So I will start by warning you that this post may have more information about camping without power or water hookups than you want. But since this is one of the most discussed topics at the rallies I attend and is one of the questions I get the most, I decided to put it all out there. When I first got my T@G and people talked about Boondocking I had many questions too because the idea of camping for days without power or water brought up images of men coming down from a mountain looking and smelling like they haven’t bathed in months. You know when you read the title of this post, you thought something similar. Because of this preconceived idea, I said it was never going to be for me. However, I have found from other people who do it that there are a lot of ways modern technology allows you to live off the grid and give up very few conveniences. Since most National Parks only have primitive camping options I decided it was something I needed to be open to.
My stay in South Dakota was my first long period of time camping off grid, in one spot. The living off grid actually started in Nebraska, but not on purpose. The campsite I was in technically had electricity, but the receptacle was placed at the front of the vehicle, pretty far away from the site and my power cord would not reach. One of the many issues I had with the Nebraska State Park. This is where I discovered my first two issues I was going to have off grid. The first was, I discovered that my electric blanket apparently had a short. When I tried to turn it on, I got a flashing light that I learned from online research was the error message for a short. It ended up not being too much of issue later, but that night I had left all the windows open and let it get down into the 50’s inside the camper, thinking I could warm it up, so that night was cold. I made a couple stops trying to get another electric blanket but that was not possible in June and people generally looked at me like I was crazy when I asked. The first night in South Dakota it got into the 40’s but I realized I did have a way to warm it up. The mini fridge I put inside actually puts off a lot of heat when it’s on and I had turned it off for travel because it was making it too hot to leave Bella inside on stops. Turning it on kept it warm enough and every day after that I just made sure to close up the camper and hold the heat of the day in before it cooled off and had no issues. If it gets colder in Colorado I can turn the fridge to the heat setting and open the door and I will have to revisit the electric blanket issue later.
Nebraska was also the first sign of issues to come with what I have come to call my high dollar ice chest, aka the NorCold fridge. In theory these are a great idea, in reality they are high tech junk and for camping off grid, just and expensive, heavy ice chest. I noticed the morning we left Nebraska it had the “error” light blinking and the temperature was well above what was set. The night before I had used the battery to charge my laptop, phone and wireless hotspot and had used the lights, so I thought maybe the battery had just gotten really low, since it does have a low battery trip switch. By the time I noticed it, I had already hooked up to the Pathfinder and the battery was charging so I didn’t know how low it had gotten.
When I got to the campground in South Dakota the error light was off and it was completely cooled so I didn’t think much of it. Little did I know, it was just the start. After a the first full day in the campground, the error light staying on and the temperature only getting higher I started doing some research on forums for issues with these refrigerators. Unfortunately my issue is not unique. The short version of the story is that they only run on a battery when the battery is fully charged. The setting to shut off for a “low” battery is basically for anything under 100%. I did find forums where people had luck wiring them directly into the battery but since I will not be camping anytime with no power when it’s extremely hot, I can just manage it as an ice chest. I also found a lot of complaints of them going out very quickly and I do not want to put the effort into rewiring it since it may not last very long anyway.
Once I figured out what was going on I learned to manage it. The first thing I did was plug into the Pathfinder and get the temperature down to something decent and turn it off. Then I just made sure to treat it like and ice chest, open it very little and make sure to get everything in and out quickly. The biggest problem with leaving it on when it won’t actually cool is that is still runs down your battery pretty quickly. This is because the start up of the compressor draws the most current and it was sitting all day starting up, only to get a message immediately, to shut off. After the initial cool down I made sure to take advantage of the sun when it was shining in the site the most, in the morning and evening. During these times I would put the solar panel in the sun, let the battery get charged, turn off everything else, then turn on the fridge. As long as the sun was out enough to keep the battery fully charged, the fridge would come on. However, I don’t want to ruin my battery doing this all day so I would just do it an hour each time to get it cooled, the turn it off. While this is annoying for such an expensive fridge, it was still a manageable solution.
As a whole, power management is your biggest concern off the grid. The battery, solar panel combo worked great but you still have to be careful about how much you run at once. Yes, I could do the math and know exactly what can be run at the same time and for how long, but it’s easier to just try to plan to charge things one at a time. If you do try to do too much at once, you will know. For instance, when I tried to run the fan while charging my laptop and phone at the same time, with lights running, my converter charging the laptop shut down. After that I just made sure to plug in one thing at a time and watch them to make sure I was not wasting power once they were fully charged. Also, if you are charging things through the battery, make sure to unplug them when they are not plugged into the device you are charging. They will still be pulling current and limit the number of things you can do on the battery. One way I try to conserve the battery is with solar lights for outside instead of running the camper ones. It took some experimenting but I have found the ones that plug into mini solar panels work better than the ones with the solar panels built into the light bulb. I have had four with the panels built in and only one that lasted more than a couple charges.
