Camping with a 2016 Ford F-150 Lariat FX4
One of the pleasures of living in California is immediate access to amazing year-round camping. And one of the joys of being an automotive writer is exploring these opportunities in somebody else’s rig who doesn’t expect you to return it clean.
My mission: Take two guys and two kids camping in a 2016 F-150 SuperCrew Lariat with FX4 Off-Road Package and 3.5 liter Ecoboost power. Have some fun and see what the truck can do.
There are a tremendous variety of great camp spots within a two-hour drive of San Diego. You want high country? Several campgrounds cling to the 10,000+ foot San Jacinto Mountains. How about desert? No problem, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with its famous spring wild flower bloom takes in 600,000 nearby acres. Looking for unrestricted off-road entertainment? The dunes and canyons of Ocotillo Wells offer an off-road playground with trails such as Flex Test, Tank Trap, and Little Rubicon. How about ocean front? Yup, there are a series of state and federal parks right on the Pacific with wave action to make you forget the freeways and suburbs behind you. My choice for this trip was a remote section of chaparral woodlands at a 4,500 foot elevation in northeast San Diego County.
Escaping the marine layer of coastal San Diego, we climbed the foothills east of Escondido and skirted the south side of 6,100 foot Palomar Mountain. This truck, like most, appreciates a modest load. Our humble 800 pounds of people and gear fell well short of the truck’s 2,060 pound maximum payload rating, but smoothed the ride appreciably. This truck is no canyon carver, but its 365 horsepower 3.5L turbocharged Ecoboost V6 mated to a six-speed automatic with Sport mode selected kept us in the appropriate gear. And ensured we did not slow the enthusiastic motorcycles and sports car clubs behind us on their way to ascend the 21 switchbacks of Palomar Mountain’s South Grade Road.
Even without the power heated and cooled front thrones, crisp navigation system, and abundance of comfort enhancing features, the volume of the F-150 SuperCrew interior is simply luxurious. Rear seat leg room is particularly impressive, besting its GM, Ram, Nissan, and Toyota peers by as much as 3.3 inches. Rear seat occupants enjoy even more space for their lower extremities than if they were in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. For a car and mid-size SUV driver like me, this F-150’s cab is nothing short of cavernous.
The “short” five and a half foot bed is no space miser either. And there is luxury in not having to pack efficiently. Wanna bring bikes for the boys? No problem. How about the air compressor if we need to air up after playing in the sand? Piece-a-cake. What about the tow strap and come-along? Ok, there’s room but let’s not get stuck in the boonies solo in a media truck.
We transitioned into the loosely defined San Diego back-country somewhere around Lake Henshaw on State Route 76, then turned north onto State Route 79. These are reasonably maintained two-lane highways that cross a broad valley of wild grasslands periodically dotted with oak trees, and ringed by the chaparral woodlands of the Peninsular Ranges into which we were headed. It’s a serene drive for which the F-150 is well suited. Pavement transitions, cattle grates, and sporadic potholes don’t upset the F-150 at 50-60 miles per hour. The steering is somewhat vague and disconnected, but can be forgiven, as this thing is made to haul a ton, literally, and tow another five and a half tons.
The Los Coyotes Indian Reservation is a one-hour 45-minute, 70-mile drive northeast of the city of San Diego. It is the largest of 18 reservations in San Diego County, covering 25,000 acres, but counts fewer than 100 full-time residents. It is remote – grid electricity arrived in 1998. There are no casinos here, not even a general store.
The Los Coyotes Campground is situated in a gentle valley about five miles up a dirt road. It’s basic by state and federal campground standards and positively rustic versus the private campgrounds scattered across the county. It has fire-pits, picnic tables, and basic restrooms. No potable water. The campsites are generously sized and scattered across the forest floor. But that is part of its charm – the tribe did not do much bulldozing to create this little oasis, it worked with the topography to establish this pleasant campground. It may be thin on amenities but when you travel with the F-150, you have 110 Volt AC power, which is great for filling air-mattresses, running an electric cooler, or powering electric hedge trimmers. Hey, to each their own. And the truck has other welcome features convenient for outdoor life, such as effective in-bed lighting, side-view mirror spotlights, and for those who refuse to leave home at home, a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The $25 camping fee buys you access to camp in a wonderful chaparral woodland of oak and pine with a under-story of wild grasses. It also buys you the right to explore a maze of dirt roads favored by local Jeep and off-road clubs. And it is easy to see why. Visitors can follow these tracks for hours twisting up, around, and over mountains. Driving northwest, one can reach the lookout atop Hot Springs Mountain. From its 6,535 foot peak the Pacific is visible to the west on a clear day and the Coachella Valley and Salton Sea can be seen to the east. Driving northeast one can reach the shoulder of the Anza-Borrego desert and experience its shockingly immediate transition from woodland to arid desert.
Many of these roads are well graded and accessible by just about any vehicle. But there are numerous branch tracks to explore, many of which the 145 inch wheelbase F-150 is not well suited for. The cringe-inducing 21.0 degree break-over, 25.5 degree approach, and 26.0 degree departure angles make this a truck best enjoyed on improved sections of dirt road. We may not have high-centered or plowed the chin spoiler into the dirt, but it took some effort to avoid. Off-roading is not this truck’s primary mission. But the 3.55 Electronic Lock Rear Axle that comes with the $770 FX4 Off-Road Package came in handy in off-camber and mixed surface situations. It generally obviated the need for switching into four-wheel drive. The skid plates that come with the FX4 are also no doubt effective, though we declined to test them.
For those seeking a daily driver that can double as a platform for weekend adventure, hauling, and towing, the F-150 is a great choice. There is space aplenty for just about anything, including up to five adults and all their stuff. If more focused off-road escapades are on your radar, a vehicle with a shorter wheelbase is recommended. And for those unwilling to sacrifice the sublime drivetrain and copious interior volume of the SuperCrew configuration, Ford offers the Raptor. Or, install a lift and up-size the tires on an F-150 like this tester and you will have a go-anywhere adventure rig with room for, well everything.
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