Friday, October 6, 2017


This is the kind of blog post that puts bloggers in a "damned either way" position.  It supplies not enough information to get us off the hook with readers who are professional engineers, as such readers will quickly spot technical flaws in this limited analysis.  At the same time, this post might be guilty of supplying too much information to the point of confusing the hell out of non-technical lay people.

Engineers, please realize that we know this work is sloppy and incomplete - it is so by design.  Our intent here is not to establish rigorous quantitative proof of a specific result so much as it is to give a more general "feel" for the outcome of this van improvement project.  We are DIYers and bloggers, not automotive researchers.  But at the same time, we have to supply some de minimis level of actual measurements and data in order to substantiate our qualitative (quality of life) claims, so that's what we've tried to do here, is split that difference. 

OK, with that massive disclaimer aside, we undertook a project to add sound deadening improvements to our 2007 Airstream Interstate.  This Class B RV was built on a T1N Mercedes Sprinter cargo van, and no cab noise control had been integrated into the design of Airstream's upfit.  
We had already realized substantial improvements by commissioning a custom carpet job for the cab, but that left the remainder of the body in its original "tin can" condition.
Here's a picture of that carpeting job.  After we got this, we noticed, "Wow - we can actually hold a conversation on the road now!"  
But here's what the door looked like on the inside with the finish trim removed.  Tin can.
I must confess that I didn't take many photos of this project because part of me doubted that it would amount to much.  We had already done the carpet, and I assumed that most of the controllable road noise had been coming through the floor, courtesy of the wheels.  So my show-and-tell is limited in the sections that follow.

My husband chose the vendor Sound Deadener Showdown LLC as the supplier of the products that we used in the doors and on the firewall.  It's basically a 3-part process as follows, and as demonstrated more completely on their website:
  1. Control vibration and resonance using what that vendor calls CLD Tiles.
  2. Block sound with a dense barrier that consists of mass-loaded vinyl (MLV). 
  3. Absorb middle to high frequency sound using a closed-cell foam product.
In tackling those additions, first, the interior door trim has to be carefully disassembled.  There are various sources of information on how to do that, including this Sprinter Forum thread.  

Next, the CLD Tiles are added.  Here's a photo of the interior of one of our doors with those in place.  They intentionally don't cover the entire interior door surface. 
Those silver rectangular things. 
Here are some scraps of the other two products on our garage floor.
The MLV is on the bottom.  It reminds me of dance floor material, what they cover dance studio floors in. 
After the CLD Tiles are applied (they have an adhesive back), sheets of the other products are cut to fit the inner door frame area, with cut-outs for all the little knobs and pieces and whatnot.  Unfortunately, I don't have any pics of those materials as they are added to the interior of the trim section.  I will say that it's easiest to lay the trim section upside-down on a cushioned surface so as to not damage it, and fit them that way.  

Once those are fitted, the trim piece is then replaced on the door, and re-attached using the integrated clips and bolts that hold it on.

Here are two data compilations showing noise measurements taken before and after the completion of this project.
Readings were taken with the sound meter held in the same position mid-cab, along the same stretch of concrete freeway, under comparable weather conditions and time of day.  (Tap or click the image to expand for a clearer view.)
In this graph above, you can clearly see the that suite of "after" measurements is reflecting lower road noise levels as measured in the cab.  Laypeople need to realize that the decibel scale is not a linear scale - what looks like a small average reduction here is actually substantial.  I'll explain more about that in the chart that follows. 

There are visible differences in the two data suites - most notably, why is there so much greater spread among the "after" measurements?  Well, we tried to hold all variables constant, but we don't dictate what transpires on Houston's freeways.  Traffic was worse during the "after" measurements.  I was stomping the accelerator more frequently, trying to hold proper speed for sound measurements, I was lane-weaving, and I was having more vehicles blast past me.  That explains a lot of it.  

Despite those distributional differences, you can clearly see the effect of the sound deadening effort, which becomes even more apparent when we attempt to look at it in baseline terms rather than looking at the more complete suite of data above.
My husband used the Omni calculator for some of these calculations.  I'm omitting details for brevity. 
The human sensory apparatus is not very good at defining absolute sound intensities, light brightness levels, etc. in anything remotely resembling quantitative terms.  I can't tell you definitively what's twice as bright or half as loud using my ears or eyeballs.  I can tell you perceptually that this door and firewall sound deadening job has made a BIG improvement in driving quality of life.  I can say, "Our Interstate is much quieter now."  By these rough mathematics, the typical level of freeway speed noise was reduced almost by half.  Very roughly speaking.  Which was a big surprise to both my husband and me.  We expected to maybe realize a little in the way of gains.  We got a lot.  

