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

20180805_103537

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

 

20180805_140510

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.

 

 

hartley springs campground

With five sar missions in the last week, I left town (and cell service) for the weekend. Destination: Hartley Springs Campground. Located about 20 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes the decided (as best I’ve been able to tell) lack of a “spring” is the reason I wanted to go there. The intense 16/17 winter has left snow everywhere, even in July. Much of it will stick around until next summer. With that snow is melt, and with that melt is water. Combine warm summer air and you get mosquitoes: lots and lots of mosquitoes.

I can handle mosquitoes but purposefully putting myself into the midsts of clouds of them is insane. Yes, I know about permethrin and DEET. I use a tent. I have coils. But “managing” mosquitoes for a weekend is tolerable but best avoided altogether.

hartleysprings

Our little slice of paradise, at Hartley Springs Campground.

Not only is there no natural water in Hartley Springs Campground, but there’s also no plumbed water: you need to bring all your own. There’s also no trash cans, no bear boxes, and no real anything. Some porta-potties, picnic tables, and a fire ring is about as fancy as it gets. The upshot is that it’s free to stay there and maybe 10 minutes from June Lake (20 from Mammoth Lakes) if you forget anything or just want to buzz into town for a bit.

It was also packed: we got the last spot when we showed up on a Friday around 4pm. It’s a haven for dirt bikers and 4x4s as well, so expect lots of poorly muffled exhausts blaring around you. Not in a horribly obnoxious way, but definitely in a you’ll-know-you’re-around-dirt-bikes sort of way.

rigging

In my sar pack I need to carry webbing, carabiners, and 50 of 8mm. Apparently that and a milk crate allowed me to set up swings and with my winch a zip line.

Verizon has a bit of coverage there, but no dice for AT&T. We had come through here a couple of months ago and there were little snow patches around so I safely bet that by now it should be bone dry and indeed not a single mosquito was found.

So especially in the non zany busy season if you’re looking for a free campground and can handle your own water and trash, give Hartley Springs a once-over. There’s a bit of dirt roading to do on the way in, perhaps a passenger car might have a tough go of it, but any AWD should be fine. I think I saw a couple 2wd passenger cars; I’d certainly give it a shot. If you do go up in a 2wd perhaps stick to a busier time period so that if you get stuck there’s a high likelihood that someone can help you out.

camping along the mojave road

Another entry in my #MojaveRoad series because I’m too lazy to write it all down at once (original article here).

One thing I really dug about this trip was how free form the whole thing was. It reminded me a lot of sailing in the sense that with all that self sufficiency comes freedom. We planned on two nights near the Colorado River to meet up and start but after that it was an open road: think Thelma & Louise minus the ending.

Big Bend of the Colorado

Since I was coming from Mammoth and my buddy from San Diego, we met up near the starting point of the Mojave Road at the Big Bend of the Colorado, a Nevada state park with camping situated on the Colorado River.

20170508_094652

We got to hang out in the river for a bit before mid day when we all got heat sickness.

It’s not a terrible campground, but it’s definitely a utility locale. It was expensive, bland, and you could hear engine brakes from the nearby highway. Oddly far from most businesses it was still unfortunately suburban at the same time. The bathrooms were clean and it’s super close to the start of the Mojave Road so there’s that.

IMG_20170508_161611939_HDR

My friend and I trying not to die from the heat and doing some route planning at Big Bend of the Colorado, Nevada State Park.

Mid Hills Campground

Our handy dandy (and extremely over detailed) Mojave Road guide mentioned numerous camping sites but they all had one thing in common: no camping signs.

20170510_105612

This sign or several like it can be found at every location mentioned by the guide as “a good place to camp.”

We actually found a really cool place on our own but there was a huge pile of dead squirrels on it. Who brought the carnage? Beats me. I was fine with staying there and just parking a truck on top of the gore: out of sight, out of mind. My friend’s wife was a voice of reason however and we moved on. And lucky we did, because we found our way to Mid Hills Campground. With potable water, firepits, a picnic table, and a 5,000 foot elevation to keep things cool it was a great idea for the $12 nightly fee.

Mid Hills is also roughly smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Road and easily accessible in one night from the Colorado River in a day provided you aren’t stopping to smell every non existent flower.

IMG_20170509_174033377

Dinner at Mid Hills campground, somewhere in the desert at 5,000 feet: note the juniper trees in the background.

IMG_20170509_190433417_HDR

My buddy and his son, Mid Hills Campground. It really was a welcome break from the lowland desert valley.

From Mid Hills, we shot back onto the Mojave Road and quickly realized that we were probably okay on gasoline. It should be noted that probably being okay whilst in the middle of bum-fuck-egypt means you’re not really okay.

