Different friends, acquaintances, and others who have come across my blog have asked for more details of the lifestyle of dry camping and living-on-wheels in a small rig with two felines. This entry talks about breaking and setting up camp, ideas on dry camping, meeting people, ongoing tasks, keeping in touch, staying active, and other things to give an idea of what it’s like day to day. When I first started thinking about doing this back in 2005, there was not really a whole lot of info on the web that I found to be useful. Even now, just about all of the full-timing sites are geared to large rigs and living in RV parks. Even the sites on boondocking and dry camping focused on all the gear one could pack into a much larger RV. I found them pretty worthless. Then again, I have a camper’s mindset, not an Rver’s mindset.
I want this to be informative and somewhat entertaining so I’m using some writer’s leeway here. Everything that I state does/has happened. I’m just putting it all in the frame of a couple of weeks. Sohere goes.
It’s a Sunday so no traveling today. If I need road assistance, a mechanic, or some such thing, it’s easier to get it on weekdays so I don’t travel on Fridays and weekends. Meadow and Onyx go out when I get up. After rolling up the sleeping bag, it’s outside to practice Tai Chi. Since it was not too cold, breakfast will be prepared outside on the Coleman stove set up on a folding table, but first something hot to drink.
The sun comes up soon after sitting down in a Low Rider chair with a mug of yerba maté and a book. Meadow and Onyx come over from time to time and I throw some pinecones for Meadow to chase. Strange cat. Then I’ll do an hour or so of exercise. For breakfast I mixed up pancake mix with an egg, sunflower seeds, whey protein, bran flakes, a banana, and milk. Then I poured it into a cast iron pan to cook. Very filling.
A 7-gal Reliance water jug sits on the table. There’s also a soap dish, microfiber towel, bottle of dish soap, and scrubby always out. If one uses the freshwater holding tank, it’s also handy to use the outside drain spigot for washing and filling up bottles. Put a couple handfuls of pebbles on the ground under the spigot so the ground doesn’t get all muddy. The casita locker door can easily be propped open with a channel of aluminum angle just long enough to span the door width. LIGHT supplies can then be kept on top of the flat door (it’s like a tiny table).
The Coleman stove has not been cleaned in a while so I take care of that and check over my mountain bike. Around 9:00 or so, M/O are ready to go in for their morning nap. I lock them inside and go for a ride. No single tracks here but there are miles of little-used dirt roads. Came across a nice stream after a couple hours, rinsed off, had a snack, and headed back to camp.
When I got back I opened the locker door so M/O can go out if they want (cut a cat door in the rear bench inside). Heated up a light lunch and afterwards sat down with a book and a mug of coffee. I later spent time walking around in the woods with my longbow shooting at pinecones.
I gathered firewood. My fires are small so I only gather wood with limbs around an inch or so thick which can be broken to length by stepping on them or breaking over a knee. Larger branches are left as part of the natural system. Rather than put up a ring of stones one can scoop out a shallow pit with a one-piece surplus shovel. One can also make a low-impact fire in a steel oil-drain pan or go to a CAL ranch store and purchase one of those steel feed pans for $6. One can place the pan up on some flat rocks so the soil won’t even get scorched. The all too popular large campfires cover up the night sounds and limit what one can see in the dark. The old small Indian/trapper/cowboy-type fires enable one to have a fire and still not be cut off from the night. Also coals are quickly formed with the smaller wood and give off quite a bit of consistent heat. Before breaking camp, be sure the ashes are ABSOLUTELY cold and fill in the pit or bury the ashes from the feed pan. Without a ring of stones, it’s easier to ‘leave no trace’. It’s also a misconception that an encircling ring of rocks will keep a fire from spreading. Actually, the rocks can explode from intense heat sending embers out into the grass and up into the trees, as well as, sending rock shards into those sitting around the campfire. Way coolnature’s shrapnel.
Keep a box of simple birthday candles around. One candle will easily get a fire started without paper. I cut them in half since that’s all it ever takes anyway.
If you will be disperse camping off forest roads, the ground is often slanted and you might be parked across a slope. The small shovel is also priceless for leveling the trailer. There have been times when I’ve had the downhill wheel up on three inches of blocks and the trailer is nowhere near being level. Just back up a yard, shovel out a trench for the uphill wheel, pull forward, the wheel drops in the rut and, as if by magic, the trailer is level! Remember to fill in the trench after you pull out. The old leave-no-trace.
