Cooking without gas (or charcoal!)

I like trying new things as we travel in our Airstream. Last week, at Alumapalooza, I saw an earnest Welsh man named Davey Jones (really) demonstrating something I’ve never seen before: a solar cooker that actually makes sense.

I have seen solar ovens before. Back in 2005 at the Florida State Rally I spotted someone cooking with a giant solar oven (pictured at right) but I was unimpressed. Although the oven had room for a large pot, it was far too big to be practical for our style of travel. When deployed, it looked like an NASA probe bound for Jupiter. I dismissed it as an interesting but quirky niche item for extremists.

Thirteen years later, I’m not so quick to dismiss the power of the sun. After all my fixed base home and my Airstream are powered by solar panels, and I love them. At home the sun provides 110% of our annual power needs, and solar panels can keep us unplugged for weeks during the summer in our Airstream.

Davey was showing off the new GoSun line of solar cookers at Alumapalooza. (They’re called “cookers” because they can be stove, oven, broiler, steamer, or water-heater depending on how you use them.) Even in hazy Ohio sunlight he was baking up cinnamon rolls and frying bacon all day long. I’m not sure if I was more impressed at the cooking or the cleverness of his olfactory marketing.

The secret of the GoSun cookers is the vacuum tube at the center. It’s basically a Thermos bottle with one-way mirrored glass. Sunlight goes in, converts to infrared as it passes through the glass, and the heat is trapped by the vacuum bottle. This is a quantum leap from the big wood box of 13 years ago.

That means that with the GoSun cookers you don’t need a huge reflector area to make a lot of heat. The reflectors on the GoSun cookers is tiny compared to the giant Sun Oven pictured above, and yet the inside of the vacuum tube can get to 550 F. (Most of the time it runs 200-360 F.) The amazing thing is that you can grab the outside of the glass tube with your hands and it won’t even be hot. So you can’t burn yourself on it.

The smallest model, the GoSun “Go” (pictured below) is so portable it fits easily in a daypack, and weighs just 2 pounds. It’s perfect for meals for one person, or two people depending on what you cook. The next size up, the GoSun “Sport” (pictured above) is still very packable, and can make enough hot food for 3-4 people.

We got the “Go” model to try it out before adding it to the Airstream Life Store (as I do with every product we carry), and tried it out in a friend’s driveway a few days later. I decided to bake some apples for my first trial, and sweeten them with cinnamon, xylitol, and nutmeg.

Whatever you cook has to fit into the cylindrical cooking tray. In the case of my apples, that meant peeling them and cutting into chunks. Then I just put the apples into the tray, slid it into the cooker, and placed it in the sun.

The cleverness of the GoSun design started to become apparent when I did this. The hardshell case of the “Go” model is zippered, so deploying it is simply a matter of unzipping. A brace holds the two sides of the case open and the reflectors are built right in. There’s even a little dial attached to the tube to make it easy to locate the optimal angle to the sun, and an adjustable folding stand attached to the case props the whole thing up.

Once you slide the food tray in and point it at the sun, your work is done. After a few minutes in full sun the interior will be hot enough to start cooking. Steam begins to waft out of the end of the vacuum tube. You can take a peek at progress by sliding the food tray out for a moment.

My big mistake was not believing what I saw. I really couldn’t believe that the apples were cooking, so I left it in the sun for much longer than necessary, and when I finally removed them they were basically applesauce. Delicious applesauce, sure, but not quite what I had planned for. Fortunately, I had prepared three apples and could only fit 1.5 apples worth in the first batch, so did a second batch and cut my cooking time in half.

Those apples came out perfectly, softened but still firm. I mixed the chunks with the applesauce from the first batch and had a really great dessert for the next two days. (It would have been perfect on ice cream but I ate it all straight.)

Now, you may be thinking “I already have a stove and oven in my Airstream, so why do I need this?”  I thought the same thing at first. Then I realized, a big part of the joy of travel and camping is cooking outdoors for family and friends. Lots of people carry charcoal or propane grills. Others carry Dutch Ovens. You don’t need them but it’s so much more fun to prepare a meal slowly, outdoors, and while you’re waiting for that delicious slow food you can enjoy talking with your friends.

I particularly like that the GoSun cookers come with little silicone baking trays so that you can make cupcakes and such (I used them for the apples, too), and can be configured to make hot drinks. This gives them a lot of versatility. They’re also easy to clean; you just slide out the stainless steel tray and wash it. GoSun includes a bottle brush to clean inside of the vacuum tube if it gets a little food stuck to it, but most of the time that’s not necessary. So cleanup and packing took me about two minutes.

