Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Trailer Brakes

Trailers over a certain size/weight must have brakes.  Virtually all travel trailers are heavy enough that they are required to have brakes.  Some small utility trailers and motorcycle trailers don't have or need them legally, but it is always a good idea to have them.  Tow dollies may pr may not also be equipped with brakes.  Obviously the weight of any care is enough that you should have brakes on the dolly.  There are basically two kinds of trailer brakes:  electric brakes and surge brakes.

Electric trailer brakes are controlled by a brake controller in the tow vehicle.  The controller is connected to the brake switch so it is activated when the vehicle brakes are applied.  The controller contains a device that measures momentum.  The harder and faster the vehicle decelerates when the brakes are applied, the stronger the application of the trailer brakes.  Controllers typically have adjustments to allow the driver to increase or decrease the sensitivity of the controller to tune the trailer braking.  They also have a control to manually apply the trailer brakes.  The brakes on the trailer are activated by a magnet controlled by the amount of power transmitted from the controller.  The magnet grips the inside face of the brake drum and an attached lever pushes the shoes out against the drum to slow or stop the trailer.  Most larger trailers have electric brakes.  Some advantages to electric trailer brakes is that the sensitivity can be tuned by the driver so the trailer brakes just right, not too much and not too little and the driver can apply the trailer brakes via a button on the controller. 

Surge brakes are self contained on the trailer.   Surge brakes are hydraulic brakes.  The master cylinder is included in the surge brake activator on the trailer tongue.  The activator is designed to apply hydraulic pressure to the braking system when it senses the tow vehicle is slowing down.  What happens is there is some flexibility in the way the activator is mounted on the tongue so that when the vehicle slows down and the trailer pushes forward against the hitch, pressure is applied through the master cylinder to the brakes to slow the trailer.  The main advantage to surge brakes is that they don't need a controller in the tow vehicle.  The main disadvantages are that the driver cannot manually apply the trailer brakes and the driver can't control the sensitivity.

I have used trailers with both types of brakes and quite honestly, have not found any significant differences in normal use.  Surge brakes are pretty much automatic and don't require any tuning by the driver.  On rare occasions I have manually applied electric trailer brakes but that was mostly for testing rather than any normal use.

Trailer brakes have an emergency disconnect that applies the brakes automatically if the trailer gets disconnected from the tow vehicle.   Normally, electric brake systems use the trailer battery to power the brakes if the disconnect switch is activated.  This might work with power supplied via the trailer connector, but will be useless once the connector pulls apart.  The disconnect typically consists of a pin connected to the tow vehicle so that it is pulled out of the switch if the tow vehicle is separated from the trailer.  The pin normally holds the switch open so it closes when the pin is removed, activating the trailer brakes.  Since it is basically an on or off situation, it is likely to lock up the brakes when activated.  On surge brakes, a cable attached to the vehicle typically pulls on a lever on the activator on the trailer tongue if the two become separated and the lever applies the brakes.  Emergency braking helps to  control the trailer if it gets disconnected from the vehicle.  Of course the first line of defense are the safety chains that should keep the two fairly close together and keep the trailer from wandering off by itself.  Long safety chains may allow the emergency brake function to be activated.

Properly adjusted trailer brake systems will apply braking proportional to the tow vehicle braking so both units slow down at the same rate.

If trailer brakes are too tight or too sensitive, the tow vehicle driver should feel the trailer holding the vehicle back, especially when the brakes are applied.  If it holds it back when the brakes have not been applied the trailer brakes are definitely too tight.

If trailer brakes are too loose or not sensitive enough, the vehicle driver should feel the trailer continue to push the vehicle when the brakes are applied.

Sometimes you can more easily see how the trailer brakes are behaving if you are driving on gravel, sand or dirt so you can see skids marks when the trailer brakes are engaged.  Testing trailer brakes on pavement means you will mostly rely on affect you can feel from the trailer on the tow vehicle when the brakes are applied.  Otherwise you have to apply them harshly enough to lock up the wheels so the tires drag and leave marks on the pavement.  Such violent maneuvers are generally not good for either the trailer or the two vehicle.

Trailer brakes are adjusted about the same way drum brakes are adjusted on any vehicle.  There is a star wheel between the bottom ends of the brake shoes which is turned to push the shoes out against the drum.  Once the shoes are pushed out enough to keep the wheel from being turned, the star wheel is backed off just enough to let the wheel turn freely.  In my experience I can usually still hear the brake shoes lightly brushing the drum.  If the brakes are adjusted too tight they will drag and overheat.  This diminishes brake performance and life, creates extra tire wear, and can get hot enough to cause a fire.  If the brakes are adjusted too loose, they won't work effectively to slow or stop the trailer when needed.  If you aren't sure you can adjust the brakes correctly, have it done by a mechanic who knows what he is doing.  It may take several trips to the shop to get the brakes adjusted to your satisfaction but a good mechanic can adjust them to where HE thinks they should be and that will be an excellent starting point.

Controller sensitivity on electric brakes is adjusted by a switch on the controller.  It may be a rotating knob or a sliding switch.  Increasing sensitivity makes the trailer brakes come on faster and stronger; decreasing sensitivity makes them respond slower and weaker.  If the trailer seems to be tugging on the tow vehicle when you apply the brakes, the controller is too sensitive.  If the trailer doesn't seem to slow down when you apply the brakes or you can feel it pushing on the tow vehicle, is isn't sensitive enough.  Adjusting sensitivity is largely a trial and error situation.  Ideally you want the trailer braking to match the tow vehicle braking so the two slow down and stop together.

