Our recent posts have been about the places we’re going and things we’re seeing. This post changes that up a bit and focuses more on our day to day living experience. This time we’ll cover the following topics:
- Deciding where to go and what to do
- Finding campgrounds
- Getting Around
- Setup and tear down
- At the campsite
- Chores (shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry)
- Staying comfortable (not too cold, not too hot)
- Vehicle maintenance (fuel, fluids, tires, etc.)
- Pictures and Video – our usual practices
- Internet and TV
- US Mail
Where to go
Deciding where to go is a blessing and a curse. The blessing, of course, is that we have lots of freedom to go to interesting places. The curse is that we are constantly having to make choices AND find and book campsites.
The October 1 start of our trip was perhaps a month late given our desire to visit dozens of places between Boston and Florida. Rain and two nasty cold fronts chased us away from the Asheville area where there were many state parks on our list. First we headed west to get through a multi-day rainy spell, then southeast when the recent record cold wave passed through the southeast. Even in Savannah it got down close to freezing.
Lesson leave a substantial temperature margin. If you want daily highs to be at least 60 degrees, go where the average high is at least 70.
In the months before departure Mark started accumulating “places of interest” using google maps. There are many “best of” articles that identify interesting places. Best state and national parks, most beautiful place in each state, 10 underrated cities, etc. Each time one caught his interest he’d use the google maps “save” feature to save it in a map for the trip. Opening the map periodically shows us what points of interest are nearby or on our expected path.
What to do
For “stuff to do” we do the obvious: google for “things to do in xxx”. This helps us decide what cities to visit, and how many days we think we’ll need there. In the east our travels have been somewhat city-oriented. We expect that will change some as we head west and visit the great national parks and forests out there.
Our average travel distance between places is about 100 miles. We don’t like driving more than about 250 miles in a day. If it’s a little over, we might just push though, but if it’s longer, we plan a stopover (boondock or campground near the highway).
Finding campgrounds can be a pain. Some common disqualifiers:
- No water or electric service
- Too expensive
- Too shabby (run down, bad reviews, all paved)
- Too far from the city we’re visiting
To identify options, we use a bunch of websites and apps. “Campendium”, “Allstays”, “Passport America”, “Ultimate public campgrounds”, and plain old google have all yielded useful campground information. Campendium is nice because it filters out sites that don’t meet our criteria (RV site with water and 30 amp electric) and shows options on a map and in a list with average recent price paid and average review. But it’s not as complete as Allstays. So we combine apps.
Booking has been mixed. Many state and regional parks use a system called “Reserve America”. Thank goodness! One login, site search, booking and payment, even a “notify me if a spot becomes available” feature. We don’t like the hassle of signing up on other reservations systems, so that means calling, which often restricts us to booking between 9am-6pm.
Since we have been “blowing with the wind” we often book quite late, and don’t even know where we’ll be staying in 2 days. That can make the “campground full” problem worse. Naturally there’s a competition for sites. If it’s cheap, nice, and in a good location, it’s probably full. So we compromise. The price can also be tricky. It might be higher than on the website, they might not honor discounts or have complex restrictions, they might have minimum stays, they might charge extra fees, or or or..
In contrast, “boondocking” – free overnight parking without hookups – has been quite easy to find. There’s always Cracker Barrel or Walmart near enough to our path. We’ve boondocked 4 times now, but may start doing it more since it has worked out well so far.
As you might realize, the constant searching for and booking RV accommodations can be a time consuming chore. Fortunately that’s offset by the fun of anticipating the next adventure.
Walking – we’ve been walking *a lot* even more than back home in Somerville where walking all over town was a way of life. Trails, parks, cities, attractions have all been great exercise.
Driving is an whole new adventure. Wandah is *big* so we have to frequently be on guard for streets that are steep, narrow, height restricted, have low overhanging trees, on and on. We have generally not let the RV’s size stop us from going into cities. We do some planning, and have learned some tricks for mostly staying out of trouble. There’s still the occasional jam where some skilled maneuvering or backing up is required, but it’s manageable.