M/O come out late afternoon to roam around. Planned next day’s route with DeLorme. Dinner is oriental noodles with brussels sprouts, an extra hot dried chili pod, Thai sauce, TVP, whey protein, and nutritional yeast thrown in. Afterwards I took a walk with M/O.
The evening was spent sitting on the Low Rider next to a low flame fire with a Petzl headlamp, paperback, and a glass of wine. At one point as I’m sitting there in the dark, a weight comes down on my shoulderand stays there! Just as I’m about to launch up out of the seat, I realize it’s Onyx. He stood up behind me and put his front paws on my shoulder. Thank the gods I wasn’t reading Stephen King.
Meadow and Onyx are always brought in for the night.
I generally start to break camp the evening before I plan to move out. Roll awning in (& tie the front end, just in case), take wheel covers off, fold up ground tarp if one is staked out, pack mountain bike and just about everything else that is out. I check tires, oil, coolant, windshield wash, and clean the windshield. Back the Cherokee to within a couple inches of hitch and hook up chains and break-away cable so in the morning it’s a real quick hookup with just jacking up the trailer and backing the final few inches.
Up at 5:00 a.m., M/O go out and it’s yerba maté and a paperback for me. Later it’s granola with a banana for breakfast. After I snag M/O and put them in the trailer, I’ll start to get ready to leave. If I don’t snag them, they’ll take off when they see me packing up. I switch the fridge from propane to 12V, wash fruit for the road, fill a couple of Nalgenes, distributed items for travel, close windows and blinds. Hook up trailer, perform pre-trip checks, move litter box to Jeep, transfer M/O to the Cherokee, and do a final walk-around.
When dry-camping, especially in pristine places, I pull the rig out a ways when all set to go and walk back to naturalize the area by replacing rocks and scattering leaves and twigs around the site, maybe sweeping out tracks with a straw broom and scrub rakeleave no trace. I know, it’s a bit much, but I think of what I would like to see if I pulled into the spot.
A custom roof rack was made for the Cherokee which carries: mountain bike, 6-ft ladder, folding table, folding cat cage, a medium size tub containing supplies, Reliance water jugs, 2-gal gasoline jug, and a 5-gal bucket.
Drove on two lane roads for just about a hundred miles while charging Tracfone and iPod nano. Filled up water jugs in a town we passed through. Turned onto a national forest road. An older, narrower road went off from this one. Pulled over and walked down a few hundred yards to see if it was passable and if there might be a place to camp. Yep, a small meadow, and wonder of wondersa small stream. I don’t seem to come across all that many streams while camping with the trailer.
Backed in where I wanted to be and let M/O out. Chocked wheels and leveled the trailer. Propped open locker door in case M/O wanted to go inside. Staked down one of those 6’x8’ blue tarps for a patio rug since the ground was more dirt than grass. They pack up small and sure keep a lot of dirt out of the rig. Home Depot’s brown tarps are twice as thick but the blue looks good and one $5 tarp lasts for over a year (I rarely camp on gravel). Also put out a doormat. Hung the pet cage outside the emergency window with a T-section of PVC pipe to support it. Dug a hole for the post with a Japanese digging knifea very useful tool.
Turned on propane in casita, started refrigerator, redistributed items from travel mode to living mode, and took down the mountain bike. Set up folding table, stove, Reliance, and accessories. M/O are out checking our new ‘yard.’
If I’m going to be in a camping spot for a couple weeks or so and will not be making a water-run, I won’t even unhitch the trailer if it is near level. Just jack it up enough to take the weight off the back of the Cherokee. If I have to lower the trailer to get it level, I’ll pull the Jeep forward a few inches so I can drop the trailer tongue and clear the ball. I’ll leave the chains and break-away cable hooked up. This makes it way easy to hookup when it’s time to leave, especially if traveling solo.
Gray water. Car campers, tenters, and people in tent trailers dump their gray water on the ground. I do the same thing. The only sink that gets used in my trailer is the galley sink. I pour a little Pine-Sol (the ‘outdoors’ scent, definitely not the original scent) down the drain and when the water is dumped, there is not much of a smell (if you added the right amount of blue Pine Sol). (2014 update: Now I generally use scented bleach. [cheaper and just as effective]) Every two days, I drain the gray water into a bucket and carry it away from camp to pour in some inconspicuous spot, like into a stump. It’s only about a half a bucket of water for two days, not much, and it’s only gray water.