It cost about $250 for the materials we used in this project, plus we have some left over from that purchase.  I'd say it's well worth it, and I recommend a similar approach for anyone who has a camper van in which this kind of improvement was not a part of the original upfit.  
Fat chance of a stereo helping that ^^ situation.  Maybe now that we've got this improvement done, I'll be able to listen to some of my music on the road without going slowly deaf from having to turn it up so loud to hear it over the road noise.  

Saturday, September 30, 2017


All I can say about this post is, crap.
Do yourself a big favor:  Don't Google the phrase "toilet meme". 
This gets Un-Fun Blog Post of the Year Award, so I'll keep it short and not-so-sweet.

On our way back from Canada a few weeks ago, we started noticing abnormal odors from the wet bath.  By the time we got to Houston and were moving the van into storage, not only were there odors, but small trails of water were snaking their way across the center hallway from beneath the cabinetry adjacent to the wet bath.  Another repair was clearly indicated, but initially it wasn't clear whether the toilet or the plumbing and black tank system were involved in the breach.  Here were the steps involved in resolving this.

(1) The first thing I did was flush the black tank better than it has ever been done before.  I musta ran 50 gallons through that thing.

(2) My husband de-installed the existing toilet, which was a Thetford Aqua Magic V.
That's the hole cut in the wet bath enclosure, and the black tank beneath it. 
The plywood edge should not have been left raw like what is shown above, so I sealed it with oil-based enamel paint, which just happened to have been red. 
(3) I then inspected the black tank thoroughly using both my iPhone, which I shoved in there to take pictures (it was clean), and we also bought an endoscope, which I ran to the dump line from above and from below.  The black tank in this model of Airstream Interstate is very tabular.  It is only a few inches high, but it must be four feet long, extending under the wet bath, under the refrigerator / microwave cabinetry, and all the way back to our lithium battery bank (in fact, the black tank holds up a couple of our peripheral electrical components).

I could see no evidence of damage or breach, so we moved on to the next step, which was to fill the black tank very full of clean water, and cap it so that we could take a test drive and slosh it around really well, to see if any water emerged.
This common 3-inch drain plug is available at any big box hardware store.
(4) No water emerged from the slosh test.  We therefore concluded that the Thetford was the only source of our problems.

Ah, the Thetford. What an extraordinary piece of crap. Never have I seen a worse design in the entire universe of RV products, and I'm not the only person who feels that way.  Almost simultaneously with our troubles, Roadtrek Life published this post describing his troubles with the Thetford, of which he reportedly had purchased three inside of six years (!).  Wisely giving up on the model entirely, he replaced it with a Dometic 300, but not before explicitly showing what is so horribly wrong with the Thetford.
The internal body of the Thetford, the space between the bowl and the outer wall, is fully open to the black tank.  Black water sloshes up into there due to road bumpiness and when you slam on your brakes.  And it deposits waste inside the body of the toilet, if you can believe that.
 At first I didn't totally register what Roadtrek Life was saying.  Frankly it was too horrible and too stupid a design to even contemplate.  Just as I had trouble comprehending it, so too did the readers of Air Forums (this thread) when I politely attempted to describe what was happening.

I finally got it when I visually examined our own Thetford.  And then I performed this test.
I turned the de-installed Thetford upside down on a step stool, filled that interstitial space full of water, and left it overnight.  And this happened.
Not only does Thetford's design allow black water to slosh up into the body of the toilet, the body of the toilet is not waterproof.  The hose water steadily leaked out onto the ground, as you can see here.  So apparently, it's only a matter of time before you'll have odors and then black water leakage with that model of toilet.

