Boondocking (“free camping”) – How to find free RV campsites

There is nothing like the feeling of freedom of setting up camp in an ideal, secluded, picturesque RV campsite out in the hinterlands somewhere, and that’s why many RVers love to go boondocking and why we’ve done it almost every night for over ten years.

Rather than camping in a campground or an RV park, finding an RV campsite somewhere on the gorgeous public lands that have been set aside by the government for recreational purposes can make for a thrilling and fulfilling getaway.

Boondocking in an RV in Utah-min

Boondocking in Utah

Boondocking” refers to this kind of camping which is also more officially known as “dispersed camping” or “primitive camping.” Many RVers also call it “free camping” or even “wild camping” because it usually doesn’t cost anything and many sites are far out in nature somewhere.

Whatever name you give it, it falls under the category of “dry camping” because you are living in your RV without hooking it up to city water, sewer or electricity.

RV boondocking camping in a trailer in Idaho

Boondocking in Idaho

This post describes the different kinds of boondocking spots that are available and how to locate them.

If you are interested in tips for how to live off the grid in an RV (i.e., tips for how to save electricity, how to conserve water & propane, how to boondock safely, etc.), see this page: RV Boondocking – Tips for Living Off the Grid in an RV

WHAT IS RV BOONDOCKING ALL ABOUT?

Generally, boondocking is a very different way of traveling than staying in RV parks and campgrounds, because it is very free spirited and spontaneous. Nothing can be reserved in advance, and often you have no idea what kind of site you might find.

Boondocking in an RV in Montana-min

Boondocking in Montana

Many days we have no idea where we will be staying until late in the afternoon. Learning to be this flexible takes time, especially after years spent in structured, workaday routines, and not everyone ends up liking it.

We find the freedom from rules and restrictions and the beauty of the public lands is intoxicating, and we wouldn’t travel in our RV any other way.

We have been camping this way every night since we started full-timing in 2007, and as of June 2018, we have boondocked in our RV for a total of over 2,800 nights.

Boondocking in an RV-min

Boondocking in Wyoming.

PUBLIC LAND

The US Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other government agencies (Army Corps of Engineers among others) all manage vast tracts of public land.

The USFS (National Forests) is part of the Department of Agriculture, while the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) is part of the Department of the Interior (as is the National Park Service).

Both the USFS and BLM have a mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

As a result, both of these entities manage two kinds of activities on their land: recreational use (camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, biking) and productive use (cattle grazing, mining, logging, etc.).

For this reason, the USFS and BLM generally allow “dispersed camping” on their land. That is, you can camp wherever you find a spot that seems suitable and is accessible.

In stark contrast to the USFS and BLM, the mission of the National Park Service, which manages both America’s National Parks and National Monuments, is to preserve America’s natural and historical treasures. For this reason, the whole notion of dispersed camping runs contrary to their charter, which is preservation (i.e., “don’t touch”). Therefore:

America’s National Parks do not allow dispersed camping in an RV (boondocking)

Some ranger districts and specific locations within the USFS and BLM lands do not allow dispersed camping either. If overnight camping is not allowed, a “No Overnight Camping” sign will be posted at the site or in an otherwise obvious place.

The idea behind dispersed camping is to allow people to enjoy the beauty of nature without the ordinary restrictions of a campground. However, campers have a responsibility not to harm the site and to leave it in good condition for the next person.

That is why there are rules for boondocking about packing trash out, burying human waste deeply, and not making new campfire rings.

In general, the rules for boondocking are very simple:

  • Stay in a site that already has a campfire ring or other evidence of being a campsite, and don’t build a new one
  • Observe fire restrictions (sometimes fires are not allowed due to the ease of starting a wildfire)
  • Pack out the trash you create (and don’t leave it in the fire ring)
  • Bury any human waste under at least 6″ of dirt
  • Enjoy a stay of 14 days or less (sometimes 16 days) and then move on
Fifth wheel trailer camping in Oregon

Sunset in Oregon

The reason behind the 14 day stay limit for dispersed camping is that the government agencies don’t want people moving onto public land and making it their home. The idea is: get in, enjoy the place, and get out. The idea is not to turn public land into little RV homesteads.

In some places the rangers will monitor the campers on their land and will ensure campers leave when their 14 days are up. Even when no one is monitoring how long campers stay, it is important to respect the rules and leave when you’ve reached the time limit.

There is a ranger’s office for each district within each of these agencies, and a stop at the ranger’s office is often worthwhile to pick up maps and to ask about dispersed camping opportunities, local rules and regulations.

Camping in a fifth wheel RV in utah

Lakeside in Utah

Note added May, 2017: A reader recently emailed me to express her distress that when I discussed “our” public land, I referred to it as “their” land, meaning land “belonging to” the federal agencies that manage it (USFS, BLM, etc.). For anyone that is puzzled or put off by this reference, please read my post Copper Mining, Not Camping, In Tonto National Forest which explains in detail one way (of many) that land management agencies control public land.

It takes just a few hours for any land management agency to erect a permanent “Road Closed” sign on any tract of public land to keep the public out — indefinitely — until the road grows over with weeds and fades into oblivion. We’ve seen it happen many times. Public land is “our” land in many ways, but our access to it and the things we can do on it are tightly controlled (and have been tightly controlled for as much as a century in some places).

RV boondocking dispersed camping in Arizona

Arizona

As noted above, the USFS and BLM generally allow boondocking while the National Park Service (NPS) does not.

This means that famous places like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc., are off limits to boondocking.

The one exception for boondocking in the National Park system is at Big Bend National Park in Texas where a very controlled kind of boondocking is possible, as explained here: Boondocking at Big Bend National Park – Tips & Tricks.

Many National Parks are located near National Forests. If you don’t mind a 10 mile or more drive to get to the National Park you are visiting, you can boondock in the National Forest and drive in.

If you are interested in boondocking, or simply camping in National Forest and BLM campgrounds, you’ll soon become aware of the complexities and political issues surrounding the management of America’s public land.

In every western state public land campgrounds and dispersed camping areas are closing at an alarming rate.

Some shocking public land changes we have seen in our years of RVing full-time are described in these two blog posts:

  • Copper Mining (NOT CAMPING!) at Tonto National Forest
    – The 2015 Defense Bill under Obama gave away the world’s largest copper vein (in Arizona) to British/Australian mining interests. Surprisingly, after 50 years of national debate about this land (including a decree by President Eisenhower that it never be mined), it was given away to foreigners rather than sold to an American corporation at a massive profit — with huge royalties on extraction — as it could have been.
  • What is Happening to our Public Land? – Changes at the Grand Canyon
    – Private Italian owned commercial developments have taken place in the National Forest just outside Grand Canyon National Park. Is that an appropriate use of National Forest “public” land?

While there has been a huge outcry recently about reducing the size of several National Monuments, in our experience, RV boondocking is generally not allowed on National Monument property. Also, the creation of a National Monument brings a deluge of tourists and requires building visitors centers, roads, parking lots and other tourist oriented features.

Much of the land in those National Monuments was already managed by federal land agencies prior to becoming a National Monument, and it is slated to return to BLM and USFS control now. The National Monument designation not only restricted how the public could enjoy the land (like boondocking) but dramatically increased the tourist traffic as well.

During a very long conversation with a ranger at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, we learned that he and another ranger had spent an arduous 14 hour day the previous day cleaning up human poop and toilet paper from a popular spot on the National Monument that is too remote for toilet facilities. In the past, that place was not known to the public and saw very little visitation, but because it is now in all the tourist literature for the National Monument, lots of folks go there.

Sign in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument-min

Increased tourism with “National Monument” designation has its downside.
We saw this sign in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

We were also very surprised on a long back road trip to find that much of Grand Staircase Escalante was, in our opinion, very nondescript and featureless land — nothing like the truly stunning and dramatic canyon that was bisected by busy US-89 highway north of Kanab decades ago!

Perhaps the most disturbing development is the deliberate blocking of public land by wealthy people with a political agenda. In the past, ranchers generally allowed the public to have easement access to inaccessible public land next door to their property. Now, as old ranch land is sold, folks are buying it to block access to neighboring public land.

We met a fellow who told us with glee about his recent land acquisition. “When I close the gate to my property I block public access to 88,000 acres of public land!” he said with sheer delight. Another way of looking at it is that he has taken 137 square miles of public land away from the public and made it his own.

In several cases, private landowners who continued to allow public access across their property were murdered by their neighbors who wanted to shut down access to the public land all together: Class War in the American West.

We are not hunters or fishermen, but hunters and anglers are much better organized around the public land debate than RVers are, and they have gathered resources to ensure they retain access to hunting and fishing grounds: SportsmensAccess.org.

The bottom line is that the public land debate has been ongoing for over a century and it is complex. It’s worth noting that beloved photographer Ansel Adams vehemently opposed the National Park Service nearly a century ago. He discussed his opinions and actions at length in his terrific autobiography here.

BOONDOCKING ETIQUETTE

Respect The Neighbors – Give Them Space!

Boondocking campsites vary a lot in size. Some are large enough for several big rigs and some can fit only a single van or truck camper.

If you arrive at a campsite and find someone is already set up there, move on to another site unless you can set up your rig in such a way that you won’t be intruding on their space.

Even though rigs can easily park in very close proximity in RV parks, people who are boondocking on their own generally don’t want to have neighbors move in close by.

There’s no hard and fast rule on “how close is too close,” but for us, if we can’t give the campers a few rig lengths of privacy, we leave them in peace and continue our search for a different site.

Respect The Neighbors – Keep The Noise Down!

Most people boondock to get away from it all, and if you do end up within sight of neighbors, respecting their quest for peace and quiet is simply common courtesy.

Whether it’s loud music or a loud generator, nature is not nearly as tranquil when a neighbor is making a lot of noise.

Respect The Neighbors – Don’t Search For Campsites After Dark!

It is very difficult to find your way around in the boonies on small dirt roads in the pitch dark, but there are folks out there who do their campsite scouting after sunset.

This is most common with people in small driveable RVs without a car who spent the day sightseeing and are now looking for a place to crash.

Just because you have GPS coordinates or directions to a campsite in hand doesn’t mean it will be vacant and available for you when you arrive. There may be sleeping people in RVs there, and they may be surrounded by large obstacles like bushes, rocks, trees and fire pits.

It is quite a jolt to be woken up at midnight by someone driving over small bushes and boulders with their headlights flashing in all directions as they circle around your bedroom trying to find a place to camp for the night!

If you have a small RV without a car, try to finish your sightseeing before sunset so you can find a campsite and set up camp in the boonies without waking up the neighbors. Or, if you want to be out at night, stay in a campground in a well marked site that you can find easily when you return in the dark.

View from RV window in Utah

View from our window in Utah

Leave Your Campsite Cleaner Than You Found It!

In the olden days of 50 years ago, this motto — “Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it” — was drilled into camping kids by their parents. Lots of older campers today remember hearing that refrain from stern parents when they were young. Even if it is not commonly heard any more, it is still great advice that is well worth following.

– Pick Up Other People’s Trash

The land management agencies ask that campers “pack it in and pack it out.” This means: don’t leave the place a mess. Generally an RV won’t leave a footprint behind, but sometimes we arrive at a site and end up filling several grocery bags with trash.

I’d rather pack out someone else’s trash than leave that legacy for our grandchildren to find when they go camping with their RVs decades from now. Sadly, there is LOTS of trash on our public land, and we pack out bags of other people’s trash all the time.

Our feeling is that if we can stay for free for two weeks on a gorgeous piece of property, surrounded by hundreds of acres of natural beauty, with a multi-million dollar view out our windows, the least we can do is to pick up a little trash.

This makes the campsite nice for the next visitor!

We also want to keep the USFS, BLM and other land management agencies happy with RVers so they continue to allow boondocking on their land.

So the first thing we do when we set up camp anywhere (both on public land AND in commercial parking lots) is to grab a grocery bag and fill it with whatever trash is strewn around our rig. There is ALWAYS some! I usually throw on a pair of rubber gloves.

In Arizona, many Tonto National Forest boondocking areas have been closed because it was too expensive for the USFS to clean up after winter RVers and others who trashed the places. What a shame that those thoughtless people ruined it for everyone else.

– Clean Out the Campfire Ring

Many campers like to leave some of their trash in the campfire ring, thinking that the next camper will burn it for them. They seem not to realize that the next camper may not want to sit down in front of their wonderful campfire on their first night out only to spend an hour burning someone else’s trash!

Also, lots of folks don’t do campfires. Who wants to see a pile of trash in the front yard while they’re camping?

Here’s a photo of the things I pulled out of a campfire ring in gorgeous Sedona Arizona one time:

campfire ring contents-min

We arrived to find all this piled up in the campfire ring.
Who wants to start their camping getaway by burning the junk left by the previous camper?

– More about Poop on our Public Land

Many conservation oriented people who plan to do a lot of boondocking ask us if they should get a composting toilet for their RV. Keeping campsite cleanliness etiquette in mind, and remembering the public land managers’ important and common sense rule about burying human waste under at least 6″ of dirt, we’ve summarized our thoughts at this link: Is a composting toilet a good idea in an RV?

HOW TO LOCATE BOONDOCKING SITES

The Delorme State Atlas Books and the Benchmark Atlas Books show where the public lands are in each state, and we have one for every state we travel in (and for a few states we have two, one from each publisher!).

These atlases also have a section in the front that describes the various outings, scenic drives, historic spots and unusual natural landmarks that can be found within the state. With those attractions in mind, we have an idea of where we want to go and which secondary roads will get us there.

boondocking with a fifth wheel trailer in Idaho

Camping under a big open sky in Idaho

Each state also produces a free paper road map, and visitors centers usually stock them for all the states in the region, so it’s easy to get your hands on a road map when you arrive (and sometimes even before you arrive) in a new state. Note that the big state visitors centers are generally located on the interstates, so if you are crossing into a new state and want a map, arriving via an interstate highway is a good idea.

RV camping in the Oregon woods

Tucked into the woods in Oregon

We like these paper road maps because they give an overview of the layout of the state and they usually show where the scenic drives are too. You see, where there are scenic roads, there are beautiful things to see, and sometimes there are nice places to boondock too!

That’s why, between the atlas map books and the road maps, we are always on the lookout for scenic areas.

Another super resource is the wonderfully detailed National Geographic maps of America’s public lands. These take the atlas books one step further, giving finer detail (but covering less area). We turn to these when we want to zero in on a particular national forest or BLM area. These maps are especially useful for:

The National Geographic maps are also excellent for these states:

Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

We usually aim for a particular area, and once we arrive, we find a place to park the rig temporarily so we can get our bearings and do some scouting in person. Then we unhitch our truck or unload the bikes, and we go scouting to see if there are any good campsites.

Usually, the first night or two we are in a temporary spot that is okay but is not somewhere we’d want to spend a long time. If we like the area and want to stay longer, we then do an all out search to find a better place. Sometimes we get lucky and find a great campsite. Sometimes it’s impossible and we just move on.

Camping under a rainbow in Wyoming

A rainbow crosses the sky in Wyoming

We incorporate our search for boondocking spots into our overall travels and sightseeing in each area we visit. Because of this, unlike most RV campers, for us searching for boondocking locations is an integral part of our lives and is the very fabric of our RV lifestyle.

Our biggest concern in scouting out a boondocking campsite is whether or not our rig will fit, both on the road getting there, and also once we are in the campsite. Overhanging branches and insufficient room to turn around can make a great spot impossible for us to use.

Secondary concerns are the potential that the place will get really muddy if it rains or really dusty if it gets windy. We also debate how long a drive it is from the campsite to wherever we want to visit. Sometimes it’s not worth staying if we’re going to be driving excessively to see whatever we came to see. However, in popular places we do frequently boondock in places that are as much as 20 to 50 miles from wherever we plan to be sightseeing.

It may sound funny, but we frequently don’t unhitch our trailer when we stay somewhere, especially if we know we won’t be staying more than a few days. If the area is bike friendly, and we’re caught up on our chores (laundry and grocery shopping), we won’t be using the truck anyways. So, we save ourselves a few minutes while setting up and breaking down camp by keeping the truck and trailer attached.

Camping in an RV in Arizona

Full moon at dusk in Arizona

There are listings of boondocking sites on various websites and some folks sell books with boondocking locations in them.

However, in all our years of living off the grid and boondocking, we have found that going scouting in person is by far the best way to find places to stay.

Ultimately, RV boondocking is all about adventure, and for us, the true joy of boondocking is exploring the wonderful public lands in America and discovering special campsites that are relatively unknown.

Overnight at a scenic lookou at Washington Pass in the North Cascades

One of our earliest boondocking experiences in Washington

Besides the thrill of discovery, another reason we like to find our campsites on our own rather than relying on lists of boondocking locations given by other people is that, in general, the quality of the reports in those lists is unreliable.

If the person reporting the site is traveling in a van, or in a car with a tent, or small RV, and has never driven a big RV, their “fabulous” campsite that is “good for any size RV” may be totally inappropriate for a truly big rig.

In addition, not only is one person’s definition of a “good dirt road” different than another’s, the site may have become unusable since the report was made.

RV camping in the boondocks in Oregon

Exotic skies in Oregon

Boondocking locations are being closed all the time.

Unfortunately, the places that allow RVers to boondock are shrinking in number all the time.

As communities grow in areas next to tracts of public land, residents don’t want to look out the windows of their new home to see RVs camping, and they get the public land management agencies to close the sites. Nearby RV parks and other fee based campgrounds also don’t like the competition from free campsites nearby, so they campaign to close dispersed camping sites to encourage RVers to stay in their campgrounds instead.

Also, the public land management agencies close roads to former boondocking sites every day for various reasons, frequently converting them to “Day Use Only.” All it takes to eliminate a stunning dispersed camping location is a “Road Closed” or “No Camping” sign on the road leading to it. These are becoming more and more common on America’s public lands.

Many places we stayed early in our travels are now off limits, and RVers who started out 10 or 20 years before us have told us of favorite campsites they lost before we even knew what boondocking was.

Day Use Only - No camping - sign for RV campers in the National Forest-min

There are over a dozen fantastic former boondocking campsites behind this sign in Colorado.

PARKING OVERNIGHT at COMMERCIAL PARKING LOTS, TRUCK STOPS and CASINOS

Walmart is famous for being very RV-friendly, and they sell a Rand McNally Atlas that lists all the addresses of every Walmart in the US as well as its interstate exit number, if it is near one. However Walmart is not always in control of their land, so staying overnight in their lot is not always legal.

Although most Walmarts would allow RV overnight parking if they could, when the building is on leased land with a landlord that forbids it, or when it is located within city limits that have an ordinance against overnight parking, then you can’t stay there.

Usually there are signs in the parking lot if overnight parking is not allowed. It is advisable to check with the store’s security department to find out whether or not they allow overnight parking, and if they do, where they want you to park.

Here is a list of No Overnight Parking Walmarts. Of course, sometimes rules are flagrantly ignored, and we have arrived at Walmarts where RVs and semi-tractor trailers were lined up between the signs prohibiting overnight parking!

Even more-so than on public land, the boondocking etiquette at a commercial parking lot like Walmart is really important.

We try to keep a low profile, usually remaining hitched to the truck and often not even putting the slides out. Obviously, camp chairs, patio mats, grills and other outdoor paraphernalia is strictly forbidden.

5th wheel trailer Boondocking in Colorado

Surrounded by gold in Colorado

We have seen people treat a Walmart parking lot like a campground, grilling steaks, enjoying cocktails in their camp chairs, and playing ball with their kids in the parking lot (and hitting car windshields with the ball!). No wonder city ordinances against overnight parking in commercial lots are on the rise!

How serious is this business of proper overnight parking etiquette?

Years ago, when we first started full-timing, we stayed at a casino that was very popular among snowbird RVers migrating down I-15 to Arizona for the winter.

While walking around the parking lot at sunset, we saw lots of of RVers setting up a big circle of camping chairs right in the parking lot. These more experienced RVers told us “it was fine” to have cocktail hour in the parking lot and that they did it whenever they came through on their north-south migration in spring and fall.

Free camping with a fifth wheel trailer in Wyoming

Camping on a lake in Wyoming

“The casino management doesn’t care if we do this…” these RVers told us. So we accepted their invitation to join them. It looked like fun! Well, apparently management did care, because now overnight parking is prohibited, not only in that particular casino parking lot but at most of the others in town too.

Along with this casino, we have seen quite a few other commercial parking lots that were once popular overnight spots close their lots to RVers. So again, be respectful of the special places that still allow it so others can enjoy it in the future!

Fifth wheel trailer RV boondocking in Arizona

Camping amid the cactus in Arizona

Cracker Barrel allows overnight parking at many locations, and they have a map that lists the addresses of their stores. However, we have yet to see a Cracker Barrel with a parking space big enough for our rig!

Camping World allows overnight parking in some of their lots. They list their store locations online and you can give them a call to find out which ones allow it.

Casino Camper gives descriptions of casinos that offer overnight RV parking, either in RV parks for a fee, or in a back lot for free.

Truck stops are another option in a pinch, although that rarely makes for a good night’s sleep.

Small businesses will sometimes allow an RV to stay in a back lot if you patronize them and ask permission. Some visitors centers allow it too, but generally only the ones in less busy areas.

GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP in a COMMERCIAL LOT

Most commercial lots are very well lit, so it’s almost impossible to find a spot in the parking lot where the street lights won’t be shining in the windows or down the bedroom hatch.

Using a vent hatch insulator in the bedroom roof hatch and putting Reflectix in the windows will block the light and make it easier to sleep. Choosing a spot that is far away from any trucks is important too, as they tend to come and go all night long. Refrigerated trucks run loud generators to keep their contents cold. Parking next to one overnight is no fun at all!

Camping by a brook in Idaho

Our own private Idaho

REST AREAS and PULL-OUTS

Some Interstate rest areas allow overnighting and some don’t. Generally, if it is not allowed, then there are signs that say so. Like truck stops, finding a spot away from the trucks is vital.

Vermont doesn’t allow sleeping in their rest areas between 7 pm and 7 am (apparently “resting” at a rest stop is a very short duration activity in Vermont), while at one time Texas offered free wifi at all of theirs! One rest area in Mississippi is set up like a campground with individual campsites and a water spigot at each site!

Many secondary roads have large pull-outs where you can be far off the highway and get a good night’s sleep.

ASK AROUND

The best boondocking resources are often fellow RVers and other people we meet in our travels. However, as with the online and printed reports of campsites, it helps to verify that the person has actually been there and done it.

Many forest rangers will say there is dispersed camping in their district, yet despite being “legal,” it is totally impractical. Find out if the ranger you are talking to is an RVer with a rig your size.

RV boondocking in Arizona

Beach camping in Arizona

Also, whoever you talk to, find out what kind of rig they actually took to the campsite they are describing and when they last went. They may own a big rig now, but if they took a Jeep and a tent to this site twenty years ago, it doesn’t count.

Lastly, size up the person and their thirst for adventure as compared to your own. We have several RVing friends who happily take their big motorhomes to places we’d hesitate to go.

Most of all — have fun with it. For us, half of the excitement of boondocking is in the searching. We always have an eye out for prospective camping sites as we drive around, and when we find a really good one it’s a total thrill.

RV camping and boondocking in Arizona

Red rock camping in Utah

WHY DON’T WE SHARE OUR BOONDOCKING LOCATIONS?

Many people ask us why we don’t give GPS coordinates or directions to the boondocking locations we find. Very simply, boondocking is all about adventure — not knowing what might lie around the corner or where you might sleep tonight. We don’t want to spoil that adventure for you!

More importantly, the essence of boondocking is being able to experience true independence, freedom and self-reliance, things that are rare in today’s world.

One of the greatest thrills of boondocking is suddenly coming across a campsite that is ideal for you, somewhere you would just LOVE to stay for a few days. If you simply drive to the GPS coordinates somebody else has given you, you are missing out on the most exciting aspects of boondocking: exploration and discovery.

