Off-Roading and Car Camping in Vashlovani National Park With My Favorite Camping Espresso Maker
Adventurer, travel writer, and photographer Breanna Wilson knows a thing or two about being on the go. Splitting her time between Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and Tbilisi, Georgia, she’s always looking for the best, coolest, and lightest gear to accompany her on her remote and off-the-beaten-path adventures. (And since she tests and reviews gear for a living – so she knows her stuff.) So, having traveled with the Nanopresso and Pipamoka on a few different occasions now, we were curious to follow her on her latest adventure – following along as she car camps her way across Georgia’s unexplored Vashlovani National Park.
Vashlovani National Park in the eastern part of Georgia – the country – is as breathtaking as it is mysterious. It’s rugged. It’s brutal. It’s completely undiscovered and overlooked. And it’s teeming with poisonous snakes. It’s everything I look for in an adventure destination! (Plus, how cool is the park’s name in Georgian: ვაშლოვანის ეროვნული პარკი!)
Bordering both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and due north of the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, Vashlovani National Park’s semi-desert ecosystem is more reminiscent of an African safari than it is post-Soviet Union.
There aren’t many humans and even fewer animals to encounter, and the terrain gently transforms from rolling hills to badlands and rainbow-colored mountains that go on forever. It truly is a fascinating corner of the country, and a place tourists almost always overlook on their trip to Georgia.
Lucky for me, I have all the time in the world to discover these far-off edges of this incredibly diverse and beautiful country – like many others, I’ve found myself “stuck” in Georgia thanks to coronavirus. But, using that term isn’t entirely accurate. I’ve chosen to stay here instead of returning to America, and with borders closed to many American citizens at the moment, this is my new home. And it’s safe to say Georgia has adopted me as much as I’ve adopted it – not only is it an adventure traveler’s dream destination, but the cuisine is incredible (khachapuri, anyone?). The locals are some of the kindest, most hospitable people in the world.
Exploring this country one camping trip and adventure at a time – especially as a solo female traveler – has been the best surprise of 2020. Here’s how I took on this solo car camping and off-roading adventure in particular, with my favorite camping espresso maker in tow – my Nanopresso.
The Adventure: Planning an Off-Roading Trip through Vashlovani National Park, Georgia (the Country)
When I first learned about Vashlovani National Park, it was like someone unlocking a whole new level to exploring Georgia. I hadn’t met any people who had been there themselves, and I could never get a straight answer to the questions I had. What was the best route through the park? How many days would I need? Would I need to refuel at any point? Just how dangerous was it to take on alone? Not to mention the photos looked insane as I started to go down the Vashlovani rabbit hole.
I had decided the only way I wanted to do this adventure was to drive myself. No tour guide. No travel caravan of cars. No missing a single second of this adventure.
After finally investing in a 4x4 vehicle in Tbilisi, with adventures like this in mind (and there are plenty), I started to make my plan.
Unfortunately for me, there isn’t much reliable and useful information on traveling within Vashlovani National Park. And my friends were mostly useless. So, I’d be flying a bit blind. Relying on the park rangers, physical maps, and my own intuition. (Some of that worked out better than others – the Tourist Administration for the park was out of physical maps, and the rangers didn’t speak a lick of English. My intuition, however, was on point. So at least there was that.
(I’ve since written this travel guide to off-roading and car camping in Vashlovani National Park, so now there’s at least one reliable place to find this information.)
Knowing what I did (which was basically nothing), I did know one thing for certain – I’d be car camping my way through this adventure. (I don’t know about you, but putting up a tent every night to tear it down in the morning is my personal hell.)
After a few hours of research, I also knew one spot I would have to car camp in for at least one night.
The national park administration sent me a digital map of the park with all the designated camping areas thanks to messaging their Facebook page, which made me feel a bit better about flying so blind (not my preferred way of traveling), and they recommended I download the offline map app, OsmAnd Maps.
I managed to piece together an itinerary for getting to two spots at the top of my list – Mijniskure and the Takhi-Tepi mud volcanoes, and I figured I would wing the rest. (What could go wrong?!)
