What are the Most Important Features in a Full-time Fifth Wheel Trailer?!

What features are most important in a fifth wheel trailer you’ll be living in full-time? That’s a big and interesting question, and Trailer Life Magazine recently assigned me the very fun task of surveying the fifth wheels on the market today and selecting twelve models that would make a good home on the road.

The results of my review are featured as the cover story of the October 2017 edition of Trailer Life Magazine.

Full-time Fifth Wheels Trailer Life Magazine October 2017

Trailer Life Magazine, October, 2017. Article by Emily Fagan

As I mentioned in my blog post about what to look for in a full-time RV, whether it’s a trailer or a motorhome, choosing a rolling home is an incredibly personal decision. There is no ideal rig for all RVers. The most important thing is that you walk inside, look around, and say, “Ahhh, this is home!”

But you’ve also gotta look at the nuts and bolts underneath the rig, and that’s what this blog post is about.

Whatever fifth wheel you buy, there is no need to break the bank. Obviously, higher quality trailers cost a lot more than lower quality trailers do, but life on the road is a thrill no matter what kind of rig you live in, and if you can’t afford the top of the line, you’ll still have just as much fun as those who can.

Also, sometimes going with a used trailer, especially at the outset, beats buying new. There are lots of used fifth wheels of all ages for sale all over the country.

We have met a couple and a single fellow living full-time in older fifth wheel trailers that cost them less than $5,000. They were very happy with their rolling homes and were thrilled to have the freedom of a life on the road.

Likewise, we met a couple who had lived in a popup tent trailer for four years, a couple who had lived in a tiny half-ton pickup camper for two years and we met a young pair of mountain bikers who had just moved out of their tent home of the last 18 months and into a 17′ travel trailer a few weeks before we camped near them.

If you can’t afford the latest and greatest, it is still very possible to be a full-time RVer and live a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget!

However, my Trailer Life assignment was to look over the many brand new fifth wheels on the market, find twelve models that spoke to me, and highlight some of the things that I think are important when shopping for an RV that will be lived in 24/7/365.

You can read the article here: Full-timing Fifth Wheel Trailers in Trailer Life Magazine

For reference, we have pics and specs and a description of the fifth wheel trailer we live in at this link.

LEARN BY DOING

If you haven’t done much RVing yet and you are planning to move out of your current home and set off on a life of adventure on the road, the best way to figure out what features you need and want in your full-time fifth wheel is to get some practice RVing first.

I can’t state strongly enough the value of buying a cheap little RV and going and having some fun on weekends and vacations before jumping into the full-time RV lifestyle. This is especially true if you’ve got a year or more to go before you will actually start full-timing.

Nothing is better than hands-on experience, and you can use the little rig as a trade-in on your full-time RV. The minimal amount of depreciation is a great investment in your own personal education in the RV lifestyle! Here is a blog post about that.

So what DO you look for in an RV when you are replacing your sticks-and-bricks house? After all, the the most important factor is no longer Location, Location Location! Different folks look for different things, but here’s what we look for whenever we check out a new fifth wheel at a dealership (which we do frequently!).

Full-time Fifth Wheels Trailer Life Magazine October 2017-min

A survey of fifth wheels for full-timing by Emily Fagan
Trailer Life Magazine Cover – October 2017

CARGO CARRYING CAPACITY

The first thing we look at is the trailer’s Cargo Carrying Capacity. This is the amount of weight the trailer is designed to carry safely and legally. Trailer manufacturers are required to post a sticker on the exterior of the front end of the trailer on the driver’s side that indicates what the CCC is.

Surprisingly, there is a lot of confusion about exactly how the CCC is calculated and whether or not the fresh water or the propane in the tanks is considered cargo or part of the Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW). The official definition, according to certain RV standards groups and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is:

CCC = GVWR – (UVW + propane weight)

That is, the Cargo Carrying Capacity is the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating less the sum of the Unloaded Vehicle Weight and the propane weight.

However, it is much more common for manufacturers to calculate CCC as simply the GVWR less UVW and not count the propane weight as part of the equation. This is also known as the NCC (Net Carrying Capacity).

NCC = GVWR – UVW

The propane weight is only 40, 60 or 80 lbs, depending on whether the two propane tanks are 20 lb., 30 lb., or 40 lb. tanks, so it is not that important whether it is included in the calculation of CCC or not, and it is easy to see why the terms CCC and NCC are often confused and used interchangeably.

In addition to stating the CCC on a sticker on the trailer, the manufacturers are also required to have a sticker indicating how much the fresh water in the trailer weighs when the fresh water tanks are full. One gallon of water weighs about 8.35 lbs. or 3,785 kg.

Fresh water is officially considered to be cargo, so if the trailer is towed with its tanks full, then the CCC available for everything else (food, clothes, tools, barbecue, bikes etc.) is reduced by the weight of the fresh water weight as stated on the sticker.

Cyclone Toy Hauler Fifth Wheel RV cargo carrying capacity 2

This detailed sticker shows the weight of the fresh water tanks when full (830 lbs in the fresh water tanks and 100 lbs in the hot water tank) PLUS it shows the weight of the Black and Gray waste tanks (1,569 lbs.) AND it shows the cargo carrying capacity of the trailer with water tanks both full (1,372 lbs) and empty (2,302 lbs).

If the trailer doesn’t have the official CCC stated on a sticker, it’s usually possible to find the GVWR and UVW values on a spec sheet and simply subtract UVW from GVWR. This simple calculation of GVWR – UVW is the easiest way to compare the carrying capacity from one trailer to the next, so that is what we like to go by when we are making a direct comparison.

So how much should the Cargo Carrying Capacity be for a fifth wheel trailer that’s used as a full-time home? In our experience, the nearly 3,500 lbs. of CCC on our trailer is barely enough. Because we boondock all the time, we travel with our fresh water tank and hot water tank full and our gray and black tanks empty so we can stay a maximum length of time at our next destination.

Other folks may find they can get away with less, but to us, if you are shopping for a big trailer to live in full-time, a CCC of less than 3,000 lbs. is going to be insufficient in the long run. If you are shopping for a fifth wheel toy hauler, then you’ll need 3,500 lbs. for your stuff plus more for the weight of your toy(s).

Interestingly, the manufacturers often provide a lot more storage space in their fifth wheel trailers than the CCC of their trailer can reasonably support. Our cabinets and shelves aren’t even full, and we are still at the maximum limit for CCC in our trailer.

Redwood Fifth Wheel Cargo Carrying Capacity 1

A much simpler sticker on another trailer shows a Cargo Carrying Capacity of 1,876 lbs.
By implication this does not include any water weights because all liquids in the tanks are cargo.

So, just because a trailer you are looking at has voluminous shelving, a big pantry, and two huge closets, you won’t necessarily be able to fill all that space and still remain at or below the CCC of the trailer.

Another surprise is that smaller trailers frequently have larger carrying capacities. This can be seen in a single product line when a manufacturer uses the same frame for several models. The smallest and lightest model built on that frame will obviously have more carrying capacity than the largest and heaviest one.

We also saw it in dramatic fashion when we compared a tear drop trailer and a toy hauler on a dealership lot once (blog post here).

One caveat to keep in mind if you overload your trailer is that you risk being found liable if you are in an accident with a fatality and it is discovered your rig was over its weight limit. This is true both if the truck is too small for the trailer and/or if the trailer itself is loaded beyond its capacity.

FOUNDATION – FRAME, AXLES, TIRES. SUSPENSION and LANDING JACKS

Frame

The next thing we look at in a trailer is the frame and axles. Almost all trailers are assembled on frames built by Lippert Components. A few manufacturers build their own frames in-house.

Axles

Most fifth wheels are also built on Lippert axles. The highest end fifth wheels are built with axles made by Dexter. They advertise the fact and consider it to be a premium feature. In some cases Dexter axles are an option, and some buyers simply replace their axles after making their purchase.

Both of our Lippert axles have failed. The first time was in Nova Scotia. We could tell because our tires began wearing very strangely and very very fast. We limped to Maine to have the rear axle replaced with another Lippert axle.

New RV axle installed on fifth wheel trailer-min

We replaced one of our trailer axles in Bangor Maine.

Fortunately, our extended RV warranty saved the day financially, but the time lost and overall frustration of having a big failure on the road was not fun. (Blog post about that experience here).

The second time was when our front axle failed in Arizona, and again, the tell-tale sign was bizarre tire wear on the trailer tires. This time we decided to replace both axles with the Dexter brand. Unfortunately, our extended RV warranty did not bail us out on this occasion, but the $3,000 expense of having both axles replaced and correctly aligned with Dexter axles was well worth it, as our tires have been wearing very evenly ever since.

Suspension

In addition to axle failures, our fifth wheel trailer’s suspension failed upon our approach to Arizona from New Mexico. We had the entire suspension overhauled, and fortunately our extended trailer warranty covered the repair (blog post about that experience here). This experience made us realize just how important the suspension is on a trailer.

New fifth wheel trailer suspension installation-min

We replaced our failed fifth wheel suspension system in Arizona.

Most fifth wheel trailers come with a conventional leaf spring and gas shock suspension system. However, some fifth wheels come with an axle-less rubber suspension system from Mor/Ryde. Many people love and swear by the soft ride of this suspension. Over time, however the rubber does wear out and needs to be replaced (as do conventional shocks).

Tires

The weight rating on the tires is an important aspect of the overall GVWR rating of a trailer, and upgrading the tires is an easy way to boost the GVWR and increase the CCC. Of course, the legal rating for the trailer will always depend on how the trailer was built at the factory, but by upgrading the tires you can quickly give the trailer much needed support if you are approaching the limit.

Tire ratings vary on most fifth wheels between E-rated (10 ply) tires for lighter trailer to G-rated (14-ply) for the heavier ones. Some of the heaviest trailers have H-rated (16-ply) tires but those require wheels that can handle higher air pressure.

Check the tire ratings on a prospective full-time fifth wheel as well as the axle brand and axle weight ratings. If they are already big and beefy, you will save yourself needing to upgrade them later. On the other hand, if you love the trailer but those things are a little skimpy, budget in an upgrade when you contemplate the purchase price and its impact on your bank account.

We upgraded the E-rated (10-ply) tires that came on our trailer with G-rated (14-ply) tires. When we swapped axle brands, we stayed with the 7,000 lb. axle rating because we had upgraded our trailer’s electric hub brakes to electric over hydraulic disk brakes, and the bigger 8,000 lb. axles required different brakes.

Brakes

Most fifth wheel trailers come with electric drum brakes. The stopping power is so-so. More expensive brands of fifth wheels offer electric over hydraulic disk brakes as an option. You can also replace the electric drum brakes with electric over hydraulic disk brakes at a later date.

We upgraded our electric drum brakes with electric over hydraulic disk brakes, and what a massive difference in stopping power! The upgrade costs about $3,000 or so, but we felt it was worth every penny. Our blog post about that upgrade is here.

Fifth wheel electric over hydraulic disk brake conversion-min

We upgraded our standard electric trailer drum brakes to electric over hydraulic disc brakes in Texas

If you think you might upgrade the entire under carriage of your trailer — axles, brakes and tires — because you are at the outer limit of its CCC, you might consider going to the next size axle. We did our upgrades piece-meal as things broke or ore out, but if we’d done it all at once we might have gone with 8,000 lb. axles and corresponding brakes.

Landing Jacks

Conventional electric landing jacks on the front of the trailer are less expensive than hydraulic self-leveling jacks, and they are more commonly found on the more affordable brands of fifth wheel trailers. Hydraulic leveling jacks appear on higher end fifth wheels as standard features or as an option.

We have been happy with our electric landing jacks over the years, and even though we did have to replace them at one time, it was a relatively easy DIY job that Mark was able to do while boondocking in the desert!

Operating the electric landing jacks on a fifth wheel trailer-min

Without a hydraulic leveling system, on extremely unlevel ground we put blocks under the landing legs.

The disadvantage of electric landing jacks is that the side-to-side leveling of the trailer has to be done by sliding something under the wheels to prop up one side of the trailer, and sometimes we have to prop up the front end of the trailer too. We carry 5′ x 1′ x 1″ strips of a sliced up heavy duty rubber mat for this purpose. We used to carry 5′ long 1×8 pine boards. Lots of folks carry the plastic leveling platforms.

Hydraulic leveling jacks can do most or all of the leveling without the need for anything being placed under the tires. Just hit the button and watch the trailer level itself. In the most off-level situations it may still be necessary to prop up one side of the trailer with something under the wheels.

Leveling boards under a fifth wheel trailer-min

Usually all we need is one or two mats under our wheels. In rare cases we have to stack higher!

Another great benefit of hydraulic leveling jacks is that if you need to jack up one side of the trailer to work on the tires, wheels or suspension, you can use the hydraulic leveling jacks instead of a portable jack placed under an axle. It’s safer and easier.

The only disadvantage of hydraulic leveling jacks is simply that they are complex and might fail. Occasionally (though extremely rarely) the legs have been known to fall down while the trailer is being towed. Of course, technology improves with every year, so these kinds of problems are less and less common.

“FOUR SEASON” – INSULATION and R-FACTORS

Lots of trailers are billed as “Four Season,” but in reality, you can’t compare living in an elevated box with 2″ to 3.5″ walls with living in a house that stands on a foundation and whose thick walls are built with layers of drywall, Tyvek, plywood and siding.

That being said, “Four Season” coaches are generally better insulated than others. Just don’t expect to be totally warm and cozy and free of condensation when there’s a blizzard and temps stay below 0 F for a few days!

Fifth wheel trailer RV in snow blizzard-min

We have experienced several blizzards in our trailer,
but RVs are not really made to be “four season” the way that houses are.

RV Insulation

Some folks have toughed it out in an RV through real winters in the northern states, but the majority of full-time RVers spend their winters in mild climates where overnight temps in the teens are a rare and cold exception. We have tips for keeping a rig warm during the winter months and keeping it cool during the summer months in these blog posts:

Winter RVing tips – Staying Warm!

More Winter RVing tips – How to heat an RV in Winter Weather

Installing a vent-free propane heater in an RV

Summer RVing tips – How to Beat the Heat and Stay Cool When It’s HOT!

There are various ways to insulate an RV and there are pros and cons to the different types of insulation that RV manufacturers use.

Some higher end fifth wheels are built with conventional wooden studs and fiberglass insulation as this may provide greater insulation.

Wooden studs are less apt to conduct warm air to the outside than aluminum framing is. On a cold winter morning it is easy to see where the aluminum framing is on an RV if you go outside because you can see the outline of the aluminum framing on the trailer wall.

RV windows dripping with condensation in winter-min

Condensation forms inside our windows on a particularly moist and freezing winter day.

However, fiberglass insulation has been known to fall down off the studs over the years, leaving the tops of the walls uninsulated. Usually, the front and end cap and the areas between the roof trusses are all insulated with fiberglass insulation as well.

Most fifth wheels are insulated with styrofoam, and the styrofoam used varies in quality. The use of “blue board” polystyrene styrofoam made by Dow Chemical was one of the big selling points in the NuWa Hitchhiker brand of fifth wheels like ours (NuWa no longer builds trailers). We’ve also heard this product referred to as “Blue Dow” foam.

When we did a factory tour at NuWa before we bought our trailer, we were told that the folks there had tested the strength of the blue board by driving a truck over a piece that was suspended by its two sides, and it didn’t break. We were also each handed a piece and challenged to break it. We couldn’t.

Interestingly, it may be this very strong styrofoam in the walls that kept a Hitchhiker fifth wheel intact recently when it rolled over at 60 mph on the interstate (blog post about that here).

Besides providing strength to the fifth wheel frame, Dow blue board foam has a very high R-factor.

A few high end fifth wheels are built with this kind of insulation nowadays. Most, however, are built with a weaker and less insulating kind of styrofoam.

