GLADSTONE—Get John Fury talking about the Roof-Top Tent Rally here at James River State Park each fall and you’ll see the mother of all smiles.
That’s because the park’s assistant manager not only uses a rooftop rig with his own family to do what’s called “overland travel,” but in 2017 organized a rally here for like-minded campers that will draw hundreds of specially equipped rigs, from Maine to Florida and even the West Coast, on Oct. 18–20.
“Last year, we got 238 rigs and about 500 people,” said Fury. “This year, we’re going to cap it at 250, which will probably be around 600 people. We’re going to critique and perfect our management at that level before perhaps moving on to 300 or more rigs in future years.”
For those not acquainted with terms like rooftop or car-top camping, or the phrase overland travel, it’s a trend quickly growing around the country.
The idea is encompassed in all sorts of specialized tents, organizers and equipment that fit into or on top of vehicles owned by folks who want to be totally self-sufficient when they arrive at campgrounds often off the beaten track.
The specially designed tents are made to fit on roof-racks, car- and truck-tops and include everything from supportive bases to descending ladders to awnings attached along or at 90-degree angles to vehicles.
“Overlanding” is defined as “self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal.”
Fury, who’s done roof-top camping with vehicles ranging from a Jeep to the Dodge truck needed for a growing family, said he was thinking about his next overlanding trip one day when it hit him that James River State park could be unique by holding a yearly rally there.
He found sponsors and partners by calling people he knew at overlanding-related businesses such as Blue Ridge Overland Gear in nearby Bedford.
The idea from that first rally in 2017, which drew 75 rigs and about 200 people, was to make the event an intimate, family-friendly gathering that lets the adventure camping enthusiasts do what they do as they enjoy the riverside park.
“We put the rigs in a big open field by our amphitheater, and have big bonfires at night, at that time of the year when the fall foliage is so striking,” said Fury.
A mistake the Friends of James River State Park made in the first year was cooking food to sell as a fundraiser at the park that’s between Charlottesville and Lynchburg.
In retrospect, Fury said, it became clear that those at the rally “are so self-contained they have everything covered, from cooking to sleeping to the organization inside their rigs. They pull up, pop the hatch on their Forerunner and run everything off the 12-volt battery in their vehicle. They don’t waste much time setting up or taking down and have everything they need with them.”
Fury was quick to note that you don’t have to have one of these car- or rooftop tent rigs to gain admittance to the October rally.
“We get everything from folks riding in on a bicycle and sleeping in a hammock to people with small campers or trailers to full rooftop rigs,” he said, noting that trailers must be 20 feet or shorter to comply.
And he noted that some people come to the rally to learn about overlanding. They camp in regular tents but show up the following year with rooftop rigs of their own.
Fury, who noted that registration for the event will start Aug. 1, said he constantly works to counter the perception by some that overland travel enthusiasts don’t respect nature.
“Some people confuse us with off-roaders who tear up trails and roads, but that’s a misunderstanding,” he said. “Our folks fully believe and practice ‘Leave No Trace.’ For example, when the event finished last year, there were only two pieces of trash to pick up, and they’d fallen out of a bag of trash already collected.”
The tent-top rally, thought to be the first held at a state park anywhere in the country, hopes to benefit from another large gathering of overland travel lovers called Expo East, which takes place the week before in Nelson County. It’s a more commercial event that typically draws thousands.
“We’ve heard from some people coming from the West Coast and other spots on the East Coast who say they’ll hit the expo, tour other spots in Virginia and then come to our rally to close out their visit in the state,” said Fury, who noted that the park rally has many children’s activities planned.
While the unique rally has put James River State Park on the map with these overland travel enthusiasts, it’s just one of many draws for the 1,561-acre tract along the pristine river.
With full livery service operated by the park, visitors can rent equipment and then get ferried to spots where they can use kayaks, canoes or tubes to float either two, six or eight miles and end up in the park. The longer paddles are made possible by a parcel the park owns upriver and the three miles of park shorefront on the James.
Park officials note that James River’s 22 miles of trails are another big draw, especially for those who use a campground that has outfitted stables to accommodate horses.
“People comment especially on how well we keep up our equestrian trails,” said park manager Andrew Philpot. “We make that a priority and it may be why the equestrian campground is packed every weekend.”
Another big draw for visitors are camping sites and a picnic area that both sit right on the James River, as well as a fishing pier. And recently, a large volunteer crew finished their trip at the park after crewing bateau in the annual James River Batteau Festival. Many come to the park to see the vessels originally crafted for these waters.
Those who want more of the comforts of home can chose between two-, three- and six-bedroom cabins or campsites that support recreational vehicles.