Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter RV living in Alaska update...

Well, it’s been close to 2 years now, living in my little motorhome, on the road nearly every night in a new place, doing my best to live comfortably, healthy, and happily.  There are moments that are very trying, like coming home from a winter trip to find the couch and bed soaked with water and frozen solid.  And yes, it’s very difficult to dry out a waterlogged bed and couch inside a 95 square foot motorhome in the Alaskan winter… but it’s possible.

Tobias the wolf & "Nelly" - my 1989 Toyota Odyssey 4x4 motorhome... I wouldn't have it any other way
          Living in your vehicle can actually be quite comfortable.  Instead of paying rent for an apartment every month, I decided to take out a small loan and pay the loan off over 3 years. This allowed me to actually buy my home, just like someone purchasing a normal house (except I have no property taxes & it's a much more affordable "mortgage" to pay by myself).  And unless you have a large bank account, a trust fund, or want to work your life away every day for 30+ years (Despite what some folks might think, I have none of those, lol) this seemed the best way for me to live happily.

             I’ve got to give props to my girlfriend Kage, who has also been living along with me on the road (and her husky Tobias).  Being a man, the camper life isn’t too difficult, but for a woman, it’s an entirely different challenge.  According to Kage, it is definitely more difficult to live in a camper full-time as a woman (where society expects you to still look good, as well as having to take care of feminine things), but she really does make it work somehow
The lovely Kage (and yours truly) taking a break from playing music at a good friends house party in Girdwood
            The time living on the road has been a lot of fun, and a big learning experience.  I’ve met countless people that have influenced my life and heard stories that have rearranged my perspectives on life’s shenanigans.  Most encounters have been very positive and the RV has helped open windows of connections with people that I would not have had otherwise.  As for the other end of the spectrum, I’ve only had a couple of run-ins with people telling me to move on to another camping spot (literally only 2 times the last couple years).

            I only had one fire truck called on me… I was shopping in the grocery store and the intercom came on with a man saying, “License plate Y-RENT, your vehicle is on fire.”  I finished shopping, checked out, and walked outside to see about 70 people pointing at my RV and a fire truck with firefighters pulling up.  I told the firefighters that I just had a wood stove going inside the camper and everything was fine (I thought the chimney would make it pretty obvious, but I guess some of the bystanders didn’t know any better).
The fire truck & "house of fire" situation at the grocery store
             Life has been busy, but awesome.  Our band, " The Shoot Dangs! ", has been one of the more fun projects I've been involved with the last few years.  We just recently finished a tour throughout the Southeastern United States, and it was an incredible (and ridiculous) time.  I had the pleasure of touring with Kage, Josie, & Johnny Lungs.  We actually just had a phone call this week from the founder of Arctic Man (a big 10,000+ person snowmachine/ski festival up in Alaska), and they are having us headline the festival Friday & Saturday, April 11th & 12th.  We are STOKED!!!!  Here's a few clips of band videos we put together quickly:

The Shoot Dangs! "Turbo"
The Shoot Dangs! "Cluster ####"
So, I figured I’d throw some pointers for those that have decided or are considering a life full-time on the road, because that is essentially the point of this whole blog thing.  My biggest piece of advice… if you are thinking about living full-time and think you can commit to it, GO FOR IT!!!! You (probably, lol) won’t regret it!  When I first began searching the Internet, I couldn’t find hardly anything on advice or tips for living in a camper in the winter full-time.  And when I did find an article, the people living in the camper had a permanent space to park with electricity, enabling them to plug their RV in to an outlet every night to keep their electric space heaters running, which I don’t have the option of doing.

So, here are some pointers to make life more comfortable if you want to survive the winter in really cold climates (also great advice for ski bums with campers):

1)    Have a backup heat plan!  I prefer a wood stove and propane furnace combination.

The Kimberly wood stove (give me a shout if you want one, I can hook you up!)
Having a wood stove allows you to heat and cook without propane, oil, or electricity, which means you truly have an off-grid setup.  A wood stove will keep you warm, the wood heat will dry the air out in the RV, which will help get rid of condensation from breathing and cooking.  There are not many wood stoves out there that will work in an RV.  I personally chose a Kimberly wood stove, because it only weighs 56 lbs. and it’s extremely efficient.  There are a few other companies out there (such as Marine wood stoves, which are a little cheaper, but you get what you pay for).

Propane heaters are awesome and most RVs come standard with them.  But the fan that runs the propane furnace is extremely draining on your battery (most normal deep cycle 12v batteries will only last about 8 hours).  Once you kill your battery, you lose your lights and heat, and you’ll have to find a source of electricity to get a full charge again.  Propane furnaces also fail often, and if your only heater fails, you’re in big trouble.

2)    Get a small, flushable porta-potty AND carry your water in.

Winterize your pipes, water heater, and water pump.  Drain your fresh water and waste water tanks and kiss them goodbye for the winter.  Believe me, it’s not worth trying to keep them flowing.  Pipes will crack, tanks will break, and you will have a very expensive and time-consuming problem when spring rolls around.  Trust me, heat pads and heat tape are not going to cut it, so don’t even try (they take way too much electricity to keep things thawed, so they are useless in off-grid or low-electricity situations).