I set up what I call a ‘rim-rope’ to get some exercise. The lip around the center of fiberglass trailers is a half-inch thick and plenty strong. In the middle of this lip across the back of the casita, I drilled two holes about three inches apart. I thread 12’ of ¼” rope through the holes, make a loop at each end through which is threaded a five inch piece of PVC for handles. One grabs the handles, leans back, and does various bodyweight exercises to work the deltoids, pectorals, lower back, neck, trapezius, triceps, biceps, forearms, and legs. I’ve been using this set-up for quite some time and there are no stress cracks in the fiberglass. Not that there would be. You can see the simple setup in the photo on the ‘index page’ entry.
Spent the next few days: hiking, biking, practicing zazen and Tai Chi, working with silver, reading, shooting the longbow, slinging, trying to master the atlatyl, playing solitaire Mexican Train (I know, doesn’t quite work), put together a jigsaw and some tangram puzzles, playing with M/O, working on the MacBook, going for mug walks, taking care of a few chores, plinking at pinecones with a pellet pistol, and chuckling about how much I’m enjoying myself. Started up the Honda 1000 after four days to charge the house battery (pre-solar panel), MacBook, and iPod nano. Also vacuumed the trailer. Reminds me of the joke: I hate houseworkmake the bed, do the dishes, vacuum, wash the windows. And six months lateryou have to do it all over again.
The inside rear table is always left up and used for meals, working, and whatever. The side table is always left down and the four cushions are laid out as a long sofa and for sleeping. The standard cushions are fine for sleeping if one is not overweight and is in decent shape. A sleeping bag with a liner is used, rather than have the bother of sheets and blankets, and can easily be stuffed in a sack in the morning. The stuffed bag makes a comfortable cushion in the evenings.
I average two gallons of water use a day. That’s what generally limits my dry camping to 2-week periods. If I am by a stream where I can gather cleaning water, I can stay out 3 weeks. I used to use both a French press and a SS Cabelas percolator for making coffee but they both take extra water to clean them. Now I just put a scoop of coffee (medium ground) in my mug, pour in hot water and let it steep. Cowboy coffee, except the scoop goes in the mug rather than the pot. Be sure to use a tall, insulated mug with a lid or you might have a problem with the grounds (I hate warm coffee) and remember not to take the last couple of sips. The coffee tastes great and cleanup uses much less water. For yerba maté, I use a stainless steel teaball.
I put a couple gallons of water in a 5-gal solar shower bag whenever I am going to be dry-camping for more than a few days and throw it up on the roof rack so I’ll have hot water. I clean up with a washcloth each night and use the solar shower a couple times a week mostly for shampooing. If one doesn’t overeat and eats low on the food chain their body does not tend to stink so daily showers are not necessary. A washcloth rinse is enough. Concerning the solar bag, the hose connection will start to leak. Sealing it with Goop brand adhesive/sealant works great. Also, don’t fill up the whole bag. Five gallons of water takes a long time to get hot. One gallon of water should be enough for a shampoo and washcloth bath. Have the bag partially supported when in use, draped over something. Just hanging it from a branch puts too much tension on the handle and it will eventually rip.
Making like a bear also cuts way down on water use in the camper. The ‘cat hole method’ is environmentally sound if the holes are deep enough (use the Japanese digging knife [a plastic trowel is popular but half the time, the soil requires a steel tool]) and be sure to burn the TP (keep a Bic lighter with the TP). Some say that one can not call themselves a true camper unless they can say, “Yep, I’ve sh*t in the woods.”
Laundry is the other factor that drives me into a town after two or three weeks. Another plus for eating low on the food chain is that one’s shirts don’t start to stink after a day so one can wear them longer. Use an Absorber towel or a 3 square foot microfiber ‘drying’ towel (found in the automotive section at Wal-mart) after a shower followed by a hand towel to fully dry hair. One gets just as dry without the bulk that bath towels take up. Have enough boxers and socks for all three weeks (washing them out uses too much water when dry camping). Use microfiber towels for dish towels. If one does need washing, it takes less water. If you use them as cushioning between plates and bowls, and to wrap glasses when on the road, you’ll always have plenty around. If water is available, one of those 5-gallon buckets that you can pick up at someplace like Home Depot works really well for washing clothes. Do a handful of clothes every other day, an item or two at a time. You can get a pretty strong cleansing action going. If there is access to water, one can stay out of laundromats during the summer months. I really do not like having to use laundromats.