One of the best things this camper has is the aptly named, Fan-Tastic Vent fan, which is wired in to run on the battery. It has been a huge help for this trip in keeping the camper a reasonable temperature during the hottest part of the day. Even though it only gets up the low 80’s, it still gets pretty hot inside with the sun out. Since it can change directions I have used it to pull hot air out, as well as a fan blowing on us while we are in it. It has also been helpful when making stops along the way to keep it cool for Bella inside.
While batteries and solar panels help keep you going with modern conveniences, the big question is always, what about water? How do you bathe, wash dishes, ect.? There are actually many answers to this question but this is what I have found works best for me. I know people say all the time “oh, it’s camping, you don’t need to take a bath.” Um, no, that is not an option for me. Maybe for other people, but for many reasons, I can’t go days without a shower. For a night or two, it’s not too hot, I can use wet wipes and be OK, but after 2-3 days, I need a real bath. First, I just can’t deal with that icky feeling of getting hot and sweaty, especially if you are out hiking and doing things where you get dirty. Second, my skin does not like me to go that long. After a couple days I start to get a heat rash and beginnings of a yeast infection. It is worse if I am out where I have to use sunscreen because I have a slight allergic reaction to sunscreen, but of course I can’t go without it, so it needs to be washed off at the end of the days to not have bigger skin issues.
When I know I’m going somewhere with no water hookup I try to pack as much water as I can before I go. This includes filling large bottles and insulated coolers I have from home, as well as the tank on the T@G. When you know you have a limited amount of water, you learn to conserve it. You will rarely be somewhere with no water at all. In national parks there are faucets throughout the park, you just have to collect and carry it back to your site. While this does provide options, I try to start off with a good supply. I did learn an important lesson about this on this trip though. Be careful where you get your water. I thought I was being smart in Amarillo and decided to top off my tank in the T@G. Only after cooking with it in Kansas did I realize why Bella would not drink it. It must have come directly from a lake or pond and smelled and tasted like fish, which of course ruined the whole tank. I didn’t want to waste it so I used that water just to boil and wash dishes with and for bathing, since the smell isn’t as bad as the taste.
Seeing as this was my first extended stay at a national park, shower options were a big thing. I did research before I went and ended up with what turned out to be a great setup. Since space is at a premium in such a small camper I did not want a bunch of large water containers to have to find a place to fit. I found foldable water buckets, or bags really on Amazon that worked great. They fold down to the size of an umbrella and fit under the bed with my other shower equipment. I have two points of caution with them, first they get heavy, don’t try to fill two and carry at once and do not leave unused water in them over night. You might be thinking “oh mosquitos.” No, that was not the problem. I left water in one after my first shower with the intention of washing my face in the morning. I went to splash water on face and found that a tiny mouse had crawled into and apparently drown. Not how you want to start your morning.
For taking a shower I found a shower head with a mini pump attached, that is actually sold as a way to wash your pets. It is rechargeable on a USB plug, so it’s the perfect option for off grid camping. It had quite a bit of water pressure and provided more than enough water to wash my hair. I found that I could easily take a shower without washing my hair with one bucket or bag and two provided more than enough to wash my hair. The water coming out of the park wells was ice cold, which was great for drinking, but not for bathing, so I dipped out part of the water and warmed it on the stove. All in all, it worked well and I slept great each night feeling clean. This may not be a huge things for everyone camping, but it is for me.
One more change I made this trip was in how I handled the port a potty. BEWARE: This may be a TMI paragraph. The campground had vault toilets but they were not really that close so I knew I would need the port a potty at night. Since water was at a premium and emptying the port a potty on my last trip was not fun, I decided to change how I used it to hopefully make it last longer. Of course, I only use it at night, but I also decided to not run toilet paper down it and throw it away instead. This allowed me to not have to run a lot of water and fill it up faster. When we were packing to leave the Black Hills I found that it was starting to have a smell from being in the sun so I added another chemical pack and it has been fine ever since. Also on this trip, I packed Clorox cleanup wipes to clean it regularly to help prevent smells and just generally keep it sanitary.
The last thing that really has made being off grid easier is the Pathfinder. As much as I said I didn’t need a new vehicle, I am so glad I got one. First, it has been a dream towing the T@G in the hills and the satellite radio has been nice. No searching for a new station every 30-45 minutes and the 70’s on Seven is a great driving soundtrack. The on board navigation and Sirius weather have also been a game changer. There have been many areas where I did not have cell coverage but I always have navigation, so there is no fear of getting lost. The weather app has been good during those times too, especially when it looks like storms are coming in but you have no way to check because you have no cell service. The only issue I have had is ironically, the key battery died. I was all set up at the camp, with the solar panel out, set for no power for a few days and got the low key battery warning signal. When it says low, it means it’s almost dead and by the time I decided to go to town to get a new one, it would not work at all. Thankfully my cell phone was charged and I had coverage to search how to start it, since it’s push button start, with a dead key battery. If you ever need to know, you touch the key to the start button and it sends a signal to let you start it.
All in all I’m very pleased how my first leg of the trip has gone and how the T@G and all my modifications have worked out. It definitely opens up many doors for future travel when you know you can be fine off the grid for a few days.