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

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

Kuat NV Bike Rack on back of fifth wheel trailer RV

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

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

Hitch extension with Kuat NV bike rack

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

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

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

Using a shim in a bumper hitch

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

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

JM Custom Welding Blanding Utah

Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah

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

Bumper hitch tightener for car or RV hitch

Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.

Bumper hitch tightener for bike rack

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

Hitch tightener on RV for bike rack

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

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

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.

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

Hitch tighteners on bumper hitch mounted bike rack

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

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

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

Kuat NV BIke rack and bike rack extension and hitch tightener

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

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

Mountain bikes on truck rather than a bike rack

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve got a few more links below.

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Info on hitch tighteners and hitch clamps:

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

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

If you need custom metal fabrication work done:

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Photography – Cameras, Gear, Tips and Resources

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

Camera on a tripod - photography

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

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

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

We’ve invested in our camera equipment because photography is our passion and we do it all day long. What you’ll see here is our progression through good solid “value” gear, from the “entry level” gear we started with to the more professional quality gear we use today.

For easy navigation, use these links:

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

CAMERAS and LENSES

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Our Current Cameras and Lenses

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

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

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

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

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

Photographer with camera tripod in the water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Past Cameras and Lenses

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

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

Coast to Coast Cover Spring 2012

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

The Nikon D40 (and its modern day equivalent Nikon D3400) are “crop sensor” cameras (or “DX” in Nikon lingo). This means the sensor is smaller than on a “full frame” camera (like our current Nikon D810 cameras which are “FX” in Nikon lingo). This, in turn, means the image quality is slightly lower and if you blow up the image to poster size it won’t look quite as good up close.

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

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

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

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

Today’s “equivalent” entry level DSLR is the Nikon D3400. It is a 24 megapixel camera that is far more sophisticated than the D40 and not “equivalent” in any way except the price point. If you want to get it in a kit with multiple lenses, filters, camera bag, tripod, etc., there are lots of kits here.

The Tamron 150-600 lens can be hand held

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pocket Cameras

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT and ACCESSORIES

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Batteries – We have two batteries for each of our cameras, so we each always have a fully charged battery on hand besides the one in the camera. We’ve found the Watson batteries are a good alternative to the more expensive Nikon batteries. My Watson battery died shortly after the manufacturer’s warranty expired, and I was impressed that they honored it anyway and replaced it for me. However, note that the Nikon D500 camera can’t use third party batteries, so you have to spend the bigger bucks on a Nikon brand EL-15 battery for that camera.

Memory Cards – We also have two memory cards in each camera (the Nikon D610, D810 and D500 all have two card slots in them). We use Sandisk brand for all our memory cards. We like the SanDisk “Extreme Pro” 95 MB/second SD cards. We like these fast SD cards because when we start shooting in a burst (holding the shutter down and letting the camera take pics as fast as it can — for instance, when a bison jumps over a fence in front of us), the faster the card can be written to, the faster the camera’s internal memory buffer will empty, and the longer the camera can keep shooting at top speed. Faster SD cards are also faster when downloading photos to a computer. Our Nikon D500s use Sandisk XQD cards and our Nikon D810s use Sandisk CF cards.

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

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

Hoodman Loupe on a Nikon D610 Camera

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

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

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

 

LENS FILTERS

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

Camera UV Filter, Polarizing Filter and Neutral Density Filter

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TRIPODS

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

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

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

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

The biggest difference between tripods is how much weight they can hold solidly, how easy they are to set up and adjust, and whether things drift or droop a little after you tighten the buttons. I have a Benro carbon fiber tripod that I absolutely love for hiking. The legs slide in and out really smoothly, and the adjustments are easy. I also have a set of super long Really Right Stuff tripod legs and a Wimberly gimbal which is awesome for letting me swing the Tamrom 150-600 lens around smoothly while shooting birds.

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

Choosing a Tripod – Sunwayfoto Tripod and Ballhead Review

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

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

 

FLASHLIGHT

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

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

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

Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen tactical flashlight

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

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

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

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

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

 

HAULING, STORING & MAINTAINING OUR CAMERA GEAR

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

Hiking With Camera Equipment

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

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

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

Camelback H.A.W.G. camera bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Walks With Photography Gear

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

Storing All This Stuff

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

Cleaning

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

Giotto Rocket Blaster & Camera Cleaning Kit

Giotto Rocket Blaster & Camera Cleaning Kit

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

 

PHOTO ORGANIZATION and POST-PROCESSING TOOLS

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t store anything in the cloud.

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

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

Lightroom Folder Organization

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

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

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

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

 

RESOURCES FOR LEARNING PHOTOGRAPHY

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

Photography Books

Some of our Favorite Photography Books

BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY

 

eBOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY

 

ONLINE TUTORIALS

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

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

 

BLOGS, TIPS and GEAR REVIEWS

The photography blogs we read regularly are these:

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

 

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Power Inverters – Exeltech’s Pure Sine Wave Excellence

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.

Power inverter for an RV - an Exeltech XPX 2000 watt inverter

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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.

WHAT IS AN INVERTER?

For beginning RVers, it is easy to confuse a converter with an inverter, because the words are so much alike. The difference is actually very straight forward:

  • A converter converts the 110 volt AC power coming out of a wall outlet, RV park power pedestal or generator into 12 volt DC power, and charges the RV’s 12 volt battery bank.
  • An inverter converts the batteries’ 12 volt DC power into 110 volt AC power so household appliances like the TV, blender, microwave and vacuum can run.
Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter living off the grid in an RV

Our “house” inverter – an Exeltech XPX 2000 watt inverter.

RV FACTORY INSTALLED CONVERTERS

Most trailers and some smaller motorhomes come with a factory installed converter. Frequently, these factory installed converters are inexpensive units that are not multi-stage chargers. So, for RVers who want to dry camp a lot and keep their batteries in tip-top shape, or charge them up efficiently with a generator while dry camping, it is a good idea to replace the factory installed converter with a better quality converter (we did).

More info on upgrading an RV power converter here: Converters and Inverters in an RV

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).

INVERTER SIZES

Inverters come in all shapes and sizes and all price ranges too, from little biddy ones that cost a few bucks to big beefy ones that cost a few thousand dollars.

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.

Our RV has a “house” inverter that is 2,000 watts. It can run our microwave and hair dryer and vacuum comfortably (we don’t run those appliances all at the same time, however, as that would overload it). Our small portable inverter lives in our bedroom and gets used for a few minutes every day before we head downstairs:

RV power inverter with electric razo

Mark uses this small inverter to power his electric razor every morning!

MODIFIED SINE WAVE vs. PURE SINE WAVE INVERTERS

Inverters also come in two flavors:

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.

Exeltech XP 1100 Inverter

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.

Heavy duty battery cable on Exeltech XPX 2000 inverter in an RV

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.

If you want to plug more than two appliances into the inverter at once, then plugging a power strip into one or both of the inverter’s AC outlets is one way to go. We did this on our sailboat. We had a 600 watt pure sine wave inverter on the boat. Plugged into one of the inverter’s AC outlets, we had a power strip supporting our TV and DVD player. Plugged into the other AC outlet, we had a power strip supporting everything else: two-way radios, toothbrush, and laptop charging cords and camera battery chargers.

Exeltech XPX 2000 inverter and Trojan Reliant AGM Batteries in an RV

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.

Exeltech power inverter manufacturing

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.

And thanks to our RV warranty, our failing suspension was rebuilt completely at no cost to us, and has worked flawlessly for 12 months now.

Power inverter

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

RV Power Inverters

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.

I have been publishing articles like this in Escapees Magazine since 2008, and I have written about anything and everything we’ve learned in our full-time RVing lives, from solar power to photography to batteries to the importance of fulfillling our dreams.

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 by ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway

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!

Full-time RV traveler artist

RVers take their art on the road
Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016

And what’s neat for would-be writers and photographers who are Escapees RV Club members is that the magazine’s editorial staff is always eager for new material from members…click here!.

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 at Escapees RV Club

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:

Join Escapees RV Club

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!

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SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

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How to Heat an RV in Cold Weather and Winter Snow Storms

Heating an RV in cold weather during the winter, especially in a snow storm, is quite different than heating a house, and it often requires utilizing different kinds of heaters and a little creativity too.

RV camping and travel in snow in winter

Is that SNOW??!! We sure didn’t expect THAT!!!

A few weeks ago, at the end of September, we woke up to find ourselves in a beautiful snowstorm at 10,000′ elevation in Colorado.

We had to pull out all the stops to make sure we were cozy warm in our RV even though overnight lows were in the 20’s and daytime highs didn’t get out of the 40’s for a week.

Bikes on RV bike rack in snow in winter

We looked out our back window and saw snow covering our bikes!

The first order of business was to go outside and build a snowman, and Mark got right to it.

Winter RV tips for staying warm in cold weather

It’s snowing!!! Let’s make a snowman!!!

While he’s busy getting that snowman together, I wanted to share with you the strategies we’ve used for heating our RV without electrical hookups, because we use different heating appliances in different situations.

For “cool” conditions, like December and February in the Arizona desert or May in the Canadian Rockies, when lows are in the 30’s, keeping our buggy warm is a cinch with our blue flame vent-free propane heater that Mark installed back in 2008.

But in in “extreme” conditions, like this recent snowstorm on a mountaintop in Colorado, we use a different strategy and rely more on our RV furnace that was factory installed in our trailer.

We have tried different strategies in very cold weather at very high altitudes like this in the past, and this most recent cold spell was our most comfortable, despite the wet gloppy mess of snowy covered jackets, hats, mittens and boots and the sullen gray skies that persisted for several days. So, we seem to have gotten it right this time.

