Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
4WD Overlanding

“Wheeling”

What used to be known a four-wheeling is now known as “Wheeling” by most people in the 4WD community. Overlanding and 4WD overlaps a lot, but are not always enjoyed by people of either community. I enjoy both, and have adopted both in my Overlanding journey. On the vacation we just took over the past two weeks, I was afforded numerous opportunities to go Wheeling.

Medano Pass Primitive Road, Great Sand Dunes National Forest

The beginning of the trail is soft sand requiring airing down of tires to 15 psi.

The Medano Pass Primitive Road was my first real 4WD experience with the Gunship. I’ve done some minor wheeling on the beach and on some dirt roads, but this was, by far, the most technical trail I’ve done yet. It was listed as a “Moderate” in difficulty, and with my military off-road training and experience, I figured I could tackle it.

Our second night on vacation as amazing.

The trail is 22-miles long and has soft sand, rocks, dirt, and 9 stream crossings. There are some serious inclines and declines, but nothing ridiculous. We took the majority of the trail on our first day before settling down for camping on a primitive campsite that was on the side of the trail. The site itself was spectacular with the Medano Creek gently running about 100 yards from our site with mountains on both sides of the valley making for serene and scenic experience.

The sunset at our campsite was stunning. This is what Overlanding is about to me.

On the second day, we ran into our first mechanical issue. While driving the trail carefully and slowly, I noticed five warning lights appearing on the dashboard. Not knowing what these meant, I asked Sherry to look them up as I continued to drive. I also noticed that to drive straight, I had to turn the steering wheel 90 degrees to the left. This was not good.

Sherry confirmed that all the warning indications pointed to stability and traction system failures, and once we cleared the trail, I was able to inspect the suspension as I had to air up our tires. The right front wheel was visibly off-camber and alignment, yet no tie rods appeared to be bent. Whatever happened was major, and we decided to make a detour to Pueblo to spend the night in a hotel to get the Gunship in to the Pueblo Toyota dealer for emergency service.

This is what a knuckle looks like. I bent one of these. It’s not easy to do, and I suspect mine was defective.

The dealer’s service department was booked for the day, but they squeezed us in and three hours later, we had the diagnosis: a bent knuckle. These are incredibly hard to bend without bending tie rods first, so I suspected that this must have been defective from the factory for it to bend the way it did. Regardless, the part needed to be brought in from Kansas City, MO, and that was going to take a day or two. Sherry and I pivoted and rented a car and checked into the hotel for another day.

Christmas in Septeber in Manitou Springs, CO. The snow made it magical and helped us get over the delay.

While we waited for the Gunship to have its suspension repaired, we visited Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, and Royal Gorge. The next day, we went out to Cripple Creek when we were called by Pueblo Toyoto telling us that the Gunship was fixed and ready to go. We rushed back to the dealership where we picked up the 4Runner and dropped off the rental car to continue our trip. While we lost two days of sleeping in the tent, it happened to coincide with a freak September snowstorm which had us sleeping in a warm hotel room on two of the coldest nights of our trip. I joked that the Gunship was taking care of us by keeping us out of the tent through the worst of the cold weather.

Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, CO.

Eye of the Whale Trail, Arches National Forest

I have to admit that I was a little nervous this time out. For my second major trail, Sherry found the Eye of the Whale Trail which was also listed as a Moderate Technical trail requiring high-clearance 4WD vehicles. The Gunship fits that description, but our last experience on the Medano Pass Trail had me worried about damaging the Gunship again.

I aired down to 30 psi as the trail wasn’t sandy like Medano was. I figured airing down a little would help reduce the likelihood of puncture damage from rocks on the trail and help with making the ride smoother and giving us more traction on the rocky inclines and declines. We then hit the trail.

The start of the trail is directly near this balancing rock in the Arches National Forest.

This trail, while listed as the same difficulty as Medano, seemed a little more technical to me. The inclines were steeper, and the rocky areas were trickier, requiring more thought about which line to take.

I really enjoyed this trail, and while it was the most technical I’ve done (out of the two!), it wasn’t over my ability. When we neared the exit of the trail (it’s also the entrance as we went to the Eye of the Whale arch and turned back around), we saw an Audi Q5 struggling to make it back out of the area we were in. The wheels were spinning as the Q5 tried to make it up the rocky hill, and the driver had to back up and try a different line while “Sending it” to get it out of the high-clearance 4WD area. It reinforced my decision on the 4Runner as I was actually considering a Q5 before settling on the 4Runner. The Q5 is very nice, but definitely not a capable off-roading vehicle.

The best news of this trail was that nothing broke! I drove it carefully and slowly to avoid too much compression of the suspension as my current configuration is heavy with a noticable sag in the rear of the suspension. This trip has highlighted the fact that I need better springs in the back to deal with the extra weight we carry when Overlanding.