Trailer brakes are inspected by removing the drum and examining and/or measuring the amount of lining on the shoes.  Linings that are thin, cracked, or badly glazed should be replaced.  Grooved drums or drums that show signs of over heating (usually discoloration) should be turned or replaced.  To remove the drum you will have to remove the axle nut and outside wheel bearing.  The axle nut is a castle nut that is prevented from spinning loose by a cotter pin through the gaps in the outside of the nut and the axle.  Always discard the used cotter pin and replace it with a new one.  While you have the drum off, inspect the wheel bearings.   If they show signs of rust or wear, replace them.  Clean and repack the wheel bearings before reinstalling the drum.  The outer bearing can be repacked by placing a glob of grease in one hand, then holding the bearing in the other hand and pressing the outer (larger end) edge of the bearing into the grease repeatedly until the grease squished out the small end of the bearing between the rollers.  Work grease all the way around the entire circumference of the bearing.  Repacking the inner bearing can be done in the same way if you can safely remove it.  The inner bearing is held in place by a grease seal that will have to be replaced it you remove it to extract the bearing.  You can apply some extra grease to the inner bearing with your fingers, but you won't be able to properly pack grease into the bearing without removing it.  Be sure to force grease into the bearing and not just smear it on the outside.  The axle nut must be properly tightened when reinstalling the drum.  Your owners manual may give you instructions or torque specifications which you should follow.  If you don't have a manual or specifications, snug the nut up until the bearing retainer is tight against the bearing, making sure it doesn't cause the bearing to bind when the wheel is spun.  Then back it off about one or two gaps in the castle nut to install the cotter pin.  If the axle nut is too loose, the wheel will wobble, most likely destroying the bearings, the hub, and the drum.  If it too tight, the bearings will be over stressed and will run hot, thinning out and loosing the grease and burning up.  Here again, if you aren't comfortable with your ability to make the right adjustment, have it done by a qualified mechanic.  Some trailers may have specified torque readings for the hub nuts.  Lacking torque specs I usually snug up the nuts, then back them off about 1 notch on the castle nut before installing the cotter pin.

Any fairly good do it yourself back yard mechanic should be able to service trailer brakes.  It is pretty much the same as servicing drum brakes on a car.  There are some special brake tools that make any brake job much easier but it is possible to do it with ordinary hand tools.  In particular, brake pliers are designed to reattach brake springs and while it is possible to remove the clips and springs holding the shoes onto the backing plate using pliers, it is much easier with a tool specially designed for the task.  It has a screwdriver type handle and a dime-sized cone in place of the blade.  The cone fits over the clips on the retaining springs, allowing you to compress the springs and then remove the clip with a turn of the handle.  Another good tool is brake adjusting tool.  I've seen brakes adjusted using a flat screwdriver, but the size and angles of  a brake adjusting tool make it much easier and faster.  Remember, almost any task can almost be fun with the right tools and even the simplest tasks can be a pain in various body parts with the wrong tools.  You usually have a choice of several grades of brake shoes.  Price usually depends on the type of friction material used.  More expensive materials are usually more effective and more durable.

Stop right!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

OHV Tires

OHVs often require special tires,depending on the terrain and riding style.  A common type of tire is an "all terrain" tire, designed to provide pretty good handling and service on most types of terrain the vehicle is designed for.  However, there are specialty tires for special conditions.  One of the most obvious are the "paddle" tires used on dirt bikes, ATVs, and dune buggies that are driven mostly in sand --like on  the beach or in the dunes.  These tires provide a lot better grip in sand than ordinary knobbies.  But you wouldn't want to use them for trail riding.  Riding on hard surfaces will cause premature wear and the paddle design won't provide proper traction for safe operation.  "Trials" tires for dirt bikes are similar to the knobbies used for regular trail riding but have a slightly different tread design and rubber compound that makes them better suited for the unusual traction required for difficult trials maneuvers, like climbing boulders.

OHV tires come in various hardnesses or grades of the rubber.  Which hardness or grade you need will depend on several factors such as the terrain where they'll be used and the weight and riding style of the operator.  Harder tires will last longer but may not have as much grip on some surfaces as softer tires.  There is no easy formula I know of for determining which tires you need.  Finding the right tire for you and your ride is mostly done by trial and error.  You might talk with your fellow riders who ride the same trails you do on similar machines and see what they use and then use that as a starting point.  If you don't like the way your ride feels with a particular tire, try something else.  A tire that is too soft will wear out quickly and may give your ride kind of a squishy feeling on the trail.  Tires that are too hard may make the whole ride feel stiff and maybe even a bit squirrely.  Always check your tire pressure and try adjusting that before spending money to replace tires that are still serviceable.  Under inflation will make the ride mushy and unresponsive; over inflation will make it harsh and skittish.

OHV tire pressures are often very subjective.  As with any tire, don't exceed the maximum pressure on the sidewall.  My dirt bike riding friends and I typically use a "squeeze test" on our dirt bike tires.  Grip the tire between the thumb and fingers and squeeze hard.  I like it when there is just a little give so that my tires aren't too hard nor too soft, but right in the "Goldilocks" zone.  On the other hand, we were meticulous about setting the tire pressure to factory specs on the ATVs and side-by-sides we rented out when I worked as a mechanic at an ATV resort.  If you feel your ride is too hard or you feel every little pebble in the trail or road, you may be running your tire pressure too high and might want to try backing it down a little at a time.  Over inflated tires may also contribute to a feeling of skittishness.  OHV tires don't need to be rock hard.  You may need to lower pressure when doing a lot of riding on soft surfaces like mud, sand, or snow.

Keep rollin, rollin,rollin.

RV Tires

RV tires, in general, tend to time out long before they wear out.  Unless you're on the road constantly, like a rock band or something, your RV is probably going to spend more time sitting than it does rolling.  I've often seen RV tires with side-wall cracks bigger than the grooves in the tread, even though the tread was still well within acceptable safety limits.

Speaking of tread wear, an easy way to determine if the tread on you tires is getting too low, is to stick a penny into one of the grooves in the tread with the top of Lincoln's head pressed down into the groove.  If you can see the top of Lincoln's head, your tire needs to be replaced.  If the top of his head is covered, you should still have some miles left on them.

