Surviving Severe Weather as a Fulltimer Part 5: Tornados and Severe Thunderstorms

 

RacingtheStorm

Of all the potential nasty things that mother nature can throw at the full timer, the severe thunderstorm is simultaneously the most common, the most widespread, and the most likely to be deadly. Severe thunderstorms occur in virtually every location you can take your rig. Severe thunderstorms can and do spawn tornadoes. In addition to tornados severe storms can have other horrific winds capable of throwing your rig around, creating flash floods that can wash it away, hail that can pound it to a pulp, and lightning that can set it on fire. Your rig, no matter what kind it is, will lose in any encounter with a tornado. RVs are rather fragile and a direct hit by even a F1 will likely pulverize it. We have seen a trailer flattened down to a metre in the middle by a tree trunk. Being in a travel trailer is generally less safe than being outside in the open lying down in a ditch nearby because it is far easier for a tornado to push winds into the space under the camper and pick it up and throw it, than it is to do so with a person lying down. When you are in a travel trailer, motorhome, fifth wheel or other camper and a severe storm approaches, you must, almost without exception, simply must abandon it and find better shelter elsewhere. And almost anything is better! You must know when the storm is coming with enough time so that you can abandon your trailer and get to a safe storm shelter.

We all know the signs of a severe storm as it gets close. Still and quiet air, heavy humidity, thunderheads, lightning and distant rumblings are all clues you might be in for it. My experience suggests that you can’t count on these for enough warning. One reason you can’t use such clues is that by the time the storm can be seen, it is usually too late to prepare and take shelter. This is especially true in mountainous or rolling hills where the storm can be hidden from view until it comes over the hill. The second reason is that such clues only tell you about well behaved storms that are following a given path with you in that predictable path and paying attention. Most of the time, when you read accounts of people who have survived severe storms they say things like: “The storm came out of nowhere!”, “It happened so fast, we had no warning.” The area with all the fury doesn’t always follow the nice neat southwest to northeast path that the larger system producing the storm usually takes. Individual storms within a moving system have a bad habit of veering all over the place in looping patterns, or turning right, as the system moves generally southwest to northeast. (I am referring to storms in North America here. On other continents the prevailing pattern may vary.)

Tornados spawned from storms often do the same looping and veering under the looping and veering storm cloud that made them. The result is you have areas of intense damage, medium damage and no damage that when viewed from ground level appear to be random. The damage paths are not really random. Viewed from above on the scale of several miles, the loops within loops or veering patterns becomes apparent. Looping patterns for a tornado can also occur up and down, in addition to side to side, when the funnel cloud touches down, lifts up and touches down again or the same storm drops more than one twister. Tornados can also come in pairs and rarely in clusters. There is a terrifying youtube video of a group of people in Joplin hiding in a refrigerator in a convenience store. They are subjected to two separate rounds of screaming winds. The path from the air suggests there were twin vortexes within the main tornados dancing around each other with these lucky people were in between.

This is why one house can be totally destroyed in a storm, while the house next door is almost untouched. This is also why severe storms so often seem to arrive without the warning from the distance. You think the storm is off to the west and it missed you at one moment and the next you are in the middle of it. Visual and auditory clues by themselves may not give you enough warning.Severe weather we encountered near Lexington Kentucky 2011.

LexingtonKentucky

This swirling funnel near the Kentucky State Horse Park did not touch down. The same storm system produced the infamous Joplin F5. Photo by Dick Gordon.

 

In spite of the seasonality of tornados, they can happen almost any time of year. Canada’s official tornado season is June and July. There have been confirmed tornados as early as March and as late as November in Canada. While tornados in Canada tend to be confined to the prairies and southern Ontario, all provinces have reported them. While Canadian tornados tend to be smaller, we have had a confirmed F5. I like to tell people that Winnipeg is at the top end of the infamous midwest Tornado Alley and Canada’s one F5 occurred in Elie, Manitoba, a mere 30km west of my home town.

In spite of this, the chance of being killed by a tornado is vanishingly small. You are far more likely to die from a traffic accident so fear of severe storms should not keep you off the road. You just need to be prepared and aware. Traveling from the southern USA to home in Manitoba, Canada in the spring means traveling in the middle of tornado season. We have had enough close encounters of the severe thunderstorm kind that we have become a little bit paranoid.

In many campgrounds, especially in the state run parks of tornado alley, washrooms are designed to double as tornado shelters. We spent a few warning sessions in a tornado shelter/washroom at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington Kentucky during the same storm system that produced the infamous May 2011 F5 Joplin tornado that killed 158 people and caused 2.8 billion in damage. While the Joplin destruction got the most press that day, that weather system produced severe storms with tornados quite literally in a line from the Gulf Coast to Canada. The Lexington area had three separate tornado warnings that day. Fortunately for Lexington, these warnings turned out to be for tornados that were F0 hitting only farm fields or else they never actually touched down.

Severe thunderstorms and the tornados that they produce occur and can be tracked at three levels. First is the system level. Severe weather is not produced at random. It occurs on the boundary between hot and cold airmasses and requires a few other factors built in, including high humidity, on at least one side of the boundary. These weather systems are huge and can even stretch across the entire continent as it did in May 2011. I check the weather at least twice a day, morning and night. I also check the system maps. It is easy to pull up the map of warnings for all of the USA on the NOAA website and for all of Canada on the Environment Canada website. In addition to checking the local forecast, I always check the weather to the south and west. It is a rare system that produces severe weather that hasn’t been moving in a line from west to east dropping storms the previous day in the state/province south or west of you. Rarely a system will move from the south. Extremely rarely, it can come from the north. I have only seen severe weather moving locally east to west on the very rare occasion there is a large post tropical storm tracking inland in a huge spiral and the severe weather happened on the backside of the spiral. If there have been severe storms the day before and the system that produced them is moving your way, you will likely see some. A continent wide system map holds important clues of when and where you need to be worrying.

The Canadian system of forecasting tornados is so primitive that professional storm trackers from the USA consider finding and tracking a tornado in Canada to be the ultimate test of their ability because they get so little help. I have often found the only reason I know that we can expect severe weather in Manitoba is because I have watched Saskatchewan get thoroughly pounded the day before. In the USA, NOAA also provides detailed analysis of your probability of having a severe storm by tracking moving systems and mapping out their probability. NOAA will alert you if there is even a remote possibility (<5%) that severe weather might occur. This system monitoring gives you a 24 to 48 hour alert that you need to be thinking of the possibilities of severe storms.

The best thing to do is try to avoid them the day before. More than once, we have stayed on for an extra night or even two to just let the storms go by ahead of us. We have also found lovely campsites we had planned on staying at for an extra day or two but suddenly found ourselves in a forecast bull’s eye. We have left the campsite early even if it means losing a night’s camping fee. If we don’t have a safe stopping spot and the storm system is narrow, we will also alter our planned travel so we cross the storm line early in the morning instead of late afternoon since the worst storms typically occur from early in the afternoon to late evening.

One caveat on this “dash over the storm line to safety” is that the further south and east you are on the continent the less this “storm time zone” rule holds. We have heard of tornado warning just before dawn in both Georgia and Texas for example. Sometimes the system is just too big to avoid. This is typical in spring when a huge swath of severe weather stretches over the entire continent and across two or three prairie states. In that situation, we try to find the safest place possible to stop and ride it out.

Whenever we stop in any campground under threat we automatically do a quick area sweep for hazards and shelter. We check nearby bodies of water for potential flooding. If we might be seeing severe weather we also check the washrooms to see how sturdy they are and if they can double as shelter. We check for overhanging trees that look unstable. We check for orientation of the campsites and we pick a campsite where the front end of the trailer facing west or southwest where possible. If the campsite has levels, as in steps down to a lakeshore, we try to pick one with a ridge of land between us and the approaching storm system. If the campsite is exposed and potentially dangerous without having decent shelter, we will keep moving until we find a safer location. In general, state and provincial parks have sturdy washrooms that make good shelters but private campgrounds usually have lighter flimsy buildings. There are exceptions to both so physically check the washroom well in advance.

A sturdy washroom will have several keep components. The roof will be very reinforced where the roof line meets the walls. In hurricane country you can often see big metal clips reinforcing the roof line. Without reinforcement, the roof will be ripped off in a severe wind and then the internal walls will collapse. There should be an inner room without windows with a strong door that can be latched or closed. More walls between you and the outside is better. Shelter within the room is good. The space under the counter with the sinks and inside the shower stalls are generally safer. In May 2011, the forecast was for a huge swath of danger and there was no way to avoid it going north or south. The danger zone was far too wide to try racing through in the morning and even if it had been thin, there had been storms reported all day and overnight before hand. The campground we were in had an excellent storm shelter. It was a properly certified tornado shelter set low in the ground with thick heavy beam roofs, big metal roof clips, and built of solid cinderblock and cement. There were double heavy doors with strong automatic latching systems. There were no windows, and the shower stalls were reinforced even more. Our trailer was beside a shelter belt of trees that would reduce wind but where no individual tree was big enough to fall on it and destroy it. There was a hill between us and the direction of the system. Although we were in a NOAA red zone (high risk), there were terrifying white zones of the highest possible risk both north and south of us. We decided we would be safest by sitting tight where we were and waiting it out.

Our final step of preparation was to make sure we had everything we needed right near the door for a fast dash to the washroom and that we knew the name of the county we were in. Storm warnings go up naming the county. If you don’t know your county, you won’t know if the warning applies to you. The second level of severe storms is the thunderstorms themselves. Thunderstorms are actually huge compared to the size of you and your rig. One storm can cover an entire county but they are usually smaller than that and individual storms from a system can be tracked as individual moving units.

Here is where watching radar becomes invaluable. Keeping in mind that storms can veer off the straight line, nonetheless they usually move in a predictable pattern. If you check the radar and use the time sequence feature, you can see the pattern. You may be sitting in region with a high severe storm probability, but a quick glance at the radar will show the storm itself is moving in a path north or south of your position by several miles. Keep watching though. In a moving cluster of storms one will go severe and then lose strength and another one will pick up in fury in its place.

When do you start doing radar tracking? I start if a watch is issued. A “watch” to me means start watching by checking the radar every thirty minutes. I also check the radar if I see anything on the horizon that looks suspicious to me. Severe storms have a specific structure including a high flattened anvil cloud above. The single most important visual clue is a long thin edge of the anvil shape overhead stretching toward us with a bubbling blowout through the top. If the anvil is overhead, the storm is approaching. Other signs of instability like mammatus clouds are signals to be checking radar too. Thunder can be heard as far away as fifteen miles from the lightning source. Sound can warn. If you are in the city or near an interstate or behind a mountain, you can’t count on noise. When in doubt, I check the radar. The radar tells you if you need to worry or if the storm is going to miss you entirely. Most of the time, I check the radar and find I can stop worrying.