Our boondocking locations work well for us, but they might not work for you. Our trailer sports a lot of pin stripes along its sides from scraping against tree branches when we’ve squeezed down a narrow road, and our truck already has a dent in the side from a tree branch falling on it when we shoe-horned ourselves into a tight spot.

We are willing to commute as much as 50 miles between our campsite and the areas where we sightsee. So, many of the stunning photos of our rig on this blog are not anywhere near the areas we were visiting at the time.

We also spend many hours each week searching for good campsites by driving our truck or riding our bikes down tiny dirt roads to see what’s there. This is an integral part of our daily lives and is not only a fundamental part of our travels but is something we really enjoy doing.

For those that are willing to make this kind of effort, all of the beautiful places you see in this blog are waiting for you to find. Relish the search — we do!

When we cruised in our sailboat, a popular cruising guide had just been published. It gave the GPS coordinates where the authors had anchored in every anchorage. Everywhere we went, boats were crammed around those coordinates. Even if the anchorage was a mile wide, 20 boats would be on top of each other where the authors of the book had dropped their anchor.

That kind of “paint-by-numbers” cruising (or boondocking) is easy, but I think all those sailors were missing out on something priceless: exploring and finding a little corner of their own that was away from it all and that was “theirs” for a few nights.

RV boondocking in a 5th wheel trailer

A classic sunset

Also, like everything on the Internet, this blog is read worldwide. I have seen our RV articles and our blog links being discussed on RVing forums from France to The Netherlands to Romania and have received emails from South American and Australian readers as well!

I love corresponding with American service people who are stationed overseas in the war-torn parts of the world, especially when they tell me that this blog is a source of inspiration for them as they begin to plan for a different life after their service is over.

However, there is little reason for people on the other side of the planet to get detailed directions to or GPS coordinates for priceless camping spots on America’s public land.

If boondocking and anchoring out all these years have taught us anything, it is that these places are precious. Anchorages are disappearing as they are turned into mooring fields and then get built up into marinas. Public land boondocking locations are disappearing often because it’s cheaper to prohibit dispersed camping than to pay to pick up the trash that careless campers and partiers have left behind.

We love our life in an RV off the grid, and we hope others with a similar passion for the natural world will approach it with the same kind of adventurous spirit as we do, and will find it as thrilling and fulfilling as we have.

However, going out and having a thrilling adventure of your own is an exercise we leave up to the reader!!

Want to learn more about RV boondocking? We have loads of articles on this website:

Index pages with links to our many articles about RVing:

  • RV Tech Tips – RV Upgrades, Maintenance Tips, Buying an RV, Truck and Trailer Tips and more.
  • RV Lifestyle Tips – Full-time RVing tips, Off-grid living, RV Repairs, Workamping, How to Live the Dream and more.

Official websites of the Public Land Agencies and Bureaus:

  • US Forest Service – The USFS manages America’s many National Forests under the Department of Agriculture
  • Bureau of Land Management – The BLM manages vast tracts of land in the west under the Department of the Interior
  • US Army Corps of Engineers – Among many other things, manages America’s watershed areas, largely in the east
  • National Park Service – Oversees and protects America’s natural and historic treasures, under the Department of the Interior

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Dirty Little Secrets from the RV Dump Station – RV Dumping Tips + Composting Toilets

When Trailer Life Magazine asked me to write a 2,000 word feature article about RV sanitation systems, including step-by-step RV dumping procedures, overall RV dump station etiquette and tips for emptying the RV holding tanks, all I could think of were two words:

Don’t Spill !!

Once Mark and I put our heads together, though, Continue reading

Full-time RV Tips – Mail, Domicile, Insurance, Saving Money!

The full-time RV lifestyle is absolutely fantastic, and we’ve been loving our nomadic life since 2007. Many people who are new to the idea of RVing full-time wonder how full-timers get their mail or file their taxes or what kind of insurance they buy. What the heck do they use as a home address (known in legalese as a “domicile”) and where do they register to vote? And how do they save money on RV park and campground costs?

This page, the third part in our series on full-time RVing, reveals all that we have learned about these topics in our many years on the road. The previous two articles are: Working and Living in an RV and Which RV is the Best Rolling Home?

For easy navigation on this page, and to read a little now and come back for more later, click on these links:

Links to the entire series and its various chapters are here: Full-time RV Lifestyle Tips

Full-time RVing Domicile Mail Forwarding Taxes RV Insurance

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SELECTING A DOMICILE: TAXES, MAIL FORWARDING & VEHICLE REGISTRATION

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Once you run away in an RV, you lose all the familiar pillars that supported your life before: mail no longer arrives daily at your doorstep, the washer and dryer are no longer just steps from the kitchen, the bank is no longer on a familiar corner. With a little flexibility all these things are easy to handle in a traveling lifestyle.

Selecting A Home State – Taxes and Vehicle Registration Rates

When you trade your home address to live on the road in an RV, you need to decide how to receive mail and what to call “home” on your tax returns. Some of the full-time RVers we meet retained the state of residence where they were living before they hit the road. Most of them still own property in that state, and they often have a relative or friend who forwards their mail.

However, most full-time RVers change their state of residence, or domicile, and there are valid reasons for doing so, including tax, insurance and vehicle registration rates.

States Without A State Income Tax

Not every state has a state income tax. South Dakota, Florida and Texas are among the states that have no state income tax, and they are the most popular states for full-time travelers. They are also fairly lenient for establishing residency, and they have many companies that offer mail forwarding and vehicle registration services.

Choosing a Domicile address and residency

When you no longer have a permanent physical home address, your legal address or “domicile” can be
in any state. Some states are better than others for this purpose.

State Sales Tax Rates

The sales tax rates also vary from state to state. The sales tax in one particular state may not seem important for someone who is going to be traveling all over the country, but the sales tax in your home state can actually be very important. If you buy a new vehicle — car, truck, trailer or motorhome — during your travels, you will register it in your home state and pay that state’s sales tax in the process. Many full-time RVers upgrade either their RV, tow vehicle or “toad” at some point. We have purchased tw trucks and two trailers during our years on the road. The sales tax rates in the most popular states for full-time travelers are:

South Dakota 4%
Florida 6%
Texas 6.25%

Other Considerations – Additional Taxes and Insurance

Vehicle registration fees and vehicle insurance rates, as well as cell phone taxes and health insurance rates also vary between those states. Health insurance varies dramatically from state to state and health insurance needs and qualifying criteria also vary from person to person.

For those concerned about dental and medical care on the road, another option is to zip across America’s southern border to get good dental/medical care in Mexico. We have gotten a lot of excellent dental care in Mexico, both in our lives as RVers and our lives as boaters living in Mexico. We have detailed information about dental care in Mexico at this link:

Mexican Dentists – Finding Affordable Dental Care in Mexico

South Dakota is popular among full-time travelers because it boasts no inheritance tax, no property tax and no vehicle inspections. We chose South Dakota as our domicile right before we hit the road as newbie full-time RVers in 2007.

There are other states that have either no income tax and/or no sales tax besides these three most popular ones (SD, TX and FL). However, those states make it a little more difficult to establish residency, leaving full-time travelers in a bind, and they have fewer companies offering mail forwarding and vehicle registration services.

The Impact of Non-Residents on these Popular States

The advantage to these states and communities of having lots of non-resident residents is that they receive many thousands of dollars of sales taxes, insurance premiums and registration fees that wouldn’t otherwise come their way. The presence of mail forwarding companies also creates jobs in these states that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

At the same time, this non-resident residency impacts the local politics of the cities and towns where the biggest mail forwarding companies do business because of the huge number of absentee voters. These voters may vote like each other — full-time RVers have a lot in common with each other — but they don’t necessarily vote like the other residents of their adopted hometowns.

The Right to Vote

Many Americans assume that they have a constitutional right to vote. Surprisingly, that is not the case. States control who can vote and who can’t, from local elections on up to presidential elections. For more info on this, visit FairVote.org.

Uncle Sam Right to Vote for nomadic RVers

In early February, 2016, a bill was introduced in South Dakota that would effectively deny anyone using a South Dakota mail forwarding service as their legal domicile the right to vote. The history behind this bill was that in Pennington Country a vehicle tax increase of $60 came up for a vote, and prior to voting day, certain politicians assumed that the nomadic RVers with legal domiciles in that county would unanimously vote against it.

Interestingly, in the end only 11% of the RVers from Americas Mailbox in that county actually cast a vote. Of course, 98% of them did vote against the tax, which continued to raise an alarm for the politicians.

As a result, Senate Bill 164 was proposed by Republican Senator Craig Tieszen to deny voting rights to residents who did not maintain a home in the state. The bill was tabled in committee, due in large part to the very vocal response from the RVing community, but the issue still rankles certain politicians in South Dakota, so it would not be surprising if it surfaced again in the future.

We have posted a detailed article explaining the issue as well as a detailed analysis of the committee hearing written by the Escapees Advocacy Director in an email to Escapees members. The comments made by Senator Tieszen at the hearing make it clear he is going to continue to work towards eliminating the voting eligibility of people who are not physical residents of the state.

The “Right To Vote” is a Privilege Some Full-Time RVers Might Lose

Selecting A Mail Forwarding Company — Your Home Address

In addition to finding a state that makes financial sense for your lifestyle needs, finding the right mail forwarding company is very important. This company will give you your actual legal mailing address for everything you do, from banking to borrowing to filing income taxes to voting.

South Dakota, Texas and Florida are all home to major mail forwarding services that will help you become a legal resident, help you register and insure your vehicles and help you become a registered voter. Your postal mail will be sent to your address at the mail forwarding service. They will then sent it to you, wherever you are. You will have to show up in person in your new home state to get your driver’s license. The terms for renewing a driver’s license vary from state to state.

If the company goes out of business (and we’ve heard of that happening), not only might you lose some mail, but you are left without a legal address. Of course, it is easy enough to “move” when you live on the road, so you won’t be homeless for long. But you will have to make a lot of phone calls and online address changes wherever your mailing address is recorded.

Your Name
General Delivery
City, State Zip

“Virtual Mail” Service

Most of the bigger mail forwarding services now offer some kind of “virtual” service where you can see a scanned image of each envelope as soon as it arrives and then request to have the envelope opened and the documents inside scanned as well, with further options to do something special if the document needs to reach you physically right away or to shred it.

We have been enjoying the virtual mail service that comes with the Platinum plan at America’s Mailbox, and we have found it is really handy to know what is waiting for us in the mail before we have it shipped to us.

Mail Forwarding Service Providers

In South Dakota, one of the largest mail forwarding services is America’s Mailbox just outside of Rapid City in Box Elder near the Black Hills in the western part of the state. We have the Platinum plan with them and have been absolutely delighted with their service. We call them once a month and tell them where to send the mail. Mail forwarding providers in South Dakota include:

The locations can be seen on this interactive Map of South Dakota

In Texas, Escapees has the largest mail forwarding service in the country. They receive a semi tractor-trailer load of mail everyday. We saw this truck come in everyday while visiting the main Escapees Headquarters campus in Livingston, Texas, and we toured their mail sorting facility. We were absolutely floored by the operation (our blog post about it is here: Rainbow’s End – Escapees RV Club Headquarters in Livingston Texas. Another Texas mail forwarding service is Texas Home Base.

In Florida, cruising sailors have relied on St. Brendan’s Isle mail forwarding for ages. To my knowledge, they were the first (by at least 5 years) to provide a virtual mail service where you could see a scanned image of your mail in an email message. This kind of service is now provided by America’s Mailbox and Escapees and others as well. Other mail forwarding services in Florida are Nato Mail, Escapees, Good Sam Club and My RV Mail.

US Mail truck at Escapees RV Club mail sorting facility Livingston Texas

A US Mail semi tractor-trailer arrives at the Escapees mail sorting facility in Texas with one day’s mail.

How Do You Get Your Mail Forwarded To You?

Usually we have the mail sent to a post office, addressed to us via “General Delivery.” We get the zip code for the post office online from www.usps.com. If we are in transit, we try to guess what town we might be traveling through in a few days. The post office holds all General Delivery mail for 30 days, so there is plenty of time to locate the post office and retrieve our box.

The format for a General Delivery address is:

When selecting a post office, be sure they offer General Delivery services (you can find out at the www.usps.com link). Virtually all full service post offices do, but some of the “Approved postal providers” that they list don’t. When you go to get your box o’ mail, they will ask for your ID before handing it to you.

You can also have your mail sent to an RV park where you are staying or to a friend’s house. If mail is going to a friend, address it:

Your Name
c/o Your Friend’s Name
Street
City, State Zip

We find it is far preferable, in all mail and shipping matters, to select a smaller, quieter rural post office instead of a big chaotic urban one.

US Post Office Mail General Delivery

We find the smaller post offices are easier and more fun to work with, like this little log cabin
post office in the historic village of Washington outside Maysville, Kentucky

How Do You Have Packages Shipped To You?

Because we don’t like to plan more than a day in advance, we have small items sent to our South Dakota mailing address. Sure, we pay double shipping sometimes (first to get it to SD and then to get it to us, wherever we are), but that’s a small price to pay to be on the road full-time, happy, free and independent.

We have larger packages shipped directly to us, wherever we are. This takes some planning and strategizing, as explained below.

Can FedEx and UPS Packages Be Shipped to General Delivery Post Office Addresses?

UPS and FedEx packages are most easily shipped to real street addresses (RV Parks or friends) or to post office box holders at a post office or to a shipping store like FedEx/Kinko’s or a UPS store or Mailboxes Etc. If you are staying somewhere for the season, you can get a PO box at a mailing services store.

If you don’t have a real street address at the moment (i.e., you are boondocking), the easiest way to go is to have packages shipped by the US Postal Service to General Delivery at a post office. Doing it this way, the package stays within the US postal system the entire time from shipping to delivery.

We have at least two dozen shipping addresses listed in our Amazon account. LOL!! Reading through those addresses is like reading a brief history of our RV travels, as the addresses date back to our first year on the road!!

If the shipper can’t or won’t use the Postal Service, then they can ship via a dedicated shipping company like UPS or FedEx to a post office General Delivery address. However, this is more complicated because the package is handled by both the Postal Service and the shipping company.

The Postal Service coordinates shipping and deliveries with UPS and FedEx, but they are also direct competitors with them, so things can get muddy and there are no strict rules and regulations that we know of.

We’ve had the Postmasters at several different Post Offices give us totally conflicting information. We pressed two different Postmasters to call their district supervisors to get the details clarified, and even then we got conflicting information. So it seems the Postal Service is is still working out its relationships with UPS and FedEx as far as General Deliveries go.

Postal Service Fees For Packages Shipped By UPS and FedEx

Sometimes packages shipped by UPS or FedEx to a General Delivery address at a post office are handed to the recipient free of charge. However, sometimes the Postal Service charges the recipient a fee at the pickup counter before handing over the package. I know this seems odd, because FedEx or UPS carried the package all the way across the country while the Postal Service is merely carrying it from the mail room to the front counter. But it happens.

We have received many Post Office General Delivery packages shipped by both UPS and FedEx without being charged a penny by the Postal Service. However, we have received just as many packages where we were charged a fee of as much as $12, depending on the size of the package, when we went to the post office window to pick it up. There is no way of knowing what the fee will be ahead of time, as it is out of the hands of the company that shipped the package and is entirely up to the local Post Office that delivers it to you via General Delivery.

Shipping to a Warehouse Distribution Center

To get around this, you can look up the nearest warehouse distribution center for either FedEx or UPS and have the package shipped to that distribution center with “Hold for Pickup” written on it. You will not be charged a fee at pickup. However, you will need to track the package and you will have 5 days to pick up the package before it is returned to the sender.

Delivery to a Shipping/Mail Services Store

If the distribution center is too hard to get to, you can opt to have the package shipped to a UPS Store or FedEx/Kinko’s store or other shipping store like MailBoxes Etc. The store will likely charge you a fee, even if it is a UPS store and you are shipping via UPS or is a FedEx/Kinko’s and you are shipping via FedEx. We’ve seen the fee range from a flat fee of $3 whenever you pick it up to $7 per day, however these stores are more likely to hold the package longer than 5 days. So, check with the store before having something shipped to them to get the details and verify how they want the package to be addressed.

New: Shipping to a Store Near You

There is a new development at both UPS and FedEx to ship packages to drug stores, supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores on Main Street. While we staying in Buffalo, Wyoming, in the summer of 2017, a small clothing store on the main drag both shipped and received UPS packages for us.

The FedEx program is called FedEx OnSite and it networks with Kroger Stores, Albertsons and Walgreens. The UPS program is called US Access Point and networks with 4,000 locations in mom-and-pop grocery stores, dry cleaners and other merchants.

Case History – UPS Goes Above And Beyond!

This all may sound complicated, but sometimes it’s as smooth as silk.

One time we had a package shipped via UPS to a post office General Delivery address in a small town. We tracked the package, and noticed its status was “On the truck and out for delivery.” This seemed to imply that the package was on its way to the post office, so we called the UPS distribution center to find out at what time of day the truck might get to the post office so we could drive in to get it.

The UPS distribution center was small, and they said only the driver would know the exact time. To our utter astonishment, they gave us the UPS driver’s cell phone number. So we called him!! He was very friendly and said he could drive over to where our RV was parked and hand deliver the package in about 10 minutes. We were both totally shocked when he pulled alongside our rig and handed our package to Mark — at no charge. Now how’s that for service?!

UPS Package Delivery to an RV

A UPS driver hand delivers a package to Mark at our fifth wheel!

Vehicle Registration

We have registered four vehicles through our mail forwarding service provider: two trucks and two trailers. Each time they have emailed us a few forms and worked with us on the phone to fill them out properly. They have then submitted the forms to the registry of motor vehicles and we have received our license plates in the mail a few weeks later.

Each year we get new tags for our plates. We handle this via the phone or online with a credit card or check, and the tags come within a week or so. Easy!

Banking

Online banking has made full-time travel much easier than it was years ago. Almost everything can be done with plastic in person and then by paying the credit card bill online. Income taxes are easily filed online these days, and you get your tax refund for state or federal taxes very easily.

For cash needs, you can get “cash over” on a debit card at the supermarket without any fees rather than worrying about finding a branch of your bank in some obscure town or paying extra to get money from an ATM machine. Buy a pack of gum for a buck and get $100 over. If you need to deposit a check, get the mailing address of your bank branch and mail them a short explanatory note, a deposit slip and the check, endorsed “For deposit only.”

If you will be RVing in Canada or Mexico a lot, get checking and credit card accounts from Capital One to avoid international currency exchange fees (Capital One doesn’t charge anything whereas most US banks charge a 3% fee on every transaction made outside the US).

We have other notes for RVers headed into Canada here: Tips for RV Travelers Going to Nova Scotia

 

FULL-TIME RV INSURANCE

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These are notes from my own recent calls to 7 different insurance agents representing a variety of providers. I got mutliple quotes from National General (Good Sam Club), Nationwide (Allied), National Interstate and Progressive .

Some agents represented the same companies as each other, but getting an apples-to-apples comparison between agents and providers proved extremely difficult and required repeated phone calls and lots of persistence. The differences are all in the fine print, which no one likes to read.

How Much Is That RV Worth?

New RV insurance policies for late model RVs can cover the RV for its Replacement Value. That is, within the first 2 to 5 or so model years, depending on the insurer, if the RV is destroyed, you can shop for a new one of similar type and features. In the next model year after the insurer’s time limit for Replacement Value coverage has ended, your coverage will change to Actual Cash Value which is the current market value of the year, make and model of RV.

If your RV is covered for Actual Cash Value, at the time of a claim, the insurance adjuster will determine what that current value of it is using the NADA guide or similar pricing tool.

Tow truck towing a motorhome do they have insurance

Bummer.

Liability Coverage

When you give up your home owner’s policy, you give up a lot of nice blanket coverages that come with it, like liability coverage and the loss of personal belongings. Quite a few companies offer “Full-time RV insurance” that includes liability coverage similar to what would typically come with a home insurance policy. Coverage for personal belongings is a whole different story, however. See below.

Personal Effects

The biggest problem for full-timers is covering their personal belongings. Anything that was not originally sold with the RV and is not attached (imagine turning the RV upside down to find out what’s “not attached”), is considered “Personal Effects,” and most RV policies include some kind of coverage for Personal Effects. However, from my research, this coverage is woefully inadequate if you have anything beyond basic camping gear in your rig.

The following is a summary of how the various quotes I received were explained to me. I list the specifics here not so much to suggest one company’s product over another but so you can see just how much you need to press for the exact details if you really want to understand the insurance you are buying. Obviously, the companies mentioned may change their policies, and it’s possible I misunderstood something.

The value of Personal Effects coverage available generally ranges from $2,000 (National Interstate) to $20,000 (National General), and the full amount is reimbursed in the event of the RV’s total loss. In the event of theft, there has to be proof of forcible entry and a police report must be filed (the time limits for filing the report vary). In case you disagree with the value the adjuster assigns to an item at the time of a claim, it helps to have dated photos of each item and receipts.

In the event that there is a partial loss, like theft of just a few items, there are caps on what is covered. With National General, if the theft occurs inside your RV, then the cap is 25% of the total value of all the Personal Effects coverage that you carry. For example, if you have a $20,000 Personal Effects policy, then this means there is a cap of $5,000 per claim. If the theft occurs outside the RV but on your campsite, then the coverage is 10% of the total value of all the Personal Effects coverage that you carry. Again, for $20,000 total coverage, this means a cap of $2,000 per claim. There is no coverage if the theft occurs away from the RV (i.e, your bike is stolen from the bike rack at the coffee shop in town).

Bicycle insurance and camera insurance is separate from RV insurance

Bikes and cameras are covered (more or less) on your campsite but not away from the RV.

In the case of Nationwide (Allied), there is a four page description of how personal effects are covered and the capping methodology used, including more than a page of listed exclusions. Some highlights: There’s a cap of $500 per individual item. Groups of similar types of items are capped differently, for instance items grouped as “camera equipment” or “fishing gear” or “musical instruments” are capped at $1,000 per group while items grouped as “computer equipment,” “tools” and “silverware” are capped at $3,000 per group.

On the other hand, the “outside the RV” coverage with Nationwide is more generous than National General at 25% of the total Personal Effects coverage rather than 10%.

All of these reimbursements may be subject to your overall policy deductible or may have a specially applied Personal Effects deductible (for Nationwide it is $250).

Getting Personal Effects coverage above and beyond the $20,000 limit generally requires scheduling each item and giving it a value. Progressive requires each item to be appraised ahead of time and submitted as part of the application process for securing an insurance policy. Nationwide doesn’t require appraisals but asks for receipts showing prices paid and date of purchase so they can determine the depreciated value. I’m not sure how either handles the “outside the RV” scenario if the base coverage is higher than $20,000.

So, as you can see, you won’t get much for your stuff unless the whole RV and everything in it goes up in smoke, even if your policy says that $20,000 of personal belongings is covered.

We had National Interstate at first and were very happy with their speedy payment in covering a very large claim. However, their Personal Effects coverage just isn’t adequate, so we have National General at the moment and are still shopping.

How About Renter’s Insurance?

Renter’s Insurance provides tenants with a policy that is much like a homeowner’s policy, covering all the items in the home whether the loss occurrs in the home or somewhere else. These can be set up with small deductibles (like $50) that make sense for a $2,000 loss. However, you must be renting a stationary home and you must provide the address of the place you are renting. Unfortunately, your mail forwarding address or a relative’s address don’t count, and using an address where you are not living constitutes insurance fraud.

Awww… We Don’t Have Nuthin’ — We’re Livin’ Cheap!

You may look around at your stuff and say, “Bah… I don’t have anything of real value here.” But imagine trying to replace all your clothes (winter and summer), shoes (running, walking, hiking, dress shoes, slippers, sandals, boots), jackets, sweaters, blankets, pillows, sheets, towels, everything in the bathroom vanity, food in the fridge as well as pantry, dishes, pots and pans, kitchen appliances, CDs, DVDs, BBQ, portable generator, tools in the basement, spare parts, musical instruments, laptops, printers, cameras, smartphones, bicycles, kayaks, books, etc.

