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

Solar vs Generator?

Lots of new Airstream owners want to find ways to extend their camping time while “boondocking,” (off-grid camping, away from electrical hookups). So inevitably the question comes up: which is better, a generator or solar panels?

Generator AirstreamThe answer comes down to your needs. Generators are the most practical way to have enough power to run very high-wattage appliances like the air conditioner and microwave oven. If you must have air conditioning when not plugged in, you will have to use a generator, and it will need to be capable of at least 2,600 watts peak output, and preferably 3,000 watts.

However, if you can live without your air conditioner and microwave oven, solar panels become a very attractive option. Solar panels are silent, don’t require you to carry fuel, and are virtually maintenance free (other than washing them once in a while). They work without any intervention from you and can keep the batteries in your Airstream charged while it’s in storage.

A major difference is that solar panels only provide power to charge the batteries. They don’t directly power anything, although the batteries will of course power all of your 12-volt devices and can even power low-wattage 120-volt AC appliances like laptops and TVs using an inverter.

Most RV generators have on-board inverters so that they can provide 120-volt AC power directly to the Airstream, just like plugging in. This is convenient but most of the time the generator is producing far more power than you actually need.

If you want a generator primarily to recharge your batteries while camping off-grid, you can get the smallest generator possible. Even a small 1000-watt (rated) generator can typically produce far more power than the batteries will accept at any given time. The rest of the power is wasted, unless you are running the microwave or some other power-hungry AC appliance while the generator is running.

This means that the best time to use the generator is when power demand is high. It’s much easier to avoid using battery power by being plugged into the generator, than to try to recharge battery power later. Use the generator in the morning and evening when you are cooking and using lights and water pump, and the power needed will be supplied by the generator rather than coming from the batteries.

If you want to get a generator, do yourself and your neighbors a favor and get one of the quieter models specifically made for RV use. Both Yamaha and Honda make excellent products which have good reputations for reliability and quietness. If you borrow a “construction” generator from work on your weekend camping trip you will save some money but you won’t be popular when you fire it up—and the noise might detract from the peacefulness of your boondocking site, so what’s the point? Similarly, there are cheaper “knock off” brand generators on the market, but their quality is not up to the standards of the major brands.

Solar’s big advantage is in recharging batteries, so if extending your time at camp is your primary goal, they are the preferred option. Rather than pumping out large amounts of power in short time periods like a generator, solar provides a steady all-day charge will have a much better chance of getting your batteries up to 100%. It’s like the turtle and the hare. With batteries, slow and steady wins the race.

If you have both a generator and solar panels, use the generator when the batteries are heavily discharged (for an hour or so in the morning, for example) to get the bulk charge done quickly, and then let solar finish the job over the course of the day.

If you only have solar, keep in mind that during the morning and mid-day, moderately or heavily discharged batteries will probably accept every amp the panels can generate. Then the charging rate naturally slows down. If the sun is still shining at that point you have surplus power, and so that’s the time of day to plug in all of your rechargeable accessories like phones, cameras, laptops, etc. This strategy takes maximum advantage of the power being generated.

Sometimes people go with generators over solar because they are afraid they won’t have power on a cloudy day. Certainly clouds will drastically reduce the amount of power generated, but you’ll still get some. The solution is to add batteries so that the Airstream has enough power to bridge a cloudy day (or two) without a problem.

If you are considering adding solar panels, keep in mind that the solar panels should be sized to approximately match the capacity of the batteries in the Airstream. If the panels produce a lot more power in a typical day than the batteries can store, you’ll have wasted money on expensive panels. If the panels are too small, they might not produce enough power to keep the batteries charged, which can lead to short battery life if the trailer is not plugged in regularly (such as during long-term storage).

It’s hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison of generators and solar panels, because as you can see, they perform very differently. It’s even hard to pin down a cost for comparison, because the output of each option can vary widely. Quiet RV generators from Honda and Yamaha range from 1,000 watt units suitable for battery re-charging and small appliances, up to big 3,000 watt units to run the air conditioner. Solar panel systems (including battery banks) can run from 50 watts up (typically 200-400 watts will fit on the roof, plus more possible using portable panels), and the costs of an installed system are likewise varied. Keep in mind that comparing wattages is not useful since the solar panel runs whenever the sun shines, and the generator usually only runs for short times.

You’ll need to decide which option you prefer, and then talk to a solar installer, or shop generator prices. RV solar specialists are in many parts of the country (some are even mobile and will come to you) and they can help determine the optimal size of your battery bank and provide solar panels to match.

Either way, upgrading your Airstream to give you more boondocking time is a great advantage. It will open up new travel options for you and eliminate worries about running out of power when on a long trip or during storage.

For more, pick up your copy of Rich Luhr’s books, “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming” and “Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” at the Airstream Life store.

How to improve your battery charging while boondocking

Nancy in Casa Grande, Arizona has questions about battery power:

“We are interested in upgrading the battery in our Airstream, and the converter to one that will charge via the generator better than the factory model. We want the battery to last longer when we dry camp, and have a converter that charges without running the generator for hours on end. The Xantrex was really overkill for us and the price for the amount of time we spend dry camping seemed a bit high. Is there a less high end unit available (we really don’t need a lot of the features)?”

Nancy, good question—and you’ve actually asked two separate questions. First, no matter what type of battery you use, it can only put out as much power as it can store. So to get more camping time when “off grid”, you need larger capacity batteries or more batteries (or both). Look at the “C/20” amp-hour rating of batteries—the higher, the better.

The trade-off will be increased weight, size, and expense, so think carefully about how much power capacity you need. Also consider where larger or more numerous batteries will fit in your Airstream. A professional solar consultant can be very helpful here.

