You have two weeks off from work to explore part of the US. Where do you go, and how much can you see? Add in your camping crew and the beautiful landscapes of America’s Southwest, and you get an overland adventure of a lifetime. But where do you start?
We are a family of four living in Central Florida. Like most families, the majority of our excursions are quick weekend trips to our local favorite spots. We try to take one long trip each year to escape the madness of Florida. We’ve done sections of the Georgia Traverse multiple times and are currently planning other overland routes in new locations along the East Coast.
Our first overlanding setup was basic, primarily consisting of our Jeep Wrangler JKU with a Gobi rack to support the rooftop tent. This was an ideal novice setup since it was relatively inexpensive. We were still learning if the overland lifestyle was a good fit for our family. Our setup included a camp stove, pots/pans, and bins with other essential items. This allowed us to explore remote places others wouldn’t have thought possible. Overlanding became our family’s favorite activity, but as we spent more time in the wilderness, we discovered one big disadvantage with the tent on top of our Jeep; we had to completely break down camp to go anywhere. This was something we had researched, so we already knew it could be an issue. We started planning the majority of our trips around the number of days we could go without leaving camp. As our trips grew longer, we started thinking about other options.
Our overland friends started exploring camp trailers with off-road capabilities, which led us to one conclusion: we needed to consider buying a trailer. It didn’t take too much thought since we knew this was the ideal solution if we wanted to spend more time in our desired remote destinations. Plus, our two kids were growing by the minute, and we simply needed more space for them and all their stuff. After 8 months of research and making pros/cons lists, we decided on the Turtleback Expedition Trailer. It offers all the advantages of roof-top tent camping with the comforts of home. The trailer has a small footprint, easily fitting in our garage, and is lightweight enough for our Jeep Rubicon 4xe to pull. It keeps us safely off the ground and has the kitchen of my wife’s dreams, including a gas stove, sink, fold-away counter, along with a 40-gallon water tank. We even built a food pantry above the fridge slide to best utilize the square footage. This allowed us to transfer all the weight out of the Jeep into the trailer, making trail rides much more enjoyable.
Our latest trip began on June 1, 2023. What started out as a campfire dream with our two closest families had somehow become a reality. All three families departed on different days during the last week of May to start the 2,000+ mile drive to accommodate different work schedules. I drove with the trailer and two kids to Phoenix where we picked up my wife at the airport; unfortunately, she had limited time away from work, so she missed the week-long drive. From Phoenix, we drove 2 hours to Sedona, where we officially started our 19-day #CampingCrewsade. After a few days in Sedona, we made a quick stop at the Grand Canyon with plans to visit all the National Parks across southern Utah, before spending a few days riding 4x4 trails in Moab. The trip then headed to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, with stops in Ouray and Silverton before concluding in Durango on Father’s Day with whitewater rafting. Those who needed to return home quickly flew out of Durango the morning of June 19th, while the other vehicles made the trip back east to the Sunshine State via different routes. Our total trip was estimated to last 38 days, exploring at least seven National Parks, and roughly 7,000 miles of driving. This is by far the largest trip we’ve planned. No matter the length of our trip, the initial planning and organization never change.
The planning for a trip of this complexity began over a year ago. Our family’s wants and needs are hard enough, but taking into consideration three families with eleven people was definitely a challenge. Our first trip to the southwest in May 2021 had us hiking or driving several trails per day to see as much as we could. Our goal on this trip was to visit what we considered the highlights while also factoring in the amount of travel each day and/or physical activity we thought would be enjoyable. Luckily, our friends trusted us enough to give us a few bucket list stops and let us plan the rest of the itinerary.
If you’re planning on visiting any of the national parks, please make sure you read and learn everything you can before your visit. My wife spent several teenage years in southern Utah, so her experience and knowledge of this area have been a great benefit. She’s also very good at research and quickly learned what permits were needed, when booking windows open, and scheduled virtual meetings on booking days to make sure we were all ready to use the very competitive online reservation system. While we prefer primitive camping on public land, we decided to reserve campsites inside the two most popular national parks to minimize long entrance wait times and allow easier access to our most desired hikes. We set reminders to book permit-only hikes along with the national park campsites. The campsites are available to reserve six months in advance and are gone in seconds during peak season. It's still beyond belief how we were able to secure three campsites at the Watchman Campground in Zion National Park and the Devil’s Garden Campground in Arches National Park. The final stage of planning was to bring all three families together one month before our departure date. Our friends hosted the dinner planning party, so we put together a 60-page PowerPoint presentation with the final itinerary, maps with route options, daily activities, along with daily departure times and the average weather report at each stop so everyone could pack appropriately. We always have alternative trails, hikes, and backup destinations if weather or wildfires become an issue. If you’ve been to any of these national treasures, you know that planning and preparation is key to a successful trip.
I suffer from ADHD and severe General Anxiety Disorder, which makes packing and planning stressful to the point I’ve almost ruined vacations. Multitasking is not in my vocabulary. My wife has a system for planning and organizing that works well for us and keeps things running smoothly. The last thing you want is to be fighting with your significant other as you’re packing up to leave or breaking down camp. We make checklists for everything and make sure the kids have checklists too. They are in charge of packing their clothing, electronics, games, and whatever else they can fit in their allotted bags. We try to include the kids with trip preparations not only for the extra set of hands but to teach them how to prepare and stay organized. We’ve found they stay more engaged and tend to complain less when they have a purpose and their own to-do list. Since we dabble in social media, we need to pack a ton of extra gear to make recording our adventures possible. This includes our MacBook, DSLRs, GoPros, drone, phone gimbals, and all of the chargers and memory cards, which seem to take up a large amount of space. To keep this organized, we built a charging box which will house extra batteries and small electronics to stay plugged in when not in use. The box fits perfectly under the front seat but can be moved and plugged into the trailer at camp if we need extra charging time. The charging box uses one USB cord, which will help declutter the Jeep and keep everything in one neat organized area.