One can conserve propane by not lighting the stove pilot and just use a striker to light the burners. Also, if you use the water heater, leave it on PILOTit heats up the water just fine. Don’t bother moving it to the ON position. Of course, if one has the newer electronic ignitionsyou’re out of luck.
Time to get a social fix. Broke camp and had lunch at a small café and talked with the waitress and a couple of other customers, walked around town making an effort to start conversations. Went into the library, accessed my accounts and checked billing, emailed friends, and emailed my UPS store to let them know where to forward my next bunch of mail. Sometimes I’ll check geocaching.com to see if there are any caches near where I plan to camp next. Humor is always helpful in life so I check joke sites from time to time, to get a chuckle and pick up new jokes. It feels good to give others a laugh. I also checked to see if there were any upcoming local events that I might be interested in and would want to stick around for.
I don’t like driving over a hundred miles before looking for a forest road to turn off onto. Many choose to stay at primitive campground for more social interaction. One can meet other campers by walking over with some paperbacks to see if they want to exchange books; by going for mug walks in the mornings; or taking their pet for walks in the afternoons. There might be campers in a different type of rig that would give you an opening for a conversation. There might even be a bicycle touring group staying the night with some good stories to share.
For breakfast I sautéed some garlic and chilies in a cast iron skillet, added about 1 ½ cups of frozen vegetables and continued cooking until they are almost defrosted, added two eggs, mixed well, and finished cooking. Omelet ingredients but it sure won’t look like an omelet. It tastes great.
In a few days I planned to move to another camping spot. It was going to be a short drive so I drove back into town and volunteered at the library shelving a cart of books. It’s also a good way to find out about new books and authors that I’m not familiar with, as well as, learn about community events and things to do in the area.
Some helpful sites to find free wi-fi as one travels around are:
jiwire.com - wififreespot.com - wifi411.com
openwifispots.com - wi-fihotspotlist.com
Avoid any network that calls itself ‘Free Public WiFi’ with no sponsor named; hackers could be seeking your data.
Other locations to check for wi-fi are visitor centers, libraries, coffee shops, and, if you have the misfortune to be by an interstate, check out truck stops. Also, more and more laundromats, pubs, bookstores, and restaurants offer wi-fi. A few times I’ve made a town run only to find the library was closed or their wi-fi was down. I then walked into a motel with my Mac and asked if I could sit in their lobby and access their wi-fi. I’ve never had a refusal.
There are different ways to look at the safety/security issue while one is off dry-camping with no other rigs around. First off, stay alert and aware of your surroundings (just something one should be doing all the time anyway). If possible, try to find a spot out of sight of the dirt road you drove in on. If no one sees youno one knows you are there (unless you make noise or have a campfire). One can also wipe out your tire tracks with a broom and shrub rake. Chances are that if someone sees you, there still won’t be a problem. Make your site look like there are more people there than there is. Have two or three chairs out if you are camping alone, along with coffee mugs. Maybe solo women could pick up two pairs of men’s boots at a thrift shop to leave outside the rig. A large dog bowl with water by the steps might be a deterrent (even if you only have a cat). When someone drives by either smile and wave or stay out of sight so they won’t know what you look like (unless you look like a football lineman). If there are other campers nearby, some campers keep a hand-held marine air horn handy to signal a disturbance. A Stanley Wonder Bar or other pry bar can easily pop a camper’s door in seconds so you might want to have some stuff just inside the door, like a stool or some folded chairs, during the night. You can also drill a hole in the door handle and tie an 1/8” cord between the handle and a stool/chair/whatever. If an intruder pops the door and pulls it open, the stool will come flying out at him. It won’t stop him, but it might startle him and give you a second to grab your handgun. Some people think everyone is of sound mind, basically nonviolent, and bad things only happen to others, so there is no need to have any means to defend oneself while out in the sticks. I say these delusional people should open their eyes and get a handgun. And, most assuredly, get instruction and put in a lot of practice. In a class you will learn when it is justifiable to shoot.
