When we started planning our road trip for this summer, we knew that our normal sleeping in the car routine wouldn’t work. Lucy is long enough for us to be comfortable if we take out the back seat and lay out flat, but the nightly shuffle of gear from back to front seats wore us down after 1 week, and led to many pointless arguments about who made what mess of a shabby organization system. We decided to build a sleeping platform with storage underneath, so we could easily roll up to a safe spot, spread out our sleeping bags and crash for the night. While there were plenty of similar styled car platforms out there, I didn’t find many great guides on doing this for a Subaru Outback, so I figured I’d share our process and design (preview: it’s so easy!)
I think last time I checked in, we were in Jackson, having a down day and enjoying some coffee in the comfort of shelter from rain and such. In the week since then, we’ve had more than a few dips in beautiful bodies of water, relaxed more than I thought I was capable of, delved into fly-tying, battled the hoards of people at Yellowstone, and finally made it to the mythical Bozeman, which is turning out to be as great as reported (although maybe not quite Mammoth-level).
(All good photos below are by Justin)
August 12: Went for an incredible hike up towards Disappointment Peak, where the views of the Tetons cemented my resolve to get back into climbing when we’re settled in Australia. I’d originally just planned to go up to Amphitheater Lake, but made it up quickly and had some time to kill, so I kept heading up. Most of the approach towards the saddle below Disappointment was Haystack-level Class 3 scrambling, but there was a tiny sketchy traverse on the way up (2 low-Class-5 steps across a 30′ face) that I tried to avoid on the way down. Things never look as hard from above as they do once you’re on them, and I ended up downclimbing a lot more Class 5 stuff than I’d missed, albeit with 15-20′ of exposure instead. Luckily a crew of hikers watched from below in case of a slip, as I merrily implored them to NOT come the way I was, and let out a chorus of expletives each time I reached a move I wasn’t happy about. I flew down the switchbacks back to the car, then Justin and I checked out Teton Village and spent the evening at Snake River Brewing- good beer and really really really good pizza! As we left we heard some rowdy sounds coming from the fairgrounds and went to investigate. A rodeo was on, and being mostly over, we were able to walk in for free and catch an hour or so of barrel racing, bull riding, and shenanigans like dance contests and frisbee tosses.
August 13: We found it hard to leave Jackson.. there were endless hikes to do, the camping was prime, and plenty of creature comfort in town (if you could avoid the tourist crowds). Also, we’d been out late at the rodeo and waking up early to tackle Yellowstone didn’t sound appealing. So we slept in late, hung around camp reading, and then went into town to book some things for Thailand. Then we grabbed some groceries and headed out to the Snake River to enjoy the sunshine, make some lunch, and take a few trips down the quick moving river from one put-in to the next. As low-key as it was, this ranked as one of the best afternoons of the trip so far- no time crunch, no schedule, plenty of food, only sunshine and fun on the agenda.
August 14: Woke up at 5 am and packed up to head to Yellowstone, getting on the road by 5:45. We knew the park was 40 miles away but didn’t know that it was another 40 slow miles to Old Faithful area, so instead of arriving before 7 as planned, we actually arrived around 8:15. Checked out Black Sand Basin, which was calm and nice, then headed to Old Faithful area to grab another coffee and walk around the geyser basin. Before 9 it was fine, and walking just a quarter mile removed us from most people, but by the time we were back at the car around 10:30, the crowds were building. An eruption was scheduled for 11, so we made some sandwiches at the car and went back to watch the iconic Old Faithful. More impressive than the geyser itself were the masses of people, and the infrastructure built to accommodate those people. With trepidation, we headed to see Grand Prismatic, the one thing on my bucket list for the park. It was a mass of cars, honking, brake lights, people cutting around each other in search for parking spaces, pulled off to the sides of the road, yelling… absolute chaos. It was almost impossible to walk on the boardwalk because so many people with selfie sticks were taking photos. People’s hats and other trash had blown into some of the geysers, marring the natural beauty. Justin took some photos to document the madness and we booked it for the calm of a riverside campsite on the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River. I set up a hammock and started reading Super Sad True Love Story, which I then devoured before bedtime- something I haven’t done since high school probably.
