Monday, March 31, 2014

Taking our U-haul Camper to South Dakota

Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) CT13 Camper Entering Custer State Park, SD
U-haul (uhaul) CT13 Camper with wildlife in Custer State Park, SDSo after a year with the U-haul camper, we decided to take our first long trip. This was not going to be a simple weekend trip. This was going to be a trip of memories: 10-days on the road, 3500 miles round trip. We had always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore, SD. It's on our bucket list. Now with the camper, that door to opportunity opened. So we packed up the camper, kids, dogs, and headed out the second weekend in Oct. We almost weren't sure it was going to happen. The government shutdown was in full swing as the monkeys in Washington got lost in arguing rather than listening to the people. The Black Hills had just had the worse blizzard ever in Oct in history there. People at the campground we were going to were stuck there without power for 4 days. So we were second guessing whether we should even try, but we stuck with it. I knew the Governor of South Dakota was trying to work out a deal to open Mt Rushmore. I knew that people were fed up with all the push from the executive branch to make it as painful as possible by shutting down the parks and the policing open air monuments that you'd never seen a park police person around ever. I felt like the tide was turning and I took chance.

We started out and drove up through Tennessee and Kentucky and into Illinois. We slept at a truckstop; it was nice to have our room with us. One of the things we had to do for this trip was to prepare for the fact that the U-haul camper couldn't be the storage bucket on the back end. Usually, we just pile our gear in the camper and unload when we get to our destination. However, we had to think differently this time because we had to be able to sleep in the camper on the way. And shuffling a ton of gear between the U-haul and car didn't sound fun to me. So we packed as much as we could in the Acadia. We made up the beds before we left the house. I had the top bunk made up but folded down. The goal was to pull into rest stop, truck stop, or Walmart and get everyone to sleep quick. I was going to drive as far as I could. Our children are great sleepers in the car so letting them fall asleep and then moving them to their bunks was a key part of our strategy.

I managed to cover almost 600 miles the first day before we stopped (just east of St. Louis). The downside to sleeping at a truck stop is that the truckers all leave really early in the morning. We got up, ate breakfast, and hit the road. Our first time to St. Louis was quick. We decided we'd stop on the way home if time permitted but we needed to get to South Dakota. Custer was on the opposite side of the state from where we were going to enter South Dakota. We drove through Missouri, Iowa and into South Dakota. I had planned to break up our trip with a couple nights in hotels. I had researched and found a nice one in Mitchell, SD that had good reviews and allowed dogs. So that was our next stop at the Kelly Inn. Late on a Saturday night we rolled into Mitchell (home of the Corn Palace) after another 720 miles. It was nice to have a real bed and a hot shower; the kids loved having cartoons in the morning while we got ready to go. Later that day we finally rolled into Custer State Park. It was amazingly beautiful and we immediately laid our eyes on the wildlife that we'd heard and read so much about. On our way to the campground we had to stop for wildlife several times including buffalo and mountain sheep.

U-haul (uhaul) camper at Blue Bell Campground in Custer State Park, SD
Campsite at Blue Bell Campground
in Custer State Park
We stayed at the Blue Bell Campground and really enjoyed our stay. We would definitely go back there. The lodge was really nice too; we ate dinner there one evening. It was cold the entire time we were there. We stayed for several days and the day after we got there, the pressure from the public finally broke through to the government. A deal was struck with the Governor and people of South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore opened! It was really neat to visit and the kids had a blast. The next day we went to the Crazy Horse Monument it was Native American Day and they let us in with a food donation to their food bank. They were also blasting a part of the mountain and serving buffalo stew. While we were there, it started to snow. We found this great little restaurant one evening in Hill City called the Alpine Inn. They only serve one thing: filet mignon!  (well and hot dogs or pasta for the kids) It was delicious and I highly recommend it if you are ever in that area. Be warned to get there early; the line forms before they open and is backed out the door and down the porch (so you know it's good).

Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD
Ingalls Homestead
After several days enjoying the Black Hills we decided to start home with a few detours. We took off across the state and made a short detour through the partly closed Badlands. We stopped for our second hotel night at the same place in Mitchell because we enjoyed our stay there on the way up. The next morning was cold and rainy. We took off for De Smet and the Ingalls Homestead museum. My wife is a huge fan of Little House on the Praire and had been reading some to our kids on the way up to SD. It was a lovely place and they happened to have a tour group there and they let us tag along on the covered wagon tours. It was so cold and windy and wet out there it wasn't hard to imagine the brutal life on the prairie back then and how tough those folks had to be to eek out a living there.

