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

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.

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.