Your second question was about the converter/charger. Upgrading the converter/charger won’t dramatically speed up the charge rate of the batteries. The battery is the primary limitation when it comes to charge rate. A “3-stage” charger will help a little, but you’ll still be running the generator for hours to get the battery full.

TriMetric 2020
TriMetric 2020

A better choice for frequent boondockers is a solar panel in conjunction with your generator. Use the generator for short “bulk” charges when the battery is low. Turn the generator off when the battery reaches about 80% or the charging rate slows down to a trickle. Then let the solar panel do the rest of the work over the course of the day.

You’ll need to install a good battery amp-hour monitor so you can see the battery charge rate, which will add about $200 to the tab, but for extended camping without power hookups it’s well worth the investment.

Secrets of Power: The Xantrex TrueCharge 2

Most travel trailers are built for weekend use. That mean the factory equips them with a battery or two that is sufficient to power the trailer for about two nights without being plugged in. After that, it’s time to find a source of power.

So it’s not surprising that not long after an Airstream owner begins to travel a bit more away from the KOAs and toward bucolic and private boondocking sites, they begin to look for ways to extend their power capacity. The next step is often a generator or solar panels, and a new set of batteries with greater capacity. Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) batteries such as Optima and Lifeline are a typical choice because they last a long time, can be deeply discharged, and are maintenance free.

But then an interesting problem crops up, one that most Airstreamers—and even many RV repair technicians—don’t know about. The power converter built into your Airstream isn’t optimized for charging AGM batteries. Often it will undercharge them, particularly in cold weather.

People tend not to notice this unless they have also installed a highly accurate battery monitor, because the factory installed monitors are only rough estimators of the battery state of charge. So they are often misled into thinking the batteries are being fully recharged. But incomplete charging results in shortened battery life. Batteries will only have their longest possible life if they recharged to full after every use.

To truly get the most out of your new AGM batteries you need to replace the factory installed power converter too.

Only a few brands of power converters have the built-in capability to provide the correct voltages needed for AGM batteries. For this review, we upgraded an Airstream Safari to a Xantrex TrueCharge 2 (60 amp model) to see the difference in performance and the ease of installation.

The conversion job is fairly straightforward for a handy person, taking about 2-4 hours. Installing the Xantrex is easy; it’s removing the old converter that gets into a little mechanical surgery, because the factory charger is built into the same case as the fuse panel and circuit breaker panel. Separating the lower charging unit from the rest requires a drill, wire cutter/stripper, screw drivers and Torx drivers, a nut driver, and a few other basic tools. (Documentation for this job with photos can be found around the ‘net by Googling “replace power converter Airstream”.)

Once the old power converter is removed, installation of the Xantrex is painless. The Xantrex TrueCharge 2 is a beautifully crafted device that looks like it should be on display somewhere. As one friend commented, “It’s way too pretty to be installed inside,” but indeed that’s where it goes. It screws down to the floor securely, and then connecting it is a matter of butt-splicing six wires (ground, DC – and DC+, and three wires for AC), which takes only a few minutes. Since it’s designed for marine and RV use, everything on it is marine grade. Providing rubber covers for the wire connections is a nice touch, typical of this high-end unit.

The TrueCharge 2 is pre-programmed for 3-stage charging of “wet cell” batteries. Changing settings to provide optimal charge for AGM batteries is a matter of pressing two buttons. Once done, the output voltage jumps to the correct level for AGMs, which means those batteries will be charged to their fullest capacity. This was the feature we were looking for in our test Airstream, since other brands such as Parallax and Intellipower provide just one output voltage for all types of batteries.

The TrueCharge 2 can also support up to three separate battery banks, and can even run in parallel with a second charger for really large installations, but most Airstreamers won’t need those features. A single 40-amp or 60-amp TrueCharge 2 will be sufficient to replace the original factory unit.

TrueCharge Remote
TrueCharge Remote

The LED display on the case shows exactly what the unit is doing (rate of charge, type of battery, etc), but since it will be hidden out of sight, adding the optional Remote Panel is a wise choice. This panel connects with a simple telephone-style cable, and can be mounted on the wall anywhere within 25 feet. As a bonus, the Remote Panel adds a few features that the onboard TrueCharge 2 display doesn’t provide. If we are to be totally honest, it is also just plain cool-looking. You might never touch it again, but all those colorful LEDs certainly make for a nice display.

Battery Temperature Sensor
Battery Temperature Sensor

A particularly useful option is the Battery Temperature Sensor. This measures the temperature of the battery and allows the charger to compensate. Warm batteries need lower charging voltages; cold batteries need more voltage. If you simply slip the sensor over the negative post of the battery and run the provided wire back to the TrueCharge 2, it will figure the optimal temperature compensation automatically. If you don’t use the Battery Sensor you can still manually compensate for temperature using buttons on the Remote Panel.

Interestingly, since the TrueCharge 2 was designed for worldwide markets, it can accept input voltages of 90 to 265 volts AC. With that and other protections built into it, it’s unlikely to be damaged by excessively high or low voltage at the campground. It also has a battery equalization (or “de-sulfation”) mode that helps maintain the batteries.

Once the TrueCharge is in place and power is applied, it checks the batteries and then starts silently maintaining them. Although it has a built-in fan like the original converter, it rarely runs and when it does it’s much quieter. It’s also considerably lighter than the old converter because it isn’t mounted in a bunch of heavy sheet metal. Overall: it looks, feels, and operates like the major upgrade that it is.

Xantrex is known for premium products, and the TrueCharge 2 doesn’t disappoint. Running about $600 online for the 60-amp model, Remote Panel, and Battery Temperature Sensor, it’s a good investment for Airstreamers who like to get the most out of their power system. Smart, well-designed, flexible, and in every way an improvement over the original gear, it’s a device befitting an Airstream.