Where do we put this thing?
We’re free! Nobody to tell us what to do anymore, we can do what ever we want, when ever we want! ERRRRRRNT.
There is only one problem. We are dragging around a 33 foot, 11,500 pound anchor, that at the end of each day needs to be parked somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, once we are parked, set up and kicking back to relax, having a large 5th wheel with all the conveniences of home is awesome. Plenty of room for us to have our own space…if needed! There is always a price for everything and one price for this comfort are limitations on suitable places to park. A smaller rig would have allowed us to stealth camp, fit into tight national forest spots and opened up more Boondocker’s Welcome homes. But then with a smaller rig, the trip might have already been over and we could be standing in divorce court splitting up our assets :).
The problem I did not foresee, is there are thousands, upon thousands of us trying to do the same thing. From day 4 on, it’s been a battle to find a place to park this beast. Ever since we reached our first campground and were told that the place was booked for the weekend and we would have to leave, we have been in a constant struggle to find places to camp near areas with interesting things to see and do. It’s by far the most time consuming part of our adventure. Like most people, since we are chasing 70 deg weather year round, traveling to warmer climates for the winter, there is essentially no off-season. The fall is perfect weather in the southern states for camping, and most areas from Ohio down to Florida and over to Texas were booked on the weekends all the way through the holidays. Unfortunately, I also completely underestimated the size of the snowbird crowd in the west. Our typical move into a nice state campground early in the week and leave on the weekends has not worked out well. Most state parks in the popular places are completely booked through the “snowbird” season. In addition, the “park and never move” snowbirds have made it nearly impossible to find a private campground with vacancy. Even the rink-a-dink private campgrounds are pretty full and are getting top dollar. Some “wedge-you-in-tight” places are getting upwards to $80/night.
This is where we need to become a little more creative. That is finding unique places to boondock that are near areas we want to visit. Now that we are out west, there is an abundance of Bureau of Land Management, BLM land that allow camping for up to 14 days. However, not all BLM land is suitable for a large rig and not surprisingly, a lot of the smaller boondocking areas suitable for our size rig that I have read about on the internet, have been pretty full when we drove by. The trick will be to find other areas that are not so publicized. As you can tell this is constant job and I can see why people book a year ahead of time and sit in one location for the season. Since we didn’t have the foresight nor the desire to plan a year ahead of time and we prefer to move every once in a while this will continue to be our biggest challenge.
Boondocking may be free, but it is not without costs. My limitations on being able to completely abandon campgrounds, is keeping my electrical system fully charged. Most of the boondocking gurus have complete off-grid solar systems and have no problem keeping their batteries maintained properly. We have been recharging our batteries with a generator when needed. Unfortunately to completely re-charge a lead acid battery requires running the generator about 8 hours. It takes 2 hours to get to 90% then about 6 hours at a lower power to get that last 10%. Since I can’t stand to hear the generator that long, I only run it for 2 hours to get to 90%. This constant under charging is bad for the life of the type of batteries I’m using. At $300 a set for batteries, we need to hit a full hook up campground every 5 days or so to plug into shore power and properly charge the batteries. Solar is my new priority and hopefully will allow us the choice rather than the need to stay at a full hook-up campground.
With all that said, we have been able to find and stay at some incredible places. We have seen beautiful country, been on awesome hikes and met some very interesting people. Since this is our new way of life and not a vacation with limited time, we can be flexible when we arrive to areas we want to visit and explore. We have been to popular areas where we felt we had the whole place to ourselves. We have also hit places like Joshua Tree during Christmas week, where it was completely overrun with people, making it very difficult to enjoy. The former is much preferred and will be our tactic moving forward. Sadly, with all the snowbirders here now, off-peak is a relative term. What I’ve learned from hiking, if something is a little challenging, most people wont bother with it. My hope is to find the hidden gems.
Resource management – or why is the trailer 55 deg Inside?
The next constant battle is managing our resources to maximize our time out having fun or just relaxing in a quiet environment.