We left De Smet heading south and about 500 miles later pulled into a Walmart parking lot east of Kansas City, MO to sleep. During the drive from De Smet we heard on the radio that the government shutdown was finally over and that the Gateway Arch would be open. So we set off early the next morning for St. Louis, MO. We found some RV parking on the river and walked down to the Arch. It was an incredible view from the top. We could see the stadium getting ready for the final playoff game. The Cardinals were hoping for a chance at the World Series if they could win game 6. I loved being in a town where you could feel the electricity in the air of baseball fans. Reminded me a lot of Atlanta in the 90s. We had a wonderful time at the Arch and set off later that day to begin the trek home.

Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) CT13 Camper with Superman in Metropolis
Visiting Superman in Metropolis, IL.
We drove across the river and into Illinois and headed south for Kentucky. But we had one last detour to make: Metropolis, Illinois. I had promised Noah that he could see Superman. So late at night we rolled into Metropolis and woke up the kids for a short stop to see Superman. Then it was back on the road. Somewhere in Kentucky, we stopped to sleep at another truck stop. We awoke the next morning and drove the final haul home to Georgia. It was a trip full of memories and we had such a wonderful time. We also decided to tweak our packing some more the next time we take a long trip. I think that 10 days with 4 people and 2 dogs in the tiny camper is about our limit. I'm not sure we could handle more. Perhaps if we did it in warmer weather, we could squeeze a few more days in.

Monday, March 24, 2014

From Uhaul Swamp Cooler to Fantastic Fan

Camping in the south means heat and humidity. So I had to laugh when we brought the little fiberglass camper home and I discovered it had a swamp cooler installed. If there's one thing I don't need in Georgia, it's a swamp cooler. (I'm assuming that a large portion of the U-haul camper rental fleet was aimed at the western states.) So we used just the fan part of it but I didn't like the bulk on the roof. And the fan wasn't that great.

Due to a summer trip and lack of time, I opted to have a shop rip the old swamp cooler off and install a fantastic fan. They were able to use the existing 12v wiring. We're really happy with it and it adds some natural light in the camper and has much better airflow. 
old swamp cooler and fan in Uhaul CT13 camper new fantastic fan upgrade in Uhaul CT13 Camper
Out with the oldIn with the new
So why not go with a rooftop air conditioner? Well first there's the expense. I didn't feel like dropping that kind of money since we'd just had to get a newer car (GMC Acadia). Second, I've read, and can understand from looking at the camper design, that the weight of one of those units could be too much for the top without adding some reinforcement inside. So I took the easier route. The other options are a window unit on the rear sliding window with probably some fabricated mount that connects down to the bumper for some support or cutting out the front lower storage bin near the door and adding external venting and installing one there. Both of those require more work than I was willing to put into it at that time. We'll see in the future if I decide to do one of those. There are pro's and cons to both.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Camper Electrical Part 1

So electrical is a big part of any camper. Let me start by saying the Uhaul's come in two models: CT13 and VT16. Mine is a CT13 and so that's what I'll be talking about here. Though much of this is the same across many campers. It can also be confusing unless you understand that there are 3 electrical systems in these small campers:
  1. AC (120V on a 15 or 30 amp circuit). This is your normal household current and the receptacles in the camper look like a typical household plug. If you're not plugged into shore power then your items that rely on this won't work.
  2. DC (12V). This is the items in the camper powered by your battery and converter. Most of the internal lights, fans run off this. This is the same 12V power as your car. Unlike in your car where you have an engine turning an alternator to produce the electrical current, campers have a converter. It's a device that converts the AC to DC and charges the battery. 
  3. Trailer lights (brake, turn, running). While the AC and DC systems are connected by the converter, the trailer light wiring is totally isolated from the other systems. It's power comes from the tow vehicle via the 4-, 5-, or 7- pin adapter that you hook up when towing. It includes the brake lights, turn signals, and running lights. 
I started with the AC system. One reason is because I was replacing the dorm fridge in my unit. These units originally came with just an ice box. But mine, like many I've seen, had been ripped out in favor of a fridge. I happened to have a slightly larger, stainless model that I used to use at my office at my old job. I had it in storage since I changed jobs and decided to replace it cause it looked better than the old brown one the previous owner had installed. 

