the most we can when on trips, but Emily had just received the okay to remove her boot cast a few weeks prior, so we decided to take it easy instead, doing as much exploring by truck as we could. We decided to go on a hike and letting Emily’s foot rest paid off incredibly well–we took a beautiful, sloping trail that followed a riverbed down to a break in the mountain that overlooked Mexico and the peaks beyond. From the visitor’s center, you can see that the basin is quite large, however, your perspective is skewed by your high vantage point, only after you make your way down the winding trailhead do you start to realize that this is a big, big place. Within the trail, one can spot almost every ecosystem that makes up the diverse Texas landscape. The trail became a little more treacherous towards the end, as we navigated over the seemingly dry riverbed that all of a sudden contained a small creek. There are some point that require climbing over slippery river rock and dealing with “stairs” that offer no holding points and a large fall, yet we saw plenty of little ones, big ones, young ones and old ones, with 2 legs or 4, making their way in and out of even the more difficult parts of the trail. Chris did his part in helping a family with several small children also traverse the somewhat difficult crossing, I will admit, one of them was accidentally dipped in the stream, but he was a squirmy little guy and Chris was already standing on wet, slippery river rock. Oops! Round trip, this hike took around 4 hours, but the end result was magnificent. On our return, we got up close and personal with some more wildlife as we noticed a fox moving in the brush ahead, and then spotted another, their den must have been right off of the path on the edge of the hill we walked past as they didn’t seem too bothered. As we arrived back at the trailhead, two mutual conclusions were reached: that hike was one of the prettiest things we have gotten to experience and we both really need to work out harder!

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We decided to spend the rest of the day driving around the scenic road trails and stopping at overlooks, making our way south to our backcountry campsite on the banks of the Rio Grande. One of the amazing stops that we insist you check out is the Sotol Vista, just south of the Chisos Mountains. While leaving the mountain range, you don’t immediately notice, but you are climbing, just before a descent towards the river, and the Sotol Vista offers amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area, we really do wish that camping in this area was allowed! As we traveled deeper into the park, the sun was setting against a wide wall of mountains that delineates the US-Mexico border. We refrain from getting too political on this blog, but we agreed that anyone who can leave their home and cross terrain that treacherous might just deserve to arrive at their destination–but we digress. As we turned off the black top and onto what would become a mixture of sand, dirt, river silt and rock, we were greeted with one of the most relaxing drives of the journey. Gerald the Tacoma lumbered along at a steady 10 miles an hour and we took in the view, again and again, and again, it continues to change around you as you crest sharp hills and come around previously obscured bends in the road. The gorgeous sunset and banjo music playing on the radio were just icing on the cake as we wound our way along the trail. We arrived at our campsite just around sundown. We aimed this entire trip to not set up camp in the dark, but we found ourselves doing it almost every night anyway. If you visit Big Bend, definitely allow yourself more time than you think you need for your activities and setup time. We finished making camp in the dark, and were astonished that at close to 10 PM, it was still 83 degrees outside. You are not allowed to make campfires in the backcountry unless they are self contained, so we settled down with our many camp flashlights underneath the shelter that Chris constructed from our pop-up and a much-loved tarp, along with our Napier Sportz tent. As we sat back and relaxed, eating Hawaiian Roll sandwiches and enjoying the sound of the river, Chris gestured to the sandy ground underneath our feet at the huge, blood-red scorpion that had decided to see what all the fuss was about. Having never seen a scorpion outside of a Zoo before, Emily was a little rattled, but we were more anxious about the warnings we had received of bears and javelinas. For those of you (like Emily) who are not from the South and have no clue what a javelina is, it’s basically a really angry-looking wild boar. We did not sleep much that evening, as every noise outside the tent woke us up in fear that an animal or other interloper had invaded our campsite. Also, it got COLD. The temperature dropped very quickly from a breezy, dry 83 degrees at 10 PM to a bitter 45 degrees by 1 AM. Chris is currently working on developing a self-contained heater for the tent, and we look forward to using it on our next trip into the desert.

