Painlessly Extending a Boondocking Stay – Part 1 2

If you’ve followed our blog for very long, you already know that we prefer boondocking (also known as dispersed or dry camping) to staying in campgrounds and there are a whole host of reasons why: unobstructed views, peace and quiet, more wildlife and fewer people (or people that we’ve chosen to hang out with). Oh, and it’s usually free.

Grayrocks stormy Gerstle house Top of the World (1) Top of the World (2)

Whittier view2 JV_campsite DSC_0651 

But all of those nice things come at a cost:  no external power, no sewer, and no freshwater fill. It’s pretty clear why lack of external power can be a big deal, but why not just drive to the nearest dump station to deal with sewer and freshwater? What’s the big deal? The first thing is that moving your rig is a pain in the behind. Whether you’re driving 2 miles or 200, you have to stow all loose articles, retract or remove jacks and chocks, pull in slides, etc. etc. Secondly, dry camping sites are frequently off the beaten path, and the road is usually a dirt washboarded affair requiring slow driving. Together, those 2 things can mean that dumping waste tanks and refilling fresh water can take up half your day or more, and who wants to waste all that time? Full-timers are always looking for tips and tricks to maximize the length of time they can camp without dumping and refilling, so today I thought I’d share the tricks that we use to extend our stays. There are primarily 4 things you’ll need to manage when you’re dry camping: power consumption, freshwater usage, the amount going into your gray- and black-water tanks, and the trash you’re producing. We’ll take these each in turn. If you’re new to boondocking, we strongly recommend that you begin with shorter stays and, as you get more comfortable, shoot for longer & longer ones.

We’ll tackle this first because it’s the hardest, but I promise not to go into too much detail. Without a power cord connecting your RV to the grid, you’ll need to manage your power consumption in order to avoid sitting around in the dark & cold all night. There are two mainstream options for charging your batteries/powering your rig while dry camping: running a generator, using solar panels (either permanently installed, portable, or both), or some combination of the two. We won’t get into a huge discussion here of pros & cons or installation – in this post we’re simply looking at how to get the most out of what you’ve got. And for this post, we’ll also assume that you have regular lead acid batteries. [Lithium batteries are a great upgrade if you have large power needs and dry camp a lot because you can store a lot more power in less space, but lithium batteries cost considerably more.] Without getting too bogged down in details there are some important things to know about your power storage, a.k.a. your batteries.

  • Batteries are necessary to store the power you’re creating from your solar panels or by running your generator so that you can use it later.
  • Deep discharging of your lead-acid batteries (using them until they’re nearly drained) is very bad for them and will significantly shorten their lifespan by damaging their ability to charge. You should never let your batteries go below 50% charged (70% is the goal we shoot for). Over their lifetime, a battery that only gets discharged by 50% every day will last twice as long as one that gets discharged 80% every day. This means you’ll need some sort of battery monitor in your RV, but the types installed by the manufacturers are pretty vague and fluctuate wildly (depending on what appliances you may be using at the moment). Some good basic info about battery charging/discharging and monitoring can be found here and here. If you’re going to do much dry camping, we would very strongly urge you to install an accurate after-market monitor like the ones described in the Technomadia article. These after-market monitors not only show you the percent charge state of your battery, but will also show you rate of charging, how many amps you’re using, and more. To avoid depleting your batteries to damaging charge levels without one of these monitors, you’ll need to either charge at a constant rate (via solar panels on a sunny day for instance) or run your generator often.

20160411_134538In the photo above, the monitor is showing us the “net” charging state of our batteries: it subtracts how many amps of power we’re currently using from the gross positive input from our solar panels to tell us (via the arrow by the battery level) that we’re charging our batteries at a positive 3.6 amp hours.

20160411_134624 If I turn the toaster oven on, we’re using more power than the solar panels are producing, so we’re discharging our batteries (the minus “-” sign) at a rate of 105.8 amp hours.

20160411_134640 Showing our batteries are currently 99.7% full.

  • The next thing we’ll talk about is how fast you can charge your lead acid batteries. Whether charging from solar or by running the generator, the batteries will charge pretty quickly up to about 80% of their full charge and then the charge rates starts to slowly taper off. Once they reach roughly 90%, they will charge much more slowly. The final 10% of charging can take the same amount of time it took them to go from say, 50 to 90%. Think of sitting down to a meal when you’re very hungry: you eat quickly at first, but as your stomach fills up, you eat more slowly until you finally stop.
    • If you have a roof-top solar installation and sunny weather, you don’t need to worry about anything.
    • If you are running a generator to charge your batteries, you may need to run it several hours to get your battery back to full charge state.
    • If you have a supplemental portable solar panel, or if you have roof-top solar in cloudy weather, run your generator early in the day for the fast-charging phase and then let your solar panel(s) chug away at that last 10%.
  • And finally, the easy-to-understand part about managing your power: if you don’t use it in the first place,you don’t have to worry so much about putting it back! This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t turn anything on, but you can be smarter about the power you do use. Here are some tips for conservation.
    • Boondock in comfortable weather so that you don’t need to use your air conditioner.
    • If you have an inverter, simply leaving it on will use a lot of your power. We turn ours off when we’re not actively running major appliances. Leaving your inverter off is much easier if you have 12V outlets so that you can charge phones, cameras, etc. Look for other devices that can run off 12V power (we have even found a flat-panel TV which runs off 12V).
    • Florescent and especially halogen light bulbs use a LOT of your power. Consider replacing some or all of your lights with LED bulbs or modules. We added LED modules to our flourescent fixtures and can use either now. Most big box hardware stores now carry LED bulbs that are compatible with common household fixtures. For RV-specific fixtures, you’ll need to find an RV show or store that sells specialty LEDs. It’s best if you can take the bulb with you to the store or show or, take photos and measurements with you.
    • Supplement your existing lighting with rechargeable solar LED lights. There are now several manufacturers producing inflatable solar lights. You can also find many outdoor solar LED rope lights and decorative globe lights to enhance your evenings outdoors and provide safe navigation around your campsite.
    • Schedule power-intensive activities such as baking or working on your laptop for the middle of day or afternoon if possible. This is when your solar is producing its maximum charge or when long stints of generator running will annoy your neighbors least.

That’s a lot of material to cover, so we’ll save the rest for next week when we’ll post all our tips for saving water and tank space. Thanks for tuning in!

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