Of course, “lows in the 20’s” is far from “extreme” for North Americans living in houses with central heating, but it definitely feels extreme when living in an RV off the grid. In reality, RVs are most comfortable in temperatures that stay above freezing.

Winter RVing in the snow

The snowman gets sticks for his arms…

Even though high end RVs are marketed as being “four season” coaches, boasting high R-factors in the walls, ceiling and floor, you just can’t compare 1.5″ styrofoam walls that have a thin layer of gelcoat and wallpaper board to a residential house wall that’s made of 3.5″ fiberglass insulation covered with a half-inch of drywall, half-inch of plywood, Tyvek and exterior siding.

Besides the skimpy walls, we find that the RV windows are the biggest reasons for the poor insulation. The metal window frames are extremely cold to the touch when temps outside are in the 20’s, and all that metal around our many windows conducts the cold right into the rig.

Some folks like to have thermopane (dual pane) RV windows, but if moisture gets between the two panes, which can happen more easily in an RV that rattles down the road all the time than in a house that stands still on its foundation, the moisture is likely to remain there permanently, no matter what the weather does outside or how many years go by.

RV windows don’t seal all that well either. Our top quality, four season fifth wheel trailer is downright drafty inside, with a definite breeze that can, at times, flutter a tissue by the “escape” windows. You don’t notice it so much when it is 70 degrees both outside and inside with no wind blowing. But when it is a blustery18 degrees outside and we are trying to heat the rig to 65 degrees inside, the breeze by those windows is a shock.

The microwave vent is another drafty spot, and if the wind is howling outside and blowing directly on that wall of the RV, it blows right into the kitchen through the vent holes on the top of the microwave. One solution for that, of course, is to tape over the vent on the outside of the rig and not use the microwave for the duration of the cold snap (we haven’t done that, however).

Winter RV trip in the snow

The snowman gets a hat!

So, in our experience, keeping an RV and everything in it toasty warm when it is snowing out can require a little creativity.

Back in our house living days in snow country, we would set the thermostat to our preferred indoor temperature and keep it there 24/7, perhaps raising it slightly at the breakfast and dinner hours and lowering it slightly while we were at work or asleep.

When a blizzard blows into our RV lifestyle nowadays, we can have that kind of stable heat in our rig if we plug into shorepower with access to unlimited electricity. Portable electric heaters can back up the RV furnace, and RVs that have an air conditioner with a heat pump can use that (ours doesn’t).

We have a portable electric ceramic heater for just such an emergency where going to an RV park and plugging in is our best line of defense for weathering a storm.

However, it is possible to stay warm without hookups, even when it starts snowing.

RV in snow in winter

What fun!!

We rely on our vent-free propane heater for 95% of our heat year round. These little heaters use propane very efficiently, don’t need any electricity to run, and can be installed in an RV permanently to run off the RV’s propane tanks.

There are also handy portable models that can be stored in a closet when not in use and then placed anywhere in the rig where you want a little heat. These run on disposable propane bottles, so it isn’t necessary to plumb the heater to the RV’s big propane tanks.

Animal tracks in the winter snow

We found fresh animal tracks in the snow.

We have a detailed article describing the different kinds of vent-free propane heaters on the market, the pros and cons of each type and the type of heat they generate, plus a step-by-step guide for how to install one in an RV at this link:

How to Install a Vent-free Propane Heater in an RV

These heaters heat the rig amazingly quickly. We find that our 20k BTU blue flame heater warms our rig at a rate of about one degree every two minutes. So, in twenty minutes we can warm up our home by 10 degrees, and in an hour we can raise the inside temp by 30 degrees.

The best part is that we can hover over it and warm our hands, bodies and clothes, just like standing in front of a woodstove or fireplace. We do that a LOT and totally love our little heater for the terrific blast of instant hot air it provides!!!

How to heat an RV in winter and cold weather

When you’re chilled, there’s nothing like hovering over this heater!

We use our blue flame heater year round, and we have used it at elevations ranging from sea level to 10,000′.

This past year we traveled primarily in cold places where overnight lows were in the 30’s and 40’s. We went north through Utah, Idaho and Montana in March and April and spent May and early June in the Canadian Rockies. Consequently, we saw quite a bit of snow and hail, and during those months we used our heater almost every day.

Aspen and pine trees in winter snow

The snow in Colorado fell for hours and gave us a beautiful winter wonderland — in September!

Colorful aspens in winter snow storm with pine tree

Fall colors with snow – Magic!

We thawed out in July long enough to get overheated and write a blog post: “How to Beat the Heat in an RV.” Then it was back to the high elevations of Utah and Colorado in mid-August where we saw more hail and overnight lows in 30’s once again.

Our vent-free blue flame heater has been keeping us warm during all four seasons like this since Mark installed it in 2008!!

Snowy road with aspen for an RV in winter

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Snowy road in winter

It was really cold, but it was so beautiful we didn’t mind!!

The basic difference between an RV furnace and a vent-free propane heater is this:

  • RV furnace – Uses a lot of electricity, uses propane inefficiently, brings fresh air into the rig (because it’s vented)
  • Vent-free propane heater – Doesn’t use electricity, burns propane efficiently, uses up oxygen in the RV

So each has its place under certain circumstances. In a nutshell:

— The ventless propane heater is awesome as long as there is sufficient oxygen for it to run. We like to use it in the mornings and evenings, and since we are in and out of the rig a lot, there is a lot of air exchange inside our RV from opening and closing the front door all day long as well as from all the drafts and breezes that blow in the RV windows and microwave vent.

— The RV furnace is best for other scenarios: in cases where there is a risk of the water pipes freezing (the hot air ducts keep the basement and water lines warm), at very high elevations in extreme cold, and at night, because it is vented and continually circulates the air in the rig. The RV furnace is very loud and tends to wake us up at night, however, so we don’t use it overnight very often.

So, we use our vent-free blue flame heater for 95% of our RV heating, and we turn to our RV furnace on rare occasions.

Aspen and pine trees in snow in winter

Fall colors and snow — a gorgeous combinations!

Dodge pickup truck covered in winter snow

This snowfall was definitely sticking around a while!

Vented vs. Ventless Propane Heaters and Propane RV Stoves & Ovens – Safety Concerns

An RV furnace is a vented system, meaning that it releases warm, moist air from inside the RV to the outside, and it brings cold air from outside to the inside of the rig. This makes it very inefficient in its use of propane, because it is essentially heating the outdoors as well as the indoors. Put your hands by the RV furnace vent outside, and they will get nice and warm and a bit damp too!

While RV furnaces are safely vented yet very inefficient, vent-free gas heaters are very efficient and are required by law to have an automatic shutoff when the available oxygen goes below a certain threshold (there is a built-in sensor that triggers the shut-off). We know when ours is about to shut off because the flame begins to sputter and make noise. Once it has shut itself off, it won’t turn on again until we air out the RV a little by opening the door or windows for a while.

Ironically, propane RV stoves and ovens are not required to shut off automatically when the available oxygen is depleted. To me, this makes them inherently quite a bit more dangerous than vent-free propane heaters.

Of course, an RV fitted with propane tanks is basically a rolling bomb, so it’s a very unsafe place to call home (I say this with a smile, because we wouldn’t trade our 9 years on the road for anything)!

Every time we have seen our blue flame heater shut itself off (probably 30+ times), the RV stove and/or oven has kept right on a-cookin’ without any hint that our supply of oxygen inside the rig was running out. We could easily have baked something in our factory installed propane RV oven and simmered something on our factory installed propane RV stove for hours while camped at 10,000′ with no inkling that the oxygen in our rig had dipped below safe levels!

Winter snow on RV steps

Welcome home…. Brrrrr!

Which Heater is Best Under Which Conditions?

For most of this year as we traveled in cold country, the lowest temperatures we saw were in the low to mid 30’s overnight. Daytime highs were in the mid-60’s to mid-70’s. These kinds of conditions are very similar to what we see in the southwestern deserts in the winter months (except January, which can be colder). These conditions are ideal for a vent-free propane heater.

We usually run our vent-free propane heater every morning until the rig is 60 to 75 degrees inside (depending on our mood) and then again in the evening if the temperature inside has dipped below 65. If the windows have fogged up from condensation (about 5% of the time, usually only in the winter), we run the RV furnace too to help dry the air out.

In general, we don’t heat our RV overnight in this kind of climate. We prefer to bundle up with down comforters instead. If we do run the heat at night, we use the RV furnace and set it to 50 degrees. If outdoor temps drop into the 30’s overnight, the RV furnace will come on once or twice in the pre-dawn hours.

Golden aspen in snow in winter

Golden aspen leaves in snow.

Ironically, if the outside temps dip really low — into the 20’s or teens — and daytime highs don’t get much past 50 degrees, then the RV furnace will start coming on before midnight and will come on every hour for 15-20 minutes as it struggles to keep the rig at 50 degrees.

Since we are light sleepers, this is extremely annoying. So, at the times we would want to run the RV furnace most — overnight when it’s really cold — we opt not to!

On overnights that we don’t heat the rig, when we wake up in the morning our bedroom is around 10-12 degrees warmer than the outside air (bedroom door closed all night) and our living area is around 5-7 degrees warmer than the outside air.

It is routine for us to wake up to temps in our trailer that are between 37 and 42 degrees. For us, that is a small price to pay for living off the grid, however, for many RVers it is good reason to get electric hookups and have more substantial and consistent heat in the rig overnight.

Aspen covered with snow in winter

The colors of Fall in Colorado.

There is a lot of debate about whether you can operate a ventless propane heater at high elevations. By the time we got caught in that September snow storm in Colorado two weeks ago, we had been living at elevations between 8,000′ and 10,000′ for 5 straight weeks, running our vent-free propane blue flame heater every morning and evening without a hitch.

