What’s boondocking and what do I need to do it?

Every modern Airstream is pretty well set up for living off the grid, for a day or two. But if you want to get away from crowded campgrounds and park somewhere without hookups for more than a weekend—in other words, boondocking—you’ll want to start upgrading your Airstream and your camping practices a bit.

There are three major limitations to your boondocking experience: water, power and propane. (Other considerations are things like food and sewer capacity, but you’ll probably run out of water or power first.)

The best and least-expensive way to extend your boondocking time is to learn how to conserve.  Learn the “navy shower” technique, do less dishwashing or learn to wash very efficiently or use paper plates, replace all lights with LEDs (if they aren’t already), set the furnace temperature lower and sleep with an extra blanket or dog, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

When using the 12 volt batteries you won’t be able to run the air conditioner or microwave, so the remaining big energy consumers are the furnace, water pump, and laptops. Airstream batteries are typically sized with just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend (if you aren’t running the furnace a lot) because most people don’t use the trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.

Once the batteries run out of juice, everything in the trailer goes off: refrigerator (even when running on propane), heat, light, water pressure … even the hitch jack won’t go up or down anymore. So power conservation is important.

To reduce the drain caused by laptops, try using a tablet or your phone instead. An iPad requires about 10-20% of the power of a laptop and can charge quickly from a cigarette lighter plug, instead of requiring an inefficient inverter.  (You can pick up USB cigarette lighter adapters easily if you have an older trailer without USB outlets.) Shorter showers and limited dish washing will also cut power consumption by the water pump.

Carrying a portable solar panel can be very helpful if you like to camp where trees shade the Airstream.  With a solar panel kit and an extension cable you can put the panels in a spot where the sun hits them. Solar isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s silent, free to operate, eco-friendly, and you don’t have to carry gas. With summertime sun, a pair of solar panels can extend your boondocking time by days.

If you find the two batteries supplied with the Airstream aren’t enough, consider going to larger batteries. This will require some custom work, but you’ll get a lot of value out of it.

 

In hot weather, try to spend the day out of the Airstream.  This cuts down the length of time you’ll need the vent fans.  Each vent fan consumes about 2 DC amps, which means three of them running for six hours = 36 amp-hours.  That’s a lot of juice, which is put to better use after sunset when the temperatures start to drop.

In the winter, furnace use is the problem. The furnace eats a lot of power (7-10 amps when running) and it’s fairly wasteful of propane too. A catalytic heater is helpful, since it doesn’t use electricity at all, and is much more efficient at turning propane into heat.

Propane isn’t much of a limitation in the summertime, since a pair of 30-lb. tanks will run the refrigerator and water heater for weeks. But in late fall and winter you’ll want to travel with both propane cylinders as full as possible. You can easily find yourself spending an unexpected night along the road with only your propane supply to keep you warm. With freezing nights a tank of propane can be used up in just a few days.

If you are going to be off grid for a while, get a portable tank to carry fresh water. Serious boondockers will find a place in town or nearby to refill their jerry can or water bottles, and bring a little fresh water back to camp after every excursion. Mark the tank “FRESH WATER ONLY”.

After a few days of boondocking it’s nice to hit a full hookup campground for a night just to get everything back in ship-shape.  The Airstream will inevitably be full of dirt and gravel tracked in from the campsite, and you might be a bit less fresh than you’d like to be (due to careful conservation of water). Plus there may be various electronic devices that you postponed charging, or the laundry basket might be full, and it will probably be time to get some groceries and dump the tanks if there wasn’t a place to do it before.

We find that having a “recovery” day in a full hookup campground is something we enjoy, with long showers and a chance to get everything ship-shape before heading out for more adventure (or home).

Conserving Power While Boondocking, Part 2

Following up on our previous post about Conserving Power While Boondocking — another major way to extend your power supply is to understand where the power goes.

The built-in battery monitor won’t help with that. You will need to install an accurate amp-hour or watt-hour meter that measures the amount of power being consumed in real time.

A good amp-hour meter with a digital readout (made by Xantrex, Bogart Engineering, and other companies) requires some installation and money, but for those who frequently camp without hookups it’s well worth the investment.