Clothing is something we are always thinking about. With four people, clothing takes up a lot of space, and you want to have the right articles of clothing for every scenario. You might be asking, what is the key to packing the right clothing? Honestly, we often overpack but have learned hard lessons by under packing. We do not see the cold often, so we use layers to stay warm. If our trip is longer than seven days, we’ll schedule a laundry stop since a week of clothing is all we can fit in our dry sacks. Since space is limited, we always roll our clothes into daily outfits and secure each roll with a rubber band. This makes it easy for the kids to pick their outfit in the morning without removing everything from the bag. We carry a spare dry sack that doubles as a dirty laundry bag and have found the love of Febreeze, Revive, or any odor-eliminating spray. For anyone who’s traveled with 2 teenage boys, you know the blessing of a good spray and lots of deodorant.
When it comes to meal camp planning with multiple families, typically each family preps dinner one night for the group, and we all contribute for lunch and breakfast. This trip is a little different since we have limited time at camp to prepare food. Each family is in charge of their meals except for a special steak welcome dinner and a few scheduled restaurant stops with the occasional spontaneous taco truck visit. We currently use a 63L ARB fridge that stays in the Turtleback Trailer and a smaller 40L Amazon fridge that we keep in the Jeep as a day fridge for sandwiches and drinks on the trail. We use the Jeep fridge to store our CamelBak water bladders overnight just below freezing so we have ice-cold water ready to take with us on our morning hike or trail ride. With our short weekend trips, we never have an issue with fridge space, but with a trip this size and wanting to spend little time shopping, prepping food, and cooking, it requires some careful planning. Our breakfasts are grab and go. We have a bin that has oranges, bananas, apples, granola bars, protein bars, and pop tarts. We eat trail mix, nuts, beef jerky, and peanut butter crackers/pretzels, basically anything that is easy to carry that will give us a lot of energy. Most days leave camp around sunrise, so we prepare food and pack the day before. While one person is cooking the meal, the other person needs to be packing breakfast, lunch, snacks, and filling the water bladders and/or containers for the next day. Teamwork, easy meals, and careful planning will take the stress away from food and make time at camp enjoyable.
When we return home from each trip, our goal is to restock the trailer within 1-2 days. We also use our trailer as a quick evac tool in case of hurricanes, so having it packed and ready to go gives great peace of mind. We wash the bedding and towels, refill our spices, dog food, coffee, and hot chocolate containers. We also restock trash bags, Ziplock bags, Clorox wipes, and paper towels. The bins we used in our previous setup are now stocked with extra supplies in the garage, helping to phase out unnecessary store trips when we return. We keep cans of beef stew, chili, tuna, and other non-perishables stocked in the sliding drawer above the fridge my wife lovingly calls our pantry. We keep our kitchen stocked with a large griddle, pots/pans, plates, cups, utensils, knives, along with most basic cooking items so we don’t need to worry about forgetting to pack things. We also keep a bag for toiletries that gets refilled when we return home; this helps eliminate stress and sleepless nights wondering if you forgot to bring hand soap or your toothbrush. We modified the trailer to fit our drinking water needs by hardwiring a 10” UV light as the final step in the water purification process. It brings us great joy knowing we won’t need to pack and haul jugs of water and can now drink directly from the kitchen sink. We designed storage compartments for the solar panels, the shower floor, and other things that were getting thrown into the tongue box or trunk of the Jeep. We bought chairs and tables to fit in the side storage box. Everything now has a home, and everyone knows where each camping supply goes. Leading up to departure, we always use a checklist to double-check everything is where it needs to be and is ready to go. The kids always know where to find what they’re looking for, which has helped keep the “I can’t find” or “I need help” comments to a minimum.
Whether it’s your first night of camping or you’re a full-time overlander, planning is key. Simple lists and organization eliminate stress and keep preparation to a minimum. Pre-pack what you can and keep it simple. We admittedly overpack for a weekend trip since we love to have a few added luxuries and toys when space is available. For a trip of this length, we removed the non-essentials and brought only what we needed. Traveling with kids doesn’t have to be a nightmare. The biggest thing for us is to keep them involved from planning and prepping to setting up camp, to helping restock when we get home. It was their desire to start camping in the first place, so we want them to continue owning it with a little parental supervision. During COVID, it was their idea to start the YouTube and social media channels to share our family adventures. Our intention allowing them to use these platforms is to let the kids create digital memories to share with our friends and families. We’re also hoping to help others learn from our mistakes. We use YouTube a lot with our trip planning and want to help others learn from us. If people enjoy our content, that is a bonus, but we’re more excited at the thought of watching these videos with our grandkids in 15 years. Great life lessons can be learned on the road, and we take full advantage of the time we’re given. Our two boys are planning the return trip home together, and our oldest son will navigate. We’ve simply asked him to base all decisions on two factors: weather and finding things to do/see along the way. They grow up fast, so we are cherishing the time we have and creating as many memories as we can.
Jason's Complete Planning Guide
We have to admit, with rather impressed with the amount of planning that Jason put's into his trips. If you'd like to see his complete planning guide, click the download link below.