Last summer, Rebecca Vance talked with her family about a dream she’d had: She wanted to live in a land disconnected from the world, which she viewed as chaotic and dangerous.
She told her stepsister, Trevala Jara, that she could grow and gather her own food in a remote place, that she and her teenage son could be happy and safe away from the news, the viruses, the politics of modern-day America.
“I’m going to worry about you,” Ms. Jara told her stepsister. But Ms. Vance was resolute. “I’m going to live off the land,” she replied.
Her decision proved to be fatal. On Tuesday, a coroner said that he had identified three bodies that had been found earlier this month in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains as those of Rebecca Vance, 42, her 14-year-old son and her sister, Christine Vance, 41, who, Ms. Jara said, had ventured with them out of concern for their safety, believing an extra set of hands could be useful.
The coroner’s findings came more than a week after the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office said that the bodies of the campers had been found near Gold Creek Campground, a discovery that drew national attention as officials sought to identify the victims and determine why they had apparently attempted to camp through a brutal winter.
Michael Barnes, the Gunnison County coroner, said on Tuesday that the family members were all from Colorado Springs and had lived “off the grid,” survived on canned food and sheltered in a tent before a harsh winter or malnourishment most likely led to their deaths.
The sisters had been “discouraged with the state of the world” in recent years and had set out last July to permanently live near Gold Creek Campground in western Colorado, Mr. Barnes said.
“She went for good intentions,” Ms. Jara said in an interview on Tuesday night. “She thought she was protecting her son and our sister, Christine, because she didn’t want them to get wrapped up in what the world was coming to in her eyes.”
Rebecca Vance’s fears intensified during the pandemic, Ms. Jara said, noting that her sister had not believed in conspiracy theories but had simply been fearful of the world and had trusted that a better life awaited them in nature.
Initially, Christine Vance did not plan to go, but she changed her mind “because she thought that if she was with them, they had a better chance of surviving,” Ms. Jara said.
The teenager — whom Ms. Jara described as a smart and caring son who had been a “mama’s boy” and had been home-schooled — had felt sad about not being able to see his relatives and friends anymore, but he was also excited to join his mother on the journey, Ms. Jara said.
The two sisters and the teenager told Ms. Jara only that they were going “off the grid,” but did not share where exactly.
“Me and my husband, we tried to stop them,” Ms. Jara said, her voice breaking.
Christine and Rebecca Vance and the teenager traveled in a car to a parking space near a hiking trail and then most likely walked the rest of the way to their eventual camping spot, said Ms. Jara, who spoke with officials as part of their investigation.
The three family members had tried to stay through the winter. But Mr. Barnes said that as heavy snow draped the land around them, they were forced to burn dry sticks and light a fire inside their tent for warmth.
They probably died during the winter, Mr. Barnes said.
Another sign that they had been struggling under frigid conditions was that they would relieve themselves near a tree just a few feet from their tent. They were “cold and not wanting to venture far from the tent,” Mr. Barnes said. “Otherwise you’d probably do that elsewhere.”
It is also possible that the sisters and the teenager had died of malnutrition, Mr. Barnes said. The three had lived on soup and other prepackaged items, and their bodies were emaciated, he said.
Their campsite was roughly an hour’s drive from Gunnison, a small rural community.
A hiker found the body of one of the three family members on July 9 just before 5 p.m., and the authorities arrived the next morning and found the other two bodies. They could not immediately be identified because they were so decomposed, Mr. Barnes said.
The only food found at their shelter was a single package of ramen, Mr. Barnes said.
Sheriff Adam Murdie of Gunnison County said earlier this month that it was not unusual for hikers and backpackers to set up camp near where the Vances had.
He said, however, that it was rare for people to die there.
Ms. Jara said that Rebecca Vance had always preferred to be by herself growing up. But she was protective of her family, she said, adding that both her sisters had “a heart of gold.”
She said she hoped that her family’s story would prompt others to think twice before choosing to live similar lifestyles off the grid.
“I know this world is scary,” Ms. Jara said. “But don’t let that fear, that doubt, all of that take over.”
Rebecca Carballo contributed reporting.