R-Factors

When looking at the insulation R-factors that are advertised by the RV manufacturers for the walls and roof of a fifth wheel, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that the number may be for the most heavily insulated part of the wall or roof. RV windows, doors and roof hatch vents have very low R-factors for insulation, and that is where most of the heat is lost.

How much heat is lost through RV windows? Just look at what percentage of a fifth wheel wall is actually windows!

Also, some fifth wheel slide-outs are built with thinner walls and less insulated roofs than the main body of the fifth wheel. Ours is. Again, what percentage of the fifth wheel’s walls and roof are part of the main structure and what percentage are slide-outs?

EXTERIOR WALL and ROOF MATERIAL and MAINTENANCE

Exterior Walls

Fifth wheel trailers are built with various materials as the exterior surface of the walls and roof. Lower end trailers have an exterior fiberglass finish of filon. This is what was on our first full-time travel trailer. It doesn’t shine and is a little harder to keep looking spiffy.

Waxing a fifth wheel trailer front cap-min

Maintenance, like washing and waxing the massive exterior of a big RV, is just part of the lifestyle.

The next level up is a fiberglass gelcoat exterior. This is shiny and can be maintained to a glossy finish by waxing the trailer twice a year. Unfortunately, the pretty swirly stickers that give fifth wheel trailers their colorful look will begin peeling off after about 4-5 years.

The highest level finish for a fifth wheel trailer is automotive paint. This is an extremely durable finish and the swirling paint patterns will never peel off. It is also very expensive (figure on about $10k) and is found only on the highest end fifth wheel trailers.

Roofs

Most fifth wheel roofs are “rubber” roofs. These usually come with a ten year warranty, and they are pretty much ready for replacement at the end of ten years! Fiberglass roofs are more durable. If you are going to install solar panels on the roof, you may need to be a little more careful with a fiberglass roof to be sure you don’t crack it when you drill into it.

Rubber roofs can be made of EPDM or TPO. As EPDM roofs begin to age, they start shedding a lot of dust, and every time it rains this creates streaks down the sides of the trailer. Cleaning the roof often helps reduce the streaking, but it’s very hard to eliminate the problem all together once the roof begins to deteriorate a few years into its lifespan. TPO roofs do not have this problem.

CAMPING STYLE

Other than these basic structural features, the rest of the decision is pure fun fluff stuff. The most important thing to ponder when you’re shopping for your new rolling home is how you anticipate living and traveling in it. What is your camping style? That is, how do you want to camp and where will you travel?

Roads are bigger and straighter in the western states than in the eastern states, so bigger rigs are easier to travel in out west.

Many privately owned RV parks accommodate “big rigs” across the whole country. However if you are more into “camping” in natural settings, the sizes of campsites in government run campgrounds vary a lot.

Boondocking in an RV-min

Some RVers love boondocking. Others don’t.
Knowing your own personal camping style helps a lot when it comes to buying a full-time rig.

States Park campsites are often quite large and frequently come with hookups, but they can be pricey too and there are rarely discounts for seniors or for long stays. Campsites in the National Parks and National Forests are often very small, often have no hookups, and may therefore be slightly cheaper, especially for holders of the Federal Lands Senior Pass.

Holding Tank Capacities

So, will you be dry camping a lot or will you get hookups most of the time? This makes a difference in what kinds of holding tank capacities you’ll need.

If you’ll be getting hookups most of the time, then there is no need for big holding tanks. However, if you’ll be dry camping a lot, then big holding tanks will mean you can stay put a little longer before you have to go to an RV dump station .

Our fresh water tanks and hot water heater are 70 gallons combined, our two gray water tanks are 78 gallons combined, and our black tank is 50 gallons. This has worked well for us dry camping every night for the better part of ten years.

We do carry 25 gallons of fresh water in the back of our truck in jerry jugs, but we don’t often need to use that water since we typically stay in places for less than two weeks before moving on, which is about how long our holding tanks last.

One nice feature if you are going to boondock a lot is to have an easy way to refill the fresh water tanks. We have a gravity fed fresh water intake that we can fill from a fresh water hose or from our jerry jugs.

Refilling RV fresh water tanks-min

We have a gravity based fresh water intake on the side of our trailer.
Unfortunately, it is rather high up (and it doesn’t need to be!).

The handy thing about this is that with our trailer the ratio of fresh water capacity to gray and black capacity means that we run out of fresh water before we fill up the gray or black water tanks. Being able to top off the fresh water lets us camp in one spot a little longer before we have to pack it up to go to an RV dump station.

“SOLAR READY” and SOLAR POWER

If you are going to be dry camping a lot, you may want to consider installing a solar power system, and there are a few things to keep in mind about that as you shop for a full-time fifth wheel.

We have a ton of info about solar power on this website. An index of links to our many articles is here:

Solar Power for RVs and Boats

Solar power doesn’t have to be a big, expensive and difficult thing to add to an RV (here’s an article summarizing several types of RV solar power systems).

A portable solar power suitcase that includes a pair of solar panels and a solar charge controller and cables to connect to the batteries all in one package is a nifty way to have solar power available without installing a permanent system on the roof and in the RV basement.

Simply set up the panels on the ground and connect them to the trailer batteries whenever you need to charge the batteries up. The “suitcase” feature makes it easy to stow the system when not in use.

However, most folks who live in their RV full-time and also boondock frequently prefer to install solar panels on the roof permanently and install a solar charge controller near the batteries and install a big pure sine wave inverter too.

Solar panels on a fifth wheel roof-min

Full-time RVers who dry camp a lot usually end up installing solar panels on the roof.

If this is in the back of your mind, you might get excited when you see a fifth wheel (or other RV) advertised as “solar ready.” Unfortunately, in many cases this is a very misleading term. A solar power system that will let you live without electric hookups for days on end will be at least 200 watts and more likely 500 watts or more. The cabling necessary to carry the currents these panels produce is generally 8 or 10 gauge wire.

If a rig is billed as “solar ready,” find out how many watts the prospective solar system could support and check out the size of the cable that goes to the roof. “Solar ready” may simply mean that a skinny cable has been run from the batteries to the roof to support a 50 watt panel. This is great if the batteries are fully charged and you are leaving the rig in storage outdoors for a few months. However, it is not sufficient to live on comfortably.

Also, if you plan to install a full-timer solar power system, check the battery compartment. How many batteries are there? What size are they (Group 24? Group 27?)? How many batteries can you add in the compartment?

Fifth wheel battery compartment-min

We had the battery compartment customized to support four golf-cart sized batteries.

A good sized battery bank for boondocking for long periods is four 6-volt golf cart sized batteries (Group GC2). If the battery box in the fifth wheel you are looking at can’t hold that many batteries, think about where else you might put them and whether there is ample support (they are heavy) and venting (wet cell batteries need to be vented).

Of course, a basement compartment can be beefed up with a piece of angle iron welded onto the frame and/or vents and conduit going to the battery boxes.

We have a series of articles explaining how RV batteries work, how to charge them, different battery types on the market and more at this link:

RV Battery Charging Systems

ACCESS TO SYSTEMS THAT MIGHT NEED REPAIR

While you are crawling around the basements of prospective new rolling homes, try to find all the major components that might fail and might need to be replaced.

If you are a DIY RVer, this is critically important. However, even if you are going to hire out the repair jobs to various RV shops around the country, their jobs will be much easier and cheaper if the systems are easy to access.

Easy access water pump under sink of fifth wheel trailer RV-min

It isn’t “pretty” but it sure is nice to have easy access when it’s time to replace the water pump!
Mark replaced it so fast he’d finished the job before I got pics of his work!

For instance, see if you can find the water pump, hot water heater, power converter, inverter (if there is one), etc.

We once met a fellow with a beautiful brand new travel trailer, and Mark spent an hour with the guy trying to find the power converter. It was hidden behind a fixed wall somewhere and they never did find it!

CREATURE COMFORTS and LIVABILITY

When you give up the luxuries of hearth and home in a stick-built house to wander around the country in an RV, you want to be comfortable. Even though you may be just fine with “roughing it” when you go camping on week-long vacations, it is different when you don’t have a “real” home to go home to.

For us, the move up from our vacation-purposed popup tent trailer to our full-time 27′ travel trailer was such a big step that the travel trailer looked truly luxurious. It had a sofa, dinette and bed in the living area, all of which were good places for relaxing. It seemed just dandy. However, after spending many long hours in it during our first winter, we realized that we wished we had true recliners to relax in. That simple desire is what spurred us to hunt for (and find) our fifth wheel trailer!

Beds

If you have been sleeping in a king size bed at home, switching to a queen bed on the road may be a big challenge. It was for us! It’s a shock to find out the love of your life has so many arms and legs!

Beds in RVs are often slightly smaller in one dimension or another than their residential counterparts, and those lost inches do count. For your reference, here are the standard residential bed sizes, width by length, in inches:

Queen: 60″ x 80″
King: 76″ x 80″

Here are some of the sizes that we’ve seen in fifth wheel trailers, width by length:

Queen: 60″ x 74.5″ (shorter than residential)
King: 70″ x 80″ or 72″ x 80″ (narrower than residential)

We have never seen a full width king size bed in a fifth wheel trailer except in a custom design. This is something to keep in mind if you think you might upgrade your trailer’s factory installed king mattress sometime down the road. Will the new residential king mattress, which is wider than the old mattress that came with the rig, fit on the platform without being squished?

Floorplan and Functionality with Slide-outs Closed

One of the things that we tend to think about when we stand in a beautiful, spacious fifth wheel trailer on a dealership lot is how functional the rig will be when all the slide-outs are closed. Some folks never go in their trailers without opening the slide-outs, but we do it all the time at rest stops and at the grocery store.

Ask the salesman to close the slide-outs on your prospective new full-time fifth wheel and find out which things in the kitchen, living room and bedroom you can no longer access.

NuWa Hitchhiker II LS 34.5 RLTG Fifth Wheel Trailer Flooplan-min

The open floorplan of our ’07 NuWa Hitchhiker II LS 34.5 RLTG Fifth Wheel trailer.

Can you get into the fridge for a beer? Can you access the pantry for goodies to make a sandwich? Can you microwave something or boil water in a teapot on the stove? Can you wash the dishes after lunch? Can you use the bathroom? Can you get into the bed? Can you sit on a chair in the living room or at your dinette?

These may sound like goofy questions, but when you live in an RV full-time it is surprising how often you may want to use the rig without having to open the slide-outs.

If you roll a shopping cart loaded with groceries up to your front door at the supermarket, can you put them all away without opening the slide-outs? If you visit a friend and park your rig in front of their house for a few days, can you access your clothes and bed so you don’t have to stay in their spare bedroom?

Fresh bread baked in an RV oven-min

We can bake bread when the slides are closed.
Not crucial, but it’s nice to have access to the entire kitchen.

We are fortunate with our fifth wheel’s floorplan because we can access almost everything without opening any of the slide-outs. The only things we can’t get to are the two recliners in the back of the rig and our dresser drawers (opening the bedroom slide 6 inches is enough to get into those drawers). We have actually lived in our trailer with the slide-outs closed for several weeks at a time. It’s skinny, but it’s doable.

Unfortunately, the super popular island kitchen floorplan designs generally don’t allow for full use of the kitchen when the slide-outs are closed. However, there are loads of open floorplan designs that were popular a decade ago, like ours, that the RV designers may eventually revive. After all, there are only so many possible floorplans for a fifth wheel trailer!

Residential Refrigerator vs. RV Fridge

RV refrigerators that run on both 120 volt AC power and propane gas are being replaced in many fifth wheel trailers with residential refrigerators that run exclusively on 120 volt AC power. With some fifth wheel brands you can order the rig with either type of refrigerator. In other cases you can only order it one way and you would need to do the replacement yourself after you’ve bought the rig.

RV refrigerators are wonderful because you can dry camp in your RV for months or years on end and have refrigerated food the whole time. All you need to do is keep the propane tanks filled. Our 8 cubic foot RV refrigerator uses about 30 lbs (or 7 gallons) of propane every three weeks.

RV refrigerators have a few negatives, however.

One downside to RV refrigerators is that they are not self-defrosting. You need to defrost them. After decades of living with a frost-free refrigerator, it is a shock to go back to the olden days (if you were around then) of having to defrost the RV fridge every month or so.

However, my amazing hubby Mark has perfected the art of defrosting and he can now pull it off in about 20 minutes. So, it’s not that bad a chore if you stay on top of it (and if you have a wonderful partner who is willing to do it for you!). See the blog post about quickie fridge defrosting here.

Defrosting an RV refrigerator-min

Mark has simplified the refrigerator defrosting process so much it takes him only 20 minutes. Lucky me!

Another disadvantage is that they don’t modulate the temperature in the fridge with much precision and they aren’t particularly well insulated or energy efficient. We keep a small thermometer in the fridge so we have a feeling for what’s going on. The temp inside varies greatly depending on whether the wall behind the fridge is in the sun or shade and whether the temp inside our rig is 40 degrees, as it is on some winter mornings, or 90 degrees as it is on some summer afternoons.

Our fridge is usually on level 4 or 5 (the coldest two settings) because we like our beer to be ice cold. However I do sometimes find my yogurt has frozen a bit on the edges.

RV refrigerators also have a shelf life. It is about 8 years!

We found that out the hard way when our RV refrigerator died and we had to get it replaced. Luckily the replacement was straight forward and was covered by our extended RV warranty (blog post about it here).

New RV refrigerator is fork lifter through the trailer window-min

Our new RV refrigerator is slid through our dining room window on a fork lift.

The biggest surprise when we got our RV fridge replaced was we found out the warranty companies expect those fridges to last only 8 years. Of course, they figure that into the cost of the warranty, as they should. So, even though we were shocked that ours died, our warranty company wasn’t surprised at all.

Perhaps the most damning thing about RV refrigerators is that they run on propane and they have been known to catch fire and torch entire RVs. A burning RV burns to the ground in seconds because of the propane tanks and manufacturing materials. There was a rash of RV refrigerator first about a decade or so ago which is part of what pushed the industry towards building RVs with residential electric refrigerators instead.

However, RV life isn’t totally rosy with residential refrigerators either, especially if you want to boondock or dry camp for extended periods of time.

While a residential refrigerator may be a highly efficient Energy Star appliance, it may not have a solid locking mechanism to keep the doors closed in transit or rails to keep the food on the shelves while in transit (check on that). And it will require a lot of power to run while the rig is not plugged into a power pedestal.

A 12 to 14 cubic foot residential refrigerator requires a little over 300 kwh per year to run. This is about 0.8 kwh per day, or, very roughly, about 80 amp-hours per day.

In the winter months when the sun rides low in the sky and is up for a short period of time, an RV will need about 400 to 500 watts of solar panels and 450 amp-hours of batteries just to run the refrigerator. This is about what it takes to run everything else in the RV! An 18 to 22 cubic foot refrigerator will require even more.

This is not to say that it is impossible to install a big enough solar power system to run a residential refrigerator — we’ve had readers contact us to say that they have done it and they’re loving it! — but the expense and weight of the batteries and of the solar panels is something to consider before signing on the dotted line for that beautiful new fifth wheel trailer with its residential fridge.

Also, even if boondocking is not your style, be sure that the battery bank and the inverter that support the residential refrigerator when not hooked up to electrical power are sufficiently big enough to keep the fridge running as you drive. We have heard of 1,500 watt inverters just not making the grade with a big residential fridge (2,000 watts was needed). Or, just turn the fridge off and keep it closed until you get where you are going. Of course, residential refrigerators are not designed to be turned on and off frequently.

Lastly, the fabulous thing about a big, shiny, 22 cubic foot stainless steel residential refrigerator is that it can hold a ton of food. There will be no more turf wars between the beer and the veggies (gosh, would we ever love that!).

However, all that food weighs a lot, and big fridges often become storage places for old containers of food you’ll never eat. If you are buying a full-time fifth wheel that is skinny on its Cargo Carrying Capacity, then a huge refrigerator that can hold lots of food may push you into possession wars between food, tools and clothes in the closet.

