Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, sailing, 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. The organization is pretty much by date of publication. Please use the SEARCH option below to find what you are looking for.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Visibility is an important aspect of using both RVs and OHVs.  It even has applications in tent camping to some extent. There are two different kinds of visibility you need to consider: 1) seeing: how well you can see from the operator's position in a motorhome, OHV, or tow vehicle and 2) being seen: how well your RV or OHV, or tent can be seen by other drivers/riders.  Hunters know the value of visability, whether they wear camouflage to hide from their quarry or bright orange to prevent other hunters from shooting them.  I prefer the bright orange.  I figure I'd rather scare away my quarry than get shot!

Seeing. The operator of an RV, tow vehicle, an OHV, or even the family car obviously needs good visibility to safely direct the movement of the vehicle. Most motorhomes, tow vehicles, and cars have pretty good forward visibility -- as long as your windshield is clean and not blocked or impaired by reflections or junk on the dashboard. Immediate lateral visibility is also pretty darn good, but the view anywhere behind the driver is often very restricted, especially in motorhomes and when pulling trailers. Good outside rear-view mirrors help a lot but a back-up camera is even more useful in negotiating your way into cramped campsites with large RVs with out taking out the landscaping and damaging your rig. Lacking a backup camera, having a person outside to direct you can prevent embarrassing and costly mistakes. A pair of inexpensive walkie-talkies help avert misunderstandings that can often come from unclear hand signals or attempts to shout directions, which will often incite the ire of nearby campers. It is critical to keep the windshield clear and free from fogging, ice, snow, and even reflections. There is a tendency for some people to use that big flat surface below the windshield of motorhomes and tow vehicles as a storage shelf. Leaving items lying there presents a couple of hazards that need to be avoided. In almost all cases they can reflect in the windshield and cause distractions or even distortions of what you see. Secondly, they can become unguided missiles in the event of an accident or sudden change of direction. At the minimum, objects flying off the dashboard can distract the driver and, depending on mass, velocity, and shape, can even cause serious injuries to occupants and damage to the unit. Keeping the windshield fog-free can be a challenge in cool, damp weather, especially on the large expanses of glass in many big motorhomes. The addition of fans at each top corner, like those used on trucks, can help -- a lot. There are also anti-fog preparations you can use to reduce the build up of fog on windows and windshields. Keep the outside clean too -- scrape away ice and snow completely before driving. Do not rely on the wipers to simply clear a hole for you to see through. The remaining blockage can completely hide even surprisingly large vehicles and obstacles that could pose significant problems.  I've seen lazy drivers scrape only a spot big enough to peek out and that is clearly a recipe for disaster!

Visibility for OHV operators is usually a function of proper goggles and helmets, although a few OHVs today have windscreens which require the same care as RV or tow vehicle windshields to guarantee good visibility. A properly fitting helmet and clean goggles should give the OHV operator good visibility with one exception:  they are usually made of plastic instead of glass. Plastic windscreens need special care to prevent them from getting scratched.  Wiping them when they're dusty sill put micro-scratches in the plastic that soon turns it cloudy or even opaque.  Wash them with soap and water and dry them with a soft cloth.  If badly coated or scratched, try using a good plastic cleaner like Novus to restore clarity.  Dirty, scratched, cracked, cloudy, fogged, dusty, or muddy goggles seriously impact what you can see and affect your safety and that of everyone around you.   When on the trail on your OHV, take a minute to check and clean your goggles each time you stop along the route.  Try not to wipe them with a dry cloth as the dust will put microscratches in the lens that will quickly accumulate to render the lens opaque.  Use a little water from your drinking water supply or, in a pinch, a little spit will do.  Motocross and desert racers often use 'tear offs' on their goggles to maintain a clear view.  These are thin transparent sheets that cover most of the lens and can be ripped off and tossed aside easily when they get muddy or dirty.    Be sure to use appropriate lenses -- clear at night and in conditions of low light and shaded lenses in bright sunlight. A bad fitting helmet can also cause problems. One that is too large will not move correctly when you turn your head. It isn't going to be of much use if you end up staring at the inside of your helmet when you try to look left or right! A helmet that is too small will move with your head -- if you can get it on in the first place. But, if you're anything like me, a tight helmet will quickly give you a headache, which doesn't make it any easier to see straight! As always, your protective gear should be appropriate for the activity, should be clean and in good condition, should fit well and be worn properly. Regardless of the type of vehicle, the operator needs to be able to see where they're going and have good visibility to the sides and even rear of the vehicle.  Unlike vehicles licensed for on-road use, most OHVs, especially dirt bikes and ATVs, lack rear view mirrors.  I found out early in my dirt biking that rear view mirrors were of great value, especially when leading my kids on a ride.  You can buy clamp on mirrors at motorcycle shops but my favorites were old fashioned bicycle mirrors.  I cut the metal arm down from about 10" to 2" so the " round mirror was just above my hand grips and didn't pose a problem when going through vegetation.  These days most bicycle mirrors are mounted on a flexible plastic shaft that vibrates too much to be useful but you can still find solid shaft vintage bicycle mirrors on ebay.

Being seen. You would think being seen isn't problem for big RVs. Don't count on it! I have been in foggy situations where you could get within about 10' of an unlighted motorhome before it became visible through the mist -- and that might be too close to stop! The U.S. Department of Transportation has spent million of dollars studying the visibility of over-the-road trucks, resulting in recommendations for clearance lights and reflective markers. Since it isn't practical to leave the clearance lights on for extended periods of time when you are camping, having good reflectors can make your vehicle more visible to approaching vehicles. The solution I like best is to add a strip of 3M reflective tape along the entire side of my RV. Done right, it will blend with the original decor and yet will make your RV show up brightly in approaching headlights. The red and white striped reflective tape used on semi-trailers has been proven to be highly visible and is a good addition to OHV trailers. Studies sponsored by the US DOT found it to be the best at making semi-trailers and over-the-road trucks visible at night.   It may not be very pretty, but it could prevent your RV or trailer from being smashed by a roving Jeep or ATV.   Here's where visibility may be of concern to tent campers. You want to make sure your tent isn't setup where it will be in the way of any errant vehicles.  During OHV outings, I've seen ignorant or thoughtless campers set up their tents on trails and even on dirt roads, directly in the path of other riders or vehicles. Sure, it was a nice flat spot with no vegetation, but definitely not a good idea, unless you want to get run over! Make sure you pick a spot that is not in or close to any right of way. At night you might add light sticks or reflectors to make your tent more visible so vehicles and even folks on foot so they don't trample your cloth domicile.  Reflective tape is an easy way to highlight your tent. A tent well lighted from the inside usually shows up pretty well at night. Making your tent visible is a second-level precaution.  Your first defense should be to set up your tent where it will be out of the way of any roads or trails.  You will see pennants flying on staffs on the back of many ATVs, dune buggies, and side-by-sides. You can even buy battery powered strobe lights to put on the top of the staffs.  These pennants and lights allow approaching riders to detect your presence and movement (speed and direction) when you and your vehicle may be partially or completely hidden behind a rise, rocks, other vehicles, or vegetation. Pennants are typically not practical nor normally used on dirt bikes. Your best bet of being seen on your dirt bike is to wear bright, even reflective, clothing and to make sure your lights (if you have them) are working. Even during daylight hours, lights make your vehicle more visible. Be careful and watch where YOU are going so you don't needlessly put yourself and your vehicle in the path of another rider. This is especially important when riding criss-crossing desert or forest trails. On desert trails stand up when approaching intersecting trails to make it easier to see and be seen. When riding forest trails, look ahead for intersecting trails and slow down until you can verify there is no traffic on the intersecting route. Also, for all OHV activities, be aware of your environment and avoid putting yourself and your vehicle in obscure places. Lying in wait to surprise your friends could easily backfire if another rider slams into you in your hiding place! And your surprise might cause your friends to lose control and crash, perhaps even into you!

Non-motorized activities. For safety you will want to use good practices to see and be seen in non-motorized activities, such as hiking and hunting. Some hunting activities may require you to blend into the environment, but to avoid being shot by some other hunter, it is a good idea to make yourself very visible. Bright orange clothing is frequently the choice of hunters, but if you are hunting in an area where bright orange fall foliage is common, you may need to choose another color. Unless you are hiking during hunting season (something I highly discourage!), being seen is probably more of a factor if you become lost and rescuers need to find you. Once again, bright colored clothing is helpful although you will want to avoid flowered prints that might attract unwanted insects. Carry a bright colored neckerchief or flag you can display as an emergency signal if necessary. An orange trash bag is a useful tool for many survival activities, including signalling as well as shelter. It can be folded into a small form, weighs little and isn't very expensive.  Making yourself visible around camp at night will avoid accidents. Carry a flashlight so you can both see where you're going and be seen by other folks. Wear a jacket or vest with reflective stripes if you have one when moving about camp in the dark.   There are clamp on reflective stripes if your jacket doesn't have any reflectivity.  You can probably find them at bicycle shops.  I think I came across mine at Dollar Tree!  You may need a certain amount of privacy for trips to the bushes, but make sure you avoid trails and roads where vehicle traffic might put you in danger.

See and be seen!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tent Camping Equipment: New vs Used

It would be nice if we could all start out with brand new equipment, but that isn't something most of us can afford and even if it were it might not be cost effective. After all, people who have money didn't get it by squandering it.  You may be able to make judicious use of year end clearances and liquidations to pick up some good deals on new items, but most folks will find it more economical to settle for some good used camping equipment. If it is used, but not abused, it should serve you well for many years at a fraction of the price of new stuff. Check your local classified ads, supermarket bulletin boards, web sites (like ebay and craigslist), thrift stores, and garage sales. Many times people accumulate extra equipment over the years and will dispose of their excess at cents on the dollar. A lot of used stuff is practically, and sometimes literally, brand new. Since camping is usually a part time leisure activity for most people, their camping equipment gets light use. People often purchase or receive as gifts items they never get around to using or only use once or twice.  And keep in mind it is only new until you use it the first time anyway.  I am a bit of a bargain hunter and seldom pay retail for any camping equipment, preferring to take advantage of sales or buy pre-owned gear.