Instead, buy a 5-gallon water container and carry all your drinking and cooking water in by hand.  Set up your RV sink to drain directly into a 5 gallon bucket, then you can just dump your dishwater at any gas/RV dump station.  Get a gym membership or take showers at a friend’s house.  Get a small 5-gallon porta-potty with a hand-pump flush system.  Fill the flush reservoir with RV antifreeze.  Believe me, you will definitely want a bathroom when it is cold outside, not to mention, you can't just “go” anywhere when you’re in a city or neighborhood… or else you risk making a bad reputation for yourself and start pissing people off.

3)    Use your shower as a closet
In the winter, the shower becomes a closet for space-consuming winter clothes.
Since you won’t be taking showers in your camper throughout the winter, you might as well utilize that space.  I put a strong shower bar across the shower to hang up heavy winter jackets and pants.  I also put a small set of drawers to store winter items such as boots, gloves, hats, etc.

4)    Turn your refrigerator/freezer off

Because of living in cold temperatures and often waking up in cold temperatures, items in your refrigerator will freeze solid.  Things will stay plenty cold enough without having to use your propane refrigerator.  Sometimes I’ll keep ice cream or other frozen items in a storage box outside of the camper.

5)    Leave your cabinets cracked open at night

I’ve found that everything in your cabinets will freeze unless the cabinets are left open, and able to absorb heat from the RV’s living space.  I always leave the bathroom door open so it keeps shower/bathroom items from freezing solid.

6)    Put Reflectix bubble foil and a rug down on your floor & have a good, warm pair of house slippers or shoes.
The rug and Reflectix bubble foil under the rug make a HUGE difference in the winter.
The floors of the RV are the coldest part, brutally cold sometimes (because the floors or motorhomes are typically not insulated).  Placing Reflectix foil down on the floor and putting a warm, shaggy rug over the foil will give your camper a cozy feel and it will make the floor bearable to keep your feet on.

7)    Sew custom curtains made of oven-mit material

The most inefficient part of RVs are the windows, which are usually thin, single-pane windows.  Go to a fabric shop and get several yards of really thick, oven-mit fabric.  Measure out your windows and cut and sew up some custom curtains.  If I did not have really good, thick curtains on my windows, even with the wood stove, I would be really cold.  The drafts you feel from the windows alone are pretty impressive, and curtains will help mollify that.

I used oven-mitt (thick waffle-like) fabric to sew custom winter curtains... these curtains help retain heat & the only cold drafts I get now are from beer.
8)    Use matches instead of lighters

Matches are the way to go for lighting the wood stove and cooking.  If it is really cold, lights don’t work that great at all.  And if you don’t have any matches around, you’re going to be in trouble if you can’t get that flint warm enough to get a stable flame going.  Besides, matches are much cheaper.

9)    Open vents while cooking and after you cook, immediately wash dishes!

Truth be told, cooking is the most difficult part (to me) of living in a camper in the winter.  If you don’t crack open a vent so the condensation can escape, your camper will quickly begin to accumulate ice and mold, although the wood stove helps bake most of that condensation out.  Also, make sure to wash dishes the second you finish your meal, because it gets much more difficult once they freeze… and you don’t want to carry any more water into the camper than you have to.

10) Invest in solar panels
The solar panels ( two 30 watt panels for a total of 60 watts) You gain more electricity by mounting the panels at an angle similar to what I've done above (instead of flat on the roof).
You are going to need a set of solar panels.  Forget a generator.  I don’t know why almost every RV I ever come across is running a generator.  I’m here to tell you that a gas-powered generator is almost completely unnecessary.  A good set of solar panels placed properly on your roof (you want at least 60 watts, I’d like to have more one day) will give you enough power every day (even cloudy days) to charge your cellphones, power your lights all night, power the propane furnace for increments when the wood stove isn’t running, and watch movies.

11) Treat yourself and install a LED flat screen TV with built-in DVD player

Winters are long and dark in Alaska.  I’m not a TV lovin’ person, but it is pretty nice to get a nice fire going, make a cup of hot tea, and watch a movie.  The new mini-flat screens are pretty nice and they’re actually reasonably priced (I bought my for a little under $100 w/ the shipping from the lower 48).  Make sure to get an L.E.D. and not an L.C.D.  The LCD (Liquid Crystal) will freeze in cold temperatures and you might ruin the TV.  The LED TVs are made of LED lights, so there is nothing to really freeze.  The 19” screen seems to be about perfect for my small home.

12) Talk another person into keeping you warm!
Tobias is a little overkill for keeping us warm
While living by yourself in a camper allows more space and freedom, it sure is nice having another warm body around, ha.  But seriously, it does keep you a lot warmer at night if you’ve got your lady or your man by your side, so if they are up for having an experience they’ll remember the rest of their lives, have them move on board with you for a bit.  And believe me, you really get to know someone when you share a 10 ft. long living space with them!

Matt Peters about to finish the big ride down Huka Falls (I'm following shortly behind).  He had his skirt ripped off and I had my paddle ripped outta my hand & shoes sucked off, that's one powerful hole!

 A little speed wing flight in Thompson Pass, AK
      When it comes down to it, this is the reason I chose to live the way I do… because living on the road naturally leads to an active life style.  You are always doing something, going somewhere, or meeting somebody.  When you’re not working in the winter, it’s especially nice to get out and recreate in the day or meet up with friends in the evening.  This keeps you out of the camper and keeps your environment fresh.  I feel I appreciate my home much more when I’ve been active all day or all night.

Well, that’s about it.  Everyone stay warm out there and I’ll get another report in sooner than later,