Sunset in the Coconino National Forest, looking northeast toward Sedona, AZ, 4/17/15

Friday, July 3, 2015

Outside Living Product Reviews,
Feb-May 2015

I wanted to make my camp site more convenient and usable while being at a single location for weeks at a time.  I've always considered myself living out of my car (vs. in it).  That continued to be true even with the limited number of miles I traveled.

In this post I'll be reviewing the kitchen table on the left;
the umbrella with stand in the middle (folded up), and
the mat on the ground to the right.  BLM land in Ehrenberg, 2/26/15  


Unfortunately, none of these 3 extra items that I took for outside living proved to be real winners.

Although not exactly like the older camp kitchen I brought with me, this one is
fairly similar.  Click on image to view in amazon.com.  

I've had the camp kitchen that I brought with me for about 10 years.  It's very functional and well built.  But, it takes up quite a bit of room so haven't taken it in the Prius in the past.  And, that's the same reason I won't be taking it with me for future snowbirding; it takes up too much storage space (36"x18"x3").  Although convenient once set up, I really don't need it unless I'm cooking for more than just me.  Instead, I can cook under my hatch (teardrop-trailer-galley style) just fine. When I need more counter space to cook for a crowd, I'll borrow a table.  Or, I'll get a different counter-height table that folds up smaller, if I can find one.

Similar to the 9' crank tilt umbrella that I brought with me.
 Click on image to view in amazon. 

Like the camp kitchen, I've had the shade umbrella and stand for many years.  I knew I'd have days of hot sunshine and would want some shade.  I use umbrellas for that purpose at my house; so, thought I'd try one while being a snowbird.  I brought a 9' market umbrella made of light weight aluminum.  It had a crank and titled.  But, even when disassembled, it's larger than I'd like to carry in the Prius (55"x6"x6").  My goal is to keep all of my gear below window level and that was not possible with this umbrella.


This stand is similar to the one I brought while being a snowbird.
 Click on image to view in amazon.com.

Because I was trying to reduce the amount of weight and space used by my gear, I took our smallest and lightest stand (about 35 lbs.).  I secured it at the front floor which meant I needed to unpack almost everything to access it.  But, when the sun was hot, I was sure glad for the shade. Unfortunately, this lighter-weight stand wasn't up to keeping the umbrella upright with the winds.  I had to also tether the umbrella to the car to keep it from tipping over and blowing away. Sadly, a large wind gust came up while in Moab.  It turned the umbrella inside out, breaking and bending its ribs.  For my next snowbirding trip, I'm researching how to make shade with a mesh tarp that will withstand the winds.  The trick will be to figure out how to stake it in the sand and rocks.

The 4'x6' version of this reversible RV mat was still too big
for using with my Prius.  Instead, I'll keep it to use with our Class C.
Click on image to view in amazon.com.  
I like the look and function of a rug.  So, I got a 4'x6' reversible RV mat.  A rug makes a campsite feel homey and inviting.  And, it also keeps me from tracking so much dirt into the car. But, I only used it about 20% of the time.  Sometimes it was too windy.  Even with rocks piled on, it would blow away.  Other times it was too wet and muddy.  The whole mat would sink down, oozing mud through the weave with each step.  And another time there wasn't enough room to lay it out without having to dig up plants, which I won't do.  So, I ended up using a small rag rug most of the time.



My favorite travel chair so far.  Click on image to view in amazon.com.  

The chair I brought this year isn't specific to being a snowbird.  I've brought a chair with me on my travels every year.  But, I like this one so well that I wanted to do a product review on it.   It sits up a bit higher than the umbrella chairs I've used in the past, as well as provides better support.  It also folds up smaller than any other director's chair that I've seen (16.5"x 2.5"x 17.5").  It's a bit heavier at 9lbs.  My only complaint is that I needed to re-glue Velcro to the frame.

That's the end of my product reviews from my 2015 snowbird stays.  Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Product Reviews for Power,
Snowbirding Feb-May 2015

Although my Prius provides power very efficiently while in "park," it still uses some fuel to keep its own batteries charged.  And, when the engine runs to recharge its batteries, it creates noise which I want to avoid. So, I found additional, quieter means of getting power to recharge my electronics.

