Home » Boondocking In My Family’s Old Camper Is Like Living In A Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox

Boondocking In My Family’s Old Camper Is Like Living In A Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox

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This week, I’ve set my tongue and stabilizers down in one of the overflow fields of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2023. I’ve been having a blast taking in more aviation than my heart and brain can even process. Less glamorous is my camping situation. Since my parents own two campers, I thought I’d take the smaller one of the two and enjoy creating a portable Autopian AirVenture outpost out of it. On one hand, this was a genius idea that allowed my wife and I to have some basic comforts. On the other hand, this camper is so broken that its equipment seems to work like the Schrödinger’s cat paradox. I have no idea if the tanks are full, if the battery is dead, or why the propane tanks started working four days in.

I know a lot of you are waiting for aviation stories. Unfortunately, my internet situation is about just as unreliable as my camper situation. I could upload videos to YouTube right from the flightline if I wanted to. The event’s Camp Scholler also has pretty decent Wi-Fi. Though, as I noted before, this year is record levels of chaos. I’m not actually in Camp Scholler, but what appears to be a farm next to Camp Scholler. There is no internet out here and no cellular service, either. So, most of my bits are coming from the orange Toyota Tundra TRD Pro parked outside and even it is hit and miss. I uploaded photos for this story from the flightline!

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What you’re about to read is somewhat a warning about used campers. Back when we bought this camper in 2016 I would have said it was better than our new 2022 Mallard. That’s how bad RV quality has gotten. But, seven years of neglect from my parents has left this unit worse for wear. What I’m saying is make sure you test everything out in a used unit. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

At the same time, learn from my mistakes when trying to take your own camper off-grid or boondocking!

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Arrival

Sheryl and I arrived at Camp Scholler on the evening of Monday. It was just the very first day of AirVenture, yet, the camp was completely sold out. All of the new arrivals-and there were many-had to divert to fields near the event that the Experimental Aircraft Association had secured. These fields sit next to, or perhaps on, private property next to the event. The unmapped “overflow camping” fields are not serviced by the event’s shuttle buses, the Red One markets, or Wi-Fi coverage.

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Sheryl and I found this to be fascinating. It was incredible just how many people are showing up to AirVenture this year. None of the EAA people I talked to thus far have an answer as to why. I won’t try to guess either, but I will say that I’m happy to see so many people interested in aviation.

Sleeping in a farmer’s field in an unofficial campground does bring some interesting challenges. In Camp Scholler proper, EAA tries to space out the slots so that you could run a campsite that won’t leave your generator’s exhaust blowing into someone’s tent. There are areas where tents aren’t allowed so that generators can run 24 hours a day. There are electric and water sites, ADA-accessible sites, non-generator sites, and general camping sites as well. Excluding the non-generator sites and the 24-hour generator sites, you can run a generator between 6:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. Last year, this worked out pretty ok for us. Sheryl and I slept in a tent, but because the sites were spaced out pretty well and because of the quiet hour, we had a pretty good time.

This time, we’ve learned that overflow camping is a total free-for-all. People parked right next to each other with barely enough separation to open an awning, let alone space to run a generator. At the same time, there were tents next to large RVs running generators. Add in the hotter-than-usual July heat and you sort of have to befriend your neighbor for sure.

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We filled up the camper’s water tank and then set down behind a barn. Someone with a tent trailer plopped down barely ten feet from us, which was a problem since we planned to run a generator. I’m not a monster, so I talked it out with the tent camper guys. We’d run the generator during peak hours of the day, shut it down at sunset, then run the battery through the night. That way, the camper doesn’t turn into a sweatbox most of the time. The tent camper guys also had some residential power too since they were stuck on dwindling battery supplies.

This Camper Is More Broken Than I Thought

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The camper chosen for this trip is my family’s 2007 Thor Adirondack 31BH. This is the trailer that had catastrophic water damage that was cleverly fixed by an RV repair specialist and a dealership. The last time I camped in it was in 2019.

I figured Sheryl and I didn’t need to drag the bigger Mallard just for us two and our birds. Granted, the Adirondack weighs around 6,292 pounds empty, has a 31-foot box, and is 35 feet after you count the tongue and bumper. It’s not small by nearly anyone’s definition.

