#13: Life In Our Camper (fall 2011)


Our Little, or Is It Big, Camper

    Our truck and camper are outrageously large when we park in lots designed for cars. Sometimes we park in the middle of 2 spots because it actually is more space conserving than squeezing in between the lines of a single spot: if we are on both the right and left lines of single parking spot, we effectively wipe-out 3 spaces (or 6 if the rear end extends beyond the back line too). And on city streets in places like Reno, our truck and camper feel impossibly wide.  In places like Las Vegas, the lanes felt comfortable for our even wider rented RV last spring, so how crowded we feel when driving varies considerably.

    When we are in RV parks, we suddenly feel like a dwarf instead of an unwelcome giant. Neighbors on either side can easily be almost twice as long as our combo. We delight in our single slide, or pop-out, whereas 3 slides are common place on these big RV’s or trailers and some of their slides are almost as long as our entire rig. And the big, bus-like RVs almost always carry a “toad”--we assume its a play on words for ‘a towed vehicle.’ Amazingly, a recent ‘toad’ was a truck similar to ours--and our truck carries our camper on its back.

    Our pipsqueak combo definitely makes us look like the poor cousins in the RV world. Fortunately, nobody rubs it in. The implicit understanding in the parks seems to be that everyone has made a different choice for a different reason and that everybody is happy with what they’ve got. However, we do envy storage space of the RV’s, but that’s about it.

Obligatory Nimbleness

Back from morning exercises: the 1st step is a big one.

    Living in a camper instead of a more gracious RV or trailer will keep us more nimble, whether we like it or not.  Simple tasks of daily living involve more reaching, lifting, bending, twisting, and contorting than in a proper home or bigger rig. Getting into the camper itself and getting into bed both involve giant steps so large that we often jump, rather than step, on the return trip down.

    The woman who requested a tour of our camper (it takes about 1 minute) suggested we supplement our 2 outdoor steps with a set of folding stairs after I had to lower her back down to the ground, but that would reduce our built-in range of motion workout. I could tell that after only 3 weeks of life in the camper that my already sturdy knees and quads were getting stronger and more stable with the repetition of the giant steps up and down. And the daily at-home climbing events give Bill that constant pressure on his hip flexibility that he needs for success on the Italian via ferrata’s.

    Even showering in our camper creates an opportunity for enhanced flexibility if we don’t have RV park facilities available. Working with only a 6 gallon hot water heater and a small gray water tank if we lack hook-ups means lots of twisting and reaching to fiddle with the ‘pause’ button to conserve water during our Navy showers. If we don’t have a sewer hook-up, we’ll do as much rinsing as possible over the adjacent toilet, in several different positions, to divert some of the waste water into the black water (toilet) holding tank because our gray water tank fills long before the black water tank.

Our ‘wet bath.’ The hose on the right services the shower head.

    Every day we get short spurts of crawling on our hands and knees. “Pulled out the wrong shirt? Then you’ll have to climb back up on the bed and crawl to the storage bin to swap it out.” Fetching clothes, unlatching the TV for viewing, opening or closing the sleeping area windows, and going to bed all require “climb, crawl, crawl back, and jump down.” And the few square feet of our camper floor make a regular broom a liability so instead we sweep the floor with a little hand broom on our hands and knees. Even selecting fruit for the next meal is an all-4’s maneuver because the fruit bin is stashed underneath the far end of the dinette, which is also the location of the outlet for plugging in our computers.

    Squatting, a motion some say one should never do, is also a daily essential. If we have hook-ups at night, we are squatting, reaching, and muscling equipment to get everything attached and detached. And when there is a string of freezing nights, the activity level almost doubles because we drain both our sewage line and water line to prevent freeze damage and then need to get them functioning again in the morning.

    Even getting out of our monster truck with oversized wheels is a big step down. I’ve managed to perfect a ‘slide out on my butt and back‘ motion for exiting but Bill has unceremoniously fallen out of the truck a couple of times. Noting the line of scabs on his shins one day, he reported that one leg’s scabs were from a September via ferrata, the other from skidding out of the truck.  He hasn’t actually landed on his bum but has scuffed himself on several skillful ‘saves.’ The mini-running boards seem to help more when getting into the truck than getting out. Now I know why all the those stiff old geezers driving trucks are so deadpan--they are hoping they don’t dump out of their trucks and kill themselves.