Along with many weeks spent heating our rig at high elevations in previous years, including 8 weeks or so at 6,000′ or higher this past spring, our 5 weeks at 8 to 10 thousand feet this fall kind of proved the point for us: it’s no problem to run a vent-free propane heater at high altitudes in cool weather.

But in sub-freezing overnight temperatures and daytime highs in the 40’s under stormy skies at 10,000′ elevation, we’ve found a vent-free propane heater is best used in combination with the RV furnace.

Bikes on back of RV in snow

Well, we won’t be biking any time soon!!

Until the the snowstorm came to our mountaintop spot in the Colorado Rockies at 10,000′, we hadn’t been using the RV furnace at all. But once the temps dropped to the 20’s (lows) to 40’s (highs) at that elevation, we couldn’t rely on our blue flame heater exclusively any more and had to change our heating strategy for three reasons.

1) There is less available oxygen at 10,000′ than at lower elevations, and once the oxygen in the rig dipped below a certain level, the blue flame heater would shut itself off automatically. Because it was so cold outside, we weren’t thrilled about opening the windows and doors to let in more air just so we could turn on the blue flame heater again. It was time to use the RV furnace.

2) Our RV roof and ladder — along with our solar panels — was covered with snow and ice. Mark wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement to climb up there to clear off the solar panels, and I wasn’t about to get up on that slippery roof either. So, our batteries were no longer getting charged by the sun and wouldn’t have enough juice to run the RV furnace.

3) Vent-free propane heaters emit a lot of moisture. We had just had several days of torrential rain, and everything in our rig was wet. Our shower was filled with raincoats and rain hats hung up to dry, our boots and socks were wet and muddy by the door, our pants were wet and hanging in the bathroom and our bath towels refused to dry. While our blue flame vent-free heater would exacerbate the moisture problem, our RV furnace would help dry out the air inside our buggy.

Doing all these things gave us a nice dry and toasty warm environment to live in during this cold spell in snowy conditions at 10,000 feet.

To implement this heating strategy, we did two things. We stocked up on gasoline and propane and ran our Yamaha 2400i generator and RV furnace a lot. Sometimes we also ran the blue flame heater alongside the furnace.

Yamaha generator in bed of pickup truck in snow

Our Yamaha generator got a good hard workout for over a week.

The generator ensured that the batteries got fully charged. Because we were running our RV furnace so much, which burned up lots of electricity, the batteries were being depleted much faster than normal. So, not only did we need the generator because the solar panels were snoozing under the snow and ice, we also needed it because of running the RV furnace.

RV in snow in winter

A few weeks prior we had been roasting in the summer heat. What a crazy life we live in this RV!!

In general, we ran the RV furnace every morning until the rig was 65 degrees inside and then ran it on and off during the day and in the evening. If the air wasn’t too moist, we also ran blue flame vent-free heater alongside the furnace to warm things up faster. The vent-free propane heater never shut itself off, so the RV furnace was doing its job of circulating the air.

Golden aspen in snow by pond in winter

Getting creative heating our RV made it possible to enjoy views like this as it snowed.

Using the RV furnace also lessened the possibility of the water pipes freezing. The heater is ducted through the belly of the rig, and the warm air passing through the ducts helps warm the nearby water and sewer pipes. If the temps had gotten below 20 degrees, we would have run the RV furnace once or twice overnight as well just to be sure no ice formed in the pipes.

If we had had brilliantly sunny days every day, we may or may not have needed the generator. Our 490 watt solar panel array may have been able to charge the batteries fully, despite the additional load from the RV furnace.

Also, we probably wouldn’t have needed to use the RV furnace so much because the sun would have warmed up our rig and dried it out a bit during the day.

See how flexible and variable all this is??!!

Colorado fall colors after winter snow

This is why we came to Colorado at this season… Wow!!!

We have descended out of the clouds now and have been living at elevations between 5,000′ and 6,500′ for the past few weeks. The RV furnace is back on vacation and our trusty blue flame heater has taken over all the RV heating duties. Our generator is on break for another 6 months or year, and the shore power cord is buried somewhere in the basement once again.

RV in winter snow staying warm in cold weather

Snug as a bug in a rug!!

If you are going to be using your RV in cold weather this winter, we have another post full of tips for keeping warm that you might enjoy:

How to Stay WARM in an RV – Winter RVing Survival Tips

And if you think a vent-free propane heater is something you’d like to get, have a look at our detailed article that discusses the different types of heaters and shows how we installed ours:

Vent-free Propane Heaters (Catalytic, Infrared and Blue Flame) PLUS How to Install One in an RV

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How To Change The Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

One of the first questions we had when we began considering buying a new pickup truck to tow our fifth wheel trailer was: How do you change the inside rear tire on a dually truck? Well, a few days ago we found out!

How to change an inside rear tire on a dually truck

We got a flat on our dually’s inside rear tire (passenger side) while towing our trailer — Oof!!

Our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually has been a fabulous truck for us since we bought it six months ago, and we’ve now got 9,100 miles on it now, 4,633 miles towing and 4,467 miles driving around without our fifth wheel trailer attached.

A few days ago, we stopped at the Libby Dam on the Kootenay River in Montana to get a photo. As I walked around the back of the truck, I heard a weird hissing noise. I stuck my head into the wheel well, and my heart sank when I saw a huge bolt head on the rear inside tire. I put my finger on it, and the hissing stopped. I lifted my finger and the hissing started again. Oh, no!

I almost didn’t have the heart to tell Mark, but after we’d gotten our photos of the dam, I told him the bad news.

We were in a pretty remote spot, completely out of cell phone and internet range. We hit the nifty “Assist” button on the rear view mirror of the truck to give Dodge a call and ask some questions about changing rear tires, but the call wasn’t able to go through.

Assist button rear view mirror Dodge Ram 3500 truck

Ram trucks have a cool “Assist” button that connects you straight to Dodge…if you’re not in the boonies!

The closest town was Libby, Montana. It boasts a population of 2,700 people, but it was 17 miles down the road.

So much for getting any kind of roadside assistance!

The timing for this little inconvenience wasn’t great. We’d been on the road, towing, for 100 miles, and Mark had just been telling me he was ready to call it quits and take a nap. Oh well. No napping just yet!

Luckily, unlike the last time we’d been stranded on the side of the road — when one of our trailer tires blew out four months ago, shortly after our trailer suspension repair — rather than being on the traffic side of an interstate with cars whizzing by at 75 mph, we were working curbside in a nice big pullout next to an extremely quiet country road where a car would leisurely pass by us every five minutes or so.

We unhitched the truck from the trailer to make it a little easier to get at the rear wheels. Mark got our bottle jack out from its storage spot under the driver’s side rear seat of the truck, and he began setting it up. I grabbed a stool from our fifth wheel basement and laid out some mats on the ground to create a work space for him.

From a lifetime of mechanical work, he learned long ago to protect his hands, so he pulled on a pair of leather work gloves that he keeps in the truck.

The first step for changing the tire was to remove the hubcap.

Remove hub cap on Ram 3500 truck rear wheel

Start by removing the hubcap to reveal the lug nuts.

Then, using a breaker bar, he loosened all of the lug nuts. Doing this with the wheel still on the ground is easier than after it’s lifted, because the wheel can’t spin.

Breaker bar to remove rear wheel on dually truck

Use a breaker bar to loosen the lug nuts while the wheels are still on the ground.

We used to carry a 4-way lug wrench for swapping out flat tires, but one time one of the arms twisted like a strand of licorice as Mark tried to unscrew a stubborn lug nut that wouldn’t budge. It was probably a cheap 4-way lug wrench. Most likely, a better quality 4-way lug wrench wouldn’t have done that, but Mark swore off of those things right then and there, and we’ve been carrying a breaker bar ever since.

The lug nuts on our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 required a 15/16″ socket. The ones on our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 require a 7/8″ socket.

Our bottle jack is rated for 12 tons, enough to hold up the axles of either our trailer or truck easily. More important, it’s also tall enough for the axles on our trailer which we raised a few inches higher from the factory standard during our trailer suspension overhaul to help keep our rear end from dragging on steep ramps at gas stations and on uneven dirt roads.

He unscrewed the top of the bottle jack to raise it up.

Bottle jack for fixing a flat tire

Unscrew the top of the bottle jack by hand to raise it.

He placed it under a flat metal piece that was welded onto the axle.

Bottle jack under the rear axle of a dually truck

Place the bottle jack under a solid flat spot on the axle.

The bottle jack comes with a two-part handle. After removing the two plastic end caps, one tube can be fitted into the other to make a long handle and give you some leverage while pumping up the jack.

Bottle jack handle for fixing a flat tire

Remove the plastic endcaps and fit the tubes together to form a long handle.

He pumped the handle up and down to raise the top of the bottle jack and lift the axle slightly so the wheels no longer touched the ground.

Raise the jack under Ram 3500 dually truck rear axle-2

Raise the rear axle of the truck by pumping the bottle jack handle.

With the lug nuts slightly loosened, he now used a Rigid cordless impact driver to remove them completely.

Impact driver to remove lug nuts fix rear flat tire Ram 3500 dually truck

A Rigid 18 volt cordless impact driver makes it a breeze to remove the lug nuts.

We got the impact driver, a cordless drill and a portable radio as part of a terrific kit that included two lithium-ion battery packs. We use the drill every time we raise and lower our fifth wheel’s stabilizer jacks, and we listen to the portable radio all the time!

He collected the lug nuts in the hub cap.

Fixing rear flat on Ram 3500 dually pickup

Collect the lug nuts in the hubcap so they don’t roll away.

Then he pulled off the outer wheel.

How to change a flat tire on a dually pickup truck

Pull the wheel off.

How to change a flat tire on a dually pickup truck

The outer wheel is off, now for the inner wheel…

The wheel studs on a dually are extra long to hold both wheels onto the truck. So, once the outer wheel was removed, he could pull off the inner wheel.