It adds up quick! It is worth it to take five minutes with a calculator and get a figure, just so you know.

With any luck, as the full-time RV lifestyle grows in popularity, insurance companies will come up wtih a way for full-time RVers to insure all their worldly belongings beyond just their vehicles and to provide useful replacement coverage for it.

How To Insure Specialty Items Like Camera Gear and Bikes

If you have expensive camera gear or very high end bicycles, it is possible to insure them with specialty insurance. Cameras can be covered through a photography membership in NANPA. Bikes can be covered through Big Ring Insurance.

Upgrades to the RV

If you install solar power, a big battery bank, or upgrade your converter or inverter or have any kind of add-on that is pernamently attached to the rig, and you have an older rig that you are insuring for Actual Cash Value, that upgrade will be part of the Actual Cash Value figure that the insurance adjuster will be calculating at the time of a claim. If you are insuring for Replacement Value, check with your agent how best to cover major upgrades.

Photograph the equipment you have upgraded, locate the receipts, and ask your agent if they want those things at the time you apply for insurance or if they should be supplied at the time of a claim. They all vary!

RV upgrade solar panels on roof

Mark installs flexible solar panels on the roof of a friend’s motorhome.

RV Extended Warranties

We carry a trailer warranty policy through Wholesale Warranties now that the original manufacturer’s warranty is no longer in effect.

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!

We were so exhausted by these repairs (they hit us all at once between August and October of 2015), that I haven’t yet written a blog post about the last one. It just isn’t fun writing that stuff!! However, hopefully you can see the incredible value of getting a motorhome warranty or trailer warranty, especially if your rig is a few years old (ours is a 2007 Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer).

The beauty of an RV Extended Warranty is that it picks up where a regular insurance policy leaves off. Our entire trailer is covered for all failures other than regular wear and tear. This includes having the frame crack or slides fail to come in and out or the suspension give up the ghost (it did) or having the air conditioner or refrigerator die (which it did too).

These could be very expensive repairs, and it is worth the peace of mind to carry an RV Extended Warranty policy rather than risk a large, unexpected repair expense. We use Wholesale Warranties, and you can get a quote for a policy from them here.

To learn more about RV Warranties and what to look for when you buy one, see:

What Is An RV Warranty and Do You Need One?

 

Internet and Phone – Staying Connected On The Road

We do not have a cell phone, but getting internet on the road is pretty easy. We have written an article on how we get get internet access and live without a phone here: RV Mobile Internet Access – A Minimalist Approach

Laundry

Many RV parks have laundry facilities on-site, and some full-timers purchase RVs equipped with a washer and dryer. We like to use the local laundromat in town. We can do four, five or six loads of laundry in two hours flat. We use the biggest front loading washers in the laundromat we can find because they are usually the best ones both for washing and for spinning dry. Laundromats can be a great place to meet people and learn about an area. In Flagstaff, Arizona, if you want to meet Navajo Indians, go to the local laundromat, preferably on a Saturday when it’s busy!

However, if you want the place to yourself, go to the laundromat midweek around noon, well after the daily morning rush and before the after work crowd arrives.

Laundry facilities in RV parks can be very crowded and usually have just a few smaller top loading machines. Most parks have only a few machines and when a park is full they can get very busy and it can be hard to get a machine.

Washers and dryers installed in RVs are really small, and it is common to do a load a day to keep up. However, you can do it “in the background” while doing other things around the rig, the way you used to in your old conventional life back home!

Hair

Along with all the other changes when you start a life in an RV on the road, you’ll find yourself adjusting to having a new hair stylist — and sometimes a new hair style — every time you get your hair cut. There are Great Clips and Super Cuts everywhere, and Walmart has their in-store salons.

One of the best ways we’ve found to get to know a small town is to get a haircut from the local barber. We have many special memories from haircuts in towns from Kansas to Utah to North Carolina to Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

But perhaps our best hair cutting story is in this blog post:

It’s Not About The Hair!!

 

SAVING MONEY ON RV OVERNIGHT COSTS

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There are three basic options for where to park the rig and spend the night:

  • Private RV parks
  • Public campgrounds and RV parks
  • Boondocking

Private RV Parks

There are private RV parks everywhere. They are extremely easy to find online, in commercial guide books and by asking at visitors centers. The AllStays App is a very popular resource. Private RV parks range from about $30/night to $60/night or more, tending to even higher prices in popular destinations at peak season in choice sites that offer more amenities (like a view). The parking is generally laid out in rows, and the sites can range from drycamping sites (no hookups) to electric and/or water only to electric/water/sewer with cable TV, telephone and free WiFi. Usually the site includes a picnic table, and sometimes the park has a pool, showers, shuffleboard or horseshoes, sometimes bike and canoe rentals, a small store, or other goodies.

Staying for one night is most expensive. Commiting to a week or a month or a season will get you a much lower nightly rate.

Public Campgrounds and RV Parks

Public campgrounds run the gamut from rustic campgrounds on-site at the national parks to state park campgrounds to national forest service and BLM campgrounds to Corps of Engineers campgrounds to regional park campgrounds and fairgrounds. Somewhere along the line there is a crossover to municipal and city RV parks. These campgrounds and RV parks often offer fewer amenities than private RV parks: there may (or may not) be water spigots or vault toilets (non-flushing), or there may be electric and water hookups and hot showers. Usually there are no sewer hookups but there is often an RV dump station in the campground.

RV camping at public state park campground_

Many state park campgrounds are in beautiful locations like
Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona.

Usually there are picnic tables and campfire rings at each site. Often the sites at national park, national forest and Corps of Engineers campgrounds are too small for a larger RV. However, some state park campgrounds have absolutely gorgeous big sites that are in a natural setting with a jaw dropping view. Generally these campgrounds cost anywhere from $8/night to $35/night, depending on the amenities offered, the beauty and popularity of the surrounding area and the the season you are visiting.

Many of these public campgrounds (except the state parks) honor the National Senior Access Pass (for citizens aged 62 and over) and Federal Land Inter-Agency Pass (the annual “National Parks Pass” that is available to everyone) offering a 50% discount to carriers of one of these passes.

Don Wright has written two books that list inexpensive public campgrounds:

Generally there is a stay limit at these kinds of campgrounds, typically 2 weeks, and generally there are no discounts given for longer stays.

Boondocking

Many National Forests and most lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allow RVs to camp outside the confines of their campgrounds. Also, it is generally legal to park in public parking areas and rest areas that are not posted with signs prohibiting overnight parking. And you can always camp out in a friend’s driveway! The price for these kinds of overnight stays is $0. However, you need to equip your rig to run without hookups to take advantage of these places for an extended period of time.

For more info about boondocking, check out our pages on:

Campground Memberships

There are a lot of campground membership programs that offer discounted nightly rates at private RV parks. Each program is different, however they fall into two general categories: inexpensive memberships that offer modest discounts on nightly rates and “investment” memberships that cost a lot up front but offer big discounts on nightly rates.

The inexpensive memberships generally unite thousands of independent RV parks under a single umbrella. The “investment” memberships tend to include fewer RV parks in their networks and insure a higher standard and better consistency in RV park quality.

Inexpensive Campground Memberships

The most popular inexpensive campground membership is offered by Passport America. They charge an annual fee of $44 ($79 for 2 years) and offer a 50% savings off the nightly rate at any of the 1,900 member RV parks. Another similar membership program is Happy Camper which costs $40 per year and also offers 50% off at their 1,200 member RV parks.

There is little risk in joining these programs, as they are cheap to join and you do not have to renew if you don’t like the program. Sometimes they even offer a money-back guarantee for the first 90 days. However, because the member parks are independently run, parks join and abandon the programs as suits their individual business needs. When you make your reservation, double check that the park is still a member of your program.

“Investment” Campground Memberships

“Investment” style campground programs cost a lot up front but offer very inexpensive overnight stays.

The Thousand Trails network offers 30 free overnight stays in a 12 month period for $545 at campgrounds that are within one of five zones across the country. After you’ve used up the 30 free nights, the rest of your overnights for that year are just $3 a night. Each zone has between 13 and 23 RV parks in it. You can stay at any RV park in your zone for up to 14 days and then you must stay somewhere outside of the network for 7 nights before coming back. You can repeat this cycle indefinitely. Right now they are offering a special of two zones for the price of one. An added perk is that you get a 20% discount on overnight stays at the affiliate Encore network of RV parks too.

Other “investment” campground programs are structured like a timeshare. You buy into a “home park,” pay an annual fee, and can then stay at member parks for $10 to $15 a night. You learn about these membership programs just like a timeshare — by taking a tour.

We have taken two such tours, and they were a lot of fun. In each case we were given two free nights at the RV park, and at some point during our stay we took a 2-3 hour tour. The sales technique is the “hot seat” method, but it is easy enough to smile and say “no” politely if you aren’t interested. One of our tours was at the Havasu Springs Resort.

One of the biggest programs is offered by Good Sam Club’s Coast Resorts which has 400 member parks. You can sign up for their free two night stay and tour package here.

RV Resort Membership Programs - Thousand Trails

“Investment” campground memberships aim to offer higher quality RV parks at a discount

These kinds of campground membership programs are a complicated, and the companies change the rules as their profitability and growth plan requires. It is best to book your stays 90 days or more in advance and there may also be a complex set of rules to follow regarding staying within the network and outside of it. Sometimes an alternative campground network is offered so you have somewhere similar to stay when it is time for you to stay outside your home network. Two we’ve heard of are Resorts of Distinction and Adventure Outdoor Resorts given as the alternative networks.

Moose and Elks Clubs

We have met several full-timers who are members of the Moose Club and Elks Club and use their RV facilities on a regular basis. This seems like a terrific option, although we have not joined either organization yet. Membership requires a sponsor, but each time we’ve stopped in and inquired, people have offered to be sponsors right at the bar! The membership fee is on the order of $100 or so a year and overnights in the RV parks are $10 to $20 or so. Some lodges without formal RV park sites may allow members to dry camp in the parking lot if there’s room.

Military RV Parks

For those people that are retired from the military, there is a fantastic network of RV parks located on many bases throughout the US. If you enjoy dry camping, you may be able to cut the cost even more by parking on the grass (we have!).

Final Thoughts

I hope these notes have given you an idea of what becoming a full-time RVer entails when you are ready to turn your fun RV vacations into a lifestyle. Despite all the words I’ve written here and in the other two posts in this series on full-time RVing, going full-time isn’t all that complicated.

Do your research, get out and talk to as many full-time RVers in person as you can find, practice a little by renting or buying a small rig, and then take the leap and go have an awesome RVing adventure!!

Renting an RV

Have fun with your research and planning!

Further Reading:

This was the third part in our 3-part series on full-time RVing. You can read the other parts in this series or skip to its various chapters via these links:

Living and Working in an RV:

Which RV is Best for Full-time? and How To Transition?

Full-time RV Tips – Mail, Domicile, Insurance, Saving Money!

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Mobile Internet & Phone Communications for RV Living – A Minimalist Solution!

How do you stay in touch when living on the road full-time in an RV? What kind of internet access is best? Which phone plans make the most sense for a full-time RVer? These are some of the questions that RVers face, and there is a huge array of possible solutions available for every need and lifestyle.

Note: This post was updated in February 2018 to report our experiences with the WeBoost Drive 4G-X RV cellular signal booster. Click HERE to skip to that section.

Mobile internet and phone communications for full-time RV living

Mobile communications techniques differ a fair bit among RVers. We have a simple method with one device.


The gurus on topic of mobile internet access are unquestionably Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard of Technomadia. They have written a fantastic book about the internet for RVers and also created an online community dedicated to mobile internet issues (more about those excellent resources here).

Because we have taken an unconventional route with our own communications solution (as we have done with everything in our traveling lifestyle since we started 10 years ago), I thought a few notes here about what we do might be useful.

For starters, we don’t have a phone.

What, No Phone?! How Can You DO THAT?!

After several decades of being “on call” in our professions, bound to our customers by electronic leashes, we ditched our cell phones when we started traveling full-time in 2007. At first, this was a money-savings tactic, but since then it is in many ways a small act of defiance against a world that is increasingly held in electronic bondage.

We have managed just fine without a phone all these years.  We’ve been able to meet up with friends at appointed hours, find our way to remote and stunning locations without a GPS-enabled electronic map. We’ve even bought and sold large assets like our sailboat and truck, all without a phone. Lower on this page there are lots of details explaining how we make and receive phone calls.

If you are looking to shave a few dollars off your full-time RVing budget, or if you are just curious how this is possible, here’s what we do.

Internet Access – Verizon MiFi Jetpack

Verizon MiFi Jetpack 6620L

Verizon MiFi Jetpack 6620L

We have a Verizon MiFi 6620L Jetpack hotspot that is the basis of all our communications. It operates on the Verizon cell phone towers, has a cell phone number itself, provides password protected WiFi inside and near the rig, and can theoretically support 15 devices connected to the internet.

A little back-story on — For three years we had a Verizon MiFi 4620 jetpack, but in October, 2014, its tiny charging receptacle broke and it could no longer get charged. Mark tried to nurse it back to life by soldering its lifeless receptacle to the charger permanently, but the problem was internal and it was dead.

MiFi Jetpack Charger solder repair

We tried soldering wires from the MiFi to its charger, but it still wouldn’t charge.

The old 4620 Jetpack always had problems charging and holding a charge. The MiFi 6620L Jetpack can theoretically run on battery power for 20 hours and support up to 15 simultaneous connections. It can definitely run longer than the old one, but 20 hours is an overstatement. 6 to 7 hours with two users is more like it in our household.

There is a new 7730L Jetpack from Novatel that has a theoretical battery life of 24 hours. The WiFi signal strength it broadcasts is stronger, so you can connect to it from further away. However, the signal strength coming from the cell tower is the same in both units. We haven’t upgraded yet.

Our old 6620L Jetpack has the annoying habit of falling asleep when nothing is happening between us and the internet. For us to resume using the internet after a period of doing nothing, we have to wake it up manually by tapping on its power button. Then the computer has to reconnect to the Jetpack as well.

The New Verizon Plan

As of July, 2017, our MiFi Jetpack is the single device on a 30 GB talk/text/data “New Verizon Plan.”

A few months prior to this switch, Verizon began offering its “New Verizon Plan” and pushing an “Unlimited” plan for data. The “Unlimited” plan sounded great, but it has limitations.

After many hours on the phone with Verizon, I learned that if you have a Smartphone or Tablet, the new Unlimited plan runs at 4G speeds for the first 22GB each month when you use the internet based apps on the phone or tablet. After that, there will be a 1-2 second delay when you first connect to the nearest cell tower, but once connected, the speed will still be a nifty 4G.

HOWEVER — and this was critical for us — if you are using your Smartphone or Tablet as a mobile hotspot, or if you are using a Jetpack, the Unlimited plan will run at 4G speeds for only the first 10 GB of each month. After that it will drop to 3G speeds.

This was not properly explained to me when I talked to Verizon reps the first few times, so we tried the Unlimited plan for a month. For us, it was unusable after it dropped to 3G. With today’s bandwidth intensive websites, 3G is painfully slow. At times during the one month we had the Unlimited plan, we had to walk away and do something else as we waited for something basic like the Google search page to come up.

Yesterday, after a few more hours on the phone with several Verizon reps, we learned that there are high GB plans available that remain at 4G speeds all month long. The question for us was: which one? Not all of these “New Verizon Plans” are advertised on the website in obvious places, and not all the salespeople know the various options either.

We use anywhere from 20 to 30 GB of data a month these day, so we wanted a 30GB plan. The first plan that was offered to me was a 30GB data-only plan for $185 per month.

The New Verizon Plan Data Only Plans

Verizon’s first offer for a 30 GB plan that would run at 4G all month long was the “New Verizon Plan” that is Data Only and is intended for Jetpacks and phones/tablets operated as Mobile Hotspots

This was crazy expensive and I complained loudly.

Eventually, I was transferred to a rep who offered me a 30 GB talk/text/data plan for $135 per month. That was more like it! I highly recommend being extremely persistent and asking to speak to supervisors when you get on the phone with Verizon!

The New Verizon Plan 30GB talk-text-data plan

Our “New Verizon Plan” for our Jetpack is a talk/text/data plan with 30GB of data for $135/month

This 30 GB talk/text/data plan has these features:

  • Carryover of unused data from this month to next month (if not used, it doesn’t carry over beyond that)
  • The fee for the Jetpack connection itself is $10/month
  • There is no surcharge for using the Jetpack in Canada or Mexico (see below)
  • Unlimited talk/text (but our Jetpack can’t do that so we don’t use that feature)

Changing Plans? Cut to the Chase & Call Verizon!

I always dread calling Verizon (I had terrible experiences with them with a fleet of corproate phones in the mid-1990’s), but in recent years, I’ve found that talking to their sales people has always helped us find a better deal than if I just poked around on their website.

Also, I’ve found that the reps are very reasonable when it comes to crediting erroneous charges. We were shocked when we were charged $80 for switching from our old 24GB talk/text/data plan to the New Unlimited plan, because no one had told us this would happen. Verizon later refunded the charge.

Verizon Jetpack Admin and Messages page

Text messages from Verizon come into the Messages page on the Jetpack, including the code necessary for verifying your account online.

In my experience, Verizon is becoming harder and harder to reach by phone because they require using a handset to send magic codes and text messages before connecting you to a rep.

As noted above, any text message they send can be found on the Admin/Messages page of the JetPack. Also, some portions of the Verizon website require you to authenticate your account. To do this, Verizon sends a code via text message to the Jetpack that you then enter into the website.

One neat trick I found is that if you initiate an online chat with a Chat Rep on the Verizon website, you can give the rep your phone number and ask them to have a Phone Rep call you.

For me, this proved to be a lot easier than trying to get through on the phone by calling the customer service number and punching numbers and talking to the Verizon phone menu system computer.

Studying the Verizon web page today, I noticed that talk/text/data plans are not offered for Jetpacks and mobile hotspots, so we may have been given that plan instead of the Data Only plan because I made such a fuss on the phone (very politely, of course).

Saving Data by Using Free WiFi Signals

When we want to save data on our plan, we put off our big download operations, like operating systems upgrades that download as much as 1.5 GB of data at once. We do those things when we have access to a free WiFi signal at a library or coffee shop or elsewhere.

We also use Clipgrab on free WiFi signals to download videos so we can watch them from our laptop hard drives later.

Verizon MiFi Jetpack – International Use

The new Verizon talk/text/data plans now allow you to use the MiFi Jetpack in both Canada and Mexico — if you get a big (or unlimited) data plan — without paying a surcharge. Using our MiFi Jetpack came in very handy during our travels to the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 2016.

HOWEVER — and this is important — when you are in Mexico and Canada your data will operate at 4G speeds for only the first 512MB of use each day. At midnight each night the speed will revert to 4G, but as soon as you hit 512MB in the next 24 hours your speed will drop to 2G. That’s 2G, not 3G! So think through your access needs each day!

ALSO — and this is very important too — if, during a 60 day period, you have used your device more than 50% of the time in Mexico or Canada, you will get a text message (or email or phone call) warning you that you are going to be put on a pay-as-you-go plan until you return to the US. Text messages arrive on the Admin/Messages page of your Jetpack.

Despite 30 minutes of conversation with the Verizon rep, I never got to the very bottom of this issue (we aren’t planning to go to Canada or Mexico in the immediate future, so I didn’t press the issue!!), but I want you to know that the fee she mentioned for this “pay as you go” feature was $2.05 per MB.

That doesn’t seem possible because it would be over $1,000 for 500MB!!

The reason for this draconian fee structure is that Verizon doesn’t want to provide US-based services and charges to ex-pats who are living in Canada and Mexico.

I highly recommend if you plan to travel to Canada or Mexico for more than two weeks that you call Verizon and discuss your plans. After an initial round of questions, ask for a supervisor if necessary, of course.

Internet access in the Gulf of Tehuantepec Mexico

Internet access on a boat at sea in a foreign country is a trip!
Here I hold up my laptop to get a much needed internet weather report while crossing Mexico’s notorious Gulf of Tehuantepec.
It took 21 minutes to download a 604 KB file!!

Putting a Verizon Data Plan on Hold

One handy aspect of Verizon’s plans is that you can put them on hold. We used this feature a lot when we spent months at a time sailing in Mexico because Verizon didn’t offer Mexico access for Jetpacks back in those days.

Seasonal RV travelers may find this comes in handy, as they may not want to use the MiFi Jetpack when they are at home and not out traveling in their RV.

You can put the plan on hold for up to 90 days, at no charge. If you call in again before 90 days is up, you can put it on hold for another 90 days, and so on, indefinitely.

All the days that you put the plan on hold get tacked onto the end of your contract. So, for us, our two year contract during our Mexico travels took nearly three years to fulfill. When you decide to resume the contract, a simple phone call is all it takes and you are back online immediately. There is a nominal charge for re-instating the contract.

Phone Access – Skype

We use a Skype account for all of our phone needs. Skype is best known for making it possible to make free video calls between people who have Skype accounts. Similar to Apple’s FaceTime, this is a fun way to communicate. It also requires a pretty strong internet signal. If the call begins to falter due to a sketchy internet connection, turning off the video will often perk it back up again.

Skype Image

That’s not generally how we use Skype, however. Instead, we use it to call people on their cell phones and land lines. For $2.99 a month we have an annual subscription service with Skype to call any cell phone or landline in the US or Canada for unlimited minutes. These are outbound phone calls only.

To receive incoming calls requires another step: For $2.50 a month, Skype assigned a phone number to our account that accepts voicemail and appears on our friends’ phones when we call them. Skype sends us an email when a new voicemail comes in. If we are on our computer and it is connected to the internet, we receive incoming phone calls just like a regular phone (the computer’s speaker rings, and you click a button to pick up the call). Skype has an app for mobile devices too, so you can do all this with a tablet, iPad or iPod too.

If you don’t sign up for that service, Skype calls will come into your friends’ phones with a mystifying number that is unrecognizable. We did this for four years, and it was okay. It was a little awkward not having a call-back number when calling a business, but we let them know that we checked our email frequently, and most companies were happy to get back to us via email instead of a phone call. Our friends eventually knew that if a weird number came in on their phone, it was probably us calling!

Tricks for Making Skype Calls

Skype is pretty good for phone calls, but the connection is not always perfect. We’ve gotten used to tipping our MacBook Pro laptops so the microphone is a little closer to our mouths than when it’s down in our lap. The person on the other end is on speaker phone, which can be nice for calling family and friends, if they don’t mind. However, when making an important call to a company, using earbuds makes it easier to hear the other person and takes them off speaker phone if you are in a somewhat public place.

In general, our internet download speed is faster and better than our upload speed, and this affects Skype. Oftentimes, we can hear the person on the other end of the phone much better than they can hear us. One way to improve things is to make sure only one device is on the internet via the MiFi jetpack.  So, if Mark wants to make a call, I have to do something local on my laptop and stop using the internet, and vice versa.

It’s also important that no other internet applications are running on the computer that is making the call. That means turning off the email application, shutting down all browsers and quitting out of anything else that might unexpectedly access the internet and disrupt the phone call.

WeBoost Drive 4G-X RV – Getting More from our Internet Signal? Or Not!

In January 2018 we were given a WeBoost Drive 4G-X RV cellular signal booster to test. We were excited because we had not had good luck with our Wilson Booster several years prior (our experiences are described in the ARCHIVE section below).

We explained to the good people at Wilson Electronics that the older product had not worked for us, but that we would be overjoyed to let our readers know if the new product were better.