    During the first days and weeks in the camper, we kept reminding ourselves that we were trading-off  the ease of daily living for the ease of access to exercise and sporting venues--and the immediacy of the outdoors. We knew that life in the camper inevitably would be annoying and we’d need to quickly recalibrate the amount of aggravation we’d cheerfully tolerate in a day. “Yes, it is aggravating but really, it doesn’t take that long, does it?” was a common comment. 

Taa-daa, the kitchen! Including our 2 big ‘oven’ drawers (frig is behind).

    The first 3 trade-offs were implemented for us by the camper dealership. We accepted one of their standard modifications, which was to pull the small gas oven and replace it with 2 deep storage drawers. Quite the bind: if you kept the oven, you’d have about 30-40% less kitchen storage space but you’d need even more in order to store the cooking items used for baking or broiling. But it was no-brainer for us--we’d happily keep our cooking simple for more stowage. And once we began loading the camper cabinets, I couldn’t imagine how others coped without those 2 big drawers.

   Our special modification was asking the dealership to extract the 3-rowed, vinyl storage rack from the narrow pantry. The rack was wildly inefficient and at best would utilize about 10% of the cabinet’s volume. I quickly dubbed it my “sports cabinet”. Instead of neatly but extravagantly holding small bottles of condiments, I was delighted to stuff the cabinet with 2 sets of snowshoes, 2 folding camp chairs, 2 yoga mats, our 8’x8’ sand-free mat, a folding stool, and exercise accessories. Storage space is so precious in the camper (unlike in RV’s) that every cubic inch needed to be utilized everywhere we turned. As a result, one does not reach in and pluck out the desired item of this sports cabinet (or any others for that matter) but instead the cabinet usually has to be partially unpacked to get to what you need: “Yes, it is aggravating but really, it doesn’t take that long, does it?”

   The “wet bath” option in which we soak down the entire little bathroom with a shower also proved to be a good trade-off made at the time of purchase. A number of camper owners had told us it was the way to go and we too sing its praises.  Having a more familiar “dry bath” option, which contains the shower water in a separate shower stall, results in less elbow-room in the shower and less counter and storage space in the kitchen. The dry bath also partitions the interior space, making the resulting more private living and sleeping areas potentially more claustrophobic.

The queen-sized sleeping loft adjoins the kitchen; there is a window on each side.

    The unrelenting pressure on capturing every cubic inch of storage space has meant that clothes aren’t neatly arranged in rows or on hangers but are stuffed into bags that will mold around obstacles inside of the limited wardrobe space. The metal brackets in 3 short, vertical cabinets suggest the space was intended for hanging garments but we needed to fill the space like in a suitcase in 2 of the 3.

    We did dedicate one cabinet to hanging jackets but in the bottom we stash our small exercise ball, my winter and summer wide=brimmed hats, and a few other items that can easily be located without being able to see them. Clothes, cups, folding chairs, and almost all of the rest of what we stash aren’t grabbed in a single motion but require a partial excavation effort to be fetched.

    It quickly became clear that planning farther ahead for what was needed in the next several activities would decrease some of the aggravation of extracting our stowed gear. The first night I could see the wisdom in pulling out the next morning’s pre-breakfast exercise clothes as well as the day’s attire at the same time--dipping into the bags and bins once instead of twice would get the day off to a better start. Of course weather changes could foil that little bit of efficiency. And to cut down on the depth of the piles, the base layer of my clothes was piled in easy reach of my sleeping place and the outwear layer was draped over the dinette seat for donning on the way out the door. A similar strategy is used in the kitchen area: when putting away the dishes for the evening meal, the breakfast ware is pulled out.