Official warnings go up when a tornado is confirmed to be on the ground or when the radar image shows a storm has formed the classic “hook” image indicating a tornado is possible. You don’t need to be a weatherman to learn what that hook looks like. If you are watching on radar you can see often see the hook and head for shelter while the weatherman is activating the warning system. In the USA, such warnings are typically accompanied by warning sirens and professional storm spotters who report to both local authorities, the press, and NOAA. The NOAA warnings and the observations of professional storm spotters and reports from the public get transmitted live on air over television and radio. The precision can be remarkable. I have heard tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in the USA where the exact street and businesses affected are named by storm spotters. I have even heard warnings as specific as this: “The tornado is moving down 52nd street and the mall may be hit so if you are in the mall, take shelter now.”

TornadoOverLakeWin

Severe storm which produced a tornado passing over Lake Winnipeg close to Winnipeg Beach. I tracked this storm on radar and telephoned Environment Canada to report it. It had developed the classic radar hook. Because I was tracking it on radar I knew it would miss us and that we could safely try to view it. I was one of several callers who were tracking the storm and a tornado warning and small craft advisory was issued shortly after I took this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(The following complaint section about the lack of waring in Canada is out of date. Canada finally began allowing Environment Canada to to take over radio and television and issues warnings in 2016. As of April 2018, cell phones were finally able to send out alerts specific to the area regardless of carrier. The bilingual issue is still there and we simply don’t have the kind of coverage and number of people Americans do. So you will be better off than suggests but not as well off as in the USA. I am leaving it to let people see what we once lived with. I was one of many people who lobbied for the change.)

In Canada, warnings hardly ever go up ahead of the tornados. The normal advance warning is that the conditions are right for a severe thunderstorm and a reminder in the fine print that severe thunderstorms can produce tornados. In Canada a warning is usually issued because someone on the ground saw a tornado or encountered large hail and phoned Environment Canada. The storm has often already moved past by the time the official warning is issued. In many provinces, including my own of Manitoba, there is no coordination between Environment Canada and the press and media. On weekends, TV and radio programs are typically recorded in advance and there is no way to break into local programming and pass along warnings because there is no one to pick up the telephone at the station. There are almost no sirens to set off either.

To see an example of just how bad our warning system is up here in the great white north, try watching the video by amateur storm chaser Justin Hobson (Canada does not have paid storm spotters) where you can hear his side of the entire conversation between him and Environment Canada as he calls the first report in. (Plus you will get a great sample of the local accent I am frequently accused of displaying.) No warnings were issued before this tornado touched down. They only went out after reports like the one Justin Hobson made began reaching Environment Canada. There wasn’t even a watch in effect! Environment Canada had predicted that morning that conditions would be right for the development of severe storms. Since they say that many summer days and nothing happens, it wasn’t information to make people sit up and be on alert. There were a total of eight confirmed tornados including an F3 in addition to the F5 over that two day outbreak.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32L5OtnIPGk)

On another video of the same Elie F5 event called “Going to Alberta”, the radio announcer can be heard giving his version of a warning between commercials. While an F5 is pulverizing Elie, the only warning he gives is that things are getting exciting in the weather. Both locations he gives are wrong for the F5 though right for other severe storms in the same system. He does not let the weather warnings get in the way of his Power 97 paid commercials. And Power 97 gave better information than anyone else in the press at the time! It was Friday night and the stations were on automatic and everyone also had left to hit the beach or patio that weekend. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCI1u05KD_s)

As unbelievable as it may sound to Americans, warnings from Environment Canada cannot be issued unless they can be issued in both official languages simultaneously. Therefore warnings are delayed for up to twenty minutes while translation happens. If translation is not available because there is only one person on duty and that person isn’t bilingual, the warning won’t go out at all. Even if they do send out a warning, there is no way to get the message out if you aren’t checking the Environment Canada website yourself.

And those wonderful weather radios Americans count on are pretty much useless in Canada. Warnings go out on those on a province by province basis so a wind warning for Hudson Bay in the far north will set off the radio in Winnipeg. The result is the radio is going off all the time for weather systems that are hundreds of miles away.

Local Rural Municipality offices have a direct radio system warning but most RM offices shut down at 4:30 pm and don’t open at all on weekends. Also since there are no sirens, there is no way for them to get warnings to you. Locals count on family and friends calling them to warn a storm is coming. As a tourist, you aren’t in their network. If you are camping in Canada, you have to rely on your own weather skills because my experience suggested there is less than a 50:50 chance that the government here is going to warn you a tornado is coming.

One exception is Alberta. After an F3 tornado ripped up Alberta’s Pine Lake campground in July 2000, killing 12 people and injuring many more in addition to tossing campers into the lake and sweeping fish from the lake onto nearby farms, the weather warning system was changed so that Environment Canada can take over the airwaves and issue warnings by radio and television even on weekends. Pine Lake was under a watch at the time and a warning went out once the funnel touched down, mostly because there just happened to be a vacationing Environment Canada weatherman in the area who saw the storm and phoned it in. That is unfortunately only in Alberta.

Pinelake

Pine Lake Tornado (image from the Central Alberta Amateur Radio Club Archive of the Pine Lake Tornado July 24 2000.)

 

The next level of storm awareness is within the storm itself. Storms, especially storms that are large and can produce particularly dangerous weather, will have areas of high intensity and areas of lesser intensity. The radar shows this. When we were sitting in that Lexington storm shelter under a tornado warning, a woman from Australia became almost hysterical with fear. She had no experience with severe thunderstorms beyond seeing movies like twister. She was terrified that she was about to die. I pulled up the radar image and showed her that although the warning was for our county, we were not in the part of the storm that could produce the tornado. I would never leave shelter on the basis of that kind of information, but it is comforting to know that even through we were sitting in a tornado warning area, we were not likely to be hit. The poor tourist from Australia certainly agreed.

My final tip is when in doubt, watch the locals. People in tornado country develop their own awareness of the weather. I have had two experiences where I asked local people for an opinion and their answer might have saved my life. The first was when we were following the Mississippi north to Canada and we stopped in a casino campground in Memphis. We had been up late the night before, there had been warnings about the potential for severe storms before we went to sleep. I went outside to check the sky. I was looking at the sky when I noticed my neighbour in the camper next door was also out doing the same thing. I asked him his opinion of the clouds off to the north. He replied in a broad Texas drawl that he would not recommend “y’all” driving north anytime soon and he wasn’t moving southwest towards home that day either because that sky meant twisters later for sure. I went down to the campground office and paid for another night.

A couple of hours later a monster half mile wide F4 crossed the interstate we would have been on if we had left. Later that afternoon we got to see another group of tornados in the same system make the news to the southwest of us in Texas by tossing semi trucks and railcars about like my grandsons do with their toys. We probably would have stayed put anyway but having a local say so, definitely convinced me.

The second close call happened in Lexington Kentucky again. We came up from the basement section of a combination pizzeria/sports bar and were about to exit to go to our truck when a tremendous flash of lightning lit up the parking lot. I stopped just inside the doorway and looked up at black sky. I saw another man near the doorway looking out and I asked him if he was from the area. He said he was. I then asked him if he thought it was safe for us to drive. He replied he was a local NOAA weather spotter and he had just phoned in what he thought was a wall cloud and they had issued a tornado warning for the city. He suggested it would be safer if we went back to the basement and had another beer. Just as we turned to go back, there was another flash of cloud to ground lightning that hit a post halfway between that door and our truck. I don’t like to think about what could have happened if we had been walking to our truck.

We have only seen severe storms in the distance while driving on two occasions. During a drive from Telluride Colorado to Winnipeg we decided we would go diagonally across Wyoming and visit Devil’s Tower. We were traveling in a zig zag pattern going from southwest to northeast. As it happened a storm system was doing the same thing. We were traveling with young children and we were not experienced with assessing weather while traveling. My husband was driving. I looked ahead at this absolutely black storm low on the horizon and from my experiences on the farm in Saskatchewan, I became concerned.

“I think we need to turn on the radio. I don’t like the look of that storm ahead.”

“It’s just a thundershower.”

“I don’t think so.”

I turned on the radio. We got that ominous heart stopping warning sound. It was followed by a warning. “ALERT: A tornado warning for southern Campbell county Wyoming has been issued. Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado, moving southwest to northeast at 35 mph near highway 387 and the intersection of highway 59. If you are in this area take cover now.”

The radio changed to the controlled frenzy of the local broadcaster speaking live to the storm chaser on the ground.

“I can see the storm, I do not see a funnel but it looks bad, very dark and there’s a lots of golf ball size hail.”

“Where are we?” my husband asked.

“Hang on, let me get the get the map.” I replied

“I think we’re on 387,” he said.

“It’s moving across the highway now.”

“What county are we in?”

“I have no idea who keeps track of county names?”

“Can you see if there is any damage?”

“They said Campbell county,” my husband said. “Check if we are in Campbell county!”

“Oh my God!” I said as a fumbled with the map. “That’s what we’re looking at! We’re in Campbell country and we are driving right into it! I told you it looked bad!”

“I see hail, lots of it but we’re not near buildings right now.”

“Mommy! I’m scared!” my seven year old daughter said.

“Have we passed highway 50 yet?” I asked after looking at the map.

“I don’t think so.”

“Mommy what’s happening?” My son Alan, then nine, was also getting worried.

“I am following it north. It is moving north northeast”

“If you see 50 take that north, it’s outside of the storm path.” I told my husband. “It’s okay kids that black cloud up ahead is a bad thunderstorm and we’re going to make sure we miss it.”

“Maybe we should stop and take shelter,” my husband said.

“Well, it’s moving away from us now, I can see that and that fits the radio report. We’re in the middle of the bald prairie with nothing for miles around! Just where are supposed to take shelter?”

“Look! That’s 50 coming up!” my husband said.

“Go north! Go north!” And so we did.

We made it safely into Gillette Wyoming and, after consulting the weather forecast and discovering there might be more of the same overnight, we decided to stay in a hotel in Gillette instead of going on to camp in the Devil’s Tower National Park. It turned out to be a wise decision. The campground was hit with a severe thunderstorm overnight and, while no one was killed or seriously injured, a lot of equipment was damaged. Local radio reports credited a quick thinking park ranger who alerted people in the campground and moved them into washrooms just before the storm hit.

When we continued our Wyoming trip, with a stop to see Devil’s Tower, we went east and north through North Dakota. Another severe storm on the east side of interstate following the Missouri sent us north along a small highway through a reservation instead of crossing the river. To get north of the system we had to get to Canada. (I didn’t realize back then that lack of high risk warnings might have just meant there was no reporting going on over the line.) More severe storms dumped so much rainwater that the campground we were going to stay in near the Peace Gardens was closed due to being underwater. We had a second night in a motel where we got a huge discount because the carpeting on the hotel floor was soaked after storm water blew in under the door the night before. My daughter was very amused about using her pink rain boots for bedroom slippers.

It was after the experience of dodging severe storms through Wyoming and North Dakota that I vowed I would never again get caught unaware and I started my regular twice daily forecast checks before traveling. Our second severe storm was in 2011 when we were staying in a campground not far from Elie Manitoba. A careful inspection of the grounds gave us little in the way of comfort for shelter. I was watching the radar and I decided things looked like they would get nasty and the nasty was coming right at us. We knew of a large shopping mall with an underground parkade twenty kilometers away. We decided it was a fine time to go shopping. We got to see the severe storm that produced an F0 tornado across the highway from our campground behind us as we drove east. We later heard stories about people in the campground cowering in the coffee shop watching the small tornado go by across the highway through the big picture window. If you can actually see a tornado through a picture window, you’re way too close and you’re not safe but it’s likely too late to fix that problem.

