Trip logistics: camper strategy

58. Fernandina020DSCF9416Many people have been curious about the logistics of our trip – how we decided where to go, our route, where we stayed, camping arrangements, etc. – so I’ll be putting up several posts about the practical side of the trip. This first one is about how we decided to buy a trailer, and how we set it up for the trip. Subsequent posts will deal with campground living and life on the road in general.

Accommodations strategy .  As we began to imagine this trip, one of the central questions was, where would we stay? So as I roughed out a map for our route, the first thing I plotted was where we had family and friends we could visit, since seeing people was one of our main goals. This ended up being a lot of where we stayed – 37 different friends’ households, for a total of 102 nights – about 40% of our trip. This covered much of the territory from Minneapolis to the East, and down the East Coast to Florida, with later friends in New Orleans, Texas and California.

When I considered the big gaps in between friends, at first I thought we might just stay in cheap motels like I used to, then I reassessed. Cheap motels used to be $30-40, but now I was seeing them around $100 in some places. They were seldom comfortable, had uncontrollable ventilation systems, and were usually noisy – I always seemed to get a room next to someone who would turn on the television full-blast when he came in drunk at 2:00 in the morning. There’s the growing bedbug issue, and with a fourteen-year-old girl in tow, I worried more about safety than I did when I was on my own.

There were also the less tangible issues of inhabitation. This wasn’t going to be a short trip – we would be on the road for nine months, and I realized Greta needed a home for that period, rather than schlepping her stuff into a strange motel every few days. (And not insignificantly, having to pack stuff up all the time, with the problem of leaving things behind.) Then I thought about where such motels were usually located – on big arterials at the edge of metropolitan areas, ground zero for sprawl. Staying in motels would sentence us to spending a good portion of every day negotiating unfamiliar sprawl, with its illegibility, horrific traffic, terrible chain restaurants, and general ugliness; we would travel the whole country, but often be in exactly the same homogenized environment. A final problem was that we planned to spend time away from cities and civilization, where finding a vacancy in a motel might be difficult. When I looked at all these issues, it became clear that we needed a vehicle to live in.

I had never owned a trailer before this trip. In fact, I’d never slept in a trailer, RV, van or whatever. In my family, roughing it was a house with one bathroom. I did a reasonable amount of backpacking and hiking when I was young, and my family didn’t get it – why would you sleep in a tent if you weren’t in the army? As I got older I never made the transition to car-camping, with its stationary aspect and its loads of gear. I would sleep in sailboats on coastal cruises, and after I moved to Oregon I would sometimes sleep in the back of the car on one of my not-infrequent cross-country drives (I’ve just competed my 11th). But as I never saw the point of motorized camping, I knew nothing about its requirements and customs, and so I started from scratch a year ago as we began to plot this trip.

I also realized that the camper idea would be useful for visiting friends, as we could sleep in their houses, or we could stay in our camper in their driveways, essentially bringing our own guest room with us. This latter strategy worked quite well, as it lowered the imposition factor: we felt more comfortable inviting ourselves to stay with people if we could say that at a basic level what we really needed was a driveway, an extension cord, and access to a bathroom. They could decide of they wanted to have us sleep in their houses, but if it already was a pretty full house, being able to get out of their hair and not disrupting their daily routines made it much less of an imposition.

Finding a camper.  So I began my research for a camper online, and was bewildered by all the options – old VW buses, conversion vans, camper tops for my pickup, RVs (which have a whole confusing nomenclature of Class A through D, which it is assumed you understand), fifth-wheels, pop-ups, trailers. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I was looking at used vehicles online; I also knew from almost 50 years of sailing that only completely ignorant or very well-off people buy new boats, as the cost-benefit ratio of used vessels is so much better. Given my complete lack of experience and knowledge in this arcane world, I postponed my search until we got to Whidbey Island last summer, where I have two friends who both have a lot of experience with campers, and who are experts in guy toys: if it has an engine and wheels, Mike and Craig know all about it.

I knew I didn’t want an RV – nothing that big, expensive, hard to navigate around cities, and gas-guzzling. As I already drove a pickup with an eight-foot bed, I started by looking at camper tops that would fit in the back, and eventually found all their problems. They make a vehicle top-heavy, and I’d have to retrofit some serious tie-down anchors on my truck (as well as air bags for the suspension). They aren’t very roomy. As I looked at their specs, I realized that most of them are built more like mobile homes than vehicles – they are framed with wood and have sheathing applied, which means that the old ones are often leaky and rotting, and all of them are surprisingly heavy. My truck is full-sized, but it is only an F-150, and while I can tow 7000 pounds, I can only carry about 1500 in the bed. After weeks of searching for a cheap, light, and not-terrible camper top, I gave up – it is just too depressing spending your time online looking at really crappy old campers.