Remove the inner rear tire of a dually truck

Slide the inner wheel off.

And there was the culprit — a big fat self-tapping bolt!

Flat tire on a dually pickup

And there it is — a nasty self-tapping bolt. Arghh!!

Our 2016 Ram 3500 came with a toolkit for raising and lowering the spare tire. It is located behind a plastic trim piece under the passenger’s seat.

Spare tire toolkit in Ram 3500 truck stored under passenger seat

The toolkit for lowering the spare tire is under the passenger’s seat.

He pulled off the plastic trim piece to get the toolkit out.

Spare tire toolkit Ram 3500 pickup truck

Here is the toolkit for lowering and raising the spare tire from its spot under the truck chassis.

Then he pulled the toolkit out from under the passenger’s seat. It is held in place with two knobs, one of which is tightened with a wingnut. When he put the toolkit back in place later, he had to align it before sliding it in, and then tighten the wingnut.

Mounting brackets spare tire toolkit Ram 3500 truck

The toolkit is held in place by these knobs (the left one is a wing nut).

The toolkit has several handle extensions and other goodies in it.

Spare tire toolkit Ram 3500 truck

The toolkit has all kinds of goodies in it, including a lug wrench that Mark opted not to use since it is probably even more flimsy than a 4-way.

One of the goodies is an L-shaped handle, and there are several extensions that interconnect to lengthen the handle as well.

Spare tire toolkip Ram 3500 pickup truck

Two of these tubes fit together to form a long handle that attach to the L-shaped handle.

He assembled two handle extensions to make a long rod and attached the L-shaped handle to the end. Then he inserted this handle into a hole above the license plate bracket. There is a square fitting inside the hole. The end of the handle slipped over the square fitting.

Lowering the spare tire on a Ram 3500 dually truck

The L-shaped handle and extension tubes fit onto the square fitting in the hole next to the license plate bracket.

Then, he rotated the handle slowly.

Lowering the spare tire on a Ram 3500 dually truck

Twist the handle to lower (or raise) the spare tire.

This gradually lowered the spare tire from its storage spot under the chassis of the truck onto the ground

Lowering the spare tire on a Ram 3500 pickup truck

The spare tire is held to the truck chassis by a brace that compresses a spring.

The spare tire is held tight to the underside of the truck with a spring fitting that can be snugged nice and tight.

Spare tire mounting system Ram 3500 pickup truck

Bracket and spring under the spare tire.

Then he mounted the spare tire on the truck to replace the flat tire.

Mounting the spare tire on rear of Ram 3500 dually truck

The spare tire is mounted on the truck.

Next, he slid the outer wheel in place. Using his cordless impact driver, he replaced the lug nuts, tightening them in increments. Starting at the valve stem, he tightened the closest lug nut a bit and then tightened the one that was opposite, then tightened the next one, and then the one opposite that one, etc., working his way around the rim and tightening the wheel equally all the way around. Then he gave each lug nut a final tightening using the breaker bar.

Then he put the hubcap back on. It didn’t pop on really easily using his palm, so he used the top of a rubber mallet to tap it in place.

Replace hub cap on dually truck rear wheel

The hubcap didn’t snap in place using palms only, but the butt end of a soft rubber mallet did the trick.

Interestingly, we could now see exactly how much rubber we had worn off our rear tires in 9,100 miles, because the wheels didn’t hang down evenly.

Spare tire and used tire height difference on Ram 3500 dually truck

The brand new spare and 9,000 mile used tire are different heights.

Using a pocket knife, he got a rough estimate of just how much rubber had been worn off — maybe 1/8″ or so.

Rear tIre wear dually truck 9000 miles

About 1/8″ of rubber has come off of the tire in 9,000 miles of driving.

He raised the flat tire up into the storage spot under the truck chassis where the spare tire had been, and lowered the bottle jack under the axle so the truck was sitting on all four rear wheels again. We hitched the trailer back up and started to drive.

This little hiccup in our RVing lifestyle had taken about 30 minutes.

Our fancy new truck has a cool display (the DID, or Driver Information Display) that shows the air pressure in each of the six tires on the truck (this is the TPMS, or Tire Pressure Monitor System). We were both really alarmed when the spare tire reported that it had 17 lbs. of pressure while the other three rear tires all had 63 to 65 lbs. What the heck??

Tire pressure dashboard readout Ram 3500 truck

The tire pressure for the spare is 17 lbs. Yikes!! (huh????)

The dealership where we bought the truck had told us they’d aired up the spare when we bought the truck new six months earlier. Even though Mark usually uses a tire gauge to measure the air in the spare, he hadn’t this time because it was a brand new tire that seemed perfectly good, had the right sound when he thumped it, and bounced nicely on the ground.

But we grew ever more alarmed as the dashboard display showed 15 lbs., then 13 lbs., and then went to dashes. The road was super quiet, so while driving the 17 miles to get to the Les Schwab tire place in Libby, we pulled over several times to check that the tire wasn’t heating up… It wasn’t.

Tire pressure dashboard readout Ram 3500 truck

Now the tire pressure is dashes. What does THAT mean??

We made it to Les Schwab, and they put a terrific new kind of patch on the tire that mounts from the inside. It has a big round rubber flange that mounts inside the tire with a plug that fills the hole.

The spare turned out to have 65 lbs. of air pressure, just the way it should have. So, we all scratched our heads for a while about the weird air pressure numbers we’d seen on the dashboard.

Then our service guy suddenly brightened up. “I know what it was!” he said. “The spare tire doesn’t have a sensor in it to report its tire pressure to the truck, but the original tire did!”

So, as the original tire was being carried under the chassis of the truck, where the spare usually sits, it was transmitting its decreasing tire pressure to the console on the dashboard, and the dashboard was dutifully displaying the numbers as coming from the right inside rear tire even though the tire was no longer in that position. Eventually the tire pressure got so low it was below the minimum, so the display showed dashes.

It turns out that that option for the spare tire to have a sensor on the valve stem is only available on Premium models of Ram trucks. We never saw that option in any dealer option lists.

I just showed this post to Mark to see what he thought, and he looked at me in astonishment and said, “When did you take all these photos? This is great!”

“When you were changing the tire!” I explained. “I’m sneaky!” (And I’d MUCH rather write about changing a tire than do it myself!)

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One Ton Towing Machines and 75 Years of Trailer Life

The July 2016 issue of Trailer Life Magazine is featuring our article about what it takes for a One Ton Truck to be a true heavy duty towing machine. We are incredibly proud to have been asked to write this article about diesel trucks for Trailer Life, and especially that it appears in this month’s very special edition: Trailer Life’s 75th Anniversary Issue.

Trailer Life Magazine Choosing a Truck for Heavy Duty Towing

Trailer Life Magazine – July 2016
Article by: Emily Fagan. Photos by Mark & Emily Fagan
You can read the article here: One Ton Towing Machines

Trailer Life Magazine has been reviewing trucks and giving readers insights and pointers for towing trailers since 1941. As they note on the cover, Trailer Life is “North America’s oldest and most-read magazine for RV enthusiasts.”

Besides our 7 page article about selecting a diesel pickup truck for towing a heavy trailer, this issue looks back at 75 years of RV history and has some wonderful articles on the evolution of RVing.

2016 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually truck in Valley of the Gods Utah

Trucks and trailers have gone through a huge evolution in the past 75 years!

From the Bowlus Road Chief aluminum sided trailers that resembled an upside down boat and inspired the Airstream, to the Shasta trailers that my hubby Mark remembers from his boyhood camping days with his family, to the iconic Winnebago bread box motorhomes with the big “W” on the side that we still see people driving all over the country, this issue of Trailer Life takes us back in time.

1937 Bowlus Road Chief

A 1937 Bowlus Road Chief — precursor to the Airstream Trailer!

1954 Shasta Travel Trailer

1954 Shasta Travel Trailer – Mark camped in one of these as a kid!

In this issue, they also talk about the resurgence of interest in retro trailers — we see so many retro trailers on the road as we travel! — and they also have a biographical article about the “Godfather” of Trailer Life Magazine, Art Rouse.

1950 Chevy and 1947 Tear Drop Trailer

We spotted a 1950 Chevy and 1947 Tear Drop Trailer in Sun Valley Idaho

1959 Streamline Trailer

We met up with owners/restorers of a 1959 Streamline Trailer in Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

It is really exciting for our contribution about 2016 diesel trucks to be published this month right alongside such a fun and detailed retrospective look at the RV industry’s history.

Americans — and the world — have taken to RV living in trailers and motorhomes with great gusto for many years. We first got a true feeling for this long history when we visited the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in the heart of the RV industry — Elkhart, Indiana — back when we traveled through that area in 2010.

A Visit to the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum

Besides being able to go into the museum library and peruse yellowed copies of Trailer Life, Escapees Magazine and Motorhome Magazine, as well as many others, from decades ago (the advertisements are hilarious and say so much about American culture in each era!), we also took a walk back in time along their winding indoor “Road Back in Time” exhibit. This took us past and through small and classic RVs from every decade.

RV-MH Hall of Fame Museum Road Back in Time

The “Road Back in Time” at the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart, Indiana

Some of the craziest and earliest trailers of nearly 100 years ago were just a canvas tent on wheels (some even had wooden wheels!). The museum also displays Mae West’s House Car and other exotics, as well as a few Shasta, Mallard and Coachmen trailers and Winnebago motorhomes from the 50’s to the 70’s.

1967 19' Winnebegao Motor Home

a 19′ 1967 Winnebegao Motorhome on the “Road Back in Time”

But the cool thing is to see these oldies-but-goodies out on the road and still in use as we travel, and to meet people who have bought brand new retro style trailers too. You can get the old fashioned look but have all brand new appliances with the latest technology. How fun!