We woke to another beautiful sunrise, and to another day of exploring the park. We decided to take the River Road all the way out of our campsite–it is the longest off-road trail in the park, and offers incredibly scenery and highlights just how massive the park really is. As you traverse this road, you float in and out of dunes, gravel, sharp red rock, and acres upon acres of cacti. However, it does require a 4WD vehicle to make it all the way, you will encounter a few steep river bed entries and deep silt and gravel. We went miles without seeing another vehicle, and as we both enjoy wide open spaces and undisturbed nature, this was heaven for us. Emily wanted to end the day by seeing a few of the more popular destinations in the park, but we only had time for one. The closest was the famous Hot Springs and a nearby overlook of the Rio Grande. To get to the Hot Springs, you must take a one-way hairpin turn road that winds down to the river, and be warned–you can’t take an RV down it, so you must either leave your RV/ trailer or walk alongside the road. At the bottom of the road, there is a parking lot, and an old adobe building that used to be a post office and a general store. A sandy path lines the riverbank, and it’s about a quarter of a mile to the Hot Springs. Along this trail were petroglyphs carved into the cliff face next to the river that have been there for thousands of years, as well as the largest grove of palm trees that we’ve ever seen in Texas.  As we approached the Hot springs, we saw that it was packed with people, and in reality is only a small, natural stone tub formation within the Rio Grande equivalent to the size of a large hot tub. If you do visit the Hot Springs when it’s packed, head east along the same trail and you will find a small outcrop overlooking the Rio Grande where you can dip your toes in the water and enjoy a view unimpeded by small children splashing around (nothing against kids, but that wasn’t how we wanted to spend our time).

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We wanted to spend another day, three days, a week in Big Bend, but we had to move on, as it was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and we were expected in San Antonio to spend the holiday with Chris’s family. If we could do it over again (and we’re going to!), we would have allowed more time for ourselves to explore Big Bend. We drove out of the park very sad to leave but excited to sleep indoors that evening. The sun had started to set in the same  magnificent way that each evening starts out in West Texas, this is something we both had started to fall in love with, the vast open landscapes, clear skies, and clean air. We both kept looking into the Tacoma’s mirrors to watch the sky light up with beautiful colors and shapes as Chris plowed ahead on the 6-hour drive to San Antonio, where we arrived just after 9 PM to hugs, smiles, and homemade gumbo.

Step 4: Keep On Goin!

We had set off from the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge around dusk. As we headed toward Texas, Chris reconnected with a childhood friend of his that had made his way to Amarillo a while back. Seeing as this was only a small detour, we changed route and hit the pavement hard, and after a pleasant break spent catching up with an old friend (coincidentally also named Chris), we pushed on into the dark for about 4 more hours. If you plan on travelling through the southern Oklahoma-Northwest Texas area, keep in mind that there are frequently high winds in the area and driving through these when tired is not recommended. Seeing as this area is also at altitude (approx. 3,600 feet), it also makes for chilly nights, especially in the winter months. We passed through Lubbock, TX in the dark and napped just south of the city in the truck, and man it was cold! We were not familiar with the area and didn’t realize until the next day that we were still 3,200 feet above sea level, and boy does it make a difference! A quick tip for anyone planning to be on the road for a few days, truck stops such as Loves and Flying J typically have showers available for about $10 per shower, a quick and easy way to get cleaned up and stay on the road. As we hit the road for Big Bend, we came into some of the rolling hills that are home to the West Texas oil fields. While the oil derricks do break up the scenery, we did see one of the most beautiful sunrises of our lives, the big openness of Texas really changes your perspective of size and enhances the natural beauty of things we take for granted every day. As we made our way past Midland, TX, society became quite sparse. We came into some sand dunes and after passing through Odessa, Fort Stockton will be your last chance to fuel up before getting to Big Bend on this route. If you take this drive, you will quickly become surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery we had seen yet. We travelled along a straight piece of two-lane blacktop for miles as we both pointed out pieces of landscape to each other, trying to take everything in. We got out of the car at one point, and were shocked at the silence. The roads start to twist and turn over the rolling foothills as you get close to Big Bend. As we continued on, mountains began to spring up out of the ground in the distance–we knew we were getting close. You come around a corner on Highway 385 to the entrance sign, but the drive isn’t over just yet. You will need to purchase a week long entry pass into the park for $25, and then there’s about a 30-40 minute drive to Panther Junction, the first visitor center and fuel station. At this point, you will quickly lose cell service altogether, do not fear though, the visitor’s centers all have free Wi-Fi.