Used tents. Tents are one of the largest expenses for tent camping. Here is where you can probably save the most by buying used equipment. And, since tents are not intimate items, there is relatively little danger of serious or offensive contamination unless they are really badly soiled and/or have a foul odor. Be sure to examine all the poles to make sure they are the right ones for the tent and are complete and in good condition. Count and inspect the stakes. You will need to replace bent, broken, or missing stakes. Check all the stake loops. Torn loops can sometimes be repaired, but make sure you know what you're buying and that you have the skills and tools to make any necessary repairs. For cabin tents, check the grommets where the tent poles connect to the fabric. If these are missing or damaged you may have to reinforce those spots before you can install new grommets. Check the sleeves where the poles go on dome tents to make sure they aren't ripped or the seams coming apart. Check the floor to make sure it isn't ripped or punctured or the seams along the walls coming apart. Check the zippers and screens on all doors and windows. You might be able to patch small tears in screens but zippers are difficult to replace. Sticky zippers might be fixed using a product like EZ-Snap lubricant.  However, if the zippers are damaged, keep looking. Don't forget to check the rain fly if it has -- or should have -- one. Make sure you have some idea of the new price of similar tents so you don't get ripped off. Anything at or below 50% of new retail is probably an acceptable price. I might be willing to pay slightly more if the tent is in nearly new condition and meets my requirements. Some brands will command higher resale prices because of the reputation and quality of the products, so do some price comparisons online or via the classified ads. Unless you urgently need a tent right now, take time to look around to obtain the best price and value. Watch the flyers from sporting goods stores. They often have special promotions that deliver exceptional value on new tents and camping packages, especially at the beginning and end of the camping season. Carefully check what is included in any packages to make sure you aren't paying for a lot of stuff you don't need or want and that the package price really is less than the sum of the cost of the individual items from other sources.  I got used 14' cabin tent for under $40 and a new 7' umbrella tent for $10 at a year end sidewalk sale.  I had to patch a hole in the roof of the cabin tent where the previous owner had installed a chimney for a tent stove and had to fabricate the crossover connection that held the 4 poles together for the umbrella tent, but both were things I could easily handle and I got many years of  use out of both tents.

Used sleeping bags. Since sleeping bags are rather intimate items, some people are reluctant to purchase used ones which can hold down prices. Keep in mind they can be dry cleaned, which will sanitize them, and usually will come out like new, if they haven't been abused. Consider the kind of weather you will be using them in. 10 degree bags won't keep you warm enough in sub-zero weather, but will be too warm for typical summer evenings in most camping areas. Consider the style. Mummy bags are good for keeping individuals warm but they limit movement and some people get claustrophobic in them. Rectangular bags can usually be opened and zipped together to form double sleeping bags for couples, good for added warmth as well as comfort and intimacy.

Used camp stoves. Used camp stoves can save you a bundle. The old fashioned white gas (Coleman fuel) stoves are plentiful and reliable. It is typical to find the pump may not work because the leather washer in it has dried out. Many times all that is needed is a few drops of oil to get it working again. If that doesn't work, the pumps can be easily and inexpensively rebuilt. A second major component is the generator. This is a tube-like structure that converts liquid fuel to vapor for the burners. If the generator is defective, it must be replaced. Again, this is a fairly easy and inexpensive DIY project (under $20). If the fuel tank is leaking, keep looking. Damaged fuel tanks are dangerous and cannot be easily repaired. If the burners are clogged they can usually be cleaned with a wire brush. Used propane powered stoves don't have pumps or built in fuel tanks; they use replaceable pressurized propane canisters. Be sure to keep an eye out for sales on propane canisters to keep your operating costs down. Another option is to get an adapter so you can use a bulk propane tank like the one for your home BBQ. The fuel is a lot less expensive than buying individual 1 # cylinders.  The last time I filled up my motorhome I paid $2.79/gallon -- compared to about $2.88 for two 1-quart portable canisters.  Thrift stores and garage sales are good places to look for used camp stoves.  I've seen 3-burner Coleman stoves for $8.00.  Even it it needs some work, it would probably be well worth that!  Even if  you already have a good camp stove, you might want to pick up another good used one as a backup or in case you host large group or need it in a disaster scenario.

Used lanterns. These days there are many options for camp lanterns. The old Coleman gas lantern is a time-proven staple but there are many battery-powered alternatives available today, including LED lights that minimize battery drain and even lanterns with built in solar chargers. You may luck out and find battery lanterns at garage sales etc, but the venerable Coleman lantern is a more likely find. Just like camp stoves, steer clear of lanterns with damaged fuel tanks. Faulty pumps and generators can be easily and inexpensively replaced. You may even be able to buy a replacement for a missing or cracked glass globe. These are not universal or one size fits all, so do some research into availability before buying a broken lantern.  Now that LED lanterns have been around awhile you'll start seeing them on the used market too.  But even new ones aren't terribly expensive.  I've seen some very nice ones around $10.  LEDs use SO much less power than the old incandescent bulbs!  I left an LED lantern with 17 LEDs on overnight in my barn and it was still bright the next morning and for months afterwards!  A regular incandescent lantern would have killed battery about half way through the night.

Used cookware. Used camp cook ware and mess kits can be a good bargain. Even if they are blackened or dirty, they can usually be cleaned and sterilized and safe to use. Small, individual mess kits are not terribly expensive, even when they are brand new, so be aware of the price and value before you buy up a bunch of used stuff for your kids. You might be able to get new kits for not much more.  In choosing any cook ware, seek sets that are designed for camping. These will usually stack together for storage and will have multi-use components, such as a lid that also doubles as a frying pan. Camp cook sets often include plastic plates, cups, and flatware as well as pots and pans.  These types of kits save space and weight without sacrificing functionality. Cast iron cook ware is heavy to tote around but is practically foolproof and indestructible. It can be used directly in a campfire and even the worse burned on, sticky mess can usually be burned off and scoured and the pan re-seasoned. New or heavily cleaned cast iron cookware does need to be seasoned before using. Seasoning consists of coating the cooking surface with cooking oil and heating it until the oil burns away, leaving a coating on the surface. This applies to cast iron grills and griddles as well as frying pans and dutch ovens. Anytime a piece of cast iron cookware as been scoured or washed with detergent, it should be re-seasoned. To avoid re-seasoning, remove all food residue from the item, then rub it with crumpled newspaper or paper towels until all traces of grease and residue have been removed. Ordinary kitchen pots and pans can be used for camping. Thrift stores are a good place to look. Light weight aluminum pots and pans may melt if used directly in a campfire but they should be fine on a camp stove. Seek cast iron if you plan to cook directly on the fire.  It is heavier to lug around but it will last a very long time and stand up to plenty of hard use.   You won't want it for back packing or hiking in any distance to your  camp site, but it will be nice to have for RVing and car camping.

Used ice chests. There is little that can go wrong with ice chests. Make sure they don't have any holes or cracks in either the liner or the outer skin. Make sure the hinges and latches work. And make sure they don't smell bad! Some plastic liners absorb odors that can be very difficult to remove. You sure don't want your food smelling like dirty socks or like something that died! There have been many improvements in insulation and durability over the years. New ice chests are not too expensive, so you might want to check out your local Walmart before grabbing up older "bargains". For short term use, light weight styrofoam chests are really inexpensive, but they aren't very durable. Plastic ice chests are the next least expensive permanent solutions. Painted steel models used to be common but you don't usually see a lot of new ones these days. I picked up a couple of nice older Coleman steel ice chests on ebay. New stainless steel models are durable and often keep food colder than plastic models but they're somewhat expensive -- plastic chests can be found for $20-$50. Expect to pay around $100 for stainless steel. Size matters! Consider the space you have for transporting your equipment. Huge ice chests can hold lots of food and drinks but they may take up your entire cargo area and are very heavy to carry when fully loaded. Sometimes having a number of smaller chests will be more convenient (and less expensive) and the ice will last longer. Separate chests for drinks and perishable foods is a good idea. You will be getting into the drink chest more frequently and if it should run out of ice, the drinks won't spoil although they won't be as appealing if they are warm. Smaller chests are also easier to carry. Keeping perishable foods separate avoids exposing them to frequent opening of the chest and will protect them longer. Sometimes having a few inexpensive styrofoam chests is a good solution for separating and transporting items. They are also good for keeping your frozen or cold foods cool on the way back from the grocery store. Get the right size chest for you needs. You don't need a huge, $150 marine cooler to keep a six pack cold for an afternoon picnic and it probably wouldn't even do the job without filling it with many bags of ice whereas a small cooler and 1 bag of ice would easily and conveniently handle a six pack.

Camp chairs are not terribly expensive when they are new and to some extent are designed to be disposable.  That being said, you might still pick up some good used camp chairs.  Be sure to inspect them for bent or broken frames or damaged fabric or netting. Like so many other pieces of camping equipment, people tend to accumulate more than they need and you may snag a great deal on some good used ones.  At one time folding aluminum chairs with woven fiberglass straps were the norm.   Today the collapsible "bag" or "quad" chairs seem to dominate the market. 

Used camping tools.   Things like axes, hatchets, mallets, and folding shovels are handy to have when camping and used items in good condition will be just as serviceable as new ones.  You might have to sharpen an axe or clean and paint a shovel, but it will probably save you quite a bit over buying new.  Other candidates in the tools category might include knives and mallets.  Camp chairs and cots are pretty durable and used ones could save you quite a bit of cash you could use on something else.  Folding tables and "camp kitchens" are also nice additions if you come across them.

Save away!

RVs: New versus Used

OK. You've decided you want to buy an RV. Should you buy a new one or a used one? Obviously your decision will depend on several factors, the most prominent of which is probably price versus your budget. However, even if you can afford a new RV, there are some things to consider before writing that check. I have purchased both new and used RVs. I only bought one brand new. The rest of the time I found it more cost effective to buy a pre-owned unit.  I will review the pros and cons of both options below.

Buying new. Buying a new RV is a thrilling experience for anyone. Having a coach no one else has lived in is a special feeling. Buying new may also give you the chance to order the unit configured to your personal specifications. All very nice advantages. When buying new you don't have to worry about the abuse or lack of maintenance by some previous owner. You know exactly what you're getting, and you get nice warranties on the unit and its appliances. About the only negative I've seen to buying new, other than price and depreciation, is what they call "infant mortality", which consists of a series of problems that seem to come with every new RV. I bought a brand new RV once and it spent about 1/4 of its first year back at the dealer or at the manufacturer getting things fixed that should have been checked before it ever left the lot or the factory. You can count on a new RV losing 15-20% of the purchase price the minute you sign the papers and make it a "previously owned" unit and depreciation is high the first year or two. You might want to check the resale value of similar units for the last few years to get an idea of how fast the resale value of your new pride and joy will slide. As to the warranty issues, why is the "infant mortality" rate so high? Consider this: an RV consists of all the components of a motor vehicle and all the features of a house. When you buy a new house you usually go through a period where you prepare of list of items for the contractor to fix.  There are often several warranty issues with a new vehicle too.   So it shouldn't come as any surprise that it combines the problems of both, making it seem like a lot.   Still, there is a lot of pride of ownership that comes with buying a brand new RV.  Be sure to understand and follow the maintenance required by any warranties and make sure you file any claims before the warranty expires and do so according to the warranty terms.

