Outdoors Overlanding Park Review

Texas State Park Review: Fairfield Lake State Park

A state park that Sherry and I visited on a whim last year turned out to be a very nice getaway from home and had one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve seen on our camping trips. Fairfield Lake State Park near Fairfield, Texas is about two hours North of Houston and is on a nice-sized lake that allows boating and fishing and many hiking and biking trails through hilly terrain.

The park is rather large and there are many opportunities for hiking and biking on the many roads and trails that go around the South and South East side of Fairfield Lake. This was one of the first campgrounds Sherry and I visited when we began overlanding and was before we got the Tuff Stuff Alpha Roof Top Tent. The campsite we had was smaller than some of the other parks we’ve been to, but still spacious. We were much closer to people behind us, and we were able to overhear their conversations well into the wee hours of the morning.

Before our Roof Top Tent, we used this green 4-man tent. With two cots inside, it’s comfortable for two adults. Without the cots, it’s less comfortable but would definitely fit 4 adults.

The campsite had water available, and also had built-in firepit and a pole for hanging a light or lantern as well as a cement pad with a picnic table.

The lake itself is nice and large. We did some wade fishing, and we each caught some fish, although Sherry caught the biggest. We did see boats on the lake, but there wasn’t an excessive amount of them. Most people with boats were fishing and weren’t really scooting back and forth that much.

This was the sunset we were greeting with on our second night at the park.

We had a chance to do some light hiking, and we saw armadillos rooting for food as well as a raccoon that came up to our campsite and stole a piece of aluminum foil that we had baked some brownies in. It was cute, and we watched as it licked the foil to get the chocolate remnants off. We also saw squirrels and many birds.

This is a rare photo of me torturing Sherry on a bike trail. She’s smiling only because she knows where I sleep.

For me, the highlight was our bike riding. The trails were a lot of fun and not too challenging. The hills on the bike trails we went on were not that severe and were easier than Huntsville State Park but more of a challenge than Stephen F. Austin State Park. The real challenge, however, came when we decided to ride our bikes on the main road from our campsite up to the office to complete check-in (which we missed on Friday night because we arrived after the office was closed). While I had a good time with it, Sherry suffered quite a bit with the big hills. It felt, to her, as if we were going up-hill for most of the trip there. Maybe she was right, because the way back was much easier and faster, although there were still a few pretty big hills to climb before we made it back to camp.

The trees here are pretty and provide lots of cover for camping. They sounded amazing during the thunderstorm with the wind blowing through them.

This park is very nice, and the trails are well maintained without too many roots on the trail. There were only a few muddy spots on the trail, but it did rain the night before, so this was to be expected. The majority of the trail was clear.

The boat launch areas look very nice, and there’s a lot of room for parking larger vehicles with trailers.

This is another park we have considered returning to. Although it’s twice as far from our home than Huntsville State Park or Stephen F. Austin State Park, it is worth the trip. I haven’t been able to get Sherry to go back there yet because she knows I would want to ride bikes there and the hills were pretty big, but we both want to kayak on the lake, so I might be able to talk her into a trip there this spring.

Our campsite from the access road.

Compared to other parks we’ve camped or overlanded at, I’d have to give this one a 7/10 for the smaller campsites that are grouped closer together than other parks. The lake is amazing, though, and the bike trails are a lot of fun.

I recommend using the Reserve America website to secure a campsite well in advance. One of the realities of the world in COVID-19 is that more people are visiting parks and forests than ever, and unless you have a reservation, you will likely be unable to camp at a standard campground. We have been using Reserve America with great success since last year. It makes the reservation process easy and reduces the wait during check-in.

Outdoors Overlanding Park Review

Texas State Park Review: Huntsville State Park

The first state park Sherry (my wife) took me to after we both lost a bunch of weight was Huntsville State Park for a hike. Little did I know back then that we would return to this park more than a few times for camping, hiking, mountain biking, and even kayaking.