From the beginning of this trip, we had discussed backcountry camping in Big Bend. For anyone interested in backcountry camping in any national park, you should note that every national park has different rules–do your research, and do it well in advance of your visit (click here for information on backcountry camping in Big Bend, and we’ll talk more about it in our next blog post).  For example, you can only reserve Big Bend backcountry campsites within 24 hours of your stay, and you must do this in person (on the other hand, you can reserve backcountry sites in the Grand Canyon a few months in advance–this is our next trip, so we’re currently looking into this!). We learned the hard way that these reservations fill up fast. We hurried to Panther Junction to reserve a site, only to be told that the last site had been booked a few moments ago. We were disappointed, but made the best of it and booked a site right on the Rio Grande for our second night and decided to try our luck with a nearby “campground” in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Refuge for the evening (more on that disaster-turned-blessing below). Lessons learned? Arrive to the park early, and always have a backup plan, especially during peak seasons. We decided to spend some time driving around in the camp and seeing what Gerald the Taco could do. We took Old Ore Road, and realized quickly that the backroads would take us more time than planned to traverse. We also realized after two hours on the trail that we would definitely need to deflate the tires some as the trails are littered with sharp, protruding rocks and generally rough surfaces. Deflating to about 10-15psi below normal should be safe for most, keep in mind that you need to get back to one of the fuel stations or bring your own air tank before going too fast or too far on pavement with deflated tires as this could damage the tires. After an enjoyable afternoon driving around the trails (Part of Old Ore and the Dagger Flat Trail that are the first trails you can access in the park) and planning out our next day, we headed out of the park towards Black Gap.

We like to keep this blog positive and fun, but we have to admit that we were disappointed by Black Gap. You must first navigate the Texas DNR website to locate a general use permit, and purchase one for each camper (this is made especially difficult by the lack of cell signal in the area). These permits are 20 per night per person. Once you arrive at Black Gap, the reservation “system” is a binder in a small office manned by no one, where you take a terribly photocopied map and pick a site not already occupied by another camper or hunter. We didn’t realize it, but “wildlife management refuge” basically means “state sponsored hunting ground that also happens to have campsites.” However, we never made it to our campsite, or the other two we tried to find after failing to locate the one we recorded in the binder. The map was inaccurate in terms of both distance and the location of major landmarks. We drove about 7 miles into the camp over rough terrain (sometimes requiring the use of 4 wheel drive) before bailing and driving another few miles to find somewhere to turn around. Several side roads peeled off of our trail, many of them with “Do Not Enter” signs blocking the way. The sun was setting quickly, and by the time we found our way out of the park, it had been pitch black for some time. We were both incredibly frustrated and a little concerned, as we had wanted to set up camp hours ago. All in all, Black Gap took 40 dollars of our money and 3 hours of our time and all we got in return were giant moths in the truck. However, while the campsite disappointed us, we were uplifted by our interactions with local Texans in the Refuge, who tried their best to direct us to our campsite and help us navigate the winding cliff trails. After leaving Black Gap, we drove 40 minutes back towards the park in search of an RV camp we had passed before. It was our last chance for a place to sleep for the evening. Again, we were blessed by Texas hospitality. We located the Stillwell RV Park, but the office was closed, and we had no idea where to go. We drove into the park and flagged down a family in a Winnebago. They told us exactly where to go and that we could register with the RV park in the morning, and even offered to let us camp next to them if we couldn’t find an open campsite. We found an open site and set up our camp in the dark–we had no idea where we were, but we were content that we had found a place to sleep. Chris devised a killer set up for us, and as we ate fajitas and recapped the day, we counted it a win. Nothing could have prepared us for what we woke up to. We were literally in a bowl–a bowl of mountains. Surrounding us on all sides were beautiful mountain peaks and a breathtaking pink sunrise. We made our way down to the office, and we discovered that Stillwell RV Park was packed with amenities — free Wi-Fi for guests, laundry services, showers, a gas station, and a well-stocked convenience store. We were happy to spend another 20 dollars for the refuge we found, and for the views we woke up to. We plan on returning to Stillwell on our 2018 trip. The sites are perfectly laid out, about 60-80 feet apart, the native brush offering some privacy, yet close enough to know that you’re not alone in the middle of nowhere. Each site is a circle with one way entry, the site being 40-50 feet in diameter and each with a nice, permanent fire pit located in the center. We could easily fit 2-3 trucks and tents in these sites with room to spare.