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The trailer has been used just once since its repair and that was by my brother on a Memorial Day trip with his kids and their friends. It was just sitting around, so I thought it was going to be the perfect camper for this trip. I was excited because since we’ve owned it since 2016, we’ve never taken it off-grid or boondocking. Now, I was set to use it for nearly a whole week off-grid!

The problems started basically immediately. When I arrived at the camper’s storage location, I found the battery to have bitten the dust.

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A little poking around revealed that my brother parked the trailer after Memorial Day with the battery disconnect in the on position, with power draw coming from two lights and the water pump that were both left on. So, the battery was super dead.

I probably should have purchased another battery, but I just crossed my fingers, flipped the disconnect into the off position, hooked the trailer up to the Tundra, and hit the road. Some of you will probably note the trailer’s pitch, even with a weight distribution hitch. That’s because the hitch was set up for a different tow vehicle.

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When we got to Camp Scholler, more things started coming up broken. Next, the battery disconnect became unresponsive in the off position. The fix for this was pretty easy-reseating wires-but for a brief moment, I had a waking nightmare of a camper that didn’t have power at all at night. After fixing that, I fooled myself into thinking it would be smooth sailing.

That night, I discovered the refrigerator wasn’t working. When you’re boondocking in this trailer, the refrigerator feeds off of propane. Now, I checked the pair of tanks with a gauge and they were about half-full, but the refrigerator claimed it wasn’t getting any propane.

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The furnace wasn’t firing, either. I tried basic troubleshooting including checking the lines and reseating the hookups, but nothing worked. However, as of Wednesday night, the refrigerator has apparently detected propane and is now working just fine. It died again last night just to come back this morning. Why did it take three nights for the propane to show up to the party? Why does it both work and not work? I will direct you to a shrug emoji.

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Perhaps the most annoying problems have to do with the camper’s monitoring system.

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When you pop open the cabinet door under the kitchen sink, you are presented with a system that tells you the charge of your battery, holding tank levels, and switches for equipment functions. Since my family has never taken this trailer boondocking or even ever intentionally filled up the water tank, we’ve never really used this monitor before.

The 2007 Thor Adirondack 31BH sports a 46-gallon fresh water tank, a 36-gallon gray water tank, and 34 gallons for waste. Sheryl and I figured that if we limited our water usage to about 7 gallons a day, we’d make it through the week without having to refill. Camp Scholler does have a pumping and refill truck that comes to your campsite, but we wanted the challenge. Problem is, we have no idea how our progress is coming along.

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When you press the buttons on the tank monitor, you’re supposed to get an estimate of the tank levels. Unfortunately, the levels are just way off. For example, when we arrived at our campsite, the monitor said that the water tank was 2/3 full when I filled it to the point where it shot out of the fill spout. Ok, fine, whatever. More alarming were the readings for the gray tank and the black tank, both of which were reporting 2/3 full as well.

Wait, hold on, does this mean the tanks were just sitting around, cooking in the summer heat since Memorial Day? I shuddered at that thought, then I remembered that such was impossible since the trailer was connected to a sewer on that trip and the tanks were open. At various times, the tank monitors do briefly show correct levels, but it’s very rare. I haven’t gotten any of the monitors to show the correct levels at all for at least two days.

So, Sheryl and I are sort of just flying by the seat of our pants and hoping we don’t run out of water too soon or end up with a shower that backs up.

Speaking of that monitoring system, there’s another thing going on with it that I do not quite understand. The battery only reports as full when the trailer is hooked up to the generator or to the Tundra. As soon as you disconnect, the battery shows as 2/3 full, and within ten minutes it shows as empty. I’m expecting the battery to be damaged from being dead, but there has to be more life in it than that, right?

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Since we cannot run the generator at night, I backed the Tundra up to the tongue and connected the trailer’s plug. That way, the whisper-quiet truck could fill the battery without waking up our neighbors.

As a test, we ran the trailer’s battery without help from the truck. The battery was tired and it just barely survives a whole night. Our strategy switched to generator by day, battery by night, and a charge from the truck when running a generator would be uncool. Thus far, the battery quit only once!