This image above does not show a toilet, but it represents an analogous problem. Except the space suit helmet is air and water tight, unlike the Thetford. 
(5) The question then became, what do we replace this disgraceful Thetford with?  I called my marine wholesaler contact and asked for advice (I'd bought our Vitrifrigo fridge from him).  For a simple gravity toilet, he recommended the SeaLand 500 series, hands down (SeaLand was acquired by Dometic so the terms tend to be used interchangeably).  He noted, however, that many smaller RV and boat baths have insufficient room for mounting a 500 series toilet (PDF with specs and instructions here), and that did prove to be the case with our wet bath.  Therefore, we were stuck with the cheaper 300 series, specifically the 311 (Roadtrek Life had even less space than we did, and reportedly installed the 300).
This is a view of the underside of the Dometic 310/311 (I can't get full clarity on those model numbers), and my finger is pointing toward a plastic shield that the Thetford lacks.  That's what stops black water from penetrating the full body of this toilet model.  Compare to Roadtrek Life's annotated Thetford pic above. 
The Dometic 311 fit our available space, but it is not the quality that I'd hoped for.  Multiple reviews report that the 310 and 311 tend to develop leaks at the seam between the porcelain bowl and the plastic base (e.g., see reviews at Amazon).  But given our fit constraints, we couldn't find a better, higher-quality choice.
^^ This is what I was feeling like when I was reading low-ended gravity toilet reviews.  No model was reported to be free of problems. 
Furthermore, the Dometic 311 is not the dimensions I'd prefer in a perfect world.
You can see how close the rear hinge is to the back wall.  There's no way we could get a larger and more expensive toilet model in this space.  But that's not the only size issue - it's not as short as I would prefer, either. 
It's slightly higher than the Thetford.  At 5'6", I'm taller than the average American woman, but even I can't place my feet on the floor when I'm sitting on this thing.  That's not a comfort issue so much as it is a durability issue.  I know that this is not necessarily recommended, but my husband and I use the toilet when our rig in underway at highway speeds (we drive up to 760 miles a day - using the head on the fly is a necessary evil under those conditions).  Now that we know how cheaply made all of the available fit-able gravity toilets are, what I'd prefer to do is not put my full weight on the seat while the rig is in motion, lest we hit a pavement crater and start slamming around.  My weight on the toilet at that point would almost certainly add to wear and tear stresses and shorten its already-suspect lifespan.  But if I can't reach the floor, then I can't easily take most of my weight off the seat.

Sigh.  What a pain.  If we go to all this trouble and spend the money, it sure would be nice to have a problem solved long-term, and a reliable outcome at the end of a project such as this.  I don't think that this model of toilet represents an auspicious completion, but at least it's an improvement over that God-awful Thetford, for the time being.

I like to keep my neighbors guessing.  "Um, did she just put a giant stuffed bear on the van toilet...?"   Yyyyyeah.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


As regular readers and some online forum participants know, I just completed a trip that spanned six thousand miles and lasted just a few days shy of a month (my conventionally-employed husband joined me for two weeks of it).
There's a sociopolitical story behind this cartoon, but for brevity I won't describe it fully.  Suffice it to say that it has to do with a tongue-in-cheek political statement that allegedly turned into a real consideration for some people, culminating with the Washington Post asking, "Can a remote island in Canada become a safe harbor for those who want to flee Donald Trump?"  Myself, I just wanted to temporarily flee the urbanization associated with 6.5 million people.
In terms of geography, this was similar to the trip we did last year, but strategically it could hardly have been more different.
It's an absurdly long drive, and it transits some of the most difficult corridors in the country.  I drove up solo, taking five days to do it (sanely restricting myself to less than 550 miles per day).  My husband flew up to join me mid-way through the adventure, and we drove back together, clocking as much as 760 miles per day with two drivers. 
Rather than traveling strictly for leisure this time, I was intent on combining work, family, social functions, and property development.
That's exactly what it is - a piece of dirt - which is why it conjures for me the Los Lobos classic "Good Morning Aztlan". Earlier this year, in preparation for this trip, I hired a contractor to improve the access to a lakefront parcel that I had owned for decades but completely neglected for all of that time.  This is a drone shot of our rig parked on the boondocking pad that resulted from that effort (see this earlier blog post titled "Stumbling toward a new summer cottage paradigm.") 
With those differences in mind, here is my lesson listicle, interspersed with pretty pictures for contrasting effect.
Like this one, for instance. 
1.  It is easy to live a conventional life.  It is easy to live a van-based boondocking life.  It is surprisingly difficult to combine the two. 

The principal challenges revolve around hygiene and issues of functional efficiency.  There's a reason why women never entered the paid workforce in large numbers prior to the availability of major appliances such as washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, as well as public infrastructure such as running water, centralized sewer or septic systems, etc.  Basic human maintenance tasks consumed a disproportionate amount of their time and energy before those conveniences, and the same is true of boondocking.  If we were simply camping in the woods vacation-style, we could afford to make perpetual slobs of ourselves, but we ended up participating in at least four family get-togethers (most of which did afford access to a shower, thankfully) plus three unrelated social gatherings inside of two weeks.  Trying to maintain a state of cleanliness and grooming on par with the rest of society even as we were chain-sawing our way through a dense spruce forest in the absence of running water was basically impossible, and even the partial effort ate up way too much of our time.  Sometimes the contrasts felt a little absurd.  For instance, we had a ten-year anniversary portrait taken about an hour after the both of us washed our hair and bodies outdoors using water boiled in our Kelly Kettle.
This Kelly Kettle.  It works when it's not raining out, but it takes time. 
It can be done, that struggle for basic cleanliness, but it gets tedious  quickly.
But of course the upside is that we got to see the likes of this as a routine matter of course.
2.  Don't underestimate the intensity of the culture shock associated with remote boondocking.

