Two nifty pocket flashlights that are lighting up the dark for us!
A few months ago I reviewed the truly incredible Lumintop SD75 4,000 lumen flashlight, which is the brightest flashlight either of us has ever seen, by a long shot. It is truly like carrying around a car headlight.
When we started planning our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Mark decided to upgrade his pocket flashlight to the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight to take with him on the trip. I secretly wondered where he thought we would be going in the dark once we got to Thailand, but he felt this flashlight was a very important piece of gear that he just had to take with him.
Oh my. He was a man in love…with his flashlight! Sigh.
The big Lumintop SD75 searchlight with its suitcase and the two Lumintop pocket flashlights: SD26 (left) and EDC25 (right).
When we returned home, he absolutely had to replace yet another of his small pocket flashlights with the Lumintop SD26 flashlight, another 1,000 lumen total “must have” for a true flashlight junkie!
Lumintop SD26 (left) and Lumintop EDC25 (right): 1000 lumen pocket flashlights with belt holsters.
I wondered why a man would ever need TWO pocket flashlights, but of course he has had a flashlight in almost every drawer and cabinet and pocket since I’ve known him, so I’ve learned not to ask. But when the Amazon boxes arrived, I couldn’t help myself from asking him a little bit more.
He uses the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight to peer into dark corners around the rig. From searching for that small bag of almonds he knows is at the back of the snack cabinet, to crawling under the trailer and looking at the backside of our trailer’s leaf springs where a locking nut recently decided to unscrew itself, to searching the back of the Man Cave (our fifth wheel basement) for his plumber’s wrench or PVC cutters, which he rarely needs so they’re stashed in the depths somewhere, this little narrow-beam flashlight is ideal.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has a slightly wider beam and is best for short trips in the dark around the rig where he doesn’t want to carry the whopping Lumintop SD75 flashlight” . He keeps it in a cupboard near the door to shine outside when he hears a strange noise, and it’s the one he grabs for quickie nighttime jaunts in the dark where he doesn’t need to light up the whole world.
Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (left) and Lumintop SD26 flashlight (right)
Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (1000 lumens).
Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 flashlight (1000 lumens).
The “car headlight” effect of the Lumintop SD75 searchlight (4000 lumens).
Changing our angle slightly, we repeated the test with the flashlights shining at the cliff from off to the right. The same characteristics of each flashlight were very clear to see.
Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight.
Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight.
Huge light from the Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen searchlight.
LUMINTOP EDC25 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight — the smaller one with the narrower beam — is a true pocket flashlight, complete with a spring clip to clip onto a shirt pocket or the back pocket of a pair of pants.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has a spring clip for pockets.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight comes with a belt holster which is a more secure alternative if going on a longer hike with it.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight also has a belt holster.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (the battery is supplied with the flashlight). Simply unscrew the back end of the flashlight and slip the battery into it.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
The battery is charged by connecting to a laptop or other USB connector. The flashlight’s charging port for the cable is located in the threads of the male half (the back half) of the flashlight.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight charging port is located in the threads of the back half of the flashlight.
Plug the charging cable into the flashlight.
Ready for charging.
Then plug the USB end of the charging cable into the laptop. Initially, the flashlight will light up green.
Initially, the charging light turns green, but the battery is not charging yet.
In order to initiate the charging process, press the on/off button on the back end of the flashlight.
Press the button on the end of the flashlight to initiate battery charging.
Then the flashlight will light up red to indicate that it is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the flashlight will turn green again.
The battery is charging while the light is red. Once it turns green again, the battery is fully charged.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has six modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly.
LUMINTOP SD26 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is also 1000 lumens but it is a little thicker and slightly shorter and casts a wider beam.
Lumintop SD26 flashlight, 1000 lumens.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight doesn’t have a spring clip on it but it comes with a belt holster to make it easy to take on hikes.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not have a spring clip but it does have a belt holster for easy carrying.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (supplied with the flashlight). This slightly beefier battery allows the Lumintop SD26 flashlight to run for slightly longer than that The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight before needing to be recharged.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
The charging port is located under a rubber cover.
Simply plug the charging cable into the charging port on the flashlight.
And then plug the USB connector into your laptop.
The battery charging process begins as soon as the flashlight is plugged into the laptop (or other) USB port.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight battery will begin charging immediately, and you’ll see a green light flashing on and off to indicate that the battery is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the light will stop flashing and will stay green.
The battery is charging as long as the light flashes green. Once it stays lit solid green, the battery is fully charged.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has seven modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly. In addition, it has an SOS mode where it flashes Morse code for the letters “SOS.”
The thinner Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is 137 mm long, has a spring clip and bulges a little less in a back pocket, but its 3,400 mAh battery doesn’t last as long. It’s beam is narrower and more focused.
The thicker (and slightly shorter at 123 mm long) Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not need to be unscrewed into two pieces in order to be charged and has a longer lasting battery. It’s beam is slightly broader. It also has a cool “SOS” Morse code mode just in case you need to flash a call for help!
If you are a flashlight junkie like Mark — and I was really surprised after writing our Lumintop SD75 review that there are so many like-minded flashlight junkies out there! — then one of these two pocket flashlights might be something to consider for your life in the dark around your RV.
We carry our mountain bikes on the back of our 5th wheel with a Kuat NV Bike Rack
To keep the bike rack from dragging on the ground in crazy places like steep gas station ramps or deep gulleys on small roads, we had a “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser made. This raises the rack up quite high, so now the first thing to hit the ground is the hitch receiver itself rather than the bike rack.
A “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser raised the bike rack so it can’t drag on the ground in a gully or dip.
As is often the case with hitch receivers, the bike rack isn’t a perfectly tight fit in the hitch receiver riser, and the bottom of the riser isn’t a perfect fit in the trailer’s hitch receiver either. So, the whole bike rack tends to wiggle.
We’ve used various shims to make it all tight, but too often they would wiggle loose over time, and eventually the bikes would be jiggling all over the place on the rack again.
We wedged shims in to tighten things up, but it wasn’t an ideal solution
Last fall we stopped in at JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah, to talk with Jack, the man who had made our “Z” hitch riser (more info about it here). We wondered if he had any tricks up his sleeve for making our bike rack arrangement less wobbly.
Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah
It turns out that he had solved this very problem for other customers by making a hitch tightener. This is essentially a hitch clamp that fits over the end of the hitch receiver and snugs up whatever is inserted into the receiver with some lock washers and nuts.
Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.
So, we got two of them, one for the top and one for the bottom of our “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser extension.
He put a second hitch tightener on the trailer’s receiver as well.
The difference in the amount of movement of the bikes was absolutely astonishing. They were rock solid now!
Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.
After installing the hitch tighteners, which was just a matter of tightening the nuts, Mark drove the rig around the JM Custom Welding dirt lot while I walked behind and watched the bikes, and they were steady as could be.
Hitch tighteners at the top and bottom of the hi-low hitch riser extension.
But unlike the shim solution we’d used before, these hitch tighteners have stayed tight without needing any adjusting or fuss for several months and several thousand miles of driving on all kinds of roads.
The whole system is completely rigid now and has not needed any adjustments in six months of use.
The hitch tighteners do make for some extra steps if we want to move the bike rack from the hitch receiver on the trailer to the hitch receiver on our truck. However, we’ve started hauling our bikes in our truck in a different way using a furniture blanket, so there’s no need to take the bike rack off the trailer any more.
An easy way to get the bikes from the trailer to the trail head!
Jack makes these hitch tighteners in batches, so if you are passing through Blanding, Utah, perhaps on your way to or from the beautiful Natural Bridges National Monument, just a mile or so south of Blanding you can stop by JM Custom Welding and pick one up! In 2016 the were $38 apiece.
We discovered later that hitch tighteners of various kinds are also commercially available. So, if Blanding, Utah, isn’t in your sights, you can choose from many different kinds of hitch clamps online.
However, a visit to Jack’s welding shop is very worthwhile, especially if you need any kind of custom metal fabrication done on your RV. He is very creative and does excellent work.
While we were in Jack’s office, we noticed a display of his for a folding storage solution for the beds of pickup trucks he’s created that fits right behind the truck cab. He calls it the “Jack Pack” and it is essentially a framed canvas storage bag the width of the truck bed that is easily opened to throw your bags of groceries into and then easily folded away when you need to haul lumber or fill the truck bed with something else.
If we didn’t have that part of our truck filled up with extra water jugs, we would have snagged one of those from him at the same time!
After a few years wiggles crept in and we started using Hitch Tighteners to make the rack even more stable
The Kuat NV Bike Rack is available at Amazon (left ad), and if you are putting this rack on a car (not an RV), you can add the extension (right ad).
We receive a 4-6% commission from Amazon (at no cost to you) if you use one of our links to get to Amazon, no matter what you buy or when you finalize the sale. This helps us cover our out-of-pocket costs for this site, but doesn’t pay us for our time writing reviews like this.
If you make an Amazon purchase here, please drop us a line to let us know so we can say thank you!
In the past we used Maglites and smaller LED flashlights to find our way in the dark and to cast light on the surroundings during a long exposure of the night sky. However, even the best of these flashlights was hopelessly dim.
Our Lumintop SD75 flashlight next to our Maglite.
Mark is a huge flashlight junkie, and he searched for a long time for a big and powerful flashlight to use for our nighttime photography excursions and to use when we roam around our boondocking spots at night.
This is a “search” flashlight similar to the ones used by law enforcement.
There are three power levels, and at max power it is a whopping 4,000 lumens.
The light it throws at max power is astonishing — it goes 0.4 miles!!
Walking in the dark with this flashlight is like holding a car’s headlight in your hand!
At low power, it can run for 50 hours
At mid power, it can run for 8.33 hours
At max power (4,000 lumens), it can run for 2.68 hours
Light painting the rock pinnacles at Fairyland Point, Bryce Canyon National Park
There is a strobe mode as well, and at max power strobe, it can run for 50 hours!
The Lumintop SD75 is made of heavy duty aerospace aluminum and has a hard-anodized anti-scratching HAIII military grade finish. The LED bulbs are the latest CREE XHP70 LED technology.
This is a serious piece of gear that comes in an equally serious suitcase!
The flashlight has its own suitcase. Don’t worry, it’s about the size of a very very big lunch box.
This aluminum suitcase has foam cutouts inside for all the goodies that come with it.
Foam cutouts for all the extras.
The flashlight comes with four lithium-ion batteries that are rechargeable. It also comes with a wall charger as well as a 12 volt car charger.
The flashlight packs into the suitcase in two halves. The battery pack is shown in the middle.
So, we can charge the flashlight batteries either in our RV or in our truck, whichever is more convenient.
Wall charger and 12 volt charger.
There is a battery charge indicator light on the back end of the battery, so we know exactly how well charged the batteries are.
There are also two USB connectors for charging cell phones or other devices FROM the flashlight battery! That’s how much charge these batteries can hold!
Cap off: Battery indicator light, 2 USB ports + slots for a strap.
There are also two slots on the cap that covers the back end of the flashlight that can be used to attach a carry strap or piece of line.
One very handy feature for when we are setting up our tripods and camera gear in the dark is an LED taillight that attaches to the back end.
Standing the flashlight on end, this taillight illuminates the area all around the flashlight. This would be ideal in a tent or doing emergency truck or RV repair work in the dark too!
LED taillight Handy in a tent, setting up photo gear or working on the RV.
There is a quarter inch tripod socket on the side of the flashlight so it can be mounted on a camera tripod as well.
Unscrew this cap to access the standard 1/4″ tripod mount.
One feature we haven’t taken advantage of — because we haven’t been caught out in the rain or gone swimming with this flashlight just yet — is that it is water resistant to 2 meters!! It comes with extra O-rings to help keep it watertight as well.
My camera aims at the stars at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Of course, we wore harnesses and clipped ourselves to the boat at sunset and stayed clipped in until sunrise as long as we were outside the cabin. But there was always the chance that the quick release mechanism on the harness might accidentally undo itself or some other catastrophe might happen that would send one of us into the drink.
The Lodge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Frankly, there is no way in any conditions but the calmest seas that our spot light would have been bright enough to illuminate a bobbing head in the water.
This flashlight is so much more powerful, we both would have felt a lot more comfortable it we’d had it aboard with us!
The Lumintop SD75 flashlight brightens up our buggy.
If you are looking for a high quality flashlight for walking around your RV campsite at night, or for hiking in the dark, or for light painting old ghostly buildings in the wee hours of the morning, the Lumintop SD75 is a terrific choice.
It’s also a neat gift idea for that sweet hubby who loves gadgets and is so hard to buy for!!
An inverter, sometimes called a “power inverter,” is a piece of electronic gear that converts DC power to AC power, and it is what enables RVers to use regular household appliances in an RV without hookups to an RV park power pedestal relying on a generator.
The September/October 2016 issue of Escapees Magazine features our detailed article about inverters: what they are, how they are sized, what flavors they come in and how to wire one into an RV.
For RVers who enjoy dry camping in public campgrounds or boondocking on public land, an inverter is the key piece of the puzzle that gives their RV traditional 110 volt AC power — like the power in the wall outlets of a house — without plugging the RV into a power pedestal at an RV park or a noisy gas-hungry generator.