Further Economizing on Space

    Switching to minimalist shoes shortly before moving into a camper was a huge help with our new lifestyle because the bulkiness of regular shoes, especially in men’s sizes, would have taxed our scant storage space. But the thin soles and light construction of the uppers of our “mini’s” allowed them to squish into leftover slots. The footwear for cross country skiing and snowshoes were another matter and demanded more dedicated space but hat demand earned them a spot at the bottom of the clothes bin.

    One of our earliest and most clever space-savings ideas was buying inexpensive ($7 each) cushion covers from Ikea but not the cushions. Instead of cushions, our covers were filled with bulkier clothes, like fleece shirts and heavy socks. A little lumpy looking but we got the dual benefit of cozy cushions and a less-buried place to stash some of our clothing.

    We also switched to travel towels instead of using our terry cloth bath towels from home as planned. We upgraded from the ones we bought 15 years ago, assuming they had improved the technology in that length of time. Indeed, the new products were enough better that we could happily use them every day and benefit from them both being smaller and faster drying than cotton towels in our rig that made absolutely no provision for wet towels.

    The thin, flexible cutting board we carried on the bikes overseas was a good match for the small, non-angular counter space in the camper and a new fabric dish-drying mat took the cutting board’s place when it was time to wash dishes. Both easily stow in a minimum of space when not in use. A collapsable silicon dish cover for use in our tiny microwave was a real find, as was the sleek little scale for weighing food (careful portion control helps keep our weight down.) The microwave itself is used as a storage bin when it’s not heating food.

Our slim cutting board, collapsed dish cover, dish drying mat, & thin scale.

    Organizing our belongings took on a new twist in our cramped quarters. With no room to spare, we had to abandon stashing items by function and instead give-in to a model driven by shape and size. That paradigm shift had us clustering olive oil, mouth wash, and laundry detergent together in the triangular space under the kitchen sink because they were all in tall bottles; tea bags and garlic cloves happened to fit nicely together in a leftover corner; toilet paper rolls and our upright bin of cereal snuggle together in an overhead cabinet; mugs travel inside our large cooking pot to keep them from rolling around instead of being stowed with the other dishes; and Bill’s Medusa-headed electronic’s charging station and our toiletries bags ended up together only because they all filled the last available, easily accessible, space.

    Outside the camper, we made some space-sparing decisions too. We elected to forgo an air conditioner, which meant that we were less likely to need a generator. Nixing the air conditioner only bought us overhead clearance, but dumping the generator gave us a trophy of an outdoor cabinet for stashing traction devices, leveling blocks, and the stiff electrical cord. We didn’t want to fill the last of the gained space with an awkward wad of a vinyl water hose so we bought a fabric hose that Bill spotted. We grin ever day we use it because the 25’ fabric water hose folds compactly to the size of a large banana and unlike a regular hose, it holds it shape when you let go of it.

Plastic vs Steel

    Life on the inside of the camper is almost like living in something made of papier mâché but life on the outside is living in the world of steel. The first tour around our new camper that Bill had successfully loaded onto our truck impressed us both with what a he-man world we were now brushing up against. Our white-collar, techno-world is largely built of plastic and aluminum these days and this new-to-us world had a touch of the blue-collar steel and grease in it.

    I was stunned by the heaviness of the long tubular brackets to which we attached the tie-downs to hold the camper on the truck.  It was awkward enough to squat and reach underneath the truck to insert the brackets but then we needed both hands free to hold the hefty length of steel and align it with the pin holes. Attaching and releasing the metal pins to hold the metal braces in place under the truck was past the comfortable limit of my finger strength and the tie-downs themselves were unexpectedly heavy and awkward to use. The brief experience of securing the brackets and tie-downs underscored how one is only strong in the range in which you train. All of the crunches, push-ups, and other resistance training I do helped but the camper was going to round-out my strength conditioning in some awkward new positions.

It shouldn’t be this hard to plug in an electrical cord.

    Even the grossly oversized electrical cord was taxing to connect to the camper when we were in a campground with hook-ups. Working at eye-level to attach it, I finally resorted to draping the stiff, heavy cord over my shoulder so as to keep the connector horizontal while I leaned as much body weight as possible into it and then tightened the threaded ring around it. This was no simple “just plug it in” item.