Huntsville State Park is located just North of Conroe, Texas about an hour or so North of Houston. It’s pretty close to I-45 which makes it easy to get to, but it also means that at night (especially when the air is cooler), you can still hear the highway, but it’s not too bad.

The park has lots of beautiful views, tables for picnics, and barbecue stands for day-use.

The hiking/biking trails are pretty amazing. In many places, there are a lot of roots growing into them which, on the hilly portions, makes for natural steps for hikers but introduces a higher degree of difficulty for bike riders. I found the challenge of the roots to be fun while Sherry hated them. The hills are also pretty big and require 1st gear and a lot of leg work to get up. Sherry walked her bike up most of the big hills, and I don’t blame her. I feel comfortable on a bike pedalling fast and moving slow, even up-hill, the result of riding bikes extensively in my youth. Sherry rode bikes as a kid, but not nearly as much as I did. This is something to consider if you want to go mountain biking and are not experienced; Huntsville State Park’s trails are what I would call intermediate level.

One of many trails in the park.

For hiking, the trails are really good and will get your heart pumping. The hills are pretty big, but not so steep or big that you get winded. The views are serene and the forest is beautiful with many different types of trees, underbrush, and wildflowers (especially in springtime). The trail we took goes around Lake Raven, the central attraction at Huntsville State Park.

On our third trip to the park, we took our Tucktec kayaks and spent hours on the water. As it was our first time in these watercraft, we took it slow at first, but quickly became comfortable with them. We went from one saide of the lake to the other and back again within about two and a half hours. As a bonus, I almost capsized once due to horseplay, and I learned my lesson. A quick trip to the shore to pour the water out of my kayak was all it took to get back to the adventure, although my bottom was soaked.

Me in my Tucktec kayak on Lake Raven in Huntsville State Park as seen by Sherry.

The campsites are of a good size and well maintained with water available. On our third trip to the park, we stayed at an improved campsite for RV’s and even had electricity available, but we didn’t plug in. We like to practice living off our own resources as much as we can when we camp, even if power is available. The only thing we typically will use if it’s available is water, although we still find ourselves using the 5 gallon water containers pretty often. They’re just more convenient sometimes. The campsites are well-spaced from each other, and we never felt cramped or like campers next to us were too close. To the contrary, it feels very spacious and isolated, which is a good thing while camping.

This was an RV spot which was nice with our Overlanding setup.
The standard campsite was also a good fit for our setup. A neighboring campsite can be seen to the right.

The park has cabins, but we have not used those. We did see people staying in them, so it appears this state park has some sort of COVID-19 mitigation in-place for use between campers. The roadways are all very smooth, and the trails are well-marked. There is a wildlife center staffed by workers, and there is also a store that sells some snacks and basic camp supplies as well as fishing supplies. I don’t remember if they sell bait. They also rent canoes and pedal boats, and there is a swimming area that was closed when we were there. The water seems pretty cold, though, so we weren’t missing that opportunity. The park hosts are very friendly and helpful.

The wildlife is bold and used to humans. This squirrel and a buddy came close looking for handouts (which we kindly declined to provide).

Overall, I would rate this park 8/10. It has a lot of activities, amenities, and it is well maintained and staffed by friendly people. If the trails were a little more bike friendly, I would rate it higher (if only to get Sherry back onto the trails with me). I would gladly bike those trails again; they are a lot of fun!

I recommend using the Reserve America website to secure a campsite well in advance. One of the realities of the world in COVID-19 is that more people are visiting parks and forests than ever, and unless you have a reservation, you will likely be unable to camp at a standard campground. We have been using Reserve America with great success since last year. It makes the reservation process easy and reduces the wait during check-in.

Outdoors Park Review

Texas State Park Review: Stephen F. Austin State Park

Last week, my wife Sherry and I went on a Christmas Break getaway to Stephen F. Austin State Park in San Felipe, TX which is about 45 minutes West of Houston. It’s a small park on the West side of the Brazos River which is the longest river in Texas. It is wooded with pines and cedars and boasts some of the nicest and well-maintained hiking and bike paths I’ve ever encountered in a park. The terrain is not difficult, and while there are a few hills, they are very small as compared to many other parks in Texas.

