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I Went Overlanding Once And Now I Want To Spend All My Money On Rooftop Tents And Old 4x4s
I Went Overlanding Once And Now I Want To Spend All My Money On Rooftop Tents And Old 4x4s
2024-02-19 EST 22:09:11

A beige off-road truck with rooftop tent and awning is set up in the desert at sunset

If you’ve been into cars at any point in the last five to 10 years, it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to This is the off-road phenomenon that prizes longevity, reliability and comfort for long distance over the ability to do crazy rock crawling, etc. Seen a and desperately desire both it and ? You’ve been overlanded-ed-ed-ed.

Like most of you, I suspect, I got sucked into this world of underpowered and overpriced SUVs with many hundreds of pounds of gear making them slower and more expensive. How could I not? They’re rad, and as someone who’s done a bunch of the sort of climbing obstacles and articulating suspensions off-roading, the overlanding thing seems more pleasant. This is why when the folks doing PR for gear brands , and reached out to see if I’d like to spend a week with a kitted-out Ford Ranger, I essentially lost my mind and said yes before I knew what I’d do with it.

The week I’d have it would span Labor Day weekend. If you’ve never tried to camp somewhere during that weekend, it is basically impossible. Everywhere with dedicated camping spots is totally rammed and because I am a potato, I didn’t book stuff far enough in advance. The solution to this, I found, is something that a few parks in Southern California have called . Essentially, you pay to get into the park and then as long as you’re not more than 20-30 feet off the trail, you can camp wherever you want for free.

A map of California's Anza Borrego state park

My solution, then, was to go south of LA to Anza Borrego State Park, one of the largest parks in California. Luckily, this place, which is typically a furnace in late August, early September, was 80 degrees, post-hurricane, and it was supposedly dry enough that this desert camping trip wouldn’t turn into a muddin’ extravaganza. I coerced my wife into coming with me and waited for this Ford Ranger to get dropped off.

Of course the most important part of any overlanding conversation is going to be about the gear. Luckily, this 2022 Ranger XLT FX4 has plenty of gear that’s worth talking about. While the folks who loaned me the truck represent Dekced, Leitner and Roofnest, all of which had products affixed to the truck, I’m going to start with the more mechanical bits of the build. First, we have a big, gnarly ARB bull bar with a winch and spotlights. Below that there is a full complement of aluminum skid plates which were fitted to help “journalist-proof” the truck. This was wise.

The truck also had smaller steel wheels with chunky but narrow Firestone off-road tires and an Old Man Emu suspension. If you know overlanding, you might think this is sounding like an especially Australian-style build, and you’d be right. Further protecting the body was a set of rock-sliders. The bed of the truck was occupied by a pair of Decked pull-out drawers, which rule, as well as a seriously overbuilt and sturdy Leitner Designs roof rack and rack-mounted side-opening bins, as well as a water jug that can be used for a shower. On the top of that rack is a roof tent and . There is also a rack over the cab of the truck.

A beige Ford Ranger set up for off-roading in a desert canyon

Inside, things are mostly Ranger with the exception of the CB radio — the most powerful unit allowed without a license — and a lighting control panel. The control panel is rad because the button for front spotlights and Milo rules. He went to college.

As you might suspect, having all this gear (as awesome as it is) changes the driving dynamics of a truck, even though this is a relatively mild build without things like a diesel engine, multiple alternators, refrigerators, etc. Still, this mild-mannered EcoBoost ranger returned a borderline-shocking 12 mpg on the highway and just for comparison, my 2003 Ford F-250 longbed, two-wheel drive pickup with a V10 gas engine and manual transmission did 17mpg unladen. Also, wind is terrifying when you have a soft suspension and that much weight up high.

Still, this truck wasn’t built for the highway, it was built for open expanses and rugged trails. So, borderline terrifying highway manners aside, my review is focused on the off-road driving experience, and, more importantly, the camping experience. I will say that this isn’t a truck you’d want to daily drive, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve tried to live with for a week.

A Ford ranger parked with its rooftop tent opened.

After a nearly-three-hour freeway slog from Pasadena to Anza Borrego, we turned off the paved road at the Sin Nombre trail. This trail entrance is at the southern end of the park and our plan was to drive in, camp and then drive out of a more northerly entrance in the morning. Once we hit the dirt, the sacrifices that the Ranger made on-road were immediately made good. The noisy and squirmy tires became cushy and grippy. The soft suspension stopped being too soft and became just right to soak up rocks and ruts and even washboard. The Ranger fully came into its own.

If you’ve never spent much time in the low deserts of Southern California, I recommend it. There’s a kind of alien beauty on display that promises danger and dehydrated death should you not respect it. Sin Nombre canyon trail showed us beautiful eroded sandstone and streambeds, recently smoothed by the hurricane that blasted Southern California’s deserts. Despite the holiday weekend, we were the only people out there that we could see.