In short, ...
That's Houston's Katy Freeway on the left, and a higher-altitude drone shot of our boondocking property on the right.  
I've lived in both of these depicted places, plus, I believe I'm more adaptable than the average person.  Despite these things, the transition still proved to be surprisingly challenging for me, in part because I was unable to set up cellular access to do proper work despite having hired Technomadia to get me prepared for that aspect of the trip.  Every time I turned around, there was some other routine task of life that I could no longer do, and new reasons why I couldn't do it.  I was fighting to achieve what typically comes naturally and automatically, and it became a bit discouraging at times.
All directionally dressed up in the wilderness, with almost nothing to receive.  The evidence we collected suggests that it was primarily the fault of the local cell provider.  Technomadia probably specified all the right equipment, but the local alien gremlins simply didn't seem to be transmitting sufficiently well.  
3.  You might want to plan a separate vacation, because this type of trip won’t be a vacation.

Anyone who owns a second home knows that there's a lifetime's worth of work that could be done on both of their properties.  Ours is no different.  The land doesn't currently have any building structures on it, and the access road doesn't require any work obviously, but the young growth spruce forest has run amok after decades of non-management, and at the very least, we needed to establish lake access, which is one hell of a job just in itself.  We brought a new chain  saw with us and it worked fabulously.
As work goes, this was difficult to resist.  We knew that there was a million-dollar view lurking behind all those spruce trees, and we were determined to uncover it.  The boondocking pad is perched on a ledge above the lake, and so it's not just a little sliver of lake that is visible - it's a whole panorama.  We managed to open up this one keyhole view for now.  That's my husband down there for scale, standing in the gap after felling the final tree.  
But it was too easy to let work consume the entire day.  There were times when I just had to say no, I don't care how close we are to finishing - there can simply be no work done today.  Otherwise we're going to leave here exhausted with no quality experiences to show for it, just a memory of work, work, work, like we never even left our primary home.
Our dog agreed - we needed to spend time relaxing, sitting around the campfire, admiring the sunsets, and exploring the lake by kayak.  
Upon concluding the trip, I feel even more strongly about this.  We need to have one to two weeks a year where we simply don't lift a finger for any reason.  Next year, we might fly for a separate trip in which we just hike, relax, indulge ourselves, and hang out.  Then perhaps take the van knowing in advance that it's not going to be "the" vacation.  Life is all about expectation management.

4. There will always be unforeseeable problems, no matter how carefully you plan.

I spent weeks going over that damned van with a fine-toothed comb before I left, and still, this happened.

Oh, how very special - I stopped on a one-lane bridge to take a quaint photo, only to notice that I'd blown a headlight, which I then had to proceed to locate and install myself in the middle of nowhere.  Fortunately there's a retail phenomenon up in that area called Canadian Tire, and my husband was able to walk me through the procedure by cell phone. 
And then this next thing happened - the Fantastic ventilation fan shorted out and started every erratic behavior known to mankind, which woke me at night repeatedly, contributing to fatigue and a shorter-than-usual temper on my part.  I got around that problem by leaving the raise mechanism on the manual setting even as it tried valiantly to lower itself using its motor (my husband speculates that the rain sensor went bad) - I just let the damned motor grind away for hours at a time when I needed to use the fan (Airstream Interstates were not designed to ventilate passively - the fan is absolutely required for air flow).  Fortunately it didn't catch fire during all that motor-grinding.  The rain sensor and the motor are both getting de-installed as soon as I can find the time to do it.  More automation = more things to simply break.  These things are not conveniences - they are just liabilities waiting to happen.

