Off-Road Essentials to Live Out of Your 4x4
What you need for a week of off-roading in the middle of nowhere.
With over 20 years of Ultimate Adventure events under our belt, there's one thing we know about, and that's how to pack to live out of your 4x4 for a weeklong hardcore off-roading trip. Sure, you can pack things like 1.21-gigawatt power inverters, fancy blow-up air projector screens, and full Dolby surround sound systems to turn any farmer's field into a drive-in movie theater, but while stuff like that stows easily in your Class A motorhome's storage compartments, it takes up precious room and adds unnecessary weight to your 4x4. Here are some off-road essentials our cast of Ultimate Adventure characters have brought along on the past couple UA events. See if any of these apply to your type of 'wheeling and camping.
Electric Fridge and Tailgate
Verne Simons can fall asleep anywhere, as this shot from UA2018 illustrates. And while this is a great example of just one of the many uses a tailgate may serve when off-roading, what it also illustrates is how Christian Hazel and Verne packed all their junk into the DeRange Rover with plenty of room to spare. Non-refrigerated food goes in the top plastic hardware tote, while fluids, power tools, and other messy gear is in the bottom tote. Perishable meats, cheeses, drinks, and other food are in the 50-quart ARB fridge freezer, which once chilled and running only has to kick on infrequently to maintain temperature.
In addition to a super-speedy camp setup at the end of a long day, another nice feature of a rooftop tent like this James Baroud model Fred Williams runs on his UA Tug Truck is that all your bedding (mattress, sleeping bags, and even pillows) stays inside. Pop it open, climb in, and count sheep 'til you fall asleep. In the morning, just roll out in your jammies, climb down, and close the tent back up.
We hit some incredibly dry and dusty conditions on UA2017, so it was advantageous for returning reader, Wayne Lambert, that he equipped his '71 Chevy pickup with multiple storage boxes that were not only easy to securely strap down, but that featured a good seal on the top to keep the dust and elements out. All Wayne's gear stayed (relatively) dust free and clean during the 1,000-mile trip through some of the worst dust any of us had ever encountered.
Sturdy Roof Rack
Yes, a roof rack is technically intended to store your gear. But if you build it sturdily enough with a nice, long, flat bottom, it can also make a darn fine sleeping platform when the place you happen to stop for the night is covered in boulders or prickly plants. During UA2016, Offroad Power Products' Cooper Rasmussen made his Viking camp on the roof of his '75 Jeep Cherokee Chief, "Grandma." It turned out to be a good choice of roof rack design because on that particular UA there were virtually no flat spots to be had at our final campsite of the event.
Kamp-Rite Tent Cot
While not quite as quick to deploy or take down as a rooftop tent, we've come to rely on our Kamp-Rite tent cots for a warm, dry, elevated place to spend the night. The single-person tent cot folds up relatively flat into a 35x31x6-inch package that's easy to slide into the cargo area of an SUV or stash on the roof. And we've found we're able to keep our sleeping bag and inflatable air mattress inside when folding and storing, although we obviously deflate the mattress first.
Campfire Cooking Grate
Whether you buy a collapsible one from a camping supply store or build your own simple version from a sheet of expanded steel, a gourmet camp meal can be cooked over an open fire with nothing more than a simple camp grate to hold your food above the coals.
Well, technically they're not called 4x4 hammocks, but that's what we call 'em when we stretch a hammock between two 4x4s. Of all our buddies, longtime UA crony Sam Gilles is most famous for rocking the sleeping hammock on UA. He stretches it between his Alabama Tube Car and another 4x4, or a tree, or what have you, and he's off to sleep like a little bubba baby. And when he wakes up and wipes the sleep from his eyes, the hammock rolls up in a super tight little bundle that's easy to store in his limited-for-space tube buggy.
Traditional Camp Cot
This was Christian Hazel's tentless camping setup for UA2017. The Cabela-brand camp cot was a gift from mom years ago and is plenty comfortable to sleep on without a foam or air mattress. The cheapie Walmart plastic tote holds all his food and doubles as a stovetop for the single-burner Coleman propane stove on which water to rehydrate freeze-dried meals is boiled. And who needs a pillow when a rolled-up winter jacket does just as well?
Whether stored in these nifty little Daystar Cam Cans, a 5-gallon jerrycan, or even a truckstop plastic fuel jug, spare fuel when out on a long off-road trip is a necessity. Even if you have planned fuel stops on your route, you never know if those locations may be closed or out of fuel when you arrive. And what if you tear a hole in a fuel line or punch a hole in your fuel tank? Carrying a little extra fuel that will at least last the length of your planned trail route is always a good idea.