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Step 3: Go on an Adventure!

November 24th, 2017 was an incredibly busy day for both of us. Chris had just returned from a week long trip to Oklahoma for work and Emily was checking the last boxes on our list of tasks and prep for the big trip while working a busy week! At 9pm it was finally time for us to fuel up Gerald the Tacoma, and hit the pavement hard. We contemplated sleeping and waking up early, but that just wouldn’t cut it, we wanted to get a jump on our 9 day trip as fast as we could. We pushed on through the night, taking turns and napping if we could, this proved difficult given our excitement. Most of our drive was spent fighting the intense wind that was barreling across most of the Midwest, from St. Louis, all the way to the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge, full attention was required when driving. We had initially planned to make a stop at Johnson Shut Ins on our way, but our late departure prevented that from becoming a reality. The wildlife refuge landscape is something that sort of pops up out of nowhere, we were cruising down the turnpike through beautiful, rolling hills of high grass, and popped up over one last hill to see a few mountains littered with windmills. Driving into the refuge is quite beautiful, one should certainly mind the speed limit and watch the road as wildlife is not afraid to cross your path. We were quickly able to find the visitors center, and received a free, easy to read map along with some fantastic recommendations on where to hike for the best views! For any second amendment supporters, with the correct carry license/permit it is legal to carry in the park however, be sure to disarm before entering any of the on site facilities as they are federal buildings and do not allow concealed or open carry inside. For more information on Oklahoma’s firearm carry rules and regulations, click here.

After acquiring our map, we proceeded to the campgrounds as the sun was starting to set. We really, really liked their setup, allowing us to survey open sites and return upon selection to inform them. The sites were also very well kept, given that we were right in the middle of autumn, the leaves and debris were cleaned up and made setting up very easy for us. They are also spaced just far enough apart that you aren’t on top of the next site, and you have some privacy. Each site is equipped with a large concrete picnic table and a rock lined fire pit. Firewood is available at the entry to the campsites. We picked a corner spot and got to work, after unpacking the truck bed, removing the tonneau cover, and setting up our Napier Truck Tent, only 20 minutes had passed, leaving plenty of time to stretch out and relax while preparing dinner! That was one of the most beautiful sunsets we had seen in quite a long time!

About an hour later, we realized that we had forgotten to let our loved ones know that we arrived, When entering this park, you will have cell service for quite a while, after passing the visitor’s center, service drops off quickly, keep in mind that the gate shacks and other buildings around the park do have cell boosters, so if you absolutely need to make a call or check email, those services are available by simply standing close to one! Cell service and 4G LTE data are also available on top of the mountains that you can hike, we skyped Chris’s parents to share the view with them, checked email, made some Facebook posts before heading back down!

As we got ready for bed, we grabbed all of our blankets  (we brought a lot) and crawled into our truck tent which we would like to talk about for a minute. We purchased the Napier Sportz 57 tent for the Tacoma Short bed(5ft), and this was our first night camping in it. Given that we used a full size, queen air mattress, we were up pretty high in the tent(1.5 ft), yet still had plenty of room, our only concern being rolling out of the truck as we were now even with the Tacoma’s low bedsides. Our oversize mattress filled every inch of the Napier’s footprint, but we were able to get in and out just fine (Emily needed a boost because she lives the short life). We are considering several pad/mattress options that aren’t so thick, to give us a little more vertical room. The tent actually blocked out the cold wind quite well, our only mistake being that we forgot to open 2 flaps for ventilation and woke up feeling sort of drowsy and getting dripped on by condensation from the concentration of CO2. More about the tent; The awning provides plenty of covered space for a small step stool and putting shoes on. We really like the small gear loft/hook combo as we can hang our tent fan/lantern. The loft was strong enough to support 3 phones, an Apple watch, truck keys, and a large USB power pack to charge everything. Next time we want to try hanging our tablet from it to watch a movie before bed! The setup and teardown of this tent is a breeze, we elected to leave the tent laid out and rolled up with our gear in the truck bed as it was under a 3 piece tonneau cover that is removed in about 2 minutes. From this stage, we removed 2 totes, the cooler, 2 duffel bags a pop-up tent, and unrolled the Napier tent as seen below.