Sunlight and ozone are two factors that are very hard on tires.   Simply putting tire covers on your RV can significantly extend the life of your tires.  Keeping your RV in covered storage also helps a bunch.  I've heard that parking it under or near high voltage power lines can speed tire deterioration because of an increase in ozone generated by the power lines.  Properly cleaning and treating tires will also help prevent premature degradation.  Side-wall cracking is the result of the rubber drying out.  Clean, properly protected tires won't dry out as fast and some tire treatments may actually help replenish lost chemicals that protect the rubber.  I had one tire guy suggest using brake fluid to protect tires, but I'm afraid it would attract dust and dirt.   I saw a guy on YouTube suggest wiping them down with old motor oil, which I find to be a particularly bad idea.  Oil will damage rubber.  Commercial "tire shine" products should contain UV blockers and other substances that protect the tires without leaving a sticky residue.  I sometimes use the same SC-1 detailing spray I use on my dirt bikes on my tires to give them a nice shine and layer of protection.  When tires are in use the flexing of the rubber helps distribute the internal chemicals that keep them from drying out so taking your RV and driving it for a few miles every month when isn't in regular use will actually improve tire life.

When your RV is in extended storage the tires should be insulated from the ground.  Park on wood planks or plastic leveling blocks.  Parking on gravel or concrete is better than parking on bare dirt, but it is even better to put something between the rubber and the road.  Some folks recommend even jacking up the vehicle and taking the load off the tires.  That certainly won't hurt the tires, but it is a lot of work and, if not done properly, could create an unstable and unsafe condition.  Just driving in up on some pieces of wood is easy and doesn't affect stability.

Improper inflation and poor wheel alignment are two of the worst things you can do for you tires.  Under inflated tires will wear on the edges and run hot, wearing out faster and significantly increasing the chance of a blowout.  They may also make the vehicle feel sluggish and the ride mushy.  Over inflated tires will wear in the middle and will reduce traction, often making the vehicle steering "skittish" to the point of being unsafe.  Over inflated tires will also contribute to a rough ride. A vehicle with over inflated tires will be much more susceptible to wind and to the "blow by" from passing trucks.  Proper tire inflation will also help maximize fuel economy.  Poor alignment will cause tires to wear unevenly.  Too much "toe in"will wear the outside tread of the tire.  Too little will wear the inside tread.  Another thing to watch for is proper balancing.  An unbalanced tire will develop high and low spots as it wears and you will feel the bouncing in the ride and through the steering wheel.

Really proper tire inflation is more than just inflating tires to the max pressure indicated on the sidewall.  The best way to set inflation is to weigh each corner of your RV with it fully loaded the way you use it, then look up the correct inflation in inflation tables based on the weight on each tire.  If you aren't able to use this method, check the owner's manual or the ID sticker for the manufacturer's recommended tire pressure.  If you don't have an owner's manual or ID sticker, use the pressure indicated on the sidewall as a starting point.  The pressure on the sidewall is the MAXIMUM recommended pressure.  Exceeding that pressure, even if the tire looks low, is risking a blow-out.  Sometimes inflating to the maximum sidewall pressure will over inflate the tires for the load.

Keep rollin, rollin, rollin!

Tent Flooring

Most tents these days, except pup tents and military "shelter halves", have sewn in floors.  Having a sewn in floor helps maintain the shape of the footprint of the tent and prevents drafts and critters from slithering inside when the door is zipped closed.  However, tent floors are generally not very sturdy nor waterproof so you always benefit from using a good ground cloth beneath your tent.  I like to use one inside my tent too.  A ground cloth beneath your tent will help protect the floor from debris and moisture.  One inside the tent helps protect the floor from damage from walking on it or setting heavy objects on it and gives you and your sleeping bags extra protection against ground moisture.  I've seen outside oversize ground cloths carelessly installed such that moisture dripping of the tent was caught on the top of the ground cloth and ran under the tent, largely defeating one of its major purposes.  If you use a ground cloth beneath your tent, make sure it doesn't extend beyond the tent walls.  One common practice among tent campers is to dig a small trench around the outside of the tent to collect any water that runs off, but that isn't always practical.  You won't want to trench around your tent when it is pitched on your lawn or the grass in a campground.

Some tents have floors made of the same light weight material as the walls and roof.  That might be good in a back packing tent where weight is a primary concern, but for larger family tents used for car camping having a sturdier floor will usually yield better protection and last longer, if you can find one with a sturdier floor.  For the most part you'll need to add ground cloths to get the extra protection you need.


Most dome tents have built in floors.  Some larger cabin tents might not.  Regardless of what kind of floor, if any, your tent has, you will want to put down a ground cloth under your tent.  If it has a sewn in floor the ground cloth will protect the fabric from being damaged by rocks, twigs, and other debris.  If it doesn't have a floor at all, the ground cloth becomes the floor.  I like to use two ground cloths -- one under the tent to protect the floor from debris and one inside the tent to protect the floor from walking on it.  Having two ground cloths also helps prevent any moisture from coming through and soaking your sleeping bags or clothing and equipment left on the tent floor.

No matter what kind of floor, if any, your tent has, you'll want to prepare the ground before you set up your tent.  Remove rocks, twigs, and other debris that might damage the tent or be uncomfortable to walk on or sleep on.  A leaf rake with a collapsible handle is a good tool for clearing the ground.  You might need a shovel to smooth out lumps in the dirt.  Try to avoid damp places that will let moisture accumulate under your tent or seep inside.  An ideal spot for a tent would be one that is a few inches higher than the surrounding ground so that rain or dew will drain away and not under the tent.  Grassy areas make a soft pad beneath your tent, but leaving a tent set up on grass for more than a day or so will kill the grass underneath it.  Sometimes you will notice the grass is wilted and starting to turn yellow after taking down a tent that has only been set up for a few hours.  Grass itself contains moisture that can condense on the underside of the tent floor and might wick through.