The views of the Brazos River are very nice and while the river itself is shallow, it’s a slow-moving river that provides tranquil scenes and gentle water flowing sounds.

My wife Sherry in her kayak on the Brazos River.

We brought our mountain bikes and Tucktec kayaks with us and made use of both. The trails were exceptional, and my wife who usually isn’t a huge fan of mountain biking actually enjoyed the trails. She found them to be easy enough to enjoy with just enough challenge here and there to be interesting. I loved the twists and turns, and the few times there were dips and climbs, they were short enough to be fun without exerting too much energy.

Just before heading out on the bike trails.

The Brazos River was really a surprise. I’m used to faster-moving rivers, and the Brazos is almost lake-like. With the wind blowing from the South and the river flowing from the North, we were nearly stationary when not rowing, and the wind was strong enough to push us against the current of the river at times! The other big surprise is how shallow the river is; at some points, while over 30 feet from shore, the water was only 12-16″ deep! That meant our oars would often scrape along the sandy bottom of the river. At least we knew if we fell in, all we had to do was stand up!

Me in my kayak on the Brazos River.

The park amenities are very nice. The roads are all well paved, the paths well-marked, and the completed bathroom and shower facilities are among the cleanest and nicest I’ve seen. Near our camping site, the new bathroom/shower facility was under construction with an active crew that began work at 7:15 a.m. and they worked until aroudn 5:00 p.m. daily. They were what you expect from a construction crew: lots of loud noise and activity, but this is to be undstood, and there’s not much that can be done about this. Our campsite was directly across the road from this site, and had we known in advance that this construction was going on there, we would have likely picked another spot farther away from it.

Our beautiful campsite. The construction site was directly to the right of this photo.

Of all the parks in Texas we’ve been to so far, I rate this one very highly: 8/10. It may not be the biggest, it may not have the longest trails, and it may not have the most varied scenery, but it is very nice, the trails are amazing, the park is exceptionally clean, and the staff is very friendly. The campsites are well-manicured and well taken care of (the fire pits are swept clean before you arrive!). Our campsite had water, and I did see that the RV sites had electricity, as well. There are cabins available, but these are currently not in use, presumably due to COVID-19 restrictions.

If you live in the Houston area and are looking for a relaxing place to go for a hike, a kayak outing, a trail ride on a mountain bike, or to camp overnight, Stephen F. Austin State Park is a very nice park to visit. It’s far enough from I-10 that you don’t hear the traffic (a problem at Huntsville State Park), and the occasional wildlife sighting of deer, owls, hawks, and other birds make for a pleasant and refreshing time.

I recommend using the Reserve America website to secure a campsite well in advance. One of the realities of the world in COVID-19 is that more people are visiting parks and forests than ever, and unless you have a reservation, you will likely be unable to camp at a standard campground. We have been using Reserve America with great success since last year. It makes the reservation process easy and reduces the wait during check-in.

Outdoors Overlanding

Weekend Getaways

One of the reasons we purchased the Alpha Roof Top Tent from Tuff Stuff Overland was for the ease of use for getting out of town on a Friday and to hit some trails, national forests, state parks, or campsites on a whim without having to do much preparation. That plan came to fruition twice this fall already, and with great success.

Our first night at our campsite at the state park.

So far, we’ve visited the Huntsville State Park in Texas twice. Both times, we were able to get out of Houston on a Friday afternoon and get setup completely with dinner made. The first trip was delayed due to traffic and our need to purchase fire wood, so our dinner was later than we wanted, but on our second trip, we were setup and fed by 6 pm.

Both times, we used our normal Overlanding setup. We use our camping trips as practice for our larger/longer trips, so we still bring 5 gallon containers of water and our solar generators and use them. I use the solar panel to recharge the batteries, and so far, we’ve been very happy with the performance of our gear.

Out on Lake Raven at Huntsville State Park.