RV FACTORY INSTALLED INVERTERS and INVERTER/CHARGERS
A few high end trailers and most higher end motorhomes come with a factory installed inverter.
In many cases, especially high end trailers, the inverter is dedicated to powering a residential refrigerator that runs exclusively off of 110 volt AC power (unlike an RV refrigerator that can run on propane). The inverter is there so the fridge can continue to run off the batteries while the rig is being driven from one RV park to another without a connection to 110 volt AC electricity. This inverter is sized to support the refrigerator and is not intended to be used for any other purpose in the rig.
So, for most trailer owners that want to do a lot of camping without hookups, an inverter is an extra piece of gear that must be installed.
In contrast, many higher end motorhomes come with a factory installed inverter/charger that can do two things: 1) provide the RV with household 110 volt AC power at the wall outlets via the batteries while dry camping and 2) charge the batteries when the RV is getting its 110 volt AC power from an RV park power pedestal or a generator. These inverter/chargers essentially do the work of both a converter (charging the batteries from shore power) and an inverter (providing AC power via the batteries while dry camping).
So, for folks with a higher end motorhome, an inverter is usually already installed in the motorhome at the factory in the form of an inverter/charger, and it does not need to be added later. However, it may not be a pure sine wave inverter (see below).
They are rated by the number of watts they can produce. Small ones that can charge a pair of two-way radios or a toothbrush are in the 150 watt range. Huge ones that can run a microwave and hair dryer are in the 3,000 watt range.
Small inverters (400 watts or less) can be plugged into a cigarette lighter style DC outlet in the rig. Mark has one that he uses for his electric razor every morning.
Larger inverters (500 watts are more) must be wired directly to the batteries and require stout wires that are as short in length as possible.
Modified sine wave inverters are cheaper than pure sine wave inverters and are the most common type of inverter sold in auto parts stores, Walmart and truck stops. Many inverter/chargers on the market are modified sine wave inverters.
Our sailboat came with a 2,500 watt inverter/charger that produced a modifed sine wave. It was wired into the boat’s wall outlets, including the microwave outlet. We used this inverter when we wanted to run the microwave but not for anything else (we preferred using a pure sine wave inverter instead).
Some vehicles now ship with an inverter installed in the dashboard. Our truck has a small modified sine wave inverter in the dashboard, and I use it all the time to plug in our MiFi Jetpack and get an internet signal for my laptop as we drive.
Our first pure sine wave inverter: an Exeltech XP 1100 watt inverter. We keep it now as a backup.
WIRING AN INVERTER INTO AN RV – DC SIDE
As mentioned above, small inverters can plug into a DC outlet in the RV wall (these outlets look like the old cigarette lighters found in cars).
Large inverters must be wired directly to the batteries. The wire gauge must be very heavy duty battery cable and short to support the big DC currents that will flow through it. If possible, the length should be less than four feet. A wire gauge chart gives the correct gauge of wire to use for the current that will flow and the length the wire will be.
To determine the maximum possible DC current that might flow through these wires, simply divide the maximum wattage the inverter is rated for by the lowest voltage the inverter can operate at. In our case, we divided our inverter’s maximum 2,000 watts by the minimum 10.5 volts it will operate at before it shuts off. This yields 190 amps DC. Our cable connecting our inverter to the batteries is 2 feet long. So the proper wire size is 2/0 gauge (“double ought”) and can be purchased here: High quality Ancor Battery Cable.
We used 2/0 Gauge Ancor Battery Cable to wire the DC side of our inverter.
WIRING AN INVERTER INTO AN RV – AC SIDE
All inverters have at least one household style female 110 volt AC outlet. Usually they have two. These outlets look like ordinary household wall outlets.
One very simple way to wire the AC side of the inverter is to plug an appliance directly into it, for instance, plug the power cord of the TV into the inverter. We did this with a 300 watt inverter and our 19″ TV in our first trailer. The inverter was plugged into a DC outlet on the trailer’s wall, and the TV was plugged into the inverter right behind where it sat on our countertop.
Our inverter is placed as close to the batteries as possible by being suspended above them.
Obviously, you have to be careful not to run too many things at once, or they will overload the inverter. Most inverters will shut down when overloaded or sound a beeping alarm if your appliances demand more from it than it can give. We ran into that a lot when we lived on our portable inverter for a few days while our house inverter was being repaired.
A more sophisticated way to wire an inverter’s AC side so it supplies power to all the wall outlets in the RV is to wire it into the rig’s AC wiring using a transfer switch.
WHICH INVERTER TO BUY for a BIG INSTALLATION?
Because we live off the grid and never plug our RV into a power pedestal (we’ve lived this way for nine years and hope to do so for many more), we rely on our trailer’s house inverter to run all of the AC appliances we own, every single day.
For this reason, we invested in the highest quality inverter we could find on the market: an Exeltech XP 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter. This is a very pricey unit, but it is our sole source of AC power day in and day out. It is the brand that was selected for both the American and Russian sides of the International Space Station, and its signal is pure enough to run extremely sensitive medical equipment.
We visited the Exeltech manufacturing plant in Texas and saw first-hand how meticulously these inverters are made and tested prior to shipping.
Exeltech is a family run company with electrical engineering PhDs heading up their R&D department. All manufacturing is done in-house at their headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. They have phenomenal tech support and an excellent warranty.
When our beautiful new Exeltech XP 2000 inverter was inadvertently blown up by a welding snafu at a trailer suspension shop during our trailer’s suspension overhual (the plastic sheathing on a bundle of AC wires got melted onto the trailer’s frame, bonding the wires to the frame and creating an electrical short — ouch), they got it repaired and back to us very quickly.
This high quality Exeltech inverter is a serious piece of electronic gear!
Many RVers like the Magnum brand of inverters. These inverters have a built-in transfer switch which makes them easy to wire into the RV’s AC wiring system.
There are many other brands on the market from Schneider Electric / Xantrex to Go Power, Power Bright and others. If you are going to dry camp a lot, then installing a high quality and expensive pure sine wave inverter makes sense. But if you are going to dry camp for just a few days, week or month here and there, then a cheaper one may make more sense.
MORE INFO ABOUT INVERTERS and SOLAR POWER
All of this info and more is covered detail in our feature article in this month’s Escapees Magazine. We also have loads of other info about inverters, converters right here on our website. Links to our many RV electricity related articles are at the bottom of this page.
ESCAPEES MAGAZINE and RV CLUB
Inverters – AC Power from DC Batteries Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016 By Emily Fagan
Our five page article on inverters in this month’s issue of Escapees Magazine is typical of the kind of detailed technical articles the magazine publishes.
What makes Escapees Magazine unique is that it is written by RVers for RVers.
The magazine article topics come from real life experiences that RVers have encountered in their lives on the road.
Just as my article in this issue of Escapees Magazine is about what we’ve learned about inverters since we started RVing (and believe me, back in 2007, I was the one asking trailer salesmen what the difference was between inverters and converters, and I got some wacky, wild and very wrong answers!), other RVers write articles for Escapees Magazine about things they have learned.
When I sat down to read the September/October issue, I was impressed — as I am with every issue — by the quality of both the articles and the presentation.
Besides including some cool travel articles about RVing Alaska via the Alaska Marina Highway ferry system, and visiting the Very Large Array that listens to the cosmos in New Mexico, and traveling on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, this issue has two wonderful profiles of full-time RVers doing intriguing things as part of their RV lifestyle.
RV Alaska by Ferry! Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016
One article this month is about a full-time RVer who lives in an Airstream trailer and has dedicated himself to ensuring that the original silkscreen art prints created by the WPA artists in the 1930’s for the National Parks remain in the public domain, owned by the NPS rather than private collectors. It is a fascinating tale, written by Rene Agredano who has been full-timing since 2007 and writes the very informative blog Live, Work, Dream, a terrific resource for anyone who wants to learn the ins and outs of work camping.
Another article this month shares the stories of three very long term (10+ years) full-time RVers who have flourished as artists on the road. One RVer/artist specializes in watercolors and has held many exhibitions of her work around the country. Another RVer/artist discovered the fun craft of decorating gourds and teaches classes at her home RV park. A third RVer/artist has self-published a photojournal about her travels specifically for her grandchildren. This insipring Escapees Magazine article is written by full-time RVer Sandra Haven who shares the same home base RV park as the artists.
There is also a detailed article written by a lawyer on what it takes to establish a legal domicile and register to vote when you’re a full-time RVer without a sticks-and-bricks home built on a foundation that stays in one place.
These kinds of articles aren’t found in most RV industry publications!
RVers take their art on the road Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016
Escapees Magazine is just a tiny part of the overall Escapees RV Club, however.
Founded by full-time RVing pioneers Joe and Kay Peterson, the Escapees Club strives to serve the varied interests of all RVers and to alert RVers to changes in government policies or the RV industry itself that might affect us as consumers of RVs, RV and camping products and RV overnight accommodations.
They also work as tireless advocates on behalf of all RVers at both the local and national levels.
RVers BootCamp – A training program for new RVers
One of the most interesting articles in this month’s magazine alerts members to corporate consolidations in the industry that will affect our choices as RV consumers in years to come. It also reveals that the Escapees advocacy group is investigating possible changes at the Bureau of Land Management that will affect RVers ability to use their RVs on BLM land nationwide.
In addition to the magazine, the Club offers discounts for RV parks, regional chapter groups, national rallies, bootcamp training programs for new RVers, and assisted living for retired RVers who are ready to hang up their keys but not ready to give up living in their RV.
One of the most charming articles in this month’s magazine is about Nedra, a woman in her mid-80’s who was once an avid RVer but now lives at CARE, the Escapees assisted living facility in Livingston Texas. I had the good fortune to meet Nedra when we visited the Escapees headquarters at Rainbow’s End, and she took me on a fun tour of the CARE facilities. Escapees is like a big extended family, and it was very heartwarming to see her story in this month’s issue.
We’ve been members of Escapees RV Club since 2008 and highly recommend joining if you are a current or future RVer, whether you plan to travel full-time or just occasionally. Supporting their advocacy work benefits everyone who owns an RV and ensures we consumers and hobbyists have a voice in this very large industry.
You can join Escapees (or Xscapers, the branch of Escapees dedicated to younger, working age RVers) here:
If you mention this blog, Roads Less Traveled, when you join, they put a little something in our tip jar. We began recommending Escapees RV Club to our readers eight years ago, and this friendly gesture from Escapees is a brand new development in the last few months. So, this is not a sales pitch from us to earn tips, by any means. We simply believe in the work Escapees RV Club does to support RV consumers and hobbyists and hope you do too!
Selfie mania has taken the world by storm, and in our travels we are no exception.
Mark gets a selfie with a bear. Wow!
And selfie sticks are all the rage at every scenic overlook we go to.
The gear of choice in the National Parks is the selfie stick!
But there is a better way to hold a camera still, especially a big DSLR: a good quality tripod and ball head!
Sunwayfoto T2C40C Tripod and XB-52 Ballhead
Photography has become a major part of our lives and travels, and as our skills have improved, we have upgraded our camera equipment as well. In the following link we outline all of the gear we use, from cameras and lenses to accessories like flashes and tripods to software for post-processing (as well as explaining how we organize our photos), and we also provide links to all the resources we’ve used to learn how to take photos:
It is said that as a photographer improves, his or her biggest equipment concern goes from getting the right camera body to buying the most appropriate lenses to finding the best tripod. We are working our way along this progression, and soon after Mark purchased his Nikon D810 camera a few months ago, he began casting about to find a suitable tripod for it.
Because we have a lot of readers who are seeking to improve their photography as they travel, just like we are, we wanted to share our experiences with this new tripod kit.
Sunwayfoto DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp atop an XB-52 Ballhead all sitting on a Sunwayfoto T2C40C Tripod
When we first became interested in photography, we couldn’t understand why tripods could be as cheap as $29 or as much as $1,500. But we have learned since then that the price/performance trade-off is very simple, and it all boils down to three things:
Ease of use
Cheap tripods take precious time to set up, can be difficult to position the camera correctly to get the image you want, don’t necessarily hold the camera perfectly still (and sometimes even let it droop a little after you’ve got everything in place), and are often too short to put the camera at eye level. Expensive tripods do all those things with ease, and they are lightweight enough to carry comfortably.
When is a tripod handy to use? Whenever the shutter speed is so slow that hand-holding the camera will make the whole image blurry because your hand moves while taking the photo.
With a tripod, flowing water can be made to look silky smooth.
The Sunwayfoto XB-52DL ball head is rated to support a whopping 132 lbs., far more than other comparable tripod ball heads.
Like most budding photographers, we’ve frittered away lots of good money on cheap tripods as we’ve learned these lessons. After all, when you’ve broken the bank buying a camera and lenses, who wants to dig deeper in their pockets to get a decent tripod?