For a really luxurious tent floor cover the floor with foam "anti-fatigue" foam tiles like are normally used in front of a workbench.  They come in 2'x2' squares, are about 1/2" thick, and connect together like pieces of a jig saw puzzle.    They usually come in sets of 4 so yo may need multiple sets to cover the entire tent floor.  For example, you'll need 5 sets of 4 to cover the entire floor of an 8'x10' tent.  That could cost around $75 but if you watch for sales at home centers or Harbor Freight you and sometimes get them for $7-10 a set.  They will protect the floor, give an extra buffer against cold, damp ground, and provide extra padding for sleeping comfort.  Here is what to look for in your favorite home center:
 Norsk-Stor Multi-Purpose 24 in. x 24 in. Interlocking Gray Foam Flooring Recyclamat (4-Pieces)
If you don't care for the industrial look of the standard gray-black mats you can usually find brightly colored ones at home centers.  You might pay a little more for them but they might be more fun to use.

Best Step Primary-Color 2 ft. Square Interlocking Foam Mats (4-Pack)

If your tent isn't an even multiple of 2' in any direction they can be easily cut to size.  They are light weight but a little bit bulky.  You won't want to take them back packing, but they can add level of comfort in base camp and when car camping. Here are some examples of the standard industrial grey/black color and brightly colored versions you can usually find at home centers.  You'll pay a little more for the colored ones, but the mood boosting contribution of the colors may be well worth the additional cost, especially if your spouse has a penchant for color coordination or interior decorating.

Just about any tarp can be used as a ground cloth outside or inside the tent for an extra layer of protection.  The heavier the tarp, the more protection.  A sturdy canvas tarp will provide stronger resistance to damage from rocks or sticks beneath the tent, but may be heavier to carry and stiffer to lay out.  Light weight blue "poly tarps" are better than nothing, but the heavier silver tarps or green "farm" tarps will be sturdier and last longer.  Try to match the size as closely as possible to the footprint of the tent.  If it is too large it can be folded under so it doesn't trap moisture running down the sides of the tent.  If it is too small you may have exposed edges where debris can still damage your tent floor and expose you and your equipment to the cold, camp ground. One that is just a few inches smaller than the base of the tent should be just about right.

More on ground cloths.  The sturdier the material, the better.  Light weight "poly" tarps are inexpensive and are definitely better than nothing, but a heavier, canvas tarp will provide more protection.  When putting a ground cloth beneath your tent make sure it doesn't extend beyond the edges of the tent.  If it does, rain or dew dripping off the tent will collect on top of the ground cloth under your tent effectively negating one of the main purposes for using a ground cloth.  As I mentioned before, I like to use a second ground cloth inside my tent to ensure my sleeping bags and other gear stays dry.  It will also protect the sewn in floor against damage from walking on it and from items dropped on it.   If you have one heavy tarp and one light one, use the heavy one beneath the tent and the lighter one inside.  If you're camped where it won't damage the grass, dig a shallow trench around the outside of your tent to catch any moisture that runs off and channel it away so it doesn't seep under your tent.

Keeping the floor clean.  You can minimize damage from walking on your tent floor by keep it clean.  Tracking mud and other debris inside deposits stuff that can grind into the fabric and cut the fibers.  Use a rug or an old burlap bag outside the door to clean your feet before entering.  Sweep out your tent at least daily.  When I'm using a dome tent, I usually pick it up and shake out all the dirt when I get up each morning.  If you have a cabin tent or your dome tent is securely staked down, sweep it out.  There are small "camping" brooms made just for the purpose or you can cut down a regular broom.  The shorter handle is usually necessary because of limited height inside tents and it makes it easier to transport it.  Whisk brooms or brushes can also be used but will require a lot more bending over, which can be hard on your back.

Floor it!

RV Flooring

You will find lots of different types of flooring in RVs.  For many years most motorhomes were mostly carpeted throughout.  While this provides extra insulation to keep the floor cool in summer and warm in winter and helps suppress road noise, carpet isn't always the optimal floor covering in galley and bathroom areas where it can become easily (and often permanently) soiled and stained.  Light weight laminate flooring and vinyl are good options for these areas.  Some high end RVs are even opting for ceramic tile.  Sure, it looks very good and adds a touch of class, but it is quite heavy and brittle.  I haven't seen enough of it yet to decide how it will stand up to the stress of vibration and tweaking during travel.  Vinyl and laminates are flexible enough that it isn't a problem.

If you have worn or faded carpeting in your RV, you can replace it.  You may want to have it professionally installed to ensure it is properly stretched so it fits snugly although you may be able to fit it your self in small areas.  If your carpet is still in fairly good shape but merely stained or faded or you want to change the color, you may be able to have it dyed.  If you end up replacing your carpet, you may want to consider whether you still want carpet throughout the RV or if you'd like to switch to vinyl or laminate in the kitchen and bathroom areas.  You will probably want to retain the carpet in the bedroom and over the engine compartment where it provides extra insulation against both engine noise and heat.  Carpet in the entry and main traffic lanes can be be hard to keep clean, but, if you switch from carpet to a hard surface flooring in the main aisle you may have to deal with cold floors during the cooler months and might have increased road noise.  If you really want the easier-to-clean floors, consider adding insulation under the flooring to mitigate these problems. 

If you have hard surface floors that get uncomfortably cold on cooler nights, you can always add rugs or runners as a buffer for bare feet.  Rugs and runners have an advantage over permanently installed carpet in that you can remove them as needed for cleaning or roll them up when you don't need them.  Runners and area rugs can be used over carpet too, to help keep it clean and they can be removed and cleaned as needed.  They are usually less expensive to replace than carpet if they get soiled or worn.

RV floors are one of the common places you may find dry rot.  I've always found it interesting that dry rot is caused by wetness.   A plumbing leak or a leak around a vent, door, or window, or even a long term drip from an ice chest can allow water to seep under the flooring where it rots the sub-floor.  The primary symptom of this type of damage are areas where the floor feels spongy when you walk on it.  There may also be a musty odor that is difficult to get rid of.  If  you suspect you have damaged sub-floor you will need to remove the flooring and inspect the underlayment.  Any rotted or damaged sections should be carefully cut out and replaced before reinstalling the flooring.  Depending on how long the leak has been around, the damage may be limited to the underlayment or could have affected structural components like joists below.  When repairing this kind of water damage always replaced ALL the damaged components.  For my money, I would replace anything that is even in doubt to avoid having to do it all again before too long.  Anytime you have the floor open is a good time to assess the insulation and perhaps increase it for more comfort and better temperature and sound control inside your RV.