And then this next thing happened.
Two tires spontaneously flattened 25 miles from civilization, due to faulty valve stems.  See this Air Forums thread for a discussion.  
Now there's a sight you never want to see while on "vacation" - your rig on jacks at a tire shop.  I had the two totally-failed valve stems replaced in the field on an emergency basis (Good Sam travel insurance saved my bacon), then drove directly to the nearest civilization (Sydney, NS) to have the other two replaced preemptively.  More quality time wasted.  
Well, metaphorically, yes I did.  But the other tire problems were caused by bad valve stems rather than forks. 
And then this next thing happened - we broke an air seal somewhere in the black tank system.  I can't yet imagine where, because we had already replaced and hardened the vent line.  We could still use the system just fine, and there was no evidence of liquid leakage, but some seriously abnormal odors developed, and I'll report back later on the troubleshooting.

In sooth, there will always be problems.  I was hoping that I had cut all incipient degenerative conditions off at the pass prior to leaving on the trip, but obviously I was mistaken.

5. There may even be full-blown catastrophes.

There wasn't a catastrophe at my remote location, but it was very disorienting to watch Houston undergoing major destruction from Hurricane Harvey's flooding.  I had left the city under a benign blue-bowl sky, and a few days later, its very future - the future of my home city - was suddenly placed in doubt.
The National Weather Service needed to almost double the range of the color scale to reflect the amount of rainfall received during the wettest hurricane in recorded history. 
That map above is not fully accurate.  Our neighborhood received at least 48 inches of rain (according to the local Wunderground stations) but shows as having received less.  For a while, we knew that odds were not better than 50/50 that we'd keep our house, despite being outside the 500-year flood zone (don't even get me started on that bunch of pseudo-scientific bunk that the federal government uses to define such things).  As it turned out, our house did not flood, thankfully.  But it was very hard watching this happen to Houston, hearing about friends and professional associates flooding one after another after another, their homes destroyed and their lives up-ended without warning.
An Instagram image I developed to illustrate the surrealism of watching the experience from afar.  I was using my kayak to explore a peaceful and beautiful lake even as some of my fellow Houstonians were using the same popular brand of kayak to fight for their lives in the flooding. 
6. Go big or go home (aka it all has to work right).

The central nervous system of every camper van is its electrical system.  In the time between last year's trip and this one, my husband designed and installed a lithium battery system for our van, to replace the old single-cell AGM Lifeline battery (very lengthy Air Forums thread here).  An enormous amount of work went into that effort and many thousands of dollars.  But if you are going to live off grid (not just vacation off grid), you will find that you have no choice but to do it right.  You won't be able to cope with the demands of life if all you've got to work with is the half-assed electrical system that your van was sold with, if it's an Airstream Interstate, at least.  Unless you own a cutting-edge new rig by one of the producers that is striving to make lithium standard, you're going to either need to DIY a system, or hire out an electrical upgrade.  Don't think you'll need to use a microwave oven or toaster or hair dryer or coffee percolator off-grid?  Trust me - you will.  Your system must be capable of handling those normal everyday types of needs.
Our power control center, all home-made.  
I could not have done this trip without this touchless, self-sustaining electrical system.  I simply could not have lived off-grid for almost a month without this system.  It would not have been physically possible with a lesser design.  There were enough other simultaneous challenges (see items 1, 2, 4, and 5 above, plus other challenges that I'm not listing for brevity) that I simply could not have dealt with a substandard electrical system on top of the rest.

7. Go small or go home (aka if you think you’ll need something, you’ll probably need it doubly).

If you flip back through the pages of this blog, you'll note that I expended an astonishing amount of effort on minor van tweaks and projects designed to increase readiness for this trip.  I don't regret a single dollar spent or a single item created.  I used every bit of it, and wanted for more, specifically the following, in rough order of importance and urgency:

  • We need rear air suspension for the van (more on that later). 
  • A USB charging outlet needs to be added at the rear curb side of the van. 
  • I'm thinking very seriously about an upgrade to an efficient tankless water heater, for those boondocking days when it's pouring rain and I can't fire up the Kelly Kettle.  The existing water heater is grossly inefficient and not compatible with a longer-duration boondocking paradigm.  
  • The OEM window screens need to be done over in no-see-um netting rather than mosquito screen.  Whoever designed those things had no clue what life is like in the south.  
  • I need to add a second closet shelf above the folding bike.
  • The curbside overhead cabinets need to be expanded just as the driver's side cabinets were
  • More interior gear-lashing points would be helpful.
  • Minor point, but the wine glasses would be best mounted under the spice rack.  Every single space-maximizing conversion counts in the grand scheme of things.  
  • I ordered a second Infusion Living silicone water bucket. I had a cheap folding camp bucket (the one that looks like this), but it kept collapsing spontaneously and spilling the contents.  Those silicone and stainless steel buckets are expensive (about $30 each), but absolutely worth it.

