Like many of you, when I was in my twenties, camping consisted of curling up in the back of my 1986 CJ-7 next to a styrofoam cooler I bought at the gas station on the way out to the trails. With no family, no money, and no real responsibilities in life, this was the way to go. Today, in my late forties (cough, cough), life is different and a better camping set up is required.
In the last 30 years or so, I have been through every available camp site set-up imaginable. When it was just me...I didn’t care. I slept in the truck half the time because I didn’t want to deal with setting up a ground tent. As my wife and daughter started joining me on my offroad adventures, my camp site tools needed to evolve to accommodate the needs of additional people and to help make the experience more comfortable for them. I love having my girls out on the trail with me and I have always believed that the key to getting them to enjoy the offroad and camping lifestyle is to make it easy and comfortable for them to do so. In recent years, I bought a larger, easy set-up tent and some cots that made me think I was on the right track. This last trip changed everything.
I have been resistant to the idea of putting a rooftop tent on top of my truck. I think it was primarily because I like to drive “fast” on the dirt. I imagine myself racing on the Baja 1000. My mostly stock Ford Ranger blowing by all the supertrucks with ease while the announcers are watching me from the live helicopter feeds asking, “Who is this awesome driver that is tearing through the desert in his stock rig? We’ve never seen anything like it!” The reality is, I don’t really go that fast. I push the truck to it’s limits (and maybe a little beyond), but the goal of my offroading trips is to get out and have an adventure with my family. A family that probably isn’t as much of a fan of the fast driving as I am...I seem to recall one or two conversations about this topic but I am not entirely sure what was said.
Recently, I have been fortunate enough to get my hands on the Ironman Nomad 1300 Hard Shell Rooftop Tent (RTT). Now that I had the tent, I had to get a bed rack for it. So, I went to my brother, who works at Bear Valley Overland in Big Bear, California. Casey is a long-time wheeler and fabricator. If you dream it, he can build it. I laid out what I wanted for the rack and he delivered in a huge way. The custom built rack with spare tire pocket and shelving for gear boxes was installed. Then, on a Friday night before heading out to the dirt, my brother in law, Matt, helped me get the Nomad Rooftop Tent installed on the rack. By 9:00pm on Friday night, I was ready to go for the morning.
My wife, daughter, and I loaded up, stopped at the grocery store, and headed out to meet our group at Cougar Buttes. This is a beautiful area on the west side of Johnson Valley with a lot of really cool rock formations. It looks like some giant was starting a project with modeling clay and then just left them there to dry. We met up with the group, did some minor wheeling (more on that later), then came back to camp to get set-up for the night. Since this was our first time with the Nomad, I wanted to get started a little early to make sure I had everything dialed in by bed time. As it turns out, it took mere minutes to be 100% ready to go. The level of time and energy I saved to set up camp compared to every other set up I have ever had was mind blowing. I didn’t have to fold out a ground tent, set up the poles, nail in the spikes, tie down the guy wires, and then start the entire process of setting up all of the things that go inside the tent. No. I unfastened the three buckles on the hard shell cap, flipped it up, then folded out the the rest of the tent with the ladder attached. 98% of the set-up was done in seconds. Then, I crawled up and attached the tension poles that hold open the rain flaps. I unrolled the sleeping bags,...and done. I know there are some other RTT’s on the market that are even easier than that, but honestly, I have a hard time imagining it. My mind was blown with how easy this was to get set-up and ready to go.
Now that the tent was up, it was time for dinner and some camp fire shenanigans. We hung out with the group around the fire, told stories, and had a lot of laughs. When it was time for bed, we climbed up in to the Nomad RTT and snuggled in to our sleeping bags. It was a cold night in Cougar Buttes and the wind picked-up really quickly. When I say “picked-up”, I mean it felt like we were going to be picked up and dragged away when the gusts would hit us. That is not uncommon for the area, but it was really strong. The frigid temperatures made it even worse. It felt like little ice cubes were hitting your face. With that said, the Nomad RTT was solid. Did it flap around, absolutely. However, so did the trucks and everything else. The only thing that was not going to flap around in those conditions was a concrete industrial tilt-up building. When I have encountered those conditions while camping in the past, I would abandon the ground tent and sleep in the truck. I did not have to do that this time. I could feel the truck rocking and could hear the gusts of wind outside, but the tent was stable enough to keep us warm and comfortable. At one point, I got up to check on everything outside the tent. I had to grab my stove and camp gear and put it in the back of the truck to be sure it would still be there in the morning.
We made it through the night and the wind continued to beat us when we woke up. Rather than trying to make breakfast on the tailgate, we decided to close up and hit the road. Again, I was amazed at the ease of breakdown. Remove the tension rods, collapse the ladder, fold it up and buckle it down. It took less time to break down the tent than it did to put the uneaten snacks back on the gear box. Just like that, we were ready to roll. We made our way out to the road, aired up, and found the nearest McDonalds.
So, how did this experience change everything for me?
My level of stress and energy output was significantly diminished. As the one in the family that is typically initiating the outdoor adventures, I take it upon myself to bear the lion’s share of the work. Not because I don’t get help from my wife, quite the opposite. I don’t want her to have to do anything because I want her to have fun and then want to come out and do it again. We can discuss toxic masculinity and any other flawed character traits I have later, but it stands that I am the one that does most of the work. This set-up made the work 100 times easier and made it more enjoyable for me. I was able to provide the comfort I wanted to my family without exerting tons of energy.
The difference in comfort was exponential. Being up off the ground, having a large enough area to sit up in, and having quality tent that was built to withstand the conditions that we find ourselves in during our outdoor adventures, made the entire camping experience better.
The feedback from my wife and daughter about how much more they enjoyed this trip and how this seems to be the easiest, most comfortable set-up we have ever had is enough to make me convert to this lifestyle. As I said earlier, I really love having my girls out on the trial with me. If they are having a good time, then so am I.
What are the drawbacks? Glad you asked. During this trip we went over to an obstacle called Chicken Rock. It is a large boulder with a steep approach and an off-camper climb to get up and over. I have done this before in a Jeep. I attempted to do it in the Ranger with the new bed rack and rooftop tent on top, fully loaded with gear. At one point, the back, passenger tire fell in to a low spot and I felt the truck tip. The additional weight of the tent, especially being so high up, caused the truck to swing in a way I have never felt. It was noticeable. We attached a winch to the front bumper to be safe and I was able to get over the obstacle. I learned that I need to pay more attention to the lines I pick and be conscious of the additional weight. During the drive through the desert, I could tell I was probably not going to be bombing through the sandy washes like I used to do. I realized that the added weight will change how I approach a trail and the obstacles. However, it does not mean I am limited to what I can do any more than I was before. I am fully confident that I will continue to do all of the trails we have done and hit all of the obstacles. I will just need to be a better driver. I will need to be more in control and more aware of my speed (which is probably a good thing). Ultimately, I am sure it will change how I wheel, but not enough to change how I feel.
The ultimate goal for my offroad trips is to get out there and chase our adventure. To disconnect from the day-to-day and re-connect with my girls. To spend time in nature with my friends and family. To go places and see things that most people will never know exist. I think this new Nomad RTT just made all of that a lot easier and a lot more comfortable. The girls and I are about to embark on a 6 night, 2000 mile road trip. We are going to be camping in the Nomad at least three of those nights. I am sure I will have more feedback on the experience when we get back. But, after this first trip, I am way more excited about how the family adventure will go.