At one point, during our slow trek along a streambed, we came across a Mazda CX-30 that was buried to the tops of its wheel wells in the sand. We stopped to check for people and when we found nobody, we kept going. This was a pretty stark reminder of what could happen when you don’t respect the environment. We trucked on through more slot canyons and dry riverbeds until we reached an open area with a sign that read “Devil’s Drop-Off.” Being a natural Slayer enthusiast, I felt obligated to check it out.

The interior of the Roofnest Condor 2 rooftop tent.

After around 10 minutes of driving, post-turn-off, we came to a bluff that overlooked a huge desert valley and decided that, since this was technically off the trail, we’d camp. The sense of isolation and beauty on offer here is something I think about now, months later, on a regular basis.

Now we came to the most important part of overlanding: the camping. Finding a relatively flat piece of ground to park on was pretty easy and from there it was just a matter of setting up the tent and awning as well as our kitchen stuff and our firepit which is the same enclosed metal firepit that we use on our back porch. Ground fires aren’t allowed in Anza Borrego, but that’s a pretty small ask, all things considered.

Setting up the rooftop tent was both easier and slightly more confusing than I expected. The folks who loaned me the truck naturally sent over documentation and even instructional videos on how to set both the tent and awning up and I both read and watched them, but I didn’t save them to my phone. This meant that I had some trial and error, though nothing that I wouldn’t have well in hand on a second outing with this rig.

Unlatching the tent and folding it out proved super easy, as did deploying the ladder, though I would have been more comfortable with it being a scosche more vertical, given that I’m a mega-human. Still, nothing collapsed or killed me and once deployed with windows open, the tent proved to be an utterly gorgeous place to take in the view. This was aided by a really pleasant memory foam mattress pad that did an excellent job of softening the super rigidbase of the tent.

A Ford Ranger is set up for camping in the desert. An awning extends from the side.

Once deployed, I tossed some sleeping bags, pillows and a flashlight in the tent. Storing everything else in the truck proved super easy thanks to the extra storage from the Leitner boxes. These guys were tightly sealed, so I didn’t worry about weather or dust getting in, and super sturdy so I also wasn’t worried about tweakers breaking in while I stopped for Jack In The Box in the desert. The only bummer with these and the Decked drawers, was the veritable galaxy of weird, tiny keys that came on the keychain with this truck. If I had my druthers, I’d see about keying them all the same, or at least by group, so I wasn’t fiddling around all the time. Small gripe, though.

Like the tent, deploying the awning would have been a breeze had I managed to save the instructions like a reasonable adult. Still, after some careful examination by my wife (who is much better at putting things together than I am) we figured it out and had everything expanded and staked out. Our total set-up time, including screwing around without instructions, was around 30 minutes. Halving that would be easy with a little practice.

Once the tent and awning were set up, we put out our firepit and our locally-sourced (to keep pests out) firewood, lit that baby off and then set up our newly-acquired camp stove which plus two cans of butane, and made some really delightful pita grilled cheese sandwiches. We also lit a bug candle, enjoyed watching some bats wreak havoc on the local insect population, and drank entirely too much beer from our cooler.

Short of some guys who look like they ran the 909 area code Post Malone and 4Chan fan clubs showing up in some underglow-clad desert-destroying full-sized pickups and lighting off fireworks, our night camping was amazing. Until I went to bed and then had to experience the truck swaying with the wind. If it was my rig, I might find some way to support the truck when parked to prevent this. Or, pretend it’s a boat.

In the morning, minor hangover aside, taking everything down was almost as easy as setting up. The big challenge here was getting all the soft parts of the tent to fit into the hard shell without sticking out. We tried like four times to make it work and eventually gave up and just shoved everything in. Was it secure? Yep. Was it the right way to do this? Nope.

Despite that, and a questionably low fuel tank, the drive out of Anza Borrego was pretty uneventful. I only had to engage four-wheel drive on the Ranger once and then it was just four-wheel high. That’s more a testament to the Ranger’s setup and the easy trail than to my driving ability, but it totally pegged my confidence meter, which is always good.

Once we got cell service we looked up the closest gas station, which was 17 miles in the wrong direction, right next to the Mexican border. We filled up and set off back home. The gas mileage was as bad as it was on the way down, but the truck looked markedly cooler with desert dust all over it.

So, having been mildly obessed with overlanding for years, did this trip whet my whistle or did it just fan the flames? Well, remember in Terminator 2 when Sarah Connor has the dream of clinging to the fence as a skeleton during a nuclear blast? Yeah. I spend a lot of time looking at used SUVs like that on Marketplace, much to my wife’s (and my budget’s) chagrin.

It’s such an awesome feeling to be able to be miles off the road, in the middle of nowhere, and just have a few minutes between you and a fully-equipped campsite. I totally get the appeal, and while I don’t know that I’d want to start with something as new and nice as this Ranger, something like with a few goodies sounds mighty good to me. Now, I just have to convince my wife...

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