The blue one shown here at bottom. 

  • I also ordered a second GSI original Fair Share mug (shown in the bucket).  That thing has ten uses. 
  • I'm sure more will come to me. 

It was a lot of work, creating and assembling all those van accessories over the months leading to this trip, but I can relax knowing that the work is largely complete now, and all ready for the next trip.  I won't have to invent no-see-um awning enclosures or kayak carrying devices or any of the other items going forward.  It Is Done.
The ability to carry the inflatable kayak on the van roof was essential to the quality of this trip.  There was one morning in particular where the dog and I took the kayak across to the other side of the lake and discovered a mysterious old logging road that we hiked for over a mile.  
8. Plan for expansion outside your boondocking rig in all but the most arid climates

If you read Instagram and keep up with the #vanlife posts, then you know that it never, ever rains on Instagram.  There is never any foul weather or adverse conditions - bad weather simply wouldn't dare to occur.  Well, that's Instagram, and this is what real #vanlife actually looks like:

Direct URL:

We need to put in some kind of a small shed or perhaps a home-made spruce lean-to, to keep firewood dry at a minimum.  This hail storm was just one example of the weather we faced.  I used tarps to cover firewood and other items, but it wasn't enough.
Do you see that system that had spooled up off the eastern seaboard?  That's some of the smeared remains of Harvey mixed in with other tropical crap.  My husband actually got hit by Harvey TWICE - first in Houston and then a few days later when they both made it to Cape Breton. Water, water, everywhere, in both places.  We had inches of rain in deep rural Cape Breton.  That doesn't make for optimal boondocking.  
9. You’ll probably only do a quarter of the things on your wish list during a trip like this. 

See item #3 above, and I reiterate -  this type of trip is not a vacation.  I was actually naive enough to bring a few books to read - with forest management, family activities, and local social involvements, employment-related work when conditions permitted it, plus the recurrent struggle to achieve a basic bath and hair-washing, who the hell would have time for books?!  I must have been daft to even think such a thing.  I never cracked a single page during the entire month.
We did have several really nice camp fires, though. 
And that's not all.  I brought my folding bike and never got to ride it locally, in part because of all the rain.  There were beaches that we never got a chance to discover and hike.  Trails we never hiked.  Restaurants we never got to visit.  The list is endless.
I brought my hammock and got to relax in it on the lake shore for perhaps 45 minutes total across just two sessions (again, largely because of the rain).  Here you see our dog sitting bolt upright in an obvious state of stress and tension.  That's because my husband went out in the kayak without either one of us being with him, and she was in a major state of worry waiting for him to return.  
10.  No matter how challenging off-grid life gets, remember that many on-gridders have it much worse than you do.

On our long, long, long drive back to Houston, we diverted for a day into Shenandoah National Park, which is en route on IH-81 and which is rare among national parks in the extent of dog access that it allows (I'll have a separate blog post on that).  Our original intention was to spend the night in the park's Loft Mountain campground until we discovered that ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN OF ITS CAMP SITES ALLOW THE USE OF GENERATORS!!   Here is the PDF map - count the damned things yourself if you don't believe me!  Intending no disrespect, but SWEET JESUS, WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?!
They've got all this publicity surrounding air quality in the park, but what do they do?  They allow extensive generator use - generators are one of the most polluting combustion / mechanical devices for their size and output.  Generators may not be the cause of the large-scale air quality impacts that plague the area, but the park management sure is violating the spirit of the principle in permitting the very activities whose adverse effects they are simultaneously denouncing. 
No.  No matter what else I do, I am NOT living in that kind of a hot mess, not even for one night.  We instead found a stealth camping opportunity and said to hell with any notion of a campground like that.  To hell with it and its generator racket.  What a barbaric way to live.  Our stealth site was exquisite.  Crickets chirping all night and zero disruptive human activity or sounds.

In sum, it was a successful trip.  It was a good trip.  It challenged me, it challenged us, and it exposed us to new experiences, particularly on social and technical levels, none of which I'm describing here.  It was not a perfect trip.  It was not an easy trip.  It was not a trip I'll strive to repeat exactly the same way.  But it was an indispensable learning experience on multiple levels.

Buenas noches.
Probably my favorite pic of the boondocking pad, taken before the key-hole was punched through the spruce forest for a view of the lake. 