Buying used. Buying a used RV can often get you an extraordinary bargain. Remember, the minute the papers are signed, a new RV becomes a used RV, even if it hasn't even been driven yet. Many if not most RVs get little use, especially compared to the mileage we put on our daily drivers. A good, low-mileage, well-maintained RV can sometimes be even better than buying new. First off, you will pay less and someone else has already taken that first big chunk of depreciation. Used RVs were often excellent buys even before today's failed economy. A few years ago friend of mine picked up a late-model, low-mileage motorhome that booked for over $120,000 for about $69,000! It had been owned by an older couple and one of them got unexpected serious health issues and they weren't able to use their motorhome.  They lived some distance from any dealers who might buy it or take it on consignment and were willing to let it go for substantially less than book value.  Today's bargains are even more impressive. Secondly, the original owner has already had to deal with the "infant mortality" period and most warranty issues have already been resolved. Previous owners have also often added features that will add to the convenience and usability of used units. Such additions usually don't add a lot to the "blue book" value, so you get them practically free! Used units may also already have luxury options you may not have found cost effective in a new unit. When buying a used RV, do a thorough inspection and have it checked by a reputable RV technician. Unless you know the seller personally, you don't know how well the previous owner took care of the unit. Sometimes they provide documentation for routine maintenance and repairs, which usually demonstrates careful treatment but more typically there won't be any maintenance records. Here are some basic things to check out before you incur the cost of having an RV technician do an inspection. Look at the overall condition of the unit. Is it clean and without body damage? Is the interior clean and does it smell pleasant? Foul, musty odors often indicate there are or have been leaks that may have created structural problems was well as bad odors. Extra strong air fresheners are sometimes an attempt to disguise bad odors, so if you encounter a rig whose pine or vanilla or gardenia air freshener all but makes your eyes water, be wary. Soft spots in the floor, ceiling, or around windows and doors are also strong indicators of water damage that can be expensive to repair. Take the unit for a good test drive that includes various kinds of road conditions (hills, windy roads, rough roads) so you can check handling, listen for unusual noises, and watch for loose components.  It should start easily, drive, shift, and brake smoothly and there shouldn't be any unusual vibrations or noises.  Check the condition of dump valves.  I've often seen cracked, broken, or sticking valves.  They aren't expensive if you replace them yourself, but that can be a nuisance if you're anxious to hit the road right away.  Old dump valves will probably have rusty bolts that can be very difficult to remove.  Check the tires. If the sidewalls are cracked the tires are old. If the tread is worn down or the sidewalls are cracked or the tires are more than 10 years old, the tires will have to be replaced. Uneven tire wear indicates a suspension problem that could be costly to repair and an overall lack of owner attention. Because RVs don't log a lot of miles, tires that look good may still be in need of replacement if they are more than 7 - 10 years old. The age can be determined by the DOT serial number on the tire. If you are looking at a motorhome or tow vehicle, check the fluids: oil, transmission fluid, and coolant. If the oil or transmission fluid feels gritty, looks black or brown, or it smells burned, look for another vehicle -- now! Black engine oil is not necessarily problematic. The detergents in modern oils will dissolve deposits and turn new oil black in just a few minutes of operation. However, the oil should not smell burned or feel gritty. Transmission fluid, on the other hand, should be a deep red. Brown or black fluid indicates over-heating or contamination, which can be fatal for automatic transmissions. Like engine oil, transmission fluid should not smell burned or feel gritty.  Oil levels should be normal.  Low oil may indicate a leak or a mechanical problem such as worn piston rings or faulty valve seals.  Overfilling can cause the oil to foam, reducing its lubricating properties and causing engine damage.  Check the coolant. Low coolant may indicate a leak somewhere -- or lack of routine maintenance. Rusty or dirty coolant indicates lack of maintenance and potential cooling system problems. Oil in the coolant may be due to cracks in the engine block that allow oil into the cooling system.   We wary if you can smell coolant in the engine or driver compartment.  Don't take the dealer or seller's word for recent service. I bought a motorhome from an allegedly reputable dealer who assured me it has just been fully serviced, with fresh oil etc. I believed him. My bad! After driving only a couple of hundred miles I discovered it was 3 quarts low on oil at my first fuel stop. I should have checked the oil myself before I drove it off the lot. I subsequently had to replace the engine, (very expensive!) a couple of weeks later due to damage from lack of adequate lubrication. There is no telling how long it had been low on oil before I bought it. There are plenty of units available in good condition out there to choose from, so unless you are willing to accept and have the expertise and resources to assess and correct serious problems and the price is sufficiently reduced to make repairs cost effective, keep looking. Because of today's economy, there are some incredible bargains out there. For example (even though this is not an RV, it indicates the kind of potential that exists in today's failed economy), I recently talked to someone who purchased a 36' cabin cruiser with trailer for only $500 last year. It needed a little engine work, but he was knowledgeable and was able to effect repairs for about $75. That's a bargain in anyone's book. I've seen $80,000 motorhomes offered for under $40,000. Take your time and look around until you find the right deal on the unit that is right for you and you'll have a coach you can thoroughly enjoy for many years.  I bought an 11 1/2' self contained camper for just $100!  It was an extraordinary find, in excellent condition even though it was about 40 years old!

The looking process. The very process of looking for the right motorhome can be a fun experience. Take advantage of local RV shows to examine new units. Some shows also feature a few selected previously owned units. Check out the classified ads and local RV lots to examine used units. Shopping around will let you explore options you might find appealing and get a feel for their relative value. The more you look the better idea you will have of what is going to work for you and the better you will become at detecting and avoiding potential problems and identifying the features you want. Just steer clear of high-pressure salesman! If you start hearing words like "this price is only good today" or "I've got another buyer on the line" or experience any other arm-twisting, high pressure tactics by over-zealous RV salespersons, RUN! Most legitimate dealers will let you explore the units on their lots and, of course, are anxious to answer questions and try to talk you into buying. Their products and service should be enough to convince you to buy without high-pressure scare tactics. Any salesman or dealer who has to resort to high pressure sales techniques is probably hiding something and will not be pleasant to deal with after the sale. Remember: YOU are in the driver's seat, figuratively and literally. Don't be bullied into buying something you don't really want or you aren't ready for.

Happy hunting!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Staying Warm and Cozy

Staying warm usually isn't as much of a problem when camping as keeping cool is, since we tend to go camping mostly in fair weather.  But a sudden summer storm may cause temperatures to drop and even normal night time temperatures in many areas can be quite cool. I've seen overnight temperatures in the desert in the 40's after 100+ temperatures in the afternoon. And, some people even go camping in winter!  Its usually easier for us to add warm clothing or gather 'round a campfire than it is to find ways to keep cool.  You can always put on another sweater or coat when it gets cold but there is only so much you can take off when it gets hot!  Early spring or late fall outings can often bring us into cooler weather where we may have to make adaptations to our usual dress and behavior to stay comfortable.

Staying warm in an RV is usually just a matter of setting the thermostat or turning on the furnace.  If you want to conserve battery power and propane at night you might shut off the furnace and then you'll need warm bedding. Blankets, a comforter, or warm sleeping bags are good ways to stay warm in bed. Some folks like to "over heat" their rigs a little before bedtime to keep it warmer longer when they retire, then turn the furnace off at night. Not sure that there is any real savings in propane or battery power by doing that. And, if you're like me, you may find it hard to get to sleep if it is too hot.  My preference is to set the thermostat at a comfortable level and be comfortable all night.  If I wanted to freeze at night I could sleep in a tent or outside under the stars. Keep windows and vents closed and limit opening doors to reduce heat loss.  Window coverings will also help prevent loss of heat.  Most RVs have only single pane glass, which is a pretty good conductor of heat, allowing valuable heat to escape.  Curtains and drapes or shades will help, but using a sheet of bubble foam insulation in the window gives even more protection.  You might even install "storm windows" on your RV using plastic kits designed for home use.  Stretch them over the outside of the window frame and shrink to fit using a heat gun or hair dryer.  You'll be surprised how much keeping the drapes closed and using foam inserts will contribute to retaining heat.  During the day you can wear a sweater or sweatshirt to stay warm without over taxing your furnace or propane supply.  Hard surface floors can be cold to walk on and may allow heat to escape.  A runner or throw rug will help mitigate these problems.  Of course just wearing slippers will keep your feet from getting cold, but they won't reduce heat transfer through the floor and help keep your rig warm like a rug will.  If all or at least most of the floors are carpeted, you're already covered (pun intended).

If you're camping in an RV in freezing weather you'll have to keep critical parts of the RV water systems warm in addition to keeping the people inside comfortable.  Exposed plumbing may freeze and break so it must be protected, either using antifreeze in the system or by keep it warm using heaters.  There are specially designed heating pads to keep holding tanks warm.  The better ones can operate on either 120-volt or 12-volt power sources.  If you're connected to a faucet in a campground you'll also need a heated water hose.  You can buy water hoses with built in heaters or wrap your regular potable water hose with heat tape.  Placing a 100-watt bulb inside the relevant compartments of RVs with enclosed holding tanks and dump valves will usually be enough to prevent freezing, but exposed hosed, tanks, and valves will need special attention.

Staying warm in a tent usually means having the right sleeping bag or blankets for the temperature for sleeping. If your bag isn't warm enough you can supplement it with liners, covers, blankets or comforters.  If you expect to be camping in cold weather, consider getting a 4-season tent.  A double wall tent (i.e., a tent with a rain fly) or covering your tent with a tarp may provide some additional insulation and better heat retention.  Staying warm in a tent during waking hours may require a tent heater and/or extra clothing. Tent heaters are usually some form of catalytic heater that gives off few if any toxic fumes, but they will all consume oxygen. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for proper ventilation to avoid suffocation! A Coleman lantern (white gas or propane) gives off quite a bit of heat and often is enough to warm a small tent. But these also consume oxygen so maintain adequate ventilation when using them and keep them away from flammable materials.. Body heat is sometimes enough to warm a tent in milder cool temperatures. You'd be surprised how much heat several human bodies will generate when confined in a small space like a tent. With 20 people in my living room during a cold Utah winter it got so warm we had to open the windows -- without any fire in the fire place or turning on any heat.  Each person puts out about as much heat as a 100 watt incandescent bulb.  Body heat will probably not be enough in really cold or freezing temperatures in even the warmest tent or best insulated RV.

Wood burning tent stoves are an option for some larger tents. They must be properly installed and vented. You normally need a heat resistant platform on which to set them and a fireproof way to vent the stove pipe through the roof. Using a gasoline or propane camp stove in a tent is usually a very bad idea!  Even the cute little catalytic tent heaters will consume oxygen, so be sure provide adequate ventilation in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions to avoid suffocation.  Lacking proper documentation, leave windows on opposite sides open about 1" to ensure adequate air flow.

Staying warm usually means staying dry. Heat loss through wet clothes is something like 25 times as fast as through dry clothes. If you've been caught in the rain or have melting snow on your clothes, change into dry clothes as soon as possible. You will be warmer wrapped in a dry blanket than wearing a damp heavy winter coat. If you become severely chilled (hypothermic) you may need to enlist the aid of a companion to help you get warm. Sharing a blanket or sleeping bag will help you warm up. Make sure neither of you is wearing any wet clothing.  And, yes, skin-to-skin is best, if modesty doesn't get in the way.  One very effective technique for warming a badly chilled person is fondly nicknamed "The Burritto".  Get your victim out of any wet clothing and wrap them in multiple layers of warm dry blankets, coats, or sleeping bags.  They'll usually be scrambling to get out of some of the layers within 15-20 minutes as they warm up.  For severely chilled victims, wrap them up with a warm companion.