The only limitation I spotted with the “Go” model is that the food capacity is pretty small, best for one person or a small side dish (or a topping like I made). I think we’ll upgrade to the “Sport” model for future cookouts, and that way we can make things for all three of us. If you get the Sport, be sure to get the “Pro Pack” so that you have all the accessories you need including a case.

If you have one of these, please put in a comment below to tell me your favorite thing you’ve made in it. I’m looking forward to further experiments with our portable solar cooker, and your ideas would be welcome!

GoSun cookers in the Airstream Life Store with free shipping

Keeping your data safe while you travel

We spend about five to six months a year traveling in our Airstream, which means the laptop computers come along and backing up data on the road is part of our routine. If we didn’t back up data periodically, we could lose a lot of important business information and priceless photos from our travels. But securing our data is not as simple as it might seem.

There are handy online services that will automatically back up your data, and that’s convenient. For an RV traveler, however, these services can suck up all the data on your cell phone plan if you’re using a cellular hotspot to connect to the Internet. So we rely on portable USB hard drives for our backups—the “old fashioned” manual method.

These portable hard drives are pretty cheap and easy. Easy to use (I like Carbon Copy Cloner, but Apple’s Time Machine and many other good software packages are out there), and easy to store in a plastic tub between backups. If you have a small amount of data to back up, you can even use a big USB flash drive.

But imagine that one day your Airstream is in an accident, and as a result both the laptop and the backup drive are destroyed. You’re still out of luck. For that reason, I keep a second backup drive at home, locked in a safe, and I make a point of backing up all three laptops to it before we depart on a long trip. Having the second backup physically distant from the Airstream means it’s very unlikely we’ll lose all our data after a catastrophe.

The other major risk is losing your laptop, tablet, or phone. These days those devices have considerable potential to ruin your life. Forget about “identity theft”—think about the damage someone could do just with access to your devices. People often don’t appreciate the tremendous amount of personal data that can be obtained just from access to their email. And once a hacker has access to email, it’s usually not long before they’ve engineered access to social media accounts, shopping accounts, credit cards, and more.

To protect against this risk, always protect all of your devices with a password. There’s nothing quite like that sinking feeling when you think about all the private information on your device—emails, passwords, social media accounts—after it’s gone. The simple 4-digit default passwords offered on phones and tablets are at least better than nothing, but the best passwords are long. That old advice about having an upper case letter, a lower case letter, a symbol, a number, and at least 8 characters is somewhat outdated and tends to result in passwords like “4GflzbY#” that humans can’t easily remember, so try a “pass phrase” instead, like “I love 3 turtles”. That will stop the casual attacker and you probably won’t forget it.

If you do have trouble remembering passwords, or you have too many of them (like all of us), try a password manager. This software, available from several sources, allows you to store all your passwords in a single place, protected by encryption and a master password. It’s much more secure than writing your passwords on a piece of paper and sticking it in a drawer or taping it to the computer screen like I’ve seen several people do. Personally, with all the web-based services I use, I couldn’t function without a password manager.

For computers, always encrypt the entire hard drive. This feature is built into all Apple devices but you have to activate it on a laptop (look for FileVault settings). Whole disk encryption is available for Windows computers too, and well worth the peace of mind if your laptop ever takes a walk. These days it doesn’t slow down your computer to encrypt the hard drive, so there’s really no reason not to use it. Make sure the backups are encrypted too!

“Find my phone” services are another great tool for travelers. If you drop your phone, this may be your only chance at getting it back. Again, Apple has built it in (“Find My iPhone”) but it has to be activated using your Apple ID. We’ve used this feature more than once to recover lost phones.

Finally, if you do business while you travel, get a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It’s a service that encrypts all of your web traffic and routes it through proxy servers.  This has two impacts: (1) It anonymizes your location (which may not be something you care about); (2) It makes it impossible for other people to snoop on your Internet activity. Although much of Internet traffic is encrypted anyway (like websites with the prefix “https://”), there are still too many times where your information is transmitted “in the clear”. A hacker in a campground can “sniff” the shared wifi and pick up information that can then be used to hack into your accounts.

With a VPN, the hackers are locked out. A good VPN costs $35-80 per year. Don’t be tempted by free VPNs, since they sometimes make money selling customer information.

Got a tip for personal data security? Put in a comment below!

Hot weather travel tips

Maybe it’s because I’m in Arizona right now and the temperatures are already hitting the nineties every day, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about summer travel. For the most part it’s fun to plan where we will go and think about the great things we’ll see, but for us, traveling in the summer is a necessity in order to escape the unrelenting southern Arizona heat.