Protect your RV floors from premature wear by keeping them clean.  Use an awning mat or at least a welcome mat to trap mud and dirt before you track it inside.  A handy "rug" to wipe your feet on is an old burlap bag.  It's coarse material helps scrape off stubborn deposits and you can hose if off or even toss in the the washer between trips to keep it clean and functional.  Sweep and/or vacuum floors often to remove loose grit that can scratch hard surface and actually cut off carpet fibers.   Clean up spills quickly so they don't stain flooring or seep beneath it.

Don't be floored by flooring!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ice Makers

Some high end RVs have built in ice makers,  but they certainly haven't reached the state of becoming close to being standard equipment yet.  They receive water from the RV plumbing system and most are powered by 120-volt AC current from shore power, generator, or inverter.  RV refrigerators typically have freezer compartments that can make a tray or two of ice cubes at a time, but an ice maker will produce far more ice more quickly.  You might be able to add one to an RV that doesn't have one, but it will require access to a 120-volt outlet and running a water line -- and you need to have a cabinet or closet space large enough to hold it that you can sacrifice.  I've seen listings on line for propane powered ice makers so it may be possible to get around the 120-volt requirement but it would take extra plumbing of gas lines to install one unless it was set up to use a portable propane source.

Having plenty of ice is more than just a convenience for keeping your favorite summer beverage cold.  It can have important medical benefits.  If someone gets a sprain, ice packs are the standard treatment.  Ice can be used to help reduce body temperature when a patient is has become over heated.  Cold packs at strategic locations (arm pits, groin, wrists, neck) to cool the blood can help reduce body temperature.  Take care to keep a comfortable buffer between the ice and the flesh as direct contact and cause injury and great discomfort.

Permanently installed ice makers in RVs are typically adaptations of residential models.  A quick Internet search showed models starting at about $300, plus installation.

Some large luxury RVs have residential style refrigerators that may include an ice maker,  but most RV fridges don't have ice makers and could probably not have them added.

For those of us who don't have built in ice makers, there are portable ice makers.  They typically produce around 25 lbs of ice per day and I've seen claims they can make ice in as little as 6 minutes.  They run on 120 volt AC so you still need shore power, generator, or an inverter to run them.  They typically cost from $120 to about $300, but I've seen some on ebay around $100 so they can be surprisingly inexpensive.  Because they are portable, they won't need permanent connections for a water supply.  You have to pour water into a built in reservoir.  You will need to find a place to set them near a 120-volt outlet  to use them and someplace to secure them during transport.  Because they aren't connected to a permanent source of water you have to monitor the water level and replenish it as needed.

Having an on board source of continuous ice can be a real boon when boonbocking in hot weather.  Even if you're staying in campgrounds where you may have access to ice from the office or camp store, having you own ice maker is a convenience and can save several trips to get ice.  While certainly not an essential component like a working refrigerator, an ice maker can definitely be a nice addition to the RV lifestyle.  Portable ice makers could even be useful for tent campers if they have a generator or access to some other source of 120 volt power.  I spent almost every holiday weekend for 30 years dry camping in the Mojave Desert and, even when I had an ice maker, I seldom used it, so, at least to me, it isn't a critical piece of equipment but it was nice to know it was there if I did need it.  Having plenty of fresh ice to make snow cones is a real boon when camping in hot weather, but the freezer compartment of our fridge could usually keep up with our family needs.

Ice it!


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chuck Box

The idea of a "Chuck Box" has been mentioned in several posts as an asset for camping.  So what is a chuck box?  It is kind of like a portable kitchen, mostly used for camping.  Since its likely that many people have never seen one, here is a link to project plans to build your own chuck box.  To some extent they are based on the trail proven techniques used to build chuck wagons for wagon trains and cattle drives in the Old West.  Ideally, your chuck box is a complete, portable camp kitchen.  If you camp in an RV you probably won't need a chuck box since all its features are built into your rig, but some folks like cooking outdoors and may find them useful.  There is even  a trend for RVs to have outdoor kitchens and a chuck box is a pretty good substitute if your RV doesn't have one.  For tent campers, a chuck box can deliver a lot of utility and convenience.  A chuck box can be carried in a pickup, SUV, or even in the trunk of your car.  Unless your RV has enormous "basement" storage compartments you may need a rear cargo carrier or a small trailer if you want to add one to your RV.  One advantage to building your own instead of buying one pre-built is  you can design it ti fit and make best use of the space you have available to transport it.

Chuck boxes originated for use in chuck wagons on cattle drives and wagon trains in the Old West.  They were designed to secure all the basic ingredients and cooking gear needed to provide meals for the cowboys moving herds of cattle across open range and across rivers -- no roads, no bridges.  They excelled at making maximum use of minimum space, conserving weight, and keeping everything dry and secure during what was often rather wild weather and rough travel.  They often had specific bins for basic ingredients like flour, salt, and sugar.  Keep in mind the cuisine on cattle drives wasn't fancy and everything had to be made from just a few key ingredients.  You may recall the warning "Cookie" gave the would be trail hands in the movie "City Slickers":  "You ain't getting no nouveau, almondine, bottled water, sauteed city food!  The food's hot, brown... and plenty of it!"   Which means they were pretty much eating beans and bacon and the coffee was boiled in a pot not a percolator and you had to strain the coffee grounds through your teeth, kind of like Army coffee! Here are some examples of chuck boxes:

                               Camp Chuck Box             cedarboxopen1.jpg

There are commercially manufactured chuck boxes you can buy (see Classic Chuck Box, but many people like to build their own.  The one shown in the link is freestanding on its own legs so it doesn't need a table or the back of a vehicle for a platform.  Buying one ready built is an attractive option if you don't have the tools or skills or desire or space to build your own.  Just check the dimensions carefully to make sure it will fit in your vehicle.  Building your own allows you to customize the size and shape to make maximum use of your available space to transport it and the accommodate the things you need to put in it and how you want to use it.  Consider the loaded weight as well as the size.  One that is too big or too heavy to move isn't going to you much good.  So building one that takes up the whole bed of your full size pickup probably isn't a good idea.  It might make an interesting conversation piece and be useful on your patio at home but if you can't pick it up and put it in the back of your vehicle it won't work for camping.  If  you find you can't fit everything in one box, you can supplement it with additional bins or design a second unit to provide additional capabilities as well as additional space -- if you have somewhere to carry it on your  camping trips.

