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overland camping
Toyota Tundra 4×4 from Colorado Overlander. Photo by Lindsay DeFrates

Overland Camping: An Adventure with Young Kids

One family’s backcountry experience in a Colorado Overlander 4x4 camping vehicle, with young kids in tow.

With three kids under the age of seven, camping overnight is never easy, and it’s not like we haven’t tried. My husband and I met while we were counselors at an adventure camp in western Colorado, and we’ve basically been trying to recreate that lifestyle with our family ever since.

All of our offspring have been camping since they were one or younger. Whether it’s overnight river trips, car camping at a beloved state park with slides and flushing toilets, or zipping up a forest service road near our house for a primitive night out, we spend as much time outdoors as possible.

So when Colorado Overlander in Glenwood Springs challenged us to put their fully-equipped, 4×4 capable camping vehicle to the test, we started to wonder…can camping with kids actually be easy?

It seemed like the right equation. The truck had all the camping gear built in, with a rooftop tent, slide out drawers, and decking for gear storage and access, and our two carseats and a booster easily fit across the backseat. It was a beefy Toyota Tundra 4×4 with off-road tires and traction boards, able to handle any kind of weather or terrain the mountains could throw at us. The idea is that anyone could walk up to a vehicle like that and rent an amazing backcountry adventure, even if they didn’t have the gear themselves.

We jumped at the chance to plan a three-night, four-day overlanding trip through southwestern Colorado, trekking through a section of the Historic Hot Springs Loop, right at the peak of fall colors. Was it easy? Heck, no. But it did let us have a whole new kind of adventure with the kids.

We soaked in natural hot springs, oohed and ahhed at golden aspens, swore up and down a spicy 4×4 road, and saw a new corner of the state I’ve lived in for 15 years. Of course, just like any trip, not everything went according to plan.

overland camping
Photo by Lindsay DeFrates

Truck vs. Rock

Our first night out was at the lovely and established campground by Lost Lake, up on Kebler Pass, our second night would put us just outside of Ouray, an area with which I am less familiar. We planned to soak in the gorgeous Ouray Hot Springs that afternoon and then find a campsite outside of town.

All five of us fit in the tent without problem, once we placed one adult perpendicular to the rest (a family of four or less would be ideal). This particular model of tent had a fold out section of the floor, which, when all was packed up, safely sandwiched all of the canvas and the mattress between it and the bottom floor. Setting up was a bit more complicated than other models of rooftop tents I’ve used, but once the tent was opened, the rest was intuitive.

Since overlanding really allows you to camp anywhere you can park the vehicle, I did some research, and thought it would be a good idea to roll the dice on a 4×4 road called County Road 18. It’s the first part of the Alpine Loop climb up to Engineer Pass, known for its rugged terrain and breathtaking scenery. As we approached the start of the road, there was a small wooden sign that had “4×4, high clearance, short wheel base” listed on it. We had high clearance and four-wheel-drive, and I sort of figured that the “short wheel base” was more of a general guideline. (The wheel base is the distance between the front and the back axle; ours was a long wheel base.)

We were lucky to still be married the next day, with the truck in one piece. As we climbed up the rock pile known as a road late in the afternoon, it became apparent that our vehicle, while amazing in many ways, was not the right fit for this particular challenge. After about two miles, and several edge-of-the-cliff rock problems, we shakily found a level spot near an abandoned mine right at sunset and gave up.

Our only neighbors for the evening were a deer we named Samantha and her fawn who kept circling the campsite despite our refusal to offer them any food. The rugged nature of the site—it was a reclaimed mine site with rusted metal support beams and sharp rocks everywhere—made me glad of the roof-top tent and its mattress pad. Since there was not much to (safely) play with outside, we played a hotly contested game of Uno up in the tent until bedtime.

overland camping
Photo by Lindsay DeFrates

Finding Smooth Ground

The next morning, we crawled back down to the paved road and the whole experience was the kind of funny where it’s better to laugh than cry. Back on the Million Dollar Highway, my husband and I were proud of our first real off-roading experience, a little humbler, and still speaking to one another. We climbed the hills up and down to Silverton and Durango without problem and spent the afternoon soaking in Pagosa Hot Springs.

The last evening out was really what it’s all about when overlanding with kids. We took the first spot we found on the East Fork of the San Juan River, played in the sand, stayed up late with glow sticks and marshmallows, and then piled into the tent for our last night.

The only real casualty of the trip occurred that morning when we woke up to discover that both left shoes of my middle-child’s sneakers and boots were missing. The loop handles on all the kid’s rubber boots had been snapped in half or gnawed on, and my husband’s shoelaces had been considerably shortened. There were very few tracks, or any other kind of mess (we keep a clean camp every night), and we never did find the two left shoes, leading us to believe that some local foxes were probably enjoying their new chew toys.

Photo by Lindsay DeFrates

Reflections on Overlanding

The fact that we decided to relocate every day definitely made our trip more challenging. If we had stayed and played all three nights at, say, Lost Lake, the whole experience would have been a breeze. The kids loved treating the rooftop tent as a fort. There was also the security, perceived or otherwise, against prowling critters. Hunter, my oldest, commented that we should keep the mattress for our day-to-day tent because it made playing “steamroller” and “worm” a lot more fun. It was also nice to know that my two-year-old would not be rolling off her insulated sleeping pad onto the cold ground at any point.

I loved that our Overlanding experience brought us to unexpected places, facing new challenges together. Overland camping allows you to break free from the imagined chains of ‘staying close to home.’ You don’t have the hassle of pulling a large camping trailer, and it works well for families who enjoy camping with less neighbors, more views, and bigger adventure.

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