Modern retro trailer RV

We had a chance to peek inside a brand new retro-style trailer in City of Rocks. NM – Wonderful!

Retro trailer RV

This fantastic retro trailer was pulled by a Honda Element… perfect!

Trailer Life Magazine has been celebrating their 75th anniversary all year long with some really intriguing online articles about the RV industry’s history. Here a link to a few delightful ones:

75 Years of Trailer Life – Online Article Index

For anyone contemplating the RV life or currently enjoying it, Trailer Life Magazine fills a special educational and inspirational niche. It is available both as a glossy print magazine and in digital form online.

After being subscribers ourselves for many years, we began publishing travel destination and technical features in their pages a few years ago (a sampling can be read here), and we still find something new and valuable in every issue. You can subscribe to Trailer Life’s print magazine or digital edition here:

Subscribe to Trailer Life Magazine

We love vintage trailers and get such a kick out of seeing them on the road. We’ve had a few fun enounters with owners of special trailers who have lovingly restored them:

As for buying a big ol’ truck to tow a modern monster fifth wheel trailer, there are some important things to take into account, as not all One Ton trucks are created equal, by a long shot. We talk about a few of those “must have” features in this blog post:

What to Look For When Choosing a Truck for Heavy Duty Towing – Tips for Truck Buyers

There are also quite a few other articles about trucks and towing on this blog as well:

Blog posts about trucks and trailer towing:

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5th Wheel Trailer Suspension Failure – Replaced with our RV Warranty!

You never know what might break on an RV, and during our RV travels back in 2015, going from Arizona to Nova Scotia and back, we faced four major repairs on our then 8 year old fifth wheel trailer, all in four short months. Ouch.

The last breakdown — the failure of our fifth wheel trailer’s suspension — ended up being the most expensive repair of them all, because the entire trailer suspension had to be replaced. We were so miserable about the whole situation as it unfolded last fall in Phoenix, Arizona, that the last thing I wanted to do was to write about it on this blog.

So, the story has waited five months until now when our spirits are high and we’re camped near a stunning lake in the Canadian Rockies!

Bow Lake Jasper Ice Fields Banff National Park Alberta Canada

Repairs aside, this is why we RV!

2015 was a phenomenal year of travel for us, but it could have been a financial disaster.

$7,420

That was the scary total cost of all our RV repairs in 2015. Yikes!!

Fortunately, our out of pocket cost was just $1,045, because we had an extended RV warranty for our trailer.

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

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

Our trailer warranty has paid for itself 3.5 times over!
Confused about the nitty gritty fine print buried in RV Extended Warranties? Here's an excellent detailed explanation!!

As reflected on our RV budget and expenses analysis page, our combined maintenance and repair costs on our truck and trailer averaged $106 per month for our full-time travels between May, 2007, and August, 2015.

Life was good back then. Maintenance was easy and the unexpected repairs were small and manageable. Anything that went wrong was something Mark could fix (he’s an extremely gifted mechanic).

But 2015 unfolded very differently than prior years. This was mostly due to our trailer now being eight years old and also because we spent a month spent driving the rough back roads of Nova Scotia.

What is an RV Warranty and should you have one?

We weren’t sure at first, but after 4 expensive repairs in 4 months in 2015, we now know the answer is YES!!!

So, how did this all transpire?

When we were in Nova Scotia, we bent a spindle on the rear axle of our trailer. We limped to Bangor, Maine, and got a new axle installed.

Old trailer axle new fifth wheel RV axle

We had to replace a trailer axle after driving the rough back roads in Nova Scotia

Besides damaging a trailer axle while we were in Nova Scotia, we also sprang leaks in both our fresh water tank and in our big rear window. The underbelly compartment of our trailer was filling with water whenever we filled our fresh water tank, and our rear window was leaking water all over our living room carpet whenever it rained (and it rains a lot in the northeast). Ugh!

Sadly, large fresh water tanks are not a commodity item, because they come in all shapes and sizes.

So, rather than waiting for two months for a new fresh water tank to come to the repair shop in Maine, we decided to do both of these water-related repairs (as well as a bunch of other smaller repairs) in Chanute, Kansas, at NuWa Industries, the factory repair facility where our trailer was originally manufactured.

NuWa claimed to have a fresh water tank for our trailer model in stock (this proved not to be the case, but that is another story), and they had an appointment available in two months (and no sooner!).

We could live with the leaks and other small problems, so this gave us two months to get from Maine to Kansas. We moseyed west and enjoyed a fabulous stay in Maysville, Kentucky.

Unfortunately, within 24 hours of leaving there, our RV refrigerator died. Good grief — While en route from a trailer axle repair in Maine to a bunch of plumbing related repairs in Kansas, we had to get a new RV fridge somewhere near western Kentucky. Not many places stock 8 cubic foot Dometic RV refrigerators! We scrambled and got our RV refrigerator replaced outside Indianapolis.

RV Refrigerator replacement under warranty

We had to replace our RV refrigerator after 8 years (the typical lifespan for a fridge, we found out!)

Luckily, the refrigerator replacement at Camping World went really well.

Once we got to Chanute, Kansas for our new fresh water tank, window repair, toilet repair, faucet replacement and a few other things, our buggy had to stay in the shop for three days!!

RV fresh water holding tank replacement

We had to replace our fresh water tank and do many other plumbing and leak-related repairs.

We were not allowed to stay in our rig while it was in the shop in Kansas. Fortunately, the trailer warranty reimbursement for those three days of repairs included our two nights at a motel. Thank goodness for that warranty once again!

Back on the road after our plumbing and water leak repairs were completed in Kanses, we ventured onward to Phoenix, Arizona.

Sadly, our saga of trailer repairs was not over yet.

TRAILER SUSPENSION FAILURE

Since we had left Maine (where we had gotten our new trailer axle installed), we had watched with alarm as the two wheels on our trailer’s tandem axles had gotten progressively closer and closer together. The frame of our trailer, built by Lippert Components, had always had very narrow spacing between the two wheels.

When we had upgraded from the factory installed E-rated (10 ply) tires to the higher profile G-rated (14 ply) tires a few years prior, I could squeeze two fingers between the tires. After our trailer axle replacement and new tire purchase in Maine, I verified that this was still the case.

5th wheel trailer suspension tire spacing is okay

Spacing between the wheels is two finger widths.

However, by the time we got to Phoenix, I could barely get the tip of my pinky finger between them and I could not slide my whole pinky in.

Fifth wheel trailer tires 1-4 inch apart

My pinky finger can squeeze only partway in between the tires!

The spacing was down to less than 1/4 inch.

Fifth wheel trailer tires 1-4 inch apart

Sagging suspension made our wheels dangerously close together.

Something was very wrong.

We took the trailer to Straight Line Suspension in Mesa, Arizona, a repair shop that had a newly outfitted facility that does a lot of contract suspension maintenance work on fleets of school buses and commercial trucks.

After careful inspection, their consensus was that we needed to revamp the trailer’s suspension completely. Something was failing, and whether the culprit was the leaf springs, or the equalizer between the springs or the axles themselves, no one could determine exactly.

Fifth wheel trailer RV at suspension shop for service

Our buggy goes into the repair shop for a new suspension.

And this is where we were glad not just to have any old extended warranty contract on our trailer but to have one purchased through Wholesale Warranties.

THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING AN ALLY

Unlike most RV warranty brokers, Wholesale Warranties is heavily invested in the relationship between their clients and the warranty providers they represent. They want to be sure that their customers’ claims are properly handled by the warranty companies. So, they are more than happy to get involved in their clients’ claims to facilitate and make sure there are no misunderstandings.

This level of commitment to their products and belief in them is truly astonishing. And it makes all the difference in the world.

When the service provider (Straight Line Suspension) first called our warranty provider (Portfolio Protection), the warranty company was understandably reluctant to cover the repair without knowing the root cause of the failure. They pressed the shop to determine which specific part had caused the failure. Was it the shocks? The leaf springs? The axles? They wanted to replace only the component(s) that failed and nothing more. That makes sense!

However, the suspension experts had no idea which part had failed, and they said there was no easy way to figure that out. So, we called Wholesale Warranties and had a long conversation with John Wise. We described to him the gradual failure we had witnessed and the difficulty of pin-pointing exactly which component(s) had failed and in what order the failure(s) had occurred.

I emailed him photos of our wheel spacing both before and after the failure. Thank goodness I take so many photos and had both “before” and “after” photos to send him!

He then called our warranty company, Portfolio Protection, and reviewed the photos with them. He explained that the suspension mechanics were not sure exactly what had caused the failure but that the suspension was not functioning properly and needed to be replaced.

In the end, Portfolio Protection agreed to replace the springs, equalizers and shocks and also to correct the insufficient spacing between the leaf spring hangers, placing them further apart so that even if some components failed or sagged in the future, there would no risk that the wheels would touch.

If it weren’t for Wholesale Warranties coming to our aid to act as a liaison and facilitator and to help explain our breakdown in a way that the warranty provider could understand, this vital repair would not have been covered.

Of course, the role of Wholesale Warranties is strictly as a facilitator. They can’t force the provider to reimburse a repair that is not covered by the contract. We have called Wholesale Warranties for liaison assistance several times now, and they have been very up front when our repair was outside the limits of our contract.

However, being able to call them and describe the problem and get their input is extremely helpful. This is particularly true in cases like our trailer axle repair where both our RV insurance plan AND our RV warranty contract could be used to pay for the repair, but one was financially preferable to the other due to differing deductibles and different kinds of coverage.

 

FIFTH WHEEL TRAILER SUSPENSION REPLACEMENT

The first step in our trailer suspension replacement was to jack up the trailer and remove the two axles. We had just done a fabulous trailer disc brake conversion eight months earlier, and this was the THIRD time the hydraulic lines had been tampered with due to removing the axles or the belly pan from the frame. How frustrating!