You can design your own chuck box to fit your specific vehicle and your personal requirements.  There are two major limitations you need to take into consideration:  1) size and 2) weight.  The dimensions of your chuck box will have to fit within available space in the vehicle you plan to transport it in.  Another advantage to building your own is you can customize the shape to take advantage of available space in your vehicle.  Sometimes square boxes won't fit inside a closed automobile trunk.  You can get pretty big and fancy if you'll be using it in a pickup truck or large SUV, but will have to scale things down if your means of getting to camp is a sub-compact car.  If you make it too big, it won't fit in your vehicle.  Even if you have a large vehicle to haul it around in you won't want to make it TOO big or it will be too heavy to move, especially when you load it down with utensils, cookware, and provisions.  One solution is to build it in two or more pieces that can be easily moved and then quickly assembled in camp.  When choosing materials, consider that it will most likely have to stand up to rainy days in camp.  A good quality marine grade plywood would be much better than particle board.  Sure, particle board is cheaper, but it is also very heavy and tends to fall apart when it gets wet.  While you will probably want to have space on the front door/shelf for your camp stove and sink, you probably shouldn't try to store and transport the stove inside the chuck box.  That space could be better used for organizing ingredients and untensils.  Most stoves either are either self contained or come in pretty good carrying cases.  Designing your own chuck box  lets you choose the size to fit your available transport space and to customize features to accommodate your specific gear and camping style.  One innovation I found that I thought was quite interesting was a two-sided chuck box that opened to provide counter space on both the front and the back.  Such an approach gives more room for a stove, a sink, and food prep space for those of us who like to spread out.  One side might be used as serving space for a buffet style meal.

The rear outdoor kitchen in teardrop trailers is often based on a chuck box design.  For some ideas about how to build yours, stop by an RV show or a dealer and check out some teardrop trailers.  Some key features you will usually find are lockable drawers and cabinets to prevent things from falling out during travel.  Most of the storage spaces will be fairly small but actual size should be determined by your specific needs.  In some configurations the main door covers all the interior cubbyholes to keep things in place.  You'll probably need at least one cabinet large enough to store your cook kit or pots and pans.  It is often convenient and secure to have small, individual compartments or bins for things like flour, sugar, and spices.  You will most likely find it convenient to include some kind of sink even if its just a plastic dishpan.  It can be convenient to have a shelf or platform on which to set a water jug high enough so gravity can supply water directly into your sink or be available for cooking or drinking.  Another option is to use larger water jugs and a battery or manually operated pump to transfer water from the jugs to the sink.  The sink and water system are good candidates to be separate from the chuck box itself.  You'll soon learn you need the space in the box to corral all your kitchen items and provisions where they'll be secure in travel and easy to use in camp.   For smaller chuck boxes, the "sink" will probably be a plastic dishpan you can set on the shelf when the box is open.  The front of the box is normally hinged at the bottom so it opens out to create a shelf.  This is different than a teardrop trailer where the back is often hinged at the top so it opens up to form a canopy over the cooking area.   An umbrella or stand alone canopy can provide shelter over your chuck box.  If you're building your own you will probably find it well worth the slight extra cost to use piano hinges on the main door/shelf.  These hinges run the full length of the opening and distribute the weight better than individual hinges and are less likely to pull loose or twist during use.  You will want to waterproof the outside so it is resistant to wind, dust, and rain.  Ordinary residential foam type weatherstripping will help seal the doors.  Joints should be caulked and the whole thing sealed in a good quality outdoor paint or varnish.  You can be as creative as you like with the paint scheme.  Some paint them to match their vehicles, some just to be bright and cheery.  Or you might decorate it with favorite club, sports, or organization themes or logos.  You will  want to add sturdy handles so it can be easily moved in and out of your vehicle as necessary.  If you have large chuck box in the back of a pickup or SUV you might use it in place, but you still need to be able to load and unload it at home.  Smaller boxes you might carry in the trunk of the family car will probably be moved to the end of a picnic table for use.  If you plan to move your boxes often in camp you will definitely want to make sure they aren't too bulky or too heavy.  It would be good if they could be handled easily by one person, but if you camp with your family you may be able to manage something that requires two people to carry it.

If you want the extra convenience of a large chuck box but need to hold down the weight,  consider toting all the utensils, ingredients, etc separately in plastic tubs and just putting them in your camp kitchen when you get to camp.  While that defeats some of the benefits of a self-contained chuck box, it does give you the option for more storage and more food preparation space in camp while spreading out the weight for easier carrying.

A handy addition to a chuck box is some sort of canopy or umbrella to provide shade and protection from rain.  Something like a beach or patio umbrella might be attached directly to a large chuck box.  For smaller units you may want to employ a dining fly or a free-standing canopy which could also shelter the entire picnic table for eating.  Of course you may want some kind of canopy over the picnic table whether your chuck box is there or not.  Sometimes it is advantageous to include mounting brackets for a canopy or umbrella on the chuck box itself.

A friend of mine built what could be considered the ultimate chuck box.  He started with a large gas powered iron griddle (about 3' x 3') that had been part of a decommissioned Forest Service camp kitchen along with a similar size grill for steaks and burgers and a couple of large gas burners for stock pots etc. He converted all the orifices on the gas appliances from natural gas to propane and ran the whole thing from a large, mobile home size propane tank that fit under the cooking platforms.  It was all assembled on a small (4'x'8') trailer frame.  The lift-off lid had fold down legs to turn it into a convenient table.  A shepherds crook style lantern holder held a Coleman gas lantern high above the whole setup for ease of use in low light conditions.  The extra space left in the trailer around the stove and propane tank carried cook ware and utensils, ingredients, and condiments.  I helped him serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner to more than 100 people at a time using that trailer on several occasions.  It was quite fun to use and always drew a lot of comments from the crowd.