As is his way, Mark did an exhaustive search with a few criteria in mind for what he wanted in his new tripod. It had to be:
Stable enough to hold the camera with our longest lens, which is a Tamron 150-600mm
The ball head had to be strong enough that the camera wouldn’t droop after it was tightened
The tripod legs had to be carbon fiber (i.e., strong and lightweight)
Side note: an L-Bracket is a handy piece of gear that mounts on the camera so the camera can be slipped onto the tripod easily. Because the bracket is an L-shape, the camera can be switched from a landscape orientation to a portrait orientation quickly and easily.
The Sunwafoto PNL-D810R L-bracket mounts on the camera to simplify the use of a tripod.
Nikon D810 camera with Sunwafoto L-bracket attached.
The L-bracket gets screwed into the bottom of the camera.
What’s neat about the Sunwayfoto L-brackets is that they fit the camera body perfectly, even when the plastic cover protecting the camera’s LCD display is in place. L-brackets made by other manufacturers don’t always fit properly when the plastic LCD protector is on. The Sunwayfoto L-brackets also provide lots of room to plug optional cables (like an external microphone) into the left side of the camera.
Sunwayfoto XB-52 “Low Profile” Ball Head
Getting a good, solid and easy to use ball head was the most important criteria for Mark’s new tripod. The Sunwayfoto XB-52DL “Low Profile” Ball Head is the biggest of Sunwayfoto’s ball head offerings, and it is truly unbelievable in craftsmanship and strength. It is beautifully machined and anodized from a solid piece of aluminum. It also has a geared locking mechanism that claims a Max Load of 132 lbs (60 kg)! That is 82 more pounds than top-of-the-line Really Right Stuff’s largest ball head.
Sunwayfot XB-52DL Ballhead
Sunwayfoto XB-52DL ballhead
When locked down, the camera does not budge on this ball head. Even when carrying the tripod on his shoulder, Mark has found the camera doesn’t droop like it did with his old tripod setup.
The ballhead holds the camera securely when walking around with the tripod on your shoulder.
The large locking knob on this ball head is made from solid metal and has an excellent feel to it. There is no rubber to wear out or come loose.
There are two adjustment knobs for the ball, a large outer knob and a smaller inner dial.
There are two knobs for adjusting the position of the camera, a larger knob for gross adjustments and a fine tuning dial within that knob that lets you set precisely how easily (loosely) the camera swivels on the ball head.
The smaller knob fine-tunes how easily the camera flops around on the ball when it is loose. The larger one tightens it down.
There are also two notches on the ball head body to allow the camera either to be dropped extra far forward (for images aimed towards the ground) or to be tilted sideways (for portrait oriented images).
There are two notches that allow the camera to be dropped down, rather than just a single one like many ball heads.
The notches in the ballhead allow the camera to be faced down.
The notches for setting up a portrait orientation are handy if you don’t want to use an L-bracket.
The notches allow the camera to be flopped on its side for a portrait shot.
We prefer using an L-bracket and not using the ball head notches for portrait shots because of the inherent stability of placing the camera on the top of the tripod for portrait orientations instead of having it hang off the side.
Using an L-bracket gives the option of either a landscape orientation…
…or portrait orientation Here the camera is on top of the tripod and not flopped to the side in one of the notches, a more balanced and secure setup.
For the weight conscious, the Sunwayfoto XB-44 ball head is slightly smaller and lighter than the XB-52 but can still support a whopping 88 lbs. It weighs just 483 grams as compared to the 685 grams of the bigger ballhead, a difference of over 7 ounces (nearly half a pound), which some folks would find makes a difference on a long hike.
“Quick Release” or “Lever Release” Clamps
One of the best things about the XB-52DL “Low Profile” Ball Head is the fast action of the quick release. Simply flip the quick release lever open and slip the camera into the Arca Swiss compatible slot and then close the lever, and you are ready to go.
The Sunwayfoto quick release clamp makes it super easy to lock the camera in position.
I was so impressed by Mark’s new tripod ball head, and especially the quick release mechanism, that I got one too. It replaced the Benro V2 ball head that had come with my Benro Travel Angel II tripod. The Benro ball head had a knob that had to be unscrewed and screwed back in each time the camera was mounted or dismounted on the tripod, something that got to be a real pain when I wanted to switch between portrait and landscape orientations quickly. It is also not nearly as finely crafted.
Like Mark, I absolutely LOVE the XB-52DL ball head. Even though it is almost 13 ounces heavier than my old Benro ball head, I find it is fast and easy and precise and worth the few extra ounces of carrying weight on a long hike. My tripod can still be strapped onto my Camelback H.A.W.G. hydration pack for those long days of hiking where I want 100 ounces of water along with a second lens, assorted filters, spare battery and SD cards.
The ultlra strong Sunwayfoto XB-52DL ball head fits comfortably on my Benro tripod legs and can be carried easily with my Camelbak H.A.W.G. hydration pack.
The quick release clamp locking lever has three positions: Open (right), Center, and Closed (left). There is a slide-lock on the lever so you can’t accidentally bump it and risk having your camera fall off the tripod.
The knob opposite the quick release clamp is used to fine-tune the tension, or grip, on the clamp holding the camera’s L-bracket in place. This is an important knob if you have more than one camera body and L-bracket (or other Arca Swiss style plate), because the widths vary ever so slightly.
In the “open” position, the camera slips onto the plate. The knob (top) adjusts the grip on the camera’s L-bracket or plate
When the lever is in the Center position, the locking mechanism is half open and allows the camera to slide from left to right within the range of the stops on the L-Bracket, but is still secure so the camera won’t slide out and fall to the ground.
In the “center” position the camera can be slid from side to side on the plate without falling off.
The camera can be slid about an inch to the left and right while everything else remains in place on the tripod.
When the lever is opened all the way, the camera can be removed for handheld shooting or for switching to the other orientation (portrait or landscape) quickly.
Sunwayfoto DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp
Mark likes to do panorama shots, so he opted to replace the quick release clamp (or “Lever Release”) plate that comes with the XB-52DL ball head with the DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp instead, because it has a bubble level that indicates whether the series of shots are going to be level with the horizon or are going so go sailing off on some kind of crazy diagonal, ruining the final, stitched image.
The optional DDC-60LR lever release has a bubble level which helps with stitching multiple images into one panorama shot.
This is another finely made product that not only makes mounting the camera on the tripod a snap and makes switching from landscape to portrait (with an L-bracket) an absolute breeze, but provides a mechanism for leveling as well.
The primary difference between this quick release clamp and the one that comes with the XB-52DL ball head is that the knob opposite the quick release clamp that is used to adjust the grip tension on the camera’s L-bracket (or other Arca Swiss style plate) is no longer there. It has been replaced by the bubble level. In the absence of this knob, there is a small dial on the plate for adjusting the grip tension instead.
The fine tuning grip tension knob is now a dial on the plate itself.
There is a spring that sits against the dial to hold it in place once you set it to your liking. Mark found the spring was a bit loose and the dial would turn a little on its own until he put a drop of Blue Loctite on the threads. In hindsight, he’s found that this has made it difficult to adjust the tension.
Another subtle difference between the Sunwayfoto DDC-60LR Quick Lever Release Clamp and the one that comes with the XB-52DL ball head is that the open/closed positions of the quick release lever can be reversed (for left handed people). Simply place the lever in the center position, pull it out slightly, and rotate it. Then the open and closed positions will be in the opposite directions (left to open and right to close).
Our overall impression is that the quick release clamp that comes with the Sunwayfoto XB-52DL Ball Head is easier to work with than the DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp because the grip tension adjustment is done with a knob rather than a tiny dial. However, it also has a minor limitation, for those who want to stitch together lots of images for panoramas, that it doesn’t have a bubble level.
Sunwayfoto T2C40C Tripod
The tripod legs Mark chose are the Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod legs. This tripod is a thing of beauty, with 8 layers of woven carbon fiber and a one piece CNC machined main structure.
The Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod has carbon fiber legs.
The leg joints on this tripod have longer (40mm) friction tubes in them than are found on most comparable tripods, which makes a sturdier connection between the leg joints when they are extended. The tripod is rated at a max load of 12KG or 26.5 lbs. which isn’t the beefiest tripod out there, but the legs seem solid enough for the Nikon D810 and big Tamron 150-600 lens.
The legs extend and retract by rotating a knob at each joint.
The only drawback is that the tripod is only 52.5” tall (without the center column extended). Once the XB-52 ball head is attached, it stands 56” high, which is a few inches taller than Mark’s older tripod setup and is almost at eye level for him (he would love for it to be just a few inches taller!).
Another improvement would be to have some foam on at least one of the legs for carrying in cold weather, although foam might start to deteriorate over time, and this tripod looks like it will last a long time.
The tripod is just about at eye level for Mark, but not quite.
The Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod also has a very innovative (patented) leg pivot mechanism. Instead of the typical hex head screw attachment to connect the legs, there is a connector which has a special anti-twisting boss design on one screw head while the other side screws into it with a torx type connecting screw (the Torx wrench is included with the tripod). This prevents the screws from twisting and loosening up inside the leg attachment as the legs are pivoted and moved back and forth to set up. Most Tripods legs need to be tightened frequently with two hex style wrenches.
Mark found that after using this tripod for about a month he actually needed to tighten those screws a bit. He removed the screws and put a drop of Blue Loctite on the threads which helped.
There are torx screws to keep the leg joints at the top stiff.
One neat feature of the Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod is that the rubber feet on the bottoms of the legs can be unscrewed and removed to expose corrosion resistant Titanium spikes. These spikes plant the tripod firmly in loose conditions. Some of the other hardware used in this tripod is also made of Titanium, which very impressive indeed!
The rubber feet at the bottom of the tripod legs can be unscrewed.
Underneath the rubber protection booties, the tripod has titanium points for gripping loose soil.
The center column of the tripod can be removed and replaced with the included short column so you can splay the legs out all the way out for close-to-the-ground macro photography.
The center column is removable to allow for close-up photography that is low to the ground.
The Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod also comes with a spring hook that can be put on the bottom of either the long or short center column tube to help weight it down in windy conditions. Mark likes to hang his gear bag on it to keep his pack off of the ground and help steady the tripod.
You can hang your gear bag on the center hook to weight the tripod down.
The Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod comes packed in a high quality padded carry bag that has carry straps that can be attached to it for hiking. The kit even includes a nice lens cleaning cloth (a cleaning cloth is also provided with the Sunwayfoto XB ball heads).
The Sunwayfoto T2C40C tripod comes with a good quality padded carrying case.
The tripod carrying case has both a shoulder strap and a carrying handle as well as several pockets for small items like spare memory cards and battery.
Sunwayfoto is continuing to perfect their design of this tripod. When it was first introduced, it had only one anti-twist slot or groove in each of the legs, which made it prone to rotating and breaking. This resulted in some unfavorable online reviews of the tripod. The design has been upgraded and now has 2 slots in each leg.
If you are in the market for a quality tripod kit, the Sunwayfoto ball heads, quick release clamps, L-brackets and tripod legs are a good bang for the buck. All of these are mix-and-match, so if you already have tripod legs you like, as I did, you can simply upgrade the ball head and/or the quick release clamp. Or, go all out like Mark did, and get the whole darn kit!
The B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch uses the new and very clever puck hitch mounting system that can be ordered with Ram and Ford trucks in their fifth wheel and gooseneck towing prep packages. This truck option has five “pucks” installed in the bed of the truck: four in the corners to mount a fifth wheel hitch and one in the center for a gooseneck.
The new style fifth wheel hitches that are designed for these puck systems stand on four legs that each have a quarter turn locking mechanism at the foot to secure them into the four pucks in the bed of the truck. This allows the hitch to be installed or removed from the bed of the truck easily. When the hitch is removed, the truck bed floor is totally flat and free of obstacles, because there are no hitch rails to get in the way. Ford, GM and Ram have different puck layouts in the beds of their trucks.
B&W hitches have long had a stellar reputation in the RV industry, and when our 36′ Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer was getting a slew of big repairs done at the NuWa factory service center in Chanute, Kansas, (thank goodness for our RV warranty), we discovered B&W Trailer Hitches was just a ways down the road. So we took a factory tour of the plant.
All of the hitches manufactured by B&W Trailer Hitches are on display at the manufacturing plant.
What struck us more than anything is that B&W Trailer Hitches is a company that cares. They not only turn out a superior product, but they take take care of their employees.
Mark checks out one of the hitches on display at B&W.
We got a taste of just how deeply these community values run when we saw the Biblesta celebration and parade during our visit to Humboldt, Kansas. In an age of political correctness when many people are afraid to express their beliefs publicly, this is a town that has been openly celebrating Christianity in an annual festival for the past 52 years. All the churches in the area — as well as B&W Hitches — have a float in this extraordinary parade. Read our blog post about it here: America’s Heartland – Is It In Humboldt Kansas?
B&W Trailer Hitches sponsored a float in the Biblesta parade in their hometown of Humboldt, Kansas
Founded in 1987 by Joe Walker and Roger Baker as B&W Custom Truck Beds, the company long ago became B&W Trailer Hitches. They still build custom truck beds, but the company has grown and now manufactures many other products.