The WeBoost Drive 4G-X RV booster can be powered by either 12v DC or 120v AC and it consists of three major components that get wired together:

  • An External Antenna that goes on the ladder of the RV
  • A Booster that is installed inside the RV
  • An Internal Antenna that communicates with the Verizon MiFi Jetpack

The external antenna must be installed as high as possible on the RV. While driving it must be lower than highway requirements for vehicles (generally 13′ 6″). While parked it could be raised higher. It must also be installed as far from the Booster as possible (a 20′ cable is supplied).

The Internal Antenna must be installed inside the RV as close to the Verizon MiFi Jetpack as possible.

A full installation consists of mounting each item in a permanent location, running a cable from inside the RV to outside (likely near the ladder so the external antenna can be mounted to the top of the ladder) and dressing the wires between all three components. We decided that prior to doing a full installation and mounting the components and dressing the wires, we would do a test installation to see how the booster improved our internet signal.

We test the booster by positioning the External Antenna in two locations. The first position was above the crown molding of a slide-out inside the trailer (not a good spot at all, but adequate for a dry run). The second position was outside, where the External Antenna is supposed to be. Mark stood on the roof of the trailer and held the External Antenna above his head. This positioned it more than 7′ above the RV roof, higher than we would be able to position it with a permanent installation.

The Booster rested on the dining table.

The Internal Antenna sat next to the Verizon MiFi Jetpack which was positioned in a window.

We had a 3G signal that was a steady 4 bars. We had been working with this internet connection for a few days, surfing the web, sending and receiving email, listening to internet radio, downloading YouTube videos, making Skype calls (without video) and updating this blog.

The signal was adequate, but a faster speed would have been awesome.

Using a very pedestrian and low tech method of testing the booster, we ran several speed tests using the website speedtest.net. We tested these situations:

  • Test 1: Booster off
  • Test 2: External Antenna positioned on top of a slide-out INSIDE the RV (not the recommended placement)
  • Test 3: External Antenna held overhead while standing on the roof of the RV (higher than it would be if we installed it permanently)

The results can be seen in the following three screenshots.

The speed did not change significantly and, in our opinion, the changes were probably within the margin of error.

Speedtest 4 No Weboost-min

Booster turned off.

Speedtest 2 WeBoost Antenna top of Slide inside-min

External antenna positioned in a high place inside the RV.

Speedtest 3 Weboost Mark on Roof-min

External antenna positioned 7′ above the roof of the RV

For the non-tech folks out there who don’t have a feeling for “how fast” a particular Mbps upload or download speed is, the following image shows the numbers for a “blindingly fast” signal we got on our Verizon MiFi Jetpack in a completely different location without a booster.

In numbers the difference is 16+ versus 1+ Mbps for download speeds and 17+ versus 0.3 Mbps for upload speeds. That is pretty dramatic!

So, this is the “feeling” difference between “Wow, this is FAST” and “Hmmmm…I can do what I’ve gotta do if I drink a cuppa joe while I wait, but I sure wish there were a way to make it faster.”

Speedtest Very Fast Signal

A “blindingly Fast” signal while we were camped in a completely different state.
This is for comparison to give you a feel for the numbers just in case Mbps aren’t your thing.

As a final test, while Mark patiently stood on the roof holding the external antenna overhead, I tested using the internet for basic surfing, email, modifying our website and video downloading, the things we typically do on the internet. The difference in speed was not noticeable.

This is not scientific testing and we did not measure decibels or anything fancy. However, the bottom line for us when we use the internet is how fast it FEELS as we do whatever we are doing, not how fast some numbers tell us it is. What this showed us is that even a 100% improvement of Really Lousy may turn out to be just A Little Less Lousy. What you really need is a rock solid 1,000% improvement or more.

In the end, we decided that rather than do a permanent installation we would simply return the unit. So, as of the conclusion of this booster test, we still access the internet using our MiFi Jetpack without using any kind of booster.

ARCHIVE – Wilson Booster – Getting More from our Internet Signal – Kinda

Wilson Antenna on fifth wheel slideout

The higher the antenna, the better.

For about a year (in 2014) we used a Wilson Sleek 4G Cell Phone Booster which we have permanently mounted in a cabinet alongside a cigarette lighter outlet. We haven’t used it at all for the past few years and we haven’t missed it. However to keep this page complete, our experiences with it are described below.

The Wilson Booster connects to a Wilson 800/1900 Magnet Mount Antenna. This combo works okay, however, these signal boosters do much more for 4G signals than they do for 3G signals, and we have 3G signals quite a bit of the time.  One note: according to Wilson, the number of bars on the MiFi unit doesn’t necessarily increase even though the signal is improved by the booster. A fun way to see how fast your internet signal is and to keep track of the speeds in different places is to use SpeedTest.Net.

Wilson Antenna on a frying pan

It’s “grounded” as per Wilson’s recommendation, but the signal isn’t as good this low down.

The folks at Wilson told us it was very important to have the antenna sitting on a piece of metal for grounding purposes, so we bought their suction cup mounted Accessory Kit for Grounding. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a good place to mount the antenna with this suction cup plate because the wires are so short. Someday Mark might replace our outside (and rarely used) radio antenna with the Wilson antenna, but we haven’t done that yet.

Wilson also told us that simply placing the antenna on a 5″ x 5″ sheet of ferrous metal would do the trick, and we searched around for something and discovered our cast iron skillet fit the bill.

We did tests with the antenna to see how much having a grounding plate seemed to matter. We placed the antenna near the ceiling above our slide-out without a metallic plate under it, then set it on our big frying pan on our kitchen counter, and lastly set it on the roof of our truck.

We found having the antenna higher in the air near the ceiling above our slide-out was much more important than placing it on metal.

Internet Portability – Driving Tactics and Electronic Maps

Siri — ahhhh. Although we don’t have an iAnything, I am in love with the little Apple genie, Siri, who lives inside iPhones and iPads. However, after lots of soul searching about whether Siri’s companionship would make me happier in our travels, so far I’ve decided that it wouldn’t.

Instead, I get to be Mark’s Siri as he drives, and that’s not a bad gig. He does all the driving in our family (I did almost all the helmsman duty on our boat, so it’s pretty fair). To help out with the RV navigation, I bring the MiFi jetpack and laptop with me into the truck’s passenger’s seat, and I use Google Maps to figure out where we’re going. I don’t get the nifty icon that shows me where we are, so sometimes I have some frantic moments trying to deduce our exact location, but once I’ve got it, I call out the instructions for how to get from here to there.

Our 2016 Ram 3500 truck has a factory installed dash-mounted GPS, but its user friendliness pales by comparison. Occasionally when I’m confused/lost, I use it to get the GPS coordinates for where we are and then plug those into Google Maps.

So, the overall functionality of a smartphone or tablet is there for us on the road, it’s just a whole lot more clunky.

Using a SmartPhone or Tablet as a Hotspot and More

When our Mifi Jetpack died, I thought the only solution was to get another one. Not so. I have since learned that we could have taken the SIM card out of our old jetpack and put it into a glistening new iPad. We wouldn’t have had to sign up for another 2 years with Verizon when we replaced our dead MiFi jetpack either (which we did when we upgraded to the new MiFi jetpack), since our contract was tied to the SIM card. We could have simply continued on our old plan until it ran out four months later and then reassessed our situation.

Internet Access Resources for RVers

Mobile Internet Handbook for RVers

The Internet Bible for RVers

For us — for now — we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing since it works just fine. In all likelihood, however, our simplistic and minimalistic methods are not getting you fired up with excitement.

As I mentioned above, the Mobile Internet Handbook (available on Kindle and in Paperback) by Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard is the most thorough resource available and is an absolute necessity for anyone that wants to get technical on the road. Prior to starting their full-time RV adventures, Chris was a mobile technology expert, working as Director of Competitive Analysis for Palm and PalmSource (the companies behind the Palm Pilot and Treo). He studied every aspect of mobile phone and tablet technologies and is using that expertise to help RVers today.

The detail this book goes to is staggering. From explaining nationwide versus regional cellular data carriers to getting into the nitty gritty of what “roaming” is all about, and what hotspots and routers really are, to discussing cellular frequency bands and the all important topic of security, this book covers it all.

What’s better, Chris and Cherie continue the discussion and keep it current at their RV Mobile Internet Resource Center, with an accompanying public Facebook discussion group. They are also keeping a list of RV internet strategy blog posts that describe various real-life technology setups that RVers are using. They even offer personal advising sessions where you can find out what the best solution is for your unique situation.

Of course, all of this technology is changing daily. When we started RVing full-time in 2007, we got by with pay phone cards and free WiFi at coffee shops. We were unaware in those days (although we had our suspicions) that cell phones weren’t nearly as smart as their progeny would soon be, and we had no idea just how far the industry would come.

In just a few scant years everything has changed, and who knows where the future will take us!

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RV Solar Power Made Simple

Thanks to solar power, we have lived completely off the grid in two trailers and a sailboat full-time since May 2007. Without doubt, our solar power installations have given us more independence and freedom as full-time RVers and sailors than anything else in these lifestyles. It has allowed us to go anywhere at anytime, and has revolutionized our lives.

On this page I describe the two systems we have had on our trailers. These were installed in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Prices for solar power equipment have dropped every year since then, however the prices listed throughout this page are from August 2014:

  • A Small (minimal) RV Solar installation for ~$700 that we used full-time for a year of boondocking in 2007
  • A Full-timer (all you need) RV Solar installation for ~$2,500 that we have used for full-time boondocking since 2008

I also offer a little theory and reveal some of the discoveries we have made along the way. For more info, please see our Solar Power Tutorial pages and our Sailboat Solar Power Installation page.

Links to all of our articles about solar power can be found on our Solar Power For RVs and Boats page.

You can navigate to different parts of this article by using these links:

WHY BOTHER WITH A SOLAR POWER INSTALLATION ON AN RV?

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The biggest advantage of a solar power system in an RV is that the system works from dawn to dusk, silently, odor free and without requiring any fuel or maintenance, no matter where you are or what you are doing. Towing, parked at the grocery store, or camped, the batteries are being charged. They start getting charged before you finish breakfast, keep charging while you hike or go sightseeing, and continue all day, rain or shine. They don’t quit charging until nightfall. You never have to think about the batteries getting charged. It just happens. In our current rig, I feel like we have electrical hookups all the time — and we never get hookups any more!

Traveling full-time since 2007, we have connected to electrical hookups for a total of about 25 days, and that was during our first 18 months on the road. The last time we got electrical hookups was in October, 2008. Since we began our full-time travels in 2007, as of June 2018, we have boondocked in our RV over 2,800 nights. We also lived on solar power on our sailboat for over 900 nights during our sailing cruise of Mexico.

We do carry a Yamaha 2400i generator, but use it only a few days each year, either after a long period of winter storms to give the batteries a boost, or on hot summer days to run our 15,000 BTU air conditioner. We have used it a total of about 20 times since we purchased it in December 2007. We run it every six months or so to flush the gas through the lines. Little as we have used it, we have found the Yamaha to be a fabulous generator. It has always started on the first pull, even after it sat in storage for 20 months when we first moved onto our sailboat!

Our first solar power installation that we used for a year in 2007 was a “small” system that allowed us to use almost every appliance we owned, that is, laptop, TV, hair dryer, vacuum, two-way radio charger, power drill, etc. However, we had to be very conservative with our electrical use during the winter months. A similar “small” RV solar power kit can be found here.

Our second “full-timer” solar power system that we have been using since 2008 is like having full electrical hookups wherever we go. Very little conservation is necessary! On our biggest electrical use day to date, we watched our 26″ LCD TV with its huge surround-sound system and sub-woofer for 15 hours (it was the Olympics!) and ran two 13″ laptops for 7 hours, made popcorn in the microwave and ran several lights for 4 hours in the evening. It was July, and the next day was very sunny and the batteries were fully charged by mid-afternoon. A similar “full-time” RV solar power kit can be found here.

Here are some sample kits, smaller and bigger in size, and their prices. The only trouble with buying a component kit is that if one component fails the whole kit has to be returned. The third item, however, is a portable suitcase kit that does make a lot of sense for someone who doesn’t want to hassle with the installation just yet (you can always sell the portable kit later).

BASIC ELEMENTS OF A SOLAR POWER INSTALLATION

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BATTERY CHARGING and AC POWER
The basic components of all solar power installations is the same, and is comprised of two major subsystems: BATTERY CHARGING to get the batteries charged up and AC (120v) POWER for appliances that can’t be run on DC (12v) power (i.e., TV, computer, vacuum, hair dryer, etc.).

The BATTERY CHARGING subsystem includes these components:

  • Batteries
  • Solar panel(s)
  • Charge controller to protect the batteries from getting overcharged

The AC POWER subsystem includes this component:

  • Inverter(s) to convert the batteries’ 12 volt DC power to 120v AC power

GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY!

300 watt inverter for an RV solar panel installation

A 350 watt portable inverter
Plug it into a cigarette lighter

It is hard to “play with” the battery charging subsystem of a solar power installation to get a feel for how it works until you actually take the leap and buy a solar panel, charge controller and cables and hook it all up to the batteries. One great option if you don’t want to do any wiring but want some hands on experience is to get a portable solar panel kit. You can sell it later if you want to upgrade to a rooftop system.

You can get the hang of how the AC power subsystem works very easily. Simply run down to Walmart or any auto parts store and pick up a $15-$20 inverter that plugs into a cigarette lighter DC outlet. Plug it into the lighter in your car, turn it on, and then plug your laptop into it or your electric razor or any other small appliance. Now your 12 volt car battery is operating your 120 volt appliance.

Big inverters that can run the microwave, toaster, blender and vacuum cleaner work on exactly the same principal, the difference is just the amount of power the inverter can produce. Big inverters are also wired directly to the batteries rather than plugging into a cigarette lighter.

IS SOLAR POWER EXPENSIVE? SMALL SYSTEMS VERSUS BIG SYSTEMS

The difference between the “small” system we used for one year on our little Lynx travel trailer and our “full-timer” system we have now on our big Hitchhiker fifth wheel is simply the overall capacity of each of the components. That is, the capacity of the battery charging system (solar panels, batteries and charge controller) and of the AC power system (the inverter).

In functional terms this means that the difference between the “small” and “full-timer” systems is threefold:

1) the ability to run more appliances at once (i.e., have two laptops running while the TV and blender are going)
2) the ability to run larger appliances (i.e., using a VitaMix versus a small blender)
3) the ability to run more appliances for a longer time at night without discharging the batteries too much.

So, in a nutshell, the two subsystems — battery charging (batteries + panels + charge controller) and AC power (inverter(s)) — combine to do the same job as plugging a generator into the shore power connector on the side of the rig. The panels and charge controller charge the batteries. The inverter makes it possible to use AC appliances.

The cost of the parts for these installations is:

Small: $700 – Comparable to having a Yamaha 1000i generator
Full-timer: $2,500 – Comparable to having a built-in Cummins Onan 2.5KW generator

With solar power there is no noise, no fuel cost, no maintenance and no smell, unlike a generator. However, it is not possible to run the air conditioning in the summertime on solar power, unless you have a massive system with several hundred pounds of batteries and a roof absolutely loaded with panels. As mentioned before, we use our Yamaha 2400i generator to run our 15,000 BTU air conditioner.

 

OUR “SMALL” RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM (~$700 in parts)

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This setup is a fully functional, inexpensive solar power installation, and is what we used for a 350 nights in our first year in our Lynx travel trailer. It could power a 19″ LCD TV and DVD player, radio, laptop and vacuum as well as charge camera batteries, razor, toothbrush, cordless drill, cell phone, etc.

  • Two 6-volt batteries (wired in series) giving 220 amp-hours of capacity $250

    Ours were Energizers from Sam’s Club

  • 140 watts of solar power $175

    Ours was a Kyocera 130 watt DC panel. Today Kyocera sells the 140 watt panel instead.

  • A charge controller that can support at least 10 amps $90

    Ours was a Morningstar Sunsaver 10 amp charge controller (consider a Sunsaver 20)

  • A portable inverter that can supply 1000 watts of AC power $80

    Ours was a Pro One 800 watt inverter

  • Cables, connectors and mounting brackets $100

Here are the parts for the system (except for batteries and cables) — solar panel, solar charge controller and inverter:

This system is the smallest size system I would consider for an RV if you want to drycamp or boondock for more than a night or two and be comfortable. This setup worked great in the spring, summer and fall when the sun was high in the sky and the days were long. We never thought too much about our power use until the wintertime when the days got short and the nights got long and cold. Then we began to wish for a bigger system.

RV solar panel installation - wiring the panel's junction box

Mark installs our first solar panel on the roof.
He chose a nice spot by the ocean to do it!

On those long cold winter nights we had to conserve our use of lights and the TV to make sure our furnace (which used a lot of battery power) could still run. We used oil lamps a lot in the evenings. If we had stayed in that trailer longer, we would have installed a vent-free propane heater that did not use any battery power (we eventually did that in our bigger trailer the following winter: see our Vent-Free Propane Heater Installation page).

I think every RV should have this kind of a charging system installed as standard equipment, as it is useful even for the most short-term camping, like weekends and week-long vacations during the summer months.

When we installed this “small” system in our little Lynx trailer in June 2007, we were quoted $135-$350 for installation. Mark is very handy (although he is not a Master Electrician), and he found the installation was not difficult at all and completed it in one day.

SOME THEORY – SIZING THE SYSTEM

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CHARGING & CONSUMPTION

Here is some theory to explain why the above system is “sufficient” but is not great for “full-time” use. When it comes to a solar battery charging system, the concept of power charging and consumption is very simple. The amount of power you can use, or take out of the batteries, is essentially only as much as the amount you can put into the batteries. If you use (or take out) more power than you replace (or charge them with), sooner or later your batteries will be discharged and dead. The batteries are just a temporary storage place for electricity. They act as a flow-through area for the power you are going to use.

The most important part of any solar setup is the amount of charging going on (i.e., the total size, or capacity, of the solar panels), and you want that to be greater than the amount of electricity you use. More must go into the batteries than comes out. You can have an infinite number of batteries and eventually discharge them all completely if you repeatedly use more electricity than your solar panels put in.

We often find people want to add batteries to address their power shortages when what they really need to do is add more solar panels. As a rule of thumb, don’t use more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the total capacity of the batteries in one night. More important, though, is that the bigger the solar power panel array, the better. And lastly, Keep the size and age of all the batteries in the system fairly similar so the strong ones don’t waste their energy helping the weak ones keep up.

AMPS and AMP-HOURS

Appliances use amps to run. Another unit, the amp-hour (abbreviated as “Ah“), refers to the number of amps an appliance uses when it is run for an hour. For instance, an appliance that uses three amps to run will use up three amp-hours when it runs for an hour. These amp-hours will be drawn from the batteries, and the batteries, in turn, will look to the solar panels to recharge the amp-hours they have forked over to the appliance. It is for this reason that you need to know how many amp-hours you will use in a typical day. Ultimately those amp-hours must be replaced by the solar panels, so the size and number of panels you purchase will be determined by how many amp-hours you use in a day.

To estimate how many amp-hours you might use in a day, estimate how many hours each appliance will run and multiply that by the number of amps the appliance uses. We have measured some of the appliances in our trailer, and this is how many amps they use:

Single bulb DC light — 1.5 amps
Dual bulb DC light — 3.0 amps
Dual bulb fluorescent light — 1.5 amps
19″ LCD TV — 5.5 amps
DVD / CD Player — 0.5 amps
13″ MacBook laptop, on & running — 6-8 amps
13″ MacBook, off and charging — 1.6 amps
Sonicare toothbrush charging — 0.1 amps
FM Radio w/ surround-sound — 3.0 amps
12′ string of rope lights — 3.3 amps

We find that we typically use anywhere from 50 to 150 amp-hours per day, most commonly in the 70-90 range.

HOW MANY AMP-HOURS DOES MY FAVORITE GIZMO USE?

Since RV solar power systems are DC battery based, it is helpful to know how many amps (in DC) various appliances use. Multiplying that value by the number of hours the appliance is used each day then reveals how many amp-hours the appliance will require from the battery in the course of a day.

Most DC appliances list their amp usage in the user manual or spec sheet. In contrast, most AC appliances list their wattage in the user manual instead of amperage. So, for AC appliances that are run on an inverter you have to do some math to get their equivalent DC amperage rating.

You can get a rough estimate of the number of amps that an AC device will use on an inverter simply by dividing the wattage by 10.

Why is that?

Here’s one way to look at it: Technically, Watts = Volts x Amps. AC circuits run at ~120 volts. DC circuits run at 12 volts. An AC appliance will use the same number of watts whether running on a DC or AC. On a DC circuit (using an inverter so it can run), that AC appliance will use 10 times as many amps as it will on an AC circuit (that is, 120/12 = 10).

Here’s another way to look at it: Watts / Volts = Amps. So, to determine most precisely how many DC amps an AC appliance will use when running on an inverter, start by dividing the number of watts it uses by 12 volts to get its Amps DC. HOWEVER, keep in mind that inverters are not 100% efficient. Typically they are only about 85% efficient. That is, an inverter loses a bunch of watts to heat as it runs — about 15% of the watts it needs to run get dissipated into heat. So, it takes more watts to get the required amps out of the inverter, the exact figure being 1 / 85%. This means that after you divide the appliance’s Watts by its Volts (Watts / 12, as I mentioned above), then you have to divide that result by 0.85. This is messy.

Rather than dividing watts first by 12 and then again by 0.85, you can simply divide the watts by 10 and get a pretty close estimate. (That is, (1/12)/0.85 = 0.1)

Our AC 19″ LCD TV is rated at 65 watts. How many amps is that DC? 65/10 = 6.5 amps DC. We measured the TV at the volume we like to hear it and it was using 5.5 amps. If we cranked up the volume, the meter went up to 6.5 amps.

Likewise, our old white MacBook Pro laptop was rated for 65 watts. As we opened and closed files and started and stopped various programs, the meter zoomed all over the place between 3 amps and 8 amps. When we ran Adobe Lightroom, which is very disk and memory intensive, the readings hovered in the 7-8 amp range. So on average you could say it uses about 6.5 amps DC.

When we shut down the laptop and left it plugged in and charging, the meter dropped to 1.6 amps. This is important if you are trying to conserve electricity! Run your laptop on its own battery until the battery is depleted. Then turn it off and let it charge from the inverter while you do something else!

HOW DO YOU MEASURE THE POWER USAGE OF A DEVICE?

If you have nothing running in the rig (no computers running, no TV, no vacuum or toaster, etc.), you can measure the current a device is drawing from the batteries using a clamp-on meter around one of the battery cables. To measure the AC current of a small device, you can use a Kill-a-Watt meter. Simply plug it into an AC outlet and plug your device into it.

WHERE DO THE BATTERIES FIT IN?

Battery storage capacity is measured in amp-hours (Ah), and more is better. As a starting point, most new RVs come equipped with one 12-volt Group 24 battery which will give you about 70-85 Ah of capacity. Assuming the sun has charged the batteries completely by nightfall, and sticking to the rule of using only 1/3 of your total battery capacity each night, you will have only 25 Ah available each evening. That isn’t very much!

What is the best upgrade strategy?

Upgrading to two 12-volt Group 24 batteries (wired in parallel) will give you 140-170 Ah of capacity.

However, a 6-volt golf cart style battery has the same footprint as a Group 24 12-volt battery (although it is about 3″ taller), and a pair of them wired in series will give you about 210-240 Ah of capacity.

So, rather than buying a second 12-volt Group 24 batteries and getting just 140-170 Ah of capacity out of the pair, why not sell the 12 volt battery and buy to two 6-volt golf cart style batteries for 210-240 Ah of capacity? That’s what we did on our first trailer. Just make sure that you have enough height in the battery compartment for the taller golf cart batteries.

WHAT ABOUT BATTERY MAINTENANCE?

So far I’ve been talking about wet cell batteries, and these kinds of batteries need to be maintained. Wet cell batteries are made with thick metal plates and liquid between them. Over time the liquid evaporates and needs to be replaced with distilled water. Also, over time, sulphite builds up on the plates and needs to be removed by “equalizing” the batteries.