On the bright side, a residential refrigerator is much less prone to failure than an RV fridge, and in the rare event that you have to replace one, it could easily cost thousands less than an RV fridge.

I Like the Fifth Wheel But I Don’t Really Like That Couch!

While it’s ideal to find a rig that has furniture you totally love, a fifth wheel trailer is just a box — floor, walls and ceiling — and any residential furniture can be put in that box. We have replaced both our dinette chairs and our recliners in the course of living in our fifth wheel all these years, and last week we replaced the couch!

Storage benches in RV dinette add comfort and storage space-min

The old chairs were elegant, but these cushy benches are much more comfortable.
Plus they give us more storage space!

Here are blog posts about some of the changes we’ve made to our furnishings:

Add Storage and Seating Capacity at your RV Dinette!

Can You Sell Old Stuff on Craigslist in the RV Lifestyle? Replacing our Recliners!

We also replaced our mattress with a fancy Simmons Beautyrest mattress.

RV DEPRECIATION

After all this discussion of what to look for in a fifth wheel trailer for full-time living, it is important to remember that the brand new fifth wheel you buy today will be worth about half of what you paid for it ten years from now. If it is well maintained it might be worth a smidge more. If it isn’t, it may be worth less.

What’s worse, the fact that it was lived in full-time rather than kept in a garage and never touched will turn many prospective buyers away or make them hit you up with a low offer.

RV Depreciation over time

Hmmm…. An RV’s value declines with time.

On the flip side, going RVing full-time is a dream, and it’s hard and maybe even unfair to put a price on your dreams.

If you have the funds and you can spend a lot on a rapidly depreciating fifth wheel trailer without crippling your finances later in life, definitely go for it.

What could be better than casting off on a dreamy new lifestyle in a dreamy new RV?

No matter what you buy, negotiate hard. You are in the driver’s seat — until you are in the driver’s seat! Many mass-market manufacturers anticipate selling for about 70% of MSRP. Others are closer to 80%.

If you go custom, well, you’re be paying for the very finest of the finest. So, the focus will be on getting exactly what you want rather than haggling over the price. With a custom rig you get what you ask for… so be knowledgeable and smart about what you ask for!

If you aren’t sure of you future finances, and you aren’t sure if you’ll like the full-time RV lifestyle, and/or you aren’t sure if you’d prefer a fifth wheel or a Class A motorhome as your house on wheels, consider getting a cheaper model or a used trailer to start.

We understand this dilemma well. We would LOVE to have a new trailer now. After all, ours is ten years old and shows a lot of wear. But…

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO TRAVEL?

The rig you live in is just part of the equation of putting together that champagne lifestyle of full-time RV travel. The real reason most folks run away in an RV is because they want to get out and see something of this continent, get to know the different regions of our country and of our neighbors’ countries, and knock a few travel destinations off their bucket list.

Appalachian Mountains RV Trip Coast to Coast Magazine Summer 2017-min

Our cover photo for our Coast to Coast magazine article about the Appalachian Mountains
Summer 2017 issue

The options of places to visit are limitless, and we’ve got 10 years worth of travel tales on this website that tell the stories of what we’ve seen and where we’ve been since 2007.

I’ve also written a lot of articles for Trailer Life Magazine showcasing different parts of the country that make for an enjoyable RV destination.

Georgia On Their Minds Trailer Life Magazine September 2017-min

The Antebellum Trail in Georgia is a terrific RV route for folks heading north/south through Georgia.
Trailer Life Magazine – September 2017. Article by Emily & Mark Fagan

A few of these feature articles have turned up in Trailer Life over the past few months and can be read at these links: Georgia on Their Minds, The Quaint Side of Canada, and Downeast Maine. Images of the first two pages of each article are below.

I also have a bi-monthly column on the back page of Trailer Life that showcases a beautiful photo of a gorgeous spot along with a few words about what makes that place special. My most recent columns have focused on: The Rocky Mountain Beach Town of McCall Idaho and a Forest on Fire – Fall Colors in Colorado.

Trailer Life Magazine is a monthly national magazine and it offers not only mouth-watering photos and stories of places to take your trailer, but it also devotes a lot of pages to technical issues that trailer owners face.

Nova Scotia RV Trip Trailer Life Magazine July 2017-min

Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island is tops on many RVers’ lists
Trailer Life Magazine – July 2017, Article by Emily & Mark Fagan

The technical editorial staff at Trailer Life is both very knowledgeable and very meticulous about ensuring what they discuss and review is accurate.

I have written a lot of technical articles for Trailer Life, from discussing RV roof maintenance to RV dump station tips to an article about the 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck and one about the new puck based OEM fifth wheel hitch from B&W Trailer Hitches.

Downeast Maine RV Trip Trailer Life Magazine June 2017-min

Downeast Maine is a hidden jewel north and east of famous Acadia National Park
Trailer Life Magazine – June 2017, Article by Emily & Mark Fagan

I have always been amazed at the extensive review process and discussion process that each of these technical article has undergone. Every little minute detail is reviewed for accuracy, sometimes spawning some lively debates.

There are a gazillion RV blogs out there that make for super fun reading and research and learning, but there is something to be said for a magazine that has been in print for over 75 years. Some people on the team have been with the magazine nearly half that time!

Trailer Life is hard to find on newsstands these days. New Camping World members receive a few issues as part of their membership (or they can get Motorhome Magazine if driveable RVs are more to their liking). If you get an annual subscription at the link below, you’ll see the article I’m working on about “first-timer” fifth wheels when it comes out!

Subscribe to Trailer Life Magazine

Have you been shopping for a full-timing fifth wheel? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Boondocking in an RV-min

There are loads of fifth wheels on the market that would make a fine full-time home. Enjoy the search!

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Trailer Suspension Nuts & Bolts – RV Blues on Rough Roads!

Lots of full-time RVers with big rigs are very sensible and stick to traveling on paved roads. But we like to get off the beaten path, and sometimes that puts us on crazy, rough and rugged dirt roads.

On our recent trip to Bisti Badlands in northwestern New Mexico, a 45 minute drive down three miles of extremely washboarded, nasty dirt road wreaked havoc with our trailer’s suspension.

Equalizer bolt walks out of fifth wheel suspension

Hmmm…. That center bolt on the equalizer doesn’t look right!

As we were hitching up to leave, Mark did his usual walk around our trailer to make sure nothing was about to fall off and that everything was secure. To his shock, he noticed that the long bolt that goes through the equalizer on our trailer’s leaf spring suspension system had walked almost all the way out!

Fifth wheel suspension Equalizer bolt unscrews itself on rough road

Yikes!

Holy Smokes! Our 14,000 lb. 36′ fifth wheel trailer was about to lose the bolt holding this vital piece of gear together!

We were miles from nowhere, and I immediately began scenario building in my head to plan various ways we might get out of this mess.

While I theorized, Mark calmly set about getting out his tools and tackling the problem right there in the dirt. His first task was to raise the trailer up so he could get the bolt properly aligned horizontally and tap it back into place with a hammer.

So, out came the 12 ton bottle jack.

Raise fifth wheel trailer with bottle jack for suspension repair

First things first:
Raise the wheels totally off the ground with our 12 ton bottle jack.

He needed to raise the trailer up quite high to relieve all the pressure on that bolt, so he took a piece of wood we sometimes use under the fifth wheel landing legs and put it under the bottle jack to raise it higher. Then he took a second block of wood and put it on top of the bottle jack to span the c-channel tube that runs the width of the trailer.

Pumping away on the bottle jack, he finally got the wheels entirely off the ground and began tapping the bolt through the two sides of the hanger with a small hammer.

Hammer fifth wheel equalizer bolt pack in place in suspension repair

With the pressure off, Mark taps the bolt back into place.

It took a little finagling to get the bolt to line up and go through the second hole on the back side of the hanger.

Fifth wheel equalizer bolt holds suspension together

At first, the bolt didn’t want to go through the second hole on the axle hanger.

But he was able to get it aligned and he got it to go through.

Equalizer bolt in position for fifth wheel suspension hanger assembly

All the way through. Yay!

The bigger problem, though, was figuring out what had happened to the nut that had been holding this bolt in place. It was nowhere to be found and undoubtedly was somewhere out on that nasty 3 mile dirt road.

So, now what?

Mark is a really amazing mechanic, and he keeps a magic container of potential spare parts in his Man Cave in the basement of our trailer. This magical container is a lot like the carpet bag that Mary Poppins carried.

Remember how Mary Poppins pulled all kinds of surprising things out of that bag, to the sheer delight and amazement of Jane and Michael Banks? Among other things, she pulled out a hat rack, a potted plant and a full-size standing lamp while Michael searched under the table to try to figure how she did it.

Well, that’s just the way Mark’s magic box of spare parts tricks works. When he needs a special little gizmo to make things right again, he fishes around in the box and finds just the thing while I scratch my head wondering how such a little container could always produce exactly what he needs.

A few months back we’d replaced the tires on our fifth wheel trailer and decided to replace the original lug nuts with locking lug nuts. A few of the original lug nuts also had cosmetic cracks on them which didn’t look attractive, so the new locking lug nuts were much nicer all around. Mark had decided to put a few of the old lug nuts in his magic box of tricks.

5th wheel trailer wheel lug nuts

A few months back we had replaced all the lug nuts on our trailer wheels.

So, as he fished around for an appropriately sized nut, lo and behold, it turned out those lug nuts were the exact diameter he needed!

Fifth wheel trailer lug nut_

This old lug nut is exactly the right diameter for our wayward bolt!

The thread pitch on the lug nut was not quite right, but the threads on the bolt had been damaged anyway as it walked itself out of the hanger.

While I held the bolt in place with a wrench on one side, Mark ratcheted the lug nut on the other side. He was able to jam the nut on the bolt and re-groove the bolt’s threads enough to make a super tight connection.

In no time we were back up and running and towing our fifth wheel trailer back down that crazy 3 mile road to the paved highway to go see other new and exciting destinations.

As I mentioned in my post about Bisti Badlands, it’s okay for a passenger car or van, but I would leave a bigger RV in Farmington and drive the tow vehicle or toad to Bisti instead!

Ratcheting 5th wheel equalizer suspension bolt in place

With some force, we secure the lug nut on the bolt. What a terrific temporary fix!

Who would’ve ever thunk that a rough road could loosen the nut on a big fifth wheel trailer’s suspension and walk the bolt that holds the equalizer in position almost all the way out?!

And who would’ve ever thunk that a lug nut from the trailer’s wheels would give us such a great temporary fix to get us back on the road?!

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Royal Flush! – A Surprise RV Toilet Replacement…Under Warranty :-)

Our fifth wheel trailer is 10 years old now, and we’ve been living in it full-time for most of those years. Our RV toilet has been with us every step of the way, although over the last few years it has struggled to hold water in the bowl.

Last week, out of the blue, Mark put his foot on the pedal to flush the toilet, heard a loud snap, and then the toilet flapper valve refused to budge. It was completely broken and unable to open and flush properly. Ugh!!

Luckily, the toilet bowl couldn’t hold water any more either, so it was kinda able to flush, just in a dribbling sort of way!

RV Toilet Replacement under an Extended RV Warranty

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So, our delightful plans to go play in the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado were dashed, and we drove off over the horizon in pursuit of a replacement RV toilet.

Broken RV toilet can't hold water in the toilet bowl

The toilet flushing mechanism broke, and pressing the pedal no longer opened
the flush valve in the toilet bowl. Fluids dribbled out quickly anyway… Not good!

After some calling around, we found a shop that had our exact Thetford toilet in stock, and when we arrived, there it was on the display rack!

New RV toilet at the RV repair shop

What luck! There is an identical toilet on the display rack.

We have an RV Extended Warranty with Wholesale Warranties that has been a huge help in dealing with the many surprise financial blows we’ve faced as our trailer has aged and various components have quit working.

We first got our warranty in October of 2014, and by Christmas of the following year it had paid for itself several times over as we faced one major repair after another, all in a row.

Unlike vehicle insurance, which protects vehicle owners against accidents, an extended RV warranty protects against failures of the systems in the RV that aren’t caused by a mishap.

Installing new RV toilet in tiny RV toilet room in fifth wheel trailer

There wasn’t a whole lot of space to work in our little toilet room!

We learned from our last RV toilet repair job that replacing broken parts in an RV toilet is often more expensive than simply swapping out the toilet all together.

So we weren’t surprised when the service manager said he wanted to replace our toilet rather than troubleshooting the problem and disassembling and reassembling the toilet to replace the broken part. He called our RV warranty company and explained that the toilet couldn’t flush and that the flushing mechanism was broken.

The warranty company agreed to cover the toilet replacement in full.

To get started, the RV technician removed the shield around the base of the toilet and then unscrewed the two large bolts that hold the RV toilet to the floor.

Remove RV toilet base shield in fifth wheel trailer

The first step to removing the toilet is to remove the shield from around the base.

Two bolts hold an RV toilet to the floor of a fifth wheel trailer

Two bolts — one on either side of the base — hold the RV toilet to the floor.

Then he detached the fresh water line from the toilet and pulled the toilet off of the hole in the floor that goes to the black tank underneath.

Old RV toilet removed from hole to black sewage wastewater tank

The toilet is removed from its position over the sewer drain hole that goes to the black wastewater holding tank.

Next, he detached the hose clamps holding the rinse spray wand’s flexible hose onto the toilet

Removing broken RV toilet before installing new RV toilet

The hose clamp for the fresh water rinse sprayer is removed.

After pulling out the toilet, all that was left in the little toilet room was the hole in the floor that goes to the black wastewater holding tank, the blue fresh water line that fills the bowl and flushes the toilet, and the fresh water spray wand with its flexible hose (this was an option on our old toilet and didn’t come with the new toilet, so we kept the old spray wand).

Empty RV toilet room in 5th wheel trailer

After the toilet is removed, all that remains is the black water sewer hole, the blue fresh water flush pipe and the flexible fresh water sprayer hose.

Then it was out with the old — and in with the new!

Removing broken RV toilet from fifth wheel trailer

Out with the old toilet…

Installing new RV toilet in a fifth wheel trailer

…In with the new toilet!

To install the new RV toilet, the process was repeated in reverse. First the toilet was positioned over the black tank hole, then the fresh water line and the fresh water spray wand were reattached, and finally the RV toilet was bolted to the floor.

Since the spray wand is an option, the toilet ships with the barbed hose fitting it slides onto sealed shut. So, before sliding the hose onto the barbed hose fitting, the end of the fitting had to be clipped off.

Back of new Thetford RV toilet with optional spray wand

In order to attach the rinse sprayer, the hose connection must be clipped to open it up.

Optional sprayer nozzle on RV toilet installation

Sprayer and fresh water flush lines attached.

And then the installation was finished and our sparkling new RV toilet was all ready for its first Royal Flush!

The whole procedure took an hour from start to finish. When we settled up with the service manager, the final bill was the following:

FINAL BILL FOR REPLACING OUR RV TOILET:

Parts – New RV toilet (porcelain bowl) $297.59
Labor – One hour $105.00
Tax $11.61
Total Cost $414.20

RV EXTENDED WARRANTY PAYMENT BREAKDOWN:

Warranty Coverage (amount we saved) $314.20
Out of Pocket Cost (our deductible) $100.00
Total Payment $414.20
New RV toilet installation in fifth wheel trailer

A nice sparkling brand new toilet. Yay!

This brings our total repairs and savings with our Trailer Extended Warranty to the following:

Here's a summary of what our four year RV warranty through Wholesale Warranties cost, what our repairs WOULD HAVE cost, and what our warranty reimbursements have been to date:

Cost of Warranty $1,904
Total Cost of Repairs we've had done $7,834
Total Out of Pocket Costs for those repairs $1,145
Repair Reimbursements:
Trailer Axle Replacement $1,036
RV Refrigerator Replacement $1,647
Plumbing Issues & Window Leak $1,142
Suspension Replacement $2,550
RV Toilet Replacement $314
Total Repair Reimbursements $6,689

Our trailer warranty has paid for itself 3.5 times over, and there's still lots of time left on the contract!