In 1991, B&W invented the clever turnover ball for gooseneck hitches, and that put them in the forefront of the towing industry. For trucks that have a gooseneck socket in the bed of the truck, the turnover ball gets inserted this socket and a fifth wheel hitch can be installed that latches onto the ball and also onto rails that are installed under the bed of the truck. When the fifth wheel hitch is removed, the turnover ball can be turned over to make the bed of the truck completely flat since the rails for the hitch are under the bed.
This makes the entire bed of the truck available for hauling when the fifth wheel hitch isn’t installed, and it also allows the truck to be set up for either gooseneck or fifth wheel towing really easily. This is handy out in ranch country where one truck might tow a variety of trailers, and also be used to haul big loads.
B&W hitches on the assembly line in Humboldt, Kansas.
The new puck style hitch mount offered by the truck manufacturers is a similar concept. Rather than just one connection point between the 5th wheel hitch and the truck bed in the center, there are four points of contact in the four corners. The four puck system also allows for an even heavier duty weight rating on the biggest fifth wheel hitches, so larger fifth wheel trailers can be towed.
B&W Trailer Hitches is into quality, and one of the things that sets their hitches apart is that they are made from American steel. Since we have dealt with axle and leaf spring problems on our trailer several times over the last year, we have come to realize just what a huge difference there is between Chinese made steel and American steel. When it comes to something that puts your life on the line because it is carrying heavy loads, American made steel is the only way to go.
Stacks of B&W fifth wheel hitch bases (these are not the new puck style base)
Another hallmark of quality in B&W hitches is that the nuts holding the hitch base to the truck are castle nuts. This means you can lock them with a sheer pin so they don’t back out.
Also, just about everything at B&W Trailer Hitches is done in-house. That way, they can retool the assembly line easily, as needed, for instance, if they improve the design or the puck layout is changed by the truck manufacturers.
Stacks of fifth wheel hitch couplers (the top part of the hitch).
Lots of metal shavings are generated in the production of hitches on the B&W assembly lines. We were impressed that B&W recycles all the metal shavings at Missouri Metals. Very green!
B&W recycles all the metal shavings from their production lines
The whole installation of the B&W Companion OEM 5th wheel hitch could easily be done right in the bed of the truck, but we we got the hitch before we got our truck! So, we did it in two stages. First we assembled the hitch in a friend’s garage. This took 40 minutes. Then, once we got our new truck, we installed the hitch in the bed of the truck. This second stage took 20 minutes because we needed to fine tune the mating of the four pucks and the four legs. In the future, lifting the hitch in and out of the truck bed will take just a few minutes.
So, it’s about a one hour DIY job to install a B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch right out of the box. That’s a huge improvement over paying the fifth wheel dealership to do a two hour installation like we did when we installed our first fifth wheel hitch in our first truck!
There is a base and a head (or coupler) and assorted parts. We laid them all out to get a look at them.
We lay out all the parts and the instructions.
There is a one page installation instruction sheet that comes with the kit (also available online here). There’s also a sticker on the hitch base with instructions for mounting the hitch’s two parts into the truck bed.
The orange sticker on the hitch base has instructions for mounting the hitch in the truck bed. The sticker faces the truck cab.
The first step is to install the big triangular pivot arms that support the hitch coupler (the top part of the hitch). The orientation of these triangular pieces depends on the placement of the hitch over the axles, which varies by truck model. In the case of the Ram 3500 dually long bed, they are oriented so the shallower slope goes towards the cab of the truck.
The hitch has a big orange sticker on the side that faces the cab, so the shallow slope of the pivot arms faces that sticker.
The shallow sloping side of the pivot arm faces the truck cab in our installation. The pivot arm orientation varies with the type of truck bed.
There are four pairs of lock washer and bolts, two for each pivot arm. There are five possible holes, so you can set the height of the pivot arm higher or lower, which will change the gap spacing between the overhang of the fifth wheel trailer and the sides of the truck bed. We chose the middle setting for starters.
The pivot arms are attached using these parts.
The bolts and lock washers screw into the threaded block an the back side of the pivot arms.
Use a socket and ratchet to tighten the bolts.
The bolts screw into a threaded block plate on the back side.
Mark bolts the pivot arm to the threaded block plate
The next step is to install the wire torsion spring on the flange on the driver’s side pivot arm that is closest to the truck cab.
The wire torsion spring is next.
The mounting clip (below the spring in the photo above) is attached to the spring. Then the spring is installed so there is 1/2″ of clearance between the top of the spring and the bottom of the rubber bumper on the pivot arm. A few taps with a small hammer secured the clip onto the flange.
Tap the spring into place with a small hammer
The spring must be 1/2″ from the bottom of the rubber bumper on the pivot arm.
Now the pivot arms are fully installed on the hitch base.
The two pivot arms are in place (photo is prior to mounting the torsion spring).
The next step was to put the hitch head — the coupler — onto the hitch base and install its handle and three safety pins.
The coupler (top of the hitch), seen upside down here, is next.
As mentioned above, all of these assembly and installation steps could have been done in the truck bed, but we did not have our truck yet, and we were excited to get started and work on the hitch in the meantime.
The gooseneck / fifth wheel hitch tow prep package puck system in our Ram 3500 dually truck was ready for the hitch installation.
The gooseneck / fifth wheel tow prep package has five pucks in the bed of the truck. Fifth wheel hitches use the outer four pucks.
Mark and his buddy lifted the hitch base into the truck bed. Back in our article about our truck, a reader noted that he hoists his fifth wheel hitch in and out of his truck bed using a hydraulic lift table. If you are going to be moving the fifth wheel hitch in and out of your truck bed a lot, and you have the garage space, and you don’t have a strong, strapping friend at your beck and call to help you, this seems like a super idea.
Each foot of the base required a little adjustment to fit properly into the truck’s pucks. This was done by loosening and tightening the cap screws on the pilot assemblies on each foot.
Each puck requires some small adjustments the first time.
Then the tension in the latch handle was set by adjusting the height of the castle nut. We used needle nose pliers to remove the cotter pin and then reinstall it and bend the end once the castle nut height adjustment was set.
A sheer pin prevents the castle nut from backing out.
It took a little pushing and shoving to get everything in place, but these are one-time adjustments. The latch handles could now be opened and closed easily.
Hitch latch handle in the open position.
Hitch latch handle in the closed position.
The B&W Companion hitch base was now installed in the bed of the truck.
The base is installed and all four latch handles have been adjusted to open and close easily.
Next, the hitch head (the “coupler”) was set on the hitch base. The two saddle handles were pushed down and the saddle lock pin was put in place.
The B&W Companion OEM 5th wheel hitch is completely installed! This view (above photo) is looking towards the tailgate.
This view is looking towards the truck cab.
Great job, guys. Thanks!!
Hey, can I have a beer too?
Celebrations behind us, the next day we hitched the new truck up to our fifth wheel trailer and took our home on a joy ride up and down some nice long 7% grades nearby. What a combo!!!
Prior to hitching the truck to the trailer the first time, we cleaned the hitch plate on the trailer and lubed both that and the coupler plate on the B&W hitch with CRC silicone spray.
We ended up adjusting the pivot arms down one notch, and that seems right for our particular truck and trailer.
We adjusted the height of the pivot pins by one notch to get the distance between the sides of the truck and the fifth wheel overhang right.
After ten thousand miles of towing with the B&E Companion OEM hitch, we are happy to report that we have been very happy with this hitch. In early 2017 we heard of a case where this hitch performed extraordinarily well in a fifth wheel rollover accident. You can read about it here:
The following info is FYI for those whose truck does not have a Puck System in the bed.
The Gooseneck Turnover Ball hitch is one option which allows you to have a totally flat truck bed when the hitch is removed. The other option is to go with the traditional rail mounted Patriot fifth wheel hitch.
B&W Gooseneck Turnover Ball Hitches:
Unlike the Puck System hitches, the Gooseneck Turnover Ball hitches require installing the Gooseneck Turnover Ball in the bed of the truck with rails mounted underneath. So, each truck bed in each model year has a different kit. The B&W Companion Hitch that mounts onto the Gooseneck Turnover Ball in the bed of the truck comes in two flavors: long bed and short bed (slider hitch).
Gooseneck Turnover Ball Companion Hitches (these are the “couplers” or actual hitches):
Choosing a truck to pull a trailer is a critical decision for RVers, because getting there, and particularly getting there safely, is the first and most important part of enjoying the RV lifestyle! Towing specs and towing guidelines always give the outer limits of what a truck can safely tow. Too often, in towing situations, the trailer is a little too big for the truck, or the truck is a little too small for the trailer, pushing the truck right to its outer safety limits or beyond.
The 2016 Ram 3500 Dually is an awesomely powerful truck for towing big and heavy trailers
The truck-trailer combo may be just a little out of spec on paper, so it may seem okay, like you can get away with it, but it is a really unwise decision. Not only is it absolutely no fun to drive a truck that is screaming its little heart out to tow the load its tied to, but if you have an accident and it is determined your truck was towing a load that is beyond its safety limits, you will be liable.
Heaven forbid that there is a fatality in the accident — either yours or someone else’s. There are lots of horror stories out there of people’s lives that were transformed because someone decided not to get a truck that could tow their trailer safely.
Of course, truck and trailer salesmen don’t help. We have heard time and again, “That truck is fine for this trailer,” or “This trailer will be no problem for that truck.” Don’t listen to them! Trust your instincts and your gut feelings. If you are studying the specs and are nervous that your truck *might* be too small because your trailer puts it on the hairy edge of its specs, then you need a bigger truck or a smaller trailer.
We have been amazed at the huge difference between our old 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel and this new 2016 Ram 3500 dually
This article covers all the specifications we studied and were concerned about when we placed the order for our 2016 Ram 3500 truck to tow our 14,100 lb. 5th wheel trailer. You can navigate to the various sections with these links:
When we bought our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel long bed diesel truck with the 6.7 liter Cummins engine, its purpose was to tow a 7,000 lb. (fully loaded) 2007 Fleetwood Lynx travel trailer. Our 2004 Toyota Tundra (4.7 liter engine) had been okay to tow that trailer on paper, but when we took it on its first mountain excursion up and over Tioga Pass on the eastern side of Yosemite in California, it could not go faster than 28 mph with the gas pedal all the way to the floor. What a scary, white knuckle drive that was. Who needs that?
Our ’04 Toyota Tundra half-ton pickup rests as it tries to tow our 27′ travel trailer over Tioga Pass… sigh.
We replaced the Toyota Tundra with a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 which was rated to tow much bigger trailers than the little Lynx travel trailer, so all was good with that small travel trailer. However, within a year, we upgraded our trailer from the lightweight Fleetwood Lynx to a full-time quality, four season, 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker LS II fifth wheel trailer that the scales told us was 14,100 lbs. fully loaded. Suddenly, our big beefy diesel truck was at its outer limits!
We drove our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 and 36′ fifth wheel combo for seven years without a mishap, but it was not an ideal situation. The truck would strain in the mountains and would wander in strong cross winds on the highway. We installed a K&N Cold Air Intake Filter and an Edge Evolution Diesel tuner which helped the engine breathe better and increased its power (see our Edge Evolution Tuner Review), and we installed a Timbren Suspension Enhancement System to keep the truck from sagging when hitched to the trailer. But the frame of the truck and the transmission were still stressed by the heavy load on steep inclines.
We wanted a truck that was well within its towing limits and that could tow our trailer effortlessly.
The weight ratings for trucks and trailers are an alphabet soup of confusion that takes a little imagination to grasp. Here’s a synopsis:
Unloaded Vehicle Weight
The weight of the vehicle without fuel, people and stuff
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating
The heaviest weight the vehicle can safely be when it is loaded up with fuel, people and stuff
Gross Combined Weight Rating
The most a truck-and-trailer combo can safely weigh when hitched together and loaded up with people, fuel, food, etc
The GVWR less the UVW
The amount of weight the truck can safely carry. Compare to the trailer’s Pin Weight
The actual weight on the truck’s rear axle when a trailer is hitched up. Compare to the Payload
The Pin Weight is most easily visualized by first imagining yourself standing on a bathroom scale and making a note of your weight. Then your teenage kid walks up and puts his arms around your neck and hangs on your shoulder. The weight on the scale goes up a little bit, but not a huge amount, because your kid is still standing on the floor on his own two feet. The more he leans on you, the more weight the scale shows.
The difference between the weight the scale shows when your kid is hanging on your shoulder and the weight it shows when you’re by yourself is the “pin weight.” In the case of you and your kid, the “pin weight” might be 30 lbs.
The Pin Weight is the weight of the trailer at the hitch pin, a value that has to be calculated.
The following chart shows the factory safety weight ratings given by Chrysler and NuWa and the actual weights for our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 truck and ’07 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker 5th Wheel trailer. We had our rig weighed by the Escapees Smart Weigh program at their North Ranch RV Park in Wickenburg, Arizona. This is a detailed, wheel by wheel, RV specific method of weighing.
Our truck, when loaded, carries fuel, 24 gallons of water, a generator and BBQ, the fifth wheel hitch, several leveling boards, two huge bins of “stuff” and ourselves, as well as the pin weight of the trailer. So, even though the pin weight itself was within tolerance on our ’07 Dodge 3500, all that other stuff made the truck way overweight. Moving those things to the trailer would clog our fifth wheel basement and would just make the trailer way overweight instead.