One hears of a gun being taken away from someone and used against him by the criminal. This can easily happen if one hesitates or is of a mind that they will only use the handgun to threaten someone who is breaking in. That’s not going to work. You’ll lose. One needs the mindset of ‘shoot to live.’ You’re a good person; you’re doing nothing wrong; if someone is breaking into your rig in the middle of the night, shoot to live.
As to handguns, automatics are the most popular with good reason. They are reliable and carry more rounds than revolvers. If someone is breaking in, you have to remember if you have a round in the chamber or not and if so, where’s the safety. Or do you have to jack in a round? All while the bad guy is rushing you. You could get a Glock and keep a round chambered. The safety is in the trigger. Automatics jam from time to time, especially if you have a weak grip (letting the pistol move backwards as the slide is working can easily lead to a jam). Then you’re screwed. One could get a revolver. They don’t jam but they only hold six cartridges. There’s no safety; you just point (hopefully aim) and pull the trigger. A .38 with ‘defense loads’ is quite a potent weapon and easier to handle than the heavier loads. Many gun guys will tell you that you need more stopping power. Others will say a .38 with proper loads is enough. Remember you will be doing a double-tap (firing 2 quick rounds). That’s quite a punch.
If you are going off hiking for a few hours or off for a town-run, consider wrapping a heavy motorcycle cable through a trailer wheel and around the axle. People steal small trailers (even with hitch locks), tow them a few miles away, and then break into them. Not good.
If you will be making a town-run, turn off the fridge and propane tanks.
I also: set two chairs up with a paperback on each (w/bookmarks); lay the solar bag out in a place where it will be in the sun the whole time (so one doesn’t question whether you are actually close by); place food & water out for M&M; blinds down (but open); close windows; leave one small window open (one someone couldn’t climb through) with a towel under it to soak up water in case it rains; crank down roof vents most of the way (in case it rains); roll awning in; and clothespin a note to the door. My present note reads:
Jason is off hiking and I’m checking out two other spots to camp.
We’re both planning to be back by the time you said you should be here.
Say hello to M&M.
If you are reading this, you’re early.
Don’t even THINK of using the shower bag.
Make the site look like there is more than one person there and if you are going away, make it sound as if you are in the area, will be back soon, and have friends coming. Might work, might not. I feel it is worth a try.
One drawback to living in a small space is that everything has to always be put away. In small spaces, every dirty dish left on the counter, every pile of mail you set on the table, every item of clothing laid on the sofa, becomes, proportionally, a big mess. They might be taking up your only work space or eating area. Find a place for everything and put everything in its place as soon as you’re done with it. Banish clutter and get rid of any items that you find yourself not using. Leave your shoes on the entry mat every time you enter the camper so you don’t track in dirt and wipe your pet down if she comes in filthy from rolling in the dirt.
When it’s time to follow the geese south, it’s down to Arizona and New Mexico. If you drop down low in elevation, under 1,000’, you don’t have to go as far south. Pick sunny sites to camp and if a cold wind picks up, try to get behind some protection. Reflectix insulation, cut to fit the windows helps on cold nights but with the moisture from heating with propane, there will be ice on the inside of the windows in the mornings even with adequate ventilation when it gets cold enough. An Absorber towel works well wiping off the windows in the morning so water doesn’t run down the walls. Keep the overhead locker doors cracked open for circulation or the moisture will rust any metal items stored up there. Bags of DampRid will help.
My present trailer is not designed for cold temperatures. It was designed as a 3-season rig so it is poorly insulated. If one dry camps and uses the water lines and pump in the winter when night temperatures can be down in the teens and 20’s, consider taking off lower panels that cover the lines and leaving cabinet doors open a bit so warmer air can circulate to the lines. I drain the lines, blow them out with a bicycle tire pump, and just use a Reliance water jug set up on the stove cover.
The Wave 3 catalytic heater works okay down into the twenties but when it gets into the teens or lower, it needs some backup. Some mornings I’ll kick on the furnace for one cycle to warm things up. It’s rarely used since it draws too much juice from the house battery. A 3000 BTU Coleman catalytic heater with the Wave makes the rig pretty comfortable when it gets into the teens unless it is really windy outside. Just have to make sure the Coleman canister has been kept warm during the night so it will light. I usually wedge the stove vent open with a clothespin so I’m assured of fresh air at all times.