So what do you do if you are on the road and you find you can actually see a tornado? If you can tell which direction the storm is moving then you are likely all right and just keep moving perpendicular to the storm and let it miss you. If the storm looks like it is not moving at all that actually means it is either moving towards you, or moving away from you. Stop and get into a safe location or, only if you have no shelter, leave immediately if the road can be safely traversed.

Never stop at an underpass and climb up. Tornadic winds blowing through an underpass actually get concentrated and worsen as they speed through an overpass right near the top. Being above ground against a bare cement wall where already strong winds are concentrated is a very very bad idea. You are far safer in your vehicle. A bridge where the highway remains level but the river bank is below ground level will give some shelter, especially if there are beams that allow you to crawl in deep with protection on all sides but one. Of course you have to think about what shelter you will have if the tornado hits the bridge broadside and rips the top off. We picked such a spot as our shelter at a wonderful northern campground with flimsy washroom structure. The support structure had enough cement girdling that even if the wood part of the bridge got ripped off, the space below with the cement girdling would likely have stayed intact because we had cement overhead. I am not a big fan of spider webs so I am glad we never used it. Further south, I would have been more worried about finding myself taking shelter with a rattlesnake. That would have been quite the choice.

Culverts can provide shelter unless it rains so hard the culvert fills and you drown, which is common because of the way severe storms tend to also dump lots of rain. The other problem with culverts is that those tornadic winds can whip right through culverts and suck you out into the funnel. I would consider a culvert to be a near to last resort and certainly not a first choice. If it comes down to you in the open in your vehicle and no way to get to shelter, you have two choices. If there is a ditch nearby that is lower than the road your vehicle is on you are better off abandoning your vehicle and lying down in the ditch. Otherwise, make sure your seatbelt is fastened and start praying. Honestly, it is far better to plan your trip the day ahead so you miss being where the ugly stuff forms. Leave storm chasing to the professionals.

Since our 1993 Wyoming adventure in inadvertent storm chasing, it has been getting easier and easier to track storm producing weather systems. Wifi and cell phone service has expanded to cover almost every corner to the USA and is ever widening in Canada. In addition to checking the websites, there are delightful phone aps that can pull up either US or Canadian radar on your cell phone with a single click. With a little attention to detail, there is no reason to find yourself trying to ride out a tornado in the worst possible place to do so, your rig.

KOAWestTornado

F0 tornado producing storm near the KOA West Campground 2010 just outside of Winnipeg. We are on our way into the city to an underground parking garage. The folks who stayed in the campground and took shelter in the coffee shop saw the tornado across the highway.

 

 

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Surviving Severe Weather as a Fulltimer Part 4: Fog.

densefog

This is a picture from NOAA with a somewhat better visibility than we had that night on the highway.

We have had our fair share of severe weather near misses. Some of those near misses have just been due to our own dumb luck. Most have been because we have been aware and alert and reacted quickly. This post is on fog. There is not much to say about fog except avoid it if you can. Some folks have special lights installed for fog. I can’t comment on those because I have never tried to use them. Given what we have heard, I think the usefulness of fog lights is mainly that of a placebo. If I am correct, fog lights are likely more of a hazard than a help. We have had one experience with fog.

We were approaching the Canadian border in North Dakota in early spring There had been some melting but there was still snow everywhere. We were tired and looking forward to getting home. We were traveling along at 55mph and when we abruptly and without warning hit a solid wall of fog. It was the eeriest sensation. One minute we were fine and the next I could barely see the front end of the truck. I had to think fast. First move was to take my foot off the gas and brake to slow down, I mean really slow down. Heart in throat, I peered hard praying no one was stopped in that road in front of us. The next thing to worry about was whoever was coming behind me. Fog kills most often when someone hits someone else from behind at high speed. I knew we had to get off the highway.

I tried pulling off to the shoulder but as luck would have it on this stretch of road there was essentially no shoulder. I pulled over as far as I could and then using the yellow line along the shoulder as a guide, we rolled forward going about 10 mph. I tried the brights but they reflected back off the dog at me creating worse visibility than low beams. Fortunately, after a short distance the yellow line turned off and I knew we were at an exit. We followed the yellow line off the highway. As we did, we heard the sickening crunch sound of vehicle impact in the distance. Fog muffles and distorts sound so we couldn’t tell exactly where it came from.

Once off the highway the fog thinned enough for us to be able to see about 100 yards or so in front of us. A police car passed with lights flashing by, driving slowly even so. I was relieved someone official was investigating the horrible crunching. We pulled into one of those cheery small towns you find all over in the midwest. Each of these little towns are almost all clones of the other with the same general plan for mainstreet, a stately brick court house and a row of storefronts, most of them unoccupied. We ended up behind a big semi truck and by the time we rolled all the way into town we had another one behind us. Another sheriff in the town, in a car whose blue lights somewhat cut through the fog, directed us to the town square. We joined a short line of semis to wait it out.

It turned into a rather pleasant experience. We decided to go into the only small bar in town. They were happily extending the grill hours to get an unexpectedly full house fed as vehicle after vehicle rolled in off the highway. We were introduced to the local sheriff when he took a break from escorting semis in to grab a quick coffee. He said there were thirty six semis, four cars and three RVs of assorted types. The mayor came out to the bar in order to make sure everyone was all right and no one lacked sleeping accommodations. His town had no hotel but he had some volunteers in town who could billet folks. We explained about our travel trailer. No, there was no campground, but we were free to pull into the park and hook up to the power supply for the main square’s Christmas decorations across from where we were parked. The decorations were long ago put away but he had flipped the breaker to the power supply when he saw our trailer. We left a generous tip for the waitress. The fog continued to thicken over the town until even walking out of the bar to cross the street back to the trailer was potentially hazardous. My husband walked in front of me guiding my into the small mainstreet park to get power. We parked next to a classic American town square bandstand.

We were awakened at dawn by the sound of semis gearing up to leave. We came out to find a long line of vehicles that stretched as far as we could see down main street and around the bend back to the exit. We had a fifth wheel and a motor coach beside us in the town park. There was two extension cords along with ours hooked up for power. By the time we had breakfast and were ready to go, the local credit union was open. We stopped in and left the rest of our American cash in a donation jar collecting money to refurbish the local school’s playground. We rolled on to the border feeling that we had just experienced the very best Americans can offer.

On the way to the border we heard a news story about a six car, two semi pileup that had happened on the same stretch of highway going south. Two people had died. It was a sobering reminder that fog kills. We had gotten lucky again.

Posted in fall camping, Retirement, RVing, severe weather, snowbird, spring camping | Leave a comment

Surviving Severe Weather as a Fulltimer Part 3: Wildfires.

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During our stay in Osoyoos in May 2014 a wildfire in the hills above us created a bit of anxiety for us due mainly to smoke. Our air conditioner/dehumidifier trick worked so we were not forced to leave the exceptionally nice campground/resort we were staying at. 

 

We have had our fair share of severe weather near misses. Some of those near misses have just been due to our own dumb luck. Most have been because we have been aware and alert and reacted quickly. This post is on wildfires.

We are always very aware of smoke because I have asthma. Smoke can trigger terrible attacks where I feel like I am dying. Even with medication, it is a miserable experience to be around smoke. My eyes water and my nose fills and I wheeze for days, even weeks, after a severe attack. I feel miserable and exhausted long after I can breath again. We are hyperconscious of smoke. Smoke also has another function. It serves as a warning for fire. Since I am hypersensitive to smoke I have also become hypersensitive to fire.

There are two kinds of “outside” fires to be concerned while camping. Prescribed burns and wildfires. Prescribed burns are those fires that someone in a position of authority is in charge of deliberately starting the fire. Prescribed fires are supposed to occur in a specific place, for a specific time and then end. Wild fires are fires that occur without someone in authority declaring themselves in charge and starting it. It is important to keep in mind that prescribed burns used to be called controlled burns but the term has gone out of favour. Presumably the term “controlled” was changes to “prescribed” because of the number of controlled burns that get out of control and become wildfires.

We have had one hair singeing experience driving through fire. We generally avoid interstates and main road and seek backroad routes where the scenery is prettier and unexpected brushes with nature are common. We were driving north somewhere on the Georgia/Florida. I am not sure what side of the state line we were when it happened. The highway was in superb shapes, recently paved and lovely traveling through low rolling hills with creeks, swamps and evergreens. Between the trees I was getting an occasional view of a limited area of thick smoke ahead but as it seemed to be limited and off to the northeast I wasn’t concerned. My husband was sound asleep behind me. I drove around a bend at 90km (55mph) and suddenly there was fire on both sides of the road. The fire was mainly in the grass and brush but some fire went from ground level up to the treetops of the evergreens. The road we were on was narrow, far too narrow to turn around and go back while towing an RV. With flames all around, stopping seemed like a bad idea too. I had two propane tanks among other flammable items. The smoke and heat was all around. I made a split second decision to speed up and hope the road was open beyond where the fire was burning. To keep my courage up I began softly singing Rodney Atkins “If you’re going through hell.” I sang softly because I didn’t want to wake my husband. I had enough to handle. If we were about to die, he might as well sleep to the last minute. Under the circumstances less distraction was a needful thing.

If you’re going through hell keep on moving,

face that fire, walk [I sang “drive”] right through,

you might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.

It didn’t take too long to get out. I got about halfway through the song and as abruptly as the fire had appeared, we rolled on past it and it was over. There was green again on both sides. At the edge of the fire there were two country sheriff types, assorted police cars and some firetrucks with a barrier on the entry side of the burn. Fortunately, the exit side was clear so I aimed straight, and barrelled right on through without braking. I got a passing glimpse of several startled and dismayed looks on the faces of the police and firemen as I went by. I considered stopping to tell someone off for not putting roadblocks on both sides of the fire. I watched to see if anyone would come after me. On this side of the fire we were downwind and the smoke was pretty thick so, since there were no flashing lights, I just kept driving. As soon as we were clear of the smoke I woke my husband up and told him what had just happened.

I don’t know if this fire was a prescribed burn or if it had just happened. I don’t know if the Georgia side didn’t tell the Florida side what was going on. Maybe the traffic had been blocked further back and in taking backroads and shortcuts we missed the roadblock. Maybe the roadblock went up after we went by. In any case, we got lucky and the only real damage we had was to our nerves. A few weeks later we can began having trouble starting the truck. The Winnipeg mechanic came out from under the hood, with the air intake sensor in hand to ask me if I knew what was on it. The sensor was covered with a thick layer of stinky, gummy material that smelled of smoke and turpentine. I told him about our little trial by fire and he walked off, shaking his head, to put in a new sensor. The cost of that came to $45 which I figure was cheap.

I did an online search to see if there were any more tales of campers who were trapped or killed by wildfires. I was unable to find any specific references but I certainly found plenty of “campers start forest fire” stories. It would seem the most likely way for a camper or RVer to end up in a wildfire is to start is themselves. The first thing to do to protect yourself against wildfires is therefore to be incredibly careful with your own fire. If you are in a place that is at high risk for fire, or if conditions are right to spread a fire, just don’t light one. If a fire ban is on, respect it. If you do light a fire, even in the middle of a swamp, have a bucket of water, shovel or a fire extinguisher handy. Even swamps can burn.