2007 Dodge Ram 3500 SRW (Single Rear Wheel) Truck
* LOADED with passengers, fuel and cargo but not towing
Besides the pin weight, our truck carries spare water, a heavy hitch, leveling boards, and generator. And there’s more stuff plus ourselves in the cab!
We improved our trailer’s cargo carrying capacity by upgrading from E rated tires to G rated tires and by revamping the suspension completely (I have not yet written about that project). So, even though some elements of the trailer frame are still at the spec limit, we have some leeway with our trailer in those places where the rubber meets the road.
The truck, however, was over its limit for both GVWR and GCWR, and it was pushed nearly to its max when towing.
The 2007 Ram 3500 towing guide is here: 2007 Dodge Ram Trucks Towing Guide. Our truck is on p. 20, on the 2nd to last line. Search for this text: “D1 8H42 (SRW)” (you can copy and paste it from here).
There are three brands of big diesel pickup trucks on the market: Chevy/GMC, Ford and Dodge. People have lots of brand loyalty when it comes to diesel trucks, and the bottom line is it’s pointless to get into a religious war over truck manufacturers. That said, the following are our personal opinions and there is no offense intended to anyone who loves a particular brand.
GMC makes the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra which both have the Chevy Duramax 6.6 liter engine and the Allison transmission. The Allison transmission is widely used throughout the commercial trucking industry and is considered to be the best.
FORD makes the Super Duty series of trucks which have Ford built engines and transmissions. Ford has modified its Power Stroke engine several times since the early 2000’s. The current engine is a 6.7 liter engine and it has performed well. Earlier models, the 6.0 liter engine and 6.4 liter engine, both had significant problems and were less reliable.
CHRYSLER makes the Ram series of trucks which have the Cummins 6.7 liter engine and Aisin transmission. The Cummins engine is widely used throughout the commercial trucking industry and is considered to be the best.
With the late model Ram trucks there are two models of 6 speed automatic transmissions to choose from. The 68RFE transmission was the only one available for our ’07 Dodge, and we found it developed problems over time (before our installation of the K&N Cold Air Intake and Edge tuner). It stuttered on climbs and didn’t always shift smoothly. The new (in 2013) Aisin AS69RC transmission is much more rugged and reliable and is now available as an option in the Ram Trucks lineup.
All three big diesel truck brands are good. After much research and many test drives, we chose the Ram 3500.
PICKUP TRUCK SIZES
All trucks are categorized into eight weight classes, from Class 1 (lightest) to Class 8 (heaviest) according to their GVWR. Pickup trucks fall into the smallest (lowest) three classes:
0 – 6,000 lbs
6,001 – 10,000 lbs
10,001 – 14,000 lbs
All three classes of pickups are referred to as “light duty” trucks, as compared to dump trucks and semi tractor-trailers in the higher “medium duty” and “heavy duty” classes. Within the pickup truck market, however, they are referred to as “Pickups” (Class 1), “Full Size Pickups” (Class 2) and “Heavy Duty Pickups” (Class 3). So, even though a large diesel pickup is marketed as “heavy duty,” it is not technically a heavy duty truck. It’s just a heavy duty pickup. This may be obvious to many, but sure had me confused at first glance.
When we were first time truck buyers shopping for a truck to pull our popup tent trailer, the advertising made the ’04 Toyota Tundra look like it was a heavy duty towing monster that could pull a mountain right across a valley. But it is not so! Pickups come in all sizes.
Toyota Tundra and Ram 3500 — Which one is the towing monster?
Pickup truck sizes are referred to as “half-ton” “three-quarter ton” and “one ton,” and they are numbered accordingly:
Ford also mass markets 450, 550 and larger pickups. Some people make custom Chevy and Dodge trucks in those sizes too, but they don’t come from the factories that way.
Ensuring the tow ratings of the truck are well beyond the actual weight of the trailer is essential.
For reference, a ton is 2,000 lbs. The truck naming convention comes from the original payloads these trucks could carry when they were first introduced decades ago. Back in those days, a half-ton truck could carry 1,000 lbs. (half a ton) in the bed of the truck. A three-quarter ton could carry 1,500 lbs and a big one ton truck could carry 2,000 lbs.
In 1918 Chevy had a very cute half-ton pickup that was basically a car with sturdy rear springs. By the mid-1930’s pickups came with factory installed box style beds, and a 1937 Chevy half-ton truck went on a 10,245 mile drive around the US with a 1,060 lb. load in the bed. It got 20.74 miles to the gallon!
As the payload capacities increased, the manufacturers assigned model numbers that corresponded to the weights the trucks could carry. But technology advances never quit!
Our 2016 Ram 3500 dually can tow this trailer with one hand tied behind its back.
Since those early times, truck and engine designs have improved dramatically, and the payloads modern trucks can carry now is significantly higher. For instance, the payload of a 2016 Toyota Tundra, a half-ton truck, is 1,430 to 2,060 lbs., depending on the options, making it essentially a “one ton” truck. The payload of a 2016 Dodge Ram diesel can be as high as 6,170 lbs. (and even higher for the gas HEMI version), making the 3500 model more of a “three ton” truck than a one ton.
In the modern trucks, the major difference between a three quarter ton 250/2500 truck and a one ton 350/3500 truck is the beefiness in the rear end suspension for supporting a heavy payload, that is, the number of leaf springs on the rear axle. In our opinion, if you are going to spend the money to buy a three quarter ton truck for towing purposes, you might as well spend the tiny incremental extra few bucks to buy a one ton.
Pickups come with more than one bed size. A “short bed” truck has a box that is a little over 6′ long and a “long bed” truck has a box that is around 8′ long. When a fifth wheel hitch is installed in the bed of a pickup, it is placed so the king pin of the fifth wheel will be over the rear axle. In a short bed truck this leaves less distance between the hitch and the back of the pickup cab than in a long bed truck.
The advantage of a short bed truck is that the two axles are closer together, so the truck can make tighter turns. This is really handy in parking lots and when making u-turns. The truck also takes up less space when it’s parked, again, a big advantage in parking lots.
A long bed truck is less maneuverable when it’s not towing but is preferable for towing a fifth wheel trailer
However, when towing a fifth wheel trailer, there is a risk that the front of the fifth wheel cap will hit the back of the pickup cab when making a tight turn. For this reason, there are special sliding fifth wheel hitches, and some 5th wheel manufacturers make the fifth wheel cap very pointy and even concave on the sides so there’s room enough to ensure the pickup cab doesn’t touch the fifth wheel cap on tight turns.
The advantage of a long bed truck is that not only can it carry more and bigger things in the bed of the truck, but when it is hitched to a fifth wheel trailer, doing a tight turn will not risk the front of the fifth wheel hitting the back of the truck cab.
Also, you can open and close the tailgate when the fifth wheel trailer is hitched up. We can actually walk from one side of our trailer to the other through the gap that’s between the open tailgate and the front of the trailer, even when the truck is cocked in a tight turn.
With a long bed, the truck can be at a sharp angle to the trailer and still have the tailgate open.
For folks that use their pickup primarily in non-towing situations and take their fiver out for just a few weekends a year (and stay close to home), a short bed truck is fine. However, in our opinion, if you are going to tow a large fifth wheel frequently, and especially if you are a seasonal or full-time RVer traveling longer distances, a long bed truck is the way to go.
We bought a long bed as our first diesel truck for our little travel trailer, knowing we might eventually get a fifth wheel, even though it takes much more real estate to back a travel trailer into a parking spot with a long bed truck that it does with a short bed truck (because the pivot point on a travel trailer is behind the bumper rather than over the truck axle, forcing the front end to swing exceedingly wide to make a turn).
When we use our truck as a daily driver, even though we always have to park away from the crowd and walk a little further, and we sometimes struggle making u-turns and maneuvering in tight spaces (it takes nearly four lanes to do a U-turn in a long bed pickup without the trailer attached), we have never once regretted having a long bed truck.
SINGLE REAR WHEEL vs. DUAL REAR WHEEL (DUALLY)
In the one ton class of trucks (Ford 350, Chevy/Dodge 3500), there is an additional consideration: single wheels on the rear axle of the truck (“single rear wheel”) or two pairs (“dual rear wheel” or “dually”).
The advantages of a single rear wheel truck are:
Only 4 tires to maintain instead of 6
Changing a flat will never involve accessing an inner tire under the truck
No wide rear fender to worry about at toll booths and drive-through bank windows and fast food windows
Easy to jump in and out of the bed of the truck from the side using the rear wheel as a foothold
Can handle rough two track roads better because the rear wheels fit neatly into the ruts
Gets traction on slick ice, snow and muddy roads better than a dually
The advantages of a dual rear wheel truck (“dually”) are:
Wider stance supporting the weight of the king pin (or bumper hitch)
Can carry a heavier payload — heavier trailer pin weight and/or bigger slide-in truck camper
Much safer if there’s a blowout on one of the rear wheels, and you can still drive (for a while)
A dually has a wider stance, providing more stability, and it can handle much more weight in the bed of the truck.
Why do you need to get in and out of the truck bed from the side? Climbing in on the tailgate is great, and there is a very handy foothold at the license plate mount on the 2016 model that is low enough for a short person to reach easily. However, when the truck is hitched to the fifth wheel, it’s not possible to climb in from the tailgate, and sometimes we need to get into the bed of the truck when the fiver is attached!
For instance, we keep 22 gallons of spare water in the bed of the truck in 5.5-gallon jerry jugs. I’m the one who holds the hose in the jugs while Mark goes to the other end of the hose and turns the water on or off at the spigot. We could switch roles, but I like that job!
When we’re hitched up, I have to get into the bed of the truck from the side to get to the water jugs. I plant one foot on the rear tire, and I hoist myself up and over the side. Getting over that fat fender is not so easy with the dually!
When hitching/unhitching, Mark also reaches over the side of the truck to loop the emergency break-away brake cable from the trailer onto the hitch in the truck bed. That way, if the trailer comes unhitched as we’re driving, the quick yank on the small cable (as the trailer breaks free) will engage the trailer’s own brakes as we wave it goodbye behind us.
Obviously, for both of these maneuvers, the width of the dually fender makes reaching into the bed of the truck a whole lot harder. Doing these things on a single rear wheel truck is trifling by comparison!
RESEARCHING SINGLE REAR WHEEL vs DUALLY TRUCKS
Our biggest debate was whether or not we should simply buy a new single rear wheel truck that had the latest engine and drive-train and chassis improvements or if we should take the plunge and get a dually. We do occasional research online, but our preferred method of learning about things in the RV world is to talk to experienced people in person, especially since we are out and about all day long and we enjoy meeting new people.
So, we interviewed every single dually truck owner that we ever saw. For two years! Whenever we saw a dually parked somewhere, we’d look around to see if the owner was anywhere nearby. If so, we’d walk up and ask him about his truck.
Did he like it? What did he tow with it? How long had he had it? Was it his first dually? Did he have trouble maneuvering in tight quarters? Had he towed that same trailer with a single rear wheel truck? How did they compare?
We asked lots of people how their dually performed compared to a one ton single rear wheel long bed truck towing the same heavy trailer.
To our astonishment, although we searched for two years for a person who had towed the same large fifth wheel trailer with both a dually and a single rear wheel truck, and we talked to dozens of dually truck owners who had towed all kinds of trailers, we found only one who had towed the same fifth wheel trailer with both styles of truck.
This guy was a rancher with several big cattle and horse trailers as well as a 40′ toy hauler fifth wheel. He’d been towing comparable trailers with single rear wheel long bed trucks for over twenty years. Three years ago he’d switched to a dually, and he said the difference for his toy hauler was night and day. He’d never go back.
Another fellow told us the ranch he worked on had both single rear wheel and dually trucks and that the duallies were used exclusively for the big trailers because they were better tow vehicles.
We LOVED the new, sleek styling on the Ram duallies.Our biggest questions: is the wide dually fender flare a pain? How does it do at toll booths and drive-through windows?
This was very convincing, but an interesting side tid-bit we learned is that many folks go either dually or single rear wheel when they buy their first diesel truck for a big trailer, and they stick with that type of truck when they replace it. Guys love their trucks, so we heard few complaints, but when folks raved about how their single rear wheel or dually was the ultimate towing machine and that they’d never switch, when pressed for details, we found they didn’t have first-hand experience using the two different types of trucks to tow the same large trailer.
For those looking to conduct their own research, in addition to talking with ranchers and horse owners, one of the best sources of information we found was the trailer transport drivers who drive their own personal trucks to tow both large RV and horse trailers from the manufacturers to the dealerships where they are sold..
Our questions would have all been answered in a heartbeat if we could have hitched our trailer onto a dually sitting in a truck dealership lot and towed it up a mountain and on a few back roads. However, that wasn’t possible.
Perhaps in the future, because of the fantastic new hitch puck systems that can be factory installed in pickups these days, dealerships will decide to keep one of the nifty B&W OEM fifth wheel hitches on hand for prospective customers to do just that (if they can sort out the liability and insurance issues).
