Monday, April 28, 2014

Bunk Bed (Camping with Kids)

Front Bunk Beds for Kids in U-haul (uhaul) Fiberglass Camper
So we have 4 people in our family and so it was important to get a camper that would sleep 4. The U-haul CT13 campers do sleep 4. The adult bed is in the back and then the front bench pops up into a bunk.The back cushion is on a hinge similar to a piano hinge and the back cushion swings up. Two poles fold down and each rests in metal indention on the bottom. This style is common across other fiberglass campers.

There are a couple of problems with the design though:
  1. There is nothing on the top bunk to keep a kid from rolling off during sleep.
  2. A really small kid (2-3) on the bottom bunk could potentially roll off between the poles. 
  3. The poles rely on gravity/weight to keep them in the holes. They are not fastened to it any way and can bounce out. Or it's possible for a child on the lower bunk to kick it out during sleep. This could potentially cause the bunk to come down. (Do not drive with the bunk setup; road bounce will make it come down!)
My first concern was to make it safe for our kids. At the time we bought the camper they were 4 and 2 years old. I use the front bench during travel to hold the screen room and our table and some other gear we pack to keep weight up front on the tongue. So whatever designs I came up with would have to be flexible and not impact the ability to break down the bunk to a bench.

Bunk Bed Rail for U-haul (uhaul) Fiberglass Camper
View of wingnuts on Bunk Bed Rail for U-haul (uhaul) Fiberglass CamperThe top bunk is backed by a piece of plywood. I picked up a couple of right angle shelf brackets and had an extra board laying around that turned out to be the right size. I used some wood screws to hold the brackets to the bottom of the bunk. I measured them so they could stay attached and be under the bench cushions when it's folded down. The distance measured is between the bottom cording of the top bunk cushion (when it's folded down as the back of the bench) and the top of the fiberglass bottom of the bench with cushions removed. I can put the cushions on the bench on top of the L brackets and you won't even know they're there. I then drilled holes in the wooden board and got a couple of nuts with locking washers and wing nuts to fasten the board. That way I can quickly unfasten it for travel. This provides the protection I needed for my 4 yr old not to roll off the top bunk in the middle of the night. It's been working very well for us. The reason I went with a board was because I didn't want a gap from pvc or other tubing that he'd get his legs caught in. The solidness of the board combined with the small curtain we put up that hangs from the ceiling also help provide the sense that it's his own room. I have a small Tupperware container that I keep in the cabinet over the stove that I put the nuts, washers and bolts in when I have it broken down.

Curtain for lower bunk in our Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) Camper
My wife's fun camping fabric.
Close up of Curtain for lower bunk in our Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) Camper
Close-up from back side
With the 2 year old going to be in the bottom bunk, we were concerned with her falling out between the poles. While discussing how the kids would probably go to bed earlier than us, my wife decided that a curtain would be a fantastic way to divide the camper into basically two rooms. But a large curtain hanging all the way down wouldn't work for several reasons. First it would be too heavy for suction cups and with the curve of the roof we couldn't make a curtain bar work. So we brainstormed and came up with the idea to take a fun cloth shower curtain my wife had found to make new window curtains for the front window and make a short curtain across the top and make a second one on the bottom. The top one is held by suction cups across the top. The lower one we designed to be a panel that slipped over the bars that support the top bunk. We sewed two sleeves that fit perfectly around the poles so you can slide it on. With the poles setup, it's tight and makes the bottom bunk a dark little cave. There's no way she's rolling out of there!

To resolve the issue of the poles possibly bouncing/sliding out of their hole, I looked at rubber bumpers. I have ordered some conical bumpers that measure 21mm x 12mm. My camper has wooden boards under the lower fiberglass to help transfer the weight of the upper bunk poles down through to the frame without cracking the fiberglass seat area. With a screw, washer and these rubber bumpers, I should be able to secure the poles pretty easily by having them slide over the bumpers. I'll post an update when this is done with pics. (EDIT: Post on bumpers.)

Front Bunk Beds for Kids in U-haul (uhaul) Fiberglass Camper
Kid's Bunk in our U-haul Camper
The kids love their "rooms". It's amazing with a little creativity how you can divide such a small space into more personal spaces. I close the rock guard on the front window every night to help the top bunk remain just as dark and cozy as the bottom one so my son can sleep good. We got a couple of camping themed twin bed sheet sets for them that we make up the bunk beds with. We also got two husband pillows similar to these that go at the head of their beds (left side of camper) providing some insulation and filling the small gaps. You can see the edges of them in the picture to the left. By adding some small led camp lanterns to light their rooms, they're happy and set. Now they can have their own personal space in our tiny camper to play with dolls, cars, and read books. I'm currently looking at some storage ideas to better organize their little "rooms."