All of this time, I kept thinking this is like the Schrödinger’s cat paradox. Either the battery is working or it’s dead, either our tanks are full or they aren’t, and the propane exists or it doesn’t. The only way to know for sure is to check things out for ourselves.

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Also, check out these stabilizer jacks. These have the simple job of stabilizing your camper so that when you walk around, it feels a little closer to a house than it does a vehicle with wheels, tires, and bouncy suspension. These aren’t meant to carry much weight, so they aren’t beefy. However, these jacks are remarkably weak. Any movement in the trailer at all causes them to bend, which in turn causes their screws to jam up. This has been the case since we bought the camper in 2016. On the flip side, the metal is so flimsy that I can kick them back into shape while wearing sandals.

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For those of you who haven’t owned an RV, these jacks are physical proof that while quality used to be better, it was still pretty bad. This trailer doesn’t have a rusty frame unlike our brand-new Mallard M33, but these jacks are just awful.

There’s Still A Lot To Love Here

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Now, it sounds like I’m just grumpy, and maybe I am from all of the heat. But there’s been a lot of great stuff to come out of this camping trip. When the generator is running, Sheryl and I have an air-conditioned personal retreat from the heat and the busy streets of AirVenture.

I bought a Champion 3,650-Watt generator for this trip and golly, it lives up to its name. We can get through a whole day of AirVenture without emptying its 4.7-gallon tank. Using the generator with this camper feels like being connected to shore power, only with the addition of a constant and somewhat harsh hum at the back of the trailer.

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Given a constant load, it runs pretty much at a constant speed. That sounds silly, but I’ve seen friends buy cheaper generators from Harbor Freight and similar. Those units sometimes surged, puffed, and grunted with loads that this Champion basically cruises through. Downside is the noise, and boy is the freaking thing loud. But hey, I’m not complaining given the $380 I paid. Our neighbor with the tent trailer just parks their car next to the generator and they say that directs enough sound away to make things comfortable enough.

At night, we end up losing the sweet air-conditioner and household outlets, but the battery more or less provides enough juice to make things livable. The trailer has 12V sockets that are powered by the battery and all of the lights are 12V, too. In addition to that, you get two high-speed roof fans, the refrigerator, the stove, heat, and the water pump. As I’ve written before, running water is absolutely crucial for Sheryl’s medical condition and even more so lately since she just had surgery to remove a cancerous gallbladder.

Add the master bedroom with a large bed, the trailer’s hard walls, and roomy slides, even without generator power we feel really comfortable. A severe thunderstorm even rolled through one morning and while tents got flooded out and blown over, we were high and dry. This trailer has spoiled me; I don’t want to see a tent for a while unless it’s a motorcycle trip.

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All of that aside, I’ve said that Camp Scholler is genuinely nearly as fun as AirVenture itself, and this year is no different. It seems like everyone wants to talk, everyone wants to have fun, and there’s always something cool to see out here. Things aren’t too shabby for tent dwellers, either, as there are showers, places to charge devices, markets, and even a laundromat. Rumor has it there’s a guy with a coffin for a beer cooler. He asks you to deposit the weirdest beer you can find into the coffin, then you take one of the weird beers out of the coffin for yourself. Since people from some 100 countries are represented at AirVenture each year, the coffin beer variety apparently gets far out.

What I’ve Learned

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While this isn’t my first time boondocking with a camper, it is my first time going off-grid in a camper that’s better fit for a manicured campground rather than the middle of nowhere. Previously, I’ve been in campers like a Taxa Mantis Overland and an Off-Grid Trailers Pando 2.0. Both of those campers were made to go where there aren’t any roads, let alone sewer hookups.

If we take the Adirondack to AirVenture next year, I have learned a few tricks to save my butt next time. A lot of people bring water jugs and what is known as a “honey wagon.” Sadly, it’s not as delicious as it sounds. A honey wagon is a wheeled tote that you empty your trailer’s tanks into, essentially creating a very large version of what our readers call a “shitcase.” You then take the tote and haul it to a dump station. It’s far easier than hitching up the whole trailer to do the same and cheaper than hiring a pump truck. The water jugs serve a similar purpose; fill those instead of hauling the camper to the fill station.