Also in cold weather, I like to position the casita with the large back window facing the rising sun so the rays help warm up the camper. Keep track of the sun’s changing latitude as the months get colder. When you get to a new spot, take a compass bearing and position the rig for the rising sun. You’ll be glad the next morning when the sun comes up. Also try to find a spot where sun will remain on your rig throughout the day.
I don’t generally leave any heat on at night. If I think the temperature is going to drop into the single digits during the night, I might leave the Wave on low with a window and stove vent cracked open.
A fleece vest is worn just about constantly while inside during the winter. Drink plenty of hot fluids, even just water. Wearing socks to bed helps a whole lot if temps are low. First thing in the morning, do some squats to get the blood flowing. Makes those mornings in the single digits and low teens bearable. Luckily there are very few of them this far south.
Remember I’m usually out in the desert without hookups so it’s a little different from having full hookups in a park. If I have shore power, I’ll use a small ceramic heater. They are priceless in small campers.
I don’t miss having a ‘home’ in the conventional sense. I truly enjoy solitude. And being out in the desert or up in the mountains is just too fulfilling for me, at this point, to be tied to one view/spot. At some point, I'll probably purchase a few acres out in the boonies, either up north or down south, to have as a place to stay a few months a year.
As I was preparing to get into this lifestyle, downsizing and selling/giving away SO much, I experienced doubtslike what am I doing?! But none since I’ve settled into it. Life is an hourglass, with a limited amount of sand, and it only runs one way. As we get older it gets more important to get in shape (to avoid most medical problems) and go out and do what one wants to do rather than what one has to do.
Sometimes the idea of going fulltime seems to get blown out of proportion. It definitely takes planning, research, and a few months to put everything in order. It is not something to be rushed. Go to RV and state parks, campgrounds, and talk to full-timers. Check out such websites as:
frugal rv travel
cheap rv living
urban van dweller
If what you learn is the route you want to goyou’re set. If your goal is to get a bit off the grid, you’re not going to learn much about it. Remember most of the websites geared to ‘boondocking’ lean towards those who have full size rigs, large generators and high wattage solar panels, large capacity holding tanks, satellite, etc. And they are not talking about true boondocking, getting out in the boonies, they’re just talking about dry-camping off graded roads. Pretty lame. If one is going into the boonies, you will need a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicleno ifs, ands, or buts. There are no graded roads out in the boondocks and a good deal of it is double tracks. Nevertheless, a sampling of decent websites are:
pseudo boondocking II
the wandering hobo
pseudo RV boondocking news
pseudo RV boondocking, the good life
If one stays in parks with full hookups it’s not a big deal. It’s like having a small studio apartment that just happens to be on wheels. In a full hookup park there is generally someone around to answer questions; you are packed in tight with your neighbors for some semblance of security; and you have all the comforts of home. If one is contemplating going fulltime, this might be the way to start off. It will provide a good opportunity to learn the basics and most full-timers are quite content to live like this all the time. It’s not like it’s some big adventure. As you can probably imagine, for me, this would be like hell on earth. If you have a sense of adventure, like being independent, self reliant and resourceful, and love being in the outdoors, get a 4-wheel drive tow vehicle and try some dry camping out in the sticks for extended periods.
I happen to like small RVs. They are more human in scale, unpretentious, and many have an honest charm. They are living spaces, not showcases of social status. These attributes feel right to me.
Get a notebook and make entries on the days you move from one camping spot to another. Mark down the mileage, route, how steep the roads were, mile markers for turns onto forest roads, what the dirt roads at the end of the drive were like, GPS coordinates, the camping spot, your thoughts on the drive, and whatever. Make notes on roads, trails, and other things to check out in the area and anything that might be helpful to look back on if you come through that way again or if you want to provide someone with specifics. One can also devote a section to keep track of expenses if you are moving towards reducing what you spend.
Keep a clipboard next to you while driving to jot down things you want to remember to write in the notebook.
Yearly expenses are about $10,000 if you spend most of the year off the grid. One can actually do more and spend less with a healthy, active lifestyle.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
FOR INDEX OF POSTINGS GO TO JULY 2006