We can install the bed straps and all support poles in another 3-5 minutes with 2 people and with the in-bed power outlet that the Tacoma has, the mattress we left inside is inflated and ready for use in about another 2 minutes. Teardown is a reverse of this process that takes even less time! After our entire trip, we are incredibly happy with our investment in this tent and highly recommend it along with other Napier products (check them out here). We are looking to get their Sportz Link Tent that can be attached to our truck tent and provide an enclosed sitting area or room for extra campers, before our next trip.

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When we woke up Sunday morning, we were greeted with a cool breeze and gorgeous sunrise that illuminated all of the fall colors in a beautiful way. We started cooking breakfast, Chris definitely burned the bacon, and we sat to enjoy the view of our quiet campsite for a while.

Using the free trail map provided at the visitor center, we decided to hike a route that had been recommended to us by the park staff–we couldn’t possibly hike all the trails, so we asked which one had the highest viewpoint.  Elk Trail was listed at 1.2 miles each way, we made sure to pack our bag light and mostly with small snacks and water. When adding elevation to the mix, water really does determine how far you can travel, 2 of us consumed about 80 oz of water and were still very thirsty when we returned to the bottom! A good rule of thumb is to drink 1 liter (32 oz) of water each hour that you’re actively hiking. On our wish list for our next trip are some Camelbaks and/or better disposable water bottles.

If you ever happen to travel to the Wichita Mountains and want to take The Elk Trail, be careful–about 15 or so minutes into the hike, the trail becomes somewhat unmarked for a section and it’s difficult to tell if you’re following it or not. We know this because we ended up full on amateur free climbing on what was meant to be an intermediate trail. After a half hour of climbing over boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles, we popped back out on the trail and continued on to the top of the mountain. The rock formations were crazy.

It took us about an hour and a half to get to the top including our detour. Chris likes to climb the biggest rock in the park, so we spent a considerable amount of time jumping over giant gaps and crawling up steep inclines to try to get to the highest point, but alas, a huge ravine stood between us and what appeared to be the tallest rock. However, possibly the best moment came as we rounded a corner and came face to face with a giant elk. He was grazing in a small thicket of trees with trails full of hikers surrounding him on all sides, but we’re sure he was used to the company. We gave him as wide of a berth as possible on our way up and our way back down.

After Skyping Chris’s parents at the top of the mountain, we made our way back down. We should mention that this trail is also dog friendly–many other hikers had brought their canine friends along, and we were escorted down the mountain for some time by a pair of friendly hound dogs.

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Once at the bottom, we decided to take the back way out of the park that cuts through a military base, and stop at the  scenic drive up Mount Scott, the highest point in the park, which is only accessible by car. The views were breathtaking, which is a cliché word to use, but there’s simply not a better word for it. Emily struggled to get an unobstructed photo of the sunset because there was a maternity shoot, three engagement shoots, and some family portraits all being photographed simultaneously on  various footpaths and outcrops. However, we did manage to get some decent pictures. After enjoying  some of our meatballs and chicken skewers on the tailgate, we headed off into the night for the next leg of our journey. Chris reconnected with an old childhood friend in Amarillo, and then we spent the night in the truck, catching a few hours’ sleep before setting off for Big Bend, the destination we were most excited to reach. Our next two blog posts will be dedicated to our time there.

Step 2: Pick a Place, Prep your Stuff

 

PICK A PLACE, PREP YOUR STUFF.

On one cool evening last September, we sat by a fire, drank some scotch, and Chris made an elegant spreadsheet detailing everywhere we want to go in the continental US and all the pertinent information we may need–distance, region, state (so we can make sure we visit them all), etc. First on the list was Texas. Chris spent a decent portion of his childhood in San Antonio and still has family there, so we used the Thanksgiving holiday as an opportunity to visit family and embark on our first official trip together in the Taco. 