When driving, I use a 5-way USB splitter to recharge my devices and batteries.
It is plugged into one of the Prius' 12v ports.
Courthouse Butte, Red Rock Scenic Byway.  Sedona, AZ  4/22/15
In the past I've gone into coffee shops or fast food places to recharge my electronics while enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee.  Since I was mostly boondocking in the back country, I had little opportunity to recharge my devices at various food joints.  So, I decided to try some external lithium batteries along with a solar panel, while also conserving power as much as possible.

5 Port USB charger used to recharge my devices and batteries
from the Prius.  Click on image to view on amazon.com.

To conserve power, I used my smart phone as much as possible, instead of my 2-in-1 tablet/laptop.  I'm online a lot.  The smart phone uses much less power than the tablet/laptop.  After a while, I learned to do almost everything on my smart phone, except tasks that took lots of typing or photo editing.  All electronics were turned off when I wasn't using them.  Instead of using my smartphone for an alarm clock, I got a cheap LED watch that I hung by my bed.  I kept my phone off while I slept.  To reduce my need for lighting, I tried to go to bed and wake with the sun.  I replaced the Prius' dome light with a small LED to use when needed.

This cheap LED watch hung next to my bed, used in lieu of my phone to
conserve power.  The red time only shows when the watch face is pressed.
Click on image to view on amazon.com.  

For solar power, I used the Goal Zero's Nomad7 system.  I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it charged my devices and external batteries.  It was much faster than 110 connections in town or 12v ports in the car.  My depleted 18.6Ah lithium battery would get about 85% full when hooked up to the panel on a sunny day.   I would typically set the panel on the roof of the Prius, reorienting toward the sun throughout the day (if I remembered).  When the sun was shinning, I could, go 3-4 days without needing to use my car for power.  

Goal Zero Nomad 7w Solar Panel System.  Click on image to view on amazon.com.


In addition to charging the batteries in my electronic devices, I also charged several external lithium batteries that I used to power my devices (10, 13 and 16.8 Ah).  The 10Ah external lithium battery not only had charging ports, but was a car battery jump starter which I used once.  I was very pleased that something so small and light could jump start my car.

Anker 13Ah External Battery.  Click on image to view on amazon.com. 


16.8Ah External Battery. Click on image to view on amazon.com.



10Ah external battery with jump starter. Click on image to view on amazon.com


With these batteries fully charged, I could use my smartphone, laptop and hotspot all day and into the evening.  If we had more than one day of clouds, I needed to use my car or go into town to recharge my devices.

I recommend all of the above products.

However, before I am a snowbird again I will do some additional research and probably make a few changes.  I've heard that lithium batteries do not have a very long shelf life.  So, by next winter I may need to find replacements.  I also would like a large enough solar array to be able to fully recharge all of my devices and batteries in one sunny day.

One item I will not bring with me again is a conventional jump starter.  It seemed like a good idea because in addition to jumping a dead battery, it also had charging ports (USB and 12v), an air compressor, and work light.  At 11"x11"x9" and 18 pounds, however, it was difficult to secure for travel and, at the same time, remain accessible for use.  I'd rather just stick with the small lithium jump starter (pictured above) and get a small compressor to replace this item.  On the bright side, John was happy to get this surprise "gift" to assist the weak battery in his daily driver.


A conventional jump starter battery with charging ports, and air compressor.  
Click on image to view on amazon.com.  

More product reviews to come.

Friday, June 26, 2015

First Product Reviews,
Snowbirding 2015

Here is a start on reviewing some of the products I used while being a snowbird from February through May 2015.   Whenever possible, I'll provide links to amazon.com or other online retailers where I purchased the item.

My '04 Prius has been a great travel vehicle for me.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park, Tucson, AZ    2/5/14 

For both context, as well as to reiterate its importance, I'd say my Prius was my most important piece of equipment.  While in the back country as a snowbird, it served as a hard-sided tent where I slept, the back-up power for my electronics, a place to lounge out of the weather, and a windbreak and platform for cooking under the hatch.  In addition, it performed admirably doing what any vehicle is expected to do -- got