August 15: Checked out Big Sky, which was essentially a new age shopping mall development. Like Bellevue but built into the mountains. Nothing about the town seemed genuine, and it was all construction trucks and luxury SUVs, so we left quickly and retreated to our hideout along the Taylor Fork for an afternoon of camp chores and fishing and running and swimming in a perfectly cool creek.
August 16: Bozeman-bound! After a lazy morning around our Taylor Fork campsite, drove the hour into Bozeman and looked for a spot for Justin to do some edits while I delved into Cascade Crest planning (NOT the fun part). Found International Coffee Traders near campus and they had great coffee and $1 homemade ice cream sandwiches. YUMMMM. Walked around downtown, browsed books and dresses and fly shops and eventually made our way to White Dog Brewery, and then over to MAP Brewing, where I had a Midas Crush, which has been the best IPA of this entire trip. Citrusy, complex, rich and clean. We’ll get a growler before we leave. Then made the long drive up to Fairy Lake Campground and rejoiced in the rarity of FREE developed camping.
August 17: Woke up early to a soft pink sunrise and set about making coffee. No matter what the exact camping set up we’re using, it always takes almost exactly 50 minutes to go from crawling out of bed to starting up the car via brewing coffee and making brekky. After 7 weeks, I still think we should be able to do this faster, but alas, we don’t. Made the quick drive over to the Fairy Lake Trailhead and started up towards Sacagawea Peak. Justin was tackling the entire Bridger Ridge route, 20 miles and ~6500′ of elevation gain over technical and exposed terrain. I planned to do the first hour and half out, then head back to the car and drive to the southern trailhead and pick him up. The trail was gnarly but gorgeous, and I was equally jealous and mom-level-proud to be handing over the long adventure run reins to Justin for the day. I watched him disappear across a talus slope and focused myself on getting back to the car without breaking an ankle or getting eaten by a grizzly.
I grabbed some groceries in town, then set up at the trailhead and tied a few more flies while I waited for Jus to finish. I saw him coming down by the huge M that’s been installed in the mountainside and ran up with water. He’d been out an hour longer than expected and I knew he’d be dehydrated. Spent an hour or so recovering by the car, cooked up some egg sandwiches, then headed to the lake by MAP brewing to swim and relax for a bit. I rented a paddle board and went in circles around the little lake, then swam back across to the beach with two elementary-aged girls who’d decided to swim across and then gotten themselves freaked out and stuck on the far side of the lake. Met up with Justin again, swam back across the lake to the brewery, enjoyed an IPA and some fries, then headed to another brewery (Outlaw) which was, sadly, near a Target and some strip housing and was not nearly as good as MAP. Then camp, our second campfire of the trip, and a chance to tuck into a new book!
Traveling for a long period of time is an incredible experience. You get to explore places as quickly or as deeply as you want, you learn to live with less and appreciate more, and if you enjoy the outdoors, you get to play in them daily. But it’s not all sunshine and mountains. There are days when your adventures get rained out, days when you feel the dirt seeping into your bloodstream, days when your traveling partner becomes the most annoying person on the planet. Those days only make up 5-10% of an entire trip, but surviving them is key to enjoying the experience of traveling as a whole (and also not committing murder, blowing your budget on hotel rooms, or dying of dehydration). This list, though by no means comprehensive, is intended to help mitigate the small stresses that accumulate and cause shitty breakdown days, thus leaving you with more time to enjoy your journey.
1) You have NOT purchased a $50,000+ vehicle/camper/trailer in which to travel. If you have, you probably have a lot of these already included in your fancy schmancy rig. This one’s for us poor folks.
2) You already know the basics of what you should bring on any trip (stove, tent, toiletries, etc.)
3) You, in general, are traveling on a budget, and do not plan to eat out every meal, stay in hotels, or go paragliding in every town.
4) You plan to be outside, a lot.
The 10 Essentials:
1) A strong, yet flexible organization system. You will access your stuff a dozen times a day or more. In order to not have this drive you insane, you need to know exactly where everything is and be able to get to it in less than 30 seconds. Our system was detailed in my very long post about kitting out the Subaru, but the essentials are this:
– Like with like. Our boxes were: toiletries, first aid, cooking equipment, pantry food (rice, sauces, cans), backpacking goodies, hats, and then a bag each of clothing.
