Friday, November 29, 2019

THE ROAD TO 300K - Off Grid in the Chattahoochee N.F.

As our 2004 Honda Element ticks ever closer to the 300,000 mile mark, we've started chronicling the trips, 1,000 miles at a time, with a series of T.F.M. posts.  You can circle back to the first post, though I ended up skipping 291-292,000 miles as the one remarkable thing we did was a weekend run up to Clemson for tailgating and the game.  Now we're jumping back into it with 292-293,000 miles with a weekend camping trip with our daughter and her youth leaders team from church.  This was a small group trip with five teenagers, three adults, two vehicles and admittedly enough camping gear and food to fully stock a small shop.

Our Friday night arrival meant setting up camp under headlight and in the rain.  That rain would only increase through the night and then continue into late Saturday afternoon.  Hadley and her friends could have cared less about the rain and we all readied our tents and hammocks before starting dinner.  I'll mention it again in the "Gear Notes" from this trip, but this was the first time using the Yakima SlimShady Awning and it saved the weekend.

Each teen was responsible for cooking their own meals through the weekend which meant that Melissa and I mapped out our own menu with a couple of surprises to share with everyone and an emergency stash of ramen, just in case.

Saturday morning we were up early to a full on downpour.  We stayed huddled under the awning, quickly boiled a pot of water for press pot coffee and got to making a batch of monkey bread for everyone.  It was kind of a leisure morning and nice to sit in my chair reading for a bit as well.

The morning continued with waves of rain that went from a drizzle to a full on downpour and we loaded everyone into two cars, our Element and a mid-90's 4X4 Chevrolet Suburban, to crawl around the mountain trail roads of the Chattahoochee National Forest for a few hours.  A lot of it was pretty well groomed with a rock or pothole to dodge here or there but we did go through a several mile section that was down from Springer Mountain that was much more rock hopping than we expected but the Element handled it just fine.  The all wheel drive kicked in a few times, we scraped a rock here and there and amazingly did not get stuck.  The Element continues (even in it's old age) to impress.     

We were back to camp in the late afternoon and fortunately the sun had burnt off the rain clouds.  Though it was not a warm day, Hadley and her friends still went "creeking" until almost dark.  They came back soaked, happy and ready to sit around the fire for a couple of hours.  The emergency ramen stash was raided, there were S'mores, stories and laughter and what almost seemed like snow falling (more like sleet) wrapped things up and jumped into sleeping bags for the night. 

Trips like this (wet, cold, rain and off grid) are always a good testing ground for gear and during this trip there was a short list of things that made all the difference.  Here's the ones that stood out and performed with excellence throughout the weekend.

I'm not sure how much sense it makes to be kitting out a vehicle with almost 300,000 miles but we recently installed a Yakima awning on the Element and wish I would have done it years ago.  It was super easy to add to the preexisting Yakima round bars, stays secure and out of the way when not in use and super easy to open up when needed.

Once rolled out, it provides 78 inches by 78 inches of cover out of the weather and the rigid framework of the awning keeps the cover taunt at all times with hook and latch straps on each of the sides.

I don't know what we would have done without the SlimShady Awning on this trip as cooking in the rain is absolutely no fun.  We're going to invest in a second one for our (just paid off this week) Toyota 4Runner soon.

I've been wearing Muck Boots for a few years now, bought pairs for our children and my wife, who didn't think she needed a pair, and the entire family swears by them now.  There is just nothing better that I've worn for wet, mud or mess.  They are easy to slip on an off, waterproof and provide some warmth with 5mm neoprene.  I'll never not have a pair around and more or less live in them when outside from fall through spring when working outside.

I've been using a few different propane camp stoves and hadn't used the Everest Camping Stove for awhile.  I was immediately reminded how impressive this stove is with it's never fail matchless ignite system and a ton of heat that rolls immediately rolls out of the 20,000 BTU burners.

I've had the Professional Outdoor Oven for the past six months or so and this is really changing what is possible to serve for camp meals.  Two 9,000 BTU burners on top and an up to 400 degree oven below give all sorts of options to make your camping trip nothing short of "glamping".

For me there was is a small learning curve when using the oven and so far I've found it true to temperature and it's a good idea to do two things for best results.  First, keep the pan off the back wall of the oven and second, rotate your pan every few minutes.  The heat for the oven comes from the floor and travels up the back wall making for a hotter space and turning whatever is baking on a every five minute rotation has been the ticket to prevent burning or an uneven cook.

After years of using an inflatable camp mattress that was maybe an inch or so in thickness, I broke the piggy bank and bought my wife an Megamat Outfitter LXW last Christmas only to find out later that she really liked the soft to the touch feel of the Megamat 10 LXW.  I wanted to upgrade my camp mattress anyway and preferred the durability of the Outfitter version.  So win win.

We both have Megamat mats now and these are just the most luxurious camp sleeping experience I've ever had with almost four inches of foam goodness with a length and width that is so roomy. 

Don't like sleeping on the ground?  Well, you really can't say that until you've tried the EXPED Megamat.  It'll change your mind for sure. 

Though first designed for UTV's, the PAKMULE Ridgeline is the perfect fit for the Element with an 8" rise that creates the space needed for ground clearance and a side to side width that works just right for a small frame SUV.  It's 100% aluminum construction, TIG welding and zero wobble sets the PAKMULE apart of all other hitch baskets.

We've been using both the Ridgeline and Pakmule models on our vehicles for over a year now and they continue to be an essential piece of gear to increase (maybe double) packing capacity while also creating a perfect work space to cook or work off of with a cooler or gear box attached.

PAKMULE has set the bar high for what a hitch basket should be and they are worth every dollar.

P.S.  Kansas from PAKMULE took notes from the Ottolock gear review I did awhile back and now offers the PAKMULE Cinch Lock, which is great insurance that your coolers (and other gear) will stay where they are supposed to be while you're away.

Where are we headed next?  We're sticking close to home for the holidays but who knows where the Element will end up next.

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