If you are camping in a forest or desert, especially a big national forest on a long back road, it is a good idea to check the local fire situation before you get out of cell phone range. Prescribed burns are generally announced on websites somewhere. The local sheriff’s office or fire department also usually know if there is a planned burn. The alert system is not foolproof. If a fire starts, everyone who sees it may assume it is a prescribed burn or that someone else has already reported it. If you see smoke and fire, be the one who calls in to check that authorities know what is going on. If they already know, they can give you useful information such as if you need to be worried and how long the burning is going to go on. If you smell smoke, investigate, don’t assume.

Fires that are burning at any given time, whether prescribed or wildfire, are also followed for speed and direction with regular updates and reports. Check the weather forecast too, because the forecasts often include fire hazard information and smoke reports as well. Determine where the fire is relative to your position and the direction of the wind. Camping in smoke is a miserable experience and you may decide you want to move before it gets bad.

Just as with flooding, before you set up, know what the routes in and our are and have plans for how you will handle a fast evacuation if you have to. Don’t count on that nearby lake for fire protection. If a major forest fire moves through the area where you are there may well be firestorms that suck all the oxygen out of the air or firenados (moving columns of air that act like tornados with fires carried inside) can be deadly even in water. It is always better to have cleared out well before the fire arrives. Leave diving into that lake or river as the last possible desperate resort in a fire and not your front line of defence.

If you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to confront a wildfire and you don’t have water to go to, remember, fire likes to move up and with the wind. Fire also has a moving front where the worst of the flames are. Fire moves in fits and starts so it is sometimes possible to move downward relative to the land and then into the wind and end up behind the fire. Beyond the moving front, most of the material to feed the fire is already consumed so the fire remaining is far less intense. In grass, that moving front is relatively narrow so given a choice between burning trees and burning grass, the open meadow is the better of two bad options. Forest fires often travel on the forest floor and are stopped by roads, at least until flying sparks ignite on the other side. The most dangerous fire is the crown fire with flames racing from treetop to treetop and then burning higher material drops fire to ignite the floor below. Therefore roads, especially those wide enough to not have treetops overhead, can provide safety in a fire.

One final tip, if you are stuck in a slightly smokey location and you can’t move your rig out, try closing all windows and doors and running the air conditioner. If you have a dehumidifier run that as well which helps even more. We have found the smoke particles ride along with any water and the air conditioner condenses water (and smoke particles) while cooling and discharges it. The dehumidifier takes care of the rest of it.

We have one other safety item that we take comfort from. We purchased them on line after ending up in our truck in heavy smoke near a controlled burn. There was no danger from the fire itself but the smoke produced was low, dense and blanketed everything. I was choking in full asthmatic flare. We decided we would be ready if this happened again so we purchased two of those small portable face mask/air filter combinations that provide about 20 minutes of clean air. There are several brands on the market of various prices and effectiveness. We found a type, ReadiMask, that is disposable, light and small and flat (think thick greeting card envelope size). It works for smoke including covering the eyes. It stays ready in the glove compartment of the truck just in case we’re ever stuck in traffic in thick smoke again. A second pair is hung inside the trailer door in case we ever find ourselves having to move fast outside in thick smoke after waking up in the trailer. It is not the best possible protection but the combination of easy storage and access, and ease of use while being cheap ($8 each) made it a perfect fit at the time. This is technology that is constantly evolving and improving so in spite of the fact that we chose ReadiMasks, I would recommend checking out all options before buying. There might be something even better out there by now.

Posted in fall camping, Retirement, RVing, severe weather, snowbird, spring camping | 2 Comments

Surviving Severe Weather as a Fulltimer Part 2: Flood!

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Picture from NOAA

 

We have had our fair share of severe weather near misses. Some of those near misses have just been due to our own dumb luck. Most have been because we have been aware and alert and reacted quickly. There are three hazards I will cover in the next three posts. They are fire, flood and fog.

Floods:

I will share my own experience with a flash flood while camping with my parents in a tent trailer. The campground was one of the most stunningly lovely I ever seen set in rural Vermont on a hillside in the green mountains. There was a particularly pretty shallow creek that came down out of a narrow rock walled gully and then it turned and bent almost back on itself before carrying down the hillside out of sight. It was not even five centimetres deep at it’s deepest point though about five metres wide. The campground was located in the bend of the creek with the campground following the inner bank. There were no services and no assigned sites for the “no services rate” to camp. You found an open spot and set up. We were delighted to find a level open spot near the edge of the creek on packed gravel. We fell asleep to the sweet sounds of a babbling brook tinkling over rocks.

In the late evening there was a heavy downpour with thunder and lightening. We fell deeply asleep, exhausted after a long drive. We awoke at 2:00am because the trailer was rocking and there was a loud roaring sound. Peeking outside, we found ourselves in the middle of a torrent. The creek has risen until the entire lower half of the no services area of the campground inside that bend of the creek was under about 10 centimetres of fast running water. Moving quickly, my father ran to the car, backed up and hitched the trailer. By now the water up halfway up his calves and flowing even more quickly. The roaring was deafening and even more frighting was the sound of large boulders shifting in the water. He grabbed everything in the dining tent and just threw stuff into the centre of the tent trailer and then pulled up the stakes dragging the corners behind him until the tent was loose on the bottom. The wet tent then got half shoved into the open doorway with shouts at us to hold on to it. He ran off into the dark. We heard when he started the car. Ever so slowly, he pulled the tent trailer, with all of us still in it clinging to the dining tent, out of the raging waters and up to drier land. Other campers were also awake and several came to help us. Two other families in tents above us decided to move further up from the lower bend area in case the water came even higher. It did. Soon after we were safely out of the way our campsite ended up three metres underwater. The next morning we counted ourselves lucky even as we found the torrent had returned to being a charming little gurgling creek barely deep enough to cool our feet. We stayed in our new higher place for rest of our vacation.

We made several mistakes in choosing our campsite. We did not take into account the weather forecast, which called for heavy rain. We did not consider that the creek came out of a narrow rocky channel with nowhere else for heavy rain to go. We did not carefully examine our surroundings. If we had, we would have seen past signs that when the creek was high, it filled the area we chose to camp in. It was lovely, flat and open gravel precisely because it was a small flood plain. And we did not check with the locals and the campground owner about the lovely spot. The others campers, the ones who had not made camp near the creek, were all locals who knew the way that creek flooded in a storm. The owner also knew the lower areas were subject to flooding but he was not there at check in and we didn’t bother to try to find him as we had paid in advance. Dealing with the flood and the near disaster has left me acutely aware of the dangers of flooding.

We were lucky. On June 11, 2010 there was a flash flood of the Caddo and Little Missouri River in the Ouachita National Forest’s Albert Pike Recreation area near Langley Arkansas. This was no flood of an otherwise small creek. This was a full sized river. The river rose an astonishing 2.4m/s (8ft/s). The flood hit in the middle of the night while campers slept at the campground. Twenty people died including eight children. The culprit was combination of geography, combined with a series of thunderstorms, in particular one that dumped 10 inches of rain in minutes. The area was known to flood but the kind of flood that hit that day occurred only once in fifty years and no one had been there for fifty years. Ignorance was compounded by the fact that being in isolated area, there was no cell phone service and the campground was miles from a ranger station. There were warnings about the potential for flash floods and warnings issued by NOAA. People just didn’t react. Many of them were sound asleep when the warnings were raised.

You simply can’t swim in a flash flood. The water carries you along and debris in the water smashes into you as you travel. You can’t hang onto your children. They will be swept from your arms. The water will pull you down under and then spit you up randomly as you go and if you aren’t knocked unconscious by flying debris, you could well be sucked under long enough to be drowned. You will also have broken bones, cuts, bruises and scrapes if you do survive. In accounts of the few people who do survive being in a flash flood a few things are consistent. If they couldn’t escape their RVs or automobiles, they stayed in their vehicles as long as possible. The vehicles provide protection from debris. If they don’t fill with water, that protection may carry you to safety. If people had an opportunity to do so, survivors also donned lifejackets and tied their children to themselves. Some people have survived by climbing high up into large trees and tying themselves and their children to the trees. This will work if the tree is not uprooted and swept away with the flood waters. However for most people caught in the flood, rushing water meant death. What was the worst of the tragedy in Arkansas was that if those in authority had listened to the warnings of the scientists, no campsite would have been built in that area. If someone had reacted to the warnings from NOAA, most or even all of the people would have survived.

Across the river, in another campground, individuals there did not go to sleep. Feeling uneasy about the thunderstorms and water, and noticing the flood rising, the watchers sounded the alarm. They rushed about the campground rousing everyone and getting them out of the flood waters. Where the warning came, no one died. The lesson here is that when you are in the wilderness, you are responsible for yourself. Have and use your own weather radio. The slow moving thunderstorm that dumps inches of water in minutes is the very worst flash flood maker. Keep track of thunderstorms and be wary, especially if it stays in one place. There are usually warning sign if you pay attention. One of the lessons of the Arkansas tragedy is you can’t count on others to pass along the warning from NOAA. If there is a flash flood watch, react accordingly. Move out of the flash flood area or have someone stay awake watching the water and the weather and be ready to move, and move fast.

Always be aware of the potential for flooding. Each season has it’s own set of risks. In spring, be aware of flooding on rivers. Many campgrounds and municipal parks are located on river banks specifically because the area is a flood prone zone and cannot be used for regular housing. Spring floods can happen in a number of ways along rivers. Late winter and spring flooding is common in regions that have snow. Ice jams can cause dangerous flooding in a matter of minutes to hours. If you camp near a river during the spring break up, be ready to move out quickly in the event of an ice jam upstream from your position. Downstream of a dam, water levels can change rapidly if sluices are opened and closed. Sometimes a surge of floodwater upstream means the dam must release large amount of water with little warning. Rarely, dams can collapse. In spring, on lakeside campgrounds, be aware of the possibility of pack ice that can plow up on the shore and destroy anything in its path in minutes with a high in-shore wind.

If it can rain, it can flood. Deserts are particularly bad for sudden flash floods of real ferocity. Flash flooding is a possibility with any rain in the desert. Make sure you have not picked a wash to set up camp in the desert. Heavy rain, even miles away which you can’t see or hear, can turn lovely dry gulch into a raging killer.

Check your map before choose your campground. Do several creeks converge near you, especially just up stream of your location? If the water upstream suddenly rises to the height of your camper where will it go? If there is heavy rain and a large amount of water has to pass through in a short period of time, is there room for the water to spread out, or will it be trapped in a small space with you in the midst? Before you stop and set up camp, look around and check for signs of flooding such as banks cut deeply to vertical and piles of debris. Look for watermarks on tree trunks and hanging debris in the branches. Examine the vegetation around you. Is it plants such as sedges that are accustomed to being flooded? Are you above or below the apparent high waterline? Keep in mind that the apparent high water mark may be much higher in rare events. Ask a local old timer if that river is well behaved or does it act up?

