What kind of camper are you? The type who spends hours on Recreation.gov looking for the perfect campground with all the amenities, available at your desired dates? Or are you more interested in driving off-grid into the unknown in the hopes of finding a hidden gem where you are surrounded for miles only by the open wilderness, and no reservations are needed?
Don’t get me wrong. There is something to be said for having easy access to running water, toilets, and a guaranteed spot to post up at—but we at Tres Amigos fall squarely into the latter group of campers. And while we know this kind of camping might not be for everyone, it works for us.
It’s not as intimidating as you might think. Assuming you’ve got a car that can get you there—all you really need is a little planning and a few key essentials to make it an unforgettable trip. So read on for a few must have items we’ve found useful in our thousands of miles of camping adventures, as well as a few tips and recommendations if you want to give it a try yourself.
Let’s Start with The Necessities
If you’re going to camp off-grid and away from civilization—whether it’s a couple days or a couple weeks—you need to be able to carry everything with you. But when you boil it down, there are only a few things you really need to enjoy your time off-grid. Here we break down the six necessities and a few of our favorite products:
Food: You can choose to go all out gourmet or keep it simple, but either way—you gotta stay fueled. We like to do a combo, bringing both fresh food to cook on our stovetop as well as a few freeze dry meals for the days where we just don’t feel like cooking. All we have to do is boil water, mix, and eat! In terms of cookware—plates, skillets, utensils, etc—we prefer GSR. Their products are compact, lightweight and sturdy. The single most used and versatile cooking item we carry is a JetBoil—used for everything from boiling water, to making coffee, to cooking soup, and more. And bonus, all the parts store inside of it so it’s no bigger than the size of a water bottle.
Water: Be sure you carry enough water for however long you’ll be away from a supply. And spoiler: it’s probably more than you’re thinking. For two people and a 90-lb dog, we always carry 21 gallons of water. This is a bit overkill, but we use our water for everything from drinking, to cleaning, and even showering—and oftentimes we’re away from civilization for days at a time. Plus, we’d rather be overprepared. But a good rule of thumb is to always carry one gallon of water per person, per day. And depending on the environment (how hot/cold) as well as your activity level, and if you have any pets along for the ride, you may need more.
Shelter. Investing in a quality tent is the most important thing to help you stay protected from the elements and keep those pesky critters away. We prefer a rooftop tent (RTT) style over ground camping for a variety of reasons, namely because it provides safety from both large and small animals by getting us off the ground, it’s comfortable thanks to the built in high-density foam mattress, and it sets up/breaks down in less than 5 minutes. You can read our full review of the Tepui Kukenam 3 to hear more about why we went the RTT route—but so long as you’ve got some way to stay protected from the sun, rain, wind, or snow you’ll be set.
Fire. If you’re in an area that allows campfires, you’ll want to make a campfire as soon as the sun goes down—both to keep you warm, and give you something to sit around while you and your friends solve all the world’s problems over a few beers. With that in mind, you’ll need to bring your own firewood, lighter, and starter. Or, make it easy on yourself and just carry a mini propane tank and torch like we do and you’ll have that fire going in no time! And don’t forget the rule: burn it where you bought it. Don’t trek that firewood hundreds of miles from home. Either buy it from a nearby gas station before you head off-road, or scavenge the area around you for dead branches and leaves (again, check local rules/restrictions on what you can and can’t do). And always be sure the fire is 100% out before you go to bed.
Lights. When you’re not in an established campground, light may be hard to come by. Unless it’s a full moon, chances are it’ll be pitch black anything more than a couple feet away from that fire. So, you’ll want something that will help light the way as you dig around in your cooler for that last beer of the night or stumble from the campfire to your tent. A headlamp makes things easy since it’s handsfree and illuminates wherever you move your head. We prefer Black Diamond—but really anything will work. We also have two lanterns that hang from the outside of the tent that illuminate it from a distance and adds a bit of ambiance—because who doesn’t like that?