Chuck it!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Camp Chairs

There was a time when about the only option for a comfortable portable seat in camp was a folding camp stool.   They were made of wood and canvas.  Viewed from each end they looked like an "X" when open, with canvas stretched between the bars at the top of the "X" to sit on.  They're still around too.  See Folding Camp Stool  and below for a modern example.
                                                              



                                                           Teak Canvas Stool

Camp chairs have come a long way since then.  Aluminum camp chairs with fiberglass webbing were among the first improvements:  light weight and fold flat for easy transport and a back rest so you could really relax.  In addition to the flat arms shown on the example they often had plastic arms that included a convenient cup holder to keep your favorite beverage out of your lap.                    


                                          Image result for Vintage SUNBEAM ALUMINUM LAWN CHAIRS.

They were quite comfortable and easy to use.  You may still be able to find some around if you like this style.  Try ebay.  I hung on to a couple of these because they fit nicely in the "rafters" of my motorcycle trailer for transport.  They are light weight and make a great place to sit while putting on my riding gear.

Quad chairs or bag chairs have pretty much taken over the camping scene in recent years.  They can be purchased at many stores that carry camping equipment, such as Walmart, often at very reasonable prices.
                                             .
They typically fold up into about a 4" square form that fits in a bag.  The bags usually have a shoulder strap and/or handle that makes them easy to carry.  These chairs may come with and without arms and can include built in snack tables.  Many of those with arms, like the one in the picture, have a cup holder built into the arm rest.  You can even get recliners,  rocking chairs,and cots of similar fold up construction.  The canvas material is form-fitting, breathable, and very comfortable.

Both the aluminum folding chairs and "quad" style bag chairs are available in children's sizes too, providing portable, affordable, comfortable seating for the whole family.  Some even have built in foldable tables for added convenience.

Camp chairs usually fit easily in the "basement" compartments on motorhomes and travel trailers.  You can also get racks that attach to RV ladders that will carry the folding aluminum style chairs.  Quad or bag chairs can usually be tucked under a sofa or dinette or carried in a roof pod or the trunk of  car.  For tent campers, quad chairs will usually fit right alongside tents and sleeping bags in your car, truck, or SUV.  I have a couple of the vintage folding aluminum camp chairs that fold flat enough to fit into the shallow (1") rafters of my enclosed motorcycle trailer.

Camp chairs are a very good way to enjoy a campfire.  They make a good platform to sit on for roasting hotdogs and marshmallows or just relaxing and enjoying the fire.  Just make sure you put them away or at least fold them down and lay them flat when you leave the campfire for the night.  I've seen several chairs reduced to twisted and melted frames after getting blown into the fire pit after everyone went to bed.  Sometimes there's enough heat left in the ground even after the fire is out to damage errant chairs and it only takes a light breeze to blow empty chairs into the fire pit.  When they are collapsed and lying on the ground they're a lot less likely to get blown around.

Maintenance and repairs.  Routine maintenance mostly means keeping them clean and making sure they are properly stored when not in use.  The hinge points of folding aluminum chairs might benefit from a bit of lubrication now and then.  I would use a Teflon or another dry lube rather than an oily spray that would attract dirt and dust and may soil your clothes.  The webbing on some aluminum chairs is attached with screws that might need to be tightened from time to time.  Folding aluminum web chairs can be fairly easily re-webbed, if you can still find the webbing kits.  That is a good way to repair or refresh vintage chairs, or even change the color to match a "new" RV or tent.   Tears in quad chairs can be patched as you would just about any fabric, but they are not designed to be rebuildable; however anyone who can operate a sewing machine could sew new fabric for these chairs pretty easily.  You can probably use the old fabric for a pattern if it isn't too badly worn out.  They generally come in a variety of basic colors (red, blue, green, orange, yellow, and black) and sometimes camouflage.  If you choose to sew your own colors you could make them any color or pattern you like as long as you use an appropriately strong fabric. The factory chairs are usually made of a light weight canvas material.  A good quality nylon or polyester might be more stain resistant.  Speaking of stains, you might want to consider spraying quad chairs with Scotchguard stain repellant when they're new to help keep them looking good.

Survival camp chairs.  You aren't likely to have any camp chairs if you find yourself in wilderness survival mode, but that doesn't mean you have to sit on the ground.  You can sometimes find a rock or a stump to sit on or make yourself a rustic stool from just two pieces of wood.  It is easiest to make using flat lumber, but that too will probably not be an option in survival mode.  The basic design is a "T".  You sit on the cross bar of the "T" and the leg supports your weight.  If you have to make a stool from limbs you'll probably want to notch the cross bar so it doesn't roll off.  Since you have to balance this one-legged stool it may take a little practice, but it sure beats sitting on cold, wet, muddy, or snowy ground.

Camp chair accessories.   One of the most popular accessories are umbrellas that clamp to the chair frame to provide shade and protection from light rain.  Another rather esoteric option is called "Backglo".  It is a reflective shield that attaches to the back of the chair and extends all the way to the ground below to reflect heat from the campfire onto your back.  There are also little folding tables available in the quad chair style that can be used as tables or as foot stools.