6 Mile Canyon Road, Cibola National Forest

The evening view to the West of our campsite.

Our last Overlanding spot of the trip also provided me with the last trail to go wheeling on. While the 6 Mile Canyon Road itself is not technical or difficult at all (it is, afterall, a gravel road), the turn-offs are dirt or a mix of dirt and rocks and have some difficult spots. The first turn-off we drove on was, based on my previous experience with the two trails, moderate technical with some steep inclines and declines with some tight spots between trees and rocks. I navigated this easily and when we determined that we didn’t like the camp spot, I turned around and went back to the road to look for another spot.

We were treated to a spectacular sunrise and dramatic clouds on our last morning of the trip.

Minutes later, we came across another turn-off that led to a great spot near some beautiful and colorful rocks. I drove up that trail which I would rate as easy and we made it to our camp spot for the night. It was perfect, and while it got really windy in the middle of the night, it was one of our most memorable camp spots of the trip.

Breakfast on the last day of our trip. It was the perfect, yet bittersweet ending to our vacation.

This trip was one of the most enjoyable for my wife and I. We not only got to see new things and eat new foods and try new drinks, but we actually had to work together as a team to setup camp, make food, get the tent setup for sleeping before reversing the process each morning. Loading and unloading the Gunship became a routine, and we became very quick and efficient at it.

In many ways, I think our trip was a great exercise in team building. If you can get past two weeks of overlanding without killing each other, I think you’re in good shape. Sherry and I talked about it on the drive home, and while there were a handful of moments where each of us felt some stress, those moments never boiled over into an argument. We were self-aware enough to de-escalate any issue quickly, and in some ways, I think it strengthened our already iron-clad relationship.

As for the “Wheeling” portions of this trip, I was surprised not by how much I enjoyed it, but in how much Sherry enjoyed it. When I told her I was going to get better springs for the rear to make wheeling easier for us in the future, she thought it was a great idea and said she looked forward to doing more of it.

I don’t see Overlanding and Wheeling as mutually exclusive. To the contrary, I think they are both better when done together.

Categories
Overlanding

Review Update: Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent

My wife and I have been on an overlanding vacation for the past week, and we’ve spent 5 nights in the Alpha tent, and we have some additional observations to go along with my previous review.

The most important thing: keeping us dry. We have now weathered rain and snow, and in both cases, the Alpha kept us dry. In some extreme cold (24 degrees one night, 29 the next), the tent did a great job of keeping us from freezing. Yes, it was still cold inside the tent, but much better than any ground tent I’ve used.

Keeping the bugs out: initially, I reported that there were openings on the bottom of the tent where it folds that could potentially let bugs in. I found out that there are velcro flaps that seal those holes up. I just didn’t have enough experience with the tent to know this before.

Ease of use: the more we use it, the faster we are with setting it up and taking it down. At every campsite we’ve been to, I’ve had at least a couple of people ask me about it and comment on how much they like our setup. The people who saw us open it up were impressed with how simple it looked.

My wife insists that the Alpha is the best purchase we’ve made for overlanding. She says it’s a game-changer for her, and it’s made camping far more enjoyable for her. I have to agree on all her points.

Categories
Big Trip 2020 Overlanding

T-Minus One Week

Our big trip is coming up in one week. Our route will take us all the way up to the top of Montana and back down again. We will be traveling up through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona.

Sherry has made reservations for us along the way at various National Forests and state parks, and we have purchased the appropriate off-road permits where applicable.

We’ve been preparing for this trip all summer, and the last overlanding trip we made was to test our loadout and was our last dry run before the big trip. We learned a few valuable lessons, and we’ve already made some changes leading up to next week including how we load the cargo area in a way that keeps items from falling forward in the event of hard braking (learned this the hard way), and also found a better way to load up the cargo area that utilizes the space better. We also learned that it’s necessary to have a smaller container that holds lunch support items like plates, forks, knives, napkins, and a cutting board so we don’t have to unload our kitchen box every time we stop for lunch (which, in our optimized load plan, is at the bottom of all the items we pack in).

Sherry already has all her clothes packed and ready to go, while I’ve been concentrating my efforts on preparing the logistics of the vehicle and all the camping equipment. I will be taking the Gunship in for an oil change and tire rotation next week as it’s just about due (about 300 miles early) and I’d rather do it before than after the trip.

I will begin packing up my clothes early next week. I used to travel a lot for work, so I have a pretty good workflow as it pertains to packing up. I also use checklists, and I’ve been working on mine for weeks to ensure I have thought of everything. Of course, I am certain that a few things will have slipped through the cracks, but the intention is to try to reduce the number of things I need to buy on the road once we get going. If I can make it for the entire two-week period without having to buy anything to supplement our loadout, then I’ll be happy.