I had chosen Mijniskure because it had an observation point and a tourist hut camping area on the very edge of the border, both of which looked incredible in photos. (See what I mean?) On day one, I would head there, spend the night, then drive back out to Dedoplistskaro on day two.
And Takhi-Tepi, even though it’s actually a part of the bordering Chachuna National Park, for its mud volcanoes, which seemed like an interesting natural wonder to check out. (Interesting? Yes. A worthy follow up after witnessing the incredibleness of Mijniskure? Absolutely not. So, start here first.)
To see these, I would make a day trip on day three from Dedoplistkaro, where I’d spend the night on day two, into the park, and back out before nightfall.
My planned itinerary would have me staying for three days and two nights. The perfect amount of time for escaping the city (Tbilisi), but not too much time to make my mom or anyone else worry – there wouldn’t be much (read: any) cell reception in the park, after all.
Overall, all went according to plan. I only got stuck off-roading once. I did get lost plenty of times. But it was one hell of an adventure, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Solo Car Camping as a Female: Staying Safe and Making the Most of Your Experience
As a female who travels alone, I’m always concerned about safety. Which is why I love car camping.
I’m locked in an iron box that no man, wild animal, or sasquatch can knife, claw, or sneak their way into. It’s a beautiful way to protect yourself against the outside world. And when you have a car that’s as big and comfortable as mine is to sprawl out and make yourself cozy in – why wouldn’t I car camp!
Here are my crucial tips for surviving a night in your car, safely and comfortably:
- Leave your windows cracked at night. Otherwise, you’ll fog yourself in.
- Hang your keys on an overhead hook or have a designated spot for them for quick and easy access. Basically, please give them a designated home, so you don’t have to overturn your car to find them, should they go missing.
- Setup your car camping spot as soon as you park and settle yourself in – and absolutely set it up before dark. Be sure to think about where the morning light will be – and if you want to be directly in it (trunk facing) or shielded from it.
- Stay as organized as possible. Group things together – your food, clothes, cooking equipment – and take the time to make sure it stays that way throughout your trip.
- Your roof might seem like a great place to store stuff overnight. Just don’t put your food (animals) or anything that can’t take morning dew up there (your front seats are a great place for that).
- A power bank inverter combo charger makes a great charger for car camping trips (I like Goal Zero’s 50 Sherpa). Not only does it have two USB outlets, but there’s also a built-in plug that you can charge camera equipment, drone batteries, your computer, hair straightener, a coffee grinder… you get the point.
- LED string lights are always a good idea. And so is pepper spray. You know, just in case.
- Download movies onto your phone or computer before your trip for when it’s alarmingly quiet and hard to fall asleep.
- Two sleeping pads are better than one. The winning combination? One inflatable sleeping pad, one foam sleeping pad. (Or better yet, get a mattress custom-fitted to your car. I’m not there yet – but one day!) I also packed my favorite blanket from home, not only for added warmth but for another touch of comfort.
- If you think you’ll have wet boots at any time during your trip, be sure to throw some newspapers in your car – they are great for stuffing in wet shoes to help them dry quickly overnight. You shouldn’t have any wet or damp clothes (hello, you’ve been in your car all day), but if you do, throw them in your sleeping bag and sleep with them in there overnight. You can also pack tomorrow’s clothes in a small, breathable bag and do the same – sleep with them in your sleeping bag – waking up to warm clothes to put on is a small luxury you’ll appreciate.
- The beauty of traveling by car means you can pack firewood, meals you couldn’t otherwise (be sure to prep as much as you can at home), and coffee beans, a portable grinder, your favorite camping espresso maker, fancy milk (I’m an almond milk kind of gal), and so much more. Which leads me to my next topic…
Morning Routine: Meet my Favorite Camping Espresso Maker
I love the mornings when I’m car camping. I’m snuggled up in a cozy sleeping bag. I can hear birds chirping outside my (cracked) window. The sun is just starting to make it’s way over the horizon, lighting up everything in front of me in a completely different way than I experienced the night before… I love every single moment of it.
And I love having a routine that goes with it. It goes something like this.