Fifth wheel trailer axles hangers ready to be removed

The trailer axles are removed from the trailer.

Once the axles were off the trailer, the next step was to remove the leaf spring hangers.

Fifth wheel trailer axle hangers

The hangers must be cut off the frame.

The sparks flew like mad as each of the six hangers was cut off the frame using a torch.

Sparks fly as fifth wheel trailer leaf spring hangers are cut off

Sparks fly as the old trailer leaf spring hangers are cut off

Cutting off trailer leaf spring hangers

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The mechanics wanted to ensure the new springs were strong enough, so they chose 8,000 lb. American made springs from Rockwell American, even though we had just 7,000 lb. axles and only 11,250 lbs. sitting on the pair of axles (as of our most recent RV weighing by the Escapees Smartweigh program).

New 8000 lb fifth wheel trailer leaf springs

New 8000 lb American made leaf springs from Rockwell American

They pointed out to us the difference between Chinese made springs and American made springs. Chinese steel is notorious for being inferior to American steel, and the overall fabrication quality of the springs, especially at the eye, was not as good.

American made leaf springs

The eye of the American made leaf springs looks clean and well made.

Chinese leaf springs

Not so much for the Chinese made leaf springs

Our trailer’s original Chinese springs had come with nylon bushings inside the eye, but they had been upgraded to brass bushings. When the old springs were removed from the trailer, we saw the brass bushings inside were worn out. The curvature of the spring from the eye was also flat, an indication that the spring itself was worn out.

Worn out bushings in trailer axle leaf spring

Worn out bushings and the spring is flat — no curvature left!
(compare to above pics!)

The mechanics fabricated a new leaf spring hanger system that had three hangers welded onto a bar. These hangers would space the axles further apart than they originally had been.

New custom trailer leaf spring hanger

New custom trailer leaf spring hangers

The bar was then welded onto the underside of the trailer frame.

New trailer tandem leaf spring hanger ready to be installed

The new trailer leaf spring hanger bar is positioned so it can be welded onto the frame.

After welding on the new hanger bar, new equalizers were bolted onto each center hangers.

New trailer tandem axle equalizer

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Then the leaf springs were bolted onto the outer hangers.

New fifth wheel trailer leaf spring hangers leaf springs and equalizer

Springs and equalizers in place — all set to reinstall the axles.

The axles were installed using new U-bolts. The mechanics also made a brace to span the width of the trailer between the two hanger bars to add some rigidity to the suspension system.

New support for trailer tandem axle suspension

A brace running across the width of the trailer makes the system stronger and more sturdy.

New trailer leaf spring and leaf spring hangers

.

Then they welded new shock mounts on the frame and installed new Monroe Gas-Magnum RV shock absorbers.

New shock absorbers on tandem trailer axle suspension

.

The final result — our wheels were a fist’s width apart!!

Proper spacing tandem axle fifth wheel trailer RV

The trailer axles are spaced a lot better now.

SUSPENSION REPAIR COST BREAKDOWN

Here are the costs for the suspension replacement and our out of pocket costs as a result of our extended trailer warranty:

Parts: $1,119.83
Labor: $1,440.00
Tax: $90.15
Total: $2,649.98
Reimbursement: $2,549.98
Out of Pocket (deductible): $100.00

COMPLICATIONS

Unfortunately, in the world of repairs, sometimes fixing one thing breaks another.

After our trailer suspension replacement was completed, we towed our trailer out into the parking lot and went inside to get organized to leave for our next destination.

As always, we were not connected to electrical hookups, so we turned on our new Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter that we had installed as part of our overall RV electrical system overhaul so we could generate 120 volt AC power from our batteries and run our microwave and computers.

Instantly an alarm went off.

What???

We flew to turn off the inverter and then began troubleshooting segments of our AC wiring to try to figure out the problem.

Suddenly, we heard a huge loud POP. And that was the end of the inverter.

Good heavenly days.

Luckily, the inverter was still under its manufacturer’s warranty. Exeltech is phenomenal about caring for their equipment out in the field. They provide inverters to NASA and their equipment is on both the American and Russian sides of the International Space Station. They take great pride in their equipment and have an excellent warranty repair process.

Mark undid the really nice inverter installation job he’d done for our Exeltech, boxed it up, and shipped it to Exeltech’s Ft. Worth, Texas, facility.

Exeltech 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter installed above Trojan Reliant AGM batteries in fifth wheel RV

Geez… Our beautiful inverter (the suspended black box) had been working flawlessly!
(To keep the inverter cool and well clear of the batteries, yet still close, it is securely suspended above)

In the meantime, we spent a day troubleshooting our wiring to try to understand what had gone wrong. It wasn’t clear to us how the trailer suspension replacement might have impacted our trailer wiring, and the mechanics were certain that the two were unrelated.

After many hours of crawling under the trailer, and removing the belly pan section by section, and running our fingers along the frame and shining a flashlight into the unreachable depths, we found a spot where the AC trunk line was resting on the frame.

Well, it wasn’t exactly resting any more. The heat from the cutting and welding torches had melted the cable’s insulation onto the frame!

Mark carefully incised the casing, separated the hot and neutral lines, re-wrapped them in new insulation and affixed the cable firmly to the underside of the plywood flooring well away from the frame.

How had this happened?

Sadly, Straight Line Suspension did not check the frame sufficiently in the areas where they would be welding before they started torching the hangers off of it and welding on the new hanger system. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do because a plastic corrugated sheeting covers the entire underbelly of the trailer, protecting the tanks and wiring from road grime.

In order to inspect the frame before taking a torch to it, this corrugated sheeting must be removed, and any wiring in the area where the welding will take place must be located to ensure that it is not touching the frame.

RV manufacturers should enclose all wiring in conduit, or at least tack it to the underside of the plywood flooring, rather running it along the I-beams. However, that was not the case in our trailer. The wiring was tacked up to the flooring in some places, but there were extensive gaps that sagged, and this one portion sagged enough to be touching the frame right where the cutting and welding took place.

We live off the grid in our RV on solar power, so our inverter is our sole source of AC power. Losing it was a huge inconvenience!

While we waited for ten days or so for our inverter to make it to Ft. Worth, undergo diagnosis and repair then be shipped back to Phoenix, Mark installed our old Exeltech XP 1100 inverter in its place. Thank goodness we hung onto it after our upgrade from the 1100 watt to the 2000 watt version of the inverter!!

Straight Line Suspension paid for the expedited shipping and insurance for our inverter, and eventually, the happy day came when our inverter arrived and Mark got it put back in place.

For folks who want to get work done on their trailer in the Arizona area, we had our trailer suspension further upgraded with a MORryde SRE 4000 equalizer that was installed by the excellent mechanics at Rucker Trailer Works in Mesa, Arizona. Their workmanship was top notch and the MORryde has made a huge difference. Read our blog post about that installation here.

Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter living off the grid in an RV

The Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter has been repaired and is ready to be reinstalled.

Needless to say, this was an ordeal that was not fun to live through and one that I waited a long time to write about. However, it is an amazing illustration of just how valuable an RV warranty can be, especially if you get one from a broker that stands behind their customers during the claims process. It’s also an important reminder that if someone is going to take a torch to your RV frame, they should check the nearby wiring first!

We weren’t sure just how worthwhile an RV Warranty would be when we got ours, but 2015 would have been an extremely expensive year for us without it. It’s bad enough to be stuck on the side of the road. But having to pay through the nose for the nasty surprise of a major repair makes the ordeal even worse.

Trailer on side of interstate with bad wheel bearing

What’s worse than being dead on the side of the road? Knowing it’s gonna cost ya!

Wholesale Warranties loves our repair stories, and they have offered our readers a $50 discount on their RV warranty (for a trailer or motorhome) if you mention our website, Roads Less Traveled, when you set it up. The discount will come off the quoted price at the time of purchase (remind them before you sign if you don’t see it — it’s not automated!!). Here is the link to get a quote for a warranty on your particular RV:

Wholesale Warranties Quote Page

Or you can call them at (800) 939-2806 and ask for our contact, Missi Junior, or email her at missi@wholesalewarranties.com.

FURTHER READING:

Articles Related to Finances in the RV Lifestyle:

Our Personal Case History of RV Warranty Repairs:

More blog posts about our fifth wheel trailer suspension:

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How to Put DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluid) in a Truck & Which is Cheapest?

How do you put DEF fluid in a truck without spilling a drop? Here are a few tips for diesel truck owners out there as well as lots of helpful info about Diesel Exhaust Fluid, what it does and where we found it’s cheapest to buy.

Since 2010, diesel pickup truck engines have relied on Selective Catalytic Reduction technology (SCR), which uses Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF), to meet the EPA emmissions standards. DEF is a mixture of 1/3 urea and 2/3 de-ionized water, and it is sprayed into the exhaust system of diesel trucks to reduce the nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions into harmless nitrogen and water.

Pouring Diesel Exhaust Fluid DEF fluid into truck

Late model diesel trucks require refilling the DEF tank!

Each manufacturer designs their trucks with a tank to hold the DEF, and you have to replenish it every so often. Our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 has a 5 gallon DEF tank. The filler hole is under the gas cap next to the diesel filler hole. On some brands of trucks the filler hole is in the engine compartment under the hood.

Dodge Ram 3500 DEF and diesel gas cap

The Dodge Ram has the DEF filler hole next to the diesel filler hole under the gas cap

Diesel Gas Cap magnetic for diesel trucks-min

We use this handy magnetic gas cap.

As a side note, opening the gas cap on a Ram truck is interesting because there is no screw-on dust cap covering the diesel filler hole inside. There’s just a spring-loaded flap. We find we need to wipe down the whole area after we’ve taken the truck out on four wheel drive roads in dusty places like southeastern Utah.