Staying warm outside requires dressing appropriately for the weather. Dressing in layers is the best approach. It provides more efficient insulation and gives you more options for adjusting your clothing as either the outside temperature or your body temperature changes. Having a water proof or at least water resistant outer "shell" is a must for wet weather. It may be needed even in snow since melting snow can penetrate some otherwise warm coats or snow suits rather quickly.  For dirt biking, we chose "Windchill" jerseys and gloves and wore long johns under our riding pants.  It is also surprising how much protection you get from a thin nylon face mask.  I found one frustration with face masks.  If I covered my nose to keep it warm, my breath would fog my goggles so to see where I was going I often had to live with a cold nose.

Exercise is one way of warming up your body. Henry Ford allegdedly said "Cutting your own wood warms you twice." If you don't have any productive physical activities to warm you up you can do calisthenics or go for a run or walk. However, don't work up too much of a sweat as that will just make you colder! Les Stroud (Survivorman) warns against doing too much work in cold weather because sweating will cause you to lose necessary body heat.

Campfires are another way of keeping warm outdoors. You don't necessarily need a large fire to keep warm. "White man build big fire, stand way back; Indian build small fire, get up close." Another trick is to build more than one fire if you are having trouble keeping warm. Having one big fire will only keep one side of you warm at a time. You usually end up too warm on the side toward the fire and freezing on the other side.  Build two small fires and stand between them -- or build a ring of small fires and stand in the middle -- to warm you all around. Another useful tip is to build a fire where the heat will be reflected back toward you, like building it against a large rock, an embankment, a wall, a snowbank or even building your own "reflector" out of logs.  That way you can take advantage of more of the heat of the fire instead of having a lot of it escape in the wrong direction.  The reflection technique is also good for helping to heat a shelter using an outside fire. Build the fire safely outside the entrance to the shelter with a reflector on the opposite side of the fire from the entrance. I have some devices called "Back Reflectors" that attach to the back of a folding camp chair and extend down underneath toward the front.  The idea is that they reflect heat from the campfire up your back.  If nothing else, the plastic sheeting itself blocks the wind so your backside stays a little warmer.  I'm glad I bought mine when I did because I've never seen them again since.  You could probably make your own from Reflectix foam reflective insulation or even windshield sun screens.  Sometimes you can buy silver colored windshield screens at your local dollar store, making it a pretty cheap experiment if you want to try it out.

Body heat is another way of staying warm if you can keep it from escaping.  4-season tents and winter sleeping bags are one good way to preserve it.  If you have enough people you might be able to keep the inside of an RV warm too.  The human body is said to produce about the same heat as a 100 watt incandescent light bulb.   I've never measured it but I remember one cold December in Utah when we had 20 people in our living room and even without the heat on or any fire in the fireplace, it got so warm we had to open some windows -- and it was in the teens outside!

Warm up!

Keeping Your Cool!

Since a lot of our outdoor recreational activities take place during the summer time, keeping cool is often a problem faced by campers and RVers. Of course, if you're camping in a motorhome or trailer equipped with air conditioning, it becomes a lot easier. But, if you don't have an air conditioned RV or simply don't want to be cooped up inside or don't have shore power or can't run your generator to power the A/C, staying cool and comfortable outside becomes a priority.

Dress right to stay cooler.   When its cold you can add layers to help stay warmer, but, let's face it, there's only so much you can take off when its too warm, even in a "clothes optional" environment.  In fact, sometimes more is less.  Dressing in loose fitting long sleeved shirts and long pants will usually be cooler than shorts and tank tops.  Consider the style of clothing worn by nomadic desert tribes like the Bedouins.  They wear loose-fitting robes that cover their entire bodies.  Loose fitting clothing protects you from direct sunlight while allowing perspiration to evaporate to cool your skin.  Its kind of like wearing your own shade.  A big, broad brimmed hat will also help protect  you from the heat of the sun.  Skimpy clothing is an asset when you're in the water, but when you're not, it just exposes more of your skin to the heat and harmful UV rays from the sun.

If you are fortunate enough to have an RV with air conditioning and the power to operate it (either shore power or an on board generator) you can stay cool in your RV.  Many large RVs have multiple roof-mounted air conditioning units. These can usually be run at the same time when using the generator but often can only be run one at a time when connected to 30-amp shore power. That is because the combined power demand of two A/Cs exceeds the capacity of the 30-amp service. In this case, there will usually be a switch that lets you select which A/C to run. Some of the fancier units have devices that automatically switch between the two air conditioners. Alternate running each one to distribute wear and tear and to keep both ends of the RV cool.  Large RVs with 50 amp service can usually handle running both A/Cs at the same time.  When you are boondocking, you won't be able to run your A/Cs all night. Running the generator at night may disturb other nearby campers and can subject you and your family to carbon monoxide poisoning if the exhaust seeps into your coach. Carbon monoxide is odorless so you can easily slip into a sleep you'll never wake from without any warning!  Running your A/C at night in a campground, even on shore power, may disturb other campers.   Keep your A/C in good condition. Clean and straighten the cooling fins on the roof and clean the filters inside. Start running your A/C before is gets hot inside. It is easier for the A/C to maintain a comfortable temperature than it is is to cool down a hot environment.  Always allow at least 5-10 minutes after an air conditioner has been running and is shut off to switch back to it or turn it back on.  Pressure builds up in the compressor and if it hasn't had time to bleed off, restarting the air conditioner  and put an extreme load on the motor and on the on board generator that may cause permanent damage.  Use reflective foam insulation panels (similar to windshield sun screens) in all the windows to keep the heat out and the cool in.  And, of course, take full advantage of drapes and curtains to help keep the heat out.  Limit opening doors and window to prevent loss of cool air inside.  Use patio and window awning (if you have them) to keep sun from shining directly through the windows.

Shade. A fundamental component of staying comfortable in hot weather is to stay in the shade. It may be natural, under trees and bushes or man-made, under roofs, canopies, awnings and umbrellas or even wearing a broad-brimmed hat. Many RVs have patio awnings that make shade easy. Bag awnings aren't quite as convenient to set up, but the result is about the same -- for significantly less cost. Permanently attached RV awnings typically run $500-$1000, more for fancy electrically operated models. Bag awnings, which temporarily attach to your RV, are in the range of $200-$300. A simple free-standing "dining fly" can often be purchased for under $20 and can keep the sun off you and your guests at the picnic table or anywhere you choose to set it up. Another type of popular stand-alone awnings are "E-Z-Ups". These have expandable aluminum frames that don't require the ropes and stakes of dining flys, but are a bit more expensive. Expect to pay $60-$100 for the smaller ones. Makeshift shades can often be created using tarps strung between trees or vehicles. In a pinch you may be able to toss a tarp or blanket across a couple of camp chairs to give yourself somewhere out of the sun to sit. Window awnings on RVs will keep direct sunlight from shining through the windows and further heating the interior while still letting you see out.

Umbrellas are not just for rain. They can also be effective as sun shades. You may recall seeing young ladies carrying parasols in old time movies to shade them from the sun. Umbrellas come in many sizes. Large patio umbrellas may be a little cumbersome to take camping, but they will provide a lot of shade, usually enough for a half dozen people to escape the sun's wrath. Smaller lawn, golf, or beach umbrellas may be easier to transport and still provide shade for several people. Another convenient adaptation are individual umbrellas with clamps that they can be attached to camp chairs so you don't have to hold them.

Misters. Mist systems can add cooling under your RV patio awning just as they can at home. To avoid burning up my primary water pump or wasting all my precious fresh water supply, I rigged a secondary pump and fed it from portable 5-gallon water jugs to feed the misters on my motorhome awning. It made afternoons in the Mojave Desert much more comfortable. Why does mist keep us cool? The main factor is evaporation. Water consumes 530 calories of heat per gram of liquid water converted to water vapor. Compare that to only 80 calories required to convert a gram of ice to liquid water.  So evaporating water removes a little over 6 1/2 times as much heat as melting ice per volume! The evaporating mist cools the air around us and cools us directly when it falls on us and again when it evaporates from our skin. You can buy mist systems just about anywhere RV accessories are sold these days as well as at home centers.

Personal cooling systems. Today there are many personal cooling systems on the market. These usually consist of small water containers and a method delivering the water as mist. Some have built-in hand pumps to pressurize the container, some have battery-operated pumps. Some have their own battery powered fans.  In a pinch, or simply for convenience or to save money, you can use an ordinary spray bottle. I usually get mine at Dollar Tree.  It isn't quite as convenient or elegant as the pressurized mist systems, but you can direct the cooling spray where and when you need it. It is also very portable so you can carry it with you on hikes and have it handy for other activities. You can use a spray bottle sitting in the shade, relaxing inside your tent or RV, or even during many activities. Some of the available personal cooling systems include a battery-powered fan to move the air. Air movement speeds evaporation and makes you feel cooler quicker. The mist cools the air around us and cools us directly when it falls on us. The key is evaporation. Water absorbs heat as it evaporates. It takes more calories to turn water to vapor than it does melt ice. Remember, the heat of evaporation is 530 calories/gram; melting ice only absorbs 80 calories per gram. That means converting a gram of water to water vapor absorbs more than 6.6 times as much heat as melting 1 gram of ice.

Inside your RV. Of course the ultimate way to keep your RV cool is with an air conditioner. But not all RVs have them and they require 120-volt power and can be expensive to operate. Some full hookup campgrounds charge extra if you use your air conditioner and running the generator all day while dry camping burns gas, which is getting more expensive every day. There are 12-volt evaporative coolers that work in some dry climates but not in high humidity. They're OK in desert environments, but won't work well in places like Florida or other damp climates.  If you are using one of these, be sure to keep at least one window slightly open. Just like a "swamp cooler" on your permanent home, they draw air in from the outside through a water-soaked filter, cooling the air as it enters. The stale, moist air needs someplace to go, so leave one or more windows slightly open. You can even control where the air moves to some extent by which windows you open. If you keep all the windows closed, the RV becomes pressurized and the cool air can't enter. In addition, the saturated air is stuck inside, making it very humid and uncomfortable. You will also be surprised how much cooler you will feel if you just open a roof vent and one or two windows. The hot air will rise up through the roof vent and draw (hopefully) cooler air in through the windows. Even if the outside air isn't cooler, the mere movement of air will help you feel cooler and more comfortable since air movement aids evaporation of perspiration and draws heat from you skin. Battery powered or 12-volt fans can be used to circulate air and improve comfort.  Powered roof vents are an excellent way to get rid of hot air in an RV but usually don't move enough air to create much of a breeze.  Even so, you might be surprised how much more comfortable you can be with just little bit of ventilation.

Just as you need protection from overheating, so does your RV, generator, tow vehicle, or OHV.   Make sure the cooling system on all equipment is clean and properly maintained.  Clear air flow to generator compartments is essential.  Clean air filters on all engines will reduce stress on the engines.  Many OHVs need to keep moving to get sufficient air flow through the radiator (liquid cooled) or past the cooling fins (air cooled) so avoid excessive idling.  Make sure the oil level is correct.  Low oil levels can increase friction and contribute to overheating.  Some engines may benefit from an oversize oil filter that provides extra oil to help cool the engine.  Yes, oil does contribute to cooling your engines by carrying heat away.  Finned covers for oil filters may help dissipate heat from the oil.