– Most frequently used stuff is easiest to reach.
– Each person has their own box for personal gear/equipment
– Hard sided containers are easy to arrange and take in and out, but some soft sided storage is good for weird spaces or things that fluctuate in volume (clothing, snack foods)
2) Means for separation from traveling companions (if applicable). If you’re traveling alone, more power to you. If not, read on. No matter how much you love your traveling companion, you will eventually drive each other crazy. The stresses of being confined to a small space and sharing decision making build up over time and at some point, one or both of you will break. Expect and plan for this- on a regular basis, spend a day doing different things (a bike comes in handy, but you can also arrange for drop offs), then come back together and recap. You’ll appreciate your time together more, and still feel like you’re your own human.
3) Water carrying capacity of 10 L or more. 10 gallons would be better. Water can be surprisingly hard to find, especially if you’re traveling through remote areas or away from towns. Having a big container that can be filled and used for several days cuts down on the chances of realizing you don’t have enough water to make coffee. A container with a pour spout can double as a shower- a hot shower if you leave it baking in the sun for an afternoon.
4) Folding table and chairs. Why? I can’t exactly characterize the superior comfort of cooking at a table vs. on the ground, or sitting in a chair vs. on the ground, but trust us that the $50 investment will pay off the first time you reach a dispersed site and want to hang around for a few hours.
Also, you can take the chairs to outdoor movies, concerts, riverside picnics, etc. Make sure to test out the table before you commit to it- some are more stable than others, and a wobbly table is a pain.
5) Good maps and guides. Navigation and planning are equal parts fun and infuriating. While Google Maps is great, being able to see the big picture on a paper map is pretty priceless. You can usually pick up a basic state road map at visitor’s centers, and use Google to fill in on the go. For hiking and trail running, a combination of NPS/USFS brochures (often available for download online and in paper at visitors centers) and a good GPS app on a mobile phone has worked well for us. I highly recommend both Gaia (DIY and on-a-whim navigation) and Trail Run Project (better for established routes). A guidebook of free and cheap campsites is helpful (The Wright Guide is no-frills and awesome) because free-campsites.net is not comprehensive and doesn’t work when you’re in the middle of nowhere without cell service.
6) A Utah-heat-proof cooler. I’m not saying you have to buy a Yeti (but if you do, you won’t be disappointed), but a $20 Coleman was NOT cutting it for us. Shelling out for a cooler that holds ice for more than 2 days means, obviously, buying less ice, but also, less food waste, an ability to be out of a town for longer and still eat fresh.
7) TOYS. Cards, books, dice, Frisbee, bikes, blow up floats, etc. Bring as much fun stuff as you can without crowding out your car. Hopefully, your journey will be a mix of big epic adventure days and downtime. Toys not only expand your fun quotient on off days, they create socialization opportunities with other humans, and you’ll be able to float down a river on a whim*, or take a bike ride in a new town, without bothering to rent anything. Plus, cards, books and dice might save your relationship when you’re confined inside by rain for days on end (see below).
*I’d almost consider a watercraft or flotation of some sort a mandatory item in itself. An inflatable kayak or SUP offer loads of fun opportunities, but they take up space. We bought these two little floatation tubes for $3 apiece and they’ve lasted 3 summers of fun. Small and light enough to throw in on a fastpacking trip, but they’ve survived shallow rivers and bushwacking down banks too.
8) A place to escape from the rain. If you have a van, or other space in which you can stand up fully, congratulations, you have this one covered. For anyone else, do not underestimate the power of rain to dampen your spirits. Rain itself is great, but cooking in the rain, setting up in the rain, hanging out in the rain… none of those things are great. You need either a good, easy to set up shelter system (a cheap tarp and some paracord comes in very handy!), a solid rain jacket, or a separate part of your budget dedicated to indoors activities on crappy days (happy hours, museums, movies, etc).
9) Duct tape. If I have to point out the merits of duct tape to you, you probably aren’t emotionally ready to travel.