Ultimately, we held out on the dually versus single rear wheel decision until the very end, but we knew inside that if we did buy a new truck it would probably be a dually. So every test drive we did was with a dually truck.
We took all three brands of pickups out on over 200 miles of test drives at 25 or so dealerships.
Going for test drives is lots of fun and is the best way to learn the product
Dealing with Slick Salesmen
A reader wrote me recently to say he was intimidated by the sales tactics at car dealerships, so he was reluctant to do many test drives or much dealership research. That is a real shame, because the only way to learn about trucks is to spend time with them, test drive them, sit in them, crawl underneath, study what’s under the hood, read the marketing literature, and hound the salesmen with questions.
After all, the salesmen are there to teach you what you need to know about the product, and if they don’t sell you a truck today, they are helping another salesman (or themselves) sell you a truck tomorrow. What goes around comes around, and any good salesman understands that. You can easily deflect the high pressure sales tactics by saying, “We are starting our search and just want to do a test drive today. We won’t be ready to buy for a few months.”
Where to Do a Test Drive? Where to Buy?
The best places to find knowledgeable diesel truck salesmen and buy big diesel trucks, especially duallies, is in cattle ranching country. As we scoured dealerships from San Diego to Maine and from Sarasota to the Tetons, we found urban areas generally have few big trucks on the lot and the salesmen know very little about diesel trucks. Cattle ranchers, horse owners and big commercial farmers know their trucks, and so do the salesmen they work with.
The most knowledgeable truck salesmen are in places where people need and use big trucks — a lot!
Our first test drives were focused on the turning radius and maneuverability of a dually truck as compared to the single rear wheel truck we knew so well. It was hard to tell, but the turning radius seemed to be the same or better (and we now feel the 2016 Ram dually definitely turns tighter) than our old 2007 single rear wheel Ram.
As for general maneuverability, Mark didn’t notice a whole lot of difference driving a dually versus our single wheel truck. Frankly, owning a long bed diesel truck period means you have to park in the back 40 and walk long distances anyway, so we soon realized that dealing with a dually in parking lots would be no different.
We did one round of comparative test drives on the uphill entrance ramp to an interstate in Baker City, Oregon. We visited each truck dealership in town, and when we did our test drives, we floored each dually truck on the incline to see how powerful it felt. The 2015 Chevy won by a long shot, against the Ford and Dodge 2015 models, but did not feel as powerful as our single rear wheel ’07 Dodge Ram (at that point our truck had the K&N Cold Air Intake and Timbrens but did not have the Edge Evolution Diesel tuner).
Our trailer snuggles up to its new companion, a 2016 Ram 3500 dually
Deciding Factor – The Cummins Engine
In the end, the deciding factor for us for choosing a brand was the Cummins engine. This was true when we were researching our ’07 single rear wheel truck and again when researching the 2013-2016 duallies. Lots of people wish they could buy a pickup with both the Cummins engine and an Allison transmission in one brand of truck, a combo that is on many commercial trucks. But that’s not possible.
For us, the simplicity of the inline 6 cylinder Cummins engine (as compared to the more complex V8 engines in the Chevy and Ford) along with the longer stroke (inherently higher torque) makes a lot of sense. Inline engines are used commercially in big rigs and tractors, and the 6.7 liter Cummins engine has a long and solid track record, not just in Ram trucks but in many commercial applications as well. The Cummins quality control and manufacturing seem to be top notch.
Here is a fantastic video showing a Cummins engine being built:
Amazingly, with each passing year, the payload and towing capacity of each brand of truck jumps higher. From the time we started test driving duallies in 2013 until we placed our order for our new 2016 Ram 3500, the horsepower and torque across all three brands increased, and the towing and payload capacities climbed too.
Built with the right options, the 2016 Ram 3500 diesel truck has an eye-popping, 385 horsepower and 900 ft-lbs. of torque with a GCWR of 39,100 lbs. It can tow a trailer weighing 31,210 lbs. and has a max payload of 6,720 lbs.
This is absolutely astonishing, and neither the Chevy nor the Ford trucks match that torque right now.
Accurate comparisons between brands are challenging within the same model classes, however, because there are different standards for making measurements. Ram Trucks uses the SAE J2807 standards, while other manufacturers don’t. Also, we were able to locate Ford’s towing and payload capacity charts online (see the links at the bottom of the page), but did not locate a similar chart for GM.
Some of the head-to-head tests between the brands that are posted online are also a little misleading, because, for instance, a Ram 3500 is pitted against a Ford F450. Even though both of those models are Class 3 trucks (10,001 to 14,000 lbs GVWR), one would expect the Ram 3500 to compete head to head with the Ford F350, not the Ford F450.
Best in Show
Here are the towing and payload capacities of the many models of Dodge Ram trucks:
As mentioned above, the Ram trucks are sold with two options for the transmission. After our troubles with the old 68RFE transmission in our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500, we wanted the new and better one, the AISIN AS69RC. In the Ram Trucks marketing literature, the 6.7 liter Cummins engine is paired with the AISIN AS69RC transmission to make their “High Output Engine” because it delivers max torque at the low end for heavy towing situations. This combo became available in 2013.
“High Output” engines on Ram Trucks pair the Cummins 6.7 liter engine with the Aisin AS69RC transmission
The rear axle gearing on a pickup determines the GCWR for the truck (the maximum safe weight of truck and trailer hitched together and fully loaded) and the maximum weight trailer that the truck can tow safely. It also makes a huge difference in how the truck drives, both while towing and not towing.
Rear axle gear ratios are given as a ratio, for example “4.10” which means 4.10:1 or “3.73” which means 3.73:1. The ratio refers to the number of teeth on the axle ring gear as compared to the number of teeth on the driveshaft’s pinion gear. With a 4.10 rear end, the driveshaft has to turn 4.1 times in order to rotate the rear wheels one revolution. With a 3.73 rear end, the driveshaft must turn 3.73 times to rotate the rear wheels one revolution. So, with a 4.10 rear axle ratio the driveshaft’s pinion gear is spinning more quickly at a given speed than with a 3.73 rear axle ratio.
“Easier” Gears vs. “Harder” Gears
If you think of riding a bike, when you have the bike in a “hard” gear, it takes a lot of leg strength to turn the wheels, but one pedal stroke will cover a lot of distance. For example, going uphill in a “hard” gear would be especially hard. Your legs are turning really slowly and straining and you’re wishing you could put it in an “easier” gear! But when you descend in that same gear, you can hit high speeds easily. Back to trucks, this is like having the driveshaft turn a little to make the wheels turn a lot as it does with the 3.42 or 3.73 rear axle gear ratios found on Dodge Rams.
However, when the bike is in an “easy” gear, just a small amount of leg strength will turn the wheels, but one pedal stroke doesn’t get you very far. For example, going uphill isn’t so bad — you can inch up slowly — but once you began descending you’re spun out because your legs can’t pedal fast enough to hit super fast top speeds. In the truck world, this is like having the driveshaft turn a lot to make the wheels turn a little as it does with the 4.10 rear axle gear ratio.
Wide Load!! The highest tow ratings are achieved with a high rear axle gear ratio (like 4.10)
Towing Heavy Loads vs. Driving Fast on the Highway
So, on a truck, the higher ratio (4.10) is ideal for towing heavy loads. It takes more turns of the driveshaft to rotate the rear wheels of the truck, so the engine revs higher, putting it in the power band for RPMs, and the heavy load gets moved. But the top end speed and fuel economy get sacrificed a bit.
With a lower gear ratio (3.73 or 3.42) it takes fewer turns of the driveshaft to rotate the rear wheels of the truck. When the truck is zipping along at highway speeds, the gears are turning a little more slowly (lower RPMs) than they would with a 4.10 rear end, which saves on fuel efficiency and makes the fastest attainable speed a little higher.
The highest tow ratings are achieved with a 4.10 rear end, so the heaviest trailers will be best if towed by a truck with a 4.10 rear axle gear ratio. However, if most of your towing is with lighter weight trailers, and your driving will be primarily on interstates, and your personal preference is to drive fast, a 3.73 or 3.42 rear axle gear ratio may make more sense.
Our ’07 Dodge had a 3.73 rear end. The problem was that at the speeds we tended to drive — 55-65 — the engine would lug. Mark manually changed gears a lot to try to keep the RPMs up, but he found it fatiguing to have to monitor the gears so closely and to change gears all the time.
We also don’t drive on interstates very often, and when we do, we’re the grannies of the road, moseying along in the right lane.
We take life, and the open road, fairly slowly, so a 3.73 rear end, which is awesome a 75 mph, was not the right choice for us.
4.10 vs. 3.73 – RPMs at Different Speeds
We wanted a 4.10 rear end on our new truck, but we wanted to be 100% sure this would truly make the kind of difference we expected. So, on one Ram dually test drive we drove a stretch of highway in our ’07 Dodge at various speeds between 45 and 65 mph, noting the RPMs in a notebook, and then we took a 2015 Ram 3500 dually with a 4.10 rear end out on the same road at the same speeds. The salesman raised an eyebrow in surprise when we marched into the dealership and announced we wanted to do a test drive at various speeds to note the engine RPMs, but he went along with the idea!
On that test drive we found the 4.10 rear end shifts out of lower gears sooner than the 3.73 rear end, and generally keeps the engine RPMs about 100-200 RPMs higher at each speed. Our new truck bears out those findings.
So, how can you tell if a truck on the dealer lot has a 4.10 rear end without peering at the window sticker? Check underneath the back end of the truck. The differential is the big round casing that hangs between the rear wheels. On trucks with a 4.10 rear end, the differential has a series of vertical cooling fins on it. These help keep it cool since the gears spin faster and it is designed for heavier towing loads, both of which make it heat up.
Looking under the rear end of the truck, the differential has cooling fins if the rear axle ratio is a 4.10
BEEFED UP FRAME
Besides the more powerful engine tuning and transmission, Ram has improved the truck frame on the dually considerable. Every aspect of the frame is more sturdy than it used to be, making the truck not only powerful enough to pull heavier loads but strong enough to withstand the multitude of forces as it hauls the load up a mountain.
Peering under the front end of the truck, the frame has been strengthened for heavy towing
We learned with our ’04 Toyota Tundra truck towing our 7,000 lb. 27′ travel trailer that four wheel drive is a necessity for us in our RV lifestyle. In our first weeks of full-timing, a small, wet grassy incline prohibited us from camping in a campground in Texas, because our truck kept slipping and couldn’t tow the trailer up over the short rise! From that moment on, we’ve felt that a four wheel drive is mandatory if you are going to tow a big trailer.
Also, while descending a really gnarly, skinny, twisty, single lane road on a mountain in Utah, with grades of 10% or more in places, we discovered that the safest way to drive DOWN a very steep descent is to put the truck in four wheel drive LOW gear, and creep down the mountain at 5-10 mph using the exhaust brake. This tactic was a lifesaver for us on that mountain with our ’07 Dodge truck and fifth wheel trailer. Without it, we would still be living at the summit of that mountain!
The new Dodge Ram and Ford Super Duty trucks have a really fantastic option for a factory installed puck system in the bed of the truck where you can mount either a fifth wheel or gooseneck hitch. During our truck search, GM did not have that option on their trucks. However, GM trucks now have the puck system as well.
This option has five holes in the bed of the pickup, one in the center for a gooseneck hitch and four outer ones to hold a fifth wheel hitch. The idea behind this mounting system is that rather than drilling holes in your brand new truck bed to install hitch rails to support a fifth wheel hitch — the method that was always used until this new system was devised — you can buy a hitch designed for these puck mounts and simply drop it in.
Looking towards the tailgate, there’s a gooseneck puck in the middle and four pucks in a square to mount a fifth wheel hitch. The bed is totally flat without the hitch in it.
If you want to use the bed of your truck for hauling, and you won’t be towing your fifth wheel, you can easily remove the fifth wheel hitch temporarily and have the entire bed of the truck available to you. Not only is it a snap to remove the hitch, but the bed of the truck will be flat and obstacle free because there won’t be any hitch rails installed in it.
The B&W Companion Fifth Wheel Hitch is easily installed and removed (facing the front of the truck)
Another huge benefit is that installing the hitch is an easy do-it-yourself job. We have a detailed pictorial step-by-step guide showing how to install a B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch here (it took just one hour from start to finish!):
Our 2007 Dodge Ram came with an exhaust brake built into the turbo. Mark LOVED this brake and used it all the time, both towing and not towing. The only thing that bugged him about it was that coming down mountains with our trailer hitched on, he often had to shift gears manually and feather the gas pedal to keep the truck going the speed he wanted.
The 2016 Ram trucks have an improved exhaust brake that has two modes: max braking power and constant speed braking. We definitely wanted that option!
Dodge Ram trucks have two backup cameras, one that aims at the bed of the truck (for hitching and unhitching) and one that aims behind the truck (for backing up). Beginning in 2016, both of these cameras could be set to display their image on the main touch screen display (in the 2015 model, one camera would display in the rear view mirror while the other would display on the touch screen display).
It’s nice to have a backup camera when backing the truck in next to the trailer!