Staying cool in a tent. Pitch your tent where you can take advantage of natural shade when you can -- assuming it doesn't put it in danger of falling branches or wildfire. If your tent has a rain fly, make sure to use it. It will shade the top of the tent from direct sunlight and leaves space for air to move beneath it and carry away heat from the tent itself. If yours does not have a rain fly, you might try setting up a dining fly or tarp over your tent to shade it from direct sun. Open windows or doors on opposite sides of the tent to allow cross ventilation. When choosing which openings to use, take advantage of any prevailing breezes and/or nearby shade that may provide a source for cooler air. Battery powered fans can help move air to keep you more comfortable when you're in your tent.  There are few options for mechanically cooling a tent bu here is a link to how to make an inexpensive "air conditioner" for your tent: Tent Air Conditioner.

Cool slumber. Staying cool at night presents its own set of needs. If you are relying on your generator to run the A/C during the day, you need to shut it off during "quiet hours" at night. Even if you are boondocking way out in the middle of no where with no one else around, it is not a good idea to run the generator at night to keep your A/C going. Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide, which can infiltrate your RV and kill you while you sleep. All it takes is a slight shift in wind direction to blow fumes back into your coach.  I try to keep my RV cool during the day, which helps pull the heat out of furnishings so it doesn't warm up too quickly when I turn the A/C off at bedtime. Also, open a roof vent and a window or two near your bed to create a slight breeze. If that isn't enough, a 12-volt fan can move some air to help keep you cool. Usually things cool down enough at night to make sleep comfortable in an RV or in a tent and it won't draw the batteries down any more than running the furnace fan on a cold night. If you are too warm in your tent, open windows or doors on opposite sides to allow cross ventilation and sleep on top of your sleeping bag instead of inside of it. Another way to sleep cool, if the environment is suitable, is to sleep outdoors in a hammock. A hammock will need strong anchor points -- trees, posts, vehicles, or a hammock frame. You may also need a mosquito net if bugs are a problem. You might not want to sleep outside if you are in an area where bears frequently enter campsites. Bears are usually more of a problem in parks where they are frequently fed by tourists than they are in the wilderness where they will normally avoid contact with human beings.

It is a common misconception that fans cool. Fans do not cool the air. All they do is move the air so you feel cooler. Moving air speeds evaporation and carries heat away from your body so you feel cooler. A common accessory for RVs is an oscillating fun that runs on 12-volt power. There are both portable and permanently mounted versions that can make you more comfortable in warm weather. Some ceiling vents are equipped with fans to aid the ejection of hot air or to draw in cool air. Ceiling vents with fans are also helpful if you need to expel smoke or cooking odors from your RV. There are portable, battery-powered fans you can use in your tent too. In a pinch, you can use a magazine, a paper plate, or a piece of cardboard or fold a sheet of paper into a fan and wave it near your face to speed evaporation and cooling. Although fans do not cool by themselves, they are very useful for exchanging air. If it is warmer in your RV than it is outside, you can cool the inside of your RV by expelling hot air through the ceiling vent and letting cooler air enter through the windows. Even if it is no cooler outside than it is inside, the movement of air will still make you feel cooler, even though it won't cool the air in the RV. By the way, if it is colder in your RV than it is outside and you want to warm it up, open the windows and turn on the ceiling vent. If yours is equipped with a reversible fan you can use it to draw in warm air from above the RV. Taking advantage of warmer outside air can reduce the demand on your furnace, warming your RV quicker and conserving propane.

Keeping cool during summer activities like riding an OHV, horseback riding, or hiking takes some thought and creativity.  Keeping moving on your OHV or horse can keep air flowing past your body and speed evaporation of perspiration, which will help cool you.  When hiking you can try to stay in the shade as much as possible and carry a spray bottle to supplement your own perspiration to help keep you cool.  Of course dressing appropriately for the weather will also help you feel cooler.  Drink plenty of water or sports drinks to maintain your hydration and electrolyte levels.  If you loose too much of your body fluids through perspiration you will stop sweating and then your body has no way to cool itself and you will be in danger of serious heat illness.  I once tried a quilted "cooling vest" for dirt biking.  It had to be soaked with cool water and cooled by evaporation.  It seemed to provide some cooling for a short time but all too soon  I found it was just additional weight and padding under my jersey without cooling me for long.  Once it dried out, it was like wearing a thermal vest!  I have seen battery powered cooling vests that circulate coolant to carry heat away but I found them too expensive and too bulky for dirt biking.

Keep cool!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Battery Maintenance

Your RV batteries are crucial to the functionality of many systems in your RV. You usually have two battery systems: a starting battery for the motorhome or tow vehicle and one or more "house batteries" to power your coach. Unless you are plugged into 120 volt shore power they are the primary source of power for lights, water pump, radios, control boards in appliances, and the fan for your furnace. If you run out of battery power, you may find the nights get pretty cold when your furnace stops working. It is ironic that when the battery voltage gets low, the furnace fan will not shut off. So it continues blowing cold air and further discharges the batteries. So, if you wake up in the middle of the night and the furnace is continually blowing cold air, turn it off to conserve what little charge is left in your batteries.  Be sure to check to make sure you didn't run out of propane, which can be another reason the furnace doesn't work.  And those wonderful home-like sinks, showers, and toilets that make life easy don't function at all if there is no power for the water pump.

An old rule of thumb says batteries should be replaced about every 3 years, but "your mileage may vary".   Newer battery technology seems to have extended the life of some batteries.  Lack of maintenance and abuse will significantly shorten battery life. Proper maintenance and usage can prolong it. If your batteries are three or more years older and are not delivering the performance  you expect, it may be time to replace them -- or at least take them down and get them tested.  Of course, the quality and original rating of the battery are also significant factors. So what constitutes abuse and what is proper maintenance? Abusing your batteries consists of not keeping them properly charged, frequently running them way down, letting the connections become loose or corroded, or letting the electrolyte levels fall below normal. Some batteries are promoted as "maintenance free". Gas-mat type batteries really are, but if they are wet-cell, lead-acid batteries, you still need to pry off the caps and check the electrolyte level occasionally. Most batteries have a fluid level indicator built into the fill opening and fluid should be maintained at that level. You need to more than just barely cover the plates and less than filling to the top of the opening. Typically there should always be about 1/2" of electrolyte above the plates.  Under filling will result in low electrolyte and shorten battery life. Low electrolyte exposes the plates and can lead to immediate sulfation which quickly destroys the battery. Over filling will result in excess boiling and off-gassing and may pop the filler caps off and spew acid when the battery is being charged. Add only distilled water to top off batteries. Ordinary tap water or even bottled water contains contaminants that will reduce power and shorten battery life so it should used sparingly and only in emergencies. I have seen battery additives that are advertised to prolong battery life and restore functionality. They may be worth trying if you have batteries that are in bad shape. It is a good idea to verify electrolyte levels as part of your routine pre-trip checklist and about once a month when your RV is in storage. It is a tedious task, but well worth it considering the inconvenience in camp and the cost of replacing dead batteries.

The starting battery for a motorhome is usually located in or near the engine compartment.   Coach batteries could be located just about anywhere.  Sometimes they are also housed in the engine compartment but just as often they are in a separate compartment, often under the entry step or near the generator.  Some motorhomes have a dedicated starting battery for the generator.  When I had one like that I replaced the generator starting battery with an extra 12 volt deep cycle battery and wired it in parallel  with the existing coach battery to give me more power for lights, furnace, etc. in camp.  Many motorhomes use the coach batteries for starting the generator.  When all the batteries are located under the hood it is a good idea to check to see what is connected to each battery bank.  I once bought a motorhome with all the batteries under the hood and was very surprised when I discovered the starter was connected to the coach batteries instead of the starting battery!  Trying to jump start the vehicle with jumper cables on the starting battery didn't really do much good.

Checking the status of your batteries. It is pretty obvious our batteries have run down when we can no longer start our vehicles or when the lights in our RVs are dim or the furnace won't run. Many RVs have a battery gauge that gives you some idea of the battery condition. These little gauges are essentially volt meters marked to give you an easy to read indication of the status of the batteries.  To really know the state of your batteries you need to test the actual voltage or measure the specific gravity of the electrolyte in the battery. A fully charged 12 volt battery should have a voltage around 13.6 volts. You may get a higher reading if the batteries have been recently charged (like driving the vehicle). That is what is known as a "surface charge". Charging voltage while the alternator is operating will be 14-15 volts. Higher charging voltages, like the 18 volts I discovered coming from a failing RV converter will cause the batteries to boil and eventually "fry" them. Anything below 11.6 volts is fully discharged. You need a battery hydrometer to measure specific gravity. This is a device that draws a little electrolyte out of the cells. Some hydrometers may be calibrated so you can read the specific gravity but most of the ones I've seen in auto parts stores contain a number of different colored balls. You determine the specific gravity by observing which balls are floating or counting the number of balls that are floating.   You can't check the specific gravity of the electrolyte in sealed batteries.  Avoid discharging your batteries below 80% or 10.5 volts. Doing so can permanently damage batteries. Maintain the proper electrolyte level. Most batteries have a built in indicator that makes the electrolyte form a dome when the right level is reached in the opening. If you don't see one, fill to about 1/4" below the bottom of the fill hole or about 1/2" to 3/4" above the plates. NEVER let the electrolyte level drop below the top of the plates as that contributes to fast sulfation of the exposed surfaces.  Use distilled water to replenish the electrolyte.  Ordinary tap water can be used in an emergency, but minerals in tap water contaminate the electrolyte, reducing performance and shortening battery life. I have read you can sometimes reclaim badly sulfated batteries by adding a water containing 10% magnesium sulfate (epsom salts).  It didn't work for me when I tried it, but the batteries I treid it on were in REALLY bad condition.