With an Airstream it’s usually easy to get out of the heat—after all, we have wheels—but there are times when it’s inescapable for a few days, like when we are crossing the Great Plains states on our way to Alumapalooza in late May. Many times we’ve been crossing Kansas or Oklahoma or Missouri and we’ve been nearly steamed to death in what the meteorologists call “oppressive humidity.”

So even if you plan to drive away from the heat, you need strategies ready in case the heat follows you. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned over the years:

First off, if you have delicate pets or humans traveling with you, don’t mess around: get a campground with 30-amp or 50-amp power and plug in. This may necessitate a change in plans and you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be, but the blessing of cool air blowing in from the A/C will make it all worthwhile.

I find that a lot people are surprised to discover the limitations of a single air conditioner on a 30-amp plug. If you’ve got a newer Airstream with dual air conditioners (and a 50-amp plug) you can deal with just about any level of heat. But a single A/C definitely has limits. The A/C will generally cool the incoming air by about 20 degrees, but that doesn’t mean your trailer will be 20 degrees cooler if it’s sitting in the sun. In our 30-footer, for example, a sunny 100-degree day means we’ll experience indoor temperatures in the low 80s, at least until the sun goes down.

So it’s useful to park in shaded campsites, preferably not in asphalt parking lots (green surroundings = cooler air), and be realistic in your expectations. If the trailer is over 100 degrees inside when you arrive, it’s going to take a while before the air conditioner can remove all the latent heat that is stored in every object in the interior.

To cope, try to spend the few couple of hours somewhere else (like a restaurant or visitor center) while the air conditioner does its job. Don’t even dream of using the stove or oven—the burners can output much more heat than the air conditioner can remove. If you have a microwave use it instead, or go out for dinner, or cook outside, or eat a cold dinner.

The keys to surviving a night in the heat are water and electricity:

Water, because you need to stay hydrated and a quick cool shower once or twice a day will go a long way toward keeping your body comfortable. In desert boondocking situations you can even soak towels and place them strategically around the trailer for evaporative cooling. We bring a few gallons of extra drinking water when we’re heading into a boondocking site in the summer.

Electricity, because you’ll use a lot more battery power than usual with the vent fans running constantly. A single Fantastic Vent (the kind installed as original equipment in Airstreams including motorhomes) might draw about an amp of power, which isn’t much for short durations. But with two of those fans running around the clock for a weekend, you’re looking at something in the region of 90 amp-hours, which is going to overwhelm the typical 2-battery setup in an Airstream trailer. You’ll need solar panels or a generator, and/or a much larger set of batteries.

 

The Zip Dee awning that came with your Airstream trailer (or the equivalent awning on a Nest, Basecamp, or Interstate) can make a big difference if it’s on the south or west side when you park. Definitely deploy the awning as much as you can to shade that side of the rig.

A Zip Dee Solar Shade is a huge help too, when the sun is beating down on that side of the trailer, especially when the entry door is facing west.  The Solar Shade broadens the shady patch in the afternoon, when it really matters, and gives you a nice outdoor space that you otherwise wouldn’t enjoy on a hot day.

In an Interstate motorhome, you may find that the Mercedes dashboard air conditioning isn’t quite enough when traveling on the highway on a 100+ degree day, especially for any back-seat passengers. Sometimes you need to fire up the onboard generator so that you can run the roof air conditioner as you go. It might seem weird but it’s OK to do this.

When you’re parked, you will probably discover that you don’t need to turn on the water heater. Often the fresh water hose lying in the sun, combined with warm water in the tank, will be plenty warm for showers. But there’s a downside to this: not all water hoses are rated for “hot water” use. Cheap-o hoses made of PVC or other plastics may leach chemicals when laying in the sun all day filled with hot water. That’s why we switched to drinking water hoses that are rated for hot water use.

Keep an eye on your refrigerator as well. Often, RV refrigerators don’t have great ventilation and so heat can build up in the refrigerator compartment (the space behind the refrigerator). When the air temperature around the refrigerator’s cooling fins approaches 100 degrees—which is very common in the enclosed compartment, even when the outside temp is much lower— the result is warm food in the refrigerator.

To combat this, keep the fridge door closed, and if you need to get something be sure to get it quickly. It’s not like your home refrigerator that has a big compressor and can recover its coolness in a few minutes. Each time you open that door it can take hours to recover fully on a hot day.