Some may not think this is a resource, but managing the space in the gray and black water tanks is huge. If you ever had your toilet back up, you can understand why our waste tank space is a resource we need to manage. Unless you are at a full hook-up campground, these tanks need to be monitored for full. When you are staying at place-even a developed campground-where you have to hook-up and drive to a dump, you do not want to run out of tank space sooner than your planned stay. Use too much water and you have to pick up and leave to find a dump. Use too little water and well, I hope I don’t ever have to find out what that is like. So far we have been able to stretch our tank dumps out to 7 days. I suspect we could stretch this to 11 days if we found a cool boondocking place. Some may find this gross, but after hearing of a couple of horror stories we no longer flush our toilet paper. All paper gets thrown out in the trash!!! What….whaaaaaat!
Fresh water is another big resource to manage. When boondocking we use our 60 gallon fresh water tank and have another 7 gallon container. Our rig has one 35 gallon black tank and two 35 gallon gray tanks for a total of 105 gallons. Carrying extra water is needed to maximize our stay in the bush. We will be buying a couple more 7 gallon jugs that we can also use to grab extra water when we find a free spigot. How do we conserve water when we boondock? We take short Navy showers. Running the water long enough to get wet and rinse, turning the water off when lathering up. We also turn the flow down to the minimum needed to quickly finish the job. We also capture the cold water while waiting for the hot water to arrive at the shower head and we capture the rinse water from dishes. This water is then used for flushing the toilet. If we have extra water available when we know we will be dumping soon and getting fresh water we go nuts on the shower, actually letting the water run and take a Hollywood shower. Oh ya!!!
The electrical system is a heavily managed resource when boondocking. When we are at a campground with a 50 amp hook-up, we go wild. We run the electric space heater, the electric water heater, the coffee maker, maybe watch TV all night and leave some lights on that we don’t absolutely need. When we go off the grid, we go into super conservative mode. I don’t like running the generator and I don’t yet have solar to cover our power usage, so, no more electric space heater, no more electric water heater, one, maybe two hours of TV and we minimize the light usage by only turning on lights when we need to see in a given area. Sadly, no more electric coffee maker. We heat water on the propane stove and use a French Press to brew the coffee. Conserving this way, we can stretch the batteries to 48 hours without a charge before running them too low.
The furnace is a huge, inefficient energy hog of both propane and electric. It does a wonderful job of heating up the outside air as a lot of heat is lost in the exhaust. Before the colder weather arrived, our 30 pound propane tank lasted 7-8 weeks. After the colder temperatures moved in, we require a fill up every 3-4 weeks. In addition, the furnace blower motor is a huge electrical load.
When temperatures drop below freezing, our batteries drain in just 24 hours. Since the furnace is such an energy hog, we set the thermostat to 55 deg and bundle up. On the cold, cold nights, when we are boondocking we use a propane space heater with the windows cracked to provide a more efficient heat source when we are relaxing in the evenings. When we go to bed we use only the furnace. Even if we are at a full hook-up campground, we can not rely on our electrical space heater alone if the outside temperature is below freezing. We have to run the furnace as it provides heat to our undercarriage and prevents our pipes from freezing. We can run a little hotter cabin temperature with using the space heater, but the furnace has to run.
The internet is not as accessible as you might think. A data plan, if you can find service can get eaten up pretty quick. Most of the places we have visited have been pretty remote and cell service is spotty. Some of these remote parks have had free WIFI, but most of the time the connection is painfully slow.
T-Mobile unlimited data has so far been a big joke. The coverage was mostly non-existent until we arrived in the south and also in the west. If we were lucky enough to get 4G, the data seemed to get used way faster than our Verizon plan. If you run through your 4G data, they claim you still have unlimited data, but only slower. We’ll, once you get switched to 2G, you might as well forget doing anything. If it doesn’t timeout during a page load, it is so slow that you will give up on it. Now, something I never gave a minutes notice to living in a big city, is now a big deal. We are always looking for free WIFI when we hit a town. Unfortunately, no more cat videos for us. If we are on cellular it is all business. No GIGs to waste!
Laundry – I’ve never been so in-tune with laundromats before. We can spot them like an eagle spots a mouse. $2.50 a load, whoa, the last place only a $1.75? If we see a nice laundromat, even though we could wait another week, we jump on it.
