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

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.

Traveling with bicycles

Reader Mary L. posed this question:

“How can we transport electric bikes with our Airstream? We have a Fiamma rack on our 2014 25-foot FC that works perfectly with our “regular” bikes, but two ebikes riding on it would exceed the stated weight limit for Fiamma, and I wouldn’t want to test that limit, given others’ experiences. Is there a known other solution?”

Airstream & Pedego

There are a couple of options for you to consider.

Some time ago Airstream teamed up with Fiamma® to co-develop a unique bike carrier designed to fit 1969-to-current Airstream trailers with aluminum bumpers. The rear-mounted rack has a carrying capacity of 75 pounds.

Depending on the brand, e-bikes generally range between about 38 and 70 pounds—so your Fiamma rack is suited for a single bike weighing in at about 50 pounds and an additional “regular” bike. You’d need to stow your second eb-bike in the truck bed or inside the trailer when you tow.

Fiamma rack

Have you looked into electric kick scooters? They weigh 36 pounds, fold down to a very portable size, cost $700-800, and (importantly) they look cool. The range is pretty good too—10 to 12 miles if you’re stopping and starting; up to 15 miles smooth cruising.

Use It or Lose It

If you live in the north, it’s a sad day when you’ve got to put your Airstream to bed for the winter season. When campgrounds in your area start to close, or you see frost in the morning, or the forecast starts to dip close to freezing, it’s time to get the Airstream ready for colder temperatures and a period of non-use.

A good winterizing procedure will protect your Airstream against damage from freezing, but there are no absolute guarantees that everything will be perfect in the spring. Stuff happens when you aren’t looking, so I always recommend that people take a few minutes to inspect their Airstream during any long period of storage.

Snow Airstream

What can happen during storage? A slowly-melting blanket of snow atop the roof will severely challenge the waterproofness of everything on the roof, even spots that didn’t leak in the last gentle rain. Rodents can move in, and cause extensive damage by chewing wires, tunneling through the insulation, making nests, and leaving smelly urine stains. Batteries that aren’t maintained with a full charge can lose a lot of their useful lifespan. Smoke detector batteries can go flat and you won’t hear the audible “chirp” warning.

Fortunately, all of these problems are easily avoided with just a quick check during the storage season—and it doesn’t have to be a tedious chore. Your Airstream makes a great getaway even when it’s not going anywhere beyond your driveway or storage lot.

Think about it: your Airstream is a great home away from home, but it’s also a great clubhouse, den, man cave, study, music room, or escape from the in-laws. All you need is some power (either an extension cord, solar panels, or a generator) and propane, and you’ve got the perfect place for a little “staycation.”

An Airstream in winter storage is a dark, cold, and uninviting place, but in just a few minutes you can transform it to a welcoming vacation “cabin”. Turn on the heat and lights, set out some cozy blankets, pop on some slippers and make the place come alive while you relish the peace and quiet (or enjoy the company of a friend). Bring a book or a DVD, or something easy to cook on the stove, and something to drink.

Yes, if the Airstream is winterized you can’t use the plumbing, but you’ve still got lights, heat, TV to watch the football game or a movie, stereo to listen to music, microwave (if plugged into 30-amp power) to re-heat the pizza or nachos, refrigerator for cold drinks, freezer for ice cream—and best of all, blessed privacy. It’s the ideal place for a break, to find some quiet for reading, take a nap, or just to clear your head after a long week.

Game in Airstream
Play a board game in the Airstream in winter

One of my favorite things to do in the Airstream is put on a favorite old movie and then browse maps and guidebooks looking for new ideas for the next trip. There’s no more inspirational place to plan new adventures than in the comfort of your Airstream.

With nowhere to go, you’ll have time to think about what you’d like to do next and what you can do to improve the Airstream. You can bring a pad of paper and make notes on items you want to pack for the next trip, and things to bring for your next little getaway during the storage season.

This is also the best and easiest way to maintain your Airstream. Airstreams are happiest when they are being used. You’ll easily spot little things that need attention before they become bigger and more expensive problems. Spending a little time with your Airstream will make you feel better, like a mini-vacation, and may well extend its life too. It’s good for the Airstream and it’s good for you.

– by Rich Luhr

For more tips on easy maintenance you can do yourself, check out Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance, available at Amazon.com and the Airstream Life Store. With over 200 pages of tips and techniques, it’s an indispensable guide for every Airstreamer.

Boondocking Basics

Boondocking—dry camping with limited amenities—“does not mean doing without,” says experienced Airstreamer Jay Thompson. “It means adjusting the way we do things to extend and enjoy our stay.”

There are two main ways to dry camp: in a natural area, and “blacktop boondocking” in an urban setting. Thompson offers the following tips for boondocking anywhere.

Boondocking in the ‘boonies.

Scenic and wildnerness sites include National or State Parks or Forests, Bureau of Land Management or Corps of Engineers area, or any area where facilities (power, water, or sewer) aren’t provided. When camping in the “boonies”:

  • Park in previously used parking spots; don’t create a new one.
  • Place your rig away from others to give them and you room to enjoy the space.
  • Respect quiet hours. (The reason most of us boondock is to enjoy the quiet and serenity of our surroundings.)
  • Leave the area cleaner than when you arrived.

Balloon Field overheadBlacktop Boondocking…

..has a specific set of guidelines and rules. You might be parked on the pavement at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta—or more likely, at a Wal-Mart in a city. Always:

  • Ask permission.
  • Purchase something—groceries, a meal, and/or fuel—from your retail host.
  • Stay only one night.
  • Do not put out your awning, barbecue, or tables.
  • Leave the area cleaner than when you arrived.
  • Do not put stabilizers or jacks down. Be prepared to move with little effort, if necessary.
  • Park under the lights in the middle of the lot, with your doors facing the light.
  • Talk with the security personnel to let them know you are onsite.

More safety measures—just in case.

“We have never had any security problems and have spent many nights at Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s locations,” said Thompson. “We have also parked at church parking lots, casinos, shopping malls, restaurants, and one time at a furniture store.”

Thompson recommends general good security practices, including:

  • Don’t have your name or address on the outside of the rig.
  • Don’t advertise that you are a full-timer, because all your possessions will be with you.
  • Keep your cell phone charged and handy.
  • As a general rule, “the further you are from civilization, the safer you are.”

Boondocking is easy, and possible to do in your new Airstream just as it comes from the factory, with only simple additions to your equipment.

Practice

Spend a day or two in your Airstream in your driveway or at a campground, and disconnect from the electric, water, and sewer. “This is a non-threatening way to learn to boondock and get a feel as to how the batteries and water last,” says Thompson.

“A good reference on boondocking with your Airstream may be found at wbccicaravan.wbcci.net,” he suggests. “That has several original and excerpted notes. Or enter “boondocking” on a Google search and many locations and ideas may be found.”

-By Jay Thompson