    Next to the electrical connector is the pair of propane tanks with their special challenges. If the ground is perfectly level, I can just barely reach the valves to open and close them--otherwise I need our folding camp stool to stand on. I reminded myself at how great that daily struggle with the propane valves would be for strength in my fingers and shoulder mobility at the limit of my arm length.

    In contrast to the hefty steel interface between the camper and the truck, the camper itself needed to be treated as a member of the plastic and aluminum world. The pressure to shave weight and cost in its construction meant that much of the interior was downright flimsy--reminiscent of  papier mâché.

    The trick would be in learning the elements that needed to be slammed to work, like the entry door and cabinet latches vs the light touch needed on the less durable items. The wet-bath (toilet and sink get soaked during your shower) is only a plastic shell--not even fiberglass. No abrasives, no sharp corners, no dropping things, and preferably no shoes would be required to extend its life. The kitchen sink as well is a molded plastic, not the stainless steel it first seems. Some items were too delicate to retain, like the bedspread and shams that can’t be machine washed or dry cleaned. Initially annoyed, I finally excused their frailty: I thought they were furnishings but clearly they were mere display items to make the camper look good on the show room floor and with that conclusion drawn, they were permanently escorted out of the rig.


    We were committed to looking on the bright-side as much as possible while we adapted to life in our new camper but sometimes we saw nothing but darkness. About all one can do when they get clobbered with a string of Catch-22’s is cry, then laugh, and we did plenty of both during our first days with the Fox camper. Like why did they use such a tenacious adhesive on the sticker warning us not to use abrasives on the delicate plastic bathroom walls? Or why is “Off” at the top of the electric switch for the water heater but at the bottom of the adjacent switch for the gas mode? And won’t it be more logical to put the indicator lights in order of purity for the black/gray/fresh water instead of sequencing them as gray/black/fresh?

    Our camper dealer strongly recommended installing a popular Maxi-Vent over our even more popular Fan-tastic fan to keep the rain out. Sounded reasonable, so we begrudgingly forked out more money. After we picked up the rig from having the rain cover installation completed, we read the fan tag that the service person left on the table which stated “Never install a Maxi-Vent or other cover over your Fan-tastic fan.” “But, but, but.....”

Our ideal campground scenario: off-loading the camper for several days.

   We grimaced when the technician mentioned that if our expensive optional solar panels were installed by the dealer instead of the manufacturer that they’d have twice the output for the same price--we won’t know which we have until we are inside the camper during a mid-day sunny spell and can read the monitoring panel.

   One of the primary reasons we selected a camper over an RV was the option of removing the camper at a campground so we could drive to more rugged trail heads without its weight and bulk. But during our walk-around when picking up the camper the technician said something about not having the water tanks at the bottom of the camper unsupported. When pressed, he said the camper structure needed the support of the truck bed or beams (what beams?) during filling but once the tank was filled, it was OK to off-load the camper. Suspicious that I wasn’t getting the full story, I called the manufacturer. “No, no. You can’t off-load the camper and leave its belly unsupported when it has a full tank of water.” That annihilated our visions of arriving at a state or federal campground with a full tank of water and off-loading the camper for a multi-day stay at a place without hook-ups..    

    We unexpectedly devoted a day to solving our ‘traction devices’ problem--another problem we didn’t know we had. It started innocently enough upon noting the “Chains required after Nov 1” signs in the mountains as we left home in mid-October. I confidently opened our truck manual while Bill drove over the pass to read about tire chains only to learn that the tires that came with our off-road package lacked sufficient clearance for chains. I emailed our dealer for advice, did hours of research online, and called the manufacturer only to discover we were boxed in with seemingly no where to go.

    Our inquiry to our dealership about the chains issue was routed to the service manager who was clueless. “Well, maybe try cable chains or the new $700 product (which he didn’t know much about)”. The traction device manufacturer boasted of their great products for vehicles with clearance issues but said to contact the vehicle manufacturer for the spec’s. The manual provided by the truck manufacturer said to check with the traction devices manufacturer to make sure their product was compatible with the specific tires and truck. Hmmm.