Direct URL:

Thursday, August 17, 2017


In Part 1 of this post, I talked about a strategy to freeze food directly into solid masses of ice in order to extend the range of our Yeti cooler.
Here's the second of two, which I had referred to in Part 1 as the "straight" block.
But there's also additional insulation potential to be realized outside the cooler.  I don't have a vision for that yet, but here are a few initial pics of my stop-gap ideas.

By the way, I never proceed with elaborate plans unless there is a firm vision for the project in my head.  If the vision doesn't materialize, that's my brain trying to tell me something - that key elements have not occurred to my conscious mind just yet, and so it's better to wait for the idea to fully gestate.  I've learned through trial and error not to try to force a project when I get into this condition.
No, V are not there yet.  But V are currently making final preparations for the Long Journey.  
Having recently experimented with the insulating fabric product known as Insul-Bright (see my blog post on making a slider door window covering here), I'm wondering what could be done to fashion a jacket for the Yeti, to increase its effective R value.  In the pic above, I simply doubled over the fabric, and wrapped it around the cooler, holding it in place with pins and loops of clothing elastic.  This will do for testing purposes.

There's also the potential offered by closed-cell foam.
I had been placing these two pieces on top, but I cut one of them to form an interior pad, because the bottom of the cooler was not getting any additional insulation due to the way it sits on the hitch carrier. 
My existing tarp sleeve still fits over the Yeti with the extra insulation in place.  It looks a bit more bulky, but it does fine. 
So this is an idea for further development and refinement in the future. In the meantime, for this upcoming trip, I'm just going to try it as-is.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Those of you who follow this blog know that my husband and I moved heaven and earth to create a custom hitch carrier for our Yeti cooler (blog posts Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) so that we could carry frozen food on our extended family vacations.  In 2014, I fell in love with this idea, because it allowed me to make most of the food at home, freeze it, transport it 3,000 miles, and be thusly freed from the task of being chief cook and bottle-washer for a house full of people.  By this strategy, I could have more of a vacation myself, instead of spending a lot of my time slaving over a hot cottage stove, making meals from scratch.

However, we noticed significant performance differences between our inaugural 2014 trip with the Yeti, and the repeat performance in 2016, for two reasons.
Number one, in 2014, we took the Yeti 6,000 miles in our floggin' minivan, before we purchased our Airstream Interstate.  The Yeti was kept within the air conditioned space of the vehicle, and thus was at least 20 degrees below the worst heat of the day for the entire trip.  
Number two, our 2014 trip was characterized by much cooler weather overall compared to 2016, so there was an antagonistic impact on performance.
Not only did we shift the Yeti to the outside of the vehicle where temperatures were significantly hotter, the weather itself was hotter overall - up to 100 degrees.  Even with a closed-cell foam augmentation on the lid and this reflective tarp cover, the cooler still heated up significantly more than it had in 2014.  
It still kept the food from spoiling, but it was a pain in the ass to have to keep attending to the diminishing ice load throughout that trip.  Furthermore, once we crossed the Canadian border, ice was extremely expensive, if it could be located at all.  A replenishment that might cost us $3 in the U.S. could be $15 in New Brunswick.  

For these reasons, I decided to concoct a different scheme for our 2017 trip.  The best inventions relate back to some sort of real life precedent, and this was no exception.  We are in high summer in Houston right now, and there is no shortage of howling out of my husband because I like to keep the internal house temperature at 77 F, which is too hot for him.  And why is that temperature comfortable for me, but a burden for him?  Because my surface area to volume ratio is much larger than his.  

And so it was with the ice.  I was having excessive melt problems because cube ice has too much surface area for optimal performance during heat wave conditions.  

So how to reduce that surface area?  Rather than simply adding super-cooled ice cubes to a super-cooled load of food, for this upcoming trip, I decided to try freezing the food in solid blocks of ice.  This required that I develop both strategy and apparatus, so here's the story of how that went.
Here is our culprit, the inside of the Yeti cooler, looking down from above with toes for scale. 
Based on the configuration of our Yeti 50, I decided that the most practical, and not to mention easiest, approach would be to create two solid blocks of food-encapsulating ice, side by side.  The cooler is bilaterally symmetrical, so I could create one mold, freeze a batch of food in it, take it out, and simply freeze the second batch, flipping it 180 degrees to fit the other side.  Two pieces would be easier to handle than one massive, unwieldy block.  Plus, I'd be able to thaw one at a time, reserving half the food for later consumption.  

