Do you like constant rain, freezing temperatures, and mud? Do you enjoy not having running water or electricity? Does the lack of Internet or mobile service make you smile? Either way, you will like hearing about our weekend family camping FAIL.
That seems to be what our family does, from time to time.
It was a definite FAIL for us this past weekend.
Our family had one of our toughest adventures ever. It definitely tested our character, our fortitude, and our gear. There were even times we felt we were in a desperate situation. Not the first time — but definitely a time that made us wonder what the heck we had gotten ourselves into.
See, even experienced people get tried.
I’m not sure how to start, so I’ll start at the beginning.
For about two years now, my husband has been interested in overlanding. The best way I can describe it is when you’re totally self-supported while camping. You take everything you need with you so you can stay overnight anywhere. You can camp without electricity or running water because you can provide those basics for yourself. Overlanders can use any vehicle, from motorcycles to large military-type trucks, and you can go where there are no roads if you have to. Some overlanders go on multi-nation trips, long-distance drives across continents. We aren’t planning to do a trip that extensive — although we did drive from coast to coast last year — but my husband wanted to learn how to be more self-sufficient while traveling.
He watches overlanding YouTube channels, and I gave him a subscription to Overland Journal for Christmas. He reads books on overlanding too. So it was no surprise he wanted to attend the Overland Expo. The main expo takes place in spring in the West, and a newer, smaller event comes in the fall in the east. This year, the Overland Expo East was in western North Carolina, which is closer to where we live in Florida. So when the event started selling tickets this spring, we bought them and started preparing for our trip.
The beautiful weekend plan
In our planning, the Overland Expo would be a great trip. We would have to take the kids out of school for two days to do it, but we don’t let them miss much school, and they could do schoolwork on the drive. We would pick the boys up from school Wednesday and drive seven hours north, stay in a hotel, and drive the rest of the way the next day to set up our tent at the expo location — Reeb Ranch near Hendersonville.
Then on Friday, we would tour the expo and maybe try out Reeb Ranch’s mountain bike area, which it’s known for. (We packed everyone’s bikes and helmets.) If the boys happened to not like the kids’ programs, I could take our van and drive them to nearby Dupont State Forest for mountain biking trails, or to go gem mining. One day during the weekend, we thought we’d even make the drive to Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which our oldest son has dreamed of riding for a long time.
When the expo wound down on Sunday, we would pack up and go the way we came.
In addition to the schedule, my husband and I planned how we were going to equip our family for camping at the ranch without running water or electricity. We have been primitive camping before, but not for this long, and not this far from home. My husband rigged up a privy and hot-water shower to take with us, and tested it in advance. (We had taken the privy camping before, but the shower was new.) I planned easy meals that I could cook. I made sure everyone was packed with clothes for the cooler weather, which meant shopping for warm clothes and base layers for our oldest son, who has grown out of his previous stash of warm clothes. We made sure our mess kit was stocked. Our van was a go with all the gear we normally take on trips. We set up our tent, cots, and sleeping bags and checked that they were a go.
Well…. Not so much, as you’ll see.
Rain, rain, and more rain
When we got to Reeb Ranch on Thursday, it was just getting dark. We thought we’d arrive earlier and have time to set up camp and take in the area before then. But we had a mixup with the hotel the night before, and didn’t get to stay where we had planned, so it was a longer drive for us on Thursday.
After the tent was up, I cooked dinner by lantern light, and we ate dinner next to the tent. As I was cleaning up, there were a few sprinkles of rain, but I wasn’t concerned. I knew rain was in the forecast. I checked the weather three times before our trip, and it looked like we would have “some” rain and maybe a thunderstorm two days of the trip. Just a passing shower registered to me as no big deal.
The rain stopped, but after we had been sleeping a couple hours, I woke up and realized it was raining again, and the left third of my sleeping bag was damp. A blanket I had left on top of my bag was also wet. I wiggled to the middle of the cot and went back to sleep.
Some time later, our oldest son woke us up to tell us his cot and sleeping bag were soaked. It hadn’t stopped raining. My husband got up, set the cot on its side, and ushered our son to sleep in his seat in the van. Then he ripped open kitchen trash bags — all of the ones we had brought — and put them between our tent and the rain fly to act as a barrier and keep the rain out of the tent.
Even later, I woke up again to see a stream of water pouring down on top of the cot my husband and I share. We were sleeping under a faucet! We were all wet now — and it was about 40 degrees F. I found my hiking boots, carried our youngest to the van, and we all finished sleeping in our seats there the last hour until daylight. We could have slept in the back of the van, but our mountain bikes and coolers took up all the room.
