Road Tested: The Road Warrior Buyer's Guide
After nine months of real-world testing, these are the things that work.
- Gear Up
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
This year has taught us much. How to work together. How to adapt. How to pick some slice of serenity out of the noise around us. And also, what works. Which of the galaxy of gadgets marketed towards making traveling life a little easier actually help. Which ones can survive a full nine months of hard use.
It was impossible to know when we set out, because there simply isn’t a reliable source of information out there. Most reviews are based on a few hours of fiddling, a weekend’s worth of trial and error at best. You can forgive a pile of flaws in 48 hours, but when you touch a thing day in and day out for three quarters of a year, any itch is enough to rub you raw.
And more importantly, it has to work. Every time. I have no patience for failure, and the things that fell short of their promises were abandoned thousands of miles ago. We’re grateful for a handful of gadgets. Some tools, bits and pieces that we can’t go a week without using. These are the things that keep us rolling.
QuickFist Axe and Shovel Holders
You’d be a fool to head for the sticks without a proper axe and shovel. How else to clear a trail? Clean a campsite of dog shit? Dig out a fire ring or cut firewood for cool California nights? A firefighter friend pointed me to QuickFist for a storage solution. Simple, cheap, and sturdy, the things have kept both tools in their place on the side of the flatbed for 22,000 miles or more. They’ve been dragged through brush, pushed through rain, snow, sleet, and hail, and survived a tree falling on them. Modern miracles.
ARB Air Compressor
Of all the hardware ARB sent my way to evaluate this year, few items have been more useful than the onboard air compressor. It came as part of the air locker kit, though it can be purchased as a standalone unit. It’s a wonder, and when we air the tires down to accommodate rough roads or deep sand, the compressor fills the big 35 x 12.50 rollers in quick order. We were using a parts-store 12-volt compressor before installing this one, and jumping from 30 to 60 psi took 15 minutes per tire. The ARB compressor gets the same job done in five.
It’s one less thing to worry with, too. If we have a slow leak in a tire, if the suspension air bags need to be adjusted, we have it under control. There’s no ferreting out a fuel station air pump, no digging quarters out of our pockets.
This awning and I didn’t get off to a great start. It isn’t made to be mounted as high up as I placed ours, and unfurling the thing, securing its struts, and stabilizing its legs is a special kind of nightmare, especially while on a step ladder. But practice makes perfect, and the thing has been instrumental in keeping us sane. At eight feet by eight feet, it more than doubles our living space, giving us a dry place to be when the weather turns wet.
The camper rarely seems more crowded than in the morning, when we’re all not quite awake and stumbling over each other. It’s why I do my best to cook outside. It lets me give Beth and Lucy a little more room, and lowers the chance of me dumping coffee on someone. The awning lets me do that rain or shine.
There’s something brilliant about standing there on a misty, dripping morning, a cup of something warm in my hand and my jacket done up to my neck. It’s a stillness; a quiet I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Hellwig Airbags and Sway Bar
The camper, a full tank of water, and all the necessaries that go along with living for a year push the truck right up against its GVW. It’s more than a ton of weight, and, with nearly 320,000 hard miles on them, the old leaf springs are tired. The air bags and sway bar Hellwig sent us are gifts. As we found out in Wyoming, the truck can survive without them, but it’s an unstable, nerve-wracking affair. The two rear airbags took about an hour to install, and made the truck as stable as it was without 2,000 pounds on its tail.
We live in a den of devices: cameras and phones, WiFi hot spots and Kindles. The computer I’m writing this on. They all need charging. This was a point of worry before we left. I figured I needed an inverter, something to switch the truck’s DC charge to AC for all these plugs. Then Brandon dropped some valuable knowledge on me, something that should have been evident if I would have opened my eyes and stopped worrying for a second: all these devices? They’re DC already. They all come with wall plugs that turn a home’s AC current back to DC. An inverter would only change DC to AC for the plugs to reverse the process.
Amazon is full of solutions to this problem: DC chargers for everything we brought with us. It’s a juggle sometimes, making sure the camper’s batteries are charged well enough to also keep all our gadgets humming, or alternating the two 12-volt plugs in the truck, but it works, and it works well.
Delorme InReach Explorer
Like our Partner Steel Stove, the InReach Explorer seemed like foolish excess before we left. We knew we needed some sort of emergency beacon. We were going to be spending too much time in the wilderness with a toddler, far from cell reception. The InReach Explorer was more than we needed, with its maps, tracking, SOS, waypoints, and such, but it’s been the kind of unfailingly useful tool that we won’t do without.
It uses the Iridium satellite network, the same one the US government built and uses to this day, which means we’ve never been somewhere without a connection. It has reliably tracked our wandering day in and day out, and our current subscription plan allows for up to 40 text messages a month. It’s been handy for coordinating with friends, calling a tow truck to pull a Tacoma out of a river, and sending birthday wishes from the quiet corners of the continent. The added benefit of a Bluetooth connection to my phone makes viewing maps, editing courses, and sending messages that much easier.
The subscription plans are easy to edit, either to add functions or remove them as you see fit, which means the thing will be useful long after this trip is done, whether hiking, motorcycling, or canoeing.
Ergodyne Arsenal Wrench Rolls
Most of my tools ride along in my grandfather’s three-drawer Craftsman toolbox, but not the wrenches. I have two sets, standard and metric, and each has its own roll. These aren’t some leather hipster nonsense. They’re nylon with a rugged rubber coating inside. They keep the tools dry and organized, and make it easy to see what I’m still missing when it comes time to pack everything up again.