Never let your batteries stay discharged any longer than necessary. Batteries deteriorate faster when they are discharged and they are likely to freeze and crack in cold climates. Fully charged batteries are protected against freezing down to at least -75°F. Even a partially discharged battery will freeze at much warmer temperatures. A good multi-stage battery charger is the best way to keep your batteries properly charged in storage. The basic charger circuit on most standard 12-volt converters supplies only a constant modest voltage that does not adequately address all the functions required to keep a battery in good condition. Converters do well at their primary job: converting 120 volt AC to 12 volt DC to power 12 volt fixtures and appliances in your RV. Their battery-charging circuits don't usually perform as well. Sometimes the charging circuit -- or the circuit board that controls the charging circuit -- fails and delivers an incorrect voltage to the batteries. I once had a faulty converter that was delivering 18+ volts to the batteries. Before I discovered the cause of the problem I was having to add water to my coach batteries at least once a week and the batteries were quickly destroyed and had to be replaced. The high voltage was literally boiling the electrolyte away and cooking the batteries! I called the converter manufacturer and confirmed that the charging voltage was way out of spec. The technician suggested I disconnect the charging circuit in the converter and use an external automatic battery charger as a less expensive and more effective solution than upgrading or even repairing the charger in the converter. I did that for a while, then replaced then entire converter with an Intelli-charger converter with the Charge Wizard. The Charge Wizard senses the battery condition and adjusts the charging voltage accordingly. It even periodically supplies an appropriately high voltage to burn off sulfates that accumulate on the lead plates and can short out the cells. I've heard user reports that this configuration has actually reclaimed badly sulfated batteries. I have used the Intelli-charger and Charge Wizard in three different motorhomes over the last 10-12 years with excellent results. The setup is 2-3 times the cost of a standard converter but to me it was worth it. We were doing a lot of dry camping in remote areas and needed full battery capacity to make it through long weekends in the desert. Replacing the existing converter is a fairly simple task that can be done by most do-it-yourselfers. Take care to note the original wiring and make the new connections correctly. Many converters simply plug into a 120-volt outlet for their shore power and have a simple 2-wire connection to the coach wiring. If the old converter is wired directly into the 120-volt system, take care to connect the wires correctly. 120-volt systems usually have black wire for "hot" and a white one for neutral with a bare copper or green insulated wire for ground but verify the configuration before connecting your converter. Some converters have built-in 12-volt circuit boards with fuses and you will have to be careful about re-connecting each circuit to an appropriately sized fuse in the new panel. It is not a particularly difficult task, but is can be tedious and requires some attention to detail. Be sure to label the old wires as you disconnect them. If you have any concerns about doing it yourself, have it installed by a qualified electrician or RV technician. Maintaining connections to similarly labeled fuses is a good idea, but it is more important to make sure you match the fuse size for each circuit. Connecting to a lower amp fuse will result in blowing the fuse. Connecting to a higher amp fuse may allow the wiring to overheat before the fuse blows possibly damaging equipment or starting a fire. The fuse sizes have been chosen for important reasons, so pay attention. NEVER replace a fuse with a solid connector just to get things going. You may cause the wiring in the circuit to overheat and cause a fire. ALWAYS replace fuses with the same size and type of fuse. Some folks "solve" a problem on a circuit that frequently blows a fuse by putting in a higher amperage fuse. NOT a good idea! The higher amp fuse will allow more current to flow and may result in the wiring getting hot, shorting out, and causing a fire. If you frequently blow a fuse, you need to inspect the wiring and evaluate the load on that circuit to determine why it is blowing. Putting too many devices on one circuit or using high-amp devices on low-amp circuits can cause fuses to blow. Damaged wiring that is shorting out may be the cause and should be repaired or replaced. Sometimes the problem is on the ground connection for fixtures or appliances so be sure to check all ground wires too.

Battery connections. Another component that requires regular attention are the battery connections. There are problems that commonly occur and can be easily detected and corrected. One is loose connections. All connections, both at the battery terminals and at the other end of the cables should be tight and clean. A second problem is corrosion. The out-gassing that occurs during charging can deposit acid on the battery connections causing them to corrode. A good way to make sure your connections are clean and secure is to remove them and clean the battery posts and the terminals. You can sometimes do this with a simple wire brush, but it is easier and more effective to use a special battery terminal brush available at any auto parts store. These typically have a tapered wire brush for cleaning the inside of the terminals and a hollow, "female" brush on the other end for cleaning the battery posts. Observe the direction of the bristles on the brushes and turn them the same way they are already pointed so they drag rather than dig into the soft lead of the terminals and posts, which damages both the terminals and the brush. Use a commercial battery cleaner spray or ordinary baking soda and water to remove corrosion and neutralize the acid before reconnecting the terminals. If the terminals are severely corroded or cannot be tightened securely you should replace the cables or at least the terminals. I prefer replacing the cables since the terminals are usually molded into the cable. Replacement battery terminals are less expensive but since they are made of steel and lead, the bi-metal connection to the copper cables tend to speed corrosion. If you have a motorhome you will normally have two different battery banks: one for the engine and one for the coach. The engine battery is normally located in or near the engine compartment. The coach batteries are usually located in an exterior cabinet or underneath the entry step. Be sure to maintain ALL the batteries in good condition. If you have two or more batteries in any battery bank and one fails, you need to replace all the batteries at the same time. Older batteries, even if they appear to be in good condition, will drain new ones and reduce the overall performance and longevity. Because the charging resistance in a new battery is different than an old one they require different charging voltages and the demand of older batteries will have a negative affect on charging the new batteries. Be sure to install your new batteries correctly. If you are simply replacing a pair of 12-volt deep cycle RV batteries or a pair of 6-volt golf cart batteries with similar batteries, be sure to maintain the original connections. Usually, but not always, the positive lead is red and the negative lead is black. Pay attention to the leads when you disconnect the old batteries and if they do not conform to this standard, label them to avoid any problems in reconnection them to the new batteries. Multiple 12-volt batteries must be wired in parallel -- both grounds connected to the vehicle ground, both positive terminals connected to the 12-volt feed to the coach. 6-volt golf cart batteries must be wired in series: connect one ground to the vehicle ground and the positive terminal from that battery to the negative terminal of the second battery. Then connect the positive terminal of the second battery to the 12-volt feed to the coach. Connecting them in series is how they provide 12-volt power. Converting from 2 12-volt RV batteries to 2 6-volt golf cart batteries will usually give you more power, better performance, and longer battery life than two 12-volt batteries, and it is easy to do -- if you follow the directions for connecting the 6-volt batteries in series, which means you will need an extra cable to connect the two batteries together. The connector should be at least the same gauge as the battery cables.

Increasing battery capacity. If you run out of power during dry-camping trips you many need to increase your battery capacity. The simplest way to do this is to get a bigger, more powerful battery. However, most RV deep cycle batteries are already the size of Group 27 car batteries and are already maxed out. If that is the case you'll need to add batteries. If you have a Group 24 battery and have room for a Group 27, that would be an easy and fairly inexpensive upgrade. You can add one or more additional 12-volt deep cycle batteries, wired in parallel with the exiting battery. The best time to update your battery capacity is when you have to replace a battery. You don't want to mix batteries of different types or ages in the same battery bank. They need to be matched or else they'll drain each other or cause charging problems where some batteries are over charged and some are undercharged due to the differences in internal resistance. The best way to increase battery capacity is to use 6-volt golf cart batteries, with pairs wired in series to create 12-volts. These batteries have more capacity than 12-volt deep cycle batteries and are designed to take the heavy loads and frequent deep discharging and charging necessary to operate golf carts. A pair of 6-volt golf cart batteries will take up about the same space as a pair of 12-volt deep cycle RV batteries, but will deliver much better performance. Make sure you wire them in series. That means wiring the positive terminal of one battery to the negative terminal of the other, then treating the two batteries together as if they were one big 12-volt battery. If you are upgrading from two 12-volt batteries to two 6-volt batteries, you will need an extra cable to connect the two batteries together. The original RV wiring is usually designed for the parallel connections needed when using two 12-volt batteries and would be connected with the hot to the positive terminal of one battery and the ground to the negative terminal of the other when using 6-volt batteries.

There is nothing mystical or scary about RV battery systems. A little regular and simple care will keep them in good condition and allow you to get the most out of them. But ignore them, and you will eventually reap the rewards of cold nights when the batteries get too low to run the furnace and/or the expense of replacing dead batteries before their time. If, even after good maintenance, your batteries fail to deliver sufficient power, review your charging procedures to make sure you are charging them adequately between uses. If the batteries fail to hold a charge, they will need to be replaced. If you are running a single battery to power your coach and frequently run out of power, you may have to find a place to install a second battery to meet the demands you are placing on your battery system. If there isn't room for an additional battery near the existing one, make sure the second battery is installed in a place where it is vented to the outside and connect the batteries using heavy-duty battery cable, typically "0000" gauge. You may have to go to a welding supply store to find heavy enough cable or you might find heavy duty jumper cables that will be sufficient. Smaller wiring will diminish performance and create a potential fire hazard.  12 volt DC electrical systems are safe to touch.  You won't get a shock like you do from your 120 volt household circuits but if you short out the hot wire you will get sparks or melt wires.  

Keeping your batteries charged. We usually give little thought to charging the batteries on our daily driver vehicles because driving them charges the batteries without us having to do anything special. But RVs or tow vehicles that get infrequent use need external battery charges to maintain the batteries between trips. Battery Tender is a very popular brand. You may need two separate chargers for a motorhome: one for the starting battery and a second one for the coach battery bank -- unless you buy a multi-bank charger.  I use a generic battery tender on my starting battery and take advantage of the superior charging capabilities of my Intelli-charger converter with Charge Wizard to maintain my coach battery bank. There are chargers designed to handle multiple battery banks but it is probably less expensive to just put separate chargers on each bank. I like to install my chargers so they are active whenever there is 120-volt power available in the coach -- from shore power or from the on board generator. That way I don't have to think about plugging in the charger in camp or before I store my coach between trips.  Be aware of adding chargers if there is already a charger built into the converter.  Using multiple chargers at the same time may conflict with each other and produce unpredictable and undesireable results.

Solar battery charging is a an easy and free way to keep your batteries topped off -- once you buy the solar panels and charging system.  Small chargers that will help keep fully charged batteries fully charged in storage where they're not getting heavy use are not terribly expensive.  I've see them under $20.  They are about the size of the top of a carton of eggs and about 1/2" thick.  They plug in to the cigarette lighter in your vehicle and are normally placed on the dashboard.  They are not powerful enough to recharge depleted batteries or power equipment or lights.  Large solar panels can be mounted on the roof of your RV and with enough panels and controllers can charge depleted batteries and run some 12-volt lights and appliances.  But solar systems of these size are not cheap.  Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $300 for a start up configuration.  Large solar arrays can be very helpful when boondocking and using inverter power.  And the electricity is free -- once you've re-couped the setup cost -- saving you fuel cost for running  your generator.

You can charge batteries using your on board generator, but most experts say it is faster and more efficient to use the vehicle alternator.  Some portable generators have a 12-volt battery charging circuit built in.  I have a small, 850 watt generator that does.  It generally isn't powerful enough to run mainline 120-volt appliances but it is a pretty good alternative for emergency battery charging when boondocking.  If you can get your hands on an old Army hand-crank generator, or bicycle pedal generator, they could be used to charge batteries too.   They used to be available in Army Surplus stores, but these days they may be hard to come by.  I did find a pedal generator on Amazon.com for about $200.  You might build your own using an automobile alternator.  Use one with a built-in voltage regulator and you should be able to wire it directly to your batteries for charging.  Then you just need to rig up a crank and pulley to drive the alternator.  I've also seen plans for building your own wind powered generators using an automobile alternator, but designing and building the blades is probably beyond the time and effort most of us are willing and able to invest in such a project. Plus transporting the blades and tower and setup in camp is cumbersome and wind is unpredictable.