We did have a “hold your breath” moment at the Durham airport. We came to an arched overpass that was marked 11′ 0″ which would be one inch to low. We really had no way to turn around without causing a major incident. Mark took a calculated gamble that the very center of the arch would probably be at least 11′ 1″ so we drove right down the center line slowly and hoped for the best. And it was fine. Whew!!
Biking has been a real pleasure. Our ebikes make all the difference when we find ourselves climbing hills or going on unpaved trails, or just going very long distances. The motorized assist feels like a super power, and we seek out opportunities to ride just for the fun of it. Mostly the riding has been for pleasure rather than utility (e.g. going where the RV can’t) but we expect that won’t always be the case. We have helmets in case there’s substantial on-road travel, and saddlebags, e.g. to carry stuff if needed.
It is a bit of work to use the bike cover. 6 straps, a drawstring, and 2 zippers. It takes a good 5 minutes just to put it on or take it off.
- Wandah is narrow enough that we can park in a normal width space, but long enough that we need either two in a row for street parking, or two head-to-head spots in a parking lot. If our RV was any bigger it would be much more difficult to find parking.
- We’ve had good luck finding parking at city parks, municipal lots, and museums. Supermarkets and shopping malls are easy, too. In larger areas, we’ve learned to check Visitor Center parking lots, which may have RV specific spots. The Charleston, SC, visitor center parking ramp even had dedicated indoor RV spaces – that was a first! We also figured out that we can use a car-sized spot if it has a flat area behind it. The back five feet of the RV just overhangs the flat area and we fit just fine! Occasionally, we have asked local police officers or lot attendants for parking advice and they have been very helpful in directing us to good spots.
Setup and tear down
After just a few weeks the routine became… routine. Seven weeks in and it’s almost second nature.
Every time we arrive at our campsite:
- Fetch the EMS (Electical Management System – an electric line analyzer/protector) from the basement (an under-RV storage compartment), plug it in to the 30 amp socket at the supply post and flip the 30A breaker on.
- Extend the 30 amp power line from its basement compartment and plug it into the EMS. If the EMS is happy with the power supply after monitoring it for 2 minutes 15 seconds, it will let current flow to the RV.
- Connect pressure limiter and inline filter to the water supply. Fetch and connect the fresh water hose. Run water for a while to make sure it’s fresh. Turn off water supply. Feed hose through basement pass thru and connect to RV water inlet (same basement door as for the power cord). Turn on water supply. [Adding quick-connects to the hose and filter was a game changer. Connecting/disconnecting the hoses would be very annoying otherwise.]
- Deploy stabilizers. These keep the RV steady when we’re moving about inside. They can also do minor leveling. On rare occasions the site is not level enough, so before using the stabilizers we drive up onto leveling blocks that we carry for that purpose.
- Open pass thru for power line and close up basement doors.
- Turn auto stair retraction “off”, which means the stairs stay extended when the door closes/opens.
- Deploy the slide out. Put the key in the ignition and turned it on, put the emergency brake on, then push a button to slide out the slide (about 10 seconds). Wait for “click” that indicates that it’s completely out.
That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? It’s not really too bad. Mark does all the outside stuff in under 5 minutes.
Tear down checklist – to prevent mishaps
It all has to be done in reverse when we leave the site. And leaving is more “dangerous” than arriving because driving away when connected to water or power, or with slide, steps or awning out can be disastrous, so we have a departure checklist. Most items are “always” but some only apply when we empty the holding tanks (more on this later). Here’s the actual list we use:
Shades up, windows closed * skylight closed * awning in * all stuff stowed and secured * heat, hot water and gas off * fans and lights off * antenna off * flush black water * flush grey water * cap sewer both ends * rinse sewer hose * turn off water and release pressure * disconnect water from RV * drain and stow hoses * bikes secured, “foamed” and covered * slide in * stabilizers up * disconnect power * close hose and power pass-thrus * lock all basement locks * steps on * destination in GPS * brake off * legos stowed.