Sea shore camping is great too, but high tides and storm surges can arrive with little warning. So called sneaker waves can reach up without warning and rearrange everything on the beach, including your camper and your life. Tsunamis are always a low but not zero probability risk. The large tsunami crossing the ocean will trigger coastal warning systems that will give you time to move but tsunamis can come within minutes of a local earthquake or an offshore landslide. Look for tsunami warning signs at the coast. If you are within a tsunami zone make you sure you know the evacuation path and how to travel to it and if there is an earthquake don’t wait for a warning. Head for higher land immediately. Your higher caution will also save lives. In the horrific Japanese tsunami of 2011 people milled about uncertain what to do. In places where someone started to higher ground, others began following and people did not die. One entire school was saved by children in one class who just started moving upward because a recent guest speaker had told them about earthquakes tsunamis. The adults and the other children followed them. 

Choose a camping spot that is set back from the waterline if you have any doubts about your location. Always take a few minutes during set up to plan your escape if you need to. Have three modes of escape in mind. Where will you run on foot? Where will you drive in your pull vehicle or bike while abandoning most of your gear? Where will you go, and how will you get there, if you have enough warning time to pack up everything and move? Take the time to look around during set up and you will be less likely to panic if an emergency arises. Be a little paranoid in a planned and considered way to avoid being surprised by rising water.

If you are on the road and hit heavy rain, slow down. Here is where the correct tires can make a big difference. Poor tires will hydroplane and you will be in danger of being swept sideways or skidding. Good tires will channel water safely so your tires don’t lose contact with the road as quickly and you have time to get off the road before the water is too deep. Do so safely, keeping in mind traffic coming behind you. Watch for a safe place to pull off the road but be aware that water may choose the same path. In the mountains, that roadside niche may be where mudslides come through and you don’t want to take a ride with one of them. An underpass might seem like a good place to stop in a hailstorm, but you could quickly find yourself in several feet of water from the downpour that accompanies the hail if the underpass drops below ground level.

There is only one safe way to cross roads that are under water. Don’t. Water over roads, especially moving water, is very dangerous even if it only looks a few inches deep. The reasons are that just because the edge is a few inches deep, doesn’t mean the middle is. The road may have a dip hidden by the water. Flood water is generally not swimming pool clean and so you can’t see how deep it is away from the edge. Flowing water also packs a lot of power and only a few inches of fast moving water can sweep a vehicle sideways and off the road, over a bank, and into main part of a river into a full flood. Running water also eats roads. There could be a huge crack washed out in the road or a six foot pot hole just out of sight under that dirty water. As NOAA says “Turn around, don’t drown.” Water, like fire, is not just pretty. It has the potential to be deadly. There is a charming saying I have heard several times in the Deep South, especially in the back hills, off the beaten tracks. “I’ll be there, God willing and the crick don’t rise.” It’s a quaint and lovely phrase. It is also a warning.

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Surviving Severe Weather as a Fulltimer Part 1: Winter Storms

Avalanche shed

We have been through several close encounters with severe weather while living in an travel trailer. Even in a typical secure stick home in the middle of a suburb severe weather can be an issue. We have all seen pictures of what happens when an F5 tornado hits a suburb. All these dangers become magnified when you are in a travel trailer or other recreational rig. The fact is that rigs provide you with little shelter from most severe weather and it can be more dangerous to stay in your rig during some forms of severe weather than to lay down on the ground outside. I will attempt to share what we learned over at least three posts.

Winter weather:

Blizzards, snow storms, avalanches and freezing rain are all hazards of winter. Winter hazards are actually more common in fall and spring, when Canadian snow birds are on the road, than in the dead of winter. Such storms require mixing of moist air with cold and that requires moisture (i.e. warmer temperatures) coming from somewhere. Lake effects snow is usually nasty but localized stormy weather that can occurs when wind picks up moisture crossing an open body of water and then dumps it onshore. It requires open water and that does not happen in the dead of winter. The snowbird traveling north and south is going to encounter this weather.
Freezing rain is one of the deadliest threats of spring and fall. The rain falls and freezes on contact and everything is covered with a sheet of ice. Driving is impossible. If you don’t crash, someone will crash into you. Over time, the ice builds and the weight of the ice can cause trees and roofs to collapse. If you find yourself hitting freezing rain, stop at the very next safe place no matter how unlikely and boondock there. Never try to drive in freezing rain. Make sure your vehicle is not under tree branches that can collapse on top of you as the ice builds up. Only venture out on ice if you have good ice weather footwear so that you don’t fall and break something.

Avalanches are typically fall and spring event but they can happen anytime. If you are in the mountains always check local road conditions and just stay out of avalanche prone areas if warnings are up. Avalanches can’t be predicted. They hit without warning and a moving wall of frozen water is far worse than liquid. One of the nastiest things about avalanches is the moving snow takes on a peculiar heavy liquid texture but as soon as it stop moving it sinters. The liquid texture changes to solid ice in seconds. You can’t dig yourself out and shake this stuff loose. If the force of the avalanche hitting you or objects like trees and boulders flying down with the snow doesn’t kill you, you will find yourself frozen in a tomb with multiple injures unable to breathe.

On main highways such as the Roger’s Pass in the Rocky Mountains, small avalanches are triggered in a controlled fashion in order to avoid a huge uncontrolled slide. I have experienced this once. The snow was thick and the avalanche danger high. We were ignorant prairie folks traveling home with no idea how dangerous it was. Military personnel directed us and the few other travellers on the road, into an avalanche shed. This is a slant roofed shed with the high end of the slant against the mountain and the low end of the roof on the other side of the road. The idea is you are safe under the shed’s roof and the snow slides down off the mountain and over you. After the vehicles were safe under the shed, the military used howitzers to trigger the slide. There was a rumble and a roar and then the entire shed and everything below it shook as a wall of tumbling white blocked the view off on the outer edge. After a very long wait, a man walked through the shed to tell us all the road was being cleared ahead of the shed. We were eventually allowed to leave, conducted at slow speed through a freshly cleared path with a lot of heavy equipment still working away on the massive mound of snow. It was a most impressive event. We were also cold, tired and in need of a washroom before we finally got through that day. Avoid avalanche country if you can and if you can’t, stay only on roadways were there is proper control and protections systems and be prepared for a long wait.

Another type of winter storm that comes through with a roar but then quickly passes is the Alberta Clipper (or just ‘clipper’ if you from the USA). These fast moving squall lines race across the continent with ferocious winds, cold and a blast of a little bit of snow (2-6 inches) or none at all. Since a clipper often travels at high speed in a line whose length is over half the continent they can be hard to predict and harder to avoid. Fortunately, they pass as quickly as they come and are gone within hours.

You may find yourself driving along one minute in clear weather and the next in blowing snow. If such a thing happens you need to pull over somewhere and just let the clipper pass. One effect of the clipper is that the city streets, which are relatively sheltered, will be open but highways will be problematic. It is not uncommon to be leaving the city where conditions seemed fine for travel only to find yourself stopped by local authorities at the beginning of open countryside. In addition to the snow brought by a clipper, the high winds will pick up any loose snow already lying on the ground. This can create a thick ground level layer of rolling snow. These can hit without warning. A good rule of thumb is if you see a lot of the big rigs pulling over, stop with them. If you find yourself in sudden blinding ground level drifting and you can’t safely stop, get behind a big rig and follow it to safety. Truck drivers are often riding high enough to be able to see above the ground drifting.

If you get stuck by a roadside in snowy conditions or extreme cold remember that leaving your vehicle will likely mean you will die. You will get quickly disoriented in swirling snow and it piles up and covers every landmark you might use for traveling on foot. In the old pioneer days, the wise farmer tied a rope between his house and his barn to hang on to because men were known to get lost when they went to milk the cow in a blizzard. If you fall down, snow will cover you and make you invisible to any would be rescuers. In your vehicle, you are sitting on a road that the snowplows will eventually clear and the police and local volunteer rescue groups will be patrolling. They will find your rig before they find you because it is big and obvious and possibly blocking the road. A lone person wandering in a farmer’s field won’t be found until spring when the farmer begins spring planting. Hypothermia makes you stupid. If you are with someone who has the urge to walk for help make sure they are not suffering from hypothermia and do everything possible to keep them from leaving. If you can’t stop them, don’t follow them. Better one dead than two.

This is why an emergency winter kit is essential. A travel emergency kit should have a heat source, extra blankets to stay warm and some emergency food and water in case you have to sit in your vehicle for 12-24 hours. Your well equipped recreational vehicle is actually an ideal place to be stuck in a clipper. Pull as far off the road as you safely can so you don’t have some poor fool rear ending you because he didn’t see you. Settle in and wait it out with your nice propane furnace and three way fridge full of food. Crawl into your nice bed with all those warm blankets and cover up and go to sleep until the clipper has blown itself out. When rescue arrives, be sure to offer them a hot drink because they have likely been out for hours in the cold.

Blizzards are monster spirals of dangerous weather that, not unlike hurricanes, can cover several states/provinces at once and last for days. There are two good things about them. They generally move slowly and they are not often as cold as a clipper though they are still cold enough to kill you if you are outside of shelter. The so called Colorado Low is probably the worst of them although I have developed a very healthy respect for the infamous “nor’easter” of New England and the Maritimes. The Colorado low begins in the mountains, travels over the plains growing into a giant slow moving monster packing high winds, and carrying a massive amounts of snow. Because it moves slowly, it can can dump as much as a meter (a yard) or snow before passing. The snow is also heavy water packed snow that sticks and clogs the best snow clearing equipment. As it passes, the temperature often drops and the heavy wet stuff freezes solid and is almost as hard as cement. Even in winter wise places like Winnipeg, a Colorado low can stop the city for days.

The further south you are, the less familiar the other drivers will be with adverse cold weather conditions and, the more of a hazard they represent to you. As a northern driver, you must take into account the fact that they don’t know how to stop and turn on ice and snow. There is a high possibility that little skiff of snow is going to wreck your rig because someone unfamiliar with driving on ice hit you. I have no qualms about the other drivers while traveling during a snowfall in Minnesota. I simply will not travel in the slightest amount of snow in Virginia because the locals are so utterly stupid about snow.

Sometimes avoiding a blizzard means making a decision to drive much longer or much shorter than you had originally planned to get past or stay out of the area the storm will track. Sometimes this means a diversion of half a day off the planned route to get out of a watch/warning area. If there is a blizzard coming, check the storm track several times during the day and as soon as you wake up because tracks change, often abruptly. We once fled Virginia Beach in 2010 at 8:00pm in the evening Christmas Eve to avoid a blizzard. This major storm was due to the combination of a Colorado low and a nor’easter. We left Virginia Beach two days early because we didn’t want to miss a deadline we had in the south. We stopped outside of the watch area in Kinston, North Carolina about 2:00am. My husband woke me at 7:00am because the forecast had changed and we were now in a warning area that was expecting 9 inches of snow. We got up, drove until we were well out of the warning/watch area in South Carolina and stopped at a state park. We were awakened by a ranger at 8:00am the next morning. He was knocking at our door to advise us the park was under a blizzard warning and expecting 6 inches of snow. Since the county had only one snowplow, if we stayed in the park, we would likely not get out until the snow melted and the dirt track that passed for the road into the park had dried enough to travel. He was there to warn us that clearing the road typically took a week or so. He was really excited and happy. He had never seen snow before. I tried not to roll my eyes at that.