REI Pots and Pans
We found ourselves in a strange position when we were packing the truck. Do we take the kitchen implements we already own, or spring for fancy camp versions? The answer was a combination of both. There’s little improving on stainless steel silverware, but our thick-bottomed pots and pans were heavy, cumbersome, and took up too much space to be any real help. I’ve got mixed feelings on REI. The store is an odd mix of expensive, worthless shit and genuinely useful gear. These nesting pots and pans fall into the latter category.
I know the worries about non-stick coatings, but with limited water and a sink that looks like it belongs in a dollhouse, soaking and scrubbing isn’t an option. These weigh nothing, clean easily, and store well. The pans serve as lids for the two pots, and the one handle fits all four pieces. We’ve used them every day since February, and aside from some dents from that time I slipped on some ice and went full Charlie Brown down our front steps in Fort Collins, they work as well as the day we bought them.
REI Roll Camp Tables
These were last-minute additions to our kit, but I couldn’t be happier we got them. We have two, and when collapsed, they stow nicely in the camper’s under seat storage. They unfold and set up in under a minute, and their individually adjustable legs can accommodate uneven or unleveled ground. I primarily use them for cook surfaces, but they work well for a desk and a dining-room table, too. Like the pots and pans, we use them every day. Their joints are a little looser than when we purchased them, but they still function like new.
Partner Steel Stove
This was my big, idiot splurge—a camp stove that cost three times as much as the tinker toy units they sell at REI. I bought it because we’d be using it every day, for breakfast and dinner at a minimum. Because I was through buying disposable garbage. I’m happy to say that it’s been worth it. The thing’s a tank, taking our bashing over rough and rutted roads, crammed in the camper’s under seat storage with chairs and tables and everything else.
It works as well as the day we bought it, making up for what it lacks in outright BTUs with a fine gradient of adjustability. I can’t count the meals I’ve cooked on this thing. The morning ritual of boiling water for coffee in the day’s first reaching rays is a gift only exceeded by the faultless function that’s kept my family fed for the past nine months.
Aluminum Folding Steps
If it were just Beth and I, we wouldn’t have bothered with these. It’s easy enough to climb the tire to get inside the camper, but with a wiggling toddler in your arms, nothing’s that simple. These were cheaper than the factory option, and, for the most part, sit comfortably inside the door when not in use. They collapse in second, and have weathered our constant use without complaint.
It’s their ease that makes them invaluable. There’s no cursing or furious effort. Setting them up is as easy as breathing. Aside from having to file off some razor edges from the manufacturing process, they’ve been fantastic.
We live in a world where showers may be separated by a week or more. The last thing either of us want is to be slathered in bug spray. Our friends, Brandon and Leigh, introduced us to Thermacell. It’s a simple thing; a matt of insect repellent and a small butane burner. In ideal conditions, it provides a 15 x 15 area that shoes flies and insects away. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than bathing in Deet every other night. The thing kept us alive in the buggy northeast, where the mosquitos are the size of small birds.
Far and away the cheapest thing on this list, the mighty $6.00 clothesline. It’s simple, just two braided bungee cords, but it has been fiendishly useful. The design means you need no clothespins, as the cords serve to hold whatever sopping towel or article of clothing in place. It’s long enough to stretch between two trees, or from tree to truck.
There are plenty of reasons to bring a torch along. Stubborn bolts, bushings, and adhesives of all sorts. I have a bottle of MAP gas for that nonsense, and a cheap propane camp bottle for less serious duty like starting campfires. My days of flint and steel, or lugging around a bag of dryer lint, are long gone. We’re rarely in need of a good, warm fire when everything’s dry and there’s plenty of perfect kindling; instead, it’s often cold, wet, and dark, where the only available fuel is also damp and partially rotten. The torch doesn’t care, and gets this stuff burning in short order.
When we left, I carried my grandfather’s ancient propane torch head, but the thing gradually grew clogged. By the time I had to remove the solar panel to repair the roof leak in Wyoming, it was time to upgrade. The Benzomatic is a marvel, igniting with a click instead of fumbling with a lighter.
The Sleep Sack
Kiddo’s still too young to grasp the concept of a blanket, but we’ve spent more than our fair share of days in cold weather. The only way that’s been possible is her sleep sack, basically a quilted sleeping bag with arm holes. We zip her up, snap the shoulder straps in place, and she stays nice and toasty, no matter how cold it is outside. Now, if we could only get her to wear her socks during the day.
Few things we own provide the reliable joy of this hammock. It was a gift, and we brought it because it packs down to the size of a softball. We sprung for the tree-saver straps, clever nylon jobs that adjust to nearly any size, allowing us to set the thing up anywhere. Kiddo squeals with glee any time she sees it, knowing she’s a few seconds from jumping around in the sea of orange fabric, swinging in the air with so little between her and the ground below.
Our first night in the camper was an abject disaster. We hadn’t so much as done a trial run before we set off, and we quickly found that there was a wide gulf between what we planned and what worked. That included Kiddo’s sleeping arrangements. We’d rigged up a sort of pen to keep her in the lower bunk. A friend and talented seamstress sewed a curtain that, when attached to the walls and tucked beneath the mattress, provided an effective barrier. Or so we thought. We’d no more than put Lucy down to sleep than she started screaming. When we turned on the light, we found her face down between the curtain and the mattress, hanging there like it was a hammock.
That wasn’t going to work.
The solution was the Peapod, a tiny, toddler-sized pop tent. Beth bought it on a whim before we set off, thinking it might be nice to have a place to get our red-headed child out of the sun on occasion. Instead, it’s been her bed every night of the trip. And it’s been a wonder. On the odd occasion we sleep at a friend’s house, the tent’s there. It’s her space, and she has no trouble going to sleep. Worth every red cent.