Hydrometer Reading on Battery

Use a hydrometer to check each battery cell.

Before we upgraded to AGM batteries, Once a month Mark would check the liquid levels in each cell of each battery and pours in a little distilled water wherever needed. He also checked the condition of each battery cell using a hydrometer. This little device indicates whether a cell is functioning at full capacity. Then he equalizes the batteries by programming our charge controller to raise the voltage on them to one volt higher than their normal charging voltage for five hours. Last of all, he re-checks the liquid level in each battery cell and adds distilled water as needed and re-checks each cell with the hydrometer. Usually any cells that had a poor reading before equalizing now give a good reading.

This maintenance stuff can be avoided by buying AGM batteries which are maintenance free. However, AGM batteries are really expensive. One big advantage of AGM batteries for sailors and for people with tight battery compartments is that they operate fine in any position, that is, they can be installed on their sides and will operate when a sailboat is heeling. We had them on our sailboat.

On our trailers, we initially opted for wet cell batteries. We had Trojan 105 wet cell batteries for the first five years on our fifth wheel. Then we replaced them with cheaper Costco batteries from Interstate (Johnson Controls).

The Trojans worked very well, but replacing them with cheapo batteries was a mistake. The cheap batteries failed completely within 14 months.

We now have four Trojan T-105 Reliant AGM batteries which are truly awesome. They are a little more money than the T-105 wet cell batteries, but they are superior and, in our minds, worth the extra little bit of cash.

For price comparisons: Trojan Reliant AGM (single), VMaxTanks AGM (set of 4 & free shipping), Trojan T105 Wet Cell (single):

To learn more about our new batteries, why we chose them, and how we upgraded the power plant on our trailer in April 2015, visit:

Wet Cell vs. AGM Batteries – Why We Upgraded to AGM Batteries PLUS Wiring Tips!
RV Electrical System Overhaul

To learn more about batteries and what “single-stage” and “multi-stage” battery charging is all about, visit:

RV and Marine Battery Charging Basics

AND HOW ABOUT THE SOLAR PANELS?

Battery capacity is only part of the story. The ultimate limiting factor is how many amp-hours the solar panels can put into the batteries during the day. If the solar panels are sized too small to charge the batteries sufficiently each day, you will eventually discharge the batteries over a series of days and they will be dead.

Solar panels are rated in terms of Watts. The relationship between the amp-hours that the panel can store in a battery and the panel’s watts rating is not straight forward. Suffice it to say that a 130 Watt panel produces 7.5 amps in maximum sunlight when the panel is exactly perpendicular to the sun, and both of those numbers are available in the specs for the panel. What isn’t stated, however, is how many amp-hours a panel will produce in a given day. That is because it varies by what latitude you are at, what angle the sun is to the panel (which changes all day long), how brightly the sun shines, how many clouds go by, etc.

We have found that each of our 120 watt and 130 watt panels typically produces between about 8 Ah and 40 Ah per day depending on the season, weather, latitude, battery demands, etc. Most commonly, they produce around 25-30 Ah per day each.

If you have the time and inclination (who’s got that stuff?), you can figure out how many amp-hours you use each night. Make sure that that number is less than 1/3 of your total battery capacity AND make sure your panels can provide that many amp-hours of charging each day.

But all that sounds very difficult.

Solar panels also come in a variety of flavors, including rigid or flexible and monocrystalline or polycrystalline as seen below:

To learn more about SOLAR PANELS, see our detailed review of the pros and cons of the different types of panels available today:

Solar Panel Selection – Flexible or Rigid? 12 volt or 24 volt? Monocrystalline or Polycrystalline?

NEVERMIND THE THEORY – JUST TELL ME WHAT SIZE STUFF I NEED!

As I have mentioned before, we changed how we lived when we had a small solar power installation and again when we got a big one. You can opt to live with very little electricity or not.

We met a couple living on their 27′ sailboat on its trailer in the desert in Quartzsite, Arizona (they were on their way to launch it in the Sea of Cortez). They were using just 6 amp-hours per day because they had a tiny solar panel. Lord knows, I never saw their lights on at night!

In our little Lynx travel trailer we used about 25-35 amp-hours per day. We relied on kerosene lamps for much of our lighting at night in the winter.

In our Hitchhiker fifth wheel we use an average of 60-120 amp-hours per day and we do not conserve electricity.

So as a rule of thumb, here is the number of amp-hours you might consume per day:

• 6 Ah = living ultra-conservatively
• 35 Ah = living very modestly
• 120 Ah = living much the way you do in your house

The amp-hour capacity of your battery bank should be three (to four) times your typical daily amp-hour usage.

A popular rule of thumb is to match (roughly) the amp-hour capacity of the batteries to the watts capacity of the solar panels. So, 140 Ah of battery capacity “goes with” 140 watts of solar power. 440 Ah of batteries “goes with” 440 watts of solar power.

However, having more solar capacity than that is not a problem, as it gives you much more flexibility in case you have cloudy days, the panels aren’t oriented well towards the sun, or you have periodic shading during the day from buildings or trees.

Side note: The average American house uses about 30 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per day (see here), whereas we use anywhere from 0.6 to 1.2 kWh per day in our RV. This is because houses are much bigger and more complex and have much larger appliances and systems that run on electricity (refrigerator(s), stove/oven, hot water heater, heat and air conditioning, etc.).

It is also interesting to note that the ~1 kWh of power that our fifth wheel requires to recharge its batteries every day is approximately the same amount of energy that is required to recharge the batteries of a Tesla Model S after it is driven three miles (see here). Charging a frequently driven Tesla’s batteries exclusively with solar power would require an immense solar panel array.

 

OUR “FULL-TIMER” RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM (~$2,500 in parts)

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Fifth wheel trailer solar power 681

In a nutshell, in order to run your RV with the same level of comfort as a house, using all of your appliances whenever you feel like it without thinking about conserving at all, you will need at least the following:

  • Four or more 6-volt batteries giving you at least 440 amp-hours of capacity

    We have four 6-volt batteries (2 pairs of batteries in series to make two 12-volt equivalent batteries, and then those 2 twelve volt equivalent batteries placed in parallel with each other). We had Trojan 105’s for the first five years, and after that we’ve had batteries from Costco, ~$480, which we soon replaced with Trojan T-105 AGM Reliant batteries, $1,200 (see note below).

  • 500 or more watts of solar power (preferably 600-800 watts)

    We have three 120-watt Mitsubishi panels and one 130-watt Kyocera panel, for a total of 490 watts of solar power, `$1,140

  • A charge controller that can support 40 amps or more (preferably 60 or 80 amps)

    We have an Outback FlexMax 60 60 amp charge controller (consider the FlexMax 80) $565
    For more info see our page: Solar Charge Controllers – Optimizing RV Battery Charging

  • A true sine wave inverter that can supply at least 1000 watts of AC power (preferably 2000 or 3000 watts)

    For 7 years we had an Exceltech XP 1100 watt true sine wave inverter $600.

PLEASE NOTE: In April, 2015, we upgraded to Trojan 105 Reliant AGM batteries ($1,200) and an Exeltech XP 2000 watt true sine wave inverter ($1,700). See our post RV Electrical Power System Overhaul to learn more.

This system will power everything except the air conditioner, regardless of weather or season. My notes indicating “preferably” larger sizes for everything reflects the fact that our installation is now quite old and component parts costs are half what they were when we were buying. More is definitely better.

I’ve never heard anyone say they wished they had less solar power!

Mark did the installation of this solar power system on our Hitchhiker fifth wheel. My rough guess is that the installation might have cost $700-$1,500 if done by an experienced installer. It took him three partial days, largely because we were boondocked in the woods about 15 miles from Home Depot, and I had to keep running back and forth to get little things for him!

NOTES and LESSONS LEARNED

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More and more solar power equipment manufacturers are selling complete kits for RVs, boats and cabins. Here is an example full-timer kit from Go Power, and a slightly smaller full-timer system from Renogy. Here is a small solar power kit from Go Power for “weekender/vacation” use and another small solar kit using Renogy panels.

Also, if you don’t want the hassle of doing an installation, here’s a nifty portable solar panel kit that folds into an easy-to-carry suitcase!!

 

INVERTER and CONVERTER CONFUSION

If you are like me, the terms “inverter” and “converter” are confusing. They sound so similar it seems they must be one and the same thing. They are actually two very different components with very different missions in an RV.

CONVERTERS

A converter takes the AC power coming in from the shore power cord (via electrical hookups or a generator) and gives power to all the DC appliances in the rig so the batteries can take a break. It essentially does what the batteries do, but does it only when there is shore power.

The DC converter in an RV also charges the batteries while connected to shore power. Some converters have sophisticated multi-stage charging mechanisms, and others simply provide a trickle charge.

For more about single-stage versus multi-stage charging, click here.

The DC converter is not involved in the solar power system. In our “full-time” solar setup, the DC converter is actually unplugged because our inverter powers all the AC outlets in the rig. Because of our converter’s design, when it is plugged in it senses when there is AC power available and automatically turns on. This would impose a huge demand on our batteries whenever we turned on the inverter.

Once in a while, when the skies have been overcast or stormy for a few days, we fire up our trusty Yamaha 2400i generator to bring the batteries up to full charge. We plug our shore power cord into the generator, unplug the inverter and plug in the converter. Now the converter is charging the batteries.

The converter that came with our rig was a single-stage trickle charge Atwood 55 amp converter. This was very inefficient for use with the generator because it charges at such a slow rate that we had to run the generator for hours and hours to get the batteries charged up.

In April, 2015, we replaced that converter with a slick new Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 converter. This converter can put as much as 90 amps into the batteries and has a true multi-stage charging algorithm. To see our introductory post about our big electrical system upgrade, see this post: RV Electrical Power System Overhaul

For more about converters, visit: RV Converters, Inverter/Chargers & Engine Alternator Battery Charging Systems

Almost all trailers and many smaller motorhomes have a converter installed at the factory.

INVERTERS

An inverter takes the DC power from the batteries and converts it to AC power so you can run things like TVs, computers, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, toasters, etc., and also charge things like your phone and camera batteries. Turn on the inverter, plug an AC appliance like an electric razor or TV into it, and poof, the razor or TV works.

Inverters come in two flavors:

True Sine Wave (or Pure Sine Wave) which means the AC power signal coming out of the inverter is identical to the power signal of a wall outlet in a house (a smooth sine wave).

Modified Sine Wave which means the waveform is clipped at the top and bottom and is stair-stepped in between rather than being a smooth sine wave.

It is easier to convert DC power to a square-type wave than a smooth sine wave, so modified sine wave inverters are much cheaper. However, some sensitive AC appliances don’t work with a modified sine wave inverter.

We purchased a high-end true sine wave inverter for our “full-time” solar setup, because it matched the quality of the system and our particular unit was noted for its ruggedness (we run it 15 hours a day, sometimes 24). Our Exeltech true sine-wave inverter is designed to operate medical equipment, so it provides exceptionally clean and stable AC power.

See our story “How Much Inverter Is Enough?” to learn about what happened to us when we accidentally “blew up” our fancy Exeltech true sine wave inverter and had to live on a tiny cheapo 350 watt modified sine wave inverter while waiting for the parts to fix it!

Ironically, some RV parks have unstable AC power that can damage AC appliances in an RV. Our inverter power from our Exeltech is cleaner and more reliable (Exeltech inverters are designed to power sensitive medical equipment)! Desktop computers, laser printers, TV and stereo equipment and Sonicare toothbrushes are the most likely appliances to have trouble with modified sine wave inverters. However, when we used modified sine wave inverters exclusively with our small solar power setup on our Lynx travel trailer, we never had a problem with any of our appliances. Modified sine wave inverters often have loud fans, and Mark did have to put some WD40 on our Radio Shack inverter twice when the fan quit working unexpectedly.

INVERTER/CHARGERS

To add to the confusion about inverters and converters, some inverters combine a little of the functionality of both an inverter and a converter. These are called inverter/chargers and have two independent functions: (1) convert the batteries’ DC power to AC (inverter), and (2) use the AC power from the shore power cord (connected to electrical hookups or generator) and charge the batteries.

These are pricey pieces of equipment and many higher end motorhomes come with them. Our sailboat came with both a 600 watt pure sine wave inverter (which we used for everything on the boat except the microwave) and a 2500 watt modified sine wave inverter/charger (which powered the microwave and charged the batteries when we plugged into shore power).

NOW THAT IT’S ALL CLEAR, THE MANUFACTURERS MESS US UP!

The distinction between inverters and converters is pretty easy, isn’t it? However, recently when I was in an auto parts store I noticed a box labeled “POWER CONVERTER” and the picture and description were very clearly that of an INVERTER! So, maybe the distinction is going to get all muddied up after all.

For more about inverter/chargers, visit: RV Converters, Inverter/Chargers & Engine Alternator Battery Charging Systems

AN IMPORTANT NOTE ON RV REFRIGERATORS

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Because conventional propane RV refrigerators are inefficient and are (shockingly) expected to fail within ten years of service (see our blog post about that here), the current trend in full-time RVs is to manufacture them with residential AC refrigerators. These RVs are built with an inverter large enough to power the refrigerator while the RV is in transit. This is great for folks that are going to plug into electrical hookups 100% of the time. However, the electricity required to run a refrigerator, whether AC or DC, and no matter how Energy Star Efficient it is rated to be, is astronomical.

A typical 10 to 12 cubic foot Energy Star refrigerator will use over 300 kilowatts per year, or 822 watts per day. There is some energy lost when running on an inverter, so this will be roughly 822 Watts / 10 Volts = 82 amp-hours per day. To keep this fridge operating during the short days of winter when the sun is low in the sky, you will need 400+ watts of solar panels and 200+ amp-hours of battery capacity in addition to whatever you will need to run the rest of the household.

If you plan to boondock a lot, and you don’t want to run your generator 24/7, be prepared to outfit your rig with over 1,000 watts of solar panels and close to 1,000 amp-hours of battery capacity to power a residential refrigerator.

Non-Energy Star compliant DC electric refrigerators are even worse. Our sailboat had a 3.5 cubic foot DC refrigerator (“counter height” or “dorm size”) that was built for RV use. It did not have a freezer compartment. We had 710 amp-hours of AGM batteries and 555 watts of solar power. Granted, we were living in the tropics and the ambient cabin temperature was generally 85 degrees. The refrigerator compressor ran about 50% of the time and our solar power system was pushed to the max to keep the batteries topped off every day.

We had a separate standalone 2.5 cubic foot DC freezer on our sailboat. If we turned the freezer on, the solar panels could not keep the batteries charged without supplemental charging from the engine alternator every third or fourth day.

Residential refrigerators have vastly improved in recent years, running on a mere 25% of the electricity they used to use in 1986, and they are only getting better. For more information about refrigerator energy use and energy saving tips, see this resource: How Much Electricity Does My Refrigerator Use?

I have corresponded at length with a reader who has been boondocking 95% of the time for 6 months in a 40′ Tiffin Phaeton motorhome. He has a Whirlpool 22 cubic foot residential refrigerator, 1,140 watts of solar panels on his roof and 940 amp-hours of battery capacity in his basement. His fridge is powered with a dedicated Xantrex pure sine wave 2,000 watt inverter that is wired through a transfer switch to both his shorepower line and his generator, just in case the inverter fails (he had a 1,500 watt modified sine wave inverter that literally burnt up and started smoking).

So it can be done, but it will be easier in a motorhome that has a big payload capacity than in a fifth wheel or travel trailer that has a smaller payload capacity due to the weight of the batteries required. Even though we had to replace our RV refrigerator in its 8th year of service, we do not want double our battery bank and solar panel array just to power a residential fridge. I would rather put that extra 275 lbs into other things we need in our mobile lifestyle.

PHEW! THAT WAS A LOT OF INFO. WHAT NOW?

Still confused about the components and operation of an RV solar power system? See our four part RV SOLAR POWER TUTORIAL series where these concepts are re-introduced and discussed in greater detail:

Learn more about the different kinds of solar panels on the market:

Solar Panel Selection – Flexible vs. Rigid, 12 volt vs. 24 volt, Monocrystalline vs. Polycrystalline – PLUS Wiring Tips!!

Get the quick-and-dirty shopping list of things to buy for your solar power installation:

Three RV Solar Power Solutions: Small, Portable, and Big!

Want to learn more about BATTERIES and understand how battery charging works at a deeper level? Our Intro to Battery Types and our four-part tutorial series covers all the details involved in charging RV and marine batteries and takes a close look at a variety of specific charging systems, from converters to inverter/chargers to engine alternators to solar charge controllers. It also reveals how these systems work together:

Curious about the solar power installation we did on our sailboat? See our page: SAILBOAT SOLAR POWER INSTALLATION.

In April, 2015, we overhauled our electrical power plant on our trailer. See the introductory post about this upgrade here:
RV ELECTRIC POWER SYSTEM OVERHAUL

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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 per person!).

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 over the years, 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 our progression through good solid “value” gear, from the “entry level” gear we started with to the more professional quality gear we use today.

For easy navigation, use these links:

The best time to buy camera gear is during the lead up to Christmas or when a manufacturer discontinues a camera model. An inexpensive but good quality DSLR is the Nikon D3400 camera which is available in kits with one or two lenses, camera bags, filters, etc., here

CAMERAS and LENSES

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Our Current Cameras and Lenses

As of 2018, we both shoot with Nikon D810 cameras. This is a professional level, truly awesome, full-frame 36 megapixel camera. We use these primarily for landscape shots.

We also both have Nikon D500 cameras which are crop-sensor 20 megapixel cameras that can shoot 10 frames per second, ideal for fast moving objects like wildlife and our adorable puppy.

Prior to these cameras, 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.

A few years back we bought a Tamron 150-600 mm G1 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. We loved this lens so much we bought the upgraded Tamron 150-600 mm G2 lens. While we got lucky with the first one and it worked great right off the bat, we had to send back our first copy of the G2 and get a replacement because it didn’t focus well. Now both lenses are awesome. Frankly, if you are picky about testing the lens to make sure you have a good copy, we find we are getting just as good pics from the older G1 lens as from the newer G2, so you might save a few bucks and get the G1. We used both lenses as well as the Nikon D500 and the Nikon D810 to capture the eagle and moon images in this post: Magical Moments in the RV Life.

An alternative to this lens that is priced similarly is the Sigma 150-600 contemporary series lens. Another awesome option that has become available since our purchase is the Nikon 200-500 mm lens.

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.

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 D3400) 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 D810 cameras which are “FX” in Nikon lingo). This, in turn, means the image quality is slightly lower and if you blow 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 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 D3400. 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., there are lots of kits 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 cameras, 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. However, note that the Nikon D500 camera can’t use third party batteries, so you have to spend the bigger bucks on a Nikon brand EL-15 battery for that camera.

Memory Cards – We also have two memory cards in each camera (the Nikon D610, D810 and D500 all have two card slots in them). We use Sandisk brand for all our memory cards. We like the SanDisk “Extreme Pro” 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 are also faster when downloading photos to a computer. Our Nikon D500s use Sandisk XQD cards and our Nikon D810s use Sandisk CF cards.

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.

Lee Filter System – Mark also uses a Lee Filter System and loves it. This is a multi-part system of square filters that can be placed on any camera lens. You need the Lee Foundation Kit, an adapter ring sized to your lens and some filters. The advantage of this system is that for graduated neutral density filters you can position the transition point between light and dark. So, if you are shooting a sunset and have very little land and lots of sky, you can darken the sky and lighten the land even if the horizon is just above the bottom of your photo. Likewise if you have a bright sky and a dark hillside – you can rotate the filter so the transition is on an angle and not a horizontal line right through the middle of the photo.

 

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 with a blurred background, clouds streaking across the sky or silky 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 for hiking. The legs slide in and out really smoothly, and the adjustments are easy. I also have a set of super long Really Right Stuff tripod legs and a Wimberly gimbal which is awesome for letting me swing the Tamrom 150-600 lens around smoothly while shooting birds.

Mark has Sunwayfoto tripod legs and smaller ballhead for hiking and bigger ballhead that he loves and he uses a Sunwayfoto GH-01 gimbal head as well. We reviewed them in depth at this link:

Choosing a Tripod – Sunwayfoto Tripod and Ballhead Review

Sunwayfoto GH-01 Ballhead Review – Great Support for a Long Lens

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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RV Tips and Tricks – Make RVing EASY and FUN!

There are a million RV tips and tricks to make the RV life easier, and this page offers some little jewels we’ve discovered since we started RVing full-time in our fifth wheel trailer in 2007. We’ve broken them down into:

RV Tips and Tricks for making RVing and the RV Life easy

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OUTDOOR RV TIPS and TRICKS

High Powered “Search” Flashlight

We often camp in areas that are quite remote, and getting to and from and around the rig at night is much easier with a very high powered flashlight!

Lumintop SD75 LED flashlight

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight compared to a pocket Maglite

We have a Lumintop SD75 Flashlight which is downright phenomenal. We have hiked Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon at night to photograph the stars and the Milky Way, and this flashlight is literally like holding a car headlight in your hand.

Here is more info about this flashlight:

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight Review

Getting Parked Without Damaging Anything

The most basic element in RVing is learning to hitch up and unhitch, whether you are driving a car pulling a popup, a diesel truck towing a fifth wheel or a Class A motorhome towing a car. Of course, lots of people have loads of fun in their motorhomes without towing a car behind, but getting hitched up and unhitched is part and parcel of the RV lifestyle for an awful lot of us.

The most important thing for the driver and the person standing outside of the rig is to stay in eye contact with each other. This is entirely up to the person running around outside. If you can see the driver’s face in the rear view mirrors, you are golden. If you can’t, then any kind of gesture you make, including jumping up and down and waving your arms because the driver is about to drive the rig right off a cliff, will never be seen.

We use two-way radios to give us a way to talk to each other and to lessen the impact if I inadvertently end up in a position where Mark can’t see me in the rearview mirror. We use the longest distance radios we can get, to make sure the signal is decent. Right now we have 36 mile GMRS radios, which are realistically good to about 3-5 miles. We used these on our boat (a godsend when anchoring) and we’ve used them ever since we started RVing. We’ve gone through three sets so far, because the salt air ate up two pairs during our cruising years.

Two-way radios for backing up an RV

We use our two-way radios all the time…

Besides the radios, it’s really helpful to have good hand signals. I indicate the distance until disaster by spreading my arms wide and then bringing my hands closer and closer together until I give a “halt” sign (palms forward). Shaking my head and waving my hands and giving a few slices to the neck can help too if it starts to look really bad.

Midland 36 mile GMRS radios

36 mile GMRS radios

It is royally embarrassing to make all these gestures when you’ve got an audience of people watching, but I’ve learned that there’s no ego in getting the rig parked well. Every RVer who has been around a while has made a huge blunder of some kind while parking, and they’ve all lived through it. So a few members of your giggling audience will probably be very sympathetic to whatever mistakes you have up your sleeve.

My worst gaffe was in front of two very special friends we hadn’t seen since we’d moved into our fifth wheel a year earlier. They had come out to camp with us, and we were all excited. I had just finished telling them (with great pride) that we didn’t need their help parking because we parked our rig all the time, we had a system, and we had gotten pretty darn good at it.

Mark began to back up as our friends watched, and I began to warn him that he needed to go more towards the driver’s side to avoid a tree. He adjusted, but again, I told him, he needed to go more towards the driver’s side! I kept repeating my instructions louder and louder as our good friends watched in bewilderment. When Mark was just about to cream the tree, we all started shouting STOP!!! Mark got out of the truck, calmly assessed the situation, and then said to me: “Ahem…. which side does the driver sit on?”

Our friends smiled weakly and I looked for the nearest rock to crawl under…

So, don’t be embarrassed and don’t be shy. Make your gestures big and strong, and remember which side of the rig the driver sits on!