So we made a pit stop in Baker, California. I hope I do not offend any of Baker’s 745 residents by saying that there wasn’t much going on. And although it took us out of the wilderness a bit, there are practical matters to attend to (like ice and fuel), and additionally if the original Mojave Road pioneers had a Taco Bell up in Baker you can bet your ass they would have hit it up.

bakerlol

Baker has ice, fuel, a Taco Bell, motel, two auto shops, and other travel stuff.

Fast forward maybe 100 miles from Baker, back on the Mojave Road: a couple of river crossings, a dry lake bed you can do donuts in, and the rock travel monument thing. We made it! We’re done, at least to where most people stop as the road technically continues on for another 11 miles.

Afton Canyon Campground, California

For most people Afton Canyon represents the end (or the beginning, if headed west-to-east) of the line, and as such the Afton Canyon Campground is a perfect spot to hang your filthy sun hat. Tables with awnings, potable water, and non-horrible toilets make this place functionally cool but the nearly constant rumble of freight trains and amazing scenery make it more than that.

anton

Afton Canyon Campground is a bit like being on Mars in the best way possible. The constant freight trains, the desolation, and the scenery makes the place pretty amazing.

The problem of course is that it’s eight million degrees there so unless you enjoy dying slowly of hyperthermia I think you’ll make your time here brief. Perhaps in the winter it’s a very different story: I checked the forecast for tomorrow (June 27) and it’s 109f.

As a final note, remember that the desert is weird. The alpine forests tend to have a mountaineer-ish vibe, and beaches have a chilled out vibe. Deserts just have a weird vibe. I’ve lived on the Sea of Cortez (including the summer), Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California: I’m familiar with deserts. There’s a certain kind of person who arrives at these hells-on-earth and sees them as a paradise. I can appreciate the desert for what it is but that’s a far cry from wanting to exist there long term.

Keep your wits about you. Someone killed all those squirrels and left their piled up corpses in the middle of an otherwise nice camping area. Could it have happened up here in Mammoth or down in San Diego? Maybe, but it didn’t. It happened on the Mojave Road and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

laurel lakes road

I sometimes refer to Mammoth as “outdoor Disneyland”. Minus surfing, the Eastern Sierras has nearly iconic status for anything set in the wilderness. Racing down snow covered mountains, climbing up ice shoots, fishing in gurgling creeks, and mountain biking through beautiful forests: you could do it all in the same day if you had enough time.

So today for lunch we headed over to one of the nation’s best skate parks here in town, then hit the dirt roads cutting through Sherwin Creek Campground and made a left towards Laurel Lakes.

Laurel Lakes Road apparently has earned a designation as a “dangerous road”, and fair enough: if you don’t have a fairly decent vehicle and skills to match you very well may end up dead. In fact, the latest fatality was about two years ago.

laureldrop

Yep, miss a turn or slide out and it’s a loooonnnnnnggggg way down.

Fortunately for me and the kiddos, we we had a nice drama free time. In fact, I only drove up halfway yesterday by myself and traversed the rest on foot to get a sense of what was going on. Satisfied it was within my and my truck’s ability range, I thought it would make a great lunch stop.

laureltruck

There are worse places in the world.

An advantage to going places that are a pain in the ass to get too is that there’s less folks there and the people who do make it happen tend to be more experienced and thus more responsible. There was barely any trash and minus some tree-trunk carvings from local kids it was in perfect condition.

laurelcreek

Fire ring past the giant “don’t drive through here” boulders, creek behind the kids.

I’m not sure of the camping restrictions up there, but there are some tastefully laid out fire rings. If you get up there, please be responsible and treat the place with the respect it deserves.

This is also the road you can take to Bloody Mountain, although we stopped before the final switchback sets: there is still too much snow.

If you have a couple of hours to kill, a high clearance 4×4, off road tires, and a locking dif or two, head on up. Alternatively you could mountain bike or hike the one-way ~4 miles: there’s little traffic on this route and it’s pretty easy to see folks coming ahead.

laureltrashbag

It matters.

As a final note, the first thing I set up these days for any kind of backcountry stop is a trash bag. Not only do you have a quick spot to toss your own things, but having a big bag around makes you more likely to pick up existing trash that someone else didn’t address.

overlanding(?) the mojave road

I’ll be adding little snippets about my experiences on the Mojave Road which you can find via my handy #MojaveRoad tag.

Shortly after I fell in love with my 1994 Land Cruiser, I read up on “overlanding”. Subcultures have their own vocabulary, partially to convey meaning and partially for identification. Sometimes hilarity ensues such as this gem:

I spent two years cruising in Mexico.

When sailors toss this gem around, it means one thing. To a gay man in a nightclub, it means something entirely different.