Proper battery maintenance will ensure you get best possible performance and longevity from your RV batteries.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Outdoor Cooking Options

One of the fun things about camping is not being a slave to the stove and oven to prepare your meals. Outdoor cooking can be fun and exciting. Sometimes preparing meals that are routine at home can be a fun and stimulating adventure in camp. My wife and daughter-in-law were giddy as two school girls as they prepared breakfast on our trusty Coleman stove when we went tent camping a while back.  And they weren't experimenting with new dishes, just regular breakfast favorites.  But cooking outdoors, in camp, together, made it special.  There are many options for outdoor cooking, depending on where you are (open fires are prohibited in some places  and at some times) and how adventurous you want to be. Successfully making your favorite repast in the outdoors yields a special feeling of accomplishment. Heck, even being able to pull it off within the limitations of an RV rates a pat on the back. Outdoor cooking skills can be very useful in an emergency situation at home, such as an extended power outage or natural disaster. Ever think about what you will do if a disaster knocks out utilities in your neighborhood for a couple of weeks? If you have been using your camping trips to practice survival skills, you will at least be able to build a fire to warm you and your family, cook your meals, dry your clothing and bedding, and sterilize water for drinking and medical uses. You may purchase portable stoves for emergency use, but unless you've practiced using them, they are likely to be useless or even dangerous in a disaster situation. There is an old adage that I've found to be true:  If it hasn't been tested, it doesn't work!  Be sure you know how to use any emergency equipment you purchase and take time to practice using it. Also make sure you have proper fuel that is safely stored.

Campfire cooking. Of course cooking over an open campfire is the most basic form of outdoor cooking. Most all of us have roasted a few hot dogs and set a few marshmallows on fire this way (in my experience one seldom roasts marshmallows without turning them into torches).  One of the advantages to campfire cooking is that you don't need a lot of fancy equipment and, unless open fires are prohibited, you can build a campfire just about anywhere. Campfire cooking is also a good skill to develop for use following a disaster that may leave you without utilities at home. You may want to practice building a campfire and cooking in your own back yard until you're comfortable with the skills. Check out my previous post on Campfire Safety for more ideas on safely building and using campfires. As mentioned above, campfires are also sources of warmth and comfort and can help us dry out wet clothing and bedding. Having dry clothing and bedding could mean not only being more comfortable, but could literally mean the difference between life and death in a survival situation! It is possible to get hypothermia from wet clothing even in fairly mild weather.  The light and heat of a campfire not only warms the body, it warms the soul and lifts the spirits. As human beings, we find comfort in warmth and light and are often mesmerized by flames. Just sitting around a campfire can be entertaining and can lift depressed spirits enough to be functional again. Cooking over a campfire can be done by putting food on sticks (like hot dogs, chunks of meat, or even thick dough to make bread). For more conventional options, put a grid or grill over the fire and cook in regular pans. Lacking a grill you can position a couple of green logs over the coals or build a fire between them and rest your pans across them.  It is convenient to put the logs about 3" apart at one end and 8-10" apart at the other.  Then you can put your coffee pot or tea kettle on the narrow end and your frying pan on the wider portion.  Cast iron cookware can be used directly on the fire, lighter weight vessels may be damaged if place directly on the coals. I've seen light weight aluminum pans reduced to bubbling silver puddles by a hot campfire.  For best results, wait until the fire is reduced to a nice bed of glowing coals before cooking. It is safer and more effective than trying to cook over open flames. Even though you may have to wait longer for to coals to reach the right stage, things will cook faster and more evenly than they will over the flickering  flames.  And you can actually roast marshmallows to a nice golden brown without setting them on fire!  Campfires are sometimes prohibited in suburban neighborhoods, but cooking fires are usually allowed and during a significant disaster situation all rules are likely to be suspended or relaxed. If you do build a fire, do it correctly and safely so you don't add to the existing emergency.

You can cook other things besides hot dogs and marshmallows on a stick over your campfire. Just about any kind of raw meat (except ground meats) can be hung on a stick for cooking. You can also bake breads by mixing the dough so it is thick and sticky and wrapping some around a stick. Called "twist sticks", they are a very tasty bread treat for camping. No matter what you are cooking this way, it is best to cook over a bed of glowing coals, not over open flames. Most of us don't have the patience to wait for the fire to reach the right status for cooking, which is one reason so many marshmallows light up the night, becoming more torch than treat. Cooking over coals provides even heat that, with a little practice, allows you to roast your feast to perfection without turning it into a flaming torch or burnt offering -- or have it burned on the outside and raw in the middle! Take time to build the right kind of fire and let it reach the right stage of coals for cooking. It will pay off. Another option for bread is ash cakes. To make them, prepare a thick dough and form it into biscuit-sized patties. Then drop it directly on glowing coals or hot rocks in the fire to bake it, flipping it over once to cook both sides if the tops don't cook fast enough. A little ash may cling to the biscuit when it is done, but usually not very much and you can just brush it off and enjoy great tasting hot bread fresh from the fire. They are especially good with butter and honey or jam.  You can even churn your own butter from whipping cream if you're feeling particularly adventurous.  Place some small pebbles (marble size or less) into a small container with a 1/4 to 1/2 cup whipping cream and shake until it forms butter.  Avoid using a glass container, but if you have to don't shake it too hard or the pebbles will break the glass!

Not exactly a stick, but a useful campfire cooker is a pie cooker. These long-handled clam shell cookers turn two pieces of bread and a couple of spoons of pie filling into a hot tasty pie. It surprised me how much the bread tasted like pie crust when we took them out.  There are many commercial forks made for cooking hot dogs and marshmallows but an ordinary wire coat hanger straightened out will work almost as well. Some of the commercial forks have have telescoping handles so you adjust them to cook the food and not your front.  I've seen some with the tines bent around so they point back at you.   Supposedly they reduce the risk of stabbing someone with them.

Of course, there are things you can't cook on a stick. Soups, stews, hot water for coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and purifying drinking water, medical purposes and washing dishes, requires a pot of some sort. If you plan to prepare these items often, a metal grate would be helpful. The grate from on old BBQ will work. You can also buy cooking grates most anywhere camping supplies are sold. Or just buy some sturdy metal grating like expanded metal from a hardware store or metal supply store. In an emergency or survival mode you may be able to use green sticks to support your frying pan or pots. Just keep an eye on them to make sure they don't catch fire and let your dinner drop into the fire! In an real emergency you might steal the racks out of your oven or refrigerator to use as cooking grids. Another technique is it bury a flat rock in the middle of your fire.  Make sure it isn't very porous.  Porous rocks often contain moisture and will explode when heated.  Then, after the rock has been heated by the fire, brush away the burned wood, set your pot or pan on the rock, and build the coals up around the pot on the rock or cook foods directly on the rock. This approach requires patience and planning ahead and cooking will probably take longer than cooking on a grid directly over the coals. You may also be able to carefully position rocks to support your pots and pans. If you have cast-iron cookware, you can even cook directly on the coals. DO NOT try this with light weight aluminum cookware unless you WANT to see it puddle in the coals while your dinner oozes and steams away! Lacking real cookware, you may be able to improvise temporary cooking containers using ordinary tin cans. They won't stand up to extended use, but you can usually heat up stew or chili in its original can and may be able to re-use the can several times before it begins to burn through. If you don't have any pots or pans at all you may be able to cook fish or pieces of meat on a "frying pan" made of green branches. Start with a forked flexible stick and form the ends of the two branches into an oval. The final shape should look kind of like a tennis racket. Then weave sticks up and down and across the oval. Attach your fish or meat by lacing extra branches over it and cook it to perfection. In a survival situation you may not have any pots or pans. You can make a bowl out of clay or even ordinary mud and fill it with water, soup or stew, then add small hot rocks one at a time until it reaches the desired temperature.

Building the right kind of campfire is critical to successful cooking.  As always, you don't want a bigger fire than you need.  Trying to cook on a raging bonfire is not fun at all.  Any minimal success is likely be tainted by food that is charred on the outside and raw in the middle.  And you're likely to roast your own skin about as much as you do the meal you're trying to prepare.  A really good fire for cooking is a Daktoa Fire Pit. This is one of the most efficient cooking fires ever. Some tricks for cooking on a regular campfire include laying two green logs across the coals.  Place them so they're not quite parallel, but have one end about 3" apart and the other end about 7" apart.  Place your coffee pot or tea kettle on the narrow end and cook in larger pats and frying pants on the wider end.  You can also use rocks to support your pans and, sometimes, you can cook directly on the heated rocks if you need to slow cook something.  Heated rocks are a good spot for baking bread.

Dutch oven cooking is popular among many camping enthusiasts. It can be done over a campfire, but is usually done using charcoal briquettes for better temperature control and more even heat. Dutch ovens are the old fashioned version of today's "crock pot" cookers. You can cook just about any thing in a dutch oven: main courses, breads, even cakes and other tasty deserts. Traditional dutch ovens are made of cast iron and are nearly indestructible. Today there are modern aluminum versions which are lighter to carry, but most campers still prefer the venerable cast iron ovens. You can fill them with goodies and let them simmer just about all day for a tender and tasty evening repast. Cast iron dutch ovens need to be "seasoned" before they can be used. This puts a coating of what is essentially burned cooking oil on the surface. This prevents rust, helps keep foods from sticking, and adds a unique flavor to meals. Cleaning a dutch oven mostly consists of scraping away the residual foods with a plastic scraper and wiping it down with paper towels or crumpled newspaper. NEVER use soap or detergent to clean a dutch oven. It will destroy the seasoning and leave a residue that may contaminate your food and give it an awful taste and possibly give you a case of the runs! There are many good web sites that give dutch oven cooking tips and recipes. If someone washes your dutch oven with soap, rinse it thoroughly and re-season it before using it again.

Emergency pots. If you find yourself without anything to cook in, you may still be able to boil water using hot rocks. Form a kind of bowl out of leaves or mud or hollow out a piece of wood -- or use a canvas bag -- anything that will hold water. Fill it with water. Place several small rocks (up to golf ball size) in your fire until they are hot. Then drop them into the water. Keep adding rocks (you may have to remove some of the cooler rocks so your bowl doesn't overflow) until the water reaches the desired temperature. If you have any canned goods, you can usually heat them in their original cans (be sure to open the can or at least punch some holes in the top before putting it in the fire. Otherwise, it might explode! Empty cans can be used for boiling water or preparing other foods. They can also come in handy for collecting water and capturing fish and game for food. You might yank the metal headlight "pan" off an disabled OHV and use it for a cooking pot.  I've even seen demonstrations of boiling water in a paper cup!  As long as there's water in the cup it keeps the paper from reaching its ignition point, but trying to use it over an open flame may cause the paper to overheat and ignite anyway.

In a survival situation you probably won't have any cooking pots.  You might be able to carve a bowl out of wood or make one of clay or even ordinary mud.  Then you can drop hot rocks into the water or other liquids in the bowl to heat them.