On our second trip, we added bikes and kayaks. This really made the weekend far more exciting, and honestly, much better for us physically. I am working hard to stay fit right now as I attend Warrant Officer Candidate School over the next five months, so losing days of exercise is counter-productive. Taking the kayaks and the bikes allowed us to not only enjoy the park in ways we never did before, it was also physically demanding (especially the biking up and down the hills on trails!). The kayaks, made by Tucktec, are very stable and well-made. They fold down to a very small package and fit into our Overlanding setup without issues.

The bikes, our kitchen and eating setup, the Gunship with roof top tent, and the kayaks.

All in all, our packing list is pretty much set with a few small exceptions.

  • Joolca hot water heater will replace the Waterport that is currently on our roof rack.
  • Once the Waterport is replaced, I am going to put a box of some type on the back for extra storage of sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows.
Inside our roof top tent. It’s very spacious for the two of us.

We are very comfortable with our setup, and we get more and more efficient every time we go out for a weekend. We started using air mattresses in our RTT, and it’s made sleeping a little more comfortable. The built-in memory foam mattress in the RTT is nice, but it’s a lot different from our bed at home, which is softer. The air mattresses give us a closer approximation to what we’re used to. I’m looking into an additional foam topper, but I haven’t decided on anything yet.

Overlanding doesn’t have to mean finding a spot out in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road. Our interpretation is that we have the freedom and flexibility to sleep anywhere, anytime. Campground, roadside, national forest, state park, etc. That’s the beauty of this hobby.

Outdoors Overlanding

Review: Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent

This review is uncompensated and unsponsored. We purchased our Tuff Stuff Overland Roof Top Tent at full-price.

The Gunship with the Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent secured and ready for adventure.

Last weekend, Sherry and I got a chance to finally test out our brand new Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent. We left Houston knowing it was going to be a very hot day, and we stopped at a favorite winery to pickup some wine and to have a long lunch. We then drove to San Antonio where we were greeted by a locked gate. We were unaware that the gate would be closed and that we were supposed to get a gate code to get into our reserved campsite. We then headed to Marble Falls, just West of Austin, to the Hidden Falls Adventure Park where we were able to quickly make a reservation for a primitive campsite. The park was very nice to allow us to camp there; they are not a campsite, but an adventure park with campsites. It was a bit pricey, but worth it. We wanted to test out the new tent and our campsite setup one last time before our big two-week trip in September, and this was our last chance.

Our camp setup at night. The LED lights under the Alpha really lit up the entire campsite.

We arrived just after sundown, and by the time we got out to our campsite, it was getting dark very fast. Sherry and I divided the labor: I setup the Alpha and a tarp to cover our eating area while Sherry got the kitchen setup and food prepared. It was still pretty hot outside (it was over 100 degrees just hours earlier), so I decided to pull the rain fly up over the tent to allow the heat to escape through the roof screen opening.

Between the lights underneath the tent and the LED lights in our eating area, there was more than enough light to live by.

The Alpha was very easy to setup, and I had it completely ready to go within about 4 minutes. I connected one of our solar generators to the LED lights, and between the light inside the tent and underneath, we had a lot of light for our campsite.

After our very late dinner, we got into the tent and prepared for our first night of sleep. We found the tent to be very spacious; both Sherry and I had our backpacks in the tent with us as well as our footwear. We were both easily able to undress and get comfortable. The padding of the mattress was firm (very much to my liking) and held us nicely without any bottoming out. My wife found it to be a little too firm for her, but she said she got used to it rather quickly. She said in the future, if it’s still too hard for her, she can always air up an air mattress to make it softer for her.

With all the flaps secured and open coupled with two small USB fans we had, we were able to rest comfortably until around 4 am when the temperature dropped to around 74 degrees. A constant breeze also helped to keep us comfortable, and the generous screen-covered openings of the Alpha ensured that air circulated nicely.

Testing out the tent in our driveway before the trip with the rain fly on top. We rolled it up and stowed it on our trip to keep the inside of the tent cool.

