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

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

Mail Forwarding for the Serious RVer

During a recent rally I was approached by an Airstreamer who was unhappy because he wasn’t getting his Airstream Life magazine regularly. It turned out that when he and his wife were traveling, they filled out a temporary mail forwarding order with the US Postal Service, and expected that it would work for up to six months as the USPS website claims.

Unfortunately for this Airstreamer, USPS mail forwarding has significant limitations, among which is that they won’t forward periodicals after 60 days. Since Airstream Life is mailed quarterly, he never got his magazines. The Post Office just tossed them, without even notifying him.

If you’re a frequent traveler, or planning a multi-month trip, you need to find a professional mail forwarding service and use it all the time. This can be a little weird at first, because you’ll need to permanently change your mailing address for everything, to the address of the mail forwarding service. That means you won’t get mail delivered directly to your home anymore (except junk mail).

It can take a few months to get everyone updated on your new address, but the rewards are worth it. Once you’ve got all your bills, correspondence, and other paper mail coming to the new mail forwarding address, life becomes very convenient. Wherever you are, you can simply call, email, or log into the website of your mail service and have them bundle up all your current mail to be sent to you as a single package. In other words, you can deal with the mail on your schedule.

Moreover, a good service will allow you to set up a recurring schedule for delivery. When I’m at home, my mail is automatically shipped to me in a single Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelope (about $5) every week. It arrives in two days and it’s trackable. If I want, I can request UPS delivery with overnight, two day, and three day delivery options. Postage is charged to my credit card on file, and the service costs $12/month.

When I’m on the road, the mail service waits for me to get in touch. I look ahead a few days and pick a convenient location to receive the mail, then place an order for shipment on a particular date. It can be shipped to a campground, a Post Office (using General Delivery), a friend or family’s home, or a business address. When I get there, my mail is always waiting.

If you’re ready to make the switch, keep a few tips in mind:

Choose the right mail forwarding service.

When we were looking for a new mail forwarding service, people advised us to “just use any UPS Store.” Bad idea. What if that little shop in the strip mall closes? It has happened to friends and fellow fulltimers, and they’ve had the hassle of moving everything to another address.

Instead, look for an established mail forwarding specialist that has a succession plan in place in case the owners retire or the business has to move. Also, look for a service that will give you excellent personal attention via phone and email.

Keep it professional.

While it can be tempting to ask a friend to collect your mail at home and forward it to you, be wary. I’ve heard too many stories in which the friend ends up “too busy” and crucial mail is delayed.

Check the fine print.

As with USPS Mail Forwarding, some services have limitations on what they will forward. At Airstream Life we get occasional complaints from subscribers who paid for the cheapest mail forwarding service they could get and found out later that their magazines were getting tossed.

Know your options.

Make sure the service you use will forward your magazines and give you the option to have them discard junk mail (mail which is addressed to “Occupant” or similar). Make sure also that if you receive an unexpected 10-lb paperweight in the mail, they’ll notify you before shipping it at your expense. That way you are getting everything you want, and not paying to forward stuff you don’t want.

Get a permanent solution.

Yes, you can file temporary forwarding orders, but once you experience the convenience of professional and permanent mail forwarding, you will probably become addicted. You’ll never fail to get a bill, statement, check, renewal, or other important mail again, whereas it’s all too easy for things to fall through the cracks with on-again, off-again solutions.

Reduce your volume of mail.

Some full-time friends of mine used to get a giant pack of mail once a month from their mail forwarding service. It would typically run about four inches thick. Then they’d spend a full day sitting in their Airstream, sorting through all the paper, paying bills by check, licking envelopes, and shredding sensitive information. I can’t imagine many worse ways to spend a day in my Airstream! So…

Go paperless.

Get every credit card, utility, bank, and other recurring relationship to send you an e-bill, or get rid of that vendor. Have all your small recurring bills (cell phone, etc) billed automatically to your credit or debit card, to reduce the number of bills you get. Save copies of the e-bills on your computer as PDFs so you can refer to them if you need to. Use online banking to simplify your bill paying. It’s generally free and easy to use.

Some people still feel more comfortable receiving paper bills, but you’ll find that if you don’t use online e-billing you might get hit with late charges. That adds up fast, and can affect your credit rating.

In short, try to eliminate as much paper correspondence as you can. Very few things really need to be in paper form these days, so if you are getting a thick stack of mail every week, take a hard look at what you are getting and see about cutting it back.

Just say no.