We left him to the experience, pulling out by 9:00 am and we drove further south. We stopped for breakfast under a clear sky. When we came out to continue our journey south, we had to dig some Canadian winter gear out to clear the snow off the windshield. We got ahead of the snow but every time we stopped the snow started again so we had to keep moving. That storm chased us right into Tallahassee Florida. We arrived at midnight before we were finally beyond it’s southernmost reach. We saw residents of Tallahassee outside in the night with their sleepy eyed children awoken to marvel over the wonderful beauty of big fat snowflakes. They were welcome to that! We kept driving south.

In 2009 we were heading to Boise Idaho and our original plan was to go through new territory in Wyoming. A Colorado low meant we decided to trek west into Montana instead and then go south at Billings. We fell asleep in a campground in Dickinson, North Dakota, assured by NOAA that we were west of the blizzard track. When we woke up, we found the storm had slowed and veered northwest. We drove from Dickinson in a light snow under a full blizzard warning, staying just ahead of storm until we got to the Montana border. We ended up going through Bozeman Idaho and skipping Wyoming altogether that year.

Blizzards, especially the Colorado Low, can also mean being snowed in at one location for days after the blizzard passes depending on local snow clearing. The farther south you are in the continent, the worse the snow clearing will be. Six inches of heavy wet snow in a place like Winnipeg Manitoba is a minor inconvenience that will add ten minutes onto preparing the car for the commute because of the need to clear snow off the windshield. It will cause a few traffic snarls meaning you’ll likely be late for work. Two inches of light fluff in Georgia can shut down an entire city for days.

If you can’t avoid a storm, make sure you are stopped in a safe place with enough food, water and propane to survive for several days. Try to stop before conditions get horrible. This is often the time to check into a hotel or stop in at an all season campground. It might be okay to sit out a clipper in a Walmart parking lot but if a big blizzard is going to leave you stuck for a few days in one spot, this is a great time to splurge and rent a hotel room. One of my fondest memories of traveling was when we stopped at a lovely hotel in Ironwood Wisconsin after several days of boondocking on a trip north. There was a monster blizzard coming.We could not outrun it or avoid it.

Instead, we enjoyed a second honeymoon in a wonderful spot with an indoor pool, exercise room, and 100+ cable and movie channels. It was so nice to soak in a hot tub after two days of only cold, wet-wipe baths. I was actually sad when the snow eventually stopped and we could continue on our journey. Severe cold weather events are potentially dangerous, but with advance planning, flexibility, and a little luck, they end up being the positive and fun experiences of being a fulltimer out on the road.

SnowStar
Dick with his eye for pattern and form, was fascinated by this star that formed on our wheel created by freezing slush while we traveled in Minnesota.

Posted in blizzard, fall camping, Retirement, RVing, severe weather, severe winter weather, snowbird, spring camping, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Canadian Issue – Spring and Fall Camping (Shoulder Camping Season)

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Bird’s Hill Provincial Park Manitoba Canada May 2014 – May snowfall two days after the campground opened.

Canadians who want to live full time in their rigs have some special problems to take into account. These revolve around winter. While it is possible to live in a travel trailer year round, the quality of life would seem to be exceptionally harsh when the days consistently run to -40C (-40F) overnight and -30C (-22F) daytime. Therefore, the vast majority of us fulltimers choose to either go south into the USA for the coldest months or travel to southern British Columbia which rarely sees anything below -18C (0F). The other thing that Canadians must contend with is their individual province’s residency requirements. Requirements vary by province and have been subject to change recently, but one must be physically parked and present inside one’s province’s boundaries for an extended period of somewhere between five and six months (depending on the province) in order to maintain residency. It is necessary to retain a province of residency because that determines your taxation, vehicle registration and insurance. More important, Canada’s (in)famous health care system is administered on a province by province basis. If you don’t qualify for a province of residence, you don’t have health care and there is no alternate private system in Canada to access. The net result of this is that a Canadian who is living full time in a recreational rig will be spending early spring and late fall in Canada.

Most campgrounds in Canada open the May long weekend and close the Labor Day long weekend. This leaves a period of 3-6 weeks at each end of your required provincial stay without many choices in an open full service campground. This is often referred to as “the shoulder” season. It also means that when you are traveling north to Canada in the spring and south to the USA in the fall, or across the prairies to British Columbia, that you have to contend with regions that have few open campgrounds. How do you manage this?

Finishing out your residency requirements means a little planning. Option number one is to stay with relatives for a few weeks. We have done this. Our kids don’t mind putting up with us for a week or two. We arrive, park our rig in someone’s yard, run an extension cord from house to trailer and settle in. This is less than satisfactory because while we love our children and they love us, living together is a bit too much love, especially when we come in a package with a cat and two dogs. There are a few campsites in every region that specifically cater to the early and late traveling snowbird migration. They are set up to handle a late fall snow and are able to clear the campground early enough for the snowbird arrival. They have heated plumbing or have ways to offer water and dump after freeze up. Expect to pay more for that kind of extra service. Nor does finding such a place to stay solve the question of where to stop while traveling north and south after the regular camping season.

Once you have figured out where to stay and settled in you will need to consider your rig and freezing temperatures. The water systems of most travel trailers freeze up if temperatures are consistently below freezing. Some can handle overnight freezing but only as long as weather is above freezing during the daytime. If pipes and valves and holding tanks freeze up, they can burst and then on thawing leave you with a huge and messy repair bill. Also traveling with holding tanks full of ice wastes gas and makes mountain driving problematic. To counteract this, there are a variety of ways to conserve heat and prevent freeze up. The most important of these methods is to wrap the trailer in skirting and put a heat source underneath. Clearly, this is not possible if you are traveling. Many trailers also have heat sent into their floor subspace from the furnace but we have found this is not sufficient to keep the water system from freezing when traveling. The cold air running past the trailer while moving quickly reduces temperatures to ambient. We have found we must “winterize” the trailer for travel in early spring and late fall. Sometimes we are forced to winterize before we start traveling at the shoulder season campsite.

In the parlance of the RV dealership, “winterizing” means to shut off the water system by draining the water. To prevent any residual water from bursting the pipes as it turns to ice, the system is then flooded with antifreeze. The antifreeze used is not standard car antifreeze which also happens to be a deadly poison. Rather it is a specially designed antifreeze expressly designed for putting into drinking water systems. This antifreeze can then be safely removed in the spring by filling and flushing out the system and if there is a bit of residue left after the rinsing, it is so dilute as to not matter. Drinking water pipe antifreeze is available at most RV dealerships year round and seasonally at places like Walmart and Canadian Tire. The cost is about $1 a litre but it can vary a lot between stores and regions. You can have this done for you at the dealership but it is also really easy to do it yourself.

The first step is to shut off water flow to the hot heater and then drain the tank. The reason for the bypass is you can’t let your hot heater sit for any length of time with antifreeze in it. This may mean you will need to install a bypass valve. Most Canadian based RV dealerships do it as part of your purchase package with or without an extra charge. Once the hot water tank is isolated and draining, open the fresh water drain and remove as much of the fresh water in the tank as possible. I have found if I open the taps in my rig a lot of the water in the pipes drains back to the fresh water tank. I open all the fresh water taps first. I then remove the plug on the fresh water drain pipe and let it drain. Once the freshwater tank has drained, close the taps and the drain in the rig, and then add the antifreeze to the fresh water tank. The amount varies, but I have found 4 litres is enough for my rig. Turn on the pump and then systematically open the taps one at a time and run them until they run with the colour of the antifreeze. (My favourite brand is pink coloured but I have used blue stuff too.) Don’t forget the outside shower if you have one. The fresh water system is now out of service but safe from freezing. Grey and black water tanks are then protected by being drained and having more antifreeze poured in. I generally add two litres to each holding tank to start.

This leaves an immediate and obvious question. How to do you shower and relieve yourself? The answer is you don’t shower, at least not in your rig. My husband and I like (need) to shower daily so this can get highly problematic. I can go two days if I use baby wipes to freshen up. My husband heats a kettle of boiling water and uses a big bowl to sponge bathe. We also look for outside places with showers. Relatives and friends with stick houses are our first choice. Most people don’t mind if you stop in for a visit and a shower. Depending on how long you have been traveling, they may even politely insist you shower first while they fix coffee. Year round campgrounds, while few and far between, usually have working showers even if their water is off at the individual spigots. Another choice is locker rooms in sports facilities. It’s actually nice to stop at an indoor pool facility, have a swim and then shower in the locker room before continuing on your journey. Curling and hockey arenas are also a possibility. Truck drivers need to shower too, so many truck stops have pay showers for truckers and don’t mind an RV owner paying instead. Some laundromats also have pay showers. And, of course, one can always do without for longer than is comfortable.

Doing without is not going to work for relieving oneself. Therefore stuff will be going into your black water holding tank. Dealing with the black water tanks can also be problematic but is not impossible in cold weather. The label on the antifreeze container usually has a chart showing how much one can dilute the antifreeze before losing protection. It is therefore possible to roughly calculate how much fluid you can add and top up the tanks with more antifreeze at need. It has happened that we have not been able to dump our black water for days. The obvious solution is to put as little as possible into the holding tank and to take advantage of every potential dump site you encounter as you travel. Even so, we try to use outside washrooms as much as possible during the water off part of travel. In order to have water for the toilet we keep a 1 litre jug with a tight fitting lid in the sink expressly for rinsing down the toilet bowl at need. If it is time to add antifreeze, it rinses just as well as water.

Our black water tank can hold a week’s worth of waste under normal circumstances before needing a dump. We have always been able to find somewhere to dump the tank before it is full while traveling. It’s easier to find a place in the fall than in the spring. Many places that are open in late fall have shut off their water taps but because sewer drains are not under pressure, they have no qualms about dumping into their septic system after the fresh water is shut off. Some campgrounds do have an elaborate procedure of pumping out holding tanks at the end of the season. Adding your dump could cause freezing damage over winter or make them redo the entire procedure. These dumps usually have a locked cap on dump. Even so, if the fresh water is off, never dump in fall without asking first even if the cap is open. Dumping in spring is somewhat less problematic than dumping in fall. The ground will melt soon anyway so a dump into a holding system with no pressure is not normally an issue but do ask. The problem will be finding a place to dump that is open

Truck stops and gas stations with an RV dump site are usually open and functional year round. Also, in small towns there is often a public dump site at the local water treatment plant available year round. There are also on-line “sanidump” information websites that are helpful. In some states, dump sites are available at rest stops and some of these are open year round. When you can dump, do so and then refresh the antifreeze in the grey and black tanks. When you can’t dump, top up with additional antifreeze as required. I try to keep at least four litres of antifreeze on hand at all times.