If you are curious what an extended RV warranty would cost for your rig, Wholesale Warranties is offering a $50 discount to our readers. Call our contact, Missi Junior at (800) 939-2806 or email her at missi@wholesalewarranties.com and mention that you heard about them from our website, Roads Less Traveled. Or go to this link:

Wholesale Warranties Quote Form

The $50 discount comes off of the quoted price at the time of purchase — just be sure to ask!

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The Full Case History of our RV Extended Warranty:

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Pocket Flashlight Review – Lumintop EDC25 & Lumintop SD26 Flashlights

In our mobile lifestyle in our RV we often find ourselves in the dark. I’ve written in the past about how Mark is a flashlight junkie, and I’m so glad he is, because no matter where we go or what we do he always has one in his pocket!

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight review Lumintop SD26 flashlight review 1000 lumen pocket flashlights

Two nifty pocket flashlights that are lighting up the dark for us!

A few months ago I reviewed the truly incredible Lumintop SD75 4,000 lumen flashlight, which is the brightest flashlight either of us has ever seen, by a long shot. It is truly like carrying around a car headlight.

When we started planning our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Mark decided to upgrade his pocket flashlight to the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight to take with him on the trip. I secretly wondered where he thought we would be going in the dark once we got to Thailand, but he felt this flashlight was a very important piece of gear that he just had to take with him.

Sure enough, we visited quite a few caves in Thailand, we snuck into the darkest corners of many jaw-dropping ancient Khmer ruins in Angkor, Cambodia, and we took several nighttime boating excursions on Cheow Lan Lake.

Oh my. He was a man in love…with his flashlight! Sigh.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and Lumintop SD26 flashlight with shipping containers

The big Lumintop SD75 searchlight with its suitcase and the two Lumintop pocket flashlights: SD26 (left) and EDC25 (right).

When we returned home, he absolutely had to replace yet another of his small pocket flashlights with the Lumintop SD26 flashlight, another 1,000 lumen total “must have” for a true flashlight junkie!

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and Lumintop SD26 flashlight with belt holsters

Lumintop SD26 (left) and Lumintop EDC25 (right): 1000 lumen pocket flashlights with belt holsters.

I wondered why a man would ever need TWO pocket flashlights, but of course he has had a flashlight in almost every drawer and cabinet and pocket since I’ve known him, so I’ve learned not to ask. But when the Amazon boxes arrived, I couldn’t help myself from asking him a little bit more.

What makes these flashlights so special?

First, they are extremely bright for their size. Both the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and the Lumintop SD26 flashlight use the latest Cree LED technology, and the beam they cast is astonishing.

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight, with its Cree XPL-V5 LED technology, has a narrower beam than the Lumintop SD26 flashlight, which has Cree XP-L HD LED technology, and that is why Mark just had to have BOTH flashlights. Each has its purpose.

He uses the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight to peer into dark corners around the rig. From searching for that small bag of almonds he knows is at the back of the snack cabinet, to crawling under the trailer and looking at the backside of our trailer’s leaf springs where a locking nut recently decided to unscrew itself, to searching the back of the Man Cave (our fifth wheel basement) for his plumber’s wrench or PVC cutters, which he rarely needs so they’re stashed in the depths somewhere, this little narrow-beam flashlight is ideal.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has a slightly wider beam and is best for short trips in the dark around the rig where he doesn’t want to carry the whopping Lumintop SD75 flashlight” . He keeps it in a cupboard near the door to shine outside when he hears a strange noise, and it’s the one he grabs for quickie nighttime jaunts in the dark where he doesn’t need to light up the whole world.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumen

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (left) and Lumintop SD26 flashlight (right)

We took both of these pocket flashlights and the big Lumintop SD75 searchlight out with us on our nighttime hike in New Mexico’s Bisti De-Na-Zin Wilderness recently so we could see the difference in the light cast by each one.

Setting ourselves up near a short cliff, we shined each flashlight directly at the cliff at max power.

The characteristics of each flashlight were very clear to see:

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam_

Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (1000 lumens).

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam_

Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 flashlight (1000 lumens).

Lumintop SD75 flashlight 4,000 lumen beam_

The “car headlight” effect of the Lumintop SD75 searchlight (4000 lumens).

Changing our angle slightly, we repeated the test with the flashlights shining at the cliff from off to the right. The same characteristics of each flashlight were very clear to see.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight beam 1,000 lumens

Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight beam 1,000 lumens

Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight beam 4,000 lumens

Huge light from the Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen searchlight.

 

LUMINTOP EDC25 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight — the smaller one with the narrower beam — is a true pocket flashlight, complete with a spring clip to clip onto a shirt pocket or the back pocket of a pair of pants.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam in shirt pocket

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has a spring clip for pockets.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam in jeans pocket

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The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight comes with a belt holster which is a more secure alternative if going on a longer hike with it.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight in a belt holster

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight also has a belt holster.

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (the battery is supplied with the flashlight). Simply unscrew the back end of the flashlight and slip the battery into it.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight and 3400 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

To charge the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight, just unscrew it in the middle.

Unscrew the Lumintop EDC25 to access the charging port

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The battery is charged by connecting to a laptop or other USB connector. The flashlight’s charging port for the cable is located in the threads of the male half (the back half) of the flashlight.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight charging port

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight charging port is located in the threads of the back half of the flashlight.

Plug the charging cable into the flashlight.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight unscrews for charging

Ready for charging.

Then plug the USB end of the charging cable into the laptop. Initially, the flashlight will light up green.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight turns green when charging

Initially, the charging light turns green, but the battery is not charging yet.

In order to initiate the charging process, press the on/off button on the back end of the flashlight.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight back end button to start charging

Press the button on the end of the flashlight to initiate battery charging.

Then the flashlight will light up red to indicate that it is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the flashlight will turn green again.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight turns red when it is charging

The battery is charging while the light is red.
Once it turns green again, the battery is fully charged.

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has six modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly.

 

LUMINTOP SD26 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is also 1000 lumens but it is a little thicker and slightly shorter and casts a wider beam.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumen beam in hand

Lumintop SD26 flashlight, 1000 lumens.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight doesn’t have a spring clip on it but it comes with a belt holster to make it easy to take on hikes.

Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight in a belt holster

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not have a spring clip but it does have a belt holster for easy carrying.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (supplied with the flashlight). This slightly beefier battery allows the Lumintop SD26 flashlight to run for slightly longer than that The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight before needing to be recharged.

Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight and 5000 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is also charged with a USB cable. The charging port is hidden beneath a rubber cover.

Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight charging port

The charging port is located under a rubber cover.

Simply plug the charging cable into the charging port on the flashlight.

And then plug the USB connector into your laptop.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumens before charging

The battery charging process begins as soon as the flashlight is plugged into the laptop (or other) USB port.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight battery will begin charging immediately, and you’ll see a green light flashing on and off to indicate that the battery is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the light will stop flashing and will stay green.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumens charging from laptop

The battery is charging as long as the light flashes green.
Once it stays lit solid green, the battery is fully charged.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has seven modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly. In addition, it has an SOS mode where it flashes Morse code for the letters “SOS.”

 

POCKET FLASHLIGHT SUMMARY

Both the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and the Lumintop SD26 flashlight are 1,000 lumen pocket flashlights that are o-ring sealed and water resistent and built with aerospace grade aluminum construction.

The thinner Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is 137 mm long, has a spring clip and bulges a little less in a back pocket, but its 3,400 mAh battery doesn’t last as long. It’s beam is narrower and more focused.

The thicker (and slightly shorter at 123 mm long) Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not need to be unscrewed into two pieces in order to be charged and has a longer lasting battery. It’s beam is slightly broader. It also has a cool “SOS” Morse code mode just in case you need to flash a call for help!

If you are a flashlight junkie like Mark — and I was really surprised after writing our Lumintop SD75 review that there are so many like-minded flashlight junkies out there! — then one of these two pocket flashlights might be something to consider for your life in the dark around your RV.

You can buy the flashlights at these links:

Our review of the Lumintop SD75 flashlight is at this link.

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RV Plumbing Tips – Cleaning RV Faucets, Sink Drains & Shower Wands

The effects of hard water on RV sinks, faucets and drains can be an ongoing problem for RVers. This page describes a few tips for how we remove these pesky mineral deposit buildups from our bathroom and kitchen sinks in our fifth wheel trailer and keep the water flowing smoothly in our shower wand and RV toilet rinse sprayer.

RV plumbing tips for cleaning RV faucets and drains and removing mineral deposits

RV plumbing tips for removing mineral deposits and cleaning RV faucets and drains.

We like the water to flow freely in our RV vanity sink faucet, kitchen sink faucet and in the shower and RV toilet sprayer wands, however, periodically these faucets begin to spray water in weird directions because their inner workings have gotten clogged up by mineral deposits from the hard water.

In our bathroom vanity, our first step is to remove and clean the screen filter in the faucet. Sometimes the faucet tip can be unscrewed by hand, but if we’ve let it go too long, we have to use a pair of pliers to break the faucet tip free due to corrosion that makes it impossible to unscrew.

Remove RV faucet screen with pliers

Remove the RV faucet screen (with pliers if it’s stuck!)

Then we unscrew the entire screen assembly from the faucet.

Disassemble RV faucet

The faucet tip unscrews from the faucet.

Dirty RV faucet screen

Ugh… the screen is pretty dirty. No wonder the water comes out funny!

This time the screen was very corroded. We remove the corrosion and mineral buildup by putting all the pieces in a bath of white vinegar for 20-30 minutes or so.

Prior to putting the pieces in the white vinegar bath, it is a good idea to make note of the order that these parts go into the faucet assembly!

Soak RV faucet parts in white vinegar

After noting how the pieces go together, soak them in white vinegar.

After the bath, the bits of corrosion can be seen in the white vinegar!

RV faucet parts get cleaned with white vinegar

Here are all the pieces. You can see the dirt that came off in the vinegar bath!

Using an old toothbrush, we scrub each piece until it is clean.

Use toothbrush to clean RV faucet screen

Use a toothbrush to get the screen totally clean.

RV faucet cleaning with toothbrush and white vinegar

Scrub all the parts with the toothbrush.

Then we reassemble the pieces in the correct order and orientation.

Reassemble RV faucet after cleaning 2

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Reassemble RV faucet after cleaning 1

Reassemble the pieces.

Put RV faucet together after cleaning it 2

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Put RV faucet together after cleaning it

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To make it easier to remove the faucet tip the next time we do this job, it helps to grease the threads with a marine PTEF lubricant prior to screwing the assembly back onto the faucet.

Lubricate RV faucet with PTEF lubricant grease

Lubricating the threads makes it easier to unscrew next time!

Lubricate RV faucet after cleaning

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Reassemble RV faucet

Screw it back into the faucet.

RV faucet cleaned and lubricated

Ta da! Now the flow will be smooth and full.

Our trailer has white plastic sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, and these sinks often develop a skanky brown ring around the sink drain. For years, we relied on Comet to clean these sinks. We sprinkled it on the entire sink, let it sit for a bit, and then scrubbed.

We recently discovered that Baking Soda is just as effective!! The fantastic thing about Baking Soda is that it is non-toxic. This is wonderful not only for our gray water holding tanks but also for the RV dump stations as well as the septic fields and municipal waste water treatment systems that are downstream from them.

It’s also really cheap!

Tips for cleaning an RV sink drain

White plastic RV sinks are prone to getting ugly stains.

Dirty RV sink drain

Yuck!

We simply sprinkle it on the sink and then scrub the sink with a damp Scotch-Brite scrubbing pad.

RV sink drain cleaning with baking soda

Sprinkle the baking soda in the sink and scrub the stains with a damp scrubby pad.

What a great result — a wonderfully squeaky clean sink!

RV sink drain is sparkling clean

Sparkling!

The drain plug also gets gummy, and we use an old toothbrush to scrub it clean with either baking soda and/or Murphy’s Oil Soap (a handy all around biodegradable cleanser).

In an RV that is used for dry camping a lot, like ours, the bathroom vanity sink drain can get really gross really quickly because in an effort to conserve fresh water not much clean water gets flushed down the drain.

This can result in foul odors in the sink drain, and it’s pretty unsightly too.

So, we do two things.

First, we scrub the inside of the bathroom sink drain with an old toothbrush. To get a longer reach down the drain, we taped our toothbrush to an old tent stake we had lying around. Anything long and narrow will work.

Toothbrush and extension rod to clean RV sink drain

Tape an old toothbrush to a long stick to reach deep down the RV sink drain.

Cleaning an RV sink drain

Scrub inside the sink drain.

We also scrub the sink drain plug.

Second, to keep the RV bathroom sink drain fresh smelling, we use Happy Camper Holding Tank Treatment which we’ve found is a particularly good deodorizer. We put scoop of powder in an old water bottle, fill it up with water and shake it well (the bottle gets warm as the enzymes get activated!), and then pour it down the drain.

Most of it goes into the gray water tank, but a small amount stays in the bathroom sink drain p-trap and does its magic there, killing off the offensive odors.

Use toothbrush to scrub RV sink drain plut

Scrub the sink drain plug with a toothbrush.

To keep our RV shower in tip-top shape, we clean the drain there as well. The biggest problem in our RV shower drain isn’t foul odors, because the shower drain gets flushed with lots of water everyday. Instead, the challenge with the RV shower drain is accumulated hair.

In a house, it’s easy enough to use a powerful cleanser like Drano to clean out any clogs caused by hair, but we don’t want strong chemicals like that sitting in our gray wastewater holding tank. Afterall, we want the enzymes and bacteria in the Happy Camper and Unique RV Digest-It holding tank treatment products we use to thrive and go to work breaking things down!

So, we use a long spring hook (and flashlight) to pull the hair out. It just takes a few minutes and then the drain is clear.

Some RV shower stalls may have drain components that can be removed for cleaning. Ours doesn’t.

Cleaning hair from an RV shower drain

Use a spring hook to pull hair out of the RV shower drain.

Periodically, the RV shower wand gets crudded up with mineral deposits just like our RV sink faucets do. Again, we rely on white vinegar to clean up the deposits clogging the spray holes in the shower nozzle.

First, we pour the white vinegar through the shower wand to let it soak from the inside.

Tips for cleaning an RV shower wand

The RV shower wand can be cleaned with white vinegar.

Then we soak the shower wand’s face in a bath of white vinegar.

Tips for cleaning an RV shower wand

Put the RV shower wand face down in a white vinegar bath to clean all the little holes.

If we’ve let a little too much time pass, we’ll also use a toothpick to clean out each hole in the shower head. We use bamboo toothpicks because they hold up well in water. Ordinary wooden toothpicks tend to disintegrate when they get wet. A scribe also works well.

The before-and-after difference in the flow of water through the shower wand is startling. When half of the little holes are blocked from mineral deposits and the other half have an impeded flow, the water can feel like needles on your skin. After cleaning the wand, it is more like a waterfall.

Clean each hole in an RV shower wand with a toothpick or scribe

Use a toothpick or scribe to clean each hole in the shower wand.

Lots of RVers love the Oxygenics RV shower head. We don’t use it because it doesn’t work well with the low water pressure we use to conserve water since we dry camp every night, but for RVers who get water hookups a lot, these shower heads are extremely popular. Of course, in hard water areas, these shower heads will need periodic cleaning as well.

The RV toilet bowl rinsing wand is also subject to corrosion from mineral deposits, and after a while when we go to rinse the toilet bowl we find the water flow from the sprayer is restricted and funky.

RV toilet sprayer wand cleaning

The RV toilet sprayer wand gets clogged with minerals too.