There have been some nice ones, but for the most part they are not nice places to be. I try not to dwell on what was on other peoples clothes when they threw them in the washer.
The Rig – How are things holding up?
After our near 1st day disaster, things have been going pretty good. Knock on wood we have been able to handle issues as they developed. We purchased the Crusader, a 33 foot, 5th Wheel built by Prime Time Manufacturing, part of Forest River, which is owned by the Berkshire-Hathaway group (Warren Buffet). I’m not so sure Warren checked out this company close enough before he bought it. For the most part we love the rig. They did a great job on styling and the interior looks amazing and is very comfortable. However, after peeling back the facade and looking under the hood, I am very disappointed in the quality of the workmanship. Some things you wonder why in the hell they did it that way. I found one item that could have been a disaster and it makes me wonder what other shortcuts the assemblers took.
The fresh water tank can hold 60 gallons. That’s nearly 500 pounds that needs to be held up while driving down America’s bumpy roads. After hearing a couple of horror stories about tanks falling out, I examined our rig to see how the tanks were held in place. That is when I found that one tank bracket was being held up by only one small screw. They normally used two, but since the bracket was put in on a weird angle, the assembler could not drive the second screw through the chassis and left it as is. Luckily I caught this before our tank fell out on the highway.
Another disappointing thing I found was how the waste tank vent was routed. I was looking for a place to bring in the wiring from solar panels, which people usually run along side the waste tank vent on the roof down into the basement. The installer must have screwed up and rather than go straight up, came up with this crazy kluged up routing with 5-6 bends, even running horizontal across the rig, then back diagonally across to where it eventually comes out of the roof almost directly above where it comes out of the tank. So far, knock on wood, the tank is venting properly.
Unfortunately, none of the tank level sensors work accurately. The black tank always reads full, the gray tanks will give a different reading every time you check it. This sounds like an industry wide problem, so we just deal with it. We have a fairly good idea how much capacity we have in our tanks. This will be one item we will upgrade with an aftermarket sensor.
Knowing how difficult it is to get into a shop, it is not worth our time and money to lose the rig while they try to fix some of these things. We have not been to an RV place yet that hasn’t had a huge backlog of repair work. It’s helpful to be a little handy so you can keep the trip going. We’ve heard horror stories of people losing their rig for several months trying get thinks fixed. Hopefully I can keep this baby rolling!
How do we get along?
There have been many ups and downs. There were times when we said, “forget it”, it’s not worth it. If we can’t get along and make it fun, why bother. Part of it is communication. I speak very clearly and she just doesn’t listen :). Truthfully, I’m mostly to blame as I let the stress of a moment take over and have an overblown reaction. OK, so we missed our turn, if it takes some time to figure out how to get the rig turned around so be it. What is the hurry? I guess legacy from the days of living by the clock.
We need to learn to let things roll off. If something goes wrong and nobody was hurt we can work through it. If someone blows up (mostly me) when the stress is highest, let it roll off. It doesn’t have to define the trip.
Can we make it work? Yeah, it’s another thing that full-time RV’ing requires us to figure out.
Since this article is way too long, here are a few snapshots of what we have learned so far:
- It has been very difficult meeting our food budget. What can I say, we love to eat.
- Our bodies now seem to following the sun. We rarely wake up before the sun comes up.
- California is expensive as hell, almost a $1 more per gallon of gas.
- Campgrounds that participate in the discount club, Passport America are nothing to write home about, but are a cheap place to dump, re-fill and recharge for the next great location.
- Wintering out west is not all warm, sunny days. We have had 12 rainy days the last 4 weeks.
- Need to be flexible. Not all experiences will be spectacular.
- The Salton Sea looks great from a distance, but is quite disgusting up close.
- Boondocking has taught me that I still hang on way to tight to “stuff”. It’s very difficult for me to just drive off and leave our rig out in the middle of nowhere without worrying that we will be cleaned out when we returned.
- Most of the people you meet RV’ing are very friendly.
- We have not met a Canadian Snowbird that hasn’t been super friendly and very engaging.