    I decided to work through channels and called the truck manufacturer. After watching my prepaid cell phone minutes tick away for 35 minutes, I finally asked the pleasant young man if he knew what tire chains were. After much shuffling he said “No.” It was his comment “Have them installed by your dealer” that verified my hunch that he didn’t have a clue as to what we had been talking about. A few hours later he called back after having found someone who could locate the exact specifications on our specific truck, and the spaces for my requested numbers, “Sidewall Minimum Clearance” and “Treadface Minimum Clearance,” were blank. He assured me that he could answer endless other questions about our vehicle but not those 2 numbers--the 2 numbers I needed to proceed with the purchase of traction devices.

    Online reading of both Washington and Oregon traction device law convinced us that we had to buy something to be legal on the passes even though tire and truck-savvy retailers in snowy Central Oregon were sure that we were in compliance without them. We were told that we were excluded from carrying traction devices because we had a truck and not a passenger car and because we had 4 wheel drive--neither of which was correct.

Hard-won cable chains that were a snap to install.

    Bill’s research revealed that if we had known to ask when we spec’d out the truck that we could have gotten tires with a little snowflake on them, which would have exempted us from carrying traction devices at all--ouch!. After setting us back a full day, we bought a pair of cable chains that we hope never to use and hope won’t damage our truck because of low clearance issues if we do. The good news was that they were only $120, which paled in comparison to now buying 4 snow tires or the $700 traction devices, and they were a snap to put on.

     But for the few naively made, potentially bad choices, we had made some good ones along the way. Bill agonized over gas vs diesel; duallies vs single rear wheels; optional packages; and the like and he is entirely satisfied with the performance of the truck when carrying the camper.  Unlike the RV we rented in the spring, we can cruise with the pack at 55 or 60 mph unless it’s really steep. The truck has got enough oomph to back-up steep approaches to campsites and has handled well in the small forays into gravel. He was satisfied with the pairing of the rigs after the first few days out and his satisfaction only deepened when our new combo shone on the 13 mile scenic road in Red Rock National Conversation Area, Nevada--a road that was agonizing to drive in the underpowered, rented RV last spring.

    The wildly expensive automatic compressor (vs manual) we bought for the air bags that reinforce the trucks suspension when the heavy camper is in the truck bed immediately looked like a wise investment instead of an extravagance. We thought adjusting the air bags would only be done when the camper was removed or loaded onto the truck but we have been adjusting them to level the camper for the night.  One of us can watch bubbles on the 2 little levels at the back of the camper while the other sits in the cab of the truck and selectively releases or adds air to level the camper in the truck bed. Such adjusting can only do so much, but it is far easier and quicker than backing on to leveling blocks. The air bags themselves also permit changing the tilt of the truck bed to match the tilt of the camper when loading the camper The automatic air bag compressor quickly moved from being categorized as a luxury to a necessity for our lifestyle. Life in a camper is challenging enough that some of it needs to be made easy.


Cuisine Loses Again

    Many among our friends and family have lamented our choices around food, especially when abroad, because practicality always prevails over pleasure. After the first year of overseas travel when we discovered that our cholesterol levels shot-up from eating prepared foods or in restaurants for many of our meals, we switched to cooking meals in our B&B rooms as well as in the campgrounds. Our exposure to the regional cuisines shifted from what we experienced at the chef’s table to the variations presented at the grocery stores. 

The dinette pops-out 3’ creating welcome elbow room in the kitchen.

    The change in dining venues was good for our health and budgets and our palettes were already accustomed to being secondary. When we wavered, we reminded ourselves that our choices needed to be informed by the fact that cyclotouring was a lifestyle, not a brief vacation, and we settled into the ease of a simple diet in which the focus was on nutrition and not entertainment.