Emily: I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a chronic over-planner. I knew how many days we had for this trip (9) and I initially tried to squeeze as many places into that timeframe as I could. I always want to see everything and do everything, and this is how I’m used to traveling overseas with tour groups, hopping around from one place to the next every day or two (FYI, this kind of traveling is only a good idea if you want to be stressed out for your entire vacation based on self-imposed time constraints). Chris offered a gentle reality check–why not thoroughly enjoy one or two places, rather than getting a small glimpse at several? In the end, we dropped from about 7 stops to just 3: Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and San Antonio. We didn’t get to see everything we wanted to even with our reduced list of stops, but that’s okay. We plan on returning, and this was an exercise for me in enjoying the present moment and eradicating the ridiculous notion of FOMO.

Chris: Given that I like to spend as much time behind the wheel as I can on trips, analyzing the first list of stops for this trip really got the gears turning when accounting for fuels stops, park hours, suitable rest areas if a nap is needed, the list goes on. I can easily drive for 24-36 hours when my sleep habits have been steady; however, those hours may not coincide with parks and destinations, keep that in mind when planning road travel. Keeping costs down was definitely something on my mind with this trip, I put my brain to work on a list of vehicle prep items to make sure that our biggest spend was used as efficiently as possible. I checked tire pressures regularly with fuel stops to ensure optimum tire pressure on the Taco, I also checked oil and other fluids. Most people don’t notice how their habits change when driving in different landscapes, for example: In Illinois, steady speeds and hiding behind another vehicle are your best bet to pick up 2-3 mpg, in Oklahoma, I was constantly monitoring altitude and being gentle on the accelerator while ascending hills, this gave me a trade-off in Texas, while descending from Amarillo, I was able to hold a solid 70-75mph and achieve similar mpg because we were going down and not up. Habits and awareness like that gave us a 2mpg higher average with a truck loaded almost to the GVWR for the entire trip, than we get around town unloaded. Around town this may not matter, but on a 3,600 mile trip, in a vehicle that get’s 15 mpg average and 17mpg at best, this can be an extra 30 gallons of fuel that doesn’t need to be purchased.

TRIP PREP

Our biggest concern for this trip, as with all our trips, was cost. The Taco averages around 16-18 MPG when fully loaded up with all of our stuff, and we knew we had to allocate most of our trip budget to fuel. Everything else–food, lodging, any incidentals–had to be done on the cheap. With this in mind, we took several precautions to save money:

-We brought all of our food to eliminate fast food stops, and we did it for under $150 for 9 days. This averages out to just around $8/person/day, considered a miracle given Chris’s appetite. We even spent two of those days gorging ourselves on a Texas Thanksgiving dinner and the subsequent leftovers, so we actually ended up needing less food than we packed.

-We also brought ample, healthy-ish snacks that we both enjoy to avoid gas station stops (our go-tos were cheese and meat with crackers, hummus, chocolate covered almonds, and mini bell peppers with spinach dip). Our only cheat was a stop at In-N-Out burger on the way home. We also brought along bulk supplies of the things we often stop at gas stations for, like our favorite beverages (for Chris, this meant a 32-pack of Monster Zero that didn’t quite get him to the last day).

-We spent about $75 total for accommodations the whole 9 days, all of this on entrance fees and permits for camping.

We did make some investments into new camping gear both before the trip and along the way, including this awesome Napier Outdoors Sportz Truck Tent.  We could (and most likely will) devote an entire post to how functional and kick-ass this tent is. It sets up in minutes and kept us off the ground for the entire trip. We also purchased new camp cooking supplies and borrowed an EZ-up and camp stove from Emily’s work, both of which we now plan to purchase.

Our point is that these big, epic overland/camping trips you see can be done for under $1,000 if you’re willing to prepare yourself and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Someone you know probably owns equipment they may be willing to lend you, and if you save your pennies for a few durable, high-quality purchases per trip, you will slowly build a collection of reliable equipment. We’ve started keep a running wish list of what we’d like to add to our stockpile.