I know that through this two-week trip, Sherry and I will learn a lot about Overlanding, our loadout, and we will optimize further. I’m also certain that when we’re done, we will have identified areas where we can eliminate or down-size certain items while also finding areas to improve in. That’s part of the fun of Overlanding: finding your optimal setup. What works for me may not always work for you, and vice-versa. That’s why there are so many different builds out there.

I am looking forward to being out in nature, seeing amazing sights, and spending time with my favorite person on the planet. We always have such a great time together, and this will be a great time for us to work together in a way we rarely have to. Setting up and tearing down camp is definitely a two-person job, and we have our roles and our rhythm to perfect. Oh, and we will need to take pictures. Lots of pictures.

Categories
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.
Categories
Overlanding

Preview: Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent

The Alpha mounted on the Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone rack with Yakima Slim Shady awning.

Late last week, the Tuff Stuff Overland Alpha Roof Top Tent arrived for the Gunship. With the help of my wife, my son, my brother-in-law, and my friend Doug, we were able to get the tent up and mounted without much difficulty.

Due to my car’s satellite radio antenna being mounted on the back of the roof, I opted to mount the tent a little closer to the front of the car than most people do. Due to the awning and Tuff Stuff Overland Shower Tent being mounted onto our Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone Roof Rack, I had to put some spacers to raise the tent up about an inch. The end result is some whistling at speeds over 45 mph. This is something that wouldn’t have happened if I wouldn’t have raised it or mounted it so close to the front. The solution is to fabricate a longer fairing by about 3″ which will route the air up and over the gap between the tent and the roof rack. I’ve contacted Sherpa Equipment Company about having this fairing made by them. I will hopefully hear from them, soon.

First time opening it up when it arrived.

In the meantime, my wife and I have begun getting ourselves familiar with opening and closing the tent. Our first time was interesting and we weren’t very good at it. However, by the second time, it was much easier, and the tent was setup and ready to go within 3 minutes. Putting it away takes just a slight bit longer, but it’s still easy. We just have to work together to tuck everything in neatly.

This is a preview, because we have yet to go camping with it. We have a trip coming up this weekend as a test-run of all the overlanding gear we have purchased over the past few months in preparation for our two-week long trip from Texas up to New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and then back to Texas. We have reservations in numerous state parks and national forests, and we will be putting the tent through the paces.

The shower curtain is visible near the back of the Gunship on the roof rack.

So far, I can say the quality is excellent, and when I mounted the tent, I broke one of the strap tie-downs that Tuff Stuff very quickly replaced for me. The follow-up post to this one will be far more detailed and be based on actual usage of the tent and our experiences with it on our trip. We anticipate good and comfortable sleep on the 3″ memory foam mattress and protection from the elements.

Categories
Overlanding

Wine Tastings and Camping

Our campsite had a beautiful view of the Texas sunset.

Our latest adventure took us out of the local area and ended up being one of the best weekend trips we’ve had in a very long time (even before the COVID days). We started the day by stopping at a local Kroger and buying some fresh vegetables and meat to make dinner and breakfast with in the morning. My wife took a 2 lbs flank steak and marinated it with lime and spices in a ziploc bag. We then drove to three wineries on our way to the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, TX.

Crossing the bridge at Saddlehorn Winery.

After tasting and buying some delicious wines, we ended up at Hidden Falls and drove out to the primitive campsites. They were closer together than we’d have expected, but there was enough space around us to still feel alone. There was a lot of noise from the 4 wheeler’s, but it’s to be expected at an adventure park. It was actually a lot of fun watching kids enjoy themselves while their parents worked hard to keep the fun going.

I took out the drone and got some neat aerial shots of us, our campsite, and the Gunship.

We were rewarded for marinating the meat all day with some of the most tender fajitas I’ve ever eaten. Sherry brought some Paleo tortillas and made grilled mushrooms with onions and green pepper which rounded out the fajita tacos perfectly. Then, as a surprise, she took some Fredericksburg peaches we purchased on our way to the park and made a cobbler with our dutch oven that turned out perfectly!

The fire was relaxing cobbler was delicious!

After doing the dishes, we sat and enjoyed the fire and the beautiful sunset for a while which led to a beautiful and clear starry night. Being able to see stars we cannot see at home brought back lots of memories to both of us. We even saw a satellite pass overhead!

The Gunship got quite dusty, but that’s okay. It is a visible sing that we had some fun!

The sleeping arrangements were good. We have good air mattresses, but I had a bit of a hump on the ground which made my sleeping position a little uncomfortable. I made it through the night, but my back was a bit sore. It made me look forward to the rooftop tent we purchased being delivered.