(Update: See my post on replacement poles for the bunk bed if you need those.)

(EDIT: Post on the other bed; the one us adults use. )

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Entertaining Kids on a Rainy Camping Day (Camping with Kids)

A 13 foot fiberglass camper gets really small on rainy days. Especially for the 4 of us (plus dogs). So how do we handle it when the walls are closing in and the rain won't stop? Probably the same way you do at home when the kids are on break during cold and rainy seasons. Here's a list of things we typically pack for the kids:

  1. Books
  2. Coloring books/Crayons
  3. Matchbox Cars
  4. Compact doll set
  5. Games (travel card and board games, battleship anyone?)
  6. Leapfrog with games
  7. DVD player and Movies.
  8. Snacks (when our kids get bored they tend to get hungry, pack some fruit!)
  9. Screen room/awning (sometimes you need to get outside...a shelter provides you with some more "room")
Portable DVD playersA couple of things I'll call out here. We don't really like the kids to just sit around and watch DVDs all day when we're camping. However, they can be a useful tool on a rainy day. We have over-the-seat DVD players that we put in the car only on trips. These can run off 12v/DC or 110v/AC power. Since they are portable, you can move them to the camper. We typically set one up in the lower bunk and let the kids climb in together for movie time. For these reasons, I actually prefer the over-the-seat DVD players to the built-in ones in cars (it's cheaper, easier to replace if they break, since there are two, you can watch the same movie on both or each can watch their own with headsets, and lastly we don't have fights about not turning on the DVD player during normal everyday driving). Oh and the other benefit is Mom and Dad can use them too after the kids go to sleep.

The other thing I'll point out is the screen room. With a small camper like ours, space is a premium. We always carry a screen room and it can provide a nice addition for rainy days. Reading a book in my camp chair while listening to the rain is much preferable to sitting in the camper with everyone packed in like sardines.

Lastly, get out and away from the campground. Tourism can be your friend on a rainy day. Find something fun, entertaining, or educational that's inside to do. Also, even getting out for a meal can help. Depending on the age of your children, you may want to find somewhere with an indoor play-place like a McDonald's or Chick-fil-A. Just be flexible and you can have a lot of fun no matter if it's raining or not!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Adding Space to a Tiny Fiberglass Camper

Our screen room next to the fiberglass uhaul camper at Hard Labor Creek State Park in Georgia
Our screen room at Hard Labor Creek SP
One of the biggest complaints I hear about the small fiberglass campers is that they're too small. And they are pretty tiny. However, having come from tent camping I prefer the small, dry space to a tent. (Well at least when I have the whole family with me; I still love to tent camp if it's just me and a friend or when I go solo.) The question I get asked is, "How do you guys survive in that tiny camper?" Along with various remarks about claustrophobia, pulling out your hair, etc. I usually have to explain that I have two purposes for the camper:

  1. To provide a dry, warm place on cold or rainy days/nights.
  2. To provide a sleeping space.
My goals for our family is that we'll spend a lot of the time outside our camper. We do carry portable DVD players for the car for trips and can put one in the camper for a rainy day or something to help entertain the little ones. But I don't want them staying in the camper watching movies or playing video games the whole time. That kind of defeats the purpose of camping. Not to mention that if you don't get them outside running around to burn off that energy, that small space will become even smaller as the day goes on. There's no room for bouncing off the walls.

With that said we carry a screen room/awning. It provides an extra sheltered place that can keep some bugs out but mostly to provide shade and some dry outdoor space if it rains. You can put them up over the picnic table or put your camp chairs and gear under it. It provides some flexibility depending on the layout of where you're camping. 

There are two types of awnings: free standing and attached. Attached awnings are nice since they're attached to the side of the camper usually in a bag that you unzip and pull out the poles and stretch out the awning. The pros are that it's compact, you don't have to pack it inside the camper, can usually be setup by one person, and it provides shelter over the camper door/entrance for side door campers. The downsides are that you are forced to set it up right at the camper and you can't move it (maybe your camping spot is right next to a tree and you can't open the awning because the tree's too close?). Free standing awnings (aka tailgating tents) are more like screen rooms in that you can position them anywhere. Up against the camper, over the picnic table, etc. They may be cheaper but they typically take two people to setup. They have a variety of options as far as adding "sun shade walls" or screened sides to them where/when needed. They can be heavier and you do have to pack them inside the camper.