WHAT WE TOOK WITH US

  1. Truck tent
  2. EZ-up
  3. This Weber camping grill that worked just fine as a stove.
  4. Two camp chairs borrowed from family.
  5. Collapsible table. This was a godsend–don’t underestimate having a workspace. This one was cheap and lightweight.
  6. Air mattress. This was comfy to sleep on, but not the easiest to insulate. Keep in mind that if the air outside is cold, so is the air in your mattress.
  7. These ground pads to insulate our air mattress. After a chilly night in Oklahoma, we had the “d’oh” realization that there wasn’t enough protection between us and the frigid air inside the mattress, and these were purchased at a Walmart.
  8. Sleeping bags. We brought two that laid totally flat for a warm base layer.
  9. This nifty hanging light/fan that kept air moving in our tent.
  10. Many comfy blankets and pillows.
  11. Rechargable USB battery back.
  12. This USB solar charger (borrowed).
  13. Dry goods and snacks (mentioned above).
  14. 2-3 cases of water.
  15. A cooler full of pre-made meals.
  16. Tote 1 – Cooking supplies: a mess kit, a cast iron pan, a pot,  paper towels and washcloths, a wash bin, dish soap, a percolator, coffee, spices, tongs, a sharp knife, a cutting board, tin foil, skewers, and Clorox wipes.
  17. Tote 2 – Ancillary camping stuff: heavy-duty trash bags (multiple uses), extra propane, lighter fluid, a blue wrench, bungee cords, duct tape, zip ties, and first aid supplies.
  18. Pocketknives/multi-tool.
  19. Multiple rechargeable flashlights.
  20. An all-purpose ground tarp.
  21. Backpacks for in the car, duffel bags for our clothes.
  22. A backseat organizer for all of our snacks, like this one.

Surprisingly, all of this fit snugly in the Taco. We’ve talked about finding a better way than duffel bags to store our personal belongings in future trips, but thats a conversation for a different post. For our first trip, we were pretty proud of how organized we ended up being.

PRE-MADE MEALS

To save time and space, we pre-made most of the food we ate and did our best to keep everything super cold. The only thing we didn’t prep ahead was breakfast (we both like bacon too much to give that up). We also brought a supply of brats and burgers. These are the make-ahead recipes we used:

  1. Foil chicken skewers
  2. Enchiladas
  3. Potatoes in a pan
  4. Hawaiian roll sandwiches
  5. Meatballs in Foil – make these meatballs and heat them up in foil. 
  6. Stuffed peppers

It was a challenge to keep everything cold in Big Bend, and one item we did constantly stop for was more ice. In the future, we’re planning on purchasing a heavy-duty cooler.

This was pretty much our whole prep process–we recommend storing as much as you can in totes or dry bags (that’s what we’re going to use next time instead of duffel bags) to protect from weather, etc. especially if you have a truck and can only protect so much from the elements. Stay tuned; our next blog post will be all about our first stop at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge!

 

 

Step 1: Acquire a Capable Vehicle

taco1
My winky eye matches Gerald’s dirty headlight.

 

Overland culture is exploding, more so even than I was aware when Chris and I started brainstorming for this blog. Even though I consider us somewhat a part of this community, I’m still learning about it every day, and one of our big goals is to showcase how overlanding can be a fiscally accessible hobby/lifestyle. While we definitely spend a silly amount of time lusting after cool gear and gadgets (some of which we’ve bought, like this Napier truck tent), at the heart of our journey and every overlander’s journey is the rig, and below is the story of how I purchased mine, and for quite the deal, too. You don’t need a brand new 4Runner or JKU to enjoy this lifestyle.

In the summer of 2017, I was in a really bad car accident. Long story short, I rear-ended a semi truck that didn’t think tail lights were a necessary safety feature. I was very lucky to limp away with only some broken bones, but my beloved Honda CR-V, Clarence, got his wings and passed on to the big parking lot in the sky (in all seriousness, I cannot recommend the CR-V enough if you want a daily driver that is super, super safe). This left me not only without a vehicle, but without the ability to drive as the impact had shattered several bones in my right foot. I put off getting a new vehicle for quite a while, but then Chris and I started to discuss what our next move would be.