Again, it’s easy to unscrew the end of the toilet spay wand, put it in a white vinegar for 20-30 minutes, scrub it a bit with a toothbrush, and then put it back on the wand.

RV toilet rinse wand cleaning

Unscrew the tip of the toilet rinsing wand and soak it in white vinegar to clean the holes.

As an aside, if you have energy leftover after cleaning all your RV sinks, faucets, drains and spray nozzles, a spray bottle filled with a water and white vinegar mixture is super for washing the windows. As I wrote this, some flies got in our trailer and Mark started spraying them when they landed on the window next to him using a spray bottle filled with water and white vinegar. Besides slowing them down and killing them, he was really impressed with how clean the window was when he finished!

So, these are a few of the things we do to keep our sinks and drains flowing smoothly in our life on the road in our RV.

We hope they help you too!

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B&W Companion Hitch Performance in a Fifth Wheel Trailer Rollover Accident

The April 2017 issue of Trailer Life magazine featured our article on the new Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch from B&W Trailer Hitches. Ironically, just as that issue came out, a reader emailed us the harrowing tale of his recent fifth wheel trailer rollover accident.

Trailer Life Magazine Latch and Release B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch article

Trailer Life Magazine, April 2017.
Text and photos by Emily Fagan.
Installation by Mark Fagan and Mark Graika.

Like most RVers, we installed our hitch without giving much thought to rollover accidents, and we have been very happy with it.

The B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch is special because it is designed to fit into the new puck sytems that the diesel truck manufacturers are now making available in the beds of their pickup trucks.

This makes it easy to install the hitch in the truck without having to take the truck to a shop.

Mark was able to install it in our truck with a friend’s help in about an hour, using minimal tools, and that included opening the boxes and reading the instructions. A step-by-step guide for how to install the B&W Companion OEM hitch are at this link:

B&W Companion OEM Hitch Installation Guide

The other fabulous thing about the B&W Companion OEM hitch is that not only is it easy to install but it is easy to remove from the truck.

Anytime you want to use the bed of your truck to haul something big like lumber, fire wood or furniture, it is a very straight forward process to take the hitch out of the truck.

The best part is that there are no hitch rails in the bed of the truck, so once the hitch is removed, the bed of the truck is totally flat.

These features are not part of the design of conventional fifth wheel hitches, like the conventional rails-based B&W Companion hitch (not an “OEM” model), so it’s a worthwhile to consider buying a truck with the optional puck system on it if you are considering buying a late model diesel truck.

When buying a truck/trailer combination, not only are the quality of the truck and trailer important, but the hitch is really important too, and not just for its ability to tow a heavy load…

We were shocked when full-time RVers Mark and Doran Gipson sent us photos of their terrifying rollover accident with their fifth wheel. They were towing their home, a 2007 32′ Hitchhiker Discover America fifth wheel, with a 2008 Dodge Ram 2500, and they were hitched together with B&W Companion hitch.

While driving at 60 mph on I-10 outside in El Paso in February, two very inconsiderate drivers suddenly cut them off in a series of swerves right in front of them.

Here is Mark’s description of what happened:

“We were going 60 mph and were cut off by two vehicles who decided to not exit on loop 375. They dove back into our lane within 2 car lengths. With no time to brake, I swerved to the inside lane only to have the second vehicle also move into that lane as well. I lost the trailer when I swerved back to miss the concrete median.”

The result was that the trailer went over on the driver’s side at 60 mph, slid 150 feet and hit its roof on the concrete median.

Hitchhiker trailer wheel trailer RV rollover accident

The Hitchhiker fifth wheel hit the pavement at 60 mph and slid 150 feet.
Most trailers would have splintered on impact.

Fortunately, as the trailer went over on its side, the B&W hitch — which comes in two pieces: a base on the bottom and a coupler on the top — separated in two. The coupler stayed attached to the trailer’s king pin as the trailer toppled over while the base stayed in the bed of the truck, allowing the truck to remain upright.

Hitchhiker fifith wheel trailer rollover accident with B&W fifth wheel hitch coupler still attached

The upper half of the fifth wheel hitch — the coupler — remained attached to the trailer
as it rolled over on the driver’s side.

So, while Mark and Doran came to a skidding stop in their truck, sitting upright in their seats, the trailer rolled over, detached and slid to a stop on its side.

Truck damage from fifth wheel trailer rollover accident

As the trailer went over, the fifth wheel overhang crushed the driver’s side of the truck bed.

If the truck had rolled over too, Mark and Doran could have easily been very badly injured or even killed. However, because the truck stayed upright, they walked away unscathed. Thank heavens!!

With the truck badly damaged and the trailer on its side on I-10, Mark called for help and a wrecking crew arrived. As he wrote to me:

“The wrecker driver came with two trucks and a trailer because he had not gotten to a 5th wheel rollover without the truck also on its side and the trailer in pieces. He said that it would collapse when he tried to pick it up. But he put it on its wheels and towed it to his shop and still can’t believe how well built it was.

“Things were tumbled around inside but we virtually lost none of our possessions.”

Fifth wheel trailer damage from RV rollover accident with Hitchhiker 5th wheel trailer

The wrecking crew righted the trailer and were amazed that it stood up just fine on its own wheels.
The damage to the trailer was cosmetic except for a roof rafter.

“We tested the slides and everything worked. The major damage was cosmetic on the side that slid and possibly a broken roof rafter where the AC unit came against the concrete barrier. Though everything was scrambled inside, nothing was broken. We lost almost nothing of our possessions including TV and computers.”

My husband Mark and I saw a trailer accident on the highway once, and the entire trailer was in splinters. That is what usually happens in trailer accidents and that’s why the wrecker driver arrived at the accident scene prepared to pick up a million pieces off the highway.

Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer sustained little damage in 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

The wrecking crew expected the trailer to fall apart when it was righted, but it stood right up.
They towed it away on its own wheels just fine.

It is quite a testament to the way the Hitchhiker Discover America trailers were built that one could fall over on its side at 60 mph and still be intact with the slide-out mechanisms still functioning and only cosmetic damage on the side that skidded on the asphalt.

Unfortunately, Hitchhiker (NuWa Industries) stopped building fifth wheel trailers in 2013, but used models of all ages can still be found. Our blog posts from our visits to NuWa in Chanute, Kansas, can be found at the following links:

B&W Trailer Hitches is located just a few miles away from the NuWa plant (NuWa is now called Kansas RV Center) in Humboldt, Kansas, and we enjoyed a wonderful factory tour and a unique American heartland small town celebration that was sponsored in part by B&W Trailer Hitches two years ago (blog post here).

For Mark and Doran, the key to their truck staying upright during their rollover accident was the way the pivot arm on the base of the B&W Companion hitch bent sideways and let the coupler break free as the trailer toppled over.

Bent pivot arm on B&W fifth wheel hitch after 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

Looking forward towards the cab of the truck, the pivot arm on the driver’s side bent outwards allowing the coupler to break free (with some small broken parts inside) while the entire hitch base stayed planted in the bed of the truck. This kept the truck upright.

B&W fifth wheel hitch bent pivot arm after 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

Bent pivot arm on the fifth wheel hitch base.

It is impressive that the B&W hitch allowed for the hitch coupler and hitch base to separate completely once one of the pivot arms on the hitch base began to bend as the trailer went over. As the wrecker driver noted, usually both the truck and the trailer roll over together because once the trailer starts to go over the hitch forces the truck over too.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch coupler after trailer rollover accident

The coupler stayed attached to the trailer’s king pin.
In this photo it has been removed from the king pin and laid in the bed of the truck for inspection.

B&W Companion hitch coupler after rollover accident broken pieces inside

The coupler is flipped upside down here to reveal the broken pieces inside.

Broken pieces inside the B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch after a rollover accident

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In the end, Mark and Doran decided to replace both their truck (a 2008 Dodge Ram 2500) and their trailer (a 2007 32′ Hitchhiker Discover America) as well as their slightly damaged B&W Companion hitch with a new set: a 2012 3500 Ram dually truck, 2012 36′ Hitchhiker Discover America and a new B&W Companion hitch!

We feel very blessed to have towed our fifth wheel trailer so many tens of thousands of miles and seen so many beautiful places in nearly 10 years of full-time travel. We’ve had our share of near misses, especially in our trip back east two years ago where traffic is blindingly fast on very crowded and confusing highways, and we’ve seen our share of accidents too.

One RV upgrade we did that has made a massive difference for us in dealing with sudden stops at high speed while towing our 36′ 14k lb. fifth wheel trailer was a trailer disc brake conversion where we upgraded from standard trailer drum brakes to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. This is a pricey upgrade, but one we highly recommend doing.

Hitchhiker fifth wheel RV with B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch under sunny skies

RVing in a fifth wheel trailer is so much fun, especially in gorgeous places far from the open road.
But accidents do happen and good equipment — from truck to trailer, hitch and brakes — can make a huge difference in the outcome when things go wrong.

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Dodge Ram Truck Owners — Please note:
Late model Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks have been recalled (beginning 6/23/17) for side airbag problems in a rollover accident. See this article for details: Dodge Ram Side Airbag Recall

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Is RV Solar Affordable? 3 Solar Solutions for RVs and Boats

Is RV solar power affordable or is installing a solar power system on a motorhome or trailer — or even on a sailboat — just too darn expensive to be cost effective? We never thought this question would be hard to answer untpil recently.

This article describes everything you need to install a solar power system on your RV in three different levels:

1. A Small, Expandable Rooftop Solar Power Solution
2. A Portable Solar Power Solution
3. A Big Rooftop Solar Power Solution

Solar panels on a fifth wheel trailer

Can a solar power installation on an RV or sailboat pay for itself?

Ever since we installed our first (very small) solar power system on our first full-time RV nearly ten years ago, we’ve been excitedly telling people it is a very affordable do-it-yourself project for anyone with some mechanical and electrical knowledge. And for those who can’t turn a wrench, it shouldn’t be that much more.

Our first 130 watt solar power system cost us about twice as much as the same system would today, but even at that high price, we felt it was dollar-for-dollar an equal value to buying a Yamaha or Honda 1000 generator. Best of all, once a little system like that was installed, it was a whole lot less noisy, expensive to operate and complicated to use than a generator would be.

At today’s super cheap solar prices, that little solar power system is even more valuable compared to one of those nice Japanese portable gas generators than it was 10 years ago!

Installing solar panels on a motorhome RV

Installing solar power can be a DIY project if you’re handy.

Recently, however, we’ve heard some crazy prices being quoted for installing solar power systems on RVs. We met one couple with a gorgeous brand new DRV Suites fifth wheel who were quoted $13,000 for a solar power installation. Not long after that, we read an article in a popular RV magazine describing a $12,000 solar power installation on a fifth wheel.

Yikes!! These are outrageous prices!!

We sure hope no one is finding they have to spend that kind of crazy money to get a solar power system installed on their trailer or motorhome or sailboat.

We’ve got oodles of articles on this website that go into the nitty gritty details of things to consider when designing and installing a solar power system on an RV or a boat (located HERE). However, all that theory aside, it’s not all that complicated.

Here are three solar power “packages” — with approximate prices — that will do the trick whether you’re a part-timer or full-time RVer.

Although it is possible to buy “pre-packaged RV solar power kits” online, we suggest hand selecting the components you want so that just in case any individual item has a problem it can be returned easily.

We’ve heard of cases where people bought a pre-packaged solar power kit online and then had problems returning a broken part because they had to return the entire kit — solar panels, charge controller, cables and all — just because the one item wasn’t working right.

 

SMALL ROOFTOP RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM – 150 WATT SYSTEM

Affordable solar panel with a popup tent trailer

For part-time RVers, installing solar on the roof isn’t a requirement.

The following is essentially what we put on our roof and what we camped with off the grid every night for a year when we started.

The brands are not exactly the same, but these components are highly rated and will do the trick for anyone that wants a roof-mounted solar power system on their motorhome or trailer.

This kit includes both a solar battery charging component and an 110 volt AC power component provided by an inverter. If you don’t understand the distinction, please see our post: RV Solar Power Made Simple.

The simplest inverter installation is to connect the inverter to the batteries using heavy duty cables and then to run an ordinary (but long) power strip (or two) from the inverter to somewhere convenient inside the rig.

Rather than using the wall outlets in the rig, just plug the AC appliances into the power strip as needed, taking care not to operate too many things at once and overload the inverter.

Prices always change, so check the links to see the current prices.

The nice thing about this kit is that it is easily expandable. If a second or third solar panel is eventually desired (to double or triple the size of the system to 300 or 450 watts, for another $200 or $400), those panels can be purchased at a later date. At that point the solar charge controller can also be replaced with a bigger and more sophisticated charge controller (for $600).

 

PORTABLE FOLDING SOLAR POWER KIT SUITCASE – 120 WATT SYSTEM

Portable folding solar panel suitcase for RV and motorhome use

A portable solar power kit that folds up and can be carried like a suitcase is an awesome solution for weekenders, vacationers and seasonal RVers.

A really nifty alternative for anyone that isn’t super skilled with tools or that’s a bit spooked by electrical things, is a portable solar power kit that folds into a suitcase. These come with two matching solar panels, battery cables with alligator clips, and a panel-mounted solar charge controller. The solar panels are hinged together and can be folded towards each other. A handle on the side of one of them makes the whole thing easy to carry and store like a suitcase.

These portable folding suitcase solar panel kits come in all sizes. A good size is anywhere from 120 to 200 watts:

The advantage of a portable suitcase solar kit like this is that it is self-contained. If you think you might upgrade to a different RV soon, then there’s no loss in investment when one RV is sold and another is purchased. Also, if you decide to install a roof-mounted system at a later date, the suitcase solar panel kit can be sold to another RVer.

As for the inverter, heavy duty cables and power strip, they are included here just to round out the package so you have AC power in the rig as well as the ability to charge the batteries just like the “small solar power kit” described above.

 

Affordable solar power on a motorhome

Installing solar panels on tilting brackets is popular, but only necessary in mid-winter. We’ve never done it.

With a big RV solar power installation, it is likely that the RV’s house battery bank will need to be upgraded or replaced too, so this package includes a “replacement” AGM battery bank.

The Magnum inverter is an inverter/charger that has a built in transfer switch, making it very straight forward to wire the inverter into the house AC wiring system so you can use the standard wall outlets in the rig rather than plugging things into a power strip.

We’ve been living exclusively on solar power since we started this crazy traveling lifestyle in 2007, and this system is larger than any system we’ve ever had on a boat or trailer. So it ought to work just fine for anyone who wants to RV full-time and do a lot of boondocking.

 

INSTALLATION COSTS

If you are not a DIY RVer, you’ll need to budget for the installation labor too. As a very rough estimate, I would allow for $500-$1,000 for a small system installation and $1,500-$2,500 for a big system installation. The variations in labor costs will depend on how difficult it is to work in your rig, how hard it is to mount the various components and run the wires from roof to basement, and whether or not you choose to have the batteries upgraded or replaced.

 

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

RV park and campground prices are all over the map, but assuming that the average cost is $25 per night for a site with hookups if you don’t take advantage of monthly discounts or $15 per night if you do, these systems can pay for themselves in anywhere from 18 camping days to 14 months, depending on what size system you buy, whether or not you do the installation yourself, and how you typically camp. Of course, this assumes the rig is equipped with a refrigerator that can run on propane and that if air conditioning is needed an alternative power source like a generator is used.

As with everything in the RVing world, starting small and cheap is the best way to go.

 

BIG and COMPLEX SOLAR POWER INSTALLATIONS

Solar panel arch with solar panels on sailboat transom

Installing solar power on a sailboat has its own set of challenges.

We have installed three different RV solar power systems and one solar power system on a sailboat.

We published an article in the February 2017 issue of Cruising World Magazine (one of the top magazines in the sailing industry) describing the solar power system we installed on our sailboat Groovy back in 2010. This system gave us all the power we needed to “anchor out” in bays and coves away from electrical hookups in marinas for 750 nights during our cruise of Mexico.