Hitching and Unhitching a Fifth Wheel Trailer

Some folks drive their RVs solo, and although I can’t say much about hitching and unhitching a motorhome and car combo, our good friend Bob has found a great way to hitch and unhitch a fifth wheel trailer solo. He marked the front landing leg that’s near the extend/retract button at regular intervals all the way up and down the leg.

Fifth wheel landing leg marked with hash marks

Hash marks on a landing leg help get the rig back to the right height before hitching up.

Then he numbered each hash mark. He keeps a pad and pen in the hatch near the landing legs button. When unhitching, once he’s raised the trailer to where he can drive the truck out from under it, he jots down the hash mark number that is visible on the leg. Then he drives out, parks, and returns to the trailer and raises or lowers the landing legs as necessary to get the trailer level.

When he hitches up again to leave, he adjusts the trailer height to the exact position where he unhitched. That way, when he gets in the truck to hitch up, he knows the trailer will be at the correct height as he backs the truck up into the hitch pin (and he doesn’t have to get in and out of the truck several times to check and adjust the height of the trailer).

We marked our landing legs at 1.5″ intervals and have not numbered them. There are only 6 hash marks, and I make a mental note of what mark we were at when we unhitched. Frequently, by the time we leave, I’ve forgotten where we were at before we leveled the trailer, but I’ve developed a good eye for knowing how much to raise or lower the rig as Mark backs the truck towards the trailer.

We also marked the centerline of the fifth wheel pin box and pin plate so it is easy for Mark to line up the hitch with the pin box and king pin when he is backing the truck into the trailer.

Leveling the Trailer

There are many methods for getting a trailer level, and hydraulic leveling is a blessing that takes all the excitement out of it. For those without hydraulic leveling, we found in our early years that with two 5′ lengths of 2″x8″ board and one 5′ length of 1″x8″ board we could always find a combination that worked to get the trailer level from side to side. A 5′ board is relatively easy to drive onto and provides a solid platform for the trailer’s wheels.

We store the boards in the bed of the pickup. When using two boards, we stagger them a few inches so the trailer is driven first onto one level and then up a step to the next. We have to remember to back up when coming off stacked boards or the upper one will tip up and hit the bottom of the trailer while driving off it (think of a sailor walking the plank).

Leveling boards fifth wheel RV trailer

This was an extremely unlevel spot where we used quite a few boards and strips of horse stall mat.

If you don’t like the idea of hauling long boards around in your truck, there are nifty plastic leveling board kits (here’s another type) that are very popular.

We also use plastic wheel chocks whenever we park on a steep incline to prevent the trailer from rolling, especially while unhitching and hitching up.

Our friend Ken introduced us to using a sliced up horse stall mat rather than pine boards. We cut a 4’x6′ sheet of horse stall mat into five 1×5 strips and four 1×1 squares, and those have worked really well for us. They hold up to the elements really well and they roll along with the contour of whatever crazy surface we might park on. It is also possible to drive off of them either forwards or backwards because they don’t slap the underside of the trailer.

The only disadvantage is that they are much heavier than pine boards, but we can drag them around and they don’t disintegrate. We use the 1’x1′ squares under the landing legs and scissor jacks for cushioning.

We also have four large blocks made of three 1′ lengths of 2″x8″ boards screwed together. We put handles on the ends to make them easy to lug around. In a really unlevel site in the Smoky Mountains we had to stack them on top of each other AND extend the jack legs all the way!

RV fifth wheel landing legs

A very unlevel spot that required two blocks plus all the leg length.

What Is Level and How Do You Know?

Determining what constitutes “level” inside an imperfectly constructed RV is an interesting trick. We used a carpenter’s level on our kitchen floor, in several directions, and on our table, and on the bedroom floor. Of course, none agreed! But we found a good compromise and then mounted some RV levels on the outside of the rig to give us a reasonable guess when we’re setting up.

There are two different types of levels: Bubble Levels that have an air bubble that floats to the high side, and Ball Levels that have a ball that drops to the low side. Bubble levels are more responsive (the bubble moves more quickly as the RV moves). Ball levels take a few seconds to react. If you use both types, you can get confused because they move in opposite directions.

We have a large Level Master level on the fifth wheel pin box that is easy to see from inside the truck. We also have two small bubble levels on the trailer on the corner by the landing jack power button, one facing forward (for left to right leveling) and one facing sideways (for front to back leveling).

RV Fifth wheel hitch level and center mark

The ball style level (visible from inside the truck) shows which side of the rig is low.
We painted a line on the pin box to help with hitching up.

Our pin box mounted Level Master, a ball level, is easy to see from inside the truck. When the trailer is higher on one side than the other, the Level Master ball falls to the low side.

Our smaller levels on the front corner of the fifth wheel are bubble levels, so the one on the front of the rig showing the side-to-side level has a bubble that rises to the high side. This is the opposite of the ball level on the pin box, and sometimes, when we are struggling with white line fever from hours on the road, this messes us up.

RV bubble levels on a fifth wheel trailer

Small bubble levels show left/right and front/rear level near the landing jack power button on our fifth wheel.

I’d recommend sticking to either ball levels or bubble levels and not mixing and matching like we did! A good solution might be to mount a ball level like this on both the pin box and on the front of the trailer near the landing jack power button.

Why do you need two side-to-side levels? When I’m running around placing the boards in line with the wheels for Mark to drive onto, I want to see a level on the fiver easily myself, and the front of the pin box is impossible to see from the side of the truck when we’re hitched up.

However, lots of folks rely on a single pin box mounted level that has both side-to-side and forward-back levels in it. There are a few from Camco and Hopkins that are very popular.

You can forego all this nonsense with a slick hydraulic leveling system. However, this does introduce a complicated and expensive system into your life, and we’ve heard many stories of the jacks falling down while driving, or not retracting properly and systems failing in other ways. On the plus side, though, you can easily jack up the trailer to change a flat!

 

Cordless Drill for Easy Jack Setup

We don’t have electric stabilizer jacks on our fifth wheel trailer (nor did we on our travel trailer). However, we use an 18 volt cordless drill, and it’s very easy.

Cordless drill set up for RV stabilizer jacks

Ready for action with the drill, extension and socket for the stabilizer jacks

We use the following setup to crank the scissor jacks:

We keep the 1/4″ Hex to 3/8″ Socket Adapter in the drill. Mark glued the extension and 3/4″ socket together with JB Weld, making it ultra easy to grab the extension, jam it in the drill and go.

18 volt cordless drill, 8" extension and socket for RV scissor jacks

18 volt cordless drill, extension, socket and adapters for RV scissor stabilizer jacks

This setup worked on both the four stab-jacks on our travel trailer and the two rear scissor jacks on our fifth wheel. We keep the drill right inside a basement hatch door so it’s easy to find during both setup and breakdown of the trailer.

RV stabilizer jacks with cordless drill

Raising and lowering the jacks takes 2 seconds!

Rigid Drill Set Radio

This goofy radio is in the Rigid Drill Kit (along with an impact driver & regular drill & lithium ion batteries and charger). We love it even more than the other stuff!

Camco makes a special Leveling Scissors Jack Socket that replaces those three pieces, but there is no 8″ extension. Personally, I like the long extension because you don’t have to crawl in so far to make contact with the scissor jacks.

Last year we bought a Rigid drill kit which includes a regular 18 volt drill, an impact driver (awesome for the lug nuts when changing a tire) and a radio as well as two rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and a charger.

After going through three different 18 volt drills during our years of RVing and sailing, we’ve been really impressed with this Rigid kit. The Lithium-Ion battery charges up in about 15-20 minutes and it’s good for a really long time.

The kit comes with two batteries, so we use one for the drill and one for the radio. And what a hoot it is to have a portable radio. In this day and age of slick electronics, we’ve gotten such a kick out of this thing…

 

Cleaning the RV

No matter where we park, the slide roofs need attention before we bring them in. Either they are dusty, in the desert, or they are covered with twigs and leaves, in the woods, or they are wet from rain. Slide toppers might help with this, although I have heard that they tend to make noise in high winds, sag over time, and sometimes end up with leaves and twigs trapped underneath.

Mark has a long handled squeegee he uses to get the water off, a broom for the leaves and branches, and a California Duster and/or broom for the dust. Getting up on the roof is also useful for checking out all the rooftop items like hatches, TV antenna, solar panels and wiring. His favorite cleaning tool for all this is a telescoping scrub brush that we used for cleaning our boat.

Scrub brush on RV roof

Our telescoping brush from our boat is a favorite for cleaning the rig.

He just loves this soft bristled brush. Murphy’s Oil Soap mixed with water is a good solution to wash the roof. To get rid of black scuff marks on the outside of the rig, he uses Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sponges.

Telescoping Ladder

Telescoping ladder on an RV

A second ladder is really helpful!

Telescoping ladder

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The first trailer we lived in full-time didn’t have a walk-on roof, and the signature of an RV without a walk-on roof is that it doesn’t have a built-in ladder.

We got a telescoping ladder so we could get up on the roof, and we have kept that ladder and used it ever since, even though our fifth wheel has a built-in ladder.

You may not think you need a second ladder when you’ve got one on the rig already, but polishing the front cap is one job where you do.

Washing or working on any part of the rig that is high up and out of reach of the ladder on the back is much easier with a second ladder, including the high corner of the rear end opposite the built-in ladder!

 

RV Patio Mats

A beautiful patio mat extends your living space and defines your outdoor area in an elegant way, and we love ours.

RV Patio mat defines outdoor space while camping

A classy patio mat extends your living space into the outdoors.

But they can be pricey if you’re just getting started with weekend RVing. An alternative is to get some green indoor/outdoor carpeting. We had this with our popup tent trailer, and it fit the bill perfectly (and our friends who now own our popup still use it!).

Popup tent trailer indoor-outdoor carpet patio mat

Save a few bucks and use green indoor/outdoor carpeting!

Waxing the Fifth Wheel Cap

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for getting the fifth wheel cap to have a deep shine. It’s made of ABS plastic and shows every swirl mark of a first-pass at waxing. The only way to bring back the luster it had when it was new is to use an orbital buffer and fiberglass polish and a whole lot of elbow grease.

Polished front cap on RV fifth wheel trailer

An orbital buffer and 3M Marine Cleaner Wax give the front cap a nice shine
but leave Mark’s shirt speckled with white spots!

Mark likes the 3M Marine Cleaner & Wax that we used on our sailboat. Unfortunately, you’ve gotta do this a bunch of times, and the worse condition the front cap is in, the more times it takes. But eventually you can get the shine back. Just be sure you keep the buffer moving lightly across the surface at all times so you don’t dig a hole in the plastic!

We have more cleaning tips for giving an RV that extra shine while boondocking here: Tips for Washing an RV While Boondocking

 

Truck Overloads

Timbren SES Suspension System for truck

Timbren SES Suspension

Our 14,000 lb. fifth wheel was right at the weight limit of what our 2007 Dodge 3500 could tow, and the pin weight of the trailer along with all the things we carry in our truck loaded down the bed of that truck quite a bit.

When hitched up, although the rig looked quite level, the truck sagged a bit, leaving the front wheels a little light and giving the truck a tendency to wander.

To alleviate this, we installed a Timbren Suspension Enhancement System between the axles and leaf springs of the truck. These are solid rubber donuts (not airbags) that fit between the axle and the leaf springs. That made the truck sit better and wander less.

We had that setup for eight years. In 2016 we purchased a 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck which had a much higher weight capacity in the truck bed and could handle the pin weight of the trailer along with the additional weight of the water jugs and leveling boards we carry in the bed of the truck much better.

How to Put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a Truck

Our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 has a five gallon Diesel Exhaust Fluid tank which needs to be refilled every thousand miles or so. We’ve got some tips for where to get this stuff cheap and how to get it in the truck without spilling here:

How to Put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a Truck and Which Brand is Cheapest

How to put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a truck without spilling

Putting DEF in a diesel truck is a new necessary evil, but there are tricks to make it cheap and easy…

RV Grill Operating on the RV’s Propane Tanks

Mark loves to barbecue, and ever since our first popup trailer, we’ve had a wonderful, small RV barbecue, the “RV sidekick grill.” It comes with a mounting kit to hang it on the side of an RV. Flipped sideways, this same kit becomes legs so the grill can stand up off the ground.

RV grill attached to fifth wheel trailer

The RV sidekick grill is designed to hang on the side of an RV or stand on its own.

We had this grill installed on the side of both our popup tent trailer and travel trailer, but with the fifth wheel, Mark installed an extra gas line and valve coming from the RV’s propane tanks so it can run from them. A quick disconnect LP gas hose goes from the grill to this gas line.

RV grill gas pipe connection

An extra gas line and valve lets the grill runs from the trailer’s propane tanks.

We’ve had this little grill since 2005 and it still makes a great meal!

 

RV Water Toys – Water Spigot Connections

In many dry camping campgrounds where there are water spigots available but no water hookups at the campsites, the water spigots don’t have threads. We’ve found a water bandit makes it possible to thread our water hose onto the spigot so we can fill up with water easily.

Water Bandit spigot adapter for RV fresh water at campgrounds

The water bandit makes it possible to connect a fresh water hose when there are no threads on the spigot.

In cases where we get water hookups and leave the water hose connected to the trailer, we screw a 90 degree elbow onto the trailer so the hose can hang straight down rather than come out of the our city water connection horizontally and then droop down towards the ground, putting pressure on the connection and potentially causing drips. We discovered this nifty little elbow when we lived on our boat in a marina before our cruise.

In addition, a water pressure regulator keeps the water pressure down to a level inside the rig that prevents any unexpected damage or leaks. A quick release makes it easy to connect and disconnect the fresh water hose. Mark also keeps a Y valve in his water hose arsenal. This is handy if the rig is connected to city water and we want to fill pails with water for washing the truck, or if an RV dump station has only one water spigot and we want to fill our fresh water tanks and run the black water flush at the same time.

RV water connections to fresh water hose

The elbow here is 45 degrees. 90 is even better.
To show all these components they are all screwed together here. But it is best to connect the water pressure regulator to the water spigot instead. Or, simply modulate the water pressure by reducing the flow at the water spigot.

Lots of folks like to attach a water filter as well. We used various filters at first, but no longer use any, although we periodically add a cap full of bleach to the fresh water tank. When we got a new fresh water tank, we were surprised that there was no sludge of any kind inside the old tank, even after 7 years of use.

Changing the Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

We have a Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck with a B&W fifth wheel hitch, and wouldn’t you know it, the first time we had to change a tire on it, it was the inner rear tire. Ugh!

We had always wondered exactly how you went about doing this, and we found out. Here is a blog post that explains the entire process:

How to Change the Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

 

INDOOR RV TIPS and TRICKS

Creating STORAGE SPACE with Seating for Four in the Dinette

We replaced the two chairs in our dining area with two wonderful storage ottoman benches, and this has increased our storage space by quite a bit. The storage ottomans we chose have a nice faux leather padded top that is really comfy to sit on, and they have voluminous storage space inside.

Storage benches in RV dinette

Our dining area – lots of storage and seating for four.

We have his-and-hers benches, and we keep our camera gear in them. The great thing is it got rid of all our clutter and gave us a place that is low down in the trailer and slightly ahead of the trailer’s axles (a smoother ride) where we could make custom padded storage for this delicate gear.

For more info and more pics of our benches, see this blog post about our setup: Making STORAGE SPACE in an RV.

You can buy the storage ottomans we purchased HERE, and you can get ideas of other brands and sizes of storage ottomans on the market HERE.

Protecting the Carpets Under the Slide-Outs

The carpets take a beating as the slide-outs roll in and out. Some slide-outs aren’t quite square and one wall or the other presses particularly hard on the floor while driving. You can buy fancy carpet protectors that fit under the slides. We went a cheaper route and bought a package of four flexible plastic cutting boards.

RV tips - cutting boards under RV slide-out

Flexible cutting boards taped together protect the carpet under the slide-outs.

We used packing tape to tape two of these together, end-to-end, and each pair fits under the slide-out walls perfectly yet are thick enough to protect the carpets. I keep one pair under one slide-out wall while driving, because that slide is crooked and its one wall gets wedged against the floor pretty tightly. The other slide-out walls hover above the carpet as we drive, so I pull the plastic cutting boards out from under them so they don’t get lost underneath while in transit.

Keeping the Cabinets Closed

After having a cabinet door fly open while driving over a bumpy road, causing two unbreakable Corelle bowls to fly across the trailer and break in half, we now latch every cabinet door with 6″ bungee balls. For drawers we use mini 10″ bungee cords with a hook at each end, hooking the top and bottom drawer handles.

RV tips bungee balls and bungee cord on RV cabinet doors and drawers

Bungee balls and bungee cords ensures the cabinets and drawers all stay closed.

Rolled up Carpets

We have a large pots-and-pans drawer that occasionally likes to open. We roll up our throw rugs and place them so they can’t unroll in front of the drawer to keep it closed.

How to keep RV drawer closed in kitchen

Rolled up throw rugs keep this big pots and pans drawer closed while driving.

Rubber Shelf Liners

Rubber Shelf liners are invaluable, keeping everything in its place on each shelf as we travel. We try to make sure no plates, mugs or glasses are touching each other when we set out.

Shelf liner for RV shelves

Shelf liner keeps things in place when we drive

Closet Organization with Plastic Drawers

Our bedroom has a marvelous 8′ wide closet with sliding doors on it, but the interior is just open space with a rod for hangers. We don’t use it as a hanging closet (we have a different closet for that). Instead, we put stacked plastic drawers inside to give us more drawer space as well as a horizontal surface on the top.

RV closet plastic drawer organizer

We created more drawer space in one closet with lightweight, inexpensive plastic drawers.

These drawers don’t latch closed, so Mark drilled a hole through each drawer and the frame, and we simply slip a screw through each hole to keep it closed as we drive.

How to keep RV drawers closed

A screw through each drawer keeps it from opening in transit

Book Organization with Special Bins

We like to keep our heaviest items, like books, on the floor, as shelving in an RV tends to be quite flimsy. I found an awesome line of Rubbermaid “All Access” bins that have a clear plastic latching door on the front. Ours fits neatly under our desk (which we never use as a desk, so it’s wasted space). We can move the whole thing easily, can load it from the top easily and can get at the books from the front easily.

Rubbermaid All Access storage in RV

Rubbermaid’s “All Access” bins have clear front opening doors!

Dish Drying Mat

We do several small loads of dishes everyday, and I just love our little dish drying mat. It soaks up all the water, and once I move the dishes off of it I can hang it up to dry. Every so often I throw it in the laundry with the dish towels, and it comes out just fine.

RV dish drying mat

A dish drying mat sops up water, can be hung out to dry and thrown in the laundry.

How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

Propane RV refrigerators build up a lot of frost very quickly. After trying many different methods for defrosting our fridge over the years, we’ve outlined the steps we use to get this job done quickly:

How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

How to defrost an RV refrigerator

Defrosting the fridge doesn’t have to be a big nasty chore…

LED Wax Pillar Candles

I love romantic lighting, and there’s nothing like candles for that. But having an open flame isn’t great. Sailing friends of ours introduced us to pillar shaped LED candles made of real wax, and they are delightful. We’ve had ours for five years now, and we’ve had to change the batteries just once. They are wonderful for dim lighting in the pre-dawn hours or late at night, and they are a nice light around the rig when we watch a movie. The best part is they really look and feel like real candles, but you don’t have the risk that comes with an open flame.

RV tips LED flameless wax pillar candles in RV

LED pillar candles add warmth and create romantic mood lighting

Departure Checklist

RV Departure Checklist

All our mistakes on one page
with the worst ones underlined!

We thought we could memorize all the things that need to be done when we pack up the rig for towing, but a few mishaps taught us otherwise.

We now have a checklist taped inside the same cabinet that houses the main slide-out controls.

A quick glance before we leave ensures us that indeed all the hatches are closed, the shower door is latched, the window-mounted hummingbird feeder is not stuck on a window somewhere, etc.

This list is a comedy of errors made over several years of RVing. I’m sure more items will be added in the future!

 

Simmons Beautyrest Mattress

An RV can be outfitted with ordinary residential furniture, and we have upgraded our recliners to comfy La-Z-Boys.

More important for full-time RVers, there is no need to sleep on some funky RV mattress every night. We upgraded our mattress to a Simmons Beautyrest and just love it.

One important note is that many RV mattresses are non-standard sizes. An “RV Queen” is shorter than a standard Queen, and an “RV King” is narrower than a standard King. Here’s a chart showing the differences:

Standard “RV” Size
Queen 60″ x 80″ 60″ x 74″
King 76″ x 80″ 72″ x 80″
Simmons Beautyrest Plush Pillowtop mattress for RV

A good night’s rest…

In most rigs that have a Queen bed, the floorplan clearly states whether it is an RV Queen or a regular Queen. However, in virtually all RVs that have a king bed, it is an RV king. If you are buying an RV with a king bed and think you might want to upgrade to a residential mattress someday, make sure there are 4″ of extra width on the sides so the mattress can fit, even if it hangs over a little.

 

Laptop Lap Insulator

I mentioned that we don’t use our desk, and that’s because we use our dining room table for writing things out by hand and we use our laptops on our laps in our recliners. To keep from frying our legs with our laptops, we each have a laptop sized thin piece of foam that was part of the packaging of a solar panel. If you don’t have that handy, there are laptop lap insulators that can do the trick.

Laptop on thin foam insulation

A thin piece of foam keeps our legs from cooking under our laptops

Cleaning the Ceiling

We have a fabric ceiling liner and twice we’ve had to clean a stain from it. Each time we used spray bleach and the results were miraculous. You couldn’t see where the stain had been. Just make sure you cover everything nearby before spraying bleach in the air or you’ll have not just a clean ceiling but white spots on the rugs and upholstery too.

 

HEALTH and COMFORT in the RV LIFE

Living in an RV is not all that different than living in a stick-built house, so anything you enjoy in a conventional life is more than likely going to be something you can enjoy in your RV life. Here are some goodies that we use everyday, that have made a significant difference in our lives, and that we will continue to use daily no matter what kind of home we live in:

Amazing Grass

Amazing Grass powdered wheat grass drink

Helps keep fair haired people with thin skin from bleeding!

Mark has found that when he works around the rig, it is really easy for him to get little cuts and blood spots on the backs of his hand his hands. This turns out to be common with fair haired (red haired) formerly freckle-faced guys over 50. After some research, we found that the remedy is bunches of Vitamin K, and it turns out that wheat grass is loaded with Vitamin K! It has lots of other beneficial nutrients as well.

As long as Mark drinks a small dose of wheat grass everyday, his hands are as tough as when he was 20. But miss that wheat grass for a few days, and the next time he does any work around the rig, the slightest flick of his hand against something breaks the skin and he’s bleeding again. The best brand we’ve found is Amazing Grass.

Sound weird or too good to be true? We’ve suggested this crazy remedy to formerly red-haired friends, and they are now big believers and wheat grass connoisseurs too. Mark mixes it with fruit juice and actually loves the flavor! For those who don’t like veggies, the claim is that a spoonful of this wheatgrass powder is akin to a bushel basket of veggies. I don’t believe that myself, and I keep putting broccoli on our plates, but I think this stuff is worth its weight in gold when it comes to toughening up thin skin.

Hand-held Electric Massager

As former athletes, we’ve both spent a lot of time looking for ways to soothe aching muscles. We’ve owned a lot of different hand-held massaging tools over the years, including the very popular Thumper Sport massager, and they’ve all been okay. But many of them ultimately wound up in yard sales because they had bad habits of pinching skin or were awkward to use.

Brookestone electric massager

Brookestone electric massager

We’ve found that the hand-held Brookestone massager is really fantastic. Because it has just one ball head on it (rather than the more common and goofy twin ball heads), you can place it over any sore spot and get instant relief. Rub it slowly on your leg muscles after a hike or bike ride or rub it on that weird spot in your neck after you sleep funny and wake up unable to turn your head, and you’ll feel better right away.