With a real monitor you can see what each light and appliance is consuming, and identify the big users so that you can avoid them or upgrade them. Right off the bat you’ll see that your RV furnace is a huge consumer of electrical power, so you might want to consider an extra blanket on the bed or even a catalytic heater (which uses no electricity). Incandescent lights (on older Airstreams) are also big consumers, so if you don’t have LED you should seriously consider upgrading the most-used interior bulbs or entire fixtures.

boondocking

Studying power requires you to understand just a little bit about how electrical power is measured. The amp-hour meter will measure the 12 volt DC power coming off the batteries (or going back in when charging) using amps. Constantly drawing one amp from the batteries for an hour will total one “amp-hour.” The meter will keep track of amps going in and out at any given time, and also keep a total of the amp-hours used since the battery was last fully charged.

(If you want to think of the power in terms of watts instead, just multiple the amps by 12. But for the purposes of this discussion we’ll stick with amps.)

A typical Airstream trailer comes with a pair of Group 27 batteries (that’s a physical size, not power capacity). They might each be rated at 85 amp-hours capacity for a total of 170 amp-hours. But because you should only discharge them to half of their total capacity (for longest life), your net capacity from two batteries is really just 85 amp-hours.

The furnace pulls about 7-10 amps while running, depending on model, which adds up to a lot of power when you consider how long it runs on a cold night. It’s one of the biggest DC power consumers in the trailer. That’s why setting the thermostat lower on a cold night will help a lot.

Just two nights of furnace can easily drain the usable capacity of the standard pair of batteries in an Airstream trailer. By monitoring the electrical “cost” of running the furnace with the amp-hour meter, you’ll understand what’s happening before the power goes completely flat.

boondocking

Why do trailer batteries go flat even when you’re not using anything? An amp-hour meter can help you understand “parasitic” loads on the batteries. Several devices draw small amounts of power even when they are not in active use, and that’s what we call a parasitic load. This includes the circuit board in the refrigerator, the propane leak detector, the stereo, the circuit board in the water heater, etc. All of those little parasites add up, and it’s not uncommon for them to total an amp or so of constant draw.

A one-amp parasitic draw means all of your useful power will be gone in about 85 hours—just three and a half days—even if you aren’t using anything else in the trailer at all! This is why Airstream provides a STORE/USE switch to cut power to most systems when the trailer isn’t being actively used.

With the amp-hour meter you’ll be able to see the exact parasitic draw and get an idea of how it combines with your routine power usage while you’re camping. Soon you’ll understand why there are so many posts in online forums from new owners asking why their battery was dead after just one night of running the furnace.

boondocking

If you frequently run out of power when boondocking and you don’t want to spend the big bucks to get a generator or solar panels, the easiest and cheapest option is simply add more battery capacity. There are several ways to do this, and the best solution depends on the layout of your Airstream. Usually people find a spot toward the front of the trailer (such as under a couch or in an external storage compartment) to install a bigger battery bank.

At the same time it’s an opportunity to upgrade to Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, which last longer and are safer than ordinary “wet cell” batteries. Going back to the electric car analogy, more battery power is like going from a Nissan Leaf (with an 80 mile range) to a Tesla Model S (230 mile range). Suddenly your “range anxiety” is greatly reduced and you can actually go places.

The larger battery option is less costly than a “quiet” generator or solar setup, with the advantage of always working regardless of sunshine or fuel supply. For most people, more battery capacity and better conservation are enough to get a few extra days of boondocking.

Knowledge is power, and in this case more power is mostly a matter of more knowledge. You’ve got options to explore. If you find yourself addicted to the off-the-grid lifestyle, congratulations! It means you’re enjoying your Airstream, and that’s a good thing.

Conserving Power While Boondocking

One of the most concerns of RV travelers who have begun to stray from established campsites has to do with energy usage. They’re always worried about running out of battery power, a version of the “range anxiety” that owners of electric cars often have.

That’s a legitimate concern, because once the batteries run out of juice, everything in the trailer goes off: refrigerator (even when running on propane), heat, light, water pressure … even the hitch jack won’t go up or down anymore. If it happens to you, you won’t forget it.

