Overlanding in the Upper Peninsula is the Ultimate Camping Road Trip

The first chance summer gives us, we pack up our truck and launch our enthusiastic spirits across the Upper Peninsula landscape. We’re going overlanding.

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Featured in the July 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

With a web of old logging and mining roads and plenty of ORV routes, one can drive across the UP, east to west, entirely on dirt roads. Now this may seem like an ambitious task, because it is. Perhaps thankfully, these roads don’t fit our modern standards of convenience, cruise control, vacation time and ETAs. So driving east to west across the UP on dirt roads is definitely possible, I just didn’t ask for enough time off work.

Although failure was imminent, we embraced it. Laura (my wife), Layla (our dog) and I rolled onto the ferry to Drummond Island as it bobbed in the cobalt water of Lake Huron. The easternmost landmark in the UP, the island was an obvious starting point for our overlanding adventure. The Porcupine Mountains would be our journey’s end in the west.

Pedro, a 2005 Chevy Suburban with a memory foam mattress, was full of the creature comforts of home—our bed had four pillows and a down comforter, Thai curry and venison backstrap were on the menu and the heaviest thing I carried was the case of beer across the grocery store’s parking lot. Heck, even our dog had her own bed.

This type of trip does demand an appetite for exploration and a keen sense of navigation, though. Yes, you can stay at campgrounds, but campsites fill up (and I never have the foresight to make reservations). We camped on public land, those giant swaths that make up almost one-third of the UP. These lands, those (usually green) areas on maps, belong to all of us. Public lands are the foundation of our conservation system and the reasons (among many others) why we can still see wildlife, hunt, float rivers, get lost and explore this beautiful nation. We are public landowners. What kind of landowner doesn’t take the time to enjoy their own land?

We spent the days driving, trying to closely follow a route I had selected for us a week prior. (Tip: Let go of anticipated arrival times.) On trips like these, it usually takes a few days to settle into a routine and learn how to pack the car so the pots don’t rattle on every bump. 

As the miles ticked by, we fell into a rhythm only a dirt road can drum. We made sandwiches on dusty bumpers, argued over where to store the toilet paper, divided up camp duties and laughed at our mistakes.

The dynamics between travel partners demands a sense of humility for a successful trip. Instead of asking yourself how they could make this trip a better experience, you must ask yourself how you can make a better trip for them. It’s a selfless act that actually works and turns frustration into grace. In the white haze of a glowing headlamp while mosquitos buzz and your bed feels like a sandbox (thanks, Layla), it means fetching a water bottle or chasing the dog regardless of what you’re wearing. And doing anything in your underwear after dark in the UP is the ultimate sacrifice (thanks, mosquitoes). We eventually found time to embrace our surroundings and remind ourselves why we took this overlanding trip in the first place.

Jim Harrison once wrote in The New York Times: “It’s not easy to cheerlead for the Upper Peninsula now after the extractive logging and mining.” Young forests and slag piles cover these scars, yet one can’t help but imagine what the UP once was. And though the land has been beaten and bruised, it still thrives. We slept in clear cuts and clawed our way around old mining ruins. We picked wild blueberries next to stumps that spoke of loggers past. We sipped coffee, inhaling the aroma of the morning mist. I plucked smallmouth bass with my fly rod from the boggy shores of inland lakes. Layla wandered the forest while we worked, her damp nose inspecting every crevice that just might hold a critter to chase or something dead with which to perfume herself. Drive these dirt roads long enough and (unwillingly) donate enough blood to the local skeeter population, and you’ll see more than swamps and stumps and different shades of brown and green. The land glows with a light you can only find Up North.

Almost too soon, we reached our destination, the Porkies. We dove deep into Lake Superior, washing off bits and pieces of the land we had brought with us from Drummond Island, as if to say, “This belongs to you, thank you.”

So… what is overland camping?

Your dad or granddad probably called it two-tracking. Overlanding is now the term of choice for this pursuit: driving dirt roads with enough supplies to comfortably subsist in remote places. Overlanding lets you camp in comfort. Think backpacking without the blisters and heavy pack, waking up without sore joins and absolutely no rehydrated food to eat. You don’t need a tent on top of your truck…just a resourceful, lightly treading sensibility. The purpose of overlanding is much more than reaching a landmark on a map. Give spontaneity room to grow and embrace it when it does—a friendly local, a wrong turn, a dead end. It’s often on those dead-end roads we find much more than we expected…prepare for the extraordinary.

How to Navigate

Since cell service never comes through when you need it, prepare in advance. The good news is your phone does not need cell service to find your GPS location. Most GPS apps on your phone allow you to download areas of a map. This allows you to navigate without cell service. I like to use Gaia, Maps.Me and Google Maps, all of which have a feature that allow you to save maps. A good old-fashioned map is always a good back up plan.

What to Cook

Take a cooler and cook as you do at home, just do as much prep work as you can beforehand. 

Sous vide machines make advance meat prep simple. Seal the meat in vacuum bags, cook it with a sous vide machine and freeze it. Toss the frozen meat in the cooler before you head out. When you’re ready to eat, thaw it to room temperature, sear on all sides and enjoy. 

Use a vacuum-sealing machine for easy homecooked meals. Pack individual servings of already cooked freezer-friendly food (lasagna, chili, soup). When you’re at the campsite, simply bring a pot of water to a boil, place the vacuum sealed bags (frozen or thawed) into the water and heat up your meal. The best part? No dishes!

Where to Camp

Public land falls under the management of several different agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other state and local groups. Dispersed camping is legal in these areas. However, certain agencies have different rules (how far you have to be from a road, whether or not you can have a fire, etc.). Do your research before setting out.

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