Our Camping Setup
This year our vehicle/tent based camp setup will be ‘home’ on hot nights in Uzbekistan’s deserts, and on cold nights above 4,000 metres in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains. Accordingly, our equipment is carefully selected; I feel experience from past trips has assisted me in making better equipment choices this time around.
Key objectives are: (1) to have camp fully setup within 30 minutes of deciding to stop for the night, including a fully cooked meal on the table!; and (2) having equipment that maximises comfort and space, subject to the constraint of being capable of being setup within the stipulated time frame. Packing up is typically a bit slower - nearer 40 minutes.
Over the years I’ve tried many different tents. Taking those tents on our previous travels through varying climates taught me first-hand what works well and what doesn’t. It may surprise some that we don’t have a roof tent, especially given they seem standard fare for 4wd overlanders these days. I think that for an individual, or couple, a roof tent could work well, but for a family of five they’re not really the most viable solution. Add to this the fact that as well as advantages, there are compromises with roof tents – (1) you have to pack up your entire base camp just to use the vehicle; (2) they’re mainly for sleeping and don’t offer a substantial living area. A good ground tent remains a solid proposition.
On our past trips we used relatively small ground tents – big enough for the five of us, but just a sleeping space without a living room area. More importantly we learned that these tents had limitations when taken out of the area where they were originally sold. For instance, tents sold in Europe are fine in the Mediterranean summer. But take them down to Morocco in summer (as we did once) and the ventilation may be found to be grossly inadequate, bearing in mind that south of the Atlas Mountains in summer Morocco can hit over 50 degrees during the day, cooling off to mid 30’s overnight! A proper ground tent for overlanding use will be a true 4 season adventure tent, able to handle extremely hot or cold climates equally well. It should also be made from robust materials and offer relatively fast setup/packdown.
Vango tent used on our 2014 trip
I think that for our circumstances it will be desirable to have a tent with a comfortably large inside area for adverse weather days. The kids are enrolled in a home school curriculum and need a comfortable/spacious environment to study in the mornings. Such a tent, when combined with my tent heater (see below!) will keep us very comfortable in cold or damp conditions, noting that our 2019 trip will have us spending time above 4,000 metres.
With all that in mind we’re currently using an Australian designed Darche Airvolution AT-6 (pictured at the top of the page), which is specifically aimed at the 4wd touring market. I’ve had a couple of seasons to test this tent in New Zealand and it has performed mostly very well. It is a relatively expensive tent, but the materials and design quality seem to justify. For those interested I am keeping a review of the tent's performance on this expedition that can be viewed here.
I’ve learned from past experiences that gas appliances aren’t always well suited to international adventures. The main issue is that fittings on gas bottles vary so much from country to country that it can be a real mission trying to find somewhere to fill the gas bottle, and on our past trips too much time has been wasted driving around trying! Within the EU there is an established standard, but cross into the Balkans and it’s all different again. Even in New Zealand not everywhere could fill the small 2kg size bottle that we used for a time. The other issue with gas powered stoves is that they don’t work well at low temperatures, or at high altitudes. I discovered that quite a few 4wd overlanders are using Coleman Dual Fuel stoves and I decided to invest in one. There is nothing cutting edge about these Coleman stoves. They are still made in America to an old military design, but they work very effectively, just as they have done for decades. They work in the cold, at altitude and in wind. They operate on liquid fuel rather than gas. Preferably they should be run on a clean burning pure solvent fuel to keep them clean inside, but the model I purchased can also run on petrol, which we’ll find everywhere, so no more hunting around for gas.
This has quickly become popular with the family! It has transformed our camping experience in cold/damp conditions and/or at high altitude, where the days can be sunny and warm, but temperatures quickly plummet from late afternoon to sub-zero overnight.
I had plans in my head to build this for a while and am so pleased I finally got around to doing it. In ‘travel mode’ everything, including the ducting, fits inside the toolbox that houses the complete system. Setup is quick and simple. The duct and a wired remote control go through a panel into the tent. A power lead and a fuel line plug into the car. Power is not taken from the starter battery, but instead comes from the same 120amp/hr AGM battery that powers the frig, lighting and water pumps. This electricity is freely produced, either from the alternator or solar panels. The fuel line plugs into a specially designed fitting I have built into the car and is ultimately fed from the 81 litre auxiliary fuel tank.
Both the electricity and fuel needs of the heater are fairly minimal and thus economical, this despite a maximum output of up to 4KW. Notwithstanding that tents lack insulation, this is amply more than enough power to produce t-shirt temperatures in the tent, even with snow/ice outside. Indeed, the maiden test for the heater was camped in winter on the shores of Lake Pukaki overlooking a frozen Mount Cook. With warm sleeping bags it's often not needed overnight, but if we are somewhere very cold we can run it on a low setting overnight to keep the temperature in the tent within the comfort zone of the sleeping bags - usually higher.
Anyone tempted to make something similar should be 100% confident their design is safe. Although the combustion process for my heater happens entirely outside the tent, which is ideal for safety, there is still potential to contaminate the ducted airway with harmful exhaust gas. Beware that if your design is poor you may be pumping carbon monoxide into the tent along with the hot air, which could be extremely dangerous.
The Swiss designed Exped Megamats are sublime to sleep on (comfort comparable to real beds rather than to other camping mattresses) and they feature the highest scores for thermal insulation from the ground. They also appear very well made and should last. We have a pair of these double mattresses across the tent to make up a sleeping area big enough for the whole family. They're also light and easy to pack away. The only compromise is the price - they are not cheap.