The Famous R2D2. An alternative to open campfires that is sometimes permitted even when open fires are prohibited is what our family calls "R2D2". R2D2 is an old washing machine tub we sometimes use for a fire pit. We've even had forest rangers borrow our R2D2 on windy nights. A tub from a dryer might work too.  They're usually larger, letting you build a bigger fire but making them more difficult to transport.  The perforations in either tub (not all dry tubs are perforated) allow plenty of ventilation yet restrict the wind from scattering embers the way it can from an open fire.  The porcelain coating stands up to the heat and prevents rust. Most washer tubs have a center tube where the agitator mounts.  While that may get in the way of loading firewood, it does serve some useful purposes in camp.  For example, I use the tube to put a "foot" on the tub to get it up off the ground.  I mount mine on a stand so it is a few inches above the ground. This serves two purposes. One, you can get your toes right under it to get them warm on cold nights, and two, it brings the top of the unit up to a comfortable cooking height.  The stand consists of a cut down RV table leg that fits inside the bottom of the agitator tube and the outdoor tripod designed to let you use your RV table outside.  I mounted a round grate from an old back yard BBQ on a piece of pipe that fits in the center tube at the top of the washing machine tub, giving me a perfect cooking surface for burgers, hotdogs, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, etc, and for pots for heating water or cooking other things. Contact me (desertrat@desertrat.org) if you are interested in more information about acquiring the materials and building your own R2D2. I can't take credit for the idea -- or the name. In fact, we usually refer to ours as "R2D2 Me Too" since the original R2D2 belongs to a dirt-biking buddy from California. By the way the name is derived from the round, squat shape and the way the fire blinks through the perforations like the lights on Star Wars robot R2D2.  When we are done with our fire for the night, I put a metal garbage can lid over the top, held down by a rock, to prevent any embers from escaping. All the left-over wood burns down to a fine ash by morning, without the danger of spreading hot embers in the wind. Then it can be dumped out and packed up for the trip home. The metal lid might also be used to protect the fire from rain that might otherwise put it out before you're ready to shut down.  When it is on its stand, the bottom is a few inches off the ground. This brings the cooking surface up to a more comfortable height and allows us to get our toes underneath to warm them up on cold nights.

The venerable Coleman stove. The camp stove, in white gas or propane versions, has been a staple of camp cooking for generations. These are fairly inexpensive, light weight and easy to transport, and allow you to prepare food outdoors about the same way you would cook on the stove at home or in your RV. You have nearly the same control over them as  you do your gas range at home or in an RV. Camp stoves are excellent resources to have in your emergency preparedness supplies. Just make sure you have the right fuel.   There are some stoves that are made for "dual fuel" operation.  They will run on either white  gas/Coleman fuel or regular unleaded gasoline.  There are light weight, single-burner back-packer stoves that run on butane. They are very small and light weight so they are easy to store and to carry. The fuel canister is about the size of a can of shaving cream. These are great for short back-packing trips but fuel could be a problem in any kind of extended survival situation. White gas and propane are usually much less expensive, but the larger stoves and fuel containers are not suitable for all situations (like back-packing). The little butane stoves often have built-in flint-and-steel or piezio-electric lighters. The larger Coleman style stoves usually have to be lit with a match or lighter or can be equipped with an add-on flint lighter. Make sure you place the stove on a solid, level, non-flammable surface. Cooking on either of these types of stoves is much the same as using a gas range at home. Make sure you have sufficient overhead and lateral clearance so that you don't set the trees or bushes or your tent or RV on fire. You may need to provide some kind of wind break in breezy conditions. Sometimes the breeze can be strong enough to blow out the flame but even when it isn't that strong, it tends to blow the heat away before it can do its job cooking your meal. Some gasoline powered stoves are built to run on either white gas (Coleman fuel) or ordinary unleaded gasoline. Ordinary unleaded gas is less expensive and will probably be more available in a disaster situation, so having a dual-fuel or unleaded gas stove has its advantages. DO NOT use your Coleman stove in a tent or structure that isn't made for cooking. Stoves require appropriate ventilation to function properly and to prevent you from suffocating as they consume oxygen and give off toxic fumes. Using a stove inside a tent also presents MANY fire hazards. In addition, cooking fumes will damage tent materials, reducing performance and longevity, and creating unpleasant odors that will be difficult if not impossible to get out. Most Coleman and similar style camp stoves have built-in wind protection. Open the lid and swing out the side panels and you've wind guards on 3 sides of your stove. Face the back of the stove into the prevailing winds and you'll probably be able to successfully prepare your meals in all but the very windiest conditions.

Camp Chef is another good brand for outdoor cooking options. Their products are usually bigger, stronger, and hotter than ordinary camp stoves. The Camp Chef stove we bought is a two-burner model with removable legs that lets it fold up into a compact package for transport and storage. Options include a BBQ box and very nice grill/griddle combinations that add a lot of flexibility to this stove. A 6" high wind guard is also available and helps a lot in windy conditions. A Camp Chef stove will easily accommodate large frying pants and stock pots for preparing meals for larger groups of people.  Available accessories worth considering include grill/griddles,  a BBQ box, and a sturdy canvas carrying case.

Portable propane BBQs. There are a number of portable propane BBQs on the market that are good choices for camping and picnicing. They use the small 1 lb. propane cylinders so they are easy to transport, set up, and use. They provide pretty much the same features as cooking on your gas BBQ at home, but in a smaller package. You can fuel these directly from the propane tank on your RV using an "Extend-a-flow" system that connects from the RV gas line to the stove. You will also want to protect these against wind. On more than one occasion it was windy enough that I gave up grilling hamburgers outside and had to fry them in a pan on the RV range. Again, DO NOT use BBQs or hibatchis inside a tent or RV and avoid using them under an RV awning, a dining fly, or other fabric canopy.

Charcoal. Many people like cooking with charcoal. It is a fairly efficient method and, depending on the type of wood the charcoal is made from, can lend a pleasant taste to burgers and steaks grilled directly over the coals. Charcoal is also a good fuel for Dutch oven cooking. One draw-back is that it takes some time to get the charcoal going, so make sure you plan ahead and give yourself enough lead time. If you use charcoal lighter fluid to start your charcoal, you'll want to allow time enough for all the lighter fluid to burn away before cooking anything directly over the coals. Charcoal lighter fluid is not at the top of anyone's list of favorite condiments! Small table-top charcoal grills and Hibachis are popular choices for camping and picnicing. Personally I prefer the convenience of gas-fired grills. They light easily and heat up more quickly, fuel is cleaner to transport, and I don't have to worry about disposing of hot coals when I'm done.

Disposable charcoal grills can be useful when transport space is limited.  These are usually intended to be used once and thrown away.  They have lightweight pans that don't stand up to repeated use.  They usually come with the charcoal already loaded in the pan.  Just unwrap the whole works, light the charcoal, and you're in business.

Solar cooking. Now we get into some of the more adventurous and experimental techniques. Solar cooking is excellent in survival or disaster situations and is a clean and economic method anytime. You can find numerous plans for solar stoves and solar ovens on the Internet. While specific designs vary, they mostly use the same commonly available materials: cardboard and aluminum foil. The idea is to form reflectors that concentrate the sun's rays on the container you wish to heat. An efficient solar stove can boil water fairly quickly. Solar stoves are light weight, inexpensive to build, cost nothing to operate and can be used anywhere you have sunlight. A solar cooker would be an excellent thing to have in your emergency supply kit. In a survival situation you might make one using only aluminum foil.  You can buy ready made solar cookers too, but to my mind they seem to be a little pricey.

Cooking for a large group? Cooking for a large group obviously takes some special preparations. It is difficult to get everything ready for a lot of people all at the same time. I used to have two 2-burner Coleman stoves and one 3-burner stove I used for scout outings and larger family gatherings. Those were usually more than enough for extended family groups and even some Boy Scout and Church outings. I picked up a larger Camp Chef stove a few years ago. It has two very large burners and there are tons of accessories available for it, including a BBQ box and grill/griddle combination. It has its own adjustable legs so it can be set up level on uneven ground and I don't have to worry about finding a non-combustible surface to set it on. It runs off a portable propane tank like the one you use for your home BBQ or can be hooked to your RV propane tank via an Extend-a-Flow kit. I have found it very versatile for outdoor cooking. The grill/griddle is GREAT for steaks and pancakes. It is a bit large and a bit heavy compared to Coleman stoves. You would not want to take it hiking, but it is great for RV and car camping trips.

A friend of mine in California built the ultimate camp kitchen. He got hold of some surplus cook stove components from an old forest service camp kitchen that was being renovated. He bought a little trailer frame, like one of the kits you put a sheet of plywood on to make a 4x8 flatbed trailer. He built a steel framework to mount the stoves. He had a large (at least 3'x3') grill/griddle, a grate about the same size for cooking hamburgers and large cuts of meat, and a couple of big burners for heating pots of water. He enclosed the sides of the trailer and added a top with fold-out legs so, when lifted off the trailer, the top provided a large table for food preparation and serving. He added a tall lantern hook like a shepherd's crook for a Coleman lantern, and powered the whole thing off a huge propane tank like those used for mobile homes. It provided a truly professional cooking environment and was actually fun cooking for huge groups using his setup. The grill/griddle did dozens of hamburgers at a time and we could cook breakfast for 50 people or so (eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes) all at once so everyone could eat together. The extra burners heated water while we were cooking for hot beverages and for clean-up. If you come across some used restaurant equipment and want to make your own portable camp kitchen, keep in mind that the orifices used for propane and natural gas are different sizes and you may have to change them if the unit you purchase was rigged for natural gas.

Microwave ovens are more likely to be used in an RV than on a picnic table when tent camping, but if you're in a campground with power or have brought a portable generator along, you might use a microwave outdoors.  One of the advantages of cooking outdoors is that it keeps the heat and fumes out of your RV.   Serving a piping hot pizza or some Hot Pockets right from the microwave on the picnic table can be rather convenient.  And  you can't beat the speed at which microwave ovens prepare things for  you.  For example, you can whip up a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate in 1 minute.

Emergency meals. If you find yourself using your camp cooking skills in a post-disaster situation, knowing how to prepare simple meals with minimal resources will be advantageous. Be sure to try out some during normal camping trips so you'll know how to do it when disaster strikes. Foil dinners, also known as "hobo stew" are simple and can be cooked in a campfire or on a stove or BBQ. Simply wrap some meat, potatoes and vegetables (seasoned to taste) in aluminum foil and heat until the meat is cooked and the potatoes are no longer crunchy. If you are without pots and pans you can sometimes make do cooking on stones. Put some dry, flat, non-porous stones in the bottom of your fire for about an hour. When the fire burns down enough, sweep the ashes off with a handful of long green (not dry) grass, then cook meat, fish, eggs, etc right on the hot stones. MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) have pretty much replaced the old-time C-rations for military applications and are now available to civilians at most outdoor supply stores. They are pretty easy to transport and have a long shelf life but they tend to be a little pricey. Be aware that even though they come in sealed foil pouches, they are still susceptible to being chewed into by rodents.  Old-time C-rations make good emergency meals if you can get your hands on some. They still occasionally show up at military surplus stores. Sometimes they are released from Civil Defense Emergency centers when the facilities are retired or renovated. Even though the expiration date may have passed, they are probably still viable unless the cans are bulging or corroded. You may be able to heat canned food like chili, stew, soup or canned meat by placing the can on the exhaust manifold of your vehicle, either while it is running or while it is still hot shortly after parking it. Make sure you have a way to remove it without burning your hands! Wear gloves or use pliers to pick it up -- or use a stick to knock it off the manifold.  This was a favorite way to heat up C-rations when I was in the Army more years ago than I like to count.

I have recently come across emergency meals that include their own heat packs.  They come a dozen in a box and are completely self-contained meals, except for drinks.  Having their own heat packs eliminates the need for stoves or fires making them very attractive options for dealing with an emergency situation,

Bon appetite!