Some cryptic items: “antenna off” – there is a power antenna. Since it draws power, it should be turned off when we’re not plugged in. “Cap sewer both ends” – close off the sewer pipes both in the ground and on the RV. “bikes.. ‘foamed'” – a brake lever rubs on the back of the RV when on the rack, so we use a chunk of foam “noodle” to prevent damage. “Legos stowed” – the leveling blocks look like legos.
The inside checklist tasks consist mostly of securing items and switching off systems. Several of these are listed above. Basically, we want to secure anything that could fall, move around, or pop open while we’re driving. We make sure all cabinets/drawers are tightly latched, and we use velcro and rubber mats strategically to keep stuff in place. Lori’s favorite tool is what she calls the “refrigerator baby gates” which are used to keep the fridge contents from sliding around or tipping over.
So that’s the setup and tear down. Like setting up, it sounds like a lot to do, but it often takes just 10 or so minutes, depending how settled in we are.
At the campsite
How about while we’re at the campsite? Here are some things we deal with:
- EMS: The EMS is quite sensitive. We’ve had the power go off in the middle of the night because of unstable power. It can be a hard decision whether to leave the power off, or gamble by plugging in directly. Most of the time bypassing the EMS would be fine, but the consequences of getting a bad power spike could be frying $7k worth of wiring and electronics. We have not risked it.
- Breakers: It’s not hard to trip a circuit breaker. Two power hungry appliances running at the same time can do it. Space heater on high plus microwave for example. Toaster plus instant pot. It’s still pretty rare. Two breakers have tripped in 6 weeks. The panel is easy to get to. I’m just glad it’s not blown fuses. I have replacement fuses too, but it would be more of a hassle.
- 12V vs 120V:
- Lights, USB, Antenna, Fans – all 12V. They draw power from the batteries.
- TVs, Microwave, Heat Pump, Water Heater, wall sockets – 120V. When plugged in to “shore power” (external power) they use that. But you can turn on the inverter (a device that converts 12v DC battery power to 120V AC) and run them that way. Some 120V appliances such as the heat pump, are very power hungry and will drain the batteries quickly. Use sparingly.
- Refrigerator: Automatically switches between 12V and 120V.
- Shore Power: 30A supply that we plug in to. Powers everything and charges the batteries too. We like being on shore power because it’s carefree.
- Generator: Just like shore power, but we create it ourselves with a built-in propane gas generator. Unfortunately it would burn the entire propane supply in about 20 hours of use, plus it’s kind of loud, so we almost never use it. I would likely need to use it to charge the batteries if we were to boondock two days in a row. That hasn’t happend yet.
- Solar: It’s a nice trickle charge for the batteries. As long as the sun is shining it will power the refrigerator, but a day’s sunshine is not quite enough to power the fridge for 24 hours. I.e. the battery would deplete over a few days with solar only. We’re considering adding more solar and bigger batteries so they could fully power the fridge. At least in sunny places.
- Battery: 2 deep cycle batteries. I was surprised they’re old school batteries that need distilled water added periodically. Doh! Might be an upgrade item. We get used to closely watching the voltage display when boondocking, worrying about the batteries running low. So far so good. Oddly there is no battery “meter” showing how much power is left. Instead you need to translate the reported voltage into a percentage. 12.7v = 90%, 12.5v=90%.. down to 12.2v=60% and 12.06=50%. It is “bad” (potentially damaging to the batteries) to go below 50% of remaining capacity. That’s what we’re trying to avoid of course.
- Water Sources
- External water supply: A typical garden hose connects the external supply to RV. A pressure limiter and filter are added to insure clean water at a safe pressure.
- Fresh water tank: A 32 Gallon tank allows us to carry a supply of fresh water.
- Heating water
- Water can be heated electrically, by propane, or both at the same time. We use electric water heating almost exclusively. It takes less than 10 minutes to get hot. Actually the water gets crazy hot. We have to mix in lots of cold to even be able to touch it. I think that’s why we’ve never “run out” of hot water even with this RVs relatively tiny hot water tank. It takes very little hot water mixed in for the water to be hot enough for showers or dish washing.