We use a nifty aftermarket diesel gas cap that uses a magnet to keep it handy during fill-ups. Just stick it on the side of the truck. Very cool! A slightly less expensive one is also available here.

While it would seem trivial to refill the DEF tank, we struggled the first few times with the bulky jugs and awkward spouts, and it dripped here and there and was basically a pain in the neck.

We’ve also shopped around quite a bit to find DEF that is fairly inexpensive. One of the more common brands is BlueDEF. Others are Command DEF by Prestone and Blue Blood by Cam2. You can also buy it in bulk (see below).

However, the best deal we’ve found is the big blue 2.5 gallon jug of SuperTech DEF sold at Walmart (in-store) for $7.88. The jug is easy to use and it’s drip-free.

SuperTech DEF Diesel Exhuast Fluid

SuperTech Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF)

SuperTech DEF comes with a flexible pouring spout that is wrapped around the handle. Simply unscrew the jug’s cap and screw the spout on until it’s really tight.

Diesel Exhaust Fluid nozzle

The SuperTech DEF jug comes with a flexible pour spout wrapped around the handle

Diesel Exhaust Fluid installing the nozzle

Screw the flexible pour spout on tightly

Diesel Exhaust Fluid nozzle-2

Ready to pour.

There is a small black vent hole on the spout, and this little guy is essential to making the whole process go smoothly and cleanly.

Vent on Diesel Exhaust Fluid DEF container

The black air vent on the pour spout is the key to doing this chore
without dripping or spilling

After putting the flexible spout securely into the filler hole on the truck, give the jug a small squeeze to start the flow of fluid. This will make the vent hole on the jug such air in, which vents the jug and allows the fluid to flow easily.

Pouring DEF fluid Diesel Exhaust Fluid into the truck

Once the spout is inserted securely in the filler hole, squeeze the bottle slightly to start the flow.

Make sure all the fluid has been poured into the tank, and then you’re done!

Pouring DEF fluid Diesel Exhaust Fluid into the truck

Empty the contents into the DEF tank.

The first time we did this, we didn’t squeeze the jug first, and DEF dribbled out the air vent. But if you get the siphon going properly, by squeezing the jug as you start to pour, it’s a cinch.

Our Ram truck has a dashboard gauge that indicates the fill level of the DEF tank. When it gets down to half full, we put a 2.5 gallon jug of DEF into the tank to fill it back up again. We typically do this every 1,000 miles or so.

DEF has a minimum shelf life of a year. We keep just one 2.5 gallon jug on hand at all times. Since we refill our tank about every four to six weeks, we never remotely approach its shelf life.

Buying DEF in Bulk

Another option for DEF fluid is to get it in bulk at a gas station. This is not common yet, and most gas stations don’t have DEF in bulk. However, Flying J and Pilot truck stops carry it at some of their travel centers (see links at the end for locations).

In our travels, we don’t often fill up at Flying J or Pilot, simply because they tend to be on the interstates and we tend to be on back country roads. So, we haven’t yet seen or been able to take advantage of their bulk DEF at the pump.

However, for RVers that use these travel centers a lot, this is a super way to go. The current bulk Flying J / Pilot DEF price at many of their centers is a little less than the SuperTech bottled price (~$2.79/gallon vs. $3.16/gallon).

Pilot / Flying J offers a discount card for RV travelers that gives a few cents off on fuel and 50% off on RV dump station fees, and special discounts for Good Sam Club members.

Pilot Flying J RV Traveler Discount Card

Pilot and Flying J have DEF in bulk at the pump AND a discount card for RVers

What are the pros and cons with a truck that uses DEF fluid? An obvious disadvantage is that you’ve got to do this extra little chore every so often.

However, there are benefits too. The fuel mileage is slightly better on SCR equipped engines than on older trucks that used a Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) to meet the EPA emissions standards (like our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500). Cummins, manufacturer of the engine in the Dodge Ram line of diesel trucks, says the improvement can be up to 5%.

This increase in fuel economy is because the improved conversion of NOx emissions allows the newer engines to be fully optimized. Also, the older engines go into a “Regen” frequently to burn off the particulates in the Diesel Particulate Filter. In a Regen, a higher quantity of fuel than normal is pumped into the engine to make it run hot so the particulates can be burnt off. This wastes fuel and ultimately lowers the truck’s overall fuel mileage.

The newer engines that use SCR technology (and DEF) don’t need to go into a Regen quite as often.

For more info on all of this, there are lots of links below that explain the history and mechanics behind Diesel Exhuast Fluid.

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Edge Engine Tuner => Max Truck Power!! (Escapees Mag Feature!)

A few years ago we installed an Edge Evolution diesel tuner in our truck to give it a little more power in the mountains and to increase our fuel economy a bit when not towing. This super easy DIY project turned out to be really worthwhile. We picked up 1-2 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency, and we got some extra horsepower and torque when climbing the Rockies and the Smokies with our trailer in tow.

Escapees Magazine Engine Tuners Mar-Apr 2016 Emily Fagan

Escapees Magazine – March/April 2016 Issue
Article: Engine Tuners by Emily & Mark Fagan

The March/April issue of Escapees Magazine features our article about the Edge Evolution Diesel Tuner. We have also written extensively about our Edge Tuner on this website, and you can read our blog post about it here:

Edge Evolution Diesel Engine Tuner – Peak Truck Performance!

Engine tuners (or “programmers”) are electronic components that modify the input parameters for an engine’s on-board computer. An engine tuner makes it possible to operate the truck with settings that are optimized for specific driving conditions.

So, whereas the factory settings on a Dodge Cummins engine in a Ram 3500 truck make the engine run pretty well in all conditions (towing, not towing, highway driving, mountain driving, etc.), an engine tuner will operate the engine with settings that are optimized for just one of these situations at a time.

If you will be towing a heavy trailer in the Rockies, you can program the tuner specifically for that kind of driving. If the truck won’t be towing anything for a while, you can program the tuner to maximize fuel economy.

We have used just two of the modes on our Edge engine tuner, Level 1 (“Economy”) and Level 2 (“Towing”).

In both cases we have seen an improvement in miles per gallon. In the towing mode, we’ve also found the increased power is significant. On the freeway this means it is easier to get up the speed to pass a slower moving vehicle. In the mountains it means the truck can get up steep inclines more easily.

There is a mode on the Edge Tuner that puts the truck into “stock” mode, effectively changing all the engine’s input parameters back to their factory default settings. It is also easy to disconnect the tuner all together. So, installing an Edge engine tuner is a non-destructive upgrade. The tuner is there for you if you want to use it, but you can easily opt not to use it too.

When we bought our the simplest programmable model, our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 single rear wheel long bed truck had 85,000 miles on it. We drove the truck 20,000 miles with the tuner installed, and we were very happy with the performance. This past December we upgraded to a 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually long bed truck, and we have just installed an Edge tuner on it as well.

We recently bumped into the Jeep Safari Week in Moab, Utah, and while we were wandering around the booths looking at all the cool gear for Jeeps, we suddenly saw the Edge Products trade show booth. We went over to chat with the team and tell them about our installation. We met Jared Venz, one of their marketing guys. How cool is that?!

PowerTeq Edge Products tradeshow booth at Moab Jeep Safari event

Mark found a fellow diesel motorhead buddy in Jared Venz of Edge Products when we bumped into
the Edge Products / Superchips team at the Moab Jeep Safari event!

When we got our first Edge tuner, we chose the simplest programmable model, because we weren’t sure if a tuner would be a worthwhile upgrade. This time around we got a more sophisticated model. With all the products laid out on their table in boxes in front of us, Jared helped us understand the overall product line. Here it is in a nutshell:

There are three types of Edge tuners:

Insight – The most basic model that simply displays the engine data that is coming from the engine computer’s outputs. It does not have the ability to change the engine’s parameters or program it in any way .

Evolution – This model can modify the input parameters to the engine’s computer and also displays key data like the Transmission Fluid Temperature and Engine Coolant Temperature. It also indicates when the truck has gone into a “Regen” to burn off the particulates that have built up in the engine’s particulate trap (part of the “Blue Tech” 2010 EPA requirements for diesel engines).

Knowing the truck is in a Regen is especially useful, because the coolant and fluid temperatures increase, and there is a slight loss of power, but there is no indicator on the truck dashboard to show when one is happening. We found it very helpful with our old Edge Tuner to know exactly when a Regen was going on.

The Edge Evolution tuner uses the truck engine’s input port to modify the engine’s input parameters. So, the installation is very easy. A single cable plugs into that input port (the OBD II port on Dodge Ram trucks). However, in order to change from one programming mode to another (for instance, from Level 1 (Economy) to Level 2 (Towing), the truck must be parked and you have to go through a series of steps that take a good 5 to 10 minutes.

Juice with Attitude – This top of the line model has an additional computer module (the “juice”) that makes it possible not only to adjust the input parameters on the truck’s on-board engine computer, but also allows you to change modes on the fly. So, rather than having to stop and reprogram the tuner to change from Level 1 to Level 2, you can hit a button and make the switch instantly. For instance, if you are towing and want to unhitch to go drive somewhere without the trailer, you can change modes simply by pressing a button.

However, the installation is more complex, because the “juice” computer that is part of the tuner must be wired into the truck engine’s on-board computer via two wiring harnesses.

There are also two display options for each Edge tuner model:

The smaller and more simplistic display has a monitor screen that is 2.4 inches wide. The Edge tuner models that use this smaller screen have “CS2” in the model name.

The larger, more sophisticated and detailed display has a monitor screen that is 4.3 inches wide. The Edge tuner models that use this bigger screen have “CTS2” in the model name.