Some experienced friends had strongly recommended vans, which run the gamut from old Westfalias, through modified American commercial vans, to those cool new Mercedes conversion vans that cost $150,000. Many of them seemed to meet our needs just fine, but I confronted the one big problem: I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so a new van was out; and if I were buying a used van, I’d probably be buying an old vehicle with problems, none of which I’d know about in advance. I had visions of wasting time getting unanticipated repairs when we’d rather be seeing the country, and never being quite sure that we could rely on it. My truck was 16 years old, but it only had 75,000 miles on it, and I knew that it had been well-cared for its whole life. So I decided we’d use the engine we knew and could probably trust, and shifted the search over to trailers.

Whereas all camper tops are pretty much alike, there are a lot more options with trailers. Size, materials, appointments, price range. We looked at the short end of the spectrum – under 16 feet, but even most of those didn’t meet our needs. As with the camper tops, they were wood-framed, heavy (up to 6000 pounds), and with their metal-panel sheathing, subject to leaks and rot. They generally present an 8 by 8 foot blank wall forward, the lack of streamlining causing big mileage problems. They also tried to replicate everything found in a house, badly; we wanted a stripped-down camper, not a box crammed with complicated systems that could break. There was also the aesthetic problem. We’re architects, I design housing, and we care about the environments in which we live – we had just spent ten years building our summer house, and every material and detail was considered and finessed ad infinitum. I just couldn’t imagine spending a year in a trailer where all the finishes were even cheaper versions of the crappy materials found in typical American houses, particle-board panels covered with vinyl film imitating wood grain (being inured to our design obsessions, Greta didn’t care).

As with almost all consumer products made in this country, I despaired of finding anything that would meet our criteria, until one evening in Coupeville I ran into our friend Lori. I mentioned how Greta and I were planning this trip, and looking for a camper. She said she and her husband Jim had just bought a Scamp, a small and light fiberglass trailer, and that I should look at a website called fiberglassrvsforsale.com. I did, and realized this was it – the Scamps, Casitas, Trilliums, etc., were small and light, built more like boats than houses. They had relatively simple systems (fewer things to break), and the interior finishes were largely inoffensive. After a couple of weeks searching, I found one for sale in Montana, and my brother and I drove there to pick it up last August.

Peregrine – our 16-foot Scamp

05. Wyoming104P1030708

It was 30 years old, and until it was bought by a young couple the prior year, it had been owned by one old guy who kept it in a garage. We paid $7000 for it, realizing that we could just sell it for the same amount at the end of the trip if we wanted. It is a streamlined 16 feet long (including the 3-foot trailer tongue), 6′-6″ wide, and weighs 1300 pounds – I don’t really even notice that I’m towing it, and it seems to take 2 miles per gallon off our mileage. The arrangements were simple – a settee across the bow (Greta and I devolved to nautical terminology, as it is so like a boat), which converts to narrow bunk beds, a closet room for a portable head (toilet), a hanging closet, and then a galley – sink and counter on one side, with a propane range and refrigerator on the other.DSCF7933

Across the stern there is a dinette which can be converted to a bigger berth. There is an operable skylight and jalousie windows for ventilation. A propane tank and 12-volt battery with a small PV panel are mounted on the trailer tongue.DSCF7931

We bought a new self-contained head to put in the closet, to be used in the middle of the night in strange campgrounds in the rain – otherwise, walk to the bathroom. The sink had a pump for water from a ten-gallon tank. The oven was difficult to light, but we realized we’d never use it anyway. The refrigerator can be powered by 110-volt shore power, the 12-volt battery, or on propane. I didn’t want to worry about the complications of energy management on a long trip just to keep some condiments cold, so we decided to use an ice chest when we needed to, and I kept my sweaters in the refrigerator. (When we start using the trailer on short trips, we will probably get the refrigerator going.) There is a propane heater we never used – lighting it was complicated, and I didn’t want to have combustion in our living space when we were sleeping – too many worriers with leaking gas, fire and carbon monoxide. When we were in a campground with shore power, we plugged in and ran a small electric convection heater, which was always adequate. If we didn’t have power, we piled sleeping bags on top of our beds. The few times it was hot and humid in Florida, we pulled a fan out of the truck bed.

In decades cruising in small sailboats, I had never seen anyone eat a meal sitting in a dinette, and as I’ve aged, the idea that one could sleep well on a bed made from a dropped table and four two-inch thick cushions pieced together was ludicrous. If an important reason to have a trailer is to bring your own domestic environment, a comfortable bed seemed to be the crucial factor. So we bought an eight-inch thick king-size latex mattress at IKEA, and used an electric carving knife to cut it into berths for me and Greta, which were permanently in place, not converted to some other use.DSCF7956

When we ate in the trailer, Greta and I sat side-by-side on the edge of my berth, and each of us had a countertop right at hand to hold our plates.

The layout worked very well – rather than lying in two parallel berths with a two-foot space in between, we each had our own end of the cabin, with the galley and closets in between, preserving the illusion of personal space. Linda rigged up a curtain for Greta’s berth in the bow, so if she wanted to get away from me into her own zone, she could just pull that closed. (She also became quite adept at wiggling into her clothing while in this narrow space.)