Sittin' pretty!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Trailer Ride Height

Travel trailers should ride level when being towed.  This maintains the right weight distribution for better handling, proper tire wear, and may help minimize fuel consumption.  A trailer that sits too low in front or too high in back exposes part of the bottom or the top of the trailer to frontal winds effectively increasing total frontal area and increasing drag.  In addition, a trailer that sits too high in front may get extra wind underneath the trailer, which could have a tendency to lift some of the weight off the hitch and the tires, causing handling problems.  One that is too low in front may transfer a disproportionate amount of weight to the hitch.  Improper hitch weight can affect handling and safety.  I'm sure we've all seen a little trailer behind a big truck or motorhome with its tongue angled up sharply.  Not only does it look strange, it is probably somewhat unsafe because it alters the hitch weight and the geometry of the connection between the trailer and the tow vehicle.  A hitch that is angled on the ball, either up or down, instead of flat will put extra stress on the ball and could cause premature failure (either slipping off the ball or breaking the ball or the hitch). When the hitch is level the ball should be gripped all around to keep it in place.  Angling the hitch puts the "grip"  on a wider part of the ball instead of under it, weakening the connection.

Trailer height is sometimes affected by worn or inadequate vehicle suspension.  If the weight of the trailer makes the vehicle squat like a cat in a litter box, the vehicle suspension needs help.   The springs may need to be replaced or "helper" springs added to compensate for normal wear over time.  Be sure to check the Combined Vehicle Gross Weight of the tow vehicle to make sure you aren't overloading the vehicle beyond its rating before adding helper springs.  Leaf springs can be re-arced and one or more leaves added to restore or increase capacity.  Air bags are sometimes suggested as a way to lift sagging suspension, but there can be undesirable side effects.  I've seen motorhome frames bent by airbags because they become the primary load point and unless the frame has been reinforced at the attachment point, it may not be strong enough to hold all the weight of the vehicle.  The original leaf springs distribute the weight to at least two mounting points which are usually located on a stronger part of the frame.  The truck frames many motorhomes are built on narrow down where they curve up and over the rear axle, creating a weak spot.  Adding an air bag at this point can make it the single primary point of weight distribution, something the frame was not designed to handle.  If the vehicle doesn't sag but the trailer tongue is angled up or down, you will need to adjust the height of the connection between the trailer and the tow vehicle.

The easiest way to make a trailer ride level is to adjust the hitch height by using a drop hitch.  They are available with different drop heights and some are even adjustable to fine tune the height.  Most drop hitches can be flipped over if you need to raise the tongue instead of lowering it to match the hitch on the tow vehicle. Basically, if the hitch height when the trailer is level is lower than the hitch on the tow vehicle, you need a drop hitch to bring the ball down to the level of the trailer tongue.  If the tongue is higher, you need to use an inverted drop hitch to lift the ball to match the trailer tongue.Here is a link for how to Measure for Rise or Drop.

Sometimes you may want to raise the overall ride height of the trailer, and not just change the height of the connection between the trailer and the tow vehicle.   Trailers that are used off-road may need extra ground clearance or if you have trouble with dragging the tail going in and out of driveways your trailer might benefit from raising the body.  This requires modification of the suspension.  On trailers with double-eye leaf springs you may be able to install longer spring hangers to easily and inexpensively gain an inch or so.  Another approach is to relocate the springs.  The springs are normally suspended beneath the axle.  By moving them so they sit on top of the axle you gain the height of the axle.  This is not a trivial task as it may require welding new spring perches to the top of the axle.  Why can't you just turn the axle over?  Some are "drop axles" that carry the weight of the trailer below the center of the wheels so they aren't designed to be flipped over but even straight axles usually have a slight curve so the weight of the trailer straightens them out instead of making them sag.  If you flip them over you risk screwing up the angle of the wheels.  Sometimes you can upgrade the springs so they don't flatten out as much to gain a little height, but this will also stiffen the ride and may cause the trailer to bounce more on rough roads.  Raising trailer height merely so it rides level behind your tow vehicle isn't usually a good idea.  You should only result to suspension modifications to raise the height if you need more ground clearance.  And remember, you won't increase axle clearance but you will get the body higher so it doesn't tail drag as easily going over obstacles and having the springs on top of the axle instead of below means you don't have the springs and U-bolts that hold them on hanging down below the axle where they can drag sooner.  If you need more axle clearance you might consider larger wheels and tires -- if there is enough clearance in the wheel well for them.  In extreme situations it may require a different axle to gain the necessary ground clearance.

If the trailer isn't level from side to side, it may have a weak or broken spring on one side.   I once had one that looked like one side was missing leaf.  When I removed he springs to replace them, the one that was low came out in pieces,  Every leaf except the main one was broken in the middle and at least one was missing an entire half of the leaf.  You should always replace springs in pairs to maintain equal suspension and performance, even if only one is damaged.  Sometimes you can gain a little ride height by using heavier/stronger springs.  Just replacing worn, tired springs with new ones of the same number of leaves might add a little lift.  Going to springs with more leaves will usually add some height, but it makes the ride stiffer.  If the springs are too stiff for the load, it will be almost like there are no springs at all, just a solid connection, which means the contents will bounce more, there will be more vibration (which could affect trailer components and contents), and the trailer may transfer more road shocks to the tow vehicle.

Many trailers lack shock absorbers.   Because people don't usually ride in trailers, manufacturers save weight and money by not installing shock absorbers.  If yours doesn't have shocks, you might be able to add them, but is can be a difficult and sometimes expensive process.  There are bolt on kits available to fit some trailers but in many cases you will have to have shock mounts fabricated and welded on.  Why add shocks?  Adding shocks will help reduce bouncing of the wheels, which can reduce tire wear and extend tire life.  Reduced bouncing also minimizes shifting of contents inside. I've seen trailers that bounced so much all the stuff on the shelves or in the cabinets ended up piled on the floor by the time they arrived in camp.  Shocks can improve trailer handling too.  By resisting tilting they help maintain the trailer on the level and avoid lateral stress on the hitch and tow vehicle.  If you can add shocks inexpensively it might be worthwhile but if you have to fork out big bucks to have them installed, it may be cost prohibitive.

Air shock absorbers on some vehicles are used to raise the body height, but since they are not designed as a primary support system doing so isn't really a good idea, so I wouldn't try to use shocks to raise a trailer or tow vehicle height.  When you do the shocks take all the load all the time, not  just some of the load when the wheel bounces.

Ride right!