There are many different types of screen rooms/free standing awnings on the market. I suggest reading reviews on Amazon before you buy. There are a few of things you'll want to consider when planning your purchase:
  1. Do you want to put the awning over the camper? If so, you may need a tall one or to come up with a mechanism for making it taller (i.e. furniture risers, pvc extensions, etc). Many people want to do this to provide shelter over the door for rain or shelter over their roof vent so they can keep it running for air circulation even if it's raining. We originally thought we'd want to do this but gave up on it and I figure if I really need coverage I carry tarps that I can string up between trees.
  2. How much space do you need? Awnings cover a specified square footage (i.e 10'x10', 12'x12', etc). So figure out what you want to place/store under it and you'll have an idea of how much you need. The larger the square footage, the heavier it will likely be though. Also, if it's bigger it'll likely take at least two people to setup. So keep that in mind.
  3. Do you need protection from the sun/blowing rain? If so then you may want to look for one that has a "sun wall(s)" or carry an extra tarp(s) to rig up as needed.
  4. Do you want a screen to keep out big insects? (I say big because a screen does have holes and bugs can crawl under them so their not going to be as bug proof as your camper.) Also, keeping the screen doors zipped has an impact on that. I'll put a note here that many screen rooms taper out like tents rather than straight down like awning legs tend to do. So the actual square footage protected from rain is smaller than the screened footage. Also, it's not going to stop blowing rain (but neither is an awning without a sun wall).
  5. Do you need something that can be put up by one person or will you have two available? By rule the heavier and bigger it is the more people you'll need to assist.
Coleman Screened Shelter 10'x10'
So what do we use? We tried a round screen room but I just didn't like it. We've gone to a Coleman 10'x10'  Instant Up Screened Shelter (ours is an older model of this one but looks the same except I don't have a wheeled storage bag). Price was a big factor and I've been impressed. Sometimes we put it up against the side of the camper and other times we put it on a flat spot behind or to the side or over the picnic table (so is the flexibility of a freestanding model). As I said before, the poles taper out so the roof doesn't cover the entire screened area due to the design. I like being able to zip it up when we leave the campsite. Not really secure as someone could cut into it. I do lock the zipper and at least it should deter tiny thieves and passers by. When we went to South Dakota, I used it to store some gear and it held up to some heavy wind gusts up to 30mph. I did check my tie outs twice a day. I had to re-stake a couple after one really windy night but it never blew away. I'm probably going to come up with a way to add a tarp to at least one side for better rain coverage. I can put this up and tear it down by myself without help. I typically store it in it's bag on the front bench in our camper. It fits well there and I can pull it out quick and pop it up. Usually, we do that first and setup the kids under it to play while we're unpacking and setting up the beds in the camper and getting dinner going. It also has a loop in the center inside so that you can hang a light or one of those battery fans (I use it to hang a light). Overall, I'm happy with it. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Flooring Upgrade in the U-haul Camper

Allure Vinyl Plank Flooring in our Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) Camper
New Vinyl Plank Flooring
When we originally got our U-haul camper, the flooring was in bad shape. Nothing more than a piece of green, outdoor turf rug that had been cut to fit and just laid down over the fiberglass. It smelled awful and didn't look great or fit well. So that was a big item on my list to fix first. I did some research on different types of flooring after deciding I wanted to do something like wood instead of carpet. I came across a great product that you can get at Home Depot called Allure flooring. It looks like wood but is actually made of vinyl. It's referred to as vinyl plank flooring and I'm sure you can find other brands as well at other stores.

The thing about the Allure is that it's vinyl and links together to form a waterproof floating floor. It's changing the way bathroom flooring looks in the housing market. There are two types of Allure: regular Allure and the Allure Ultra. The regular uses grip/glue strips to link together. The Ultra version uses interlocking mechanism. The Ultra is more expensive. But I feel like it'll hold up and I love the way it looks. I'm willing to invest in a heavy duty floor. We went with the Durban Oak color. It did take me a little more than a case. So I ended up with two cases and several left over pieces (maybe half a case?). I figure if something happens to a plank at least I have replacements.

After some thin wood strips to help level the floor in a few areas. (Note that the sides where the inner shell meats the outer shell and the middle seam are raised a bit.) I tried to keep it simple and started at the back of the trailer and moved to the front laying planks as I went. The very front under the bench curves up. So that's why I started at the back. I did not yet put down any molding over the edges though I'm thinking about it. As of right now I can take the floor up if I need to since it's interlocking and not the glue strip version. Make sure you leave the case of flooring in the camper for a day or so when you get ready to do this so it adjusts to the temperature of the camper. These floors will expand/contract with the heat/cold that is experienced in the campers throughout the year. So you may want to do it in the summer when expansion is more.

Overall we like the flooring. It is so much easier to sweep out and keep clean with the kids and dogs running in and out. I think it's going to hold up for many years to come.