An option on the 2016 Ram trucks is to have four leaf springs with computer controlled air bags to provide for auto-leveling of the rear suspension. This is instead of the standard six leaf springs without air bags that have a fixed height suspension.
Without the air bags — the standard configuration — the “rake” of the truck’s rear end is four inches, meaning that the rear end of the truck is raised four inches higher than the front to compensate for the weight of the trailer which will push it down when it’s hitched up. For a shorter person, this is quite high, and I was astonished how much higher the tailgate of a 2016 Ram truck sits than our old ’07 truck did.
With the air bags, the rear end is raked only one inch, making the whole back end of the truck much easier to access for those of us who aren’t that tall. In addition, there is an “Alt Ride Height” button that can be used to lower the back of the truck one more inch. Hurray for short people!
When the trailer is hitched onto the truck, pushing the truck down, the on-board compressor kicks on and pumps air into the air bags, raising the back end of the truck until it achieves its normal one inch rake. If you prefer to drive with the truck level, the “Alt Ride Height” button can be pressed to lower the back end one inch.
When we did our test drives, we found that the duallies with the auto-level suspension had a slightly smoother ride when not towing than the ordinary leaf spring only models did. This has proven true with our new truck too.
VENTED and HEATED LEATHER SEATS and STEERING WHEEL plus OTHER GOODIES
As we test drove different trim levels of trucks, we decided that if we were going to buy a new truck, we’d go all out and get the many little conveniences and options that are a “splurge” but that make using the truck a pleasure.
Let’s go for a ride!
Heated and vented leather seats with power seat adjustments and lumbar support, a side step to make it easier to get in and out of the truck, independent climate control for driver and passenger, a CD player, OWL on/off-rad tires, the fancy electronics console with the big touch screen display and GPS nav system and power adjustable pedals were all on our list.
Most of these options are bundled into the Laramie model of the Ram 3500 trucks.
The Laramie comes with a beautiful interior that includes all the fancy stuff.
Top level Nav/GPS Display with voice activation and climate control
Tan colored Heated/Vented Leather Seats and Steering Wheel
The Tow and Payload Ratings for the 2016 Ram 3500 dually with the above options as compared to our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 single rear wheel are the following:
Max Trailer Weight
Even though the make and model of these two trucks is the same, separated by just nine years, these numbers show that they are two radically different trucks!
After doing so many test drives, studying all the material and thinking about this truck for two years, there was no way we would give up any of the options we wanted, especially the ones that made the tow ratings and payload rating so high. But we never found a dealership that ordered this exact truck for their lot. Time and again, Mark would find a truck that was close, but there would be some things missing and other things we didn’t want.
So we decided to order the exact truck we wanted and wait 8 weeks for it to be built.
We had a ball ordering this truck through Airpark Dodge in Scottsdale, Arizona, where a marketing connection with Alice Cooper made one of Mark’s lifelong dreams come true. See our really fun blog post:
A significant difference between our 2007 Dodge Ram truck and our new 2016 Ram dually is that the new truck requires occasional refilling of the DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluide) tank. Here are some tips we’ve discovered about DEF since we purchased our new truck:
Dodge Ram Truck Owners — Please note:
Late model Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks have been recalled (beginning 6/23/17) for side airbag problems in a rollover accident. See this article for details: Dodge Ram Side Airbag Recall
More info about Pickup Trucks, Ram Trucks, Tow Ratings, etc.:
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Upgrade time! We removed the old wet cell batteries and replaced them with AGMs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Mark flows solder into the connector to make a superior electrical connection.
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.
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.
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.
The louvered vents are open to the basement in the back and will let dust in.
Mark puts a thin plastic sheet behind each louvered vent to keep dust out.
Flooded batteries are much cheaper than AGM batteries.
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!
We initially posted this review in 2012 after we had owned and used the Porta-bote for a year.
10′ Porta-bote with 6 hp outboard.
Since that time, the Porta-bote design has been completely overhauled and revamped.
The new Alpha series models being sold today are much improved over the older models. Many of the problems we had with our Porta-Bote have been eliminated by the new design.
In the end, we used the Porta-bote as our cruising dinghy for nearly four years and we were very happy with it. This review has been updated to indicate the areas in which the new Alpha series Porta-botes outshine the older models like ours.
The most notable improvements are:
The transom is an integral part of the hull and not a separate component
The seats have been completely redesigned
The plastic that the rub-rail is made of does not leave marks on white fiberglass motherships
The Porta-bote rows beautifully
We learned, after the fact, that the design engineers read and used this Porta-bote review to pinpoint aspects of the design that needed improvement when they did the Alpha redesign. I am really thrilled that our notes proved useful to them and gave them some good ideas.
The things we loved most about the Porta-bote were:
Easy and swift movement, whether rowing or motoring
Enormous capacity for carrying groceries, laundry, scuba gear and propane tanks to and from shore in the cruising lifestyle
Incredible ruggedness when dragging it up on shore or tying it to a pier covered with barnacles
Imperviousness to tropical UV rays, even when left in the sun for years on end
Excellent tracking in the water when towed behind a large cruising sailboat
We made a wonderful system for carrying the Porta-bote along our lifelines while on passage, and we found that the Porta-bote fit perfectly into our sailboat’s swim step.
The Porta-bote was light enough, even with the engine mounted on the transom, that I (an able bodied woman) could hoist it by hand to put it on our swimstep for the night without needing to winch it.
The notes below are offered for anyone considering using a Porta-bote as a cruising dinghy. It details how we used the boat and the custom modifications we made. Any criticisms we had of the boat that have been fixed in the new Alpha series are clearly noted in the review.
Would we consider a Porta-bote for a future tropical cruise? Absolutely!!
1 Transom (transom is integral to the Alpha series hull)
3 pairs eyebolts/washers for seats
2 pairs wingnuts/washers for transom
1 pair aluminum collapsible oars
There’s enough room to take a snooze!
Following is a summary of what we have found to be Porta-bote’s best and worst qualities when used as a cruising dinghy:
Lightweight enough to hoist in davits effortlessly, even with the outboard
Lightweight enough to drag high onto the beach without dinghy wheels
Tows easily, with or without the outboard mounted (best without)
Rows beautifully — truly a pleasure to row
Planes quickly with a 55 lb. 6 hp outboard and two adults
Huge interior volume for hauling stuff
No worries about running it up on rocks
No need for a sunbrella cover to protect the hull from UV rays
Half the price of a comparable RIB dinghy
No built-in system to attach a bridle for lifting the boat in davits
No “drain hole” in the hull to drain water when boat is out of the water **
Seats take up storage space and the long middle & rear seats can be awkward to carry
Black plastic seats get untouchably hot in the tropical sun
** We did not know this at the time, but if you want a drain plug, Porta-bote recommends installing a Ronstan RF294 Drain Plug on the side of the boat just in front of the transom and above the black tube.
Issues with OLDER MODEL Porta-botes (NOT applicable to the new Alpha series)
Some of the construction materials are not appropriate for tropical, salt water use
Transom is heavy, awkward to carry and takes up a lot of storage space
The flotation foam disintegrates in the sun and leaves black flecks on the floor
Black plastic seams along the length of the hull leave scuff marks on Groovy’s white gelcoat
Our overall assessment after nearly four years of using the Porta-bote in anchorages from San Diego to Zihuatanejo, Mexico is that it is a great little cruising dinghy, especially once a few modifications have been made.
Here are some details about its strengths and weaknesses along with descriptions of the upgrades we did to make it work better.
PORTA-BOTE STOWAGE LOCATIONS on a CRUISING SAILBOAT
The Porta-bote is not as compact a boat as you might think because it is not just a folding hull. It is a hull, three large seats and a big transom Note: in the Alpha series the transom is not a separate component as it was in the older Porta-botes.
The 8′ version is a hull, two seats and a transom, and is reportedly “just as difficult to set up” according to a singlehanding friend of ours who has cruised 10,000 miles, first with a 10′ Porta-bote and then, after he lost it, with an 8 footer. “I liked my 10 footer better,” he claimed. “Smaller doesn’t mean easier, and you lose all that interior space with the 8′ model.”
The Porta-bote planes easily with two adults on board
All the pieces of the Porta-bote are big and awkward to carry. For longer passages we disassemble the Porta-bote and store the hull in kayak-style racks outboard of Groovy’s starboard deck, so it is tucked out of the way without having to hang in davits off the back or lie upside down on the foredeck as most cruising dinghies do. Because of their length, we store the longest seat and the transom in the master stateroom (ugh!). We store the other two seats in our big cockpit locker, standing on end for easy retrieval.
For overnights at anchor we lift the dinghy in retractable davits that are built into our solar panel support arch. The Porta-bote fits perfectly into our sugar-scoop transom, resting neatly on the swim platform and held in place by the shape of Groovy’s hull.
We leave the outboard mounted on the Porta-bote. The boat and outboard are light enough that each of us can hoist the dinghy unassisted (our davit system has a simple 4-to-1 purchase and no winches). Splashing the boat in the morning is just a matter of lowering it a foot or so back into the water, which each of us can also do unassisted.
PORTA-BOTE SEATS and SEAT STOWAGE
The seats on the new Alpha series Porta-botes have been completely redesigned, and the transom is integral to the hull and not a separate component, so the following notes pertain strictly to older Porta-botes.
Porta-bote hull mounted on the lifelines of our sailboat
The three seats and transom are all large, heavy components made of plastic and metal. Each one has some swinging legs that hang off of it, making each piece quite a challenge to carry on a pitching boat. Each of the three seats has two (or three) metal U-shaped rods attached underneath that flip out and become the seat legs once the seat is installed in the Porta-bote. These metal loops are only loosely attached to the seats, relying on spring tension to keep them in place.
The first time I carried a seat forward on Groovy’s deck, one of the metal pieces detached itself from the seat and vanished over the side, never to be seen again. Fortunately Porta-bote replaced the piece free of charge. We now use duct tape to keep tension on the open part of the U-shaped rods so these crazy loops don’t fall off when we carry the seats to and from the foredeck. The metal loops fold back against the bottom of the seats.
Porta-bote rests on foredeck of our 44′ Hunter 44DS sailboat
Actually, they swing freely and independently of each other, flopping all over the place. However, with some coordination they can be held against the seat while carrying it, still leaving a hand free “for the boat.” Unfortunately the loops don’t fold flat to the seat and there are no clips to hold them in place, so they flop around until you get a grip on them as you carry the seat. Also, when folded, at least one of the loops on each seat sticks out an inch or two beyond the end of the seat. So in the stored position the seat becomes even longer due to this metal bracket sticking out the end.
The design of the seats and legs could be infinitely improved. The seats could be designed to fold in half, shortening them considerably for stowage. The legs could fold into the seats and clip into place so they don’t flop around.
There is a myriad of possibilities for designing solid functional seats that are easy to carry and store. However, the current seats are very awkward, and the black plastic will singe your hand when you touch it after the boat has been sitting in the tropical sun for a few minutes. Simply making the seats of white plastic would be an immeasurable improvement.
We use towels to cover the seats, or in very hot places rely on flotation cushions (which slide around under you). We have heard of cruisers making sunbrella seat covers for the seats too. In the hottest places a towel is not sufficient and you will still burn your backside while sitting on the seats.
The biggest problem with the seats, besides being so difficult to lug around on a rolling boat, is that they are too big to stow easily. Some cruisers lash them on deck, but we have neither found a good place on deck for them nor come up with a quick way to tie them down securely. Many cruisers simply tow their Porta-bote instead of hassling with assembly and disassembly.
Groovy in Tangolunda Bay (Huatulco, Mexico) The porta-bote is snug in its perch on the starboard side.
We met a couple that towed theirs thousands of miles up and down the Mexican coast. I consider this risky if the seas get out of hand, and it also seems to defeat the purpose of the folding “portable” nature of the boat.
On our boat the transom and middle seat are too long to fit in a cockpit locker in a way that is easily accessible, so we store them alongside our bed.
The other two seats fit in our large aft cockpit locker standing on end. In order to get a grip on these big floppy seats, we use several large Navy-issue canvas bags, storing two seats to a bag and putting a second bag over the other end so the whole seat is covered (they are salty and dirty when removed from the boat, and who wants that next to their bed?).
A tidier solution would be to have custom canvas bags made to fit the seats with a large rugged handle on the side. It would be awesome if these bags came with the Porta-bote right from the factory!
PORTA-BOTE TRANSOM and TRANSOM STOWAGE
The transom on the new Alpha series Porta-botes has been completely redesigned and is integral to the hull rather than being a separate component
The transom is not only long, wide and heavy, it has a big flopping plastic piece that folds over the hull when the transom is installed in the Porta-bote to provide a support for the outboard to clamp onto. This heavy piece is held to the transom by a thin piece of plastic that acts as a hinge and looks very prone to tearing.
Transom lies on the foredeck
When we tow the Porta-bote, we remove the outboard, and then the plastic outboard support piece flaps as the Porta-bote goes over the waves, threatening to rip the hinge piece. To stop the flapping and wear and tear on that thin hinge, we use a large clamp to clamp the outboard support piece to the Porta-bote’s hull.
