Illustration © Colleen Coover
Camp in the treetops with new platform tent options.
Words and Photos by Pam LeBlanc
Lately, it seems, collapsible tents are sprouting atop cars, trucks and trailers, as if good old dirt-level camping just doesn’t cut it anymore.
I grew up camping on the ground in an old-school canvas tent that accommodated our family of five. That worked just fine for us, but these new contraptions look intriguing.
How would it feel to spend the night at treehouse level? How hard are those rigs to manage? Can I single-handedly tow one around on a trailer, set it up myself and sleep comfortably?
I decide to find out. I borrow a small Taxa Woolly Bear trailer with a collapsible two-person Tepui tent on top and head to East Texas to check out three state parks I’ve never visited.
DAY 1, LAKE LIVINGTON STATE PARK, LIVINGSTON
I’m pretty proud. I’ve driven more than 200 miles to this lakeside park pulling a trailer and haven’t hit or broken anything yet. I figure that’s an accomplishment since my trailer-hauling experience pretty much comprises a couple of spins around the neighborhood and a few backups executed in a parking lot.
Here, on the park’s Piney Shores loop, recreational vehicles occupy about two-thirds of the spots. That means plenty of folks are watching me try to wrangle into my spot.
A friendly neighboring camper sees me struggling. I holler good-naturedly out the window at him, “This is going to be hysterical!” He lopes over to see if he can lend a hand. First, he flaps his arm — this way, no, that way — then asks if I’d like him to take the wheel. It’s my first night, so I let him do it. A few minutes later, Superintendent David Weeks rolls up to see if he can lend a hand in deploying the pop-up tent atop the trailer.
The tent weighs more than I (or a powerlifter, actually) can hoist by myself. Weeks, the other camper and I each grab a corner and slowly push the platform holding the 95-pound tent up, centimeter by centimeter. When we’ve got it all the way elevated, we lock the rack in place. I flip open the tent, and a telescoping ladder slides down.
Martin Dies Jr. beckons campers with thick woods.
Camper Marilyn Harlow sets up at Village Creek.
The Woolly Bear offers a view at Lake Livingston.
I climb inside, crawling around on the foam mattress that covers the entire floor of the tent, unzipping windows so I can see right out into the pines and across the road to the lake and Pine Island.
That’s it. Camp is set, so I wander off to explore.
I hike over to the marina, where a three-level wooden observation deck gives me a great bird’s-eye view of my surroundings. Down below, a family has gathered at a picnic table; a fisherman is casting from shore. Canoe and kayak rentals are available, as are screened-in shelters.
Next, I make my way to the Pineywoods Boardwalk Trail, a mile-long elevated walkway through the forest, where I hear woodpeckers and stare up at gently swaying pine trees. The park gets busy in warm weather, but in winter the lake shimmers like silver, and it’s quiet, without the buzz of boats or hordes of people.
Back in camp, I light a charcoal fire to cook some bratwurst, enjoy the sound of birds for a while, then finally climb the steps to my elevated home, where I zip up the flaps and snuggle into my sleeping bag.
I awake the next morning and peer out the flaps. A passing car has pulled off to check out my rig. Someone unrolls the window and whips out a cellphone to snap a picture. I roll out of bed, pour some juice and eat some fruit. My neighbors all seem to be out walking, and my treetop tent has attracted more attention.
The campground host comes over to inspect it. Nancy and Roy Lackey of Sugar Land stop by for a chat, too. They admire my setup and tell me they love this park. They’re staying for 10 days.
“We like the fact that you can get right on the water,” Roy Lackey says. “It’s very quiet here, especially during the week, and the people are extremely friendly.”
A half-hour later, two park maintenance workers stop by to see if I need help buttoning up my Woolly Bear before I leave. We decide that instead of lowering the frame on which the pop-up tent sits, we’ll stow the tent but leave the rack elevated. That way, I won’t need any help to set up camp the next night.
While moving the chocks holding the trailer’s wheels in place, park maintenance worker Stephen Stern finds something surprising: a fuzzy, spiky caterpillar that looks just like the Woolly Bear caterpillar logo on my trailer.
“It’s a good omen,” Stern says.
Trees and water serve as scenic attractions for campers — whether on or off the ground — at Martin Dies Jr. State Park.
DAY 2, VILLAGE CREEK STATE PARK, LUMBERTON
I don’t mean to brag — OK, yes, I do — but I did it. I just managed to back the Woolly Bear trailer down a skinny drive, deploy the tent and attach the rain fly entirely on my own.
Well, I did get some moral support. A friend alerted me yesterday that I might meet another solo camper, Marilyn Harlow of Oregon, at this small park near Beaumont.