I started with a paper tracing of the internal shape, because the cooler sides are flared rather than being at right angles to the base, as you can see.  From that, I proceeded to craft the shape out of cardboard.
I used remnants of the cardboard shipping crate that our new Vitrifrigo refrigerator came in, so it was double-thickness cardboard - much stronger than average. 
I taped the crap out of it, for a reason that will become obvious in a second.
Around and around and around we go. 
We kinda figured that the final mold would need to be made out of thin plywood or perhaps even sheet metal, but I wanted to run tests on this cardboard prototype, so...
There it is lined with a kitchen trash bag and filled with water in our garage utility sink, which is embarrassingly filthy, obviously. 
And there's the kitchen bag tied off with the water in it, so that I can carry the thing without sloshing (which would wet the cardboard, which would then disintegrate rather catastrophically, LOL!).  After I tied the bag, I put clear tape straps across the top to keep it from bowing. 
The damned thing was heavy.
About 30 pounds.  The main risk with the cardboard prototype is that the bottom would fall out if it were not well-supported. 
I left it in the utility sink overnight to confirm that it would not bow excessively, because if it did, then the frozen block would not pack into the cooler.  

Once it passed that test, it went into our upright freezer for the next stage of this proof-of-concept.  
And of course, in this freezer, you can see a lot of the home-made meals that I intend to take with us.  We have over 150 different Pyrex storage containers because much of our diet is freezer-based (a natural off-shoot from home gardening, where the entire harvest has to be cooked and put up at once).  I would be liberating the frozen contents from the Pyrex and transferring each one to freezer-grade plastic wrap, which saves a lot of space and weight.  But you can see that, with two of these frozen blocks, I could transport a lot of that food. 
OK, now here's where it starts to get funny.
Sooo... it appears to be at least partially frozen the next morning...
...but all was not well in paradise.
Oh, sh!t - it's leaking on the floor!  LOL
Aaaaand the foreseeable demise:
Note to self:  Don't try to freeze 30-lb monolithic blocks of ice all at one time.  
Aaaand it just keeps getting better.  It started to leak before I got it out of the cardboard, thus blowing out the cardboard. 
This little experiment taught us what should have been obvious from the outset:

  1. We need to pre-chill the surrounding water before placing the works in the freezer.
  2. We need to freeze in lifts, rather than all at once.
  3. We need a mold that won't dissolve.
  4. We need some means of wrangling the solid blocks of ice once they are formed.  
  5. It also occurred to us that we had to minimize floating of the individual food packages that are submerged in the water before it turns into a block of ice. 

On that third point, my husband constructed this out of thin plywood:
Well that looks much better.
Regarding that fourth point, I decided to embed some webbing sections that I had inherited via a free grab bag of strapping scraps from the vendor Strapworks of Eugene Oregon.
Intending no disrespect, I decided to name my two blocks of ice the gay block and the straight block.  Well, don't blame me - Strapworks had sent me this nice scrap of rainbow webbing, plus some blue and some pink.  What's a person to do??  I also cataloged which foods were going in the gay and straight blocks respectively so that I'd have that record two weeks down the road when it was time to take the food back out again.  
I put the rainbow strap at the very bottom as a lifting aid (it would be frozen into the ice once the block formed), and I also began working with this device for the first time:
A low-ended Foodsaver FM-2000 system plus two 50-foot rolls of bags (large and small) for less than a hundred bucks all in.  Sometimes it's really wonderful that Amazon Prime delivers on Sundays.  
As you can deduce from the photo above and the previous shot of the freezer, we freeze in Pyrex because of the convenience, but there's no room for all that glass in the Interstate, whether it be the Yeti cooler or the internal refrigerator.  So I have to remove the food from the Pyrex and transfer it to plastic, either freezer bags (as in the past), or now this.  All it takes to pop those frozen masses out is to melt a micron-thick layer by immersing the Pyrex in some warm water.  It then frees from the glass, and this can happen next:
Vacuum power, baby!
I hastily put my first lift (layer) of food in the form's gay block, dumped in a slurry of icewater, and slammed shut the freezer door.  I did this so quickly with the intention of minimizing melt that I never got a "before" pic.  But here are the "after" pics, the money shots, after the second layer was added and frozen a day later.
Looks solid enough.  Now let's take it out.
Next note to self:  Don't remove each block from its trash bag unless absolutely necessary for fit purposes.  It's just too messy.  
Now for the fit test.
And you can see that the next block, the straight block, will fit nicely beside this gay block.  A layer of cube ice on top, and we'll be ready for the road.  
Now that I've gone to all this monolithic trouble, will this strategy actually work?  Will those 30-lb blocks extend my boondocking range?  For the answer to that, you'll need to check back.