It’s a pretty traumatic experience to have the entire trailer—your home and security—go dead.

The battery life problem is two-fold. First, many owners really have no idea of how much power they are using at any given time (the built-in battery monitor is pretty inaccurate). Second, the batteries typically have just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend if you aren’t running the furnace a lot.

Airstream provides those batteries because most people don’t use their trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.  Yes, despite all the discussions about “boondocking” you may have seen online, and all the blogs written by hard-core off-the-grid travelers, the reality is that most travel trailers go straight to a campground and get plugged in. Problem solved.

Boondocking Anza Borrego

 

 

Boondockers require more. After a while, a minority of owners start to pine for something more in their travel experience, and that inevitably leads them to the need for more power, more efficiency, and a better understanding of what’s going on.

Learn how to cut back on power; that’s the first and best way to get more boondocking time out of your batteries. Cutting back on use of electrical power gets into the same skills that boondockers need for water and propane conservation. You can do simple things like taking shorter showers (the water pump is a big energy consumer) and doing less dishwashing, switching to LED bulbs if your trailer didn’t come with them, setting the furnace temperature lower, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

There are other ways to conserve as well. If you have an inverter, use it minimally because it’s a fairly inefficient way to power your devices like laptops. The inverter turns 12 volt DC power into 120 volt AC power, which then gets turned back into DC power by the “power brick” attached to your laptop. In each step, some energy is wasted—and even when there’s nothing attached to the inverter it is constantly consuming a small amount of power. Switch it off when you’re not using it.

More efficient devices are needed for boondocking. A laptop can pull 60-100 watts, which is a lot when you’re running on battery. Using a tablet instead of a laptop cuts that power requirement to 10 watts or less, and it can recharge off a USB outlet, which means you can skip the inverter — or recharge in the car while you’re driving.

In hot weather, bail out of the trailer by late morning when things warm up, and try to stay out as late as possible. This cuts down the length of time you’ll need the vent fans, saving about 24 watts per fan used. That power is put to better use after sunset when the temperatures start to drop.

Sometimes it’s easiest to relocate your power consumption to another place. In other words, if you’ve got to log some laptop time, consider relocating to a coffee shop and using their power (and wifi). Consider trying the campground showers to cut use of the power-hungry water pump in the trailer. Instead of running the inverter to watch a movie in the trailer, consider going into the local town to see what’s playing.

A lot of people hate conserving because it makes them feel deprived, but if you take a different perspective you may not mind so much. You may find that the steps you take to conserve open the door to opportunities for new experiences.

Conserving Water when Boondocking

These days about half of new Airstreams are sold to people who have never owned any type of travel trailer or motorhome before. That means there are a lot of people who are just now trying to learn all the tricks and skills needed to optimize their travel experience.

Boondocking

Camping away from hookups in remote places is an aspiration of many, but to be able to do it well you’ve got to adapt and adjust your expectations. In this occasional series on boondocking we’ll explore specific techniques, starting with certain aspects of water conservation. Showers and dishes are the two things that consume most of the water used in an Airstream.

boondocking

Saving water on dishwashing is easy.

You can switch to paper plates when you are boondocking, or use campground dish-washing facilities if they are available. If you must wash dishes in the Airstream, you’ll have to learn to use tiny amounts of water to rise rather than just opening the faucet fully and letting it run, as many people do at home. For über-conservationists, a spray bottle is helpful for minimal rinsing.

The shower is a trickier problem.

At home your shower might have a cascade of water and hot stinging needles if you want them, perhaps even to the point of flooding the tub because the drain can’t keep up. That’s the sort of shower that many people like, not so much because they get cleaner but because it feels like a “spa” experience.

Low-flow shower head

You don’t get pummeled by hot water much in an RV; the shower heads are generally low-flow types designed to release only 2.5 gallons of water per minute. If you had a shower head that inundated you with water, you’d find that the gray water tank (the tank that holds used water from the shower and sinks) fills up too quickly.

Avoid using water.