I’ve wanted a truck for the past 10 years, and I’ve wanted a Tacoma for at least the past 5, but I had always talked myself out of it every time I was considering a new vehicle. Why?

  1. They hold their value. Any truck enthusiast knows that Tacomas hold their value like crazy. When I’ve looked for a decent used one before, they’re as expensive as a new or lightly used truck in the same size category.
  2. The gas mileage. While Tacomas perform better than some other trucks on the market, I was used to getting 30+ mpg in my comfy little econobox, and my day job requires quite a bit of driving.
  3. The features. I’ll admit it–I was a bit of a snob on this one. My CR-V was the first nice, new car I ever bought and it had leather, heated seats, bluetooth, remote start, the whole shebang. Tacomas weren’t even made with leather or heated seats in the US until 2012, and a new Tacoma with these features that has actual off-road capability will run you at least 35k.

In reviewing this list, you’re probably asking yourself, “well geez, why did you buy one then?” and I wondered myself if I was making a mistake–with my payout from the insurance company, I could afford to buy another econobox. Why spend just as much on an older vehicle with fewer bells and whistles?

  1. They hold their value. There are two sides to this coin. While I paid more for an older truck, should I ever decide to sell Gerald, he’s worth more than other trucks in his class even with higher miles. This makes spending money on upgrades and after-market mods feel significantly less wasteful.
  2. I can go off-road with minimal mods. I wanted a truck that could get me to most places with limited aftermarket tinkering, and the Tacoma has yet to disappoint. Not to say that tinkering plans aren’t in the works, but I wanted a truck that I could use stock as an ORV.
  3. That beautiful, under-appreciated manual gearbox. I truly prefer driving manual, so when Chris found my Taco (whom we affectionately named Gerald after the elderly pipe tobacco-smoking man we imagine previously drove him) in a tiny town in West Virginia, we were quick to make the trip out there.
  4. Features, schmeatures. My truck has heat, A/C, power locks and windows, a working radio, an auxiliary port, and even a tiny backup camera in the rearview mirror. Everything else except perhaps the heated seats I can add in later at a fraction of the OEM cost.
  5. Commitment to our lifestyle. Perhaps the biggest reason I pulled the trigger on my Tacoma was some sage advice from Chris. “You’re young, and this may be the last car you buy without having to factor in children. Buy what you want while you can, and we can enjoy it together.” My Taco is an investment in our future, our hobbies, and in living the life I choose.

Yes, I miss my 30 MPG. Yes, I miss my butt warmers (especially up here in Northern Chicagoland where temperatures frequently rival the Arctic). But Gerald is so much more fun to drive than an econobox, and he takes us places my poor little CR-V could never have dreamed of going.

Chris found Gerald at a small used car dealer in West Virginia. We had both scoured the internet for Tacomas that fit my very specific wish list: manual, second generation (preferably 08-2015), TRD Off-Road trim, under 100,000 miles, from a warm climate (no salt damage to the frame) and under 20k. It felt like filling out a match.com profile. Gerald was one of only 3 Tacomas nationwide that fit the description, so after a quick deposit (“so at least if y’all don’t show up down here I can buy myself a steak and a few beers”) we flew one way to Columbus where we rented a car and used my PNC Visa Signature Points to book a hotel room for the night.

The next day we drove to West Virginia, bought Gerald, and then drove 8 hours to Nashville to see Chris’s friends from high school, spent a day there, and headed home to Northern Illinois, all over a 4-day weekend. We spent over 20 hours in a vehicle together during our first adventure together, and it showed us that this was something we could do easily together and for very little money. Really, buying Gerald is what started this blog.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZuWBBEB2y-/?taken-by=adventuresrequired

Since then, Gerald’s received a few cosmetic upgrades. Chris was kind enough to paint the rims after I bought new Goodyear Duratracs. Look how shiny he is! As I said above, we have plans for Gerald…a front spacer, light bars, lift kit, roof rack, new grill, running boards, ARB bumper & winch, head unit, and leather seat covers, to name a few. However, the point of all of this is that Gerald is 100% capable of being our off-roading/overlanding vehicle without any of the extras. He proved this to us time and time again during our Thanksgiving trip to Big Bend National Park, which will be featured in our next few posts, so stay tuned!

-Emily