    The scant storage space in our new camper in the fall of 2011 again had us opting for practicality over complexity when it came to our menu. At our request, the small gas oven and sliding wire rack in the pantry were removed, which gave us fewer cooking options but more efficient use of the space. (When we invited ourselves in for a look at the rigs of other people when in the SW in spring, a number of them chuckled as they showed us the items they were storing in their oven.)

    Usually it is some new piece of medical research or the latest health recommendation that has me recalibrating our diet, but this time around it was our lifestyle shift that had me scratching my head. The Mediterranean Diet which is long on fruits, vegetables, grains and olive oil would still be our guiding light, but suddenly our starting point--boiling water--was out.

Residual turmeric in water reveals the jiggling of our camper.

    For the last 10 years of travel overseas, our cooked meals have been boiled: pasta, broccoli, and rarely a piece of fish or chicken. Stealth cooking in hotel rooms meant that relatively quick cooking of odorless food was of the essence (we learned that frozen, rather than fresh, broccoli had less odor when cooking). But we discovered during our spring stint in a rented RV that odors were no longer a major issue, but moisture management was essential. Even our roomy RV steamed up when we boiled pasta and that was with the door and windows open. Our much smaller and much tighter camper would likely become a sauna if we boiled pasta.

    I quickly became weary of whole-grain couscous topped with a pesto sauce on the RV trip, so it was back to the cookbooks to craft a new no-bake, no-furious boil, dinner menu.  Surprisingly, it was my first vegetarian cookbook (Diet for a Small Planet) printed in 1973 that came to mind as a starting point for exploring new camper-friendly options. But even with its help, it would take time to develop new menus for 2 different camper settings: campgrounds with hook-ups, which will allow us to use our mini-microwave oven and abundant water, and boon-docking, where we’ll be relying on our own limited water and propane supplies for food preparation and clean-up. I did learn however if we cooked with garlic, onions, or curry in our camper that our towels, clothes, and the camper itself would emit those cooking odors for days, so it was back to the drawing board.

Getting Outdoors

Perfect weather for viewing the crags at Castle Crags State Park in California.

Our new lifestyle in the truck and camper was intended to support us in pursuing vigorous outdoor daily exercise using the carrot, rather than the stick (fun vs should), approach and the strategy delivered right away. Our first full day on the road had us stopping at Barlow Pass on Mt Hood in Oregon to hike a couple of  hours on the Pacific Crest Trail--after a roadside lunch in the rig in which we were positioned to enjoy a view of the mountain.  Later, we’d hike more of the Pacific Crest Trail in California at Castle Crags and at Mt Lassen.

    A few days after our hike at Barlow Pass when we were camping outside Tumalo near Bend, Oregon, Bill blurted out “This is a Top 10 Run” as we glided up and down the dirt trail tracing the serpentine path of the Metolius River. It couldn’t have been more stunning: sun rise on the fall foliage along the rushing, rocky river. We didn’t think to bring the camera but instead had been focused on finding warmer gloves and hats for the crack of dawn dash when the mercury was hanging around freezing. We both ran farther than planned because it was so captivating and we contemplated staying an extra day so we could do it again.

Ah, sunrise exercises on the frosty dock at Diamond Lake, Oregon.

    In addition to our revived sport of jogging, I loved doing my morning exercise routine outdoors in the dry weather on the road, even if the temperature was below freezing. What a kick to look between my feet in an inverted yoga poise to see the moon at daybreak. And what a unique experience to do my sliding-foot Qi-Gong routine in the slick frost on a small dock jutting out into Diamond Lake, Oregon.

    But some of those chilly mornings were too harsh for stretching outdoors and Bill discovered we could have a 2-tiered indoor exercise area, kind of like trundle bed, by using the sleeping space option of our dinette: I used the floor for my full-height exercises, he used the dinette converted to sleeping space for exercises demanding width. (Enough indoor space for all of our daily exercise routines was a requirement when selecting our rig.) Indoors or out, we were off to a good start on our new fitness-focused lifestyle from a truck and camper in the US instead of from cyclotouring overseas.

Upper berth exercises on the popped-out dinette converted to a sleeping area.

Photos below:  Crater Lake (6), Diamond Lake (1), & Mt Shasta (1).