Water for drinking and cooking is easier. We keep a 20 litre (5 gallon) jug of water with us. We use that for drinking, cooking and washing up dishes and ourselves. We keep dishwashing to a minimum and use an environmentally safe dish soap so, where feasible, dishwater can be dumped outside on the grass instead of into the grey water tank. During the day, while we travel, we always watch for a chance to refill our water jug. Gas stations are a good place. Stop in, fill up, pay for your gas and then ask if you can fill your water jug too. My husband has a funnel and a smaller jug that can be used in a sink too shallow for getting the big jug in. A lot of places have a deep sink for janitorial work that they will let you use. Other likely spots are the campground office at check in, the washroom at a tourist information centre or town office facility, and public washrooms of big stores. Restaurants are a possibility but they tend to be more likely to frown on a water fill up unless they deal with a lot of RV types. If we sense hesitation, we always offer to pay something or just thank the person and leave to look elsewhere. We have only been turned down outright once and even that one time we were politely directed to another nearby location instead. In an absolute extremity, we have simply purchased drinking water at a store.

Where to stop overnight is a tricky question in the off seasons. In general, it is always much easier to find a campground that is open in the late fall rather than finding one open in early spring. In late fall, many campgrounds stay open until enough snow falls to physically block campsites even if the fresh water is turned off due to freezing. They stay open most often to accommodate hunters. This is especially true of public campsites like state parks, town campsites, and fair grounds. We always have much better luck finding stopping places if we take the secondary routes off the interstates. We have also found that if the campground owner lives on site and the site is not yet snowed in, if you offer cash and assure them you only need power or even just parking space, they are quite happy to let you stay even though the campground is officially closed. We have also found late fall construction outside of the city means a construction crew that needs accommodation and therefore the local town campground is likely staying open late for them. Again, if you offer cash, you can usually stay with the construction crew. If all else fails, there is always a Walmart or other place to just park somewhere for the night. When we travel in late fall, we always have our eyes open for a likely stopping spot and we will stop early if something comes up and yet we are prepared to drive later if it doesn’t. Be super polite. Always offer cash in payment. Cash makes it easier for people to bend the rules about open and closing dates and look the other way. If they say no, just thank them anyway and move along to the next place.

Traveling in early spring is much more difficult. You are a lot less likely to be able to find a place without advance planning. The biggest problem is snow. The campgrounds will be full of snow and snow will block the access roads and make it impossible to get into the sites. Even if the roads are plowed, the sites normally are not. You must specifically look for campgrounds that offer “winter” camping or are open year round. Winter camping is generally a phenomena of state parks. It will consist of 1 to 5 campsites near a state park office where rangers have to be around in winter anyway and it is also easy for the person plowing out the access road to the ranger’s office to also plow out these few campsites. They generally do not have services except electricity if you are lucky. You can sometimes get water at the office but often not. There is hardly ever a dump site open. Still, it will be safe and usually cheap.

Most campsites do not turn off the power over the winter. More than once we have found a campsite is not officially open but the gate is not chained up and the road is accessible and we have pulled in anyway and parked and hooked up to electricity. I don’t recommend this with state parks because they tend to be real sticklers about the rules. However small towns are generally much more flexible. One trick with municipal and fairground campsites is to park and plug in and then walk to the municipal office and offer to pay. The person at the counter will likely act astonished and say the campground is closed. Reply with, “Oh really? We got settled in just fine and we only need electricity. Would it problem if we just stay put for the night since we’re already settled?” Usually, they let us stay and most don’t want the fee because it will just create paperwork.

Once we found ourselves really stuck. It was late. I was exhausted and we had already been turned away from six other places. We pulled into a fairground where a late fall cutting horse competition going on. The people running the competition had rented the entire facility. The fairground office initially turned us away because of that. It was late and I was so tired but the horses were gorgeous. I am also a big fan of real working cattle horses having once lived on a ranch and spent a fair bit of time in the saddle. I stood and watched the horses for a few minutes and chatted with a couple of the competitors. As it happened, I was also wearing a pair of well worn real cowboy boots because my years on the ranch had convinced me they really are the best thing on your feet. I asked who the competition organizer was and the friendly cowgirls I was chatting with took me over and introduced me. I explained our situation. She looked at my boots and smiled. She gave us permission to be part of their group for the night as long as we paid the fairground officials the same nominal fee all the other competitors did. That was very special because we set up next to the horse trailers and got to walk the barns and I got to talk horse again for a while. We also got to watch the competition in the morning before we had to leave.

Private all season campgrounds can be found in the north that stay open to accommodate skiers and snowmobilers. These are usually electricity only but have heated washrooms with showers or a heated outdoor tap for filling your big jug/water tank and a usable dump station. These winter full service campsite are often relatively expensive and few and far between (one to three per state) but they are well worth stopping at. We usually map such campgrounds well before we begin our trip and plan our route to stop at them.

It is far more likely that you will end up forced to boondock without services in the spring than in the fall. Talk to other snowbirds and get recommendations for good stopping places. Big stores like Walmarts, casinos and truck stops are likely places. It is also sometimes possible to find a campground which is not yet officially open but the owner is onsite cleaning up and getting ready for the season. Offer cash and ask to stay with the understanding you will not need the washrooms if they aren’t open yet, water if it not turned on and dumping if it is not working yet and they will be happy to help you out. Be prepared for the possibility that you may have to rent a hotel room for the night. It can actually be a real treat to stay overnight in a warm hotel room during a long trip north after going through a stretch with few shower facilities and a lot of cold weather.

Dress for cold. Avoid getting a chill. It’s weird how getting one good chill can make you feel miserable for days afterward. It is just not possible to keep a typical travel trailer with a propane furnace as warm and comfy as a house. Walking out to the washroom and sitting in the cold travel vehicle is a good way to get chilled. We use layers to stay comfortable. I wear long johns, a short sleeved undershirts, long sleeved warm shirt and then a fleece vest, a warm fleece jacket, and a coat with hat and mittens. I layer up or down as needed to stay warm without overheating.

Some of our coldest wettest and most miserable experiences have been in the late fall or early spring traveling by the calendar instead of by the season. Part of me dreads that shoulder season block when summer is over but we can’t head south yet. I also hate arriving home to snow and freezing rain before the geese get back. Still I must say that we have also had some of our best often unexpected times on these trips. It is wonderful to travel south and get to see the leaves turn in the fall over weeks instead of days. There is also a special thrill to having the daffodils come up again and again as you move north with the snow line. There is a special sense of appreciation when you get far enough south to be able to drain the anti-freeze, flush the system and finally shower in your own place again. We all have a tendency to take amenities for granted and shoulder travel wakes us up again. In the fall, the tourist season has passed and folks are more relaxed and more accommodating. In the spring, everyone feels good about the improvement in the weather so they happier and much more willing to be helpful. The minor inconveniences of the shoulder season are outweighed by the special satisfactions of traveling. If they weren’t we wouldn’t bother packing up and getting back on the road again.

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A picture snapped by our son April 2013 when we stayed with him on our arrival back to Manitoba.

Posted in fall camping, Retirement, RVing, snowbird, spring camping | Tagged | Leave a comment

Tips for Choosing Your Rig

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Example of how we spread out in rig. The pets are obviously very comfortable.

Choosing Your Rig

We really like our tent trailer but in retrospect it might have been worth the extra to get a hybrid.”

This is our second travel trailer. We bought one but within three months we knew it was wasn’t right for us so we traded it for this one and it only cost us $5000 in trade-in losses overall.”

We started in a travel trailer but we soon found it was just too crowded so we upgraded to a motorcoach which is perfect for us.”

I wish we had looked at fifth wheelers a bit more before we bought the motorcoach.”

I bought a truck camper but it drove me nuts being in such a small space so I took it back after the first week and bought the Class B and I love it.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard someone describe what they wished they had done before they bought their rig. I would be rich enough to buy a new rig for myself, preferably one already equipped for cold weather camping. The purpose of this section is to ensure you pick the rig that is right for you. No one but you can decide what is right for you. Don’t assume anyone knows what you want. Take the time to do the research in advance and look at the myriad number of types, sizes, subtypes, combinations and permutation that are possible. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Once you have focused in on a general type, then start looking at models and manufacturers. Once you have a general idea of the type and manufacturer(s) you want, start looking at floor plans and layouts. The very last thing you should do is go to an RV dealer and start wandering around. It’s far too easy find yourself being distracted by pretty upholstery and slick talk and end up leaving without the rig that is really going to suit your specific and unique needs.

Three Modes to Consider

When considering the rig of your dreams you must first think about the three modes of interaction that you will be living in with your rig.

1) Traveling Mode:

You will be spending a lot of time sitting in your rig driving. Consider where you will sit and where your fellow travellers will sit. Consider also how you will sit, who will drive and what everyone who will be driving will be comfortable handling. Will you need air conditioning or heating or both? Will you be driving up and down mountains? Do you normally like to travel to remote locations on bumpy gravel back roads or do you prefer those lovely big resort style campgrounds right off the interstate or do you plan to do both? Where do you like to camp? Many state parks have size restrictions on many or even all of their camping sites. If you like state parks, then maybe you should think about a smaller length of rig that will fit most of these restrictions. If you plan on boondocking (camping for free in a location not specifically designed for an RV) you will need to consider how much water you can carry and other potential restrictions. You also need to consider height issues as well. Is height a consideration? As with length issues, many trails into the deep woods of National Forests require passing under tall trees with low branches. Places with remote backwoods trails usually only trim back trees enough to allow the park ranger’s four wheel drive to fit under easily. We have also encountered many low bridges and tunnels in the USA and Canada, especially in the east, where historic buildings bridges are common. All of these will affect your rig size choice.

Consider also stopping by the roadside, pulling into a parking lot and the need to back up. The 56 foot fifth wheel that has every bell and whistle for stationary living is not going to be great fun to travel with if its too long to get into any gas station that doesn’t service semis and the driver has an irritable bladder that requires a rest stop at least once an hour.

RVers can save a lot of money by pulling over in a pretty park or roadside rest stop and eating in their rig (or at least from the rig) rather than in a restaurant. This is easy when the weather is lovely but what if it’s pouring rain or cold and there is a need to stop? What about a place to have a nap? I bring this up because we knew a couple with a stunningly beautiful motor coach with five pull outs. They found traveling in it expensive and it wasn’t the gas. They didn’t notice until they bought their rig, and got onto the road with it, that the kitchen and bedroom where inaccessible when traveling. The pullouts blocked everything when they were pulled in. They always ate at restaurants and used washroom facilities available at roadsides. The partner who cooked most loved having a break. The partner who managed the finances? Not so much. Walk in your potential rig with all the slide outs pulled in to see how well, or not, that will work for you.

Another issue to consider is ‘toy hauling’. What kind of large accessories will you want to bring along? We take a canoe and two bikes everywhere we go. For others, it’s an all terrain vehicle. Maybe you would like to have a motorcycle or you want to have his and her kayaks. I have met people who use a big bus style rig to live in and pull a trailer big enough to hold a precious antique sports car to drive when they arrive at their location. The sports car was the must have and therefore their rig of choice had to be able to pull the trailer that sports car rode in. Or maybe your life style just won’t be complete if you can’t bring your fishing boat. It’s important to choose a rig that accommodates your toys while in travel mode or you won’t be happy.