I also had been having an issue during our first two trips with the thermal circuit breaker popping. After carefully adding up the amps I was using when it popped, I was way under 15 amps. So this led me to the conclusion after a little research that the old thermal breaker was worn out. These breakers do tend to pop at lower and lower voltages as time goes on. So 30 yrs later, this breaker was shot. I managed to find a replacement online. So I ordered one of those to install.
utility hookukp box on driver side of Uhaul camper with water and electric

So first things first. Shore power comes via an electric cord that is stuffed inside the shell. It comes out the utility port on the driver side. You pull it out to plug in. When you're done, you can push the cord back into the wall of the camper. I may end up replacing the cord in the future if I decide to upgrade to a 30 amp system. If I do, I'll replace it with 10-3 type SJOOW electrical cable.
electrical diagram of Uhaul CT13 camper from manual
Inside electrical outlet box in Uhaul CT13 camperThe power cord goes up to an electrical box where the single outlet and pop-out circuit breaker are on the side of the cabinet over the sink. There is another cable that goes out from this box to the converter (to convert the AC to DC to charge the battery and run the lights/fans while plugged into shore power). The previous owner of mine had run another cable from her down to the area below the sink with a female plug on the end to plug the dorm fridge into.

thermal pop-out button circuit breaker on Uhaul CT13 Camper
First thing before you begin working on AC is to make sure you're not plugged into shore power. Next I took off the outlet and separated it from the box. Then unplugged the circuit breaker and replaced it with the new one. I got a Sea Dog 15amp thermal push button breaker. I had to widen the hole a little bit as the diameter of the new one was a big larger than the old one.

extension cord with outlet box in cabinet below sink in Uhaul CT13 camper
I decided a few more outlets would be helpful. After cutting the fiberglass to widen the fridge area to fit my new larger fridge, it's a messy job and I'm afraid I may not be as skilled at patching holes in fiberglass. So I wanted to limit holes. I picked up an 8-ft, 4 outlet shop extension box from Lowes. I liked that it has it's own circuit breaker built-in and an on/off switch. I connected this to the extension from the top cabinet. I cut a hole in the sized of the cabinet under the sink (it's plastic and easier to deal with). I then put a couple screws in and hung the box on high on the back wall of the cabinet. We don't use that cabinet for much and nothing tall so it was a good spot. I plugged the fridge into that box and it leaves me with 3 outlets without having to install boxes and face plates.

As a side note, I cut a piece of an old rubber car floor mat and riveted it to the side of cabinet over the hole I had cut. I then slit the rubber so I could pass the plugs through. It was a quick way to cover the hole and hopefully provide a little insulation and better looking to me than an open hole.

I'm happy with the outcome. I may go back and upgrade to a 30 amp system at some point. The new pop-out circuit breaker fixed the problem I was having. I'll dive into the other electrical systems in the future as I tackle them.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Our First Year with the Camper

So I thought I'd take a break from the maintenance and upgrade posts to talk about our adventures. So we got to take our camper out within 2 months after we bought her for the first time. I fixed the floor and got a new spare and spare mount before we headed out. Also, we opted to purchase a few things like water filter wheel chocks, etc. That we didn't have since we'd never owned a camper before.

Our Uhaul Fiberglass Camper at Hard Labor Creek State Park, Georgia
For our first trip out, we decided to go somewhere close. You know just in case something happened and we needed to go back home. We ended up going to Hard Labor Creek State Park here in Georgia. It's about 30-45 mins away so not bad at all. Where we live, we are actually are about 20-45 mins from 4 different state parks. Well we got there, got set up and had a blast. The park was doing special events that weekend and we got to do a hayride tour with a park ranger and learn about the history of the park. The weather was perfect. We ended up in site #41 (technically a tent site but with hookups). It was way at the end of the last loop but I liked how quiet it was out there. It backs up to the creek and you're on a wedge of land between the beaver pond and the creek.We had some lovely neighbors with an old Airstream next to us and ended up touring each others campers (though touring their's took a bit more time than touring ours). The other nice thing about being way in the back is there's a small loop and the kids had fun riding their bikes around it.