The tent worked perfectly. The Biolite Fire Pit really made starting a fire easy.

The morning brought us a little bit of a drizzle and light rain, but fortunately, it blew past us within about 20 minutes. We had a nice drive home through the rolling hills and countryside. My wife admitted to me that she had more fun camping than she thought she would, and she is really looking forward to our big fall trip of overlanding up to Idaho and back down again.

The view West from 200 feet above our campsite.
Our campsite from the air. The Waterport mounted on the rear passenger side made cleanup of pots and pans a breeze!
Categories
Overlanding

Yakima Slim Shady Awning Review

Having a lovely lunch on Matagorda Beach on the Texas Gulf Coast.

For Christmas in 2019, my wife purchased a Yakima Slim Shady awning for me. It was a gift I had asked for, and she told me that while she thought it was silly and wasn’t quite sure how I would use it, she knew I wanted it, so she bought it anyway. Fast-forward three months, and we have been using the Slim Shady awning nearly every weekend and she’s admitted to me that she loves it and the utility it provides our vehicle during our day trips. An added bonus: during the COVID-19 lockdown and with restaurants only being open for pick-up, we have used the awning at the side of a lake close to her office where we take our to-go orders along with a camp table and two chairs. It’s provided some of the nicest and relaxing lunches we’ve had in a long time.

Lunch near a pump jack at Lake Somerville in Texas.

What I like

Right out of the box, I was able to mount this to my 2020 4Runner TRD Pro without problems. However, when I changed from the OEM roof basket to a Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone full-length rack, I had to purchase an adapter/mount from Sherpa. Fortunately, it works great, and mounts the awning very close and firm to the rack.

The material of the Slim Shady awning is very light and durable. It provides good shade and is waterproof. The legs are easy to pull out and lock into place, and the side supports are equally easy to use.

The Yakima Slim Shady tucks up nice and compact.

When the Slim Shady awning is tucked up in it’s protective case, it lives up to its name: Slim. It doesn’t produce any additional wind noise (which was a fear of my wife’s since it’s mounted on the passenger side), and it doesn’t rattle, shake, or produce any additional sound, for that matter. The case is waterproof, and has been doing a great job of protecting the awning inside.

Lunch with my kids and their significant others while socially distancing at Bucky’s.

The area it covers is good. We were able to fit five of us under it for a meal on Mother’s Day parked in the Bucky’s parking lot (to social distance).

What I Don’t Like

It was hard to find something I don’t like about this awning, because so far, it’s been a solid performer and has allowed us to have shade in some very sunny weather and has provided us protection while having some of the most enjoyable moments this year. The thing I don’t like is very minor, and probably something every awning suffers from: setup can be tricky for one person, especially in the wind. It’s not impossible, and it’s not insurmountable. It’s just tricky. I have found that leaving the table out while I put it away makes folding the legs and guide lines in much easier.

Why the Yakima Slim Shady

It’s not because I’m an Eminem fan (I like the guy, and he’s very smart, but I’m more of an alt-rock guy, truth be told). The reasons I chose the Yakima Slim Shady are:

  • Solid reviews. I do a lot of research before I buy anything, and the Yakima awnings receive some solid feedback.
  • Durability. Based on reviews and the personal experiences of people I know with awnings, the Yakima awnings hold up well. In my experience over the past two months of solid use, it’s been doing great. I’ll update in the future with any issues, if they pop up.
  • Slim and unobtrusive when rolled up. This was a big deal for me. I didn’t want anything that had to be mounted up too high on the rack, or that stuck out too far from the side. The 4Runner is a medium-sized SUV, and I have seen some awnings that stick out much farther.
  • Price/value. The Yakima Slim Shady awning is very affordable. I felt that it was one of the best deals in awnings for the 4Runner.
  • Functional. I fly RC planes, and often at the flying field, the tables under the shade are all taken up by other pilots who got to the field before me. Now, I can setup my own awning, table, and chair, and have shade to protect me and my planes.
  • Not proprietary. The Yakima Slim Shady awning will work with just about any roof rack system out there. I went from OEM to Sherpa Equipment Company without any issues at all.
A couple of my planes under the awning a few weeks ago.

Final Thoughts

Of all the mods and add-ons I’ve put on my 4Runner, this is probably tied for the one I use and enjoy the most. My wife would argue it’s the best item on my 4Runner, but I’d remind her that it works exceptionally well with the Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone roof rack. It’s almost as if they were meant to be together.

If you want a solidly made, dependable, useful, and easy to use awning for your 4WD or Overlanding vehicle, you can’t go wrong with the Yakima Slim Shady. I highly recommend it.

Parked literally feet from the water. It was an amazing experience. It was very windy this day, and the awning held up admirably.