This massager was a lifesaver for me after a bad cycling accident I had years ago that messed up my shoulders and collar bone for a very long time, and Mark recently relied on it heavily when he wrenched his back. We’ve never had it pinch our skin at all.

The neat thing about these massagers is that they increase the blood and fluid flow in the sore area, which is really helpful for getting nutrients into the injured spot and getting waste fluids out. You don’t need to press hard on it — just place it on the sore area and you’ll feel the muscle relax instantly.

We have had ours for four years now, and we used it both on the boat and in our RV. It’s amazing just how kinked up you can get living in a small space, and it is so helpful to be able to get unkinked in a matter of minutes. We keep it in our living room so it’s always handy.

Sonicare Toothbrush

Sonicare toothbrush

Sonicare toothbrush

If only these Sonicare toothbrushes (and toothbrush heads) had been around when we were kids! It may seem ridiculous to spend a bunch of money on an electric toothbrush, but brushing your teeth with one of these makes your mouth feel like you just came from a cleaning at the dentist’s office. I’ve used a Sonicare toothbrush for 13 years now, and what a difference it has made in the overall health of my teeth.

One note for boondockers and off-the-grid RVers living on solar power, Phillips, the manufacturer of Sonicare toothbrushes has noted that the rechargeable batteries do not like modified sine wave inverters very much. I read this years ago, and have always charged ours on our pure sine wave inverter. Perhaps the batteries are better in newer models, I don’t know.

Also, for tech junkies who like to collect tech goodies, the magnet inside the Sonicare toothbrush heads is incredibly strong. Mark has saved a few of the magnets from our discarded Sonicare toothbrush heads and has found all kinds of interesting uses for them, including gluing one onto a long stick to retrieve tiny metal objects from hard to reach spots in the bowels of something.

Other RV Tips & Tricks

We have loads of other tips and tricks for RVers on this website. Many of the links can be found here:

RV Tech Tips and Product Reviews

A small sampling is below:

A wonderful website dedicated to RVing tips and tricks is RVtravel.com

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2008 Hunter 44DS Sailboat

Hunter sailboats are the best kept secret in the boating industry.  Here's a review of our 2008 Hunter 44DS

Groovy - '08 Hunter 44DS

sv Groovy layout

Hunter 44DS Floor Plan

s/v Groovy main salon

Main salon.

SV Groovy nav station

Navigation station.

s/v Groovy galley

Galley.

sv Groovy Master stateroom.

Master stateroom.

This page describes our Hunter 44DS sailboat, including all the equipment we have added for full-time liveaboard cruising in Mexico.

Long settee for napping.

We have a large cockpit, a nice feature on a liveaboard sailbot, and great for sailing too.  SV Groovy cockpit

Spacious cockpit.  We can sit face-to-face with our legs

stretched out, and our feet don't touch.

On a cruising sailboat it is essential to have large uncluttered decks.  s/v Groovy deck.

On deck.

When we sail on overnight passages while cruising Mexico we appreciate our forward looking windows.  sv Groovy forward looking windows.

Sitting inside on the companionway stairs, you can see where you're going, a wonderful feature on a

cold overnight passage.

s/v Groovy - it's just a groovy boat.

It's just a groovy boat.

The twizzle rig is a twin headsail rig that we have flown on our boat during our cruise to Mexico.  SV Groovy - twizzle rig

Twizzle Rig - twin headsails flown on

matching whisker poles.

Sailing down the Pacific Baja coast on our cruise to Mexico we anchored s/v Groovy in Bahía Sant Maria, Mexico

At anchor in Bahía Santa Maria, Mexico.

Hunter Marine sailboats are the best kept secret in the boating industry.

Under sail.

One of the finest anchorages in Pacific Mexico isin Zihuatanejo, Mexico -  s/v Groovy.

At anchor in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

Three 185 watt solar panels provide

awesome shade over the jump seats

Hunter 44DS Sailboat: s/v Groovy

Groovy has been sold. Pics, listing and Sales Spec Sheet here!!

Groovy (named for Simon & Garfunkel's song Feelin' Groovy)** is a

Glenn Henderson designed 2008 Hunter 44DS (Deck Salon).  A

fractional sloop, it is 44 feet long and 14' 6" feet wide with two

staterooms and two heads.

Hunter 44DS Model History

First introduced by Hunter Marine in 2002 as the Hunter 426, the aft

cabin was changed a little and the model name changed to "44DS" in

2003.  Production ran from 2003 to 2008.  In 2008 the the deck and

cabin were modified to accommodate twin helms instead of a single

helm, the forward berth was changed from a v-berth to a pullman style,

and the window pattern was changed to a wraparound band to match

the popular Hunter 45CC.  These changes saw the model name change

to "45DS," and as of 2012 it is still in production.

Along with the Hunter 426 and 45DS, the 44DS shares its hull with the

Hunter 44AC (Aft Cockpit) and Hunter 45CC (Center Cockpit).  Each of

those boats has the same hull but a different deck and cabin layout.

Groovy is hull #252 for the 44DS model line, where the numbering

started at #101.  Built in May, 2007, it was the last Hunter 44DS ever

built.  Click here for more information on the Hunter 44DS.

Groovy is a stock boat with Hunter's "Mariner Package," a collection of upgrades sold as a unit.  Because the boat was built after

the replacement model (45DS) was in production, it features a few of the components that are standard on that model, including

a laminate cherry interior, which we love, and a larger fuel tank, which has come in very handy.

Specifications

Length Overall (LOA)

43' 4"

Waterline Length (LWL)

39' 2"

Beam

14' 6"

Draft

6' 6"

Displacement

22,936 lbs

Ballast

7,237 lbs

Mast Height

60' 8"

Sail Area

975 sq. ft.

Fuel Capacity

66 gallons

Water Capacity

140 gallons

Holding Tank Capacity

45 gallons

Water Heater Capacity

11 gallons

Yanmar Diesel Engine

54 hp

CE Classification

A/10

We installed many upgrades to enable comfortable cruising where we can stay at anchor for months at a time without having to

rely on marinas for water or electrical connections.

House Batteries

640 Amp Hours (Four AGM 4D 12 volt) - plus one 70 Amp Hour AGM start battery

Charging

555 Watts Solar / 100 Amp Alternator on engine / 130 Amp 110v Charger (via shore power)

Inverters

600 Watts Pure Sine Wave / 2500 Watts Modified Sine Wave / 2 portable Modified Sine Wave

Watermaker

60 Gallon per hour engine-driven Echotech watermaker*

Downwind Sailing

Twin jib "Twizzle Rig" set on two fixed length whisker poles.

Anchors

60 lb Ultra primary with 300' 5/16" G4 chain

32 lb Fortress FX-55 secondary with 20' 5/16" BBB chain and 300' 7/8" Nylon Rode

15 lb Manson Supreme stern anchor w/ 5' 3/8" G4 chain and 230' 1" Nylon Rode

Dinghies

10' Porta-bote with a Suzuki 6 hp outboard

Hobie i14t tandem inflatable kayak

A GAZILLION BOATS FOR SALE... WHICH ONE

WOULD MAKE US HAPPIEST?

When we set about buying a boat, the major trade-offs we found

were age, size, price and manufacturer's prestige.  In an earlier life I

owned two boats back to back that were the exact same model, the

Nonsuch 36.  This is a wonderful boat for cruising and living aboard,

and I lived aboard for four years in Boston, Massachusetts in the

early 1990's (brrrr...those winters were cold).  The first year I was on

a 1984 model that had been ridden hard and put away wet.  After

watching in great distress as my then-husband repeatedly chased

down a spider web of unmarked cables and miles of smelly plumbing

hoses in a putrid bilge, we upgraded to a 1991 model of the same

boat that had been lavishly commissioned and meticulously

maintained.

What a world of difference.  You would never know they were the same

model boat.  Instead of him spending hours kinked up in impossible

positions in noxious nooks and crannies fixing problems and spending

boatloads of money on spare parts at West Marine, we enjoyed three

terrific summers of boating together.  We watched sunsets and sunrises

in pretty anchorages and experienced countless utterly brilliant days of

sailing.  There is nothing like an almost-new boat made up of sparkling

clean parts that work.  Therefore, when Mark and I started thinking about

buying a boat, our first two criteria were that it be in superior condition

and as new as possible.

After living in trailers full-time for so long, we also knew that size

mattered to us.  For full-time liveability, we found bigger is better.

With age and size the top priorities, and a maximum budgeted

price, there were only three manufacturers whose boats we could

afford: Hunter, Beneteau and Catalina.  These are the Ford-Chevy-

Dodge of the sailboat industry (not in any particular order).  All

three are American made.  Beneteaus are French designed but

built in South Carolina.  Hunters and Catalinas are designed and

built in Florida.

Our top priorities for livability included a huge cockpit where we could

stretch out to sleep, a long settee in the main salon where we could

nap, and two good sized staterooms (rather than three as in many

models).  Brokers thought we were crazy when the first thing we did

as we stepped aboard a prospective boat was to lie down in the

cockpit to see if the benches were long and wide enough to sleep on.

But hey, this boat would become our home, and we like to be

comfortable and relax!

Next in importance was a large swim platform and cockpit shower, as

we envisioned frequent swims off the back of the boat and we knew

we would need easy access to the dinghy when we lived at anchor,

especially hauling groceries, daypacks, trash and laundry bags in and

out.  Lastly, we wanted an airy, spacious interior.  Other than that, we

weren't fussy, but after attending dozens of boat shows, visiting fifty

or more boats with brokers, and many Caribbean charters, we found

that the Hunter models spoke to us more than the others, and of

those only the Hunter 41DS and 44DS made the cut.  The faltering

economy worked in our favor, suddenly making the larger of the two

boats a viable option.

A visit to the Hunter factory assured us that not only are their boats

cleverly designed and chock full of innovative features, but they are well

built to boot.  We came away from every contact we had with Hunter

impressed that it is a quality company that employs a loyal group of

happy employees.  Their phenomenal customer service since we

purchased Groovy (15 minute turnaround time on almost every emailed

question we've ever sent) has driven that point home to us time and

again.  Hunter sailboats are the boating industry's best kept secret.

Best of all, Groovy is a dream to sail.  With an easily driven hull,

the boat is light on its feet, easy to reef, responsive and

forgiving.  A delight to live in and fun to sail, it is an excellent

platform for extended cruising.

** When we named our boat, it was the only boat with the name Groovy in the US Coast Guard Documentation database.  So we

were quite surprised when we discovered over a year later that she has a sistership of the same name bearing a non-US flag:

Jimmy Buffet of Margaritaville fame races his Groovy in the Caribbean.  Far out!!

*Echotec's official "rating" is 40 gph, but since we installed high capacity membranes, our timing measurements have never

been less than 58 seconds to fill a one-gallon jug in the tropics (the speed is 44 gph in San Diego's cooler water).

More info in the links below...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following clip is a VIDEO WALKTHROUGH of our boat which we did before it was sold:

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Our 555 watt solar power system is described in detail here: Sailboat Solar Power System. There is lots more info about solar power solutions for boats and RVs here: Solar Power Articles for Sailboats and RVs.

Our 60 gallon per hour engine driven watermaker was featured in an article we wrote for Cruising World Magazine. The article can be read at this link: Water, Water Everywhere – Installation of a 60 gph engine driven watermaker.

Our cruising itinerary and all of our blog posts from our cruise can be found at this link: A Groovy Cruise of Mexico.

There is a ton of info on this website about planning a Mexico cruise and anticipating what to expect. To get oriented and find out where we keep all the good stuff, visit this link: Cruisers Start Here

.

To help you plan your cruise and get you inspired, we created the video series, "Cruising Mexico Off the Beaten Path - Volumes 1-3," shown below. This is a fun-to-watch and easy-to-digest introduction to Mexico from a cruiser's perspective, giving you lots of valuable information that isn't covered by the cruising guides. Each video is available individually at Amazon, either as a DVD or as a download. For discount package pricing on the whole series, visit our page Cruising Mexico Video Series.

Volume 1 (left) reviews the geography, weather and seasons in Mexico and shows you what the best anchorages between Ensenada and Manzanillo are like.

Volume 2 (middle) gives detailed info that can't be found in any of the guidebooks about the glorious cruising ground between Manzanillo and the Guatemala border.

Volume 3 (right) provides all the info you need to get off the boat for an adventure-filled trip to Oaxaca.

Our Gear Store also has a boatload of ideas for your cruise!

 

RV Solar Panels – Flexible or Rigid? 12 or 24 volt? Mono or Poly? Yikes!

There are a lot of decisions to make when you install solar panels on an RV or boat. Some of the most basic are: what size solar panels to buy, whether to go with flexible solar panels or aluminum framed rigid panels, whether the solar cells should be monocrystalline or polycrystalline, and whether to install nominal 12 volt or 24 volt panels.

We have done several RV and marine solar panel installations, and we have used not only 12 volt and 24 volt panels of various sizes but we have also used both aluminum framed rigid solar panels and the newer semi-flexible solar panels. We have also worked with both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. This article outlines the pros and cons of the various types and sizes of solar panels and offers some things to think about when you are deciding which solar panels to buy for your RV or boat.

RV solar panel selection

.

Our article RV Solar Power Made Simple explains how to determine the overall wattage for an RV solar power installation. In general, a weekend / vacation RV can get by with 200 watts or less while a full-time solar power system is best with 500 watts or more.

SOLAR PANEL SIZE and PLACEMENT

Once you decide on overall capacity for your solar panel array, the next thing to think about is solar panel placement and wiring. The panels should be a matched set of identical or nearly identical panels. If you have a lot of real estate on the RV roof, then you can get a few big panels. If you have a truck camper or your RV roof is cluttered with a lot of things on it already (hatches, vents, antennas, etc.), then you may need to go with smaller panels that can be squeezed in and around everything else.

Solar panel installation on a ffith wheel RV

Our fifth wheel trailer is powered by four 120 & 130 watt 12 volt rigid polycrystalline solar panels wired in series

WHAT VOLTAGE IS THAT SOLAR PANEL?

Solar panels are constructed internally with DC wiring, and they are sized to work on 12 or 24 volt circuits. So, they are commonly referred to as 12 or 24 volt solar panels. What’s confusing is that while the nominal voltage of a solar panel may be 12 or 24 volts, the open circuit voltage is higher. So, for a nominal 12 volt solar panel that is 100 watts, the open circuit voltage (“Voc“) will be 17 or 18 volts. Likewise, for a nominal 24 volt panel, the Voc will be 34 to 36 volts.

Also, smaller solar panels (both physically and in terms of watts) are typically nominal 12 volt panels while larger panels are typically 24 volts. Solar panels under about 150 watts in size are usually 12 volt panels. Solar panels over about 150 watts are usually 24 volt panels.

Solar panel installation on a sailboat

For nearly four years, we sailed our boat on Mexico’s coast relying on three 185 watt 24 volt
polycrystalline rigid solar panels, wired in parallel, for all our electrical needs.

Solar panels work best when they are a matched set. The electrical characteristics of all the solar panels in the array need to be very similar, preferably identical. When upgrading a solar power array this can make things complicated as you try to mix and match old small panels with new big ones.

One technique for upgrading is to wire two 12 volt solar panels in series to work on a 24 volt circuit. For instance, if you have two 100 watt 12 volt panels and you are buying a 200 watt 24 volt panel, you can wire the two 100 watt panels in series and then wire that pair in parallel with the new 200 watt solar panel.

This will work as long as the electrical characteristics of the pair of solar panels in series match the electrical characteristics of the single panel that is wired in parallel with them.

THE EFFECT OF SHADE ON SOLAR PANELS

Shade is the biggest enemy of any solar power installation. Unbelievable as it seems, a tiny bit of shade will effectively shut down a solar panel. The impact is dramatic: a few square inches of shade can drop a solar panels current production down from 8 amps to 2 amps. A few more square inches of shade can drop the current production to 0.

Before deciding on the size of the panels, it is worthwhile to take some time to study the various things that might cast shade across them once they are in place. A closed hatch may cause little shade, but when it is open on a hot day, depending on where the sun is in the sky, it might cast a big shadow across a nearby solar panel. Satellite dishes, air conditioners and even holding tank vents can cast sizable shadows as well.

We put a book in one corner of a 120 watt 12 volt panel and discovered that even though it was a small percentage of the surface area of the panel, that 8.5″ x 11″ book was enough to knock down the current production of a 120 watt solar panel by 80%. Rather than producing 7 amps, it produced a measly 1.4 amps. Egads!

Shade on one corner of solar panel

Just 8.5″ x 11″ of shade from this book reduced current production by 80%!

Similarly, shade wreaked havoc on our three185 watt 24 volt panels on our sailboat. The shade from our mast traveled across the panels as the boat swung at anchor, and the current production dropped by 1/3 and then by 2/3 as the shade first crossed one of the three panels and then straddled two of them. It did this over and over, with the current rising and falling repeatedly, as the boat slowly swung back and forth at anchor.

Effect of shade on solar panels installed on sailboat

A line of shade from the mast on our sailboat reduced our solar panel array to 65% and then 35% of its capacity as it traveled across the panels and occasionally straddled two of them.

Shade is a huge concern in the solar power industry, and there are several white papers (here’e one) about the impact of shade on commercial solar panel installations. The gist is the importance of spacing the rows of commercial solar panel arrays in such a way that one row of panels doesn’t accidentally shade the bottom inch or so of the next row behind it when the sun is low in the sky.

If it does, the second row of panels shuts down. If there are rows and rows of solar panels spaced like this, none of the panels except the ones in the first row can function until the sun rises a little higher in the sky.

Solar panels are most sensitive to shade along the longest part of the panel, so in the case of our sailboat, when the sun was over our bow, the mast would shade the panels in a strip that had a maximum impact on current production (as you can see in the above photo)!

For RVers, besides rooftop obstructions, shade comes into play primarily if you park near a building or trees. Snowbirds boondocking in the southwest deserts of Arizona and California during the wintertime have little concern with shade from trees and buildings. But summertime RV travelers who boondock in wooded areas need to be cognizant of where the shade from the trees will fall during the course of the day.

WIRING SOLAR PANELS IN PARALLEL vs. IN SERIES

One of the big decisions for a solar power installation on an RV or boat is whether to wire the solar panels in series or in parallel. There are several things to consider when making this decision.

When the solar panels are wired in series, then the developed voltage across all the panels is additive while the current remains constant from panel to panel. That is, if there were four 120 watt 12 volt panels producing 7 amps each, then the developed voltage across all the panels would be 48 volts (12 x 4) while the current would be just 7 amps.

In contrast, when the solar panels are wired in parallel, then the voltage of the panels remains constant through the circuit while the current is additive from panel to panel. For instance, for those same four panels, the developed voltage across them would be 12 volts but the current would be 28 amps (7 x 4).

The solar charge controller takes care of balancing everything out by ensuring the circuit between it and the batteries is 12 volts. In the case of the above solar panels wired in series, the solar charge controller steps down the voltage from 48 volts to 12 volts (if they are 12 volt batteries). The current then increases from 7 amps to 28 amps in the wire run going between the solar charge controller and the batteries.

In the case of the above solar panels wired in parallel, the voltage is already 12 volts, so the solar charge controller does not need to step it down for the batteries.

SHADE EFFECTS on SOLAR PANELS WIRED IN SERIES vs. WIRED IN PARALLEL

When solar panels are wired in series, if shade hits one panel and shuts it down (caused by that solar panel’s internal circuitry building up a massive amount of resistance), then the entire string of solar panels shuts down. For instance, if a tree shaded 1/3 of one solar panel in the string of four panels given above, wired in series, the current production of the entire array of four panels would be reduced to to 0 amps, even though the three other solar panels were in full sun.

In contrast, if the panels are wired in parallel, when shade knocks one panel out, the other panels are unaffected. So, even if 1/3 of one solar panel were shaded, reducing it to 0 amps of current production, the other three would be working just fine. The total current production would be 3/4 of what it could be if that one panel were in full sun (in this case, 21 amps), rather than 0 amps.

So, it would seem that the best way to wire solar panels is in parallel.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, and here’s why:

CURRENT and WIRE SIZE in a SOLAR PANEL INSTALLATION

The more amps of current there are flowing in a circuit, the thicker the wire needs to be to ensure that no energy is lost to heat. Unfortunately, thicker, heavier gauge wire is a pain to work with. It’s stiff and doesn’t bend around corners easily. It is hard to tighten down in the solar charge controller connections and it’s hard to crimp ring terminals onto. It is also more expensive per foot.

So, when the solar panels are wired in series, a thinner gauge wire can be used for a given distance than when they are wired in parallel.

Of course, the thickness of the wire is also dependent on the length of the wire. The longer a wire is, the more energy is lost along its length. So, if you are installing the solar panels high on an arch off the aft end of a 50′ sailboat and the batteries are located at the bottom of the hull over the keel, the wire must be a lot heavier gauge than if you are installing the panels on an RV roof directly above the battery compartment.

What is the price difference in the cable? We like to use Ancor Marine Cable because it is tinned and it is very supple (the copper is fine stranded). Here are the price differences for 25′ of 2 gauge wire as compared to 25′ of 10 gauge wire.

Ultimately, there is a dilemma: Is it better to go for thinner, cheaper wire and an easier installation, and wire the panels in series, risking that the whole array will shut down whenever a corner of one panel is shaded by a nearby tree? Or is it better to pay the extra bucks for heavier gauge wire and endure a more challenging installation but have a system that will be more tolerant of partial shade?

What to do?

SOLAR PANEL VOLTAGE and WIRE SIZE

Luckily, there is another option: higher voltage solar panels can be wired with thinner gauge wire. Remember, Watts = Current x Voltage. So, for the same number of watts in a panel, a higher voltage panel will produce a smaller amount of current.

Rather than using four 120 watt 12 volt panels wired in parallel that would produce 28 amps at 12 volts, you can use two 240 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel that produce 14 amps at 24 volts. The net effect on the battery bank will be the same, but the bigger panels can be wired with smaller gauge wire.

As mentioned above, the wiring that is most affected by these solar panel choices is the wiring that runs from the solar panels to the solar charge controller. The wiring from the solar charge controller to the batteries is the same in either configuration, as the same amount of current will be flowing in that wire regardless of how the solar panels are wired. In the case of solar panels wired in parallel, the voltage will be stepped down in the solar charge controller. So, in our example, the solar charge controller will step down the voltage from 48 volts to 12 volts, ensuring that the circuitry between the solar charge controller and the batteries is at operating at 12 volts.

CHOOSING THE OPTIMAL WIRE GAUGE

The thickness of the wire, or wire gauge, depends entirely on how long the wire is going to be. That is, the wire gauge is determined by how far apart the solar panels and the solar charge controller and the batteries are.

Why is this? The more current that flows in a wire, the more the conductor in the wire will warm up. The more it warms up, the more energy is lost to heat. Eventually, this becomes measurable as a voltage loss between the two end points.

When wiring solar power circuits, you can choose how much voltage loss you are willing to have. Somewhere between 2.5% and 5% is typically considered okay. There are voltage loss tables that will help you decide on the proper wire gauge size for the distance you are spanning between the solar panels and the solar charge controller and between there and the batteries. Here’s a good one:

AWG Voltage Loss Table

An Example: 480 watts of solar power located 27′ from the batteries

  • Say we have four 120 watt 12 volt panels wired in series. If the distance is going to be 27′, then by looking at the third chart at the above link (the 12 volt chart) and going to the line for 8 amps flowing in the wire, it shows a wire run of up to 27′ can be done with 10 gauge wire.
  • Now, imagine putting those same panels in parallel. 32 amps will flow at 12 volts. For that same 27′ distance you’ll need 2 gauge wire.
  • Lastly, instead of using four 120 watt 12 volt panels, use two 240 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel. For this you use the 2nd chart down (24 volt chart). There will be 16 amps flowing in the wire at 24 volts. You will be able use 8 gauge wire.