Safety and Recovery Gear. If you go off-grid you have to carry some basic safety and recovery gear. It’s as simple as that. If something happens, you need to be able to get yourself out of the situation. The most basic items you’ll need are a knife, a shovel, duct tape/ratcheting straps, and a Hi-lift jack with full size spare tire. The knife is good for basic protection if needed, and great for a million other little things around camp you may not think of. The shovel can be used in a vehicle recovery situation and to make sure your fire is out every night, eliminating the risk of wildfires. The duct tape and ratcheting straps are good for a band aid fix for just about anything—case in point, we once duct taped our rooftop rack back together in the middle of a 100 mile off road trail so it didn’t rattle off the truck. And lastly, if you find yourself out on a trail with a flat tire, you’re going to need the Hi-lift jack and full-size spare tire—a donut just won’t cut it on dirt and other obstacles.
Add in A Few Extra Amenities As Needed
Once you’ve got the necessities covered, you’ll likely want a few other things to make camping a bit more comfortable. Even though we’re camping off-grid, that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice comfort. And believe me, when you’ve spent as many days on the road as we have, there are certain things you want that will help keep you happy, sane, and smelling fresh. Our personal must-have additions include:
Fridge/Solar. Yes, you can get by with a standard cooler to keep your food/drinks cool (we prefer the Yeti 65 since everything in it stays colder for days longer than a standard cooler)—but depending on how long you’ll be gone and how far you’ll be from the nearest store—a cooler will only last you so long. Instead, we invested in an ARB Fridge/Freezer and Goal Zero Solar Panel and Battery to charge it so that no matter where we are, or how long we’re on the road for, we always have cold food and beer. Plus, not having to change out melting ice every couple days means less weight and no risk of ending up with soggy food!
Shower/Hot Water Heater. Even though we don’t stay at campgrounds with running water and showers, that doesn’t mean we don’t shower and stay fresh. We bought a RoadShower 4 which is a solar-heated, pressurized shower. But, we took it one step further and connected a CampChef Hot Water Heater to it as well—ensuring hot water no matter where we are. And let me just tell you, it is GLORIOUS! Just know that you’ll need pressurized water and a gas line for it to work—so it is a bit of an investment—but we already carry onboard air to air up/down the tires as well as a mini propane tank for the stove, so why not get multiple uses out of them.
Hammock. For the lazy days spent around the campground, having a spot other than a camp chair that you can relax in and enjoy your morning coffee or take an afternoon snooze in is nice. We prefer the Eno Hammock since all you need are two anchor points and you’re good to go.
Games. You can only spend so much time sitting around a campfire and talking with your friends. And if you and your friends are anything like us, a little competition goes a long way. Because of that we like to bring games—specifically Kan-Jam. It’s a frisbee game that packs flat and is just three pieces. Two plastic pieces lay under our gear bags and the frisbee can go anywhere.
Additional Tools and Recovery Gear
Depending on how radical you get, additional tools and recovery gear may be needed to help get you out of sticky situations. And while you may not need the full arsenal that we carry—you should always plan for the worst. Think about the types of situations you may be putting yourself into and what might be needed to get out. We’ve had to pull ourselves out of the middle of a river, tow others out who were stuck in snow and sand, and even rebuild a broken trailer axle in the middle of the Mojave Road. And it’s because of those reasons and others we’ve assembled a tool box for any situation. We carry:
A complete tool bag and parts. This includes an electric drill set, extra batteries, nuts, bolts, screws, brackets, an angle grinder, ratcheting straps, and more.
Recovery boards. These can be used to easily dig us out of soft sand and can also be used to level the truck and trailer so we sleep on level ground. We prefer X-Bull traction boards, but there are a few different brands out there to choose from.