Our U-haul camper at the fiberglass Eggscursion in Townsend TN.
Unfortunately, that trip was getting later into the fall so we didn't have another chance to go camping till the spring. Our next trip ended up being to fiberglass egg camper rally in Townsend, Tennessee (called the Eggsscursion). We again had great weather and enjoyed touring all the other fiberglass campers and meeting new friends. We took away a lot of great ideas and learned some neat tricks for camping with an camper.

I had tons of gear for tent camping from over the years. But I wasn't ready for camping with electricity. One of the tips we picked up was how useful an electric kettle can be. When traveling with kids this is a real winner, you can quickly boil water for hot cocoa, oatmeal or tea.

Brown Pelican at Hungtington Beach State Park, SC
We packed up the camper yet again and headed to Myrtle Beach, SC about a month later. My mom's family is from there and it's like a second home to me. I feel like a practically grew up there. I've seen it change so much over the years. It had been a while since we'd been over there and seen the family. So I was excited at the opportunity to catch up with everyone and eat some good seafood. I'm not big on crowds and since I know the area well, I opted to stay south where it's not so busy. I got us reservations to camp at Huntington Beach State Park, one of my favorite places on the coast over there. It's the location of the winter home of the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington (many locals refer to it as the castle). Huntington and her husband founded Brookgreen Gardens which is across the hwy from the park. A definite must see place if you're in the area. We ended up in site #45 and it was a close walk to the bathhouse which had been redone recently and was one of the nicer ones I've ever been in. This time we had a bit of a freak cold spell during the night and I found out the propane heater was a bit finicky to work with. (We have since packed a small ceramic heater that keeps the place really warm without glow or too much noise.)

Marker at F. D. Roosevelt State Park in Georgia
Our next adventure happened about a month later. My wife was doing the Callaway Gardens triathlon over Father's Day weekend. So we decided to take the camper down there and stayed at F.D.Roosevelt State Park. Again we had gorgeous weather and a great time. We ended up in loop 6, site #611. It was close to the bathhouse but required backing uphill at an angle to get into and a bit of work to level the trailer. It was my wife's first triathlon and she did great! We also met some great campground neighbors who were there for the triathlon also. While we were there, the rangers had a great program for the kids about reptiles. I love that the state parks in Georgia offer so many great programs and events. We will definitely go back to FDR in the future. Next time I hope to do some hiking.

After that work kept me pretty locked up for the rest of the summer so we ended out our first year with the camper with some good use and great success. Along the way we discovered what worked and didn't work. We continue to make adjustments to what we pack as I learn how to camp with electricity and how to pack for 4 in a tiny camper. More adventures await...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spare Me

So when we first got the camper I was happy it came with a spare tire. After looking at the tire in more detail, I realized it was an original Uhaul tire. Well I'm not one to trust a 20+ yr old tire that's been hanging off the back of a camper parked in the woods for who knows how long. So I figured I'd get a new one. In going to take the tire off. I discovered that someone had just drilled a couple holes in the bumper and put two bolts through it. And they were not even the same size. So that left me with wanting to put an actual tire mount on the back end.

spare tire mount on rear bumper
Well I decided to patch the holes in the bumper (Turned out there were two more further down; I guess they drilled too low to start with). So I patched the bumper with some bondo and smoothed it out. I grabbed some cans of high heat enamel spray paint (the kind you can use on grills) and went to work coating the bumper and then the whole frame because I didn't like the way it looked. I also ended up using it on all the rims to make them look a bit nicer. I then found a mount made for a trailer tongue but it would work. I got one similar to this one at Lowes. Notice that there are two similar models out there one that comes with 2 separate steel bars on the back side and one like this where the back is a solid piece. I preferred the solid piece; it just felt sturdier. Here's how I installed it on the rear bumper. (You'll noticed I turned the back plate around so that it fit better in the curve of the bumper.)

(Update: See my post on adding a second spare tire mount for the long trips on the tongue: The Second Spare.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rain, Rain Go Away

So the first thing I discovered with our new Uhaul was the leaks. Due to the way the windows are made and mounted, as the old parts wear out the tend to leak. Most Uhaul owners have to deal with this at some point. Try not to silicone if you can. It's a mess to get off later. That being said I have patched some areas with roofing sealant in small doses. I found out a couple of ways to deal with our leaks.

1) Limit the amount of water running over the window.