That’s always the first approach. Some people extend their time between showers by using body (or baby) wipes for quick cleanups. This works well—just remember you can’t flush those wipes down the toilet because they won’t biodegrade in the holding tank, and they’ll clog macerator-type toilets. Put the used wipes in the trash instead.

In a campground with no hookups,

you may have access to a campground shower. Some people use the campground shower religiously, because they don’t fit in the travel trailer shower, or because they just prefer the “home style” shower when it is available. Personally, I like my Airstream shower and I hate using the campground showers, so I’ll go to some effort to be able to shower in the trailer.

Singing Sands Boondocking

The essential “Navy shower”

It’s a simple technique: turn on the water, get wet, turn off the water. Then soap up everything, and rinse off quickly. Don’t wash your hair unless it really needs it. Get really good at this technique, and you’ll find you can take a complete shower in less than three gallons, or about 60 to 90 seconds of running the water. That makes you an Admiral in the Navy Shower Fleet.

Get it down to a flat two minutes (five gallons) and you’re a Lieutenant, or about 90 seconds (four gallons) for the Commander’s rank. Even an Able Seaman should be able to do it in less than six gallons (just over two minutes). These calculations assume you have a typical RV shower head that delivers 2.5 gallons per minute.

The Airstream has a built-in warning sign if you blow it.

The hot water tank is usually six gallons. If you start feeling cold water, you’ve used all six gallons plus a bit more (because the tank is constantly re-heating) and you’ll soon be walking the plank when the rest of the family finds out. Even in a full hookup campground where you don’t have to worry about running out of water or filling the gray tank, the six-gallon limit applies.

Know the size of your gray water holding tank.

Boondocking Central OregonYou can estimate how long it will last. The tank monitors are often misleading. For example, with a 39-gallon tank, three Admirals can take showers in a total of less than 10 gallons, yielding three showers each plus some tooth brushing and dishes, before running out of holding capacity.

It’s really not hard to learn the Navy shower technique. Camping without a full hookup does require some small sacrifices, but you can still have a satisfying shower. The loss of standing under a spray of hot water for ten minutes is nothing when you realize that small sacrifice enabled you to walk out your door into the landscape or a quiet beautiful place far from crowds.

Xantrex Freedom HFS Inverter/Charger

If you’re the type who likes (or aspires) to camp in remote sites far from electrical hookups, you’ve probably already put a few upgrades in your Airstream. The standard pair of batteries installed in an Airstream is fine for a night or two without campground power, but after that most people start looking at a generator or solar panels, and larger batteries to extend their camping time.

Serious boondockers sometimes take it step further, with an inverter to run a few 120-volt AC appliances like the TV or microwave.

Inverters explained

An inverter, for those who aren’t sure, is simply a device that turns the battery power (12 volt DC) into the type of power you’d get from a plug in your home (120 volt AC). It’s the exact opposite of what the built-in converter in your Airstream does when plugged into campground power.

Inverter pros and cons

A few Airstreams are factory-equipped with inverters, but even those aren’t usually capable of powering every outlet in the Airstream. They’re usually limited to a few outlets and produce a maximum of 1000 watts, which won’t run your microwave oven.

Worse, instead of producing nice clean smooth electrical current, most inverters on the market produce a sort of choppy electricity (called “Modified Sine Wave”). This is OK for most uses, but it makes some devices hum and buzz. Flat-panel TVs, computer power adapters, printers, and microwave ovens in particular don’t like it.

Cost factor

Xantrex Inverter Installed

Until recently, a “Pure Sine Wave” inverter that produced utility-grade power was a pretty expensive item. A 2000 or 3000-watt inverter could easily cost $2,000 ore more, plus installation. This is the major reason most inverter designs went the cheaper and less compatible route.

These days Pure Sine inverters have become much less expensive. Leading this trend, Xantrex recently introduced their new Freedom HFS Inverter/Charger specifically for the RV market. We got one and installed it in an Airstream for evaluation.

The Xantrex Freedom HFS

…comes in two specs: 1000 watt and 2000 watt. Because our goal was to provide “whole house” power (meaning powering every outlet and every appliance except the air conditioner) we opted for the 2000 watt model.