Not to be indelicate, but when you gotta go multiple days without a shower while still having to uh .go, it's always nice to have a pack of baby wipes to keep yourself clean and sanitary. Your co-driver will thank you; as will your camp neighbors and the next person who has to ride in your seat. As for the Kit Kat, they're just yummy.
4x4 Serape Blanket
We used to know a killer little place in Mexico that sold woolen blankets like this for about $5, and they lasted forever. Originally know as "Mexican blankets," nowadays companies make high-dollar versions, probably pricier because they have the word "camp" or "serape" in them. But whatever your preference, most you'll find nowadays are made from acrylic/poly/cotton blends and are great to keep you warm, sleep on, sleep under, or imitate Clint Eastwood. "Get three coffins ready."
Trasharoo or Trash Can
You're gonna create some trash living out of your 4x4 for a week, but there's never any good excuse to leave trash behind. In fact, we always try to take more out with us than we bring in. One of the best products we've used for this is a Trasharoo trash bag. The company makes several models to choose from. In lieu of, or in addition to a Trasharoo, bring a decent supply of disposable trash bags with you. The downside to regular plastic trash bags when off-roading is that your risk spewing trash all over the inside of your truck or SUV if they rupture, but on the plus side, you can easily toss them away when you come back into civilization.
Digital Camera(s) and Charging Cords
Memories last a lifetime, but barring an EMP, digital photos last even longer. But in addition to taking fun snaps of you and your goofy buddies yukking it up on the trail and by the campfire, digital cameras can serve a much more meaningful purpose if you're out exploring. Taking photos of trail markers, points of interest, and other identifying waypoints and sharing those with others following far behind you can be an effective way of marking your trail without harming or disturbing nature. And we've read about people who, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, prefer to mark their trail with identifying photos highlighting turns and directions. Or just take a lot of selfies and share on social media.
Whether a cell phone, CB, VHF, UHF, satellite phone, or Morse code, if you're venturing far off the beaten path you'll want some way of quickly reaching rescue in the unlikely event of severe injury, accident, or need of extraction. For the past several years we've switched our communications on Ultimate Adventure from old-school CB to VHF systems, and the improvement in clarity and range of our communications is like night and day.
Steel Campfire Ring
Whether containing a bottom or just a simple ring would depend on the laws in your local area, but bringing along a steel fire ring is not only responsible, in some areas it's a requirement. As a bonus, a fire ring gives you a level place on which to place a cooking grate and keeps coals and embers from migrating away from your fire area. If you don't use a steel fire ring and your local areas allow it, at the very least you'll want to build a ring of rocks around your fire. Just don't use river, lake, or ocean rocks as the water they could potentially absorb can boil as the rock heats and cause the rock to shatter or even explode.
Somebody Who Can Camp Cook
Most folks are capable of boiling water or making microwave popcorn, but there is real artistry in prepping food on a cooler top, cooking it over an open camp flame on a rocking stove atop a tailgate, and having it all come out nicely. It's a real of a badge of honor that our Ultimate Adventure cronies have become known as some of the best gourmet camp cooks in the hardcore off-road world. You haven't eaten until Skinny Kenny, Chris Durham, Sam Gilles, or Keith Bailey whip you up a sausage breakfast burrito or a steak and chop plate with all the fixings.
It's one thing to stuff your gear in a 4x4 and mildly bump down a dirt road to a vendor showcase. It's quite another to pack up camp and then attack one of the most hardcore off-road trails in the country. Vehicles get violently bounced, rattled, and sprung off trees and other obstacles, and gear invariably wants to shift. If you aren't running proper tie-downs with good attachment points you're going to be setting up a yardsale of clothes and equipment all over the trail for others to shop from. We prefer quality ratchet straps for large or heavy items like tires, but even small stuff like bedrolls and coolers would do well with a real ratchet strap and not just a piece of bailing twine or cheap tension strap. Make darn sure everything is secured, because in the event of a rollover the last thing you want is your 120-pound fridge you just filled up with beverages sailing up to the front seats and hitting you in the head.
High-Calorie, High-Protein Snacks and Goodies
You want good camp food, but there may be long periods out on the trail between making camp, so in order to keep you going you'll want to have quick-to-grab snacks that will stick with you and keep you going. Chips, pretzels, and other high-carb snacks are good for that initial high, but they'll leave you hungry within a few minutes to an hour. Instead of plain crackers, slap some cheese and sausage on 'em. Beef jerky, mixed nuts, peanut butter, and other high-protein snacks are always good to keep at arm's reach in addition to your guilty pleasures like M&Ms and potato chips.