Mud fest and getting unstuck
Groggy, we watched other early-rising campers wandering past our van and tried to think what to do now that it was morning. It was cold. (Forty degrees to us as South Floridians is really cold!) Everything we owned was wet, except my clothes, which I had packed in a hard-sided suitcase that I knew was unsuitable for camping. (But hey — it turned out to be a good thing in this situation.) We decided to go into town to find a coin laundry to dry our clothes and sleeping bags. But first, we would go see if the food trucks had arrived and get some hot breakfast.
Just walking across the campground was a challenge, though. It had been raining for several hours, and the field where everyone camped had turned to thick, oozing mud. My husband and I had our hiking boots, but the kids just had sneakers. The mud and constant rain were no match for any of our footwear. Our feet got wet and frozen just walking up the road to the food trucks.
The trucks were stationed near the expo’s vendor area, and when we didn’t see any breakfast we really wanted, we decided to take a look at the vendors while we were there. Most of the vendors had nice grassy areas on higher ground, but the “roads” of vendors were crisscrossed with thick, muddy tire tracks. Some people wore hearty knee-high boots, some people took the mud in stride — and one guy walked around barefoot and in swim trunks. At some point, the kids refused to walk any farther because of the mud. So we let their dad keep browsing and went back to our campsite so I could make our own breakfast.
The tent still leaked, there was standing water on the floor, and the cots were wet, so eating there meant I’d have to squeeze the camp chairs inside. The kids were cold and wanted to go back inside the van. But our shoes and pants were covered in mud. I dug out the driest clothes I could find for each of them, and a change of shoes. They changed inside our privy before they got in the van. (I was trying to save my husband the cleanup later, which is hilarious considering the mud that would end up in and on the van.) Wouldn’t you know, my oldest dropped two pairs of pants on the ground, which of course was muddy. That left him with one pair of clean pants, and they were the wettest.
Watching cold drops of rain fall into your cooking pot while you’re heating water for coffee and hot cocoa is really annoying. Standing in the rain and mud while you hand breakfast to your kids in the van is annoying too. But I wasn’t ready to give up. I wished I could check the weather on my phone to see how long it might continue to rain, but I didn’t have a signal. That was a little annoying too. But, it was all part of the experience, and us outdoorsy types know bad weather comes with the territory.
When my husband got back from checking out some of the vendors, he decided the cold weather, wet bedding, steady rain, and thick mud that now covered everything were tough going — but the worst was that he was worried if we tried to leave to get to a laundry, well, we wouldn’t be able to. Vehicles were slipping in the mud, some just spinning their wheels. He realized if we left, we probably wouldn’t be able to get back because of the mud. So he said rather than have the kids freeze and suffer all weekend, we should just pack up and leave.
He insisted on breaking down the tent by himself while the kids and I sat in the van, and he threw everything in our carriers on top of the van. It hadn’t stopped raining, so he was soaked through. Sure enough, when he tried driving, the tires just spun in place. He asked around and found a camper with a Chevy pickup who could pull us out of the mud and help us get off the field and onto the road. That man was an angel. It took several tries, and I’m sure we created quite a spectacle for the other campers, but we were finally free. I felt like a wimp, but we were able to get out.
Plan B and getting unstuck AGAIN
Our family found a big box store and got the kids each a pair of clean, dry shoes and my husband a pair of rubber boots. We were pretty sure we saw expo-goers there. We also found a sub shop and got sandwiches to eat in the van because we didn’t want to scare the locals with our appearance.
The new plan was for me to drop off my husband at the shuttle parking area for the expo day visitors. He would take the shuttle back to the expo — wearing his new rubber boots to slosh through the mud — while the kids and I found something to do. If we had known the shuttle was a 40-minute ride, I would have taken him back to Reeb Ranch and dropped him off on the road at the entrance, saving more than an hour of just waiting.
But it turned out not to be so bad, because a few miles from the shuttle site was a supermarket called Ingles where the kids could use the restroom. I let the kids pick out a snack, and I got a white chocolate mocha with almond milk at the Starbucks inside the store, which may have just saved my life. The kids and I also photographed some of the trees in town, which had beautiful fall leaf colors. We saw an overland vehicle in the parking lot.
When it came time to pick up my husband at the shuttle site, I made the mistake of parking in the field with all the other vehicles. And … yep, we got stuck. Again! A couple guys in a Jeep who had a little boy with them took pity on us and used their own tire traction mats to get us out of the muck. More angels to the rescue! This took about 20 minutes of muddy work in the dying light, and these guys didn’t even mind.