Cutting the volume of mail includes simple techniques like asking to be removed from mailing lists and closing unnecessary accounts. Ideally you should just get a few crucial pieces of mail each week, so you can spend most of your time enjoying the travel experience.

Consider state of residence.

You don’t have to choose a mail forwarding service in your home state. I am an Arizona resident, but my mailing address is in Florida. It’s perfectly legal to have your mailing address wherever you like.

However, if you are going out full time, this is a chance to review your state of residency. Fulltimers can sometimes choose where to legally domicile, taking into account factors like state income taxes, vehicle registration fees, voting registration, health care costs, and many other factors.

This is a much more complicated decision, so do your research and choose wisely. You may be considered a resident of some states simply by remaining there for a period of time, or because you own real estate, have a child in school, or operate a business, so in some cases the decision is made for you.

Get a physical street address, not a PO Box.

If not, you may have trouble with banks and drivers licenses later, thanks to certain remaining provisions of the Patriot Act. An address like 411 Walnut St #4468 is fine.

In some cases (as with state Driver’s Licenses and banking accounts) you may be required to provide a “real” physical address as well. In Arizona, the Motor Vehicle Registrar has my home address on file but my driver’s license shows my mailing address. This surprises people regularly—they assume it’s “not legal” but of course it is, and it prevents businesses from capturing my home address and adding it to their databases for junk mail.

There’s one last perk as well: certain Florida entertainment venues have given us the “resident” rate for admission based on our mailing address, even though it’s on an Arizona driver’s license! It’s a small world, after all…

-By Rich Luhr

Electronic Security Tips

Airstreamers are becoming more and more dependent on the wonderful mobile devices that save us time and precious space inside our aluminum homes—and that’s a compelling reason to take a hard look at electronic security and backup options.

“I don’t want to be a bummer here, folks,” said Rich Luhr to his seminar audience at Alumafiesta, “but if you have a lot of data on your phone, or your laptop, or your tablet, it’s time to get serious about securing your devices and backing them up against failure.”

Luhr, Editor and Publisher of Airstream Life, offers the following smart tips. (Warning—reader discretion is advised. Until you adopt these measures, you might have trouble sleeping at night.)

There’s an app for that.

If you own an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac, download “Find My iPhone”,  free from the app store. (Similar apps are available for Android devices.) If you misplace any of these devices, use this app on another device to locate the one that’s missing— or protect your data by remotely locking it, or even erasing all of its data. “Lost Mode” locks your missing device with a passcode and can display a custom message and contact phone number right on the screen—and you can keep track of where it’s been.

Basic rule #1: Password protect everything.

If you leave your machine on “sleep” without securing it with a password, someone, anyone, can wake it up and start snooping—or stealing. “Password protect all your devices, and don’t use the same password for every device or every service you use,” advised Luhr.

Get serious about regular backups.

“How many people are willing to admit you don’t back up your computer?” asked Luhr. (You know who you are.) “You need to get on a regular routine. A hard drive failure on the road is one of the worst things that can happen to you. You’ll be using the computer and suddenly the hard drive starts making a funny noise, and twenty minutes later it’s gone. Hard drives fail. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.” You’re at particular risk if your computer is more than three or four years old. The time to back it up is now.

Consider carrying a portable hard drive in your Airstream for every computer you own, and run backups on a regular basis while you travel. At home, keep a second set of backup drives in a fireproof safe. “If your Airstream burns to the ground and you lose your laptop and backup, you’ll have files to restore, safe at home,” said Luhr. “Think about all the thousands of photos you’ve taken over the years, or that people have sent you—pictures of your grandchildren—images you could lose and never get back. Have one backup with you, and one away from you.”

Mac users, try Carbon Copy Cloner or use the built-in Time Machine backup utility. Backup before every trip, and often even when you aren’t traveling.

Your compromising data is already out there.

And no, we’re not talking about those nekkid pictures, either—your email inbox is filled with far worse. “All your old email is archived unless you actively delete it,” said Luhr. “When the wrong people get ahold of your email they start skimming through it; that’s the first thing they do when they steal a laptop,” he said. “They’re looking for passwords, log in IDs, social security numbers—anything that you’ve emailed or might have been emailed back to you that can be used to break into your accounts. If they can break into one, sometimes they use that to break into another, and it becomes a cascade.”

