How we packed for a 2-month National Parks road trip

Awards time - A look back on what worked and what didn’t

Back in early June, Kristi and I sat on a picnic table outside Richmond’s Black Hand Coffee shop discussing out next destination. We debated on an international destination versus a domestic one, trying to factor in how to avoid the summer crush of crowds. However, in the end, with an impending home sale looming, we decided to stay local and to avoid conducting real estate business eight timezones away. Our next adventure would be a U.S. National Parks road trip — 60 days in duration.

While Kristi had dreamed of this adventure from an early age, I had not. But I still love the outdoors, and spent summer camps learning about nature and survival. There was just one catch? Neither of us had ever camped longer than two nights in a row. And we were going for sixty days in a row. In our car.

The car on day zero.

As we started packing (which ran parallel to selling our home), we scanned other adventurers’ blog posts and combined those entries with old fashion common sense as well as a little bit of WWSD (What Would Survivorman Do). Ten days later and a jillion trips to REI and Walmart completed, our car was packed. To. The. Brim.

And now we’re back. Grizzled veterans of the road. Fire starters. Bear walkers. Dust guides. Our equipment made it back. It held up. So without further ado, here are our gear awards.

Kitchen Container 1

Included: 2 camp pots, 2 traveler mugs, 2 propane cylinders, 2 plastic $0.79 bowls, potholders, spatulas, tongs, two knives, can opener, dawn dish soap, Dr. Bronner’s soap, matches, a butane lighter, camp shot glasses, sponges, peeler, scissors, wine opener, and a marshmallow fork.

  • All-Star: Propane cylinders and fire starters are a given for cooking, so I’m going to cross those off the all-star list. And the two plastic bowls (purchased en route) were crucial for morning oatmeal, but the true winner is the fast boil 1.8L camp pot (pictured in the upper right with webbing). The light-weight advantages are lost on car camping but damn could it boil some water. 1.8 liters was a perfect amount for two breakfast oatmeals and two large hot tumblers of tea. And it could cook some mad cous cous if it wanted.
  • Runner-Up: The blue, fast-drying camp-towel-converted-dish-drying-towel. This was a dark horse as we didn’t account for drying dishes, and the towel was just an afterthought, thrown into the bin. Washable and quick-drying, we used the towel daily.
  • Loser: We said screw it and used Dawn soap over the recommended Dr. Bronner’s soap (nature be damned). And we never touched the shot glasses. But I think the loser is the telescoping marshmallow fork. Wait, hear me out. Great in thought, bad in execution. There is great satisfaction in going fire-roasted mallow to mouth in one single motion. BUT. It. Can. Not. Be. Done with a metal roasting stick. That sucker got suuuuper hot and any joy of roasting marshmallows was drowned out by the fear of burning fingers and lips.

Kitchen Tote

Included: Paper plates, napkins, plastic forks, assorted ziplock bags, two cutting boards, 2 Homegoods-purchased cups, a small skillet, a small pot, assorted spices, grapeseed oil, and a collapsable dish washing basin.

We brought two extra pots because we had space and the larger pot was great for mac and cheese, steam veggies, etc. We were in campsites with trashcans so we stuck to paper plates and utensils to minimize washing dishes and to maintain Kristi’s sanity.

  • All-Star: REI-purchased collapsable wash basin. This thing was great. Storage-friendly, by collapsing into a low profile, and very well-constructed. It maintained side-wall integrity and was crucial in allowing us to wash dishes at campsites that required you to only wash dishes at your campsite. Two easy handles allowed us to cart off the gray water to a dump station and not be bear fodder for the night. Runner up would be the tote bag because it’s an awesome wedding gift and says “Torrenzano Adventures” on it.
  • Loser: None. (“What is this?!? Peewee baseball? Everyone can’t receive a trophy!”)

Miscellaneous Bag

Included: Utility tarp, bungee cords, Armor All car wipes, dry bag, duct tape, clothes pins, clothesline, trash bags, poop shovel, emergency ponchos, Buck knife, Leatherman multitool, 2 carabiners, batteries, bear bells*, safety pins, more koozies, emergency toilet paper, paper towels, 2nd atlas, paint stirring sticks converted to shims, bandanas, goofy bucket hat, electronics bag, USB lantern, flashlights, rubber mallet, camping twinkle lights, playing cards, back-up tent stake, extra compression straps, and a Best Made hatchet. Not pictured: Bear spray, 2 head lamps, and a Instapix instant camera

