electricity and plumbing for car camping

I’m a big fan of making lists in the middle of some endeavor rather than afterwards. On a mountain, when traveling, or when otherwise outside your normal day-to-day your priorities change. It’s important that in the middle of that new world you jot down the things you care about because upon returning to your normal grind you can start to forget the realities that you just experienced.

Marketing and consumer culture in general has made most of us fall victim to buying things with the anticipation that we’ll use it one day, only for it to collect dust. Unless you’re going to die from it I’d recommend starting simple and then complicate further based on what you’ve proven to be necassary.

In no particular order, here are the things that I’ve wanted to improve when car camping with my family.

My Redneck Sink

sink

Shade tree mechanic work, right there.

All of my pans are cast iron which never see water let alone soap. But I also got tired of paper plates and plastic cutlery, so now everything is reusable and needs to be washed. Coming from boat land, I used foot pumps which keep your hands free and sparingly uses the very limited fresh water on most vessels.

I now have a place to wash dishes, wash hands, wash faces, and spit toothpaste. When half-full (or as full as you want to carry), I take the faucet off and walk the bucket somewhere to dispose of the contents (typically at the edge of the campsite somewhere).

To construct this epitome of modern engineering, I used:

  • Enough stuff from the hardware store to make a “faucet”. A 5/8″ barb to 1/2″ NPT, then 1/2″ pipe from there. Cost: $11.
  • A piece of scrap wood to ziptie the faucet to with a slot in it to hang over the edge of the bucket. A second small scrap of wood to jam in there to make it more secure. Cost: $0.
  • A big bulb pump with 5/8″ hose. There are better foot pumps out there that cost 3x the amount, and maybe I’ll do something like that one day. In the meantime this is fine. Cost: $30.
  • A bucket: $0.
  • 5 gallon water jug. You can also use another bucket, but for camping it’s handy to have the ability to store water if you’re going somewhere dry. Cost $15.

In total it’s about $55 worth of gear, although only $40 if you have your own water jug already.

Electricity

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85 watt flexible/foldable panel charging a battery/inverter.

 

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That speaker is loud, but if you look carefully the volume is set almost to zero. I am *not* that annoying guy blasting tunes from the neighboring campsite. 

There are electronics that have made my car camping life demonstrably better, and they probably will make your life better too. I have a bluetooth speaker that cannot be heard at other campsites but is just loud enough for us to hear in our cooking / eating / card-games tent.

My oldest daughter has a Kindle and on one trip she showed up with it near dead. Once on a trip when the kids are good I like to hang out in the tent with them and watch a movie on our iPad. My own cell phone is playing music, getting used for photos, and suffering from high power consumption from the low signal strength.

  • Roughly 1.5 times the size of a child’s lunchbox, the yellow box is basically a battery with an inverter. It can accept a charge via solar, AC outlet, or vehicle 12 volt. It can provide power to AC devices via three outlets and has USB outlets for four devices. It’s got a display to show its battery capacity and has a lamp for no particularly valuable reason.
  • A 70 watt panel is big enough to put some charge into the battery but small enough that you don’t need to deal with a charge controller for most uses. It’s also light, easy to fold flat and get into the truck, and has little pop out legs so it sits happily at a 30 degree angle.

Dutch Oven Dome

I’ve eaten enough freeze dried food to raise the stock prices of mountaineering food vendors internationally. I have a dehydrator and make own backpacking meals. On SAR calls I just eat gross Cliff bars and deal.

But cooking when camping is something I’ve started to focus on which means I need tools that don’t suck.

blueberry

Blueberry breakfast cake, baked in my Dutch oven on a grill, with the dome.

ovencover

There’s a Dutch oven in the dome there.

One of my favorite camping recipe books for Dutch oven cooking uses the charcoal technique. I’m supposed to bring charcoal, light them, and then carefully place x amount below the oven and y amount on top, and ensure that I replace them as they burn out.

Nope.

My incredibly awesome stove is where things get cooked, minus some stick-over-fire nonsense primarily for the kids. Depending on the recipe, you may not actually need to bake in a Dutch oven (think stews, chilis, etc). In those cases just toss the thing on the burner and cook away.

But if (a) you need equal heat distribution all around (ie: baking) and (b) don’t want to use charcoal, the Dutch oven needs a dome and heat diffuser.

Shower

shower

Shower enclosure, orange rope hanging in holding the shower bag, and rubber mat to keep some of the dirt off you.

I’ve backpacked for days without cleaning myself. I’ve washed myself in Alpine creeks. I’ve used wet wipes on the critical parts and tried to call it good. I’m not a fan of trying to be as squeaky clean while camping as I might be at home.