Winch, Snatch Straps and Recovery Points. We have a Smittybilt winch built into our front bumper and carry a variety of straps and recovery points so we’re covered from all angles. We also carry a Deadman Earth Anchor system that allows us to create our own anchor point no matter where we are.
Air Compressor. We run the ARB Onboard Compressor and hoses that allow us to quickly air up/down our tires when we hit dirt roads or make it back to pavement. We also use it to pressurize our shower as needed.
Spare fuel. On longer trips where we know we’ll be away from major highways or towns for a while, we carry Roto Packs and plenty of extra gas.
Final Tips to Keep in Mind
In addition to the gear we carry, we rely on a few other tools that help keep us safe, ensure we know where we’re headed and what we’re getting ourselves into, and help us follow the golden rules of camping—”leave no trace” and “leave it better than you found it”.
Stay connected. No, I don’t mean maintaining cell-service so you can post those Instagram-worthy snaps. Rather, this is more for safety—to know where you are and have a way to communicate should you run into any situations where you need external help. We all carry CB radios to keep in touch with one another on the trail, but we each also carry a HAM radio for emergencies since the HAM can reach up to hundreds of miles away if used properly. That said, using a HAM radio for regular communication is not advised unless you have an operator license. Another great option is the Garmin inReach which utilizes satellite communications.
Find your campsite. There are a lot of tools available to you that will help you find the perfect campsite, you just need to know how to use them. Since campsites are not always posted online—and overlanders typically don’t like to share GPS points or geo-tag locations—finding an off-grid spot will require a bit of research, but it’s well worth the effort. Typically we start our search on Instagram. We get inspiration and ideas for different areas to travel to from the people we follow, then start to whittle down our search to specific camping areas from there. We use Google to check out distances and get a feel for the area using the satellite views, and reference printed Forest Service maps or road atlases that we also bring along with us in case our electronics fail us. But our most used tool is Gaia Maps. It’s a paid subscription that gives us access to a variety of maps that cover BLM land, US Forest Service roads, National Parks, City Roads, Offroad Trails and more. Before leaving town we’ll create travel routes, mark specific GPS points, and download all the various maps we want to view. Then, once on the road we use it as a GPS tool to make sure we stay on track and headed down the right roads. And when you find that perfect site and are ready to set up for the night—remember that good campsites are found, not made. When possible, camp only on existing or established campsites to avoid damaging vegetation.
Know the rules. There are different rules for different areas of the country and on different lands (BLM land vs. Forest Service vs. National Park), and oftentimes those rules and regulations change throughout the year. For example, there may be areas in the Southwest that have fire bans in effect or require you to have a permit at certain times to eliminate the risk of wildfires. There may also be road closures due to weather constraints and snow. Or there may be rules that you need to camp a certain number of yards from the main road. So do your research and know the rules before you go. And better yet, follow them.
Be a good camper. I would hope that if you’re reading this, you like camping and you respect the outdoors. So it goes without saying (but I will anyways), that everyone should be a good steward of the outdoors and follow the basic camping etiquette of “Leave no trace” and “Leave it better than you found it” to help keep the wild, wild.
Part of the beauty of camping off-grid is that it feels as if you’re the only person who has ever been where you are. There’s nothing worse than rolling up on an awesome campsite and finding trash and debris all around, or nails in the side of a tree. So when you leave, everything you brought with you should leave with you and there should be no evidence that you were there. That includes everything from apple cores to paper towels to dog waste. And, unless it’s permitted to bury human waste—that should go with you too.
And while you’re at it—be a responsible camper and take a few minutes before you go to spread out and clean up any trash you see so it’s better for the next person.
So there you have it. I know it seems like a lot, and if it’s your first time attempting it may feel a bit daunting. But all I can say is get out there and give it a try. Like anything it becomes easier with practice, and in my opinion—it’s worth the extra effort to find a spot that’s all yours.
And, if you have any other questions feel free to reach out to us on Instagram @Tres.Amigos.Offroad.Club—we’re happy to chat with you!