  • Losers: Everything not listed above in bold type font, we didn’t use. Which I guess could be chalked up to being over-prepared or a blessing (e.g., Bear spray is best when it goes UNUSED). But a special loser’s shout out to the bear bells, which we used once, and looked like slap-happy, Christmas-hugging fools. We soon discovered (by rangers not experience) that bear bells won’t work, so we stuck to made-up songs, clapping, and…talking.
  • Winner: Not partial at all (*this was the gift that I gave my groomsmen) but I’m going with the Best Made hatchet. In 48 days on the road, I used that guy as much as possible. When you buy firewood, you get four or five solid logs that need to be lumber-jacked into manageable kindling. And ole bestie here would do the job. Just disregard the blemish from axe meets rock that I need to get sharpened out. I’m sorry buddy.
  • Runner-Up(s): GoalZero Lantern and Instapix Camera. Both wedding gifts. Old school functionality meets technology badass-ness. The LED multi-brightness lantern comes with a USB plug to charge your cell phone in the outback. Several monies later you can also purchase the accompanying solar panel, from the same company, and basically live off the grid, but you know, still check social media. The Instapix camera provides old-school polaroid awesomeness into a small compact space.

Standalone Items

Included: Coleman 2-burner stove, REI metal table, Thermarest sleeping pad, 2 Flexlite REI chairs, Flexlite table, Fresh Market bag, straps to a 2-person hammock, painful rolly stick for tired muscles, laptop bag + laptop, 2-person tent, and annex attachment for the Tepui rooftop tent. Not Pictured: 2 sleeping bags, Kristi’s self-inflating sleeping pad, 4 pillows, National Parks atlas, and the actual 2-person hammock.

  • Winner: The 2-burner, wind-guard stove was an absolute essential item and made preparing food so much easier. Since we weren’t going into the backcountry, we didn’t need to go the single camp stove route. But the winner(s) are the 2 Flexlite chairs and Flexlite table. Usually camp chairs are annoyingly heavy and bulky, but these suckers are compact and easy to set up. We relaxed in them. We read in them. And we ate dinner in them (even forgoing the nearby picnic table). A little bit of a splurge but these made life much more relaxing.
  • Runner-Up: Fresh Market soft cooler bag. This cooler bag actually leaked, so it sucked, and we only used it once on our trip. But for some reason we never threw it out; however, it gave us reassurance of another kind:
Brief aside: We had grand intentions of going into Canada to see some of their national parks (Banff, Jasper, etc.); however, we, being world-travelers and all, failed to bring our passports. Although in our defense, we were told by DHS Twitter that our Global Entry ID cards would work at U.S. land ports...
Lesson 1: Don’t trust DHS. Lesson 2: Don’t trust Twitter.
Fortunately, the nice border guard in Canada made an exception and let us into Canada for the day, but things were a little sketchier coming back into the U.S. In short, we had to tell our life stories to the border agent, and then she needed to search our car for food (even if you have nothing to hide, having an armed Government employee search your belongings is nerve-wracking). As the agent continued to look through our trunk, she exclaimed with slight jealously, “Ohhh, you guys have a Fresh Market?!?” And then everything was copacetic.
  • Loser: That damn UNUSED Tepui annex attachment that weighed 20 pounds and took up way to much space in our car.

Hiking Gear

Not Picture (because I got lazy): Kristi’s Deuter day pack, my Marmot day pack, Patagonia backpack, Leki collapsable hiking poles, 2 water bladders, hiking shoes, and first aid kit.

  • Winner: In Idaho, we ended up buying 2 new day packs because we were sick of our current backpacks. Each of our new packs afforded us about 30L of space, but more importantly, had internal frames and adjustment straps galore, which helped our gear mold to our respective torsos. This substitution made all the difference on our ultra hot, fourteen mile hikes that required four liters of water strapped to our backs.
  • Runner-Up: Collapsable Leki hiking poles. We splurged and got the best of the best hiking poles. If you ever want the greatest poles know to the hiking world. Buy these. They are awesome. Collapsable, fully adjustable, and 100% sturdy.

Not Reviewed

Clothing, dry food, perishable food, camera, tripod, bed sheets, National Parks Annual Pass. Deal with it.

A League of Their Own

These two items didn’t need awards because they were already hall of fame worthy: the Yeti Cooler and our Tepui Tent. I’ll write about the Tepui Tent later, but the Yeti Cooler was by far one of the greatest splurges and assets on our trip. The Yeti cooler did what all that Yeti marketing material preached. It kept our food cold and our ice unmelt-y. We probably got a bag of ice every two or three days, despite 90-degree temperatures in the car. Plus, the Yeti became our sticker storybook (Grand Canyon and Canada stickers not pictured).

And that’s it. Our gear and our bodies made it back to Richmond all intact. Travel-worn and road-tested, ready for our next adventure.