Luhr told the terrifying tale of someone who lost his computer—and nearly his identity. Using data found only in email, hackers entered his Amazon account and leapfrogged from there to find credentials, codes, recovery passwords and Apple ID. Eventually they even wiped his hard drive by remote control. “Everything went out the window,” said Luhr, “including irreplaceable photos of his daughter when she was first born.”

Encrypt your hard drive.

Meaning, you’ll set a password for your computer, and need to type it to unlock it every time you use it. “This takes you just a second,” said Luhr. “It’s simple. If somebody steals your laptop or hard drive, they can’t crack it.” Consider using full disk encryption on your laptop if your job depends on it.

Be cautious about public wifi networks.

“I don’t like ‘em,” said Luhr. “I think if you have the choice of your own cellular connection—your phone’s ‘personal hotspot’, MiFi, or Jetpack—that’s a far safer way to do anything online. Public wifi can be hacked.”

If you do use one, make sure it’s one you know; your KOA-supplied connection is safer than the dreaded “free public wifi”. If you see that in your connection drop down menu, “run away,” cautioned Luhr. “That’s what hackers use as their ID to try to get you to join it.”

Sadly, it’s no longer safe to use the computers in a cyber cafe or hotel business center, either. “Unless you’re just printing, do not use any public or borrowed computer for any site that requires login. It’s not worth it,” said Luhr. “That computer could be compromised in so many different ways. We all have our own computers now. Don’t use any other unless it’s an absolute emergency.”

The next big thing: Two-step authentication

“Passwords are becoming passé,” said Luhr. “They’re not enough anymore.” For one thing, they’re too easy to guess—the most popular choice is still “password”, followed by the equally lame “123456”—and even a word that’s special to you is subject to computer-generated “dictionary attack”. “Sooner or later if you’re using a real word—something like ‘airstream’—they’re going to get it,” said Luhr. “It’s just a matter of time.” That’s why you’re likely now building your passwords from a combination of lower case letters, an uppercase letter, numerals, and symbols. (When you choose a new password, keep submitting ideas until its designation moves from “weak” to “strong”.)

“All they need is that one piece of information to eventually get into all your accounts, which is why two-step authorization is a great system for enhancing security,” said Luhr—especially for sensitive sites (like a banking service) that are restricted to absolutely everyone other than you.

It’s simpler than it sounds: two-step requires something you know (like a pet’s name) along with something you have (like your phone or credit card). When you key in your password a site will “know” your computer, but will be suspicious if you log in from another device; you’ll then be required to prove that you know more. A popup alert will announce that a security key—usually a 6-digit code—has been sent your phone number on file; use that code to enter the site you need back on the computer. “That’s a one time confirmation, that proves that I know the password and I’m holding the phone in my hand,” said Luhr.

Once considered overkill, two-step authentication is now becoming commonplace, and only takes a minute to set up. Definitely use it for high-security, financial applications whenever available—and consider it for email, websites, even social media, too. “Any service that offers it does so for a really good reason,” said Luhr. “If they offer it, give it a try—particularly for your email. That’s the biggest security hole that you have, with the most information about you in it.”

“Even social media gets hacked,” said Luhr. “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—and it only takes one hack for people to get a lot more information about you than you ever thought possible. It’s almost eerie how much information is online these days, even for those of us who don’t go online.”

Get a password manager.

So now you’re fortified—good for you. Every device you own is secure and recently backed up, and all your online accounts are password protected with a different combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. But, c’mon. How are you supposed to remember them all?

“You’re right,” said Luhr. “You’ve got two hundred different passwords, and I’m sorry, but none of us over fifty are going to remember them all. It’s not gonna happen.” And writing them down? That’s a bad idea. “My mother did what a lot of people do: wrote all her passwords down on a big piece of paper and tacked it to a bulletin board, right next to her computer. If somebody broke in and took the list, that would be a disaster. I said ‘Mom, you need to get a password manager’.”

There are several good ones to choose from, and Luhr uses mSecure. “It keeps all your passwords, on your phone, in encrypted form where they can’t be hacked, always with you, in one safe place,” he said. “All you have to do is remember the password for mSecure.” (Of all your passwords, this is one to ensure it’s rated “strong”.)

Log in and tap to look up your passwords and associated handy details, including the URL it belongs to and usernames. The passwords appear as a series of dots, obscured until you’re ready, from prying eyes that may be looking over your shoulder.

“It’s one of the more expensive apps you’ll buy,” said Luhr, “but I strongly recommend it. Think about the cost of the information you have. Data security is the reality of our lives today.”

– By RG Coleman