But a day spent sweating, kicking up dust, and being covered in bug/sun lotions will leave you gross at the end. Two or three days and you’re totally disgusting. Worse, you’re taking all that filth into your sleeping bag and shortening its life. If it’s just some piece of crap then no big deal but I happen to like my 700 fill down bag and want to keep it clean. I have a liner for it, but I also just try to be non-disgusting when possible.

Sailors are fond of the black bug sprayer models, and if you’re stationary with trees abound the gravity fed bags are pretty cool. You can spend hundreds of dollars for a rack mounted version, and even more if you want a base camp version capable of near continuous use and bulk propane tanks.

Whichever you pick, consider the drawbacks. Gravity fed solar bags are the cheapest and simplest, but you must provide the gravity. 40 pounds of water (5 gallons) is no joke to haul into a tree, or to build some type of bracket for a roof cargo basket. The electrical/propane versions are great but create more expense, weight, and potential failure points.

Whichever you pick, get an enclosure (or build one from tarps/vehicles). It’s not just about privacy and modesty: even a relatively warm day will feel like the North Pole if you try to shower in all but the calmest of wind.

postpile

The result: two washed kids with a belly full of blueberry breakfast cake. Devil’s Postpile. 

 

you say glamping, i say not dumb

I used to think that car camping was for soft people from the suburbs that lack the chops to be “real” backcountry travelers. As an egotistical backpacker with a superiority complex based in my own insecurities, car campers were the people to step on to make myself an inch taller.

Then I moved to the Eastern Sierras. Backpackers here are given a golf clap with a “wow, you managed to walk down a trail for a while? That’s impressive!” deserved sarcasm. I’ve learned that backpacking is a component of mountaineering, an umbrella term that includes all the disciplines necessary to safely and effectively traverse mountains throughout all seasons.

Smashed in the face with a 2×4 of humility, I’ve come to grips that enjoying yourself is important. Whether on a portaledge, cowboy camping, or in a developed campground I’m going to take advantage of opportunities to make things a tad more civilized when possible.

theclam

The “clam”. I know you’re jealous.

A Screen Tent to Cook and Eat Meals

Sometimes you can have bug-less campsites but generally that’s not the case. Mosquitoes, flies, and yellow jackets will all want to have a piece of you and/or your food. Cooking in a tent is widely regarded as terrible and dangerous, but with big screens and a tall ceiling I’m fine with it.

I’ve grown tired of hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches on my little piece of crap Coleman green flip-up stove. I now have cast iron skillets that I can cook eggs in. I have a dutch oven. I’ll throw together quick stuff when needed but I enjoy making real meals as a challenge. That requires a lot of time to prep and cook: doing that early morning and late evening (when bugs are at their peak) is absolute torture. Within the confines of my awesome Clam screen tent I get peace and quiet.

explorerstove

Black bean and sweet potato chili in the dutch oven, getting going.

A Real Stove

I’ve used little tin can alcohol burner, my MSR Dragonfly, a cool titanium alcohol burner, and of course the ubiquitous green Coleman flip-top stove.  They each have their place in the world, but they all basically suck at doing anything other than the obtuse application of heat for small meals.

I opted for the Trail Chef Explorer (stainless).

As a nascent trail chef I need the following:

  • Large and stable cooking areas. With 12″ cast iron pans and a big dutch oven, they weigh a ton and take up a lot of space. In the picture above that 12″ / 6 quart dutch oven looks downright dwarfed on the stove top.
  • A ton of heat. 30,000 BTU’s per burner. Most everything in cast iron land is cooked at low or low-medium, but future recipes may ask for real heat.
  • Lots of fuel. These stoves take bulk propane tanks, not the chincy disposables. Way-oversized, I grabbed the 30lb unit that sits next to our house’s generator.
  • Space to do stuff. The wilderness is particularly devoid of kitchen counters so one must bring horizontal work surfaces and ways to hang utensils.

Dishes

Similar to the green coleman stove, disposable flatware, cups, and utensils tend to be a stock of camping as well. It’s kind of sad watching people “get back to nature” and generate massive bags of trash which then get hauled away by a truck burning diesel and thrown into a landfill.

dishes

It’s a work in progress, but it works as is.

Living on a sailboat, I used foot pumps in the galley. You needed your hands and pressurized systems were noisy and expensive. I may actually get a marine foot pump and mount it to a piece of wood: pumps like the Whale Gusher Mark 3 are dope as hell. But in the meantime I’ve got my $23 oversized bulb pump that I can push with my foot.

Now my dishes are cleanable, my utensils are not-chincy metal, and my stovetop cooking tools are stout and clean.