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If anything, I want to think of this AirVenture camping trip as a shakedown run for future upgrades. The bones are all there, but they could use some modernization. My family plans on keeping this thing until it cannot roll anymore. So, I’ll report what needs fixing to my parents then start dreaming about how to make this trailer better.

I would ditch that dying battery for a lithium unit and bring a 12V air-conditioner for those times we cannot use a generator. I’m not expecting a 12V A/C to cool down the whole camper, but maybe just enough to make the tiny master bedroom not so stuffy. Maybe I’d add some portable solar panels, too. My line of thinking here is do modifications that can be moved to another trailer in the future, like my U-Haul. I do have an EcoFlow power station laying around that can assist in this, too.

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I’m not entirely sure what to do about that clearly faulty tank and battery monitor. For now, I’ll treat it like a car with a bad fuel gauge and just play things conservatively.

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One thing’s for sure, Sheryl and I are having a great time and the birds are having a blast, too. If anything, they’re even happier on those warm nights than we are! The trailer may be broken and a 35-foot paradox, but honestly, even with the problems we’d still definitely take it over a hotel.

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Defenestrator
Defenestrator
10 months ago

The black and gray tank sensor reading high problem is almost always crud stuck to the sensors. I’ve had pretty good luck soaking with the Thetford tank sensor cleaner stuff and hot water. Ideally very hot, like running a hose to the drain spigot of a residential hot water heater directly and then pointing it down the sink or toilet. One round of just hot water (and maybe some Dawn in the black tank), a round of the sensor cleaner and hot water, and a final soak of just hot water.

If it’s reading low/empty, the wires to the sensors probably got damaged or corroded.

If you want a bit better reliability and much better precision, the SeeLevel sensors are pretty nice.

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
10 months ago

Alas… The number of the “ Rules of RVing” violated here boggles the mind.

But experience is the best teacher.

Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
10 months ago

Fascinating read. Kind of late to the party here so it’s possible that you’ve all gotten it all sorted out by now. Some of those electrical issues seem like they could be due to corrosion in terminals or loose/faulty connections, especially at grounding points. Many’s the time that I was able to resolve some electrical gremlins by simply cleaning & tightening terminals/connections, particularly at grounding points, with my air-cooled VW bus being a notable example going from being completely moribund to fully functional thanks to such work after it’d been sitting idle for several years, much to my astonishment and delight. Who’d have thought such simple measures would actually produce such gratifying results?? And just last month I was working on a relative’s ski boat that would not start & also had confounding electrical gremlins; after a visual inspection of the battery cable terminals showed them to be intact and I physically verified that the terminals were indeed tight on the battery’s posts I went through all the fuses, the relays, the switches, & wiring connections to no avail. Circling back to the battery I was double-checking the terminals when I tugged on the negative cable which immediately came out of its terminal. Even though the terminal was tight on the battery post it had not been crimped down on the cable so the cable was simply sitting deceptively loosely inside said terminal. After properly crimping the cable’s terminal & putting it back on the battery I was able to get the ski boat started & running without any more electrical gremlins.
Hopefully that’ll be at least one of the solutions to your RV woes, finding and rectifying such deceptively loose wire connections. Good luck! Good that you all (including the birds!) are still enjoying this trip.

Last edited 10 months ago by Collegiate Autodidact
Idiotking
Idiotking
10 months ago

On the generator: I recently broke down and bought a Craftsman 2200W generator/inverter unit, basically a cheaper version of the quiet Honda units that are 4X as expensive. A little sleuthing revealed it’s a rebadged Generac. It might not be powerful enough for your needs in the big camper, but for running a fridge and other basic elements during a power outage, it’s quiet, sips gas, and was very reliable. I’m looking forward to using it while camping.

Phuzz
Phuzz
10 months ago

That’s the small one?! It’s about twice the size of the caravan my folks had when I was a kid. Everything’s bigger in America I guess.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
10 months ago

Thanks for sharing mistakes so we won’t repeat them. I’ve only camped in trailers twice but both were rentals and fully operational. We’ve considered an RV but don’t have the space or money so we rent

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