Installation is straightforward. Because the Xantrex Freedom HFS is also a power converter/charger, it replaces the existing converter/charger in the Airstream. That makes wiring fairly simple. Two 30-amp AC cables go to the inverter (campground power in, and inverter power out), and two heavy gauge DC wires connect to the battery (positive and negative).

A networking cable plugs into the inverter and runs to the remote control panel, which you can mount anywhere inside the Airstream. Those five connections (two AC, two DC, one remote) are all that are required.

Inverter installation

Because a big inverter like this can draw a lot of power, it must be located as close as possible to the batteries. That minimizes electrical “line loss” through the wires to the batteries, so the inverter can run most efficiently. In some Airstream floorplans this means stringing a cable from the new inverter location to the existing electrical circuit breaker panel.

Xantrex Inverter

Keep in mind that the Xantrex Freedom HFS can be mounted on a wall inside a cabinet if needed, and that’s often the best way to preserve storage space for other items. The unit does have a cooling fan that often runs when it is heavily charging the batteries or supplying AC power to a large appliance (like a microwave oven) so if you mount it under the bed be prepared to hear some “white noise” once in a while. The rest of the time, it’s silent.

The possible need to run wiring through the Airstream, and the requirement for heavy gauge cables to the batteries means that professional installation is a good idea for most people. A proper installation is crucial for efficiency and safety, so don’t cut corners here. Our installation took five man hours at a professional shop.

Batteries

The factory-installed set of two Group 27 batteries is really not enough for a big inverter like the 2000-watt Xantrex. If you want to go with a whole-house inverter, budget for a much larger battery bank at the same time. You’ll also want an amp-hour meter (like the Xantrex LinkLite or LinkPro) if you don’t already have one. A large inverter can drain the batteries pretty quickly, so accurate metering of battery capacity is important.

Performance

We were very impressed with the performance of the Xantrex Freedom HFS in our on-the-road tests. Not only did it seamlessly switch from campground power to battery power as needed (so quickly that no appliance lost power) but it consistently provided between 119 and 121 volts. That’s far more reliable voltage than the power we see at most campgrounds.

Both the 1000 watt and 2000 watt models of the Xantrex Freedom HFS are also 55-amp three-stage DC chargers, which means they’ll charge your batteries as well or better than whatever charger you currently have. Battery overcharging is not a worry, thanks to what Xantrex calls “Smart Battery Management” and built-in charge settings for standard “wet cell” batteries, AGM batteries, and a fixed voltage setting for new lithium batteries.

More power = more appliances

What can you run with a 2000-watt inverter? Any low-wattage appliance is simple of course, like battery chargers. The Xantrex Freedom HFS inverter had no trouble with a stick blender, toaster, vacuum, computer charger or TV. Amazingly, it will also run a hair dryer, vacuum cleaner, most microwave ovens, toaster or coffee maker—but keep in mind you should only run these high wattage appliances one at a time, and not for very long.

In general, if the appliance pulls 1,500 watts or less, it will probably be fine with the 2,000 watt inverter (allowing some leeway for surges and line loss). However, be wary of microwave oven wattage ratings. Those ratings are often “output” power (meaning cooking power) and the microwave may pull many more watts from the battery. In testing we observed a “1,000 watt” microwave draw 1,800 watts while in operation.

What about AC?

And while it might seem obvious to some, we should mention this: No, you can’t run the air conditioner through an inverter. It draws too much power. If your installer hasn’t rewired the air conditioner through a separate sub-panel to isolate it from the inverter, you’ll have to remember not to turn it on while you’re using the inverter.

Inverters and the fridge

Likewise, be sure to set your refrigerator to the “GAS” setting while you’re using the inverter, otherwise the fridge will stay in AC power mode and chew up the batteries quickly. Inverters draw a small amount of power even when they aren’t actively powering an appliance, so tap the green power button on the Xantrex remote panel whenever you don’t need it.

As you can see, there’s a small learning curve associated with having always-available AC power. But we found that after only a week or having it, we were hooked on the convenience of being able to run the coffeemaker and reheat a leftover in the microwave even while camped far off in remote places.

The Xantrex Freedom HFS 2055 is available online for about $800-900.

—By Rich Luhr