Hauling Water

I often get questions about how to haul water when an RV site doesn’t have running water handy. How exactly do you get enough water to fill the tank and how exactly do you store the storage container when you are done hauling? We use a handy dandy small modified water bed style bag made by “Fold A Tank” from New World Manufacturing for under $50. I like things that work! Since I complained so much last post, I decided to do a post on something that I bought which worked even better than I expected.

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Name

This bag folds neatly and can be put away in a sturdy box. I use an old Tupperware one I had kicking around. Sturdy is better to prevent it from getting punctures. The box also contains assorted parts and a repair kit it came with in case of punctures. I added a bottle of water purifying stuff just in case I am ever stuck without a safe water supply. In 5 1/2 years this has not happened, but I am prepped for if it ever does.

Unfold

Water bag needs to be unfolded.

Place

Bag is placed on the roof of the pick up. You want it to be up high because it needs to siphon off at the other end. If you have to go a long distance on the highway it would be better off in the back of the truck.

Undertosecure

I slip the bag partly under the cross bar we use for the canoe. This means when full the bag is nice and secure. The manufacturer warns that if you turn the corner fast with the full bag on top….well just don’t do that.

Attach to water source

Connect the hose at both ends and turn on the water. I highly recommend asking permission first. We’ve only been turned down once. In this case, the public library was also the town’s officially designated campground water source.

Filling

Here the bag is filling. You can see the little valve that is essential. Open while filling, closed while driving, open while draining. I have discovered it is important to get that sequence right or you’ll get all wet and the whole process takes a lot longer. While it fills you stand around and wait for locals to come by and say something intelligent like “Getting some water, eh?” It is also important to actually be standing around monitoring the filling for reasons having nothing to do with enjoying riveting conversations with the locals. The manufacturer does not recommend overfilling. There is a little valve on top that is good for removing any air bubbles and it might prevent a rupture if you go for coffee but then again, it might not.

Return

The bag is full and we’re ready to return. Elapsed time since departing our campsite, 20 minutes.

FillTrailer

I place the hose nozzle with male to male adapter into the trailer fresh water fill port. Our tank takes 40 gallons to fill and the bag carries about 50. The siphon process is slow and typically takes about 30-45 minutes to finish. I normally shower while the tank is being filled since it had ten gallons extra anyway. We also top up any of our smaller water jugs if they are low.

Because the bag empties by a siphon drain process, the bag ends up virtually sucked empty and can be neatly and easily folded and put away. Total time including my shower, under one hour. The amount of water hauled is enough for us to live on for two days, including daily showers and dishes. Being able to camp where there is no running water can save a lot of money. For example, by hauling our own water twice during a week stay (we also filled up the trailer directly at the library before parking) we spent 2 1/2 hours hauling water for one person and 1 hour for the two of us hauling our honey wagon to the dump site and emptying it. (I am not including my photographer’s time.) 5 hours meant a $149.70 in savings over the nearest full service campsite in town and divide that by two of us working for 5 hours and it works out to $29.94 an hour (tax free). Plus we got to camp in a lovely place on a lake out in the country instead of in a gravel parking lot on the south end of Winnipeg. And we got some exercise and had fascinating conversations with the pleasant friendly local town’s folk.

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Posted in fall camping, Retirement, RVing, spring camping, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Keeping the Cat In ~ Those Really Stupid RV Doors.

CatDoor

It seems that all travel trailers, fifth wheelers and many other recreational vehicles are equipped with these really poorly designed latches. I have yet to meet anyone who likes the stupid doors. Approached from the outside, the latches have a handle you need to pull down and then you need to pull the door out without putting any pressure on the latch. From the inside you need to recognize the long white thing has a square you push to one side and then you push the latch down. You have to push the door outward without exerting any strain on the latch. If you put strain on the pushing out or pulling in, either the latch itself will break or the black plastic face plate on the latch will crack and fall apart. Try explaining that to an exuberant grandchild. The only people who seem to benefit from this really poor design are the owners of RV shops where the replacement parts are sold for anywhere from $9 to $30 dollars depending on how much of a local monopoly the place has and how far from a big city they are.

And then there is my cat. It took him about a week to figure out how to work that sliding white latch cover to let himself out. He doesn’t worry about the latch, slide that cover over and you have a lovely cat sized door. He watched us intently every time we went in or out and then he just started playing with the door. I don’t think he’s all that clever, it’s just that being a cat, well what else has he got to do all day between cat naps? That sliding white latch cover when left open by departing cats and grandchildren also provides the perfect opening to let mosquitos, no-see-ums, wasps and other pests fly in. And so with some ingenuity, and a few kludges we have fixed it.

SAM_3222

To prevent breakage of the cover on the black latch, my husband took a bit of leftover steel sheet metal and some heavy duty metal scissors and reinforced the latch cover. (He called that latch plate cover the Rudlatch since the first adult to break our door was none other than the late scientist naturalist and writer Anne Rudloe.) He added a small kitchen cupboard handle to grab and pull on which prevents the latch from being broken. It is situated exactly where the hand of grandchildren naturally grabs and pulls so the latch itself does not get broken off. To keep the cat in and grandchildren from leaving the white slide open so it lets in bugs, we use a small bungie cord. These small bungie cords are hard to find so stock up when you see them. Hubby dearest drilled a tiny hole to keep the bungie cord in place on the outer side after the cat figured out how to send the bungie cord flying before making a break for it. With the bungie cord in place, the inside latch cover can be slid over to reach the latch and exit but it automatically pops back into place without a reminder to grandchildren that will just be ignored anyway.

The bungie cord defeated the cat for a couple of years but he did eventually figure out how to open the door by throwing his weight against the bottom corner. The door is flexible enough it would pop open. The dogs soon figured out his trick would work for them too. After a few wild chases through the poison ivy, we developed the fourth modification. This was the installation of a wing nut on a bolt that can be turned to secure the door. It is placed in a spot where it is easy to reach in and spin it from the outside. The cat is already nine years old, and it should take him at least a couple of more years to figure that one out. Maybe he will be too old to want to roam by then.

The cat sign was a gift from our friends Joan and the late Ed Carriere and has some very fond memories.

ATTENTION RV DESIGNERS! PLEASE STEAL THESE IDEAS AND MAKE THEM A STANDARD PART OF DOORS! I AM BEGGING YOU PLEASE!!!!

Posted in cat training, cats, Rv Repair, RVing, traveling with pets | Leave a comment

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

 

RacingtheStorm

Severe thunderstorm with large hail forming in Manitoba in 2005. Note the farmer combining right up until the storm hit hoping to get as much of his harvest up as possible. (Photo by Dick Gordon)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

Posted in RVing, severe thunderstorms, severe weather, snowbird, tornados | Leave a comment

Surviving Severe Weather as a Fulltimer Part 4: Fog.

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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.

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