The night before, I’ll have organized my food for the day, my cooking equipment, and today’s outfit. I’ll start by getting dressed. Pulling my clothes out of the breathable, mesh bag that I put into my sleeping bag with me the night before, sliding into warm, not freezing clothes, does something for your mood that carries throughout the day.
Dressed and out of my sleeping bag, my next priority is my morning caffeine fix. And this is a big one. I do not play around when it comes to this part of my day – no matter where I am.
For today (and, honestly, days when I’m not even car camping), my Nanopresso portable espresso maker is my espresso maker of choice. (I’ve even toted it along with me on a few of my Mongolia adventures. Eagle hunting, anyone?)
I’m no home barista fanatic, but I am particular about what I put into my body – life is too short to waste your time on bad espresso or coffee!
I’ve pre-ground my Stumptown Coffee Roasters Hair Bender coffee beans (my favorite beans that I had shipped all the way from Portland – worth it!), and I’m heating my water on my mini stove setup.
I run one pass of hot water through my Nanopresso to preheat it before getting into the extraction process.
I take one scoop of my finely ground Hair Bender coffee beans and transfer it into the coffee filter basket. I then tamp the fine grinds with enough pressure to compact my grounds, forming a nice coffee puck. I can’t stress how important this step is. By tamping your grounds, you ensure the hot water will have a much harder time being forced through the grounds. That means the water will pull more oils, have a better mouthfeel and aroma, and you’re preventing your espresso from being under-extracted, and even worse, from tasting sour or bitter.
Tamped and ready to go, I put the coffee filter basket into the Nanopresso, add hot water to the water basket, and I’m ready to start pumping.
A smooth, creamy flow of espresso streams from the Nanopresso, and within 30 seconds, my espresso is fully extracted, under a layer of golden-brown crema that looks and smells divine. (If you ask me, this is the ONLY way to start a morning – no matter where you are!)
Now that I have my morning espresso in hand, I’m ready to boil eggs, dig into my cut veggies and fruit, make a full cup of coffee in my Wacaco Pipamoka (another one of my favorite camping coffee tricks), and take in the rest of my morning – just me and the national park.
Staying Safe on the Road: Carrying Extra Fuel to Turning Down Dinner Invites
I think by this point, you understand my concern for safety during an adventure.
And, if you’ve ever heard anything about Georgia, it’s undoubtedly about how friendly and hospitable the locals are. Here, the guest is god. And it’s one of the most remarkable things about the country.
But even here, like anywhere else in the world, there are some rotten apples.
Although you may feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere and there couldn’t possibly be another soul around for miles, think again. You’re never truly alone in Georgia, thanks to the shepherds and farmers who live off the land and the park rangers and border patrol guards who protect it. (Remember, the park is on the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia.)
Never being truly alone is both a great thing and a terrible thing.
For one, if you get stuck in one of the canyons and you don’t have another car with you to pull you out, one will come along at some point during the day, and they’re always happy to lend a helping hand.
I was also worried about having enough fuel to get through the park and back out, having not found any information online about what I should expect, so I packed two 5 liter jerrycans on my roof rack, just in case. Had I actually run out of fuel and not had the jerrycans, I’m sure the park rangers would have been able to come to my rescue. 112, Georgia’s emergency hotline, works from anywhere within the park.
The downside of this is that when you set up camp as a solo female traveler off-roading through some of the country’s craziest terrain, people become curious. And I mean that most genuinely and sincerely. (I can’t say I blame them.)
That translates to an endless amount of questions, usually followed up with invites for dinner and shots of chacha (the local homemade liquor of choice), and everything in between. While I have taken locals up on these offers in the past and had some incredible experiences and memories, I’ll never forget because of that, and I felt it was safest to not indulge in those whims during a trip like this. Especially considering how far from cell phone service, help, and with no friends or family, really knowing exactly where I was within the park at any given time.
While I knew I could keep my wits about me, I didn’t know if I could do the same for my newly made friends.
Trusting your gut is imperative in these situations – and mine was saying no.
But, while I said no to dinner and chacha, I did say yes to sharing morning espresso shots with my new curious friends. Bonding over espresso shots is a much better – and safer – alternative than bonding over chacha shots on a car camping adventure, after all.