Cruising World has posted the article online here:

Sunny Disposition – Adding Solar Power – Cruising World Magazine, February, 2017

Installing solar power on a sailboat is very similar to installing it in an RV, but there is an added complexity because there isn’t a big flat roof to lay the panels on. Instead, we had to construct a stainless steel arch to support the panels. Fortunately, our boat, a 2008 Hunter 44DS, had a factory installed stainless steel arch over the cockpit already. So, we hired a brilliant Mexican metal fabricator named Alejandro Ulloa, to create our solar panel arch in Ensenada, Mexico.

Solar power installation on sailboat Hunter 44

We turned to Alejandro Ulloa of Ensenada, Mexico, for our solar panel arch
He can be contracted the=rough Baja Naval.

Solar panel arch installation on Hunter 44 sailboat

Alejandro is an artist. He wrapped the arch in plastic to prevent scratches until it was permanently mounted on our boat!

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44

The arch went back to Alejandro’s workshop for tweaking after this measuring session.

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44 installed by Alejandro Ulloa

Dimensions now perfect, Alejandro mounts the arch permanently.

Getting the 185 watt 24 volt solar panels up onto the arch was a challenge. Getting solar panels up onto an RV roof is tricky too!

Affordable marine Solar panel installation on sailboat Hunter 44

Getting the solar panels onto the roof of an RV or up onto this arch takes two people (at least!)

Installing solar panels on an arch on sailboat (Hunter 44) with Alejandro Ulloa Baja Naval Ensenada Mexico

The second of the three panels gets installed.

The solar panel arch was going to double as a “dinghy davit” system with telescoping rods that extended out over the transom. These davits supported a pulley system to hoist the dinghy up out of the water. So once the solar panels were mounted on the arch, we had to be sure it could handle the weight of the dinghy.

Our dinghy weighed a lot less than the combined weight of Mark and Alejandro!

Strong solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension

Alejandro and Mark test the arch to be sure it can support the dinghy (which weighed half what they do).

The solar panels were wired in parallel because they would be subjected to shade constantly shifting on and off the panels at certain times of the day as the boat swung at anchor.

Wiring solar panels on a sailboat (Hunter 44) marine solar power installation

Mark wires up the panels in parallel.

Affordable solar panel installation on a sailboat

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Solar panel arch with dinghy davit extension supporting affordable solar power on sailboat

A beautiful, clean installation with wire loom covering the exposed cabling and the rest snaked down inside the tubes of the Hunter arch. The davit extensions for hoisting the dinghy are clearly visible under the panels.

Solar panels installed on arch on Hunter 44 sailboat

Nice!

Down below the cockpit inside a huge locker in the transom, Mark mounted a combiner box that brought three cables in from the three panels and then sent out one cable to the solar charge controller.

Emily and Mark Fagan aboard sailboat Groovy

The transom locker in our Hunter 44DS sailboat was very large!

Combiner box for solar panel parallel wiring on a sailboat

A combiner box brings the wires from the three panels together before a single run goes to the solar charge controller (this is optional and not at all necessary).

The solar charge controller was installed in the cabin inside a hanging locker in the master stateroom.

Xantrex solar charge controller installed in sailboat locker

We have an Outback FlexMax charge controller on our trailer but chose a Xantrex controller for our boat because there were no moving parts. We compare the two HERE.

The solar charge controller was located about 8 feet from the near end of the battery bank which spanned a ~14 foot distance under the floorboards in the bilge.

Two 4D AGM batteries in bilge of sailboat

We had four 160 amp-hour 4D AGM batteries for the house bank and a Group 27 AGM start battery installed under the floorboards in the bilge.
One 4D house battery and the Group 27 start battery are seen here

This 555 watt solar power system, which charged a 640 amp-hour house bank of 4D AGM batteries, supplied all of our electrical needs, including powering our under-counter electric refrigerator.

Usually our engine alternator provided backup battery charging whenever we ran the engine. However, at one point our alternator died, and we were without it for 10 straight weeks while we waited for a replacement alternator.

Why such a long wait for a simple replacement part? Getting boat parts in Mexico requires either paying exorbitant shipping fees and import taxes or waiting for a friend to bring the part with them in their backpack when they fly from the US to Mexico.

During that long wait our solar power system supplied all our electricity without a backup while we were anchored in a beautiful bay. Diesel engines don’t require an alternator to run, so we moved the boat around and went sailing etc., and lived our normal lives during our wait.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension with solar panels installed on sailboat

View from the water — cool!

The dinghy davit extensions on the solar panel arch made it easy to raise and lower the dinghy from the water and also to raise and lower the 6 horsepower outboard engine.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension on sailboat

A pulley system on the davit extensions made hoisting the outboard and dinghy a cinch for either of us to do singlehandedly.

Solar panel arch and solar panels on sailboat transom

For 7 months we left our boat at the dock in Chiapas, unplugged from shorepower, and let the solar panels keep the batteries topped off. Everyday during that time they put 19 amp-hours into the batteries which was essentially the power required to operate the solar charge controller!

At anchor, sometimes the solar panels were in full sun all day long if the current and wind and the pattern of the sun crossing the sky allowed the boat to move around without the sun coming forward of the beam of the boat.

However, whenever the sun was forward of the beam, the shadow of the mast and the radome fell on the panels. We could watch the current production from the panels go from full on, to two-thirds, to one-third and back again as the shadow crossed one panel and then two at once, and then one and then none, etc, as the boat swung back and forth at anchor.

Mast and radome cast shade on solar panels on sailboat

RV solar installations have to avoid shade from air conditions and open vent hatches.
On boats the shade from the mast and radome is often unavoidable.

Mast and radome cast shade on pair of sailboat solar panels

When the shadow fell across two 185 watt panels at once, it knocked both of them out of the system so only one of the three solar panels was actually producing power.

The coolest and most unexpected benefit of having our solar panels mounted on an arch over the cockpit was the shade that they provided. The sun in Mexico is very intense, especially out on the water, and it was wonderful to have two huge forward facing jump seats at the back of the cockpit that fully shade as we sailed!

Under the shade of solar panels and a solar panel arch on a sailboat

Made in the shade — What a life that was!!

We have more solar power related articles at these links:

SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

Our technical articles in Cruising World magazine can be found here:

Do We Miss Our Boat “Groovy” and Sailing?

We describe our thrilling — and heart wrenching — first and last days on our wonderful sailboat in the following posts. It is very true that the happiest days of a boater’s life are the day the boat is bought and the day it’s sold!

Our most recent posts:

More of our Latest Posts are in the MENU.
New to this site? Visit RVers Start Here to find where we keep all the good stuff!!

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What’s A Girl To Do at the RV Dump Station?

Dumping the RV holding tanks is a nasty little job, but it’s part of the fun of traveling around in an RV, and we’ve all gotta do it. It’s really not all that bad when it’s a shared job, but of course that’s easy for us gals to say, because it’s usually our male partners-in-love-and-life who get to do the bulk of the dirty work.

RV dump station tips for women RVers-2

Despite lots of progress over the years for the types of work women can do, emptying an RV’s waste water holding tanks is a job many women are just as happy to leave to their better half.

Sometimes, when we go to an RV dump station, I am amazed to see a woman remain in the passenger’s seat of her truck or motorhome for the whole duration of the job. I’m not sure how these women have negotiated that arrangement with their significant other, but I figure they must be incredibly good cooks to be able to chat with a friend on the phone or check the latest on Facebook while their hubby is grinding it out with the sewer hose, the splashing water, and all that muck and mire.

RV dump station tips for RVing women

Mark looks like he’s having so much fun. Can I get away with doing nothing?

I wish my skills were so awesome in the kitchen that I could be exempt from doing anything at the RV dump station. But alas, in our marriage, I need to be a participant in this dirtiest of deeds to win brownie points for other aspects of our life together. Nonetheless, it took me a few years to find things to do while we were at the RV dump station that were truly useful and helpful.

We have a full set of “blue” RV dump station procedural tips below — but they don’t say much about the “pink” side of the job:

Dirty Little Secrets from the RV dump station

Too often at the beginning of our RVing lives I found my best efforts to help with setting up the RV sewer hose or screwing in the water hose ended up with me underfoot and in the way of the general flow of things. Mark had his methods, and I couldn’t read his mind as to what came next.

Few people are in truly sunny and radiant moods when they don their rubber gloves at the RV dump, and too often I found that my most valiant attempts to be helpful resulted in tensions rising between us.

RV dump station tips for women RVers

I think he’s trying to tell me something.

Then one day I discovered a way that I can be of significant help and get some important jobs done at the same time.

GIVE THE BLACK TANK A BOOST FLUSH

For starters, I fill two 5-gallon water buckets with water and carry them into the rig to dump them down the toilet after the black tank has been emptied. Even if an RV has a black water flush system like ours does, it is still surprising just how many little bits of gunk and human waste solids get flushed out when two 5-gallon buckets of water are poured down the toilet.

I fill the buckets while Mark gets the sewer hose out and attaches the clear elbow so he can see when the holding tanks are fully drained. Then I can scoot out of the way and carry the buckets around to our RV’s door before he begins attaching the black water flush hose between the rig and the water spigot. This way we don’t end up stepping on each when we first start working at the RV dump station.

RV dump station tips flushing black tank with buckets of water in toilet

We have two buckets and I fill each one with water to give the toilet and sewer pipes an extra flush.

The buckets are heavy to carry around to our trailer’s front door, but I don’t mind a little bit of a shoulder and arm workout, and I take them one at a time. Maneuvering a heavy bucket of water up stairs is excellent exercise for both balance and strength.

I grab the inside of the doorway with my left hand for extra balance, tighten my abs so I don’t throw my back out with the uneven weight distribution of carrying a heavy bucket, and I leverage myself up and set the pails down inside in the kitchen.

RV dump station tip flush black tank with buckets of water in toilet

The buckets are heavy, but I take my time and grab the door frame to keep my balance as I go up the stairs.

For those who can’t carry the buckets, your partner will likely be happy to carry them for you since this really helps ensure the black tank and toilet get a complete flush. Also, filling the buckets only half way or three quarters of the way can help not only lighten the load but keep the water from splashing all over the place and all over you.

CLEAN THE BATHROOM

The other task I tackle is cleaning the toilet room from top to bottom and cleaning the bathroom vanity and kitchen sink. I figure that if my sweet hubby is dealing with the darker side of RVing outside at the RV dump station, I can deal with the same stuff on the inside..

This insures the bathroom gets cleaned on a regular basis and also means that when we arrive at our next campsite not only are the holding tanks empty but our bathroom is sparkling clean and smells fresh.

So, once I get the water buckets inside the rig, I begin assembling the things I will need to clean the toilet and the bathroom. When I hear Mark’s knock on the wall, I know he has finished emptying the black tank and it is time to dump the buckets of water down the toilet.

RV dump station tips flush black tank

I pour one bucket at a time and Mark watches the flow in the sewer hose to make sure the water eventually runs clear.

Since the buckets are just inside the RV door, it takes me a minute to grab one and empty it. Then it takes a few minutes more to go grab the other one and empty it too. Having a few minutes between flushes is helpful because then Mark can monitor whether the water from the second bucket is running clear or is still flushing solids out. If there are still chunks coming out, then, depending on whether anyone is waiting to use the RV dump after us, I’ll fill another bucket or two with water and dump them down the toilet.

Sometimes I have the water pump turned on as I dump the buckets of water down the toilet and sometimes it’s turned off. Having it turned on means even more water flushes down, which is great, but it also uses up water from the fresh water tank. So, whether or not I have the water pump turned on depends on whether there are people waiting behind us at the dump station, as it will take a little longer for us to fill the fresh water tank if we flush a few extra gallons down the toilet as part of the dumping process.

Now that the black tank is completely flushed, Mark begins emptying our kitchen gray tank. We have two gray tanks, one for the kitchen and one for the shower. We empty the kitchen tank first because it is dirtier and has more things in it (like broccoli bits) than the shower gray tank which is just sudsy water.

While he works on emptying the two gray tanks, I get to work cleaning the toilet.

RV dump station tip woman cleans toilet and bathroom

If Mark is mucking around in gross stuff outside, the least I can do is muck around in gross stuff inside. This also gives us a clean bathroom when we set up camp.

Since we have a hatch in the toilet room that we leave open a lot, the toilet lid and the floor often get dusty in just a few days. So I remove everything from the toilet room and clean everything, including the floor.

Over the years we’ve found that the toilet bowl — more so than the black tank itself — can be a big source of foul odors. Unlike household toilets, RV toilet bowls are basically dry except during flushing, so urine can end up drying in the bowl and producing an odor.

Also, the flow of the flushing water doesn’t necessarily rinse every inch of the bowl, so some areas simply don’t get rinsed all that well, even when using the toilet’s spray nozzle. So, I go to town on the inside of the bowl as well as everything else.

We use two enzyme/bacteria based RV holding tank treatment products: Happy Campers RV holding tank treatment has worked best for us in extreme temperatures (very cold and very hot) and for controlling tank odors. RV Digest-It holding tank treatment has worked best for us in moderate temperatures to break down the solids in the tank.

Because these are both basically solutions of living critters, the toilet cleaning products we use can’t be too toxic or the colonies of feces-eating bacteria can’t get established and become self-perpetuating. I’ve been using Murphy’s Oil Soap for the last few years with good results.

This is the soap that is recommended for cleaning the rubber roofs on the tops of RV’s, which is why we had it on hand to try on the toilet a few years ago. In addition to being biodegradable, what we like about it for cleaning the toilet is that it assists in keeping both the seals in the toilet bowl and on the black holding tank valve lubricated. I used white vinegar for cleaning the toilet for a while, and after a few months the black tank valve got really sticky. Since switching to Murphy’s Oil Soap a few years ago, that valve hasn’t gotten gummed up.

Periodically, we’ve found the seals in the toilet bowl have stopped holding water which meant the bowl drained completely dry between flushes. This allowed foul odors to come up from the black water tank. This problem is usually due to mineral and gunk build-ups on the seal.

So, I give that seal a really good cleaning too. The critical areas are on both the top and bottom surfaces of the rubber seal, that is, between the seal and the toilet bowl (the top side) and underneath the seal where the dome flapper (the “waste ball”) closes up against it.

RV toilet assembly and flapper valve installation

A disassembled RV toilet shows what the rubber toilet seal looks like without the toilet bowl sitting on it. To prevent it from leaking and draining the toilet between flushes, I scrub both top and bottom of the rubber seal.

I make sure the water pump is off at this point and hold the toilet flush lever down so I can get at the underside of the seal.

Often, the build-up is due to having hard water in the fresh water tanks which is very common in Arizona and other western states where the fresh water comes from deep, mineral rich aquifers.

RV toilet flapper cleaning tips

The seal needs to be completely free of mineral deposits on both the top and bottom, so I clean the area between the seal and the bowl on the top (red arrow) and below the seal on the bottom (the backside of the seal in this view).

At this point, depending on what Mark is up to outside, I’ll move on to other cleaning projects. If we have nearly emptied our fresh water tanks prior to coming to the RV dump station, it may take 10 minutes to refill them. Also, sometimes the potable water spigot is a little ways beyond the waste water dump area, requiring Mark to move the whole rig a few feet forward.

So, if there is time, I will clean the bathroom vanity sink and then move on to the kitchen sink. Depending on our plans for the next few days and depending on how much time I have at the RV dump, I may also add the holding tank treatment to the black tank, via the toilet, and add it to the gray tanks via the bathroom sink, shower and kitchen sink.

Sometimes, however, I prefer to wait two or three days until those tanks have some liquids in them before adding the holding tank treatment. And sometimes I add just a half tank’s worth of holding tank treatment at the RV dump station and then add the other half a few days later once the holding tanks have become partially full.