This is a no brainer. If the window's leaking then a percentage of the water running over it is coming in. So decreasing the amount of water running over it will decrease the amount coming in. This is not a final answer as during heavy down pours you're going to see a lot of that water still coming in. However as a first step to resolving my leaks, I decided on gutters. Now you can figure out how you want to do those, if you want to make your own or use window shields. I went with a vinyl product that's pretty simple to work with and uses heavy 3M bonding tape vs drilling holes in the side of the fiberglass.

 EZE Gutters

Uhaul Camper Passenger Side Window with EZE RV Gutter
Basically you can buy this by the foot and it comes in a long roll. Then measure out where you want and cut. I think I used a pruning shear to cut it and then finished the end with a box cutter. You want to make it curve down on the sides a bit. This is will help make sure the water channels correctly. From my experience this definitely helped.

I also had problems with the door leaking and used some extra I had inside the top of the door to make a channel. I'll have a separate post about that coming up.

2) Clean out the window traps.

On these windows there is felt in the tracks. (that you can replace if you want to take the window apart and drill out the rivets. There's a guide on FiberglassRV site to do this. Also a PDF of that thread exists here.) There is also some drain holes. Mud and yuck tends to build up in these tracks. and can block the drain holes. So before you go tearing your window apart to replace or grabbing a sealant, clean out the tracks. You'd be amazed at how much that can do. There was so much gunk and bugs in my rear window track that the water caught in the track would backup through the felt and bubble up the inside track.
Uhaul camper window track closeup
Here's how you should clean them. First pull up the seal. Go ahead and pull it all the way out. You'll want to clean it out/off. I thought about replacing it but haven't found replacement yet. Now get some tools and get in there and clean out that track where the seal sat. You may find dirt, grime, and all sorts of yuck. You may find a small flat head screw driver and an old toothbrush helpful here. Some silicone spray will help. Make sure the drain holes are clear too. Some folks have drilled them slightly larger to allow for the water to flow out faster.

3) Finally, you may want to replace the weatherstripping (it's gets old and cracked and dries out) that holds the windows in place. Most of the fiberglass campers have clamp ring style windows that I think seal better by clamping to the fiberglass. The Uhaul windows are different in that they sit inside a weather stripping seal that surrounds the hole in the fiberglass. I have not done this yet but I plan to and I will document what I do when I get around to it. My Uhaul came with one window busted out and a plexyglass piece in place. That's the worst leak I had to deal with was that window. I did get my hands on another Uhaul window (rare) and I'm planning to pull out the plexiglass and put in the new one. More to come on that when I get around to doing it....

For now I have no leaks. So I'm happy.

Monday, March 10, 2014

To begin...

We love camping. As a family with young kids (4 and 5), it's a lot of fun. I'm all for getting the kids out of the house away from the tv as much as I can. Unfortunately, packing up the tent and gear and getting on the road after work on a Friday do go somewhere was a lot of work. I still love tent camping but with the kids and the bigger tent it was just a big effort. I decided I wanted a small camper that could be left packed and ready go. Just add kids, dogs, clothes, and food then stir. :) I started looking at popups and small lightweights. couldn't really find what I wanted or anything that just bit me and said, "I'm the one!"

Then we stumbled on a craigslist add for this Uhaul fiberglass camper not far from where we lived. I started doing research and was blown away by the whole fiberglass camper community. I loved it. they were perfect. You didn't need a Suburban to pull one, and didn't have to worry about drying it out like a popup or tent. I was hooked and we drove up to see it. We pulled it home that day. 

Our friends and others at campgrounds are amazed that we all fit in this little thing. It's 13 feet from bumper to tongue. About 6 ft wide and 10 ft long inside. It's tight. I won't lie. And on cold and rainy days it can feel a bit cramped. But we can sleep us, the two kids, and 3 dogs (ok they're Yorkies and a Silky). The goal is to make everyone want to be outside. :)  We have a screen room we take to put our chairs and table under to provide some shade and protection from the rain. 

Here's her photo from the Craigslist ad :

Friday, March 7, 2014

Starting A Digital Record....

So I've decided to start a digital record of places we go and modifications, fixes, upgrades to the camper. We love our little Uhaul and I figure this may be informative to others as well as a record of the work I do on it so I can remember everything. We've owned CC (Cozy Camper) for over a year now and have had many wonderful adventures already. Plus I've put a lot of time into some fixes/mods. I'll start out by catching up with a few posts about some of the things I've done and places we've gone. So lets begin......