- Freezing temperatures
- In very cold weather there is a risk of water lines freezing. Down to about 20 degrees it’s fine just to disconnect the external supply and leave the hot water heater on. We’ve gotten down to 33 degrees, but didn’t disconnect. Below 20 degrees there are more extreme measures to take, such as putting a heat lamp in the basement where the water valves are, or in extreme cold, draining the water lines and adding antifreeze to the gray and black water tanks. No thank you.
- Water use
- A valve lets us switch between “normal” mode (external water supply goes direct to RV water lines) and “tank fill” mode (external supply fills the fresh water tank). We generally carry about 10 gallons of fresh water in the tank so we can get a drink, wash dishes or flush. If we wanted to take showers when boondocking we could, but would want more like 20 gallons in the tank.
- Pressure: when not connected to an external water supply, water pressure must be created by a pump. We need to turn on the pump manually in that case. We generally only turn on the pump while drawing water because the pump uses battery power.
- Conserving water: we were both surprised how easy it was to change to a conservation mindset without feeling deprived. We either take fast showers, or turn off the water between getting wet and rinsing off. It’s not bothersome at all. Dishes can be washed with a fraction of the water normally used by wiping them clean before washing. Doing the washing with the water off, and doing the rinsing all at once.
- Leveling (stabilizers, blocks)
- As mentioned we have leveling blocks. They do look like legos. You can use 1, 3, or 6 under each wheel. They sell them in 10 packs. Go figure. I just want 2 more so I can do 6 under each. But you can’t buy singles. Doh! Some people add auto-levelers. Push a button and these pistons drop pads down and self-level the RV. Nice, but expensive and heavy. Not worth it I think.
- Slide Out
- The so-called “slide out” or “tip out” is pretty simple. It operates by a switch. You just need to be level enough that it doesn’t over-stress the motors. Also, avoid getting stuff pinched in it. Not really a problem. It’s amazing how much bigger the RV feels with the slide out.
- Water: The Black and the Gray
- Gray water tank: 40 gallons. Filled from shower and 2 sinks. People don’t leave the gray water drain open, even when there’s a sewer connection. You wait until it’s getting pretty full, then dump it all at once.
- Black water tank: 32 gallons. For the toilet. Each time you completely empty the toilet, you must “prime” it before using it again. Priming consists of adding a couple gallons of water plus a liquid meant to control odor and help stuff break down. We really like the RV toilet! It uses a tiny amount of water and just seems simpler and more sensible than the ones at home.
- You always dump black before gray, because the gray water cleans out the hose after the black stuff has run through it.
- Many times there’s no sewer connection at each site. No problem. There’s virtually always a “dump station”. At check out time we’ve seen a waiting line of 3 or even 4 vehicles, but that’s rare. It takes less than 5 minutes to do the whole job.
- We’re experiencing a wide variety of new supermarkets. As you would imagine, they vary in price and quality. Cheapest so far: Aldi’s. Krogers are nice but expensive. Publix are in the middle. The one Piggly Wiggly we went to was very poor and had multiple empty shelves but we don’t imagine they’re all that way. We have also bought groceries at Walmart. They’re not great but sometimes it’s whats most convenient.
- Breakfast for Mark is always the same. Cereal, yogurt, and fruit. Lori’s breakfast is often a hard-boiled egg (we cook 10 at a time in the instant pot) and fruit.
- Camper’s Cold Brew Mark likes cold brewed coffee in the morning. The full process may get documented eventually, but the shorthand version is: 1) Coarse grind coffee beans by hand 2) dump ground coffee into water jug with 1/2 gallon of water. 3) Shake jug occasionally over 12-14 hours. 4) Filter with filter cone and paper filters. 5) Refrigerate. Makes enough for 2 weeks.
- Lunch in the RV is typically sandwiches, salads, or leftovers. Mark really missed toasted bread for his sandwiches. After some unsatisfactory toasting experiments via the convection oven (grill setting) and stove (open flame), he gave up and bought a $10 toaster. Lori was not keen on yet another appliance, but to Mark it’s well worth the extra space to have toast sometimes.