Most importantly, the aesthetic problems were solved. The Scamp is a fiberglass shell made in two pieces and riveted together, with a white vinyl liner (giving it an R-value of about 1.3). Rather than having frames, the shell is braced by the fiberglass cabinetwork and bulkheads, which are bolted through the shell. (Amazingly, only one of these leaked and was easily repaired.) The cabinets were also white fiberglass and fine – the whole look was very much like a boat. But someone had painted the cabinet doors a depressing grey, and the hardware was the overly-ornate bronze seen all too often. The carpet and upholstery were in the awful patterns not seen since the late 1970s. So the carpet was replaced by rubber sheet flooring, as it struck us that unwashable carpet was a terrible idea in a camper, and the cushions were replaced by the mattresses with sheets. The cabinet doors were spray-painted white, and new chrome hardware was installed. We threw away the horrible curtains (if we needed privacy, we clipped a towels across windows, which also helped the towels to dry). With some big pillows and Pendleton blankets, the trailer was clean-lined but homey, and we felt really comfortable in it. We’d lounge on our berths blogging or reading in the evenings. Greta named the trailer Peregrine (after her spirit animal), and hence this blog became Peregrine Nation.DSCF8114

Getting a trailer rather than a camper top also left the whole four-by-eight foot truck bed available for storage. This turned out to be even more important than anticipated, as we had to take so much stuff for a full year – boxes of books, winter clothes and boots, summer clothes, a laundry hamper, hiking gear, a second spare trailer tire, truck and trailer gear, a small portable bar, an ice chest, sleeping bags and extra blankets, a box for souvenirs and gifts, etc. If we’d had to pack this all into the camper it would have been really cramped, and getting to things would have been very inconvenient. In the truck bed we organized gear into cardboard boxes – boots and shoes in one, hats in another, books in a third, etc. – and we could reach into them while standing on the outside of the truck bed. We each brought enough clothes to last us a month – I didn’t want to waste time in laundromats when we could be seeing cool places instead, so once a month we had a lot of laundry to do, usually at a friend’s house. The truck bed storage also solved another problem – security. We didn’t kid ourselves that the trailer wouldn’t be easy to break into, and we didn’t want to leave cameras and computers in the truck cab, where they could be seen. The truck bed has a very solid fiberglass lid, with automotive-quality locks, and no one can look in and see your stuff. Every time we left the vehicles for more than ten minutes, we locked the valuables in the truck bed, and we never had a problem.

Compared to the giant RVs we came across everywhere, our trailer was so simple and had so few moving parts that there were few problems.  Two blown tires were the only notable exception.  I had bought two new tires from Les Schwab in Missoula, after an ancient tire that came with the trailer blew on I-90.  The new tires were warrantied for 15,000 miles.  They both blew out, one in Texas, and one in Las Vegas, with an average mileage of 15, 013 miles.  Les Schwab knows their products.  After this we carried two spares – one on a wheel, and another not, as we had discovered that if you’re away from large cities, it might take a few days to get a tire to a town, and we had no desire to be driving dirt roads in the Southwestern desert without a spare.

Like everything else on our trip, the trailer turned out to be much better than we expected. It quickly felt like our home – after three days staying with Frances in their beautiful apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, Greta told me that she sort of missed our little trailer. For me the strange moment occurred when we had parked in downtown Albany, across the street from the New York State history museum. We toured around the state government campus, returned to our trailer, unlocked the door, and stepped into our bedroom. I realized I could just take a nap right there if I wanted to. The public/private buffer that we take for granted was bizarrely askew.

At the end of the trip, Greta declared that she considered Peregrine hers – any idea we had of selling it disappeared. Greta had never been very interested in learning to drive before, but now she is motivated, so she and her friends can take camping trips into the mountains. I don’t know how I feel contemplating her behind the wheel of the big rig.

I too have become very enamored of the camper lifestyle, and I can imagine doing this for a few months every winter after we retire. But if Greta will have Peregrine, we’ll need to get our own camper, which will give me the opportunity to correct her few faults. The top of the list is thermal performance, followed by a greater ability to be completely self-sufficient, away from campground facilities. At this point I envision a Passive House level thermal envelope, a rooftop solar array, a composting toilet, and stealth capability, so we can camp on city streets and not be noticed. I’ve got a few years to figure this all out, but until then we’ll keep Peregrine on the road with shorter trips.

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2 thoughts on “Trip logistics: camper strategy

  1. Elizabeth Ganey

    Hi Peter,

    Liz Mahoney (Ganey) here. Somehow I stumbled across your blog recently…probably doing some deep OLS digging. I wish I’d found it sooner…then you could have stayed with me and my family in the Bay Area. Hope all is well and that you remember me as one of your Sorrows classmates!

    Best, Liz >

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  2. Peter Keyes

    Hi Liz – Amazing to hear from you! I’ve tried to find childhood girl friends, but the name-change issue makes it hard. Drop me a note at petertwoshedskeyes@gmail.com and tell me what you’ve been up to for the past 40 years, and I’ll do the same. Cheers!

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