There was no threat of rain, but I figure that I could have had the rain fly down and secured within a minute to ninety seconds, if necessary. Fortunately, that didn’t come into play.

Sherry getting breakfast ready while I setup the solar panel to recharge one of our solar generators.

In the morning, we awoke well-rested, and we were easily able to get dressed. Sherry commented that she’d never been in a tent so spacious and comfortable, and the view from the tent, over the trees and out onto the valley beneath us, was breathtaking.

Getting the tent secured takes a bit more effort than opening it up, as it’s necessary to tuck the tent inside the hard cover as you close it, but the more we use the tent, the better at it we are getting and we expect to be experts at it in September. We were able to get everything secured within half an hour (the kitchen takes the longest to get cleaned up, dried, and secured) and then leave the park by checkout time.

What I like

I really like how sturdy the tent feels. From the solid materials and quality stitching to the ladder and the hard-cover, everything feels very well-made. The materials feel sturdy, and there is no part of this tent that feels that corners were cut on.

The mattress is around 3″ thick, and is firm. I weigh around 185 lbs, and I never bottomed out on the mattress. The LED lights are really clever, and while very bright, are adjustable in hue and in intensity. They use very little electricity, and are very useful (especially the lights underneath the tent).

Our Alpha appears to be a newer variant that has rain fly/shade covers over the side windows. These are very useful, and I am glad that our version has these.

Mounting it is easy enough, and all necessary tools are included.

What I don’t like

There are two spots on either side of the tent where the hinge is located that have openings where bugs can get in through. I understand why these openings are there; they’re necessary due to the nature of the folding of the tent. If there were material there, it would bind and/or rip. To keep the bugs out, we keep two small towels that we stuff into these areas at the side of the mattress to keep the bugs out. I’m sure there’s some way to rectify this, but it might be cost prohibitive. It’s a little thing, and very easy to mitigate, so it’s not a big deal. That’s literally the only thing I don’t like.

Why Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha

Tuff Stuff Overland is a relative newcomer to the Overlanding world. They don’t have the longevity of Yakima, Tepui, or iKamper, but they are making a very strong showing with their line of tents. The pricing is very competitive, and with the high quality of their products, I can see Tuff Stuff Overland becoming more well-known very soon. I receive many positive comments when I am out and about with the tent open, and people are very impressed with the quality.

The reasons I chose the Alpha are:

  • Comfort. First and foremost, it’s a tent for sleeping in. For that, it fits the bill perfectly. The mattress is comfortable, and the tent is spacious enough for two adults to easily move around and even store extras without cramping us.
  • Price/Value. For half the price of many of its competitors, the Alpha delivers unmatched value.
  • Quality. I’ve looked at many competitors before purchasing the Alpha, and I have to say that the materials appear to be AT LEAST just as good as the others.
  • Durability. This is yet to be tested long-term, but based on what I see so far, the Alpha appears to be quite durable made of quality materials with solid workmanship.
  • Design. The night Sherry and I decided to go with a roof top tent, I showed her the finalists in my evaluations, and she immediately fell in love with the Alpha. I was already heavily leaning toward it, but her enthusiasm for it sealed the deal. I’m glad we went with the Alpha, because it’s fulfilled all our requirements and then some.
  • Speed of deployment/breaking down. This was one of the biggest factors, actually. In watching some video reviews of the Alpha, Sherry and I were struck with how quickly the Alpha could be deployed and then secured. We had been camping a few times before purchasing the Alpha, and the speed with which it could go up and down was very attractive and appealing to us.

Final Thoughts

Tuff Stuff Overland may be the new kids on the block, but they come bearing big-kid toys that are well-made, fairly priced, and fast and easy to deploy. Rarely can you purchase something for Overlanding that feels like you got a really good deal. The Alpha is one of those rare gems that make you feel like you pulled off a caper and got something truly incredible for an incredibly good price. We highly recommend the Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent.

Back at home, unloaded and ready to be washed.