Of course, we add a capful of bleach to our fresh water tanks every few months, and that totally obliterates any colonies of anything that have started to grow in any of the holding tanks (including the fresh water tank) as the bleach water works its way through our plumbing system from the fresh water tank to the gray and black waste water tanks.

So, for us, creating fully self-sustaining communities of healthy organisms in any waste water tank is not 100% doable. But by using non-toxic cleansers we can help them along in between bleach blasts.

So, all in all, there is a LOT a girl can do at the RV dump station. We find we are both much happier about the whole process when we each have a set of tasks to do when we get there that are not only similarly grungy but are equally important and that take place in different parts of the RV.

The best part is that when we leave the RV dump station to go set up camp in a new, beautiful location, not only do we have empty waste water tanks but our bathroom is clean and fresh too.

Happy cleaning!!

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Goodies I use for my jobs at the RV Dump Station:

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Hitch Tighteners – Anti-Rattle Hitch Clamps Stop the Creaks & Wiggles!

We carry our bicycles on the back of our 36′ fifth wheel trailer with a Kuat NV bike rack inserted into the trailer’s hitch receiver (we reviewed the Kuat bike rack here). We installed this bike rack in 2012 and it has been great for the past five years of our full-time RV travels.

Kuat NV Bike Rack on back of fifth wheel trailer RV

We carry our mountain bikes on the back of our 5th wheel with a Kuat NV Bike Rack

To keep the bike rack from dragging on the ground in crazy places like steep gas station ramps or deep gulleys on small roads, we had a “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser made. This raises the rack up quite high, so now the first thing to hit the ground is the hitch receiver itself rather than the bike rack.

Hitch extension with Kuat NV bike rack

A “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser raised the bike rack so it can’t drag on the ground in a gully or dip.

As is often the case with hitch receivers, the bike rack isn’t a perfectly tight fit in the hitch receiver riser, and the bottom of the riser isn’t a perfect fit in the trailer’s hitch receiver either. So, the whole bike rack tends to wiggle.

We’ve used various shims to make it all tight, but too often they would wiggle loose over time, and eventually the bikes would be jiggling all over the place on the rack again.

Using a shim in a bumper hitch

We wedged shims in to tighten things up, but it wasn’t an ideal solution

Last fall we stopped in at JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah, to talk with Jack, the man who had made our “Z” hitch riser (more info about it here). We wondered if he had any tricks up his sleeve for making our bike rack arrangement less wobbly.

JM Custom Welding Blanding Utah

Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah

It turns out that he had solved this very problem for other customers by making a hitch tightener. This is essentially a hitch clamp that fits over the end of the hitch receiver and snugs up whatever is inserted into the receiver with some lock washers and nuts.

Bumper hitch tightener for car or RV hitch

Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.

Bumper hitch tightener for bike rack

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So, we got two of them, one for the top and one for the bottom of our “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser extension.

Hitch tightener on RV for bike rack

He put a second hitch tightener on the trailer’s receiver as well.

The difference in the amount of movement of the bikes was absolutely astonishing. They were rock solid now!

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.

After installing the hitch tighteners, which was just a matter of tightening the nuts, Mark drove the rig around the JM Custom Welding dirt lot while I walked behind and watched the bikes, and they were steady as could be.

Hitch tighteners on bumper hitch mounted bike rack

Hitch tighteners at the top and bottom of the hi-low hitch riser extension.

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

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But unlike the shim solution we’d used before, these hitch tighteners have stayed tight without needing any adjusting or fuss for several months and several thousand miles of driving on all kinds of roads.

Kuat NV BIke rack and bike rack extension and hitch tightener

The whole system is completely rigid now and has not needed any adjustments in six months of use.

The hitch tighteners do make for some extra steps if we want to move the bike rack from the hitch receiver on the trailer to the hitch receiver on our truck. However, we’ve started hauling our bikes in our truck in a different way using a furniture blanket, so there’s no need to take the bike rack off the trailer any more.

Mountain bikes on truck rather than a bike rack

An easy way to get the bikes from the trailer to the trail head!

Jack makes these hitch tighteners in batches, so if you are passing through Blanding, Utah, perhaps on your way to or from the beautiful Natural Bridges National Monument, just a mile or so south of Blanding you can stop by JM Custom Welding and pick one up! In 2016 the were $38 apiece.

We discovered later that hitch tighteners of various kinds are also commercially available. So, if Blanding, Utah, isn’t in your sights, you can choose from many different kinds of hitch clamps online.

However, a visit to Jack’s welding shop is very worthwhile, especially if you need any kind of custom metal fabrication done on your RV. He is very creative and does excellent work.

While we were in Jack’s office, we noticed a display of his for a folding storage solution for the beds of pickup trucks he’s created that fits right behind the truck cab. He calls it the “Jack Pack” and it is essentially a framed canvas storage bag the width of the truck bed that is easily opened to throw your bags of groceries into and then easily folded away when you need to haul lumber or fill the truck bed with something else.

If we didn’t have that part of our truck filled up with extra water jugs, we would have snagged one of those from him at the same time!

We’ve got a few more links below.

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Info on hitch tighteners and hitch clamps:

There are many brands of hitch tighteners on the market. These are a few:

There’s also a “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser available:

If you need custom metal fabrication work done:

Related Posts:

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Photography – Cameras, Gear, Tips and Resources

Since we began our full-time RV travels in 2007, photography has become a huge part of our lives. Photography is an ideal hobby for travelers, and it isn’t hard to learn. Our learning curve has played out on the pages of this website, and it is satisfying to see our improvement over the years. When we first started traveling, we each shot about 6,000 photos per year. Now we each shoot over 35,000 photos per year (a little under 100 per day).

Camera on a tripod - photography

Photography is a lot of fun, and it’s not hard to learn.

People have asked us what cameras and equipment we use, and how we improved our skills. This page presents all of our gear choices, from our camera bodies to our favorite lenses to our filters and tripods to the goodies we use to take our cameras out for a hike to the software we rely on for post-processing.

It also explains how we organize all our photos and lists all the books, eBooks and online tutorials we have studied to learn to take better photos. We are entirely self-taught, and the inspiring resources we reference here lay it all out in plain language.

We’ve invested in our camera equipment because photography is our passion and we do it all day long. What you’ll see here is good solid “value” gear that is above “entry level” but not “strictly for the pros” either.

For easy navigation, use these links:

The best time to buy camera gear is between Thanksgiving and Christmas during Black Friday week or when a manufacturer discontinues a camera model. An inexpensive but good quality DSLR that you can get for a steal is the Nikon D3300, discontinued in June 2016. In October 2016, a smoking deal includes the Nikon D3300, two lenses and a camera bag. Other Nikon D3300 kits are available too. This camera was replaced with the Nikon D3400 which is Nikon’s current (and terrific) entry level DSLR model

CAMERAS and LENSES

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Our Current Cameras and Lenses

As of 2016, we both shoot with Nikon D810 cameras. This is a professional level, truly awesome, full-frame 36 megapixel camera.

For three years prior to that, we both used Nikon D610 cameras. This is a full-frame, 24 megapixel camera. It is considered a “pro-sumer” camera, not quite professional quality but at the high end of the hobbyist ranks.

Although we have a big collection of lenses, we typically take no more than two apiece with us when we are out and about on foot. It’s just too much stuff to lug around!

I have a Nikon 28-300 mm lens on my camera which I use almost exclusively, simply because I love the flexibility of having both wide angle and zoom options with the twist of my wrist without having to change lenses.

Photographer with camera tripod in the water

When we got into photography, we jumped in with both feet.

Mark likes to pick a lens for the day and work within its limits. His favorites are prime (non-zooming) lenses, and he uses the Nikon 50 mm and Nikon 85mm lenses a lot. These are a lot less expensive than zoom lenses, and they are much faster lenses too (meaning they can be used in lower light). However, they do not have vibration resistance (also known as “image stabilization”), a technology that reduces the inherent wiggle caused by hand-holding a lens.

He also uses the Nikon 24-120 and the Sigma 24-105. These are very similar lenses, and we would have just one of them, but I used to use the Nikon 24-120 all the time before I got the Nikon 28-300, so he got the Sigma 24-105 to have one with a similar range. They’re both terrific lenses, so we can’t decide which one to keep and which one to sell!

We have a Nikon 70-200, which is a truly beautiful lens. For a long time neither of us used it much, but after I commented to that effect when I first published this post, Mark put it into his regular arsenal and uses it frequently now. It is a fabulous lens with excellent color rendition. Another advantage is that the zoom feature doesn’t lengthen or shorten the lens — it is always one length and all the zooming is physically done inside the lens. This means that dust doesn’t sneak into the lens when it is zoomed in and out the way it does with other lenses (like the 28-300, 24-120 and 24-105 mentioned above).

For wide angles, we have a Nikon 16-35 and a Nikon Nikon 18-35 so we can each shoot very wide angles simultaneously. Mark LOVES wide angle photography, and he uses these all the time. The 16-35 is more expensive, and was purchased as an upgrade from the 18-35, but he can’t seem to part with the 18-35 now, so I inherited it.

For super wide angles like at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona or for shooting stars at night (like the final image in this post or the first image in this post), we turn to the Rokinon 14 mm lens (with the Nikon focusing chip) or our very cool fisheye lens, the Rokinon 12 mm lens.

We have a Tamron 150-600 mm lens for shooting birds (like wild peach faced lovebirds here) and for wildlife — or even for stationary cacti at a faraway distance as in this image here. An alternative to this lens that is priced similarly is the Sigma 150-600 contemporary series lens. If it had been available, we probably would have purchased the Sigma 150-600 instead of the Tamron 150-600, but it wasn’t in production at the time. Another awesome option that has become available since our purchase is the Nikon 200-500 mm lens. That lens is on our wish list right now so we can each have a powerful zoom in situations where we want one.

What about those third party lenses?? Some are better than others, although Sigma’s Art Series lenses are really great these days (and expensive). When I was casting about for a “do it all” lens, we initially bought a Tamron 28-300 mm lens. It had terrible color rendition and didn’t focus for beans, so we returned it to buy the Nikon 28-300, which I totally love. I will be curious to see how the Tamron 150-600 stacks up against the Nikon 200-500 when we eventually buy it.

Our Past Cameras and Lenses

Do you need all this crazy stuff when you first get started? No!

When we began traveling, we purchased two Nikon D40 cameras, which were 6 megapixel crop-sensor cameras. Each came with a Nikon 18-55 mm lens, and we got a Nikon 55-200 mm lens for distance. This was a great camera model to learn on, and we published five magazine cover photos taken with it.

Coast to Coast Cover Spring 2012

Do you need to spend a bundle on a camera? No!
I took this photo with a Nikon D40 that you can buy today (used) for $100.

The Nikon D40 (and its modern day equivalent Nikon D3300) are “crop sensor” cameras (or “DX” in Nikon lingo). This means the sensor is smaller than on a “full frame” camera (like our current Nikon D610 cameras which are “FX” in Nikon lingo). This, in turn, means the image quality is slightly lower and if you blew up the image to poster size it won’t look quite as good up close.

The D40 was discontinued long ago, but can be found on Craigslist and eBay for $100 to $150 with two lenses. One that has been lightly used will work just as well now as it did years back.

How do you tell how “used” a used camera is??

If you have a Mac, an easy way to find out how many shutter clicks a camera has is to take a photo, download it to your computer, export it or locate it in the Finder, and open it in Preview by double clicking on it. Then click on Tools > Show Inspector, click the “i” button and then the “Exif” button. The Image Number is the number of shutter clicks the camera has on it. This works only for cameras that have a mechanical shutter, not for pocket cameras with an electronic shutter.

My only frustration with the Nikon D40 was that there was no built-in cleaning system for the camera sensor, so every time we changed lenses the sensor was vulnerable to picking up dust — and it did! We used the Nikon D40 cameras fro 2007 until 2011.

Today’s “equivalent” entry level DSLR is the Nikon D3300. It is a 24 megapixel camera that is far more sophisticated than the D40 and not “equivalent” in any way except the price point. If you want to get it in a kit with multiple lenses, filters, camera bag, tripod, etc., you can pick up a really nice the Nikon D3300 kits right here.

The Tamron 150-600 lens can be hand held

The Nikon D610 and Tamron 150-600 mm lens.
I’m in camo to keep from scaring the birds away.
Think it will work when I point this huge scary lens at them? Not!!

In 2011, we upgraded to the Nikon D5100, a 16 megapixel crop-sensor camera. Like the Nikon D40, this camera was also a “crop sensor” or “DX” camera.It came with a Nikon 18-55 mm lens. We got a Nikon 55-300 lens, and I ran all over Mexico with both of those lenses, switching back and forth all day long.

In hindsight, I should have gotten the Nikon 18-300 lens and spared myself the hassle of carrying a second lens and switching lenses all the time (I missed so many great shots because I was fumbling with the camera!). But I had read some iffy reviews of the first edition of that lens and decided against it (the current model is its 3rd generation and I’ve met people who LOVE this lens. Oh well!).

The best thing about that camera was the built-in sensor cleaner. Living in the salty and dusty environment of coastal Mexico, this was huge. The other fun thing about that camera was the flip-out display on the back. You could put the camera in Live View, then set it on the ground or hold it overhead and still see your composition on the back of the camera.

We used the Nikon D5100 cameras from 2011 to 2013. The Nikon D5100 has been discontinued. Today’s “equivalent” level DSLR is the Nikon D5300. It is a 24 megapixel camera that, again, is far more sophisticated than the predecessor that we had. This is an outstanding “intermediate” camera and can be purchased in a Nikon D5300 camera and lens bundle.

If you have a few more dollars to spend, the Nikon D7200 is even better. It is still a crop sensor camera, but it is very sophisticated. Like the others, if you are starting out, getting a Nikon D7200 Camera and Lens Kit is very cost effective.

Pocket Cameras

Sometimes carrying a big DSLR camera is inconvenient. We both like having a pocket camera for times when a DSLR is too big.

I use an Olympus Tough TG-4 camera when I ride my mountain bike. I used its predecessor when I snorkeled in Mexico too.

This camera is very rugged. The bruises it has given me on my backside are proof that it holds up a lot better than I do when I fall off my bike and land on it. I like it because the lens doesn’t move in and out when it zooms, and you can drop it and not worry about breaking it. Here are a bunch of photos it took: Bell Rock Pathway in Sedona Arizona.

Mark has a Nikon Coolpix A that he is nuts about because it is just like a mini DSLR. He doesn’t do crazy things like take photos while riding his bike one handed the way I do (and he’s less prone to falling off), so he doesn’t mind having a more delicate camera in his pocket. It is a 16 megapixel camera that has most of the features of a the Nikon D610, except it is a crop-sensor camera that has a fixed 28 mm lens that can’t be changed. It has been discontinued.

Prior to that, he had a Nikon Coolpix P330 (also discontinued). It could shoot in raw format, which was the reason he chose it, but it didn’t produce nearly the quality images of the Coolpix A.

Lots of folks use a smartphone for all their photo ops or as an alternative to their DSLR. We don’t have a smartphone, but we have used a lot of them at scenic overlooks when groups of people pass their cameras around to get pics of themselves. One thing we’ve noticed is that there is a big difference in dynamic range (the rendering of bright spots and shadows) between Androids and iPhones, with iPhones being much better. This is probably common knowledge and not news to you at all, and it may be partly due to which generation of smartphone a person hands us to get their portrait taken.

 

ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT and ACCESSORIES

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Batteries – We have two batteries for each of our Nikon D610’s, so we each always have a fully charged battery on hand besides the one in the camera. We’ve found the Watson batteries are a good alternative to the more expensive Nikon batteries. My Watson battery died shortly after the manufacturer’s warranty expired, and I was impressed that they honored it anyway and replaced it for me.