So in four-wheel-drive circles (or ‘wheelin), “overlanding” basically means really long drives across varying terrain whilst being self sufficient and probably sleeping in a tent of some type.

milezero

Sitting (literally) at mile zero, me and my buddy’s truck.

The Mojave Road is roughly 160 miles long (counting detours and shenanigans). I stumbled across it when looking for “overland routes” on Google one day, and realized that it:

  1. Did not seem insanely technical. You need to know how to drive off road, but you don’t need to be happy making 5 miles a day via winching and swimming (ala Camel Trophy).
  2. Was relatively close by. Starting in Laughlin, NV I left Mammoth Lakes and was having a beer at our campground right after sunset.

So I called up one of my likely-as-poor-a-decision-maker-as-myself buddies and asked if he wanted to do it with me. Less than 10 seconds later came the affirmative, so we made plans in early spring of 2017 to tackle it later that May.

It was a pretty cool six days and five nights out of my and my kids’ lives doing this trip and rather than try to summarize it all here I think I’ll break it into pieces. Click on my cool #MojaveRoad hashtag (once I’ve written more than this one).

travmonument

The “traveler’s monument” is a basically a pile of rocks in the middle of hell.

For now it’s good to be home, it’s good to knock out some laundry, and it’s good to not have rivers/trains/winds howling in the air all night long. I’m back to the peace of tranquility of bears and snowstorms here in Mammoth Lakes, CA.

my diy boot-glove-stuff dryer

Sure, it looks like a crazy science experiment gone wrong. But this thing kicks ass at drying lots of gear so the next day you’ve got warm and dry gear to put on.

bootdryerdone11162016

Pellet stove on right, hideous hose beast dryer on left.

I started with a prototype made of cardboard. I’d really recommend that to anyone as you probably have plenty of it laying around and with some tape you can make a design and see how well it will work. In a pinch, you can even get by with a cardboard model for quite some time.

bootdryerprototype11162016

Believe it or not, this piece of crap worked great for a week as I theorized my final design.

There are two core concepts with a snowsports dryer:

  1. Have everything spaced out so they can dry. This is pretty easy to achieve as you can just hang things up, no big deal.
  2. Blow warm and dry air inside of things like gloves, mitts, and boots. This is the tricky part and why you can’t just leave wet gloves out on a table and expect them to be dry anytime soon.

For $19 I got a 120mm muffin fan that pushes 51CFM. There are more powerful ones, but I wanted something relatively quiet and honestly even with almost a dozen wet items to deal with this fan has been doing the trick.

bootdryerfan11162016

How cool: a box with a fan in it.

The fan sucks air into the airtight box, and then you’re faced with the challenge of getting it to your boots/gloves/whatevers. I decided to go a little hardcore and use 1/2″ hose barbs, screwed onto fittings between a piece of particle board. That the whole box was done with 3/4″ ply and particle board was no accident. The hoses are tough and pull on the box. The fan needs to be mounted firmly. You can expect the box to get kicked, bumped, and treated with neglect. I opted to make it beefy.

What’s cool about using barbs like this is that you can get creative with the types of hoses you use after the fact without really doing anything to the dryer itself. I even installed some T fittings on the ends.

bootdryertop11162016

The top, before it went on. 1/2″ hose barbs screwed to PVC fittings on the underside.

Before I put the top on (with all the fittings) I used some foam crack filler to seal up the interior as much as possible. The whole thing is screwed together in the hopes that it can handle a lot of abuse. The fan is rated at 67,000 hours, which at 100/days of service per year running for 5 hours at a clip I should be able to snowboard 134 seasons before I need to replace the fan.

bootdryergettingclose11162016

Top attached, playing with the hoses, getting closer.

For the hose I found 25′ of 1/2″ conduit for $10. It’s pretty stout stuff and maintains its curve fairly well which is a blessing if you want it and a curse if you don’t. I slashed the bottoms that fit over the barbs so they can come off easier, and put little holes near the ends in the sidewalls that go into the boots/gloves.

I can dry 10 items at a time, and the whole thing breaks down relatively easily. I place it (safely) near the pellet stove so there’s plenty of warm air about and no need to add a separate heating element. It’s sort of obvious: after a day of snowsports you want to be warm and dry too so the heater will most definitely be on.

If I had to do another, my shopping list would look like this:

  • 10 pipe fittings, cost around $15.
  • 3/4 ply or particle board, maybe $5-$20.
  • Fan, $20.
  • Hose, $10.

Done cheaply you’ll be in for around $50 and have something that absolutely clowns on the piece of garbage plastic jobbers out there, nevermind you’ll have 5x the capacity and a much longer product life. The only downside is that you’ll have an octopus of death dryer in your living room.