Waterproof Bags and Insect Spray
There's nothing worse than getting caught in a rainstorm or hitting a water crossing harder than you intended and soaking your bag and all of its contents. When you're living out of your 4x4, keeping your spare clothes dry is a necessity. Let them get wet, and by the end of the week people will be able to smell you coming from a mile away. For the past couple years we've been using these 60L 4x4 duffle bags from Rightline Gear, and they've been a huge upgrade over the old nylon bags we used to hand out to our participants. And on a non-related topic (but included in the photo), if you're anywhere but the Southwest you'll want some quality bug spray like that from Sawyer Products. We used Sawyer insect spray on Ultimate Adventure 2018 when we visited the woods of New England, and it seriously helped keep the bugs away and our sanity intact.
Bring a Tarp
You can generally find a poly tarp at any Harbor Freight or hardware store for under $20. Although not technically waterproof, a poly tarp's tight weave will generally keep whatever you've got wrapped up in or under it dry in a downpour. We encountered some very heavy rain in Massachusetts during UA2018, and Verne and Christian wrapped the tent cots in a poly tarp so they wouldn't have to sleep in a puddle the next night. It worked!
Hands-Free Headlamp Flashlight
There's nothing quite as nice as having a head-mounted flashlight when doing a midnight field fix on your 4x4. We generally bring along a powerful pocket LED flashlight as well, but if we had to choose between one or the other, we'd leave the pocket flashlight at home and bring the headlamp every time. There are so many available on the market, we can't list them all, or even recommend our favorite, other than to say that most of the ones we use are powered by three AAA disposable batteries and feature multiple brightness settings, as well as a night-vision-retaining red and strobe light feature.
If you've got the room to fit them, oftentimes running multiple smaller coolers makes more sense than running one enormous cooler large enough to fit a full-grown man. It's up to you what you run in them, but we know folks who keep one filled with ice to replenish the other coolers, keep another that's not opened very frequently with meats and other highly perishable dinner items, and keep a third for drinks and other stuff you grab repeatedly throughout the day. That way your highly perishable items stay fresh longer because the cooler they're being chilled in isn't being opened every 30 minutes so somebody can grab a water or soda.
We could write novels on what trial tools you should bring and how you should carry them. But in the end, each trail took kit will differ depending on the vehicle and owner. Whatever the case, know your 4x4's weaknesses and pack accordingly so you're able to remove and/or fix those weaknesses in the field. And obviously cloth, nylon, canvas, and other soft-sided bags won't be nearly as waterproof as a surplus military ammo can or even steel toolbox, but if you're keeping your tools in a water-resistant tote or truck box, canvas can be a great, lightweight option for carrying bags. Or, if you take your 4x4 for a dunk, just let 'em rust on the trail and oil them when you get back home!
Spare Vehicle Fluids, Storage, and a Comfy Pillow
We mentioned earlier that Hazel tends to use a jacket as a pillow, but if you've got the room in a nice, watertight truck box like UA Crony Ken "Skinny Kenny" Smith, does in his Cummins-powered early Chevy on a Dodge frame, then have at it. A good night's sleep goes a long way in helping you stay mentally alert and avoid accidents. Note the jugs of pre-mix 50/50 antifreeze that came in handy when the mechanical fan met the radiator in Kenny's truck. Hint: The fan won, and the radiator lost all its fluid. Kenny had pinched off the tubes and refilled the radiator the night before, so in addition to the spare fluid he also happened to have a new radiator with him. Be prepared, kids.
It's not a necessity, but pair of simple tongs sure makes cooking meat and vegetables a lot easier, especially if you're cooking over an open grate atop a campfire. Sure, you can cook with only a knife and/or sharp stick, but in the grand scheme of things a pair of short tongs don't take up much space and may come in handy in ways you never thought of. Like when you drop that wrench in the engine compartment and it lands way deep between the heater core, exhaust manifold, and engine block (don't ask).
Winch and Extraction Gear
Venturing into the unknown means you don't always know what you're venturing into. In addition to a good winch capable of pulling 1.5 times the fully loaded weight of your 4x4, recovery straps and shackles, snatch block pulley, solid recovery points on your vehicle, and gloves, you're going to want to make sure you've got a good shovel to dig out your tires or chassis if you sink your rig deep in really gooey muck. Also, while not a necessity, a set of Maxtrax (or similar) traction mats and a Pull Pal winch anchor can go a long way in helping you get your 4x4 unstuck, especially if there's no winch anchor or other vehicle to pull to.