Also get a wireless temperature monitor so you can check the interior temp without opening the door. You can get two of them and monitor the freezer as well, but I’ll tell you right now that if the fridge starts to climb above 50 degrees, whatever is on the door of the freezer will probably start to defrost. (Pack your ice cream and seafood in the back.) These wireless monitors are available from many sources and they’re not expensive.

If you camp in hot weather a lot, with or without air conditioning, consider having a set of electric fans installed in the chimney of the refrigerator compartment. These things are amazingly effective at moving the hot air out of the fridge compartment to help the refrigerator cool down. We switch our fans on every day that the outside temperature is above 85 degrees. Some Airstreams come with those fans, but most don’t, and I think they’re a must for serious summer travelers. We’re going to work on a kit for the Airstream Life Store later specifically to solve this problem.

Finally, as you travel on hot days you need to be extra aware of the condition of your tires. They are much more susceptible to problems and wear on hot days. When the air is 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the highway surface can easily be 120+, and the air inside the tires will often exceed 140 degrees at highway speeds. That’s brutal on tires and it shortens their life.

This is just one of several reasons I strongly recommend a good tire pressure/temperature monitoring system. Blowouts and other failures are far more likely on hot days, and you want to know right away if something goes wrong before it does additional damage. If you don’t have a tire pressure monitoring system you should make a habit of visually inspecting all the tires at every stop, and checking air pressure frequently.

Is it safe to tie down your awning?

This one is a bit controversial. We sell a very nice tie-down kit in the Airstream Life Store that is really great for securing almost anything to the ground. Although it’s great for dog leashes, kites, solar shades, and even airplanes, a common use is to tie down the Zip Dee awning so it doesn’t flap as much on a breezy day.

I like to do this when we are camped near a beach or any other place where it tends to be breezy. But fair warning: the moment you propose to tie down your awning, someone will come up to you and proclaim that you should never tie down the awning. Even Zip Dee, the manufacturer of your Airstream’s awning, will tell you they don’t recommend it. So you might feel a bit foolish for having bought a tie-down that you are officially discouraged from using.

Well, I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s overly-precautionary. Tying down an awning won’t hurt it. Leaving it deployed in a heavy wind or storm will.

Zip Dee says your awning will be fine in a light breeze, but they don’t give an official wind speed limit. Instead, they say things like “if you’re comfortable in the breeze, the awning probably is too.” I’ve also heard various numbers tossed around but there seems to be no exact consensus. Somewhere above 20 MPH there’s a point at which a deployed awning arm might bend, but without a wind tunnel or a really good mechanical engineering study I doubt we’ll ever know exactly.

So if there’s a chance of heavy weather (like thunderstorms or high wind gusts), take down your awning as a precaution. And always take it down at night, because if you don’t the wind will magically pick up around 2 a.m. and the rattling of the awning will wake you up.  Take it from me. I’ve taken the awning in many times in the pitch black, wearing pajamas.

Now let’s get real. On a day when there’s a lot of sun and a mild breeze, I’ll be a rebel and tie down the awning. (Yeah, I live on the edge.) I do it because the awning rattles and flaps in the wind and it’s distracting. As long as the wind stays moderate, tying down the awning won’t do any harm.

The theory against using a tie-down seems to stem from the idea that a Zip Dee awning has some flex built into it, which helps it resist damage in the wind. If so, I’m taking some of that flex away by pulling the awning down with my tie-down. I can live with that, in exchange for a bit of quiet. Obviously, if the wind picks up, I’ll disconnect the tie-down and roll up the awning. We’re not talking about complex calculus here.

But if you can’t stand the idea of helpful people coming up to you to explain that you’re not doing it correctly, then I recommend a Solar Shade. This snaps to the underside of the Zip Dee awning and adds some privacy and shade to your outdoor living space. Use “The Claw” to secure the Solar Shade instead. This has the same effect of quieting the awning in a breeze, with the security of knowing that the Solar Shade will disconnect at the snaps if the wind pressure becomes too high.

Improving your cellular connection

I think we were the only ones with cellular Internet at this rally in 2005

These days having Internet while we are traveling is almost as important as water and oxygen, at least for many of us. When I started full-time Airstream travel in 2005 having a cellular Internet “box” was a big deal and fairly rare.  The one I was using cost about $2,500 and was about the size of two VHS tapes (remember those?) and when I went to the WBCCI International Rally in Springfield MO, everybody wanted to borrow it to check their email.

Fortunately it was a loaner, because not long after you could get a tiny hotspot that did the same thing for about $79, and suddenly we all started getting them.  Now almost anyone can use cellular networks for their Internet, just by turning on a hotspot feature on their phone.