2) Short stops:

RVing means driving somewhere with your rig, stopping overnight (or after sleeping) and then continuing your travels again the next morning. I used to be one of those disdainful tenters looking down my nose at the folks with the fancy travel trailer. What did they know about real camping? Then one day I pulled into a state park at the same time as a family with one of those travel trailers. I was stunned to see that they could pull in, hook up to water and sewer and electric and be set up and enjoying themselves before I could get my stuff out of tightly packed car and get my tent set up. They were cooking their steak dinner over an open fire while I was still blowing up my air mattress. When it was time for both of us to leave in the morning, again, they were able to shut down, pack up and be on their way faster than me. I decided after that display of camping prowess that they actually knew a lot more than me about enjoying themselves camping. The set up and take down issue can make or break your experience RVing. Be sure you can live with set up and take down twice a day for short overnight stops while traveling. Since it is generally recommended to not put sliders out while boondocking in locations like a Walmart parking lot, you have yet another reason to make sure the floor plan in livable with all the sliders in.

Another item to add to the list of considerations is general accessibility. What if you need to get at your tools on the road? Where will they be kept and how can you get to them if you need them in a hurry? During a short stop, can you access your toys if the perfect spot for using them presents itself but you really only can spare a couple of hours to stop and enjoy it? Can you get at your toys, load and unload quickly while in travel mode? Can toys be exposed to the weather while hauling or do toys need to be protected? If toys are mounted outside, how will that affect the airflow around the rig? I met a couple who had a lovely small car with great gas milage and hatch back that held all their camping gear. They were avid bikers so they bought a rooftop bike rack. Their gas milage dropped by one third. Getting their bikes off and on the rooftop carrier was such a pain they rarely bothered unless they were staying for more than a week. Don’t make the mistake of creating a rig design that is designed to cut into your enjoyment.

3) Long term stops:

Most people buy their rig to get somewhere, and then stay awhile. Whether your long term stay is two weeks or six months, you need to consider living in your rig. Assume you will be in this configuration for weeks to months at a time. Think of all the possible weather you might encounter. Hot, cold, windy, stormy and everything in between. While it is possible to put up with a lot of tight nuisances with your rig for a few days, can you do it for weeks to months? Can you survive living in it for a week of pouring rain or while you and the rest of the crew are down with a bad bout of flu? If you can’t, then you need to consider a different rig type or a different size of rig. While you are at it, imagine yourself making a quick trip to town to pick up a jug of milk. How exactly will you do that with the rig you have? Don’t forget your toys. Where do they go in this long stop configuration when you are not using them?

Freezing is an issue to consider all by itself. How will your rig react to freezing temperatures? If you plan on going up into the mountains or living in your rig full time how much cold weather will you be facing? Will you be spending spring and fall in the north somewhere? Will you want to wait until after Christmas to head south? If so, chances are you will encounter periods where temperatures drop below freezing, at least overnight. Will your rig be able to handle this? Are your water lines in a protected location that gets some heat from your furnace? What about the valves for dumping? Are they exposed to the freezing air so they will seize up on you? And what about your holding tanks? Are they heated or exposed? A holding tank won’t freeze up overnight if the temperature drops a little below zero but, what if your spend a week in the late fall where the temperature doesn’t rise about freezing? In that situation they will freeze solid if they can’t be warmed. Do you need to put out the extra money for an arctic package for camping in freezing temperatures? Can you just avoid the freezing temperatures? Can you drain the water from your rig so you don’t have any water in your system and live out of water in a 5 gallon jug sitting in the bathroom for a few days of freezing temperatures? Do you feel it is worth it to pay the extra for an arctic package that will allow you to camp nearly all year long? Can the rig be retrofitted for winter without costing as much as a whole new rig if you don’t go for the package now but might decide you want it later? While I am at this, make sure an arctic package is really an arctic packed that will actually make it through really cold weather and not just a few adds on for when the temp goes down to just a degree or two below freezing for one night. Our camper had a heating system that boasted it was good for extending the season due to underfloor ductwork but we still froze up solid one late November in British Columbia. (I will blog about that later.)

And then there is extreme heat. I have never had to deal with extreme heat. I know our trailer turns into a furnace at 30C without a breeze and open windows. I can’t imagine trying to get through an Arizona summer in it. If you are not heading north for the summer, you will need to investigate coping with heat just as much before you buy your rig.

Pull or Powered

Once you have considered and listed all the various ways you want to make your personal rig work for you, the first real decision to make is if you want a pull type rig that is towed behind a pulling vehicle or a self powered rig.

Advantages of the towed type rig:

One major advantage of towed rigs is that once you get there, you set up the towed part of your rig and you have your home base. You unpack your home base and settle in and don’t have to pack and repack every time you move within the area. You still have your pull vehicle to drive around in. If you like doing back country driving in hard to reach places and your pull vehicle is already a nice a pick up with 4 wheel drive, you’re set to go.

When you leave the campsite to go shopping or sight seeing you don’t need to worry about your site looking unoccupied. Many parks have a policy that if your campsite is empty you lose your campsite unless you have given official notice you’re coming back. With the twoed rig you are never left with the unpleasant job of having a fellow camper evicted because he mistook your empty spot for a vacant one. Towed types are also generally lighter overall than powered rigs so your travel gas mileage is potentially a lot less.

The biggest single advantage is your rig is in two separable packages. The trailer and the pulling vehicle represent two independent investments. If something happens you can replace either the pull rig or the pulling vehicle separately. You can also spread any upgrading into two stages starting with a fancy new pull rig and an older vehicle you already have, or vice versa.

Advantages of the powered type rig:

The greatest single advantage of powered rigs has to do with security. If you are boondocking and you feel threatened in your powered rig you can just walk to the front, start your vehicle and leave. There is no requirement to go outside and get into the towed vehicle. There is no hitch up procedure before you can escape.

A powered vehicle is usually a single unit and is also much easier to drive than towing something bigger and longer. There is no concern with the fact that you are hitching something to something else with a hitch in the middle. Turning is easier because there is no trailer following. Driving up and down hill in your self powered vehicle means not dealing with the extra weight of a trailer and preventing swaying, jack knifing, fishtailing and other potential accidents.

When you have a self powered type rig, you can also choose to pull something. If your ‘must have’ toy includes a speed boat for waterskiing then attach it to the back of your powered rig and go. If the powered rig is a larger one, it’s possible to tow a regular car. (There is one exception. In some states you can put a trailer behind a fifth wheel. In other states you can’t so investigate that carefully.) There’s just something not cool about showing up at a theatre production with a big old diesel four by four truck of the type required to tow a large fifth wheel. If the rig is a motor coach type, then it’s possible to bring along an ecofriendly hybrid to use once settled in at a long term camping spot. Depending on how much driving is required once you park the big rig, the money saved by having a small car for local travel may be more than the gas savings of the lighter pull type rig for getting there.

In the dealership:

Once all of these possible factors have been taken into consideration it will be time to start rig shopping. Your shopping should start on line not in a showroom. Check reviews on the manufacturer and the models. Look at the various floorplans and options. If you are buying a pull type rig be certain you write down exactly what you can safely pull for your model of pulling vehicle. Talk to your banker about a loan first. Chances are your banker will give you lower interest rates than what the dealer will offer because those loans are profit makers for the dealers and the profit comes from higher interest you will pay. You may choose the dealer’s loan because it is for a longer term than your bank can offer but check this first with your bank. Set your budget in advance and have a payment scheme worked out before you enter the showroom so you know if what the dealer is offering you is better.

Investigate what should come standard with your vehicle. We got a very low price for our travel trailer but the dealer (now out of business) charged us extra for batteries that should have been part of the standard package according to the manufacturer. He also charged us 50% more for those batteries than if we had just purchased them ourselves. Be well armed with pertinent information long before you go near a real rig.

When you see the sticker price ask what extras will be added to that base price. Extras that dealerships will try to add are long term warranties, special coatings to prevent rust and yellowing and all kinds of profit generating options you either may not need at all or that will be cheaper to purchase elsewhere. Our crooked dealer offered a “diamond coat” to prevent yellowing on all new trailers for a mere $2000. Their advertised price for doing the exact same thing to an older trailers was $950. When I asked about why it would be $1005 less to drive out, turn around and drive back in than do it before leaving, they had no good answer. I skipped the diamond coat and twice a year I do a good hand wash and wax. Examine all these extras carefully and don’t sign until you are sure.

A warranty may or may not be worth it. Ours has paid for itself. Being in our rig full time and putting a lot of miles on it, we figured it would. The main way it paid for itself was whenever we called they would connect us to an expert advisor who got us to do things like check fuses and avoid an expensive service stop and the costs and stress of interrupting our travel plans. They also covered most of one major repair. But many warranty plans are not worth it. If you only plan on a few weekends each summer you may not put enough miles on your vehicle to make use of the warranty. Also a warranty won’t cover do-it-yourself expenses. You can easily void your warranty if you aren’t careful about servicing exactly as recommended with a fully certified dealer on the manufacturer’s schedule. That may cost you more than you can save by doing maintenance work yourself. Consider the extended warranty very carefully.

The most important part of choosing a rig is that there are so many varied types that the perfect one is out there. There is no one right answer for everyone. What is perfect for you is not going to be perfect for someone else. The more time you spend considered options and researching your choice the better the fit will be and the happier you end up. You will also save money. So take the time to do it right. And once you find your perfect rig, enjoy it to the fullest.

Check list:

Who will be driving?

Where will we camp most often?

What kind of roads will we drive most often?

What will we use to travel to places nearby but too far to walk to?

Weight:

    Total of all

    Cargo in pull vehicle

    Cargo in towed vehicle

Water

    Fresh Water storage

    Grey Water storage

    Black Water storage

Height:

    Towed vehicle

    Pull vehicle (if separate)

Length:

    Towed vehicle & Pull Vehicle

    Pull Vehicle along (if separate)

Travel Mode:

    Physical

         Number of seats required

         Heat

         Air

         Special needs

         Kid space

         Pet space

         *Toy space (list must have toys such as bikes and fishing equipment and where they will be stored)

         Emergency tool/First aid access

 Road stops

     Gas fill ups

    Roadside stops with no facilities

    Roadside stops with picnic facilities

    Emergency toilet stops without facilities

    Toy stop (short term with unloading and reloading of toys)

Overnight Stops

    Set up before bed

    Take down before travel

    Water (food and drinking)

    Water (showering)

    Sewer

    Heat

    Cold

    Must have services at overnight stop.

Long Term Stops

    Likely length of long term stay

    Short trips (as in for groceries or to go sightseeing)

    Weather (how to handle)

         Heat

         Cold (down to freezing)

         Cold (below freezing)

         Wind/Rain

         Dangerous storms

Sleeping arrangements

    Kids

    Guests

    Pets

Daytime fair weather location all participants

Daytime bad weather location all participants

Other considerations

Toys

Cooking (inside propane)

Cooking (inside electricity)

Cooking (outside)

Floor plan must haves

Floor plan would prefer but could sacrifice

 

*Toys refers to grown up toys to enjoy while camping and can include motorcycles, bicycles, fishing equipment, off road vehicles, canoes, kayaks, and guns depending on your lifestyle choices.

Our first rig was a tent and a car. Watching others set up in their travel trailers convinced me that tents were not for me.

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