Of course, due to the nature of multi-stage battery charging and the changing position (and angle) of the sun in the sky, the solar panels will be operating at full tilt for a very short time each day. They may produce max current for 30 minutes near noon as they wrap up the Bulk Stage, however, as the Absorb stage takes over and continues in the afternoon, the solar charge controller will gradually hold the panels back so they produce far less than max current.

With less than peak current flowing in the wires, less energy will be lost to heat.

If this is confusing, see our articles:
RV and Marine Battery Charging Basics
How Solar Charge Controllers Work

So, although it may seem dire that you’re wiring is on the hairy edge size-wise, it is only that way for a little while each day. Depending on the overall size of the solar power array, the size of the battery bank, and the state of discharge when the batteries wake up in the morning, your system may not even hit the theoretical maximum current production or even come close.

MULTIPLE SOLAR CHARGE CONTROLLERS

Another method of keeping the wire size down is to install more than one big solar charge controller. For instance, you might install several smaller charge controllers for each pair of panels wired in series, or perhaps even one for each panel. Of course, this adds complexity and expense, and you will probably buy less sophisticated solar charge controllers that have fewer programming options than a single big one.

You must run more wires between the RV roof and the location in the coach where the solar charge controllers are installed (preferably next to the batteries), and so you must not only pay for additional solar charge controllers, but you must buy more wire and install it all. However, this design option does deserve mention and consideration.

TILTING THE SOLAR PANELS

Solar panels perform a whole lot better in the summer than in the winter. This is because the sun rides much higher in the sky and its rays hit the panels at a nearly perpendicular angle in the summertime. The days are also a whole lot longer. In the winter, the sun’s rays hit the panels at an angle and the sun is only out for a short while.

Solar panels on a fifth wheel RV roof

Tilting solar panels in winter can improve current production by 30%
Or…install more panels and save yourself from climbing up and down the RV ladder!

To get around this, rather than using ordinary Z-brackets to mount their solar panels on the roof, many RVers use tilting brackets. By tilting the panels towards the sun at about a 45 degree angle (technically, at the angle of your latitude), then the sun’s rays hit the panels at a nice 90 degree angle if they are oriented to face south. This can increase the overall power production by about 30% on a sunny winter day.

The only problem is that you have to climb up on the roof to tilt the panels each time you set up camp and then climb up again later to lay them flat when you are packing up before you drive away. We’ve seen many a winter snowbird driving their RV around with the solar panels still raised.

An alternative is simply to install more solar panels and to keep them lying flat all the time. This is easy for a big RV that has a huge roof but is not so easy for a little trailer with a small roof. We have not installed tilting brackets on our trailers.

MONOCRYSTALLINE vs. POLYCRYSTALLINE SOLAR CELLS

Monocrystalline solar panel

Monocrystalline
solar panel

There are lots of different kinds of solar panels on the market today. There are two primary types of solar cells used in the manufacture of solar panels: monocrystalline and polycrystalline.

Monocrystalline solar panels are more efficient and more expensive, but they are also extremely intolerant of shade. Polycrystalline panels are slightly less efficient and less expensive, but they handle partial shade just a smidge better.

The way to tell if a solar panel is monocrystalline or polycrystalline is to look at the pattern of rectangles on the panel itself.

If the circuitry between the rectangles has large silver diamond shapes, it is monocrystalline. If the pattern of rectangles is just intersecting lines, it is polycrystalline.

Polycrystalline solar panel

Polycrystalline
solar panel

Examples of popular monocrystalline solar panels are here:

Examples of popular polycrystalline solar panels are here:

RIGID ALUMINUM FRAMED SOLAR PANELS vs. SEMI-FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANELS

Flexible solar panel

Flexible solar panel

Solar panels can also be rigid or flexible.

Rigid panels are built with an aluminum frame surrounding tempered glass that covers the solar cells.

Flexible solar panels are built with the solar collecting material impregnated into a thin mylar film that is affixed to an aluminum substrate.

Flexible solar panels are not flimsy, they are simply bendable up to about 30 degrees.

 

There are a number of manufacturers selling flexible solar panels:

FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL ADVANTAGES

Flexible solar panels have several advantages over rigid panels. They are a little lighter than framed solar panels and you can glue them onto an RV roof using Dicor Lap Sealant, or something similar. This saves you from the complexity of drilling holes into a perfectly watertight roof and risking creating leaks. This is especially helpful with a fiberglass roof. It takes just a few minutes with a caulk gun to attach these panels to the RV roof.

Another nice feature is that on a rounded roof, like an Airstream travel trailer or Casita travel trailer, the panels can bend to follow the contour of the roof.

Installing solar panels on a motorhome roof

Mark uses Dicor Lap Sealant to affix flexible solar panels to a friend’s fiberglass roof.

One of the most important things for solar panels to work well is heat dissipation. Rigid aluminum framed solar panels stand up off the roof of the RV by about an inch, allowing air to flow underneath and for heat to dissipate. Air can’t flow underneath flexible solar panels. The aluminum substrate serves to dissipate the heat instead. This may or may not be as efficient a method of heat dissipation, and I have heard of a case where all the flexible solar panels on a sailboat had to be replaced after two years because they did not dissipate the heat sufficiently in the tropics and the panels self-destructed.

FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL CONSTRUCTION and INSTALLATION

Our RVing friends Dick & Katie asked us to install six 100 watt 12 volt flexible solar panels made by Eco-Worthy on the roof of their motorhome, along with all the other projects involved in an RV solar power installation. Ironically, the hardest part of the entire installation was removing the plastic protection from the aluminum substrate of each panel (it kept ripping!). We all ended up working on this together.

Flexible solar panel installation on an RV

We had a tough time getting the plastic off the back of the Eco-Worthy flexible solar panels

Removing plastic from flexible solar panel

With all of us working together, we got the job done!

Once we got up on the roof, and got past a cute warning from Winnebego, the installation was straight forward.

Warning slippery roof on RV

Hmmm…I wonder what sage advice the manual suggests for this problem?

Solar panel installation on a motorhome RV

Flexible solar panels are lighter than their rigid counterparts

The plastic protection needed to be removed from the face of the panels as well. Interestingly, at one point Mark found himself picking at the corner of the mylar that has the solar collection circuitry embedded in it and almost began to peel that whole layer off the aluminum substrate! But once he got a hold of just the most superficial layer of plastic, it came off easily.

Removing plastic from flexible solar panel

Mark removes the plastic from the face of the flexible solar panels

He used Dicor Lap Sealant to tack down the corners of the panels and then ran a bead around each side of each panel.

FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL DISADVANTAGES

Flexible solar panels are less efficient than rigid aluminum framed solar panels, which means you may want to get a few more total watts of solar panels than you would if you were buying framed panels. Bendable panels also can’t be installed on tilting brackets. So, again, buying more total watts may be the best solution.

Flexible solar panels are not as rugged as rigid aluminum framed solar panels built with tempered glass. Overhanging branches can scratch them. This is important for anyone that will be boondocking or dry camping a lot on public lands and in rustic public campgrounds, as it is often impossible to get in or out of a site without ducking under some low lying tree branches.

Some RVers have found that flexible solar panels installed on flat motorhome roofs tend to pool water when it rains. This can lead to debris building up and taking root and damaging the panels.

Perhaps for all these reasons, flexible solar panels are sold with a much shorter warranty than rigid solar panels. Whereas many solar panel manufacturers warranty their tempered glass aluminum framed rigid solar panels for 25 or 30 years, bendable solar panel manufacturers generally warranty their panels for 5 years or less.

This may or may not be relevant for RVers, as the fine print in almost every solar panel manufacturer’s warranty states that their solar panels are not warrantied for use on mobile vehicles.

Also, there has been a huge problem across the entire solar power industry with rigid solar panels failing prematurely in large numbers in big commercial installations (see a May 2013 NY Times article here). Apparently, just because those lovely rigid solar panels are warrantied for decades doesn’t mean they will last that long. We have already had a failure of one of our framed solar panels that was warrantied for 25 years, and we discovered the manufacturer’s warranty did not apply to RV installations.

However, as a general rule, when manufacturers warranty a product for 5 years versus 30 years, it says something about how they think their product will hold up over time.

Flexible solar panels installed on a motorhome RV roof

Nice job! (but don’t fall off that roof!)

CONCLUSION

There are many ways to go about installing solar power on an RV roof, and the solar panels that work best in one installation may not be the same as those that are best for another. Not only is every RV roof different, but every RVer’s needs are different.

If you have loads of space on a big motorhome roof or fifth wheel trailer roof, and you are setting it up for full-time use, you may be best off with three or four 200+ watt 24 volt rigid solar panels wired in parallel. If you have a little tear drop camper you use on weekends and store in the garage, a single flexible 100 watt 12 volt panel may be just the ticket for you.

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RVers Jason and Nikki Wynn have written about the condition of their flexible solar panels after a year of use HERE

Wet Cell vs. AGM Batteries & Wiring Tips for Installation on an RV or Boat!

There is a world of difference between wet cell batteries (also called flooded batteries) and AGM batteries for use in an RV or marine battery bank, because AGM batteries are totally sealed, maintenance free and keep the user from coming into contact with battery acid (electrolyte). In a nutshell, the advantages of AGM batteries over wet cell batteries are the following:

  • AGM batteries are maintenance free, which means:
    • They don’t need periodic equalizing to clean the internal plates and never need the electrolyte topped off with distilled water.
    • They do not release gasses during charging, so they don’t need special venting in the battery compartment.
    • Since gasses are not released, the terminals and battery cables do not corrode over time and don’t need to be cleaned.
  • AGM batteries discharge more slowly than wet cells, so an RV or boat can be stored for a few months without charging the batteries.
  • AGM batteries charge more quickly than flooded batteries because they can accept a higher current during the Bulk charging phase.
  • AGM batteries can be installed in any orientation, which is helpful if installation space is limited.
  • AGM batteries can’t spill battery acid if they are tipped over. This is especially important when a boat heels excessively or capsizes. (Not that you’d be too concerned about spilling electrolyte if your boat were upside down!)
RV battery upgrade from 6 volt wet cell batteries to AGM batteries

.

OUR ORIGINAL BATTERY INSTALLATION

We used Trojan T-105 wet cell (flooded) batteries for nearly six years in our fifth wheel trailer, and they worked great. They were installed in our basement compartment, all lined up in a row. This was a custom installation that was done by H&K Camper Sales in Chanute, Kansas, when we purchased our trailer new from the NuWa factory in 2008.

Fifth wheel RV battery boxes in basement

Four 6 volt golf cart batteries installed in our fifth wheel basement

The original battery compartment was designed at the NuWa factory to hold two 12 volt Group 24 batteries. Group 24 batteries have the same footprint as 6 volt golf cart batteries but are about an inch shorter. We had 2″ angle iron bolted onto our fifth wheel frame so the four batteries could stand side by side in battery boxes.

Angle iron supports under an RV fifth wheel battery bank

2″ angle iron is bolted onto the fifth wheel frame
to support the batteries.

There were four venting flex hoses that ran from the battery boxes to four individual louvered vents on the front of the basement on either side of the hatch door.

RV 5th wheel basement with 6 volt battery boxes

Each battery box is vented to the outside with flex hose going to a louvered vent cover.

These batteries worked well, but because we put our RV in covered storage for 4 to 20 months at a time during the four years we cruised Mexico’s Pacific coast on our sailboat, we were not actively present to take care of the the battery charging and maintenance duties. Despite our best efforts to have someone do this while we were gone, when we moved off of our boat and back into our fifth wheel, we found our four Trojan wet cell batteries were completely dead and unrecoverable.

We replaced these batteries with four inexpensive 6 volt golf cart flooded batteries from Costco. These new batteries did not last. Within 18 months, the internal plates had sulfated badly, they took forever to charge, and they discharged extremely quickly.

6 volt wet cell batteries in fifth wheel RV basement

Upgrade time! We removed the old wet cell batteries and replaced them with AGMs.

In April, 2015, while staying in beautiful Sarasota, Florida, we replaced our wet cell batteries with four fabulous new Trojan Reliant T105-AGM batteries that Trojan had just begun manufacturing and selling. We replaced all the wiring as well.

CORROSION CAUSED BY WET CELL BATTERIES

One of the biggest problems with wet cell, or flooded, batteries is that the battery terminals and ring terminals on the battery cables get corroded easily due to the gassing that goes on when the batteries are being charged. When Mark removed the battery cables from our old batteries, he measured as much as 20 ohms of resistance from the end of each cable to its ring terminal.

Corrosion on battery cable

We measured 20 ohms of resistance between the end of the cable
and the end of the ring terminal.

Flooded batteries need to be held at 14.5 or more volts during the Absorption charging stage (depending on the battery), and at this voltage the electrolyte in the batteries begins to release gasses into the air. These gases are both explosive and corrosive, and venting them protects everything around them. However, inside the battery box these gases can corrode the battery terminals and wiring.

The best way to clean off the corrosion is with a solution of baking soda and distilled water. Put it in a disposable cup and then use a cheap paintbrush to paint it on and smooth it around the terminals and cable ends. Let it sit for a few minutes and then pour a little distilled water over it to rinse the baking soda and crud off. Dry it with paper towels.

Also, while driving down the road, the electrolyte can splash around inside the battery cells and drip out the vent holes. Dust can settle on the spilled electrolyte and can cause a minute trickle discharge across the top of the battery. So, it is important to wipe down the tops of the batteries regularly and keep them clean.

It’s a good idea to wear rubber gloves for all of this too!

6 volt wet cell RV house batteries

These batteries did not hold up well and corroded badly every few weeks.

Watch out for drops of liquid settling on your clothes when messing with the batteries. It’s nearly impossible to avoid, and Mark has holes in some of his jeans from drops of battery acid landing on his pants while he either checked the state of charge of the batteries with a hydrometer or poured distilled water into the battery terminals or cleaned the corrosion from the battery terminals and cable connections.

Battery hydrometer not used with AGM batteries

Now that we have nifty new AGM batteries, we no longer need the hydrometer!

OUR NEW RV BATTERY INSTALLTION

We chose the new Trojan Reliant T105-AGM batteries to replace our old flooded batteries because these are a completely redesigned battery from one of the top battery manufacturers, Trojan Battery. Rather than being dual purpose batteries, like othe AGM batteries on the market, the new Trojan Reliant AGM batteries are single purpose deep cycle batteries.

Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt RV batteries

Our new Trojan Reliant T105-AGM batteries ready to go.

TRUE “DEEP CYCLE” – START BATTERIES vs. HOUSE BATTERIES

Large RV and marine batteries can be used both to start big engines and to run household appliances. However, these functions are polar opposites of each other! A start battery gives a big but short blast of current to get an engine started and then does nothing. In contrast, a house battery provides a steady stream of current to power lights and household appliances for hours on end.

Most deep cycle AGM batteries on the market today are actually dual purpose start and deep cycle batteries, largely due to the history of how batteries have developed and what they have been used for. The new-to-market (in 2015) Trojan Reliant AGM batteries were engineered from the ground up to be strictly deep cycle batteries, and the design is not compromised with start battery characteristics.

Installing Trojan 6 volt Reliant AGM battery in RV fifth wheel

Mark installs the new batteries in the old plastic battery boxes.

12 volt batteries come in many sizes: Group 24, Group 27, Group 31, 4D, 8D and more. As the battery sizes increase, they provide more and more amp-hour capacity. 6 volt batteries come in various sizes too, and the golf cart size is one of several.

The Trojan Reliant T105-AGM 6 volt golf cart style batteries (68 lbs. each) are rated to have a capacity of 217 amp-hours when two of them are wired in series to create a 12 volt battery bank. In comparison, our sailboat came with three Mastervolt 12 volt 4D AGM batteries (93 lbs. each), and we added a fourth. These batteries were rated to have a capacity of 160 amp-hours each.

The advantage of using two 6 volt golf cart batteries instead of enormous 4D or 8D 12 volt batteries is that they are smaller, lighter and easier to carry around and to put in place during the installation and easier to remove in the event of a failure.

BATTERY WIRING

We wired our four new 6 volt batteries in series and in parallel. We wired two pairs of batteries in series to create two virtual 12 volt battery banks. Then we wired those two 12 volt banks in parallel with each other.

Four 6 volt batteries wired in series and in parallel

Four 6 volt batteries: two pairs wired in series to make virtual 12 volt batteries.
Those pairs are wired in parallel with each other (red / lavender circles explained below).

Trojan Battery recommended the following wire sizes for this battery configuration:

  • 4 gauge wire between the batteries that are wired in series
  • 2 gauge wire between the pairs of 12 volt battery banks wired in parallel

This is thicker wire than many RVers and sailors typically select for their battery banks.

Because we were wiring batteries that would be physically lined up in a row, we drew out a wiring diagram to be sure we got it right.

Four 6 volt batteries in a row wired in series and in parallel

Same wiring but with the batteries lined up in a row (red and lavender circles explained below).

WIRING THE BATTERY CHARGERS and INVERTER

Because AGM batteries have a lower internal resistance, they can accept a higher bulk charging current than wet cell batteries.

Trojan Reliant AGM batteries can accept a bulk charge current of 20% of their 20 hour amp-hour rating. For the T105-AGM batteries, the 20 hour amp-hour rating is 217 amps per pair of batteries wired in series. So the max current the batteries can accept is 20% of 217 amps, or 43 amps, per pair. The wiring for each charging system should be sized for a max current flow of 43 amps.

In contrast, Trojan’s wet cell batteries can accept only 10%-13% of their 20 hour amp-hour rating. For the T105 battery, the 20 hour amp-hour rating is 220 amps per pair of batteries wired in series. So the max current the batteries can accept is 13% of 220 amps, or 28 amps.

It is important when wiring both the battery charging systems and inverter systems into the battery bank (that is, the solar charge controller, the engine alternator on boats and motorhomes, the inverter/charger or the individual DC converter and inverter), to ensure that the wiring going to those devices is connected across the entire battery bank and not to just one 12 volt battery (or 6 volt pair) in the bank.

If the charging systems are connected to the battery terminals of just one 12 volt battery, whether it’s an individual Group 24 or 4D battery or is a pair of 6 volt golf cart batteries wired in series, then the batteries in the system will not charge equally. Likewise, if only one battery of the parallel bank is wired to the DC side of the inverter, the batteries will not discharge equally.

In the above drawings, the two optimal connection points for the charging and inverter systems are shown in red and in lavender. Either pair of terminals works equally well.

We found that with individual devices for our converter, our inverter and our solar charge controller, there were a lot of ring terminals getting piled up on two of the battery terminals. So we chose the inner pair of battery terminals for the inverter and the outer pair for the converter and solar charge controller.

Since we dry camp 100% of the time and rarely use our converter except when we have to pull out our generator after days of storms or to run our air conditioning, this division means that our primary charging system spans the batteries one way while the inverter driving the AC household systems that discharge the batteries span the batteries the other way.

NOT ALL BATTERY CABLE IS CREATED EQUAL

We chose Ancor marine wire for our battery cables because it is very high quality cable. The individual strands of wire inside the casing are thin, which makes this cable very supple, despite being thick overall. It is easy to work with and to snake around tricky areas. The individual strands inside the cable are tinned as well.

This is expensive wire, but after all the wiring projects we have done on our RVs and on our sailboat, we felt it was well worth the extra cost.

We also used Ancor marine tin plated lugs made of high-grade copper with flared ends for our ring terminals (available here).

Ring terminal on battery cable

Mark slips a ring terminal onto the new battery cable.

It was critical to get a good solid connection between the ring terminals and the 2 gauge and 4 gauge wire we were using.

We don’t own a crimper of that size, but West Marine Stores often have a crimper for heavy gauge wire that customers can use, and we got an excellent crimp from a workbench mounted crimper.

Crimping ring terminal on battery cable

Crimping 2 and 4 gauge wire requires a large crimper.

With Mark hanging onto the ring terminal and me hanging onto the wire, we both pulled with all our might and we couldn’t pull the lug off the wire.

Good crimp on battery cable

A good, solid crimp.

As these projects always go, we needed to return to West Marine for crimping a few days later when we wired in our solar charge controller. We went to a closer West Marine store this time, and they had a different crimper that wasn’t quite as nice.

Using a hand crimper to crimp ring terminal onto battery cable

This wire is so thick you need a huge wire cutter!

Mark wasn’t as confident that these crimps were as good electrically as the ones made with the first crimper, even though we couldn’t pull the lugs off the wire. So he fluxed the wire and used a propane torch to flow solder into the connection. This way we had not only a solid physical connection but an excellent electrical connection as well.

Soldering ring terminal crimp on battery cable

Mark flows solder into the connector to make a superior electrical connection.

Then he slipped shrink tubing over the connection and used a heat gun to shrink it in place.

Heat gun shrink wrap over ring terminal on battery cable

Shrink tube covers the whole connection, and a heat gun tightens it up.

After our installation, we discovered that Camco makes 2 and 4 gauge battery cable and you can get them here.

Back at the RV, Mark wired the batteries up. He placed the batteries in the battery box bottoms to keep them from sliding around and put the battery box tops on as well so that if anything fell over in the basement while we were driving, it wouldn’t accidentally land on the battery terminals and short something out. We keep that area clear, but you never know when you’ll hit a huge bump and things will go flying.

Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt batteries in fifth wheel basement

The batteries are ready for their battery box tops.

The AGM batteries do not need to be vented, so he removed all the vent flex hoses. This gave us much better access into the fifth wheel basement from the front hatch door.

Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt batteries in fifth wheel RV battery compartment

The new batteries are installed, wired and labeled.

Without any flex hose behind the louvered vents, dust and road grime could now flow into the basement, so Mark removed the vent covers and placed a piece of solid plastic behind each one.

Replacing battery vents on fifth wheel RV

The louvered vents are open to the basement in the back and will let dust in.

RV battery vent

Mark puts a thin plastic sheet behind each louvered vent to keep dust out.

We then went on to wire in our new converter, inverter and solar charge controller (installations to be shown in future blog posts).

HOW DO THE NEW TROJAN RELIANT AGM BATTERIES WORK?

The performance of these new batteries is nothing short of outstanding. We are floored everyday by how quickly they get charged, and not one bit of corrosion has appeared anywhere.

Mark is happy not to have to check the electrolyte levels in the batteries any more or to remember to equalize them every month. The new AGM batteries are winners all around.

RV battery boxes in 5th wheel basement

Even though AGM batteries don’t have to be installed in battery boxes,
ours are because our basement is large and open and we want to protect them from falling objects!

WHY WOULD ANYONE USE FLOODED BATTERIES?

Our Trojan T-105 wet cell batteries worked just fine for us for years, and flooded are actually advantageous over AGM batteries in two significant ways:

  1. Flooded batteries are much cheaper than AGM batteries.
  2. Well maintained wet call batteries can be cycled more times than AGM batteries

Flooded batteries cost 30% to 40% less than AGM batteries. This can add up to a savings of hundreds of dollars. Depending on the value of the RV or boat, it just may not make sense to have a huge investment in batteries on board.

Also, perfectly maintained wet cell batteries can be cycled more times than AGMs. “Perfectly maintained” means staying on top of equalizing the batteries to keep the battery plates clean and also checking each cell in each battery regularly to ensure that the electrolyte is completely topped off with distilled water at all times.

Under these ideal conditions in the laboratories at Trojan Battery, the Trojan T105 flooded batteries can survive 1,200 cycles where they are discharged to 50% (12.06 volts) and then fully recharged. The Trojan Reliant T105-AGM batteries can survive only 1,000 cycles.

Of course, battery cycling in real world conditions is very different than in laboratory conditions. The degree to which RV and boat batteries are discharged and recharged day to day is far from regular (partial discharging and partial recharging are common). Also, batteries on RVs and boats that are left in storage for any period of time can be difficult to maintain and may degrade despite good intentions (like ours did).

So, the ultimate performance and value of flooded versus AGM batteries is going to vary widely from one RVer or sailor to the next. However, for us, we will not be going back to wet cell batteries any time soon!

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