Of course, when Internet is free and easy you start to take it for granted, and then when it suddenly isn’t available it feels like a python has taken a grip to your neck.  You know what I mean if you’ve ever pulled into a campground and found their wifi to be completely useless once everyone in the campground starts watching Netflix.  Here’s your python—no more oxygen for you!

I skip the campground wifi because it’s almost always horrible, and use cellular exclusively for my work. Not only is it more reliable, it’s more secure. No unknown persons are able to share my hotspot, and that’s a good thing for security reasons. (This assumes, of course, that you have encryption enabled on your hotspot and use a hard-to-guess password.)

It’s rare when the cellular network runs slowly.  Usually I only find an overcrowded network in Borrego Springs, CA, where every winter hundreds of RVs park in and around the town.  Many of them are part of the current craze of RV “technomads”, people who rely on having good Internet every day, all day, and in the past few seasons they have completely overwhelmed the capacity of the Borrego Springs cell towers.

Far more often the problem is the reverse: instead of being overcrowded, we’re usually in a fringe reception area, competing with no one but struggling to pull a good signal into our Airstream.

Obviously the aluminum shell of an Airstream trailer is not great for reception (nor is the metal of an Interstate or Base Camp) so in the past I’ve been forced to set up my laptop on a picnic table outside.  Let me tell you, the fantasy image of blissfully working outdoors instead of a some cubicle is absolute nonsense.  Either the sun is too bright to see the screen or there’s a threat of rain, often there are bugs flying around and taking nips, the breeze may come up and blow your papers away, or it’s too hot or too cold. There’s a good reason officeworkers work in offices; it’s similar to why we camp in Airstreams instead of tents.

So in the real world we need to have a way to get the signal into the Airstream, and there’s really only one practical way: an external antenna, paired with a signal booster.  WeBoost (formerly Wilson) has cornered the market on signal boosters, and their product is good, so you’ll probably end up with one of those.  But the antenna that comes with most of their kits is, shall we say, “less than optimal”.

First of all it has a magnetic base, because it’s intended for cars and trucks. That’s not going to help on the aluminum roof of an Airstream.  Second, to get the cable out you have to drill a hole in the Airstream roof, or poke it out through a window (a hole in the screen, of course) which looks awful and isn’t a good installation for the long haul. Third, there’s a reason they throw that particular antenna into the kit—it’s a cheap, so-so option.

The best move is to permanently mount a good antenna on the roof. Yes, you’ll have to get over the fact that a hole must be drilled in the Airstream. If you use the right antenna there won’t be any problem making the installation completely leak-proof.

My feeling is that if you are going to drill a hole, do it once and install the best antenna you can find. After evaluating many (including installing several types on the roof of my own Airstream over the past 12 years) I’ve settled on the Laird Phantom antenna.

It’s just as effective as the big antennas (which run 19 to 24 inches tall), but it’s just under three and a half inches tall. It looks like an inverted shot glass, mounted directly to the roof.  Because it’s white and matches the roof color, most people will never see it, which is nice because I don’t like having huge antennas on my roof that virtually announce to the world that I’ve got laptops inside. And, it’s so small it won’t catch on branches during those “tree trimming” exercises we seem to do occasionally.

Another aspect I really like is that the Phantom antenna seals directly to the roof with a tight rubber gasket that prevents leaks. Nothing else is needed, but for a belt & suspenders approach I added a little sealant too. So it’s the last thing on my roof that I worry about leaking.

The other piece of the puzzle, after the WeBoost and antenna, is the cable. Most people seem to use a standard low-attenuation (signal loss) cable that works OK, but I found a better version that has less signal loss. We package the cable together with the antenna and complete instructions, in the Airstream Life Store. (You can buy the WeBoost separately.)

Really, everyone who wants reliable Internet in their Airstream should install one of these, but most people don’t, and I think that’s because they’re horrified by the idea of drilling a hole in their Airstream roof.  I get that. It took me a while to get over it, too. Fairly often we sell one of these kits and it comes back a couple of weeks later with a sheepish email saying, “My [significant other] won’t let me drill a hole in the Airstream.”

That’s why we include a set of step-by-step instructions with the kit. The instructions show how anyone with moderate DIY skills can handle this job. Still, if you’re not comfortable with it you can always have the local Airstream dealer install it for you—or bring it to the factory sometime. It’s really not that hard; basically you just drill two holes and run the cable.

The end result is great. Not only is the antenna nearly unnoticeable, but the cellular performance is greatly improved.  You’ll get faster data speeds and be able to get online easily in places where the system would struggle before. You’ll quickly forget the trauma of drilling a hole, and you’ll enjoy the boost in performance for years.