- Dinner: We have relied heavily on our 3qt instant pot mini. So far we’ve made beef stew, turkey chili, chicken soup, chicken broccoli Alfredo, spinach/sausage soup, chicken thighs with rice, and spaghetti & meatballs. A particular virtue to the instant pot, besides speed, is that it is sealed when cooking. That means minimal smells and moisture are released into the limited confines of the RV. Plus Lori makes Mark take the pot outside to release the pressure! :-)
- We’ve enjoyed some delicious meals out, especially in areas that are known for regional specialties – such as Memphis BBQ.
- We are mostly avoiding fast food, but occasionally we have been tempted by the convenience. Mark, who rarely eats fast food at home, has gone to Taco Bell, Popeye’s (spicy chicken sandwich!), Hardee’s etc. Lori, tends to eat leftovers instead.
Staying comfortable (not too cold, not too hot)
- We have 3 heating methods, each with pros and cons.
- RV propane furnace. Pros: fast, quiet, doesn’t require external electric supply. Cons: some smell, some humidity added to the air, and we don’t like the cost and hassle of refilling the propane tank.
- RV heat pump. Pros: fast, free. Cons: noisy, requires electric hookup. Doesn’t work below 35 degrees.
- Space heater (our purchase). Pros: quiet, free, no smell, no humidity. It’s not super fast but we just keep it running and it can warm the RV from 60F to 70F in 15 minutes on high.
- We have heated almost exclusively with the space heater. We started out using the heat pump, but it is loud enough that when it kicks on in the night it wakes Lori up. We have found out that most RVers buy electric space heaters.
Staying cool – fans, heat pump, windows
- So far this hasn’t come up much. There is an A/C which we’ll use when needed. It is loud and requires external power. Frankly, it’s much easier to get warm (via blankets) than get cool at night, so we’re hoping to avoid too much hot weather.
- The RV has 3 fans: in the bathroom, in the ceiling, and in the heat pump (fan mode). There are also windows of course. We hope this will be enough to keep it from getting too stuffy.
- We also have USB fans that we can aim at us while sleeping. They make a huge difference.
Staying clean (showers, laundry)
- Showering in the RV: This is surprisingly pleasant. We’ve never run out of hot water, and the required water conservation doesn’t feel like deprivation. Because the shower is tiny, it still feels warm and cozy even if you turn the water off while soaping/lathering. An alternative is to run the warm water at a very low rate (just above a trickle) which avoids the on/off. Rinsing really only requires a tiny fraction of the water that we’d normally use.
- Campground showers: Only Mark has used campground showers so far, and only when they’re close by. It’s often as much about saving gray water tank capacity (potentially avoiding an extra gray water dump) as it is about having a long hot shower.
Laundry – laundromat life.
- We carry about 2 weeks worth of clothes, and do laundry about every 12 days. Using the laundromat has also been easier than expected. We add it to a travel day so it doesn’t interfere with fun stuff. A nice thing about the laundromat is the ability to do everything at once. We usually have 3 washer loads (25-30 minutes) and then 2 dryer loads (30-40 minutes). This makes the entire process, from arriving at the laundromat, to driving away with clean and folded cloths, around 2 hours, and we may spend an hour of that eating lunch. Not bad!
Vehicle maintenance (fuel, fluids, tires, etc.)
There are several items of regular monitoring and maintenance required.
- Fuel: Diesel only, 10% biofuel max. It has been pretty easy to find diesel fuel, though it is significantly more expensive than gas, as much as 65 cents per gallon more! We have paid between $2.59 and $3.26 per gallon. The tank holds 26 gallons. The fuel light comes on at 1/4 tank. That means we tend to put around 20 gallons in the tank at each fill. At 16 mpg, that’s 16 * 20 = 320 miles between fills.
- Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF). In the last decade or so, new diesel engines must have a pollution control device that uses a fluid you have to add periodically. As everyone knows, urea and de-ionized water can be used to perform a selective catalytic reduction of nitrogen oxides to water and nitrogen, i.e. a good old (NH2)2CO + 4 NO + O2 → 4 N2 + 4 H2O + 2 CO2 and (NH2)2CO + 6 NO2 → 7 N2 + 8 H2O + 4 CO2 reaction. We recently had to do our first DEF fill. You buy a 2.5 gallon jug (Walmart and Home Depot carry it) and pour it in, very carefully. It’s nasty stuff, and leaves a residue on anything it touches. Fortunately we can go 5000 miles per DEF fill. Some truck stops even have DEF pumps. I’m looking forward to that as an alternative to lugging the jug. The government is so hard-core about this system, that if you run out of DEF, your vehicle will go into what’s called “limp mode” which limits you to under 15mph. That wouldn’t be fun. There’s plenty of warning that you’re running low, so this shouldn’t become a problem.
- Tire pressure: 6 tires, check weekly for the correct 61 PSI. One hassle is that the dual rear tires (“duallys” in the lingo) require a reverse chuck for the outside tire. I had to rig up a connector from air pump to a reverse chuck. A slow leak in one tire has forced me to check the problematic tire every few days and add air (with a Ryobi portable air pump I bought for the RV).
- Battery acid level: check monthly and add distilled water as needed.
- Generator: run monthly to test
- Fresh water tank: periodic sanitization with chlorine bleach. This is an annoying multi-hour process. Not looking forward to doing it again.
- Engine oil, filter, etc. Amazingly, our Mercedes Sprinter 3500 engine goes 20,000 miles between oil changes. Wow!
Pictures and Video – our usual practices
- Lori has only her phone, takes lots of photos and videos. Mostly she posts to Instagram, but adds some photos to the blog posts. Mark has been taking 90% of his pictures with his DJI Osmo Pocket video camera. For photos it’s somewhat limited compared to our DSLR, but is so easy to carry it has become the default.
- Mark syncs video and photos from the video camera to his Mac to edit them with iMovie then uploads them to YouTube for posting on the blog. iMovie is a bare-bones video editor, but it’s so easy to use that it may continue to be the editor of choice anyway.
Internet and TV
- We thought we’d found a great solution with a Verizon Jetpack Mifi hotspot. It lets us connect every device: phones, laptops, tablet, and Chromecast. The Verizon salesman swore there was no throttling even after Mark asked repeatedly. Guess what? Throttling. After a measly 15G data per month, hardly enough to watch one show every night.
- Fortunately Mark found out hat we can get 30G hotspot on each of our phones for $20/month, and by doing that the MiFi is only $10/month for its 15G. We’re going to try to get by with 75G total.
- If that doesn’t work for us, we could switch to visible.com which offers unlimited 4G LTE including mobile hotspot on Verizon’s network – all for $40/month/phone.
TV / Video
- TV: Most days, the only TV we watch is The Late Show (Colbert). Near populated areas, over-air TV reception has been pretty good. When we’re in state parks, it’s not so good. Some people get satellite TV, but we’re not keen on that. We’ll have to see how bad it gets. Maybe we’ll adapt and even enjoy less evening TV!
- Video: Mostly streaming Netflix. We also have streamed some network shows that we missed during the week.
- When we thought we had unlimited mobile hotspot, we used it with Chromecast to watch Netflix but it used up our data within days. I’m not sure what the solution is here. It looks like Chromecast won’t connect to the phone without separate WiFi.
- We have a mail forwarding service called MyRVMail. All our mail gets forwarded to a collection point in Florida where the outside is scanned, and we get notified and can see it. Once we know there’s mail for us we can 1) have it sent to us 2) opened and scanned or 3) shredded.
- It’s great that MyRVMail exists, but it’s still a a bit of a hassle. We can’t always tell if something is junk or needs to be scanned or sent. Some things they won’t (or aren’t allow to) scan, like medical test results. When we do decided to have something sent, we have to figure out where we can pick it up. So far we haven’t been in one place long enough to get any mail. When we are, the common practice is to have sent “General Delivery” to a post office where we can pick it up. I’m about to try that for the first time.
Well! If you’re still with us, your endurance is impressive! Do you have the patience of a saint? Are you really really interested in the nitty gritty of RV living? Or maybe you just miss us. We miss you! Next time, back to the travel stuff. Ta ta for now!