The final two digits in the model number distinguish between the various truck makes, models and years.

The Juice with Attitude model is available only in the large monitor screen size.

The basic model breakdown is:

  • Insight (Data Display Only – no engine programming capability):
    Insight CTS2 (large screen) vs. Insight CS2 (small screen)

  • Evolution (Engine programming, easy install, manual mode switching):
    Evolution CTS2 854xx (large screen) vs. Evolution CS 851xx (small screen)

  • Juice with Attitude (engine programming with mode switching on the fly and more complex installation):
    Juice with Attitude (large screen only)

Because each diesel truck manufacturer uses a different engine (Dodge has Cummins, GM products have Duramax and Ford has Ford built engines), the tuners come in different models for each truck engine. There is some variation between truck model years as well.

We’ve chosen the Edge Juice with Attitude engine tuner for our 2016 Ram 3500.

Our article, “What Puts You in the Driver’s Seat? Engine Tuners!” is the latest feature article of many that we have contributed to the Escapees RV Club member magazine since 2008. Escapees is a very varied RV and travel club that touches on all the possible concerns and interests that full-time and seasonal RVers have.

Back when the club was first started in 1978, there were no RV clubs that catered specifically to the needs of full-time and extended-travel RVers. Escapees began as a simple bi-monthly newsletter to bring full-time RVers together and to give them a place to share ideas and pass on information.

Today, the bi-monthly Escapees Magazine is one of the most informative and fun to read magazines in the RV industry.

Escapees Magazine covers

Escapees Magazine covers on display in the mail sorting facility at Escapees HQ in Livingston, Texas

We became Escapees members a few months after we started full-time RVing, and we feel that anyone interested in using their RV for extended periods of time should consider becoming a member too. Besides receiving the wonderful magazine for free, members receive discounts of up to 50% at participating RV parks.

In addition, Escapees RV Club offers a wide range of overnight parking options at its own various RV parks, from overnight accommodations to seasonal stays to long term leases to ownership, and they offer a list of boondocking locations via the Days End Directory subscription.

Escapees also hosts a very informative online forum, RVnetwork.com. The participants in this forum are often very experienced RVers, and although non-members can read the forum, only Escapees members can join in the conversation or ask questions. For new RVers, Escapees hosts Boot Camp events where folks learn All Things RV, and each year Escapees puts on a huge rally called Escapade where members from every corner of the country come to share experiences, socialize and learn from each other. Younger Escapees also gather at Xscaper Convergences.

This coming summer, from July 24-29, there will be an Escapade Rally and Xscapers Convergence in Essex Junction, Vermont. Just before that, from July 21-23, there will be an Escapees Boot Camp for New RVers.

To learn more about Escapees and perhaps join the club (we highly recommend it), you can click here:

Join Escapees RV Club

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How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

Defrosting an RV refrigerator is a surprisingly easy job. We’ve been living with a propane RV refrigerator for many years now, and they always need defrosting after a few weeks or months. Being meticulous about not leaving the refrigerator door open unnecessarily can help, but when you find yourself living in a hot and humid environment or if you have the refrigerator side of your trailer or motorhome facing the blazing hot summer sun all afternoon, the frost is going to build up over time.

All you need to defrost an RV refrigerator is:

Over the years, we’ve tried several different techniques for defrosting our RV fridge, and in the old days this was a big job that, with some methods, could take well over an hour. We now have it down to a super fast method that makes this pesky job a cinch. The last time we did it, I made a note of the time on the clock as we went through each step. From start to finish, it took 20 minutes.

The first step is to turn off the refrigerator and empty the contents of the freezer into cooler bags or a cooler of some kind. Since these things will be out of the freezer for just 20 minutes, they won’t defrost and the ice cream won’t melt. If your RV is hot inside, covering the cooler bags with blankets for extra insulation can help.

Defrost RV refrigerator remove food from freezer

9:17 a.m. – Turn off fridge and unload freezer into cooler bags

We used to unload the whole refrigerator and empty it out completely, but that isn’t necessary and it takes a lot of time. An awful lot of what is in the refrigerator can handle warming up slightly as you keep the refrigerator door open to defrost it.

Instead, just unload the most temperature sensitive items — milk, yogurt, lunch meats, mayonaise, etc., into an insulated cooler bag or a cooler. Most of the fruits, veggies, bread, cheese, condiments, etc., can remain right where they are in the fridge for the 20 minutes it takes to defrost it.

How to defrost an RV fridge with food in cooler bag

Set the cooler bags aside. Covering them with blankets will keep everything even cooler.

Next, put a super absorbant chamois towel in the bottom of the freezer compartment to absorb the water from the melting ice, and use a hair dryer to thaw the walls of the freezer.

Defrosting RV refrigerator hair dryer on freezer with towels

9:22 a.m. – Use a hair dryer to thaw out the freezer.

We live exclusively on solar power, and our 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter is what powers all our AC appliances, including the hair dryer. So, we have a low wattage travel hair dryer that draws just 800 watts (available here).

We put it on the high setting and keep a distance of about 8″ between the hair dryer and the walls of the freezer. A higher wattage hair dryer may need to be put on the low heat setting. Hold your hand about 8″ from the hair dryer and see how hot it feels.

Be sure you keep the hair dryer from heating up the plastic walls or they will crack from being cold and then getting hot. Keep the hair dryer moving and test the temp of the plastic walls with your hands.

After thawing the walls of the freezer a little, move down to the cooling fins in the refrigerator compartment. Keep the hair dryer in constant motion, sweeping it back and forth from side to side.

Defrost RV refrigerator hair dryer on cooling fins

Slowly wave the hair dryer in front of the cooling fins.

Alternate working on the freezer compartment and the refrigerator compartment.

How to defrost an RV refrigerator hair dryer in freezer

Alternate between the cooling fins in the refrigerator compartment and the freezer compartment.

Defrosting RV refrigerator hair dryer on fridge cooling fins

At the beginning, when the cooling fins are caked in ice, the hair dryer can be closer to them.

Little ice sheets will begin to fall off the refrigerator cooling fins into the drip tray underneath. As the thawing process continues, increase the distance between the hair dryer and the cooling fins.

How to defrost an RV fridge melting ice with hair dryer

As ice drops and the cooling fins thaw, move the hair dryer back a little.

Don’t chisel the ice off the fins or the freezer walls with a tool. If you pierce the metal base behind the cooling fins or the walls of the freezer, the refrigerant (ammonia) will leak out. We don’t use any chiseling device. We simply assist the thawing process with the hair dryer.

Check beneath the cooling fins and you’ll see the bits of ice dropping into the drip tray.

How to defrost an RV refrigerator ice dropping from fridge cooling fins

Check below the cooling fins where the ice drops off in chunks.

If you go outside, on the back of the RV you’ll see water seeping out of the refrigerator vent.

How to defrost an RV fridge water dripping from refrigerator vent on outside of trailer

Outside the rig, water will be seeping from the refrigerator vent.

How to defrost an RV refrigerator water dripping down fridge vent outside trailer

A little trickle of water flows down.

Once all the ice has fallen off the cooling fins, pull out the drip tray and dump the ice in the sink.

Ice in RV refrigerator drip tray

9:34 a.m. – Once all the ice has dropped off the cooling fins, empty the tray of ice into the sink.

Up in the freezer compartment, the chamois towel is now fairly wet with water that has dripped down off the walls. Wring it out and use it to wipe down the freezer and the fridge.

Wet Chamois towel from defrosting RV refrigerator

9:35 a.m. – The chamois towel in the freezer is pretty wet. Use it to wipe down the fridge and freezer.

Load the food from the cooler bags back into the refrigerator and freezer compartments, and you’re done! Put the fridge at max temp for a few hours to help it cool back down, and then set it to the temperature setting you normally use.

Defrosted RV refrigerator

9:37 a.m. – After loading the food back in the refrigerator, turn it back on. Done!

Other RV Refrigerator Tips

The key to having an RV refrigerator work optimally is having the air circulate inside well. Overstuffing the fridge with food makes this difficult for it. We have used a little RV refrigerator airator fan that’s designed to keep the air flowing. We’ve had mixed results with this, and when it died we didn’t replace it. I think this would work well if there were space between all the food, but our fridge is usually packed (the turf wars between the beer and the veggies can be brutal…sometimes we can hear them battling it out in there!).

As a maintenance item, we keep the door seals clean, wiping them down periodically.

We use simple refrigerator thermometers to monitor the temperatures in the fridge and freezer. It has a built in hook, and we hang it from one of the rungs in the top shelf in the refrigerator. The one in the freezer rests against one wall.

We were surprised to learn that RV refrigerators have an expected lifespan of about 8 to 10 years. A classic sign of impending failure is the appearance of yellow dust in the refrigerator vent area behind the fridge (go outside and take the vent cover off and look around with a flashlight). Click the following link to read the funny story of our RV refrigerator replacement and see how an RV fridge replacement is done.

Because of the shorter lifespan, higher price, and use of propane in RV refrigerators, many (most) “full-time” level fifth wheels and motorhomes are now being built with residential refrigerators that run on AC power only (a dedicated inverter is installed so it can run from the batteries while in transit). For folks that have plans to dry camp and boondock a lot in their RV life, a residential refrigerator will require a much bigger battery bank and solar panel array than would otherwise be needed. We discuss that in more detail at this link in our introductory solar power article.

If our hair dryer method of defrosting an RV fridge seems unorthodox to you, believe me, we have tried many other methods. We tried opening the fridge and freezer doors and letting the fridge thaw out on its own. We tried doing that and “helping it along” by chiseling the ice off with a small plastic scraper. We tried putting a bowl of hot water in the fridge to help it warm up.

All of these methods were adequate, but they were time consuming. We’ve been using our current method with the mini travel hair dryer for a few years now and really, really like it.

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