10) An efficient coffee making system. I’m not stretching for a tenth item here. I regard coffee very seriously as a make-or-break your day item. For early morning starts, long drives, and to battle general laziness, coffee is essential. And if coffee takes too long to make, then you will try and skip it, and you will end up regretting it. A simple pour-over drip cone has been the easiest for us, but if you want to go SUPER easy, you can do instant coffee. For lazier mornings, we also have a plastic French press, but a daily ritual of cleaning out the press gets old, so it sees less frequent use. (Yes, if you read that carefully, we have 2 coffee making systems. This is serious business.)
…And a Few Luxuries:
1) A Mini-Bar- Beer and whiskey are essentials before essentials, along the lines of a tent and sleeping bag. However, it is very easy to step it up a notch and keep your fancy tastes from ruining your budget by packing along the necessary ingredients for making your favorite cocktails on the road. We love margaritas, Manhattans, and Negronis, so our kit has: sweet vermouth, Campari, bitters, simple syrup, lime and lemon juice, decent gin, decent tequila, decent whiskey (but that’s on the “bedside table” for nightly access), and some very good Westland whiskey for special occasions. Being able to concoct something resembling a margarita on a sunny afternoon, or making a perfect Manhattan on a cold evening, is a luxury well worth the cubic foot of space the box takes up. Plus, having a little bar means it’s easy to make friends around a campground.
2) A Foam Roller- While other massage tools may be smaller (and we brought those too), there’s something nice about the way a session on the foam roller works out the kinks from a month of sleeping on hard surfaces.
3) A computer- Sure, you can book things and navigate and make plans from your phone. BUT. A computer makes things easier. It makes it possible to watch a downloaded movie on the 3rd straight day of rain. It makes it easier to write blog posts about watching downloaded movies on the 3rd straight day of rain. Unless your goal is complete disavowal of technology, a computer is worth it.
I’m not saying that bringing all 13 of the things listed above will make your trip a perfect success, but hopefully you’ll get a few more hours of fun out of a day. Let me know what you think some essentials to happy wandering are- this list is as flexible as our travel plans!
We spend a long time in Colorado, get rained on for several days, and head north for sunnier skies and easier.
For the visually-inclined, check out http://www.jrichardsphoto.net/blog.
August 1: Marked 1 month on the road with a 14-er, La Plata. Kyle convinced me to carry up his trombone, and both he and Justin did awesome on their first high climb. I was so worried with weather-watching and making sure everyone was fed and hydrated that I drank no water and finished the day with a horrific dehydration headache. That cascaded into a full-on meltdown about the issues inherent in living in your car: having to find a spot to sleep, tight spaces, dirt, incessant chores. Not a night I’d like to relive.
August 2: Fed up with the hustle to find a place to sleep, we crossed our fingers and checked out the campgrounds in Maroon Bells.. success! Scored a nice private spot near the creek for two nights- close to trails to run and unlimited water and a bathroom! Did laundry, cooked some lunch, and just relaxed for a while before checking out Aspen in the afternoon.
August 3: Ran Maroon Bells, quite an epic day. Raced against the predicted storms, and finished just before the skies turned dark. Beer and a quick swim at camp, then another easy afternoon of eating and fishing.
August 4: A Rainy Sloppy Adventure Day. Forecast was for 50% chance of showers in AM, with heavier rain starting around 2. Needed to do another long run, so I mapped out a route from Independence Pass area back down to Aspen- looked to be about 22 miles with 3000 gain and a lot of downhill/flat at end- perfect to get out before the weather got bad. Or so the theory went. The first few miles were open alpine trail through tundra and across rocky slopes.