When my husband got back from the expo (which, again, I could have picked him up from the entrance road instead of him using the shuttle), we called around to hotels in the area to see where we could stay the night. We got a motel a half-hour away, where we weren’t surprised to see overlanding-type vehicles in the parking lot. So it wasn’t just us! At least we weren’t the only people who didn’t, or couldn’t, stay.
Finally warm and dry
We all took warm showers and put on our driest clothes to eat at the motel restaurant. I was never so happy to be clean and dry. Just thinking about being able to feel my toes, finally dry in socks and shoes again, made me nearly giddy. I think it had rained for more than 12 hours straight, and most of that time, my feet were wet and cold. (I’m not 100% sure how long it rained. I could have tuned in to the weather at the motel, but instead I watched teen Jeopardy with the kids while I ironed our clothes dry.)
The next day, Saturday, was even colder (I read one expo-goer said it got down to 27F), but sunny. Our family had a leisurely breakfast and thought about what we should do. My husband and I felt that our kids should be able to do something enjoyable, and we should see some of the area before going home. We wanted to go on at least one mountain bike trail because it’s kind of the thing to do in western North Carolina, but we were afraid all the trails would be muddy. And mud was the last thing we wanted to get back to. So we found some other places to go with the kids (separate post!) and had some really nice outdoorsy family time, then started making our way home.
Usually I get a little sad when we’re headed home from our trips. This one, I was so ready to go home. We didn’t have a hotel lined up, so we drove late into the night, slept in the van at a rest area (which we’ve never done with the kids in tow), and drove straight home as soon as it was light again. I think the kids and I wore the same clothes for two and a half days. (My stuff was dry, but some of my outerwear got muddy, so I piled on layers.)
Our trip was pretty tough, but it wasn’t a complete disaster. Everyone we came across in North Carolina was polite, friendly, and helpful. All the campers and people at the expo were respectful. We had a fun day with the kids on Saturday. We got to see the mountains and pretty fall foliage, which we don’t get to see in southern Florida.
I told the kids camping makes you resourceful, and being in difficult situations like this one helps you become resilient. You realize you can do tough things, which might help you in another area of life where something else is tough. You learn to think about logistics and come up with alternatives to help your situation. I told them this is the way the Pilgrims and pioneers lived, and the way some people even today live. I’m not sure if anything clicked with them, but we are grateful to be able to travel and then come home to modern conveniences.
This trip also showed us, experienced as we are (or thought we were!), where our weaknesses are and how we can be better prepared.
These were our main problems, and how we can avoid them on future trips. Maybe these tips will help you too!
1. Our tent leaked. The rain fly didn’t keep the rain out. It turns out you need to treat it with a waterproofing agent every year. Where we live, we usually tent camp in the cooler months, which is also our dry season. So we didn’t even consider that the rain fly wouldn’t work.
2. Most of our clothes were in non-waterproof bags.
3. We used up all our trash bags, and didn’t have extras. Small bags over our shoes would have (maybe?) helped keep the mud from ruining them. Or at least some of the mud. I saw one camper tie a large trash bag around her waist so that it covered most of her legs. Before she entered her truck camper after walking around the expo, she took off the bag. This had kept the mud from splashing up on her pants, which definitely happened to us. One good tip: I was able to use the kitchen trash bags placed over our tent as van floor mats later. They were wet, but clean, and kept some of the mud contained.
4. Our van doesn’t have four-wheel drive. This has been on my husband’s wish list, but the cost of converting it has been a stumbling block. We have driven on snowy roads and across sand, but the van doesn’t have mud tires. We saw 4WD vehicles slipping through the mud — maybe they didn’t have the right tires, either. Of course, we wouldn’t have known what kind of mud fest we were getting into. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard event staff started turning people away the next day if they didn’t have a vehicle that could handle the mud. It’s hard for me to believe that no one on the event staff nor anyone at Reeb Ranch didn’t know what the fields were like after a heavy rain. We could have been forewarned.
5. We didn’t have the right footwear for mud. Of course, we weren’t expecting mud.
6. I didn’t have a covered area for cooking. We have a sunshade canopy, but didn’t bring it. That wouldn’t have kept the rain off, though. We used to have a water-resistant canopy, but it blew away in a storm and got damaged while I was — yes — cooking underneath it on another rainy camping trip. We need to invest in another, or get a retractable awning installed on the van.
I’m going to say this trip wasn’t a total loss if we learned something, right?
If you’re interested in overlanding, or helpful camping gear and trip planning, definitely check out Overland Journal and the Overland Expo events.