Memory Cards – We also have two memory cards in each camera (the Nikon D610 has two card slots in it). We use the SanDisk 95 MB/second SD cards. We like these fast SD cards because when we start shooting in a burst (holding the shutter down and letting the camera take pics as fast as it can — for instance, when a bison jumps over a fence in front of us), the faster the card can be written to, the faster the camera’s internal memory buffer will empty, and the longer the camera can keep shooting at top speed. Faster SD cards also download photos to the computer faster.

Every evening we download all our photos onto our laptops and reformat the memory cards in the camera. We’ve heard that this reduces the chance of the card failing and losing all our photos (which happened to me once long ago with a Kingston card – ugh!).

The Hoodman Loupe – A Game Changer! The Hoodman Loupe revolutionized our photography because we were suddenly able to see our photos clearly on the back of our cameras and then retake the photo if necessary. The loupe fits over the LCD screen, blocking the glare and magnifying the image. The lens is adjustable, so no matter how good or bad your eyes are, you can adjust it until you can see the image perfectly clearly. We have the original hard sided loupe. A new model collapses down so it can be stored more compactly. In a lot of the photos of me on this website, you can see my Hoodman loupe hanging around my neck!

Hoodman Loupe on a Nikon D610 Camera

The Hoodman Loupe lets you see the image on the back of the camera clearly, adjusted for your eyes, and without glare.

Battery Grip – Mark occasionally uses a Vello Battery Grip on his camera. This grip can hold extra batteries and also makes it possible to take portrait oriented shots (vertical images) while holding the camera as if it were upright rather than twisting your right arm over your head. Mark absolutely loves his. I use mine only occasionally because I can’t use it with my tripod L-bracket (see below).

Camera Straps – We replaced the standard Nikon camera straps with the Optech Pro Strap. This strap is thick and cushy and is slightly curved to fit the curve of your shoulder. It also has quick release clasps so you can easily unclip it from the camera when you’re using a tripod.

 

LENS FILTERS

For a long time we preferred the B+W brand for all our filters, although we’ve used a lot of Hoya filters over the years too. We’ve also tried Tiffen filters, but find they are hit-and-miss. Often, if a “lens deal” includes a filter with the lens, it’s not a great one. Most recently, we have begun buying Nikon filters which seem to be the best quality all around. Just be sure you get the right size for your lens (52 mm or 77 mm, etc.).

Camera UV Filter, Polarizing Filter and Neutral Density Filter

UV filter (top), Polarizing filter (left) & neutral density filter (right)

UV Filters – We have UV filters for all our lenses to provide protection for them.

Polarizing Filters – We also have polarizing filters for all our lenses. A polarizer makes it possible to enhance the colors or reduce the glare in certain lighting situations. It is best around midday and has less effect at dawn and dusk. It is wonderful around bodies of water and for removing the dashboard glare on the windshield when taking photos from inside a car. A polarizer adds a lot of contrast to an image, however, so while it can enhance a landscape beautifully, I’ve found it makes street photography of people too contrasty.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters – We occasionally use a graduated neutral density filter when the sky is very pale and the scene we are shooting is dark. This kind of filter is half colored and half clear. By twisting it so the colored part lines up with the sky and the clear part lines up with the darker landscape, the sky and landscape come out more evenly exposed. They are also very helpful for sunrises and sunsets.

Neutral Density Filters – When shooting moving water, a neutral density filter darkens what the camera sees enough so the shutter speed can be increased to show silky movement in the water without it being blown out and all white. These filters are also helpful if you want to use a very big aperture (small “F number”) to blur out a background and the camera’s top shutter speed isn’t fast enough to get proper exposure. These filters come in different degrees of darkness. A 10-stop filter is good for shooting a waterfall in broad daylight while a 4-stop filter is good for the same scene at dawn or dusk. We had fun with moving water photography at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York, the Blue Ridge Parkway in N. Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in N. Carolina.

 

TRIPODS

It is really hard to invest in a tripod after blowing the bank account on a nice camera, a few lenses, spare batteries, memory cards and filters. And you can have loads of fun with photography without getting a tripod. But if you want to play with shooting (and showing) motion (i.e., a car going by, clouds streaking across the sky or water flowing) or you want to have perfect exposure in very low light (like a sunset) without a flash, or you want to do some timelapse videos (very cool at sunrise in a big canyon) then a tripod is a must.

Sunwayfoto XB-52DL Ballhead with T2C40C Tripod and DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp

Sunwayfoto XB52-DL Ballhead with T2C40C Tripod and
Sunwayfoto DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp

Most people end up upgrading their tripod several times because they just can’t believe, at first, that they have to spend good hard earned money on a tripod, and they go through a bunch of cheap ones before they bite the bullet and get a decent one! We did that, and lots of our friends did too.

The biggest difference between tripods is how much weight they can hold solidly, how easy they are to set up and adjust, and whether things drift or droop a little after you tighten the buttons. I have a Benro carbon fiber tripod that I absolutely love. The legs slide in and out really smoothly, and the adjustments are easy.

Mark has Sunwayfoto tripod legs and ballhead that he loves. We reviewed them in depth at this link:

Choosing a Tripod – Sunwayfoto Tripod and Ballhead Review

We both have the SunWay Foto L-Bracket that attaches to the camera body and lets us set the camera in the tripod in either Landscape or Portrait orientation very easily. I keep my L-bracket on the camera all the time for simplicity in case I want to grab my tripod quickly, but it means I can’t use my Vello Battery Grip. Mark loves his battery grip, so he has to switch back and forth between the regular tripod bracket that fits on the camera along with the battery grip and the L-bracket that doesn’t.

 

FLASHLIGHT

We love doing night photography, photographing the milky way and the stars, and doing light painting on old buildings for ghostly effects. At Waterton Lakes National Park we did a timelapse video of the Milky Way.

When we are hiking on a remote trail in the middle of the night, or light painting a building to make it appear visible in a nighttime photo, we find that a good flashlight is essential.

We use the fabulous, super high powered LED flashlight from Lumintop, the Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen flashlight. It is like having a car’s headlight in your hand!

Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen tactical flashlight

Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen tactical flashlight next to a pocket Mag Light

Built with heavy duty aerospace aluminum, it has a military grade hard-anodized aluminum finish and is water resistant to 2 meters. Offering 3 power levels plus a strobe, there’s also an LED tail light that can be used as a night light when we’re setting up our camera gear in the dark. It also has threads on the bottom for mounting on a tripod.

The flashlight batteries are rechargeable and there is a battery level indicator. The flashlight ships with a wall charger and 12 volt car charging cords, and it comes in a suitcase! The batteries are so strong, it can be used to recharge other smaller devices like cell phones via 2 USB ports.

This is not a pocket flashlight, but it has slots in the end for a strap that makes it very easy to carry.

We love this flashlight and just wish we had had it when we cruised Mexico on our sailboat, as it is far more powerful than the emergency floodlight we had for rescuing a man overboard!

 

HAULING, STORING & MAINTAINING OUR CAMERA GEAR

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With all this camera stuff, it can be a challenge to figure out how to carry it to scenic spots and where to store it in the RV and truck when we’re not using it. Also, our camera gear takes a lot of abuse from dusty air out west, salty air on the coast, and sunscreen from our faces and hands. So it needs to be cleaned periodically. Here’s where we’re at with all this right now:

Hiking With Camera Equipment

When we go on a hike of a few miles, it is likely to take us four hours or more because we stop to take so many photos. So, we want to have water, snacks, our camera gear, tripods, and possibly a jacket with us. There are a lot of camera-specific backpacks and sling style camera bags on the market, but none we’ve seen is really designed for hiking.

After a lot of searching, we finally decided to use big Camelback hydration packs instead of bona-fide camera bags when we hike with all our photography stuff, and we’ve been really happy with this choice.

I have a Camelback H.A.W.G. and Mark has a Camelback Fourteener. Both can carry 100 ounces of water, and each has enough capacity for the Tamron 150-600 lens along with everything else if need be. (We never take more than two lenses with us — one on the camera and one in the pack).

Camelback H.A.W.G. camera bag

The Camelback H.A.W.G. can hold a big camera.

We generally hike with our cameras slung around our necks so we can take photos with them as we walk. I put the Camelback on first and then put the camera on afterwards so the camera straps aren’t trapped under the shoulder straps of the Camelback. There’s nothing like getting caught in the Tourist Tangle!

My main criteria for choosing a Camelback was that I wanted to be able to put my camera (with the 28-300 mm lens attached) inside the Camelback and then close that compartment so I could scramble over something gnarly that required two hands and not worry about the camera slipping out of the pack. And it had to do that with 100 ounces of water in the hydration pack.

My other criteria was that I wanted to be able to hang my tripod on one of the Camelback straps and hike without carrying it in my hand.

The straps on the sides of the H.A.W.G. aren’t designed to carry a tripod, and they may fatigue over time, but I’ve been really happy with how this Camelback has held up on the many hikes I’ve taken with it so far in two years of owning it.

The straps on the sides of the Fourteener are designed to hold ice picks and things like that, so they are probably a little more rugged. If I had known about the Fourteener before I bought my H.A.W.G., I probably would have bought that model instead. Mark has had it almost as long as I’ve had my H.A.W.G., and he is very happy with it as well.

Camelback H.A.W.G. with camera tripod

The tripod fits neatly on the side of the H.A.W.G., and the camera straps aren’t trapped under the Camelback straps.

One really nice feature of both of these Camelback models is that they have a waterproof rain sack that can be pulled out of a hidden pocket and slipped over the whole Camelback, keeping the contents dry if you’re caught in a downpour. This came in super handy at the Duggers Creek Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway!

One of the tricks with backpacks in general is that, if they have a waist belt, you can loosen the belt a little, slip your arms out of the arm straps and then swing the pack around so it is in front of you. This way you can get something out of it without taking it off and putting it on the ground. This is fantastic when you want to swap filters, grab a snack, or change batteries without taking the whole darn thing off.

Once we get to an area where we’re going to take a lot of photos, we take the tripods off the Camelbacks and we carry them around in our hands until we’re ready to hike out again.

We carry a plastic bag (a shopping bag is fine) in our packs in case it sprinkles and we want to cover our cameras for a short time. We also carry rain ponchos so we can cover ourselves and our Camelbacks in the event of unexpected rain.

Short Walks With Photography Gear

If we are going to spend the day roaming around but not hiking, or if we’re taking photos a short distance from the truck, we don’t take the big Camelbacks. I use a small fanny pack to carry a spare battery and possibly a second lens. Mark likes to wear a photographer’s vest that has lots of pockets for all his goodies. He likes the one he has, but has his eye on the Phototools Photovest 14!

Storing All This Stuff

In the trailer we have Ruggard camera cases and Ruggard backpacks to hold the cameras and lenses. We also have camera cases in the truck. We’ve found good homes for the tripods in the truck too, and they generally stay there so they are with us if we arrive somewhere and suddenly wish we had them with us.

Cleaning

A great way to get the dust off the camera and lenses is to blow it off with the Giotto Rocket Blaster (the largest size is best). The Nikon LensPen Lens Cleaner is good for brushing dust off too. For smudges and smears, we use the Eclipse Camera Cleaning Kit which comes with a cleanser and pads.

Giotto Rocket Blaster & Camera Cleaning Kit

Giotto Rocket Blaster & Camera Cleaning Kit

Sometimes the camera’s built-in sensor cleaning system doesn’t quite do the trick, and getting debris off the camera sensor can be really intimidating. Rather than paying for an expensive cleaning at a camera shop, we’ve discovered that the Sensor Gel Stick sold by Photography Life does a phenomenal job (don’t get the cheap Chinese imitation ones). Check out the video under the product description here to see how to do it. It’s easy and we have done it many times.

 

PHOTO ORGANIZATION and POST-PROCESSING TOOLS

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We each have a plain MacBook Pro (no retina display) with 16 GB RAM and a 1 TB internal drive and slots for CD, SD card, Thunderbolt, etc. (2012-style case). We also each have a 4 TB external hard drive with a Thunderbolt dock that allows multiple drives to be daisy-chained.

We use Adobe Lightroom for most of our post-processing. The easiest way to learn Lightroom is the Julianne Kost Lightroom Videos. Julianne is Adobe’s “Lightroom Evangelist” (what a great title and job!) and her presentations are clear and concise.

Organizing photos is never easy, and everyone has a different method. Lightroom lets only one person work on a catalog at a time, so we each have separate Lightroom catalogs. We make use of the Smart Previews in Lightroom to get access to each other’s photos without transferring all the original photo files between our laptops. All we have to transfer is the catalog, previews and smart previews. It’s clunky — I know they could do better — but it works.

We also have a separate Lightroom catalogs for each year. The older catalogs are stored on external hard drives and the current year catalogs are on our laptops. We try to make sure all our photos are in two places (laptop and external drive or on two external drives). Some of our older photos are in Apple’s Aperture and our oldest are in Apple’s iPhoto, the two post-processing programs we used prior to Lightroom.

I don’t want to have to plug in an external drive every time I go into Lightroom, which is why we keep our current year’s photos and catalogs local to our laptops. We have our previous year’s catalogs and smart previews on our laptops so we can see and work with our older photos. If we need the full image of an older photo, we plug in the appropriate external hard drive, and the catalog on the laptop reconnects with the original images.

We don’t store anything in the cloud.

We organize our photos by location but like to have an overall sense of the chronological order in which we visited places, since that is the way we remember our travels. So, we label our folders with 2 digits followed by the state to bring up the states in the order in which we visited them.

Inside of each state folder, we name every download with a 4-digit date (month/day) followed by the specific location. For photos that aren’t location specific (like photos of our trailer disc brake conversion or fifth wheel suspension failure, we move them after downloading to a MISC folder and name a subfolder within it more appropriately or add them to an existing folder.

Lightroom Folder Organization

2 digits to order the states chronologically, then 4-digit dates on subfolders with the specific location.

Photomatix Pro is an excellent program for creating HDR (high dynamic range) effects from several identical photos taken at different exposures, and Topaz Adjust and Topaz Detail in the Topaz Suite of software are great for getting a little wild with crazy effects at the click of a button.

For panoramas, we use Panorama Maker to stitch together a series of photos.

We use the X-Rite Color Checker Passport to create custom color profiles calibrated to specific camera and lens combinations. It also comes with a gray card that we sometimes use to set a custom white balance for particular light conditions.

 

RESOURCES FOR LEARNING PHOTOGRAPHY

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Photography is something you can spend the rest of your life learning. We’ve been reading and studying photography books and blogs for a few years now, and we have found the following printed books and ebooks and online resources to be really helpful in conquering both the technical aspects of understanding what all those buttons on our cameras do and the artistic aspects of how to capture the essence of what we’re seeing.

Photography Books

Some of our Favorite Photography Books

BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY

 

eBOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY

 

ONLINE TUTORIALS

The website that has taught us the most is Photography Life written by Nasim Mansurov and his very talented team. He has super detailed gear reviews and his site is read by many of the top professionals in the photography world. His tutorials are excellent, and he has two pages with links to them all:

We were very fortunate to meet Nasim at his 2012 fall foliage photography workshop in Ridgway Colorado. Those extraordinary three days were a real turning point for our photography.

 

BLOGS, TIPS and GEAR REVIEWS

The photography blogs we read regularly are these:

  • Nikon Rumors – The latest info about everything related to Nikon cameras: future products, recalls, Nikon deals and specials
  • Photography Life – The most comprehensive camera/lens reviews anywhere and a top team of writers producing tutorials
  • Ken Rockwell – The first online photography resources we found. We’ve been following ever since
  • Ming Thein – Excellent and detailed camera reviews and truly inspiring photographs
  • DigitalRev TV – Hilarious (and very informative) videos on all kinds of photography topics.
  • Thom Hogan – Interesting photography-related essays as well as gear reviews
  • Dreamscapes – Phenomenal, jaw-dropping photography that makes us want to keep learning, plus tutorials & eBooks
  • DxO Mark – A laboratory that uses industrial testing equipment to do comparative camera, sensor and lens ratings

 

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