I spot her as soon as I arrive; she has a cartop tent similar to the one on my trailer and is set up right across from me.
“It’s my sister!” Harlow greets me, even though no one’s told her about me and we’ve never met. As she busily uncouples her teardrop-shaped trailer from her pickup, she explains that Mother Nature binds all outdoorsy women together like sisters.
I warn her I don’t know how to back up a trailer and ask her not to laugh as I try to position my rig. Instead of laughing, though, or even volunteering to take the wheel and do it for me, Harlow, 70, does something much more valuable — she gives me some tips about backing up a trailer, then leaves me alone to work it out on my own.
It takes 17 tries, but I do it. I back that trailer in just perfectly, then jump out of the truck and throw my hands overhead in victory. I open up the tent, and Harlow comes over to watch as I attach the rain fly, because the skies are turning dark and ominous.
Settled in, I chat with Harlow, a retired teacher who sold her home in Oregon, bought a small trailer with a rooftop tent (she calls it her two-bedroom apartment) and hit the road on a mission to visit the lower 48 states. Texas marks state number 12 for her.
She has a message for other solo female trailer-haulers like me: “We can do it, and we’ve got nothing to be afraid of.” Early on in her own adventure, Harlow says, people helped teach her the basics. She wants to pass that knowledge on.
“I had a lot of different angels along the way,” she tells me. “There are many things I didn’t understand about leverage and leveling. They showed me. I’ve learned over time that I can do it. It’s learning that and getting past it, both mentally and physically. The confidence comes in doing it.”
We finish chatting, and I wander off to make tracks in the park, situated along coffee-colored Village Creek. Floodwaters destroyed a canoe and kayak launch here, wreaked havoc on the walk-in campsites and washed out some trails in 2017. Repairs are underway on the trails and primitive campsites but will not be completed for some time.
I wander down Village Slough Trail, breathing in the earthy scent and noting magnolias and dogwoods, which are just starting to bloom. I make it back to camp before the skies open up, but pretty soon it’s raining too hard to build a fire. I sit inside my truck and make do with a bag of cashews, some mandarin oranges and dried mango. Then I retreat to my elevated quarters, where I read a book by headlamp.
DAY 3, MARTIN DIES JR. STATE PARK, JASPER
I roll in on a foggy, drizzly day.
The skies resemble dryer lint, all fuzzy and gray, and the park — a sort of pine-studded oasis surrounded by murky swamp that looks like prime Sasquatch habitat (if Sasquatches existed) — sprawls out on two sides of the highway.
Friends who live nearby say the best time to visit is on weekdays during the off-season. At more popular times, the park often teems with families, who come to swim, canoe, fish and hike.
I pull my rig into slot 215 in the Hen House Ridge Unit of the park, where absolutely no one else is camping tonight, and it takes only four quick tries to get lined up just right. I pop open my portable home like a pro, climb inside and check out the view. From up here I can see the lake, which, I’ve been told, is populated by alligators — another good reason, I tell myself, for an elevated tent.
I head out to explore, driving down every camping loop, admiring the rust-colored bedding of soft pine needles and acres of towering trees. This park is the most beautiful yet, a fascinating juxtaposition of piney woods, swamplands and lake.
I drive to the Walnut Ridge Unit on the other side of the highway and park in the day-use area. From there, I walk across a short pedestrian bridge to a small island, turn right and trot across the long observation bridge, stirring up some big white egrets and a few ducks. The trail dips into thick trees and I follow it for a mile before turning back.
The park feels especially magical wrapped in a thick shroud of fog. I drive to a boat launch on B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir, park and stroll onto a pier. The trees look as if they’re floating in clouds.
Then it’s back to camp, where I cook dinner and revel in the quiet. Just as I finish eating, the rain starts. I scurry to my tent, nimbly climb the ladder and settle in high above the fast-forming puddles. As pelting raindrops lull me to sleep, I feel as though I’ve mastered this whole solo trailer camping thing. It feels great.
But that thought temporarily evaporates in the morning, when I attempt to remove pooling water from the awning above the ladder and manage instead to pour it right down my neck. Then, as I try to reattach the trailer to the ball hitch of the truck, I can’t make it lock.
It takes a set of dry clothing, a screwdriver, a phone call and 15 minutes of frustration, but finally I get everything attached properly.
As I point my truck down the highway toward home, I can’t help feeling satisfied. I love to challenge myself, and this trip did that. I learned a lot and realized I’m more capable than I thought.
I can’t wait to do it again.
Pam LeBlanc, an Austin fitness and adventure writer, likes camping any way she can.
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