Making Interior Room
If you usually run a back seat but don't need it for your trip, take it out and leave it in the garage. Why tote the weight and take up the room on a long trip if you don't need it? That's space you can use for your gear. Same goes for your spare tire. If you have an SUV and usually run your spare in the cargo area, consider strapping it to your roof rack for the duration of your trip to keep your less waterproof gear inside where it's safe from prying eyes and the elements.
Hi-Lift Jack and Awning
Where you mount it is up to you and the limitations of your 4x4's configuration, but a Hi-Lift jack is one must-have tool for any hardcore 4x4 trip that we'd never leave home without. This is crony Keith Bailey's LJ Wrangler. In addition to the extra rear and roof racks, Keith keeps an awning on the Jeep that can be quickly deployed to keep you dry or out of the sun, as the case may be. During UA2019 in Alaska the sun wasn't really an issue, and thankfully it didn't rain hardly at all. But we're betting if Keith had left the awning at home it woulda downpoured every day.
As part of their camp kitchen, UA2019 participants Dave Tucker and Rob Bonney brought along a nifty little "scotch box" charcoal grill. Essentially not much more than a steel tool box with a cooking grate, the scotch box was in use every evening by the pair. After getting the coals going and cooking dinner, Bonney closed the box, extinguishing the remaining charcoal, which could then be reused the next evening. What a cool little product. It had us scouring yard sales for a little steel toolbox so we could build our own.
Single Burner Propane Stoves
Yes, there are camp stoves that have multiple burners. But most of those are relatively compact and it can be difficult to set more than one fullsize frying pan on them, let alone have more than two fullsize men manning them. These Coleman single-burner propane stoves pack away relatively easy, are powerful to cook atop, and consume relatively little propane for their output. The only downside is they each require their own propane bottle, but chances are you'd be carrying more than one bottle with a traditional propane camp stove anyway.
Crankcase Worth of Engine Oil
This will vary depending on your vehicle, but ideally you'd carry a full crankcase worth of oil along with you. In other words, if your engine holds five quarts, carry five spare quarts. In practice, an engine will run well enough a few quarts down (and you can always scrounge some from your buddies), so get as close as you can. You'll also want to have something to drain and keep your oil in if you have to drain or catch it. When Harry Wagner's 1977 460-powered F-150, "Raymond," hydrolocked its engine in a deep water crossing in Alaska on UA2019, we drained the water-contaminated engine oil into a surplus military ammo can and refilled. The bonus of the ammo can is it has a rubber O-ring seal that helps contain the old oil without spilling until you either get back to civilization for proper disposal or transfer it into your empty oil containers.
Bar of Soap
You're gonna get dirty. Whether mud, tree sap, filthy water, animal dung, or whatever else you may come in contact with during the course of a day off-roading, you're gonna want a way to clean yourself up before eating. You can bring a container of soft soap or dish detergent easily enough, but a good old-fashioned bar of soap is super simple to transport, won't spill or leak, and if you happen to suffer a crack in your fuel tank, can be rubbed on the crack to mitigate the leak. Fuel doesn't eat away soap like it can RTV or other sealants, so soap is actually the preferred temporary leak-stop on fuel tanks.
We never used to hit the trail with power tools, but since companies like Milwaukee and DeWalt came out with high-power rechargeable drills, impact wrenches, die grinders, and more, it's hard not to bring them along. They make any trail repair much easier, and as a bonus, electric (or even pneumatic, if you have compressed air) cutoff wheels make fabricating during field fixes much easier.
Whether extra fuses, U-joints, U-joint straps, radiator hoses, fuel line, hose clamps, or what have you, the nearest auto parts store can sometimes be over 100 miles away. We're always amazed at the level of preparedness on Ultimate Adventure displayed by Stephen and James Watson of Offroad Design. The Watsons are engineering-minded folk, and it shows in their methodical vehicle prep and the multiple redundancy of their spares.
Our bacon has been saved more times by a Premier Power welder on Ultimate Adventure than we care to remember. From broken frames, steering box mounts, suspension links, suspension brackets, axle housings, you name it. We've been able to fix 'em all and keep rolling thanks to the company's excellent onboard welding system. But even if you don't have a true onboard welder, you can still effect a fairly decent field weld with a pair of 12-volt automotive batteries, some jumper cables, and a welding rod. Just hook the batteries in series, attach your negative ground to the part to be welded, your rod in the positive lead of the jumper cable, and have at it. Make sure you have adequate eye protection, though. A pair of sunglasses ain't gonna cut it.