The transom also has two long metal L-brackets along each side. These are the supports that hold the transom in place: two pairs of wing nuts and washers secure the metal L-bracket to the side of the hull. These L-brackets are major ankle-biters and interior cabin wood-gougers when carrying the transom around.
Therefore, we load the transom and the longest seat into a canvas bag before lugging them anywhere — the flopping legs on the seat are held in place, the flopping outboard engine mounting piece is held in place, and the sharp metal edges of the L-brackets are somewhat protected by the heavy canvas.
Some clever engineers at Porta-bote could surely devise a way to secure the transom without requiring large metal L-brackets (or tiny wing nuts and washers, for that matter), and the outboard engine mount could definitely be designed to fold into the transom so it lies flush and is held in place with a clip system that keeps it from flopping around.
Please note that the new Alpha series Porta-botes have the transom integrated into the hull which eliminates the problems associated with carrying the transom around and attaching it to the hull!
Step 1: The hull is opened
We have tried several methods of assembling the Porta-bote on Groovy’s deck, and the best system we have found is described below. It takes us about 15 minutes, including retrieving the many parts from the cabin and the cockpit locker.
When the hull is in its stowed position, it is folded lengthwise twice: first the sides fold into the middle, then the (new) sides are folded in towards each other.
The end result looks like a small surfboard, 10′ long and about 4″ wide. Our first task is to remove the hull from its stowed position outboard of Groovy’s starboard side deck. Then:
Center seat is installed
1. Carry the hull to the foredeck and open it up. The plastic is rigid and you have to use a lot of force to get the sides to open.
Porta-bote provides a specially cut board to assist with this: you stand on one side of the hull and push against the other, wedging the board between the two. Eventually the board is positioned to hold the hull open.
2. Insert the middle seat. The ends of the seats are inserted into metal supports that are riveted on either side of the interior of the hull.
The seats don’t fit in the supports all that well. There is some wiggle room up and down and the angle of the supports is perpendicular to the hull, which is not ultimately in line with the seat’s horizontal orientation, because the hulls’ sides flair outward.
Note: The seats have been totally redesigned in the Alpha series!
Eyebolt / wingnut / washer combo for attaching the seats to the Porta-bote hull
3. Secure the middle seat with wing nuts and washers. The Porta-bote ships with long thin cotter pins that are tied to the seats with thin string so they don’t get lost.
The cotter pins are intended to hold the seats in place against the metal hull supports, however they fly all over the place when you are carrying the seats, and they don’t hold the seats securely.
Bolt-wingnut-washer combo for attaching the transom to the hull
Therefore, we replaced the cotter pins with long stainless steel eyebolts held in place with large stainless steel washers, both above and below the seat, and with a stainless steel lock washer underneath to keep everything tight despite the jiggling and jostling of the hull when the Porta-bote is driven over the waves.
The eyebolt is slid through a hole in the upper part of the metal support, then through a hole in the seat and then through a hole in the lower part of the metal support, and a wingnut is screwed on from underneath.
Note: The mechanism for attaching the seats to the hull has been upgraded in the Alpha series of Porta-botes, however we found the eyebolts useful…
Bolt/wingnut attaching transom’s L-bracket to the hull
The eyebolts also come in very handy for holding the dink in place behind Groovy’s swim platform. We have two lines rigged on either side of the swim platform with clips on the ends that clip into the Porta-bote’s eyebolts on the forward and aft seats. This keeps the Porta- bote parallel to Groovy’s transom and keeps it snug to the swim platform for easy boarding.
4. Install the transom. The outboard mounting flap goes over the hull, and the metal L-brackets are attached to holes in the hull using bolts, wing nuts and washers.
The Porta-bote ships with non-stainless bolts, nuts and washers, which are probably fine for the once-in-a-while lake fishing that the Porta-bote is built for. We replaced all these little pieces with stainless steel bolts, nuts and washers and added a lock washer to the set.
The sizes of these pieces that Porta-bote ships are non-standard (I searched high and low for stainless components that would match the originals). Instead, we simply used replacement bolts, washers and nuts that would fit the holes rather than trying to match the thread pitch, bolt length and width of the ones from the factory.
Attaching the transom to the hull with wingnuts
The lower wing nut / washer set on each side of the transom includes a rubber washer to keep that part of the boat watertight since that part sits below the waterline. The rubber washers last about 6 months in the salt water environment.
We keep several spare rubber washers to use as replacements each time they wear out. In addition, we have a complete duplicate set of all the eyebolts, straight bolts, wing nuts and washers that we use for the Porta-bote, as it is all too easy to drop one of these tiny pieces overboard while assembling or disassembling the Porta-bote on deck.
Porta-bote is hoisted on spare halyard
The worst aspect of the Porta-bote design for use as a cruising dinghy prior to the new Alpha series, is that you are fumbling with the very large pieces of a 10′ long hull, several wide seats that don’t fit into their supports very well, and a big heavy transom, all while screwing the whole thing together with tiny wing nuts.
The bottom of the boat is a black plastic “hinge” that acts as something of a keel, so the boat doesn’t sit flat on deck but pivots about on this round tube of plastic.
So when Groovy rolls in the swell, the porta-bote pivots on its keel, and you are hanging onto the boat in one hand with a fist full of wing nuts and washers in the other, all while trying to mate the threads of the wing nuts to the bolts.
Porta-bote is lowered into the water
5. Raise the Porta-bote up and over the lifelines and lower it into the water using the spare halyard.
We have an electric halyard winch that works really well but also works quite hard during this process (of course it would be a great upper body workout to winch it by hand).
When the boat rises up in the air, the outboard mounting bracket flops down unless we clip it in place with a large clip before raising the boat. Note: This has been remedied in the new Alpha transom design.
This part of the process can be tricky in a large swell or in high winds, as the boat is difficult for the guy on deck (Mark!) to control as it swings around on the halyard.
6. Move the boat to the swim platform, clip middle and rear seats’ eyebolts to two lines on Groovy’s transom to keep the Porta-bote parallel to Groovy’s swim platform for easy access, and install the other two seats.
7. Lower the outboard engine onto the mountain bracket on the transom (using one of the dinghy davits) and secure it in place.
Porta-bote is brought back to the swim platform for the rest of the assembly
Front seat is installed
Rear seat is ready for installation. Note the 3 u-shaped metal legs.
Porta-bote is clipped to swim platform to keep it parallel to Groovy.
Outboard is installed on transom
TOWING the PORTA-BOTE
Painter is tied at two points on Groovy’s transom to create a 3-point bridle. A second line is tied to Groovy’s transom “just in case.”
The Porta-bote tows beautifully, and we have towed it (without the engine mounted), for hundreds of miles, a few times in some rather large and lumpy seas.
We have towed it with the outboard mounted too, and that works just fine, but we wouldn’t want to go more than a few very sheltered miles towing it that way.
We tie the Porta-bote’s painter to two points on Groovy’s transom, making a bridle. We usually tie a second line to Groovy as well, just in case. There’s nothing like trying to find and retrieve a lost dinghy in big seas (been there, done that!).
We have tried towing the Porta-bote far behind Groovy, but have found it behaves much better when it is snugged up close behind.
We keep it about a foot or so off of Groovy’s transom. Sometimes when we are sailing slowly in lumpy, following seas it has a tendency to run into the back of Groovy.
HOISTING the PORTA-BOTE in DAVITS
We had a custom made stainless steel arch extension built for our boat to support our 555 watts of solar panels and to provide telescoping davits to hoist the Porta-bote.
We drilled two holes on the stern end of the Porta-bote just forward of the transom, one on each side of the hull. We had four stainless steel plates made to reinforce these holes, and those are bolted in place (with stainless bolts), one plate on the inside and one on the outside of each hole, sandwiching the plastic hull in between. To create a davit bridle, we simply run a line between those two holes in the hull’s stern and run another line between the two factory-installed holes in the bow of the boat to make a two-point hoisting system for our davits.
Because the lifting points are at the top of the hull, it is not possible to snug the Porta-bote tightly into the davits. Instead, it always swings a little, no matter how high you hoist it. If the lifting points were in the bottom of the boat, the top edges of the hull could be pulled flush to the davit arms. However, I am not sure how to install lifting points in the boat’s floor. So we don’t travel with the Porta-bote in the davit system.
We raise the Porta-bote out of the water onto the swim platform at night.
The davits are ideal for getting the boat out of the water at night when we are at anchor, as the Porta-bote sits snugly on the swim platform and we secure it with lines tied to the seats’ eyebolts to keep it perfectly still.
Also, if it rains (which it doesn’t do in Mexico’s winter cruising season) or if there is a lot of dew, the boat doesn’t have a drain hole to release the water. Water also collects in the bottom of the boat when we drive it hard, as waves splash in and water jumps over the transom. So there is occasional light bailing to be done, but not more than a sponge or towel can handle.
One thing we discovered is that the Porta-bote’s black plastic seam tubes that run along the length of the hull are made of a plastic that leaves scuff marks on Groovy’s white fiberglass gelcoat.
When we hoist the dinghy in the davits, it invariably bumps along Groovy’s transom a bit, and over time it leaves a lot of marks. They come off with a little elbow grease and polish, but there are plastics out there that are non-marking, and if Porta-bote used that kind of plastic it would be a huge improvement.
Note: The black plastic seam tubes in the new Alpha series does not leave scuff marks
Just beneath the black plastic lip at the top of the Porta-bote hull there is a strip of foam rivited to the hull. This provides enough flotation to keep the boat afloat if it fills with water — as long as there is no outboard engine mounted on the boat. The foam material deteriorates in the sun and flakes off, constantly leaving little black flecks all over the Porta-bote’s floor. I have heard of cruisers covering this foam with Sunbrella to keep it intact and prevent its total disintegration. I haven’t gotten to that project yet… This foam provides a little flotation, but the Porta-bote will definitely sink if it is swamped while an outboard engine is mounted on its transom.
Note: The flotation material in the new Alpha series Porta-botes does not disintegrate in the sun
USING the PORTA-BOTE
A lot of this description so far includes many negatives and short-comings of the Porta-bote, simply because [the older models were] not designed to be a cruising dinghy and is rather carelessly engineered and cheaply manufactured. However, the great qualities of this dinghy show up once it has been assembled and is out on the water. We have found ways to work around its portability limitations, and feel that because of its good traits on the water it is an excellent choice as a cruising dinghy. We would buy it again, and here’s why:
Our Porta-bote lines up with inflatable dinghies on wheels in Santiago Bay, Manzanillo, Mexico
The interior volume is enormous. We have packed it with a month’s worth of groceries (at the supermarket the provisions were mounded way above the top of the shopping cart) along with three weeks worth of laundry (in two huge laundry bags), plus ourselves, and we still had space leftover.
We have also loaded it with five adults and putted along at a good clip. I think six adults would be pushing it. There is plenty of space on the seats for six adults, but the boat would sink too low in the water. It is a fast boat that planes easily with both of us aboard using just a lightweight 6 hp 4-stroke outboard. We raced a traditional RIB dinghy driven by a 15 hp outboard and carrying two adults. They barely pulled away from us as we reached about the quarter mile mark.
The Porta-bote is lots of fun.
I love rowing, and the Porta-bote is a lot of fun to row. It tracks well and moves nicely through the water. For the passionate rower the oars are totally inadequate and should be replaced.
The oarlocks in the hull also seem a little flimsy to me and I wonder how long they will hold up, as they flex ominously with every pull on the oars. The oars themselves are made for very light, occasional use. They are aluminum and they split into two halves for stowage, the handle half and the paddle half. The two halves are joined with a plastic pin-through-a-hole system, but the pin doesn’t actually go through the hole very well because the plastic spring mechanism is flimsy and weak.
So, the oars are prone to coming apart if you don’t keep an eye on them. Each oar has an aluminum pin that fits into the hole in the Porta-bote’s oarlock. The pin is held in place on the oar with a sleeve around the oar that is fastened with an aluminum bolt and wing nut.
On our fifth time out rowing, the bolt on one of our oars crumbled mid-stroke. We replaced the bolts and wing nuts on both oars with stainless steel, and they have been fine ever since. Over our four year cruise, we did not end up rowing the Porta-bote but used the outboard all the time instead.
Whether rowing or motoring, it takes a while to get used to the Porta-bote’s flexible floor. You can feel every wave and bump under your feet, and it is a very moveable platform, nothing like a hard dinghy or a RIB. However, the movement is just part of the package, and once you are accustomed to it, it’s kinda neat.
The Porta-bote is a great cruising dinghy.
All-in-all we are very happy with the Porta-bote. No cruising dinghy is ideal, each type being a pain in the neck in at least a few ways. We like the lightweight nature of the Porta-bote and being able to get most of it off the deck and out of the davits and out of the way while on a long passage.
We like its good manners while towing, its speed under power and its voluminous interior space for provisioning runs. The compromises and required upgrades are okay with us in return for its many good qualities. If Porta-bote ever went back to the drawing board and studied its plans and re-engineered the boat for use as a cruising dinghy, they could create a truly superior dink that surpassed everything else on the market.
As noted above, Porta-bote did just that, and the result is the new Alpha series!