It was misty but I was warm enough from the climbing that I was okay in a tee and windbreaker. Then I dropped into a brushy drainage, that apart from being hard to follow at times, was choked with head high brush, meaning I got soaked, and soaked again, and soaked again. Temps were in the low 40s and I resorted to grunting like a frat boy trying to max out his clean and jerk each time I hit another patch of brush. As soon as I was out, I stripped off my soaked tops and put on a dry layer and rain jacket, hoping for better trail from there out. The rain relented briefly on a nice climb, giving me just enough time to dry out before it started drizzling again. The gray skies made it hard to tell what the weather was doing, and I reached a junction in some high meadows where I’d planned to go left, but couldn’t find any semblance of a trail, despite my GPS telling me I was right on top of it. A trail led to the rught, promising to drop below treeline earlier (good with weather) and seemed to be only a mile or so longer. I headed that way, and the trail withered out in about 100 yards. Farther down the valley I could see the trail again, so I picked my way across the slopes, looking for anything remotely resembling human impact along the way. This process repeated itself approximately 10 times in the next 10 miles. At its best, the trail looked like this:
I was running late by more than an hour, my SPOT wouldn’t send the “plans changed, pick me up over here” message or my location, and to make it worse, when I finally reached the last stretch of the route, a dirt road, it turned out to be 5 miles to the trailhead instead of the 2 I’d estimated when reading the map (in the shelter of a tree, with cold hands and in the rain). I started to panic, thinking Justin would head out onto my original route looking for me, I’d have no way to get warm when I finished, so on and so forth. My phone buzzed and beeped and generally went crazy. Service! I called Justin immediately, teary from exhaustion and frustration and relief, and told him I’d see him in 45 minutes. I booked it down the road, and rounded the corner to see steam billowing from the stove- there was coffee, tea, hot creamy pasta, and a dry blanket waiting for me. Just then, the skies started dumping, also an hour behind schedule… we huddled in the front seats and turned the heater on full blast. Ahhh.. for about 20 minutes, then we had to rush over to Kyle’s trombone master class. Watched and learned a lot about trombone, and then got a private concert! Wrapped up with a visit to Aspen Rec Center- where at 7:30, $6 gets you 90 minutes of indoor lazy river pool, hot tubs, saunas, showers, exercise rooms, and best of all: water slide! Crashed in a parking lot warm and clean!
August 5: The day it rained so much… had originally planned to do Grays and Torreys peaks, but with drizzle and a forecast of thunderstorms all day, I canned the plan. We headed to Urad Lake area where I was doing some trail work on Saturday, and in the pouring rain, hunkered down for naps and some Arrested Development in the back of Lucy.
When the rain was still coming down 3 hours later, we decided to head into Idaho Springs for beer and to catch opening ceremonies. Rode out the night with good beer and nachos, nice and dry inside Westbound & Down.
August 6: A soggy start with a sunny finish for trail work, but worked with some awesome ladies and built this staircase:
Afterwards, drank a beer and headed towards Boulder. Trying to find a spot to camp on a Saturday proved to be as frustrating as it sounds; Justin got his turn to rant about how much it sucks to travel the way we are (it’s true that it does suck, about 10% of the time- but the other 90% is awesome).
August 7: Went into Boulder to explore and do some grocery shopping. Went for a great run around town, stretched and enjoyed the sun in the park at Chataqua, then hit Trader Joes to stock up.Sampled the beers at Sanitas, walked around downtown, watched a bit of the Ironman, then margaritas and some Mexican food, an amazing affogatto, and then more beer and Olympics at Next Door. Drove up the canyon to a great spot recommended by our bartender and slept soundly.
August 8: Another nice breakfast in Chataqua area and we decided to head off to Jackson. Drove all day, then reached our planned camping area at 9:30 to find it closed due to a forest fire. Initially parked at a pullout right near the road, but a house sat across the road, and the floodlights in front pushed us to move further up the road.
August 9: Jackson! What a great area- explored around the town early before it clogged with tourists and RVs, then hung out at camp for a few hours before a nice run around some glacial lakes, some bison and tourist watching, and a delicious campsite curry.
August 10: An epic morning running the Paintbrush – Cascade Canyon loop, followed by a picnic and a float and swim at String Lake. Came into town to grab a coffee and do some booking for Thailand (which is only 6 weeks away!!). Visited Melvin Brewing (aka Thai Me Up) and had a great beer and some overpriced egg rolls before heading back to camp. Enjoyed dinner in our neighbors’ van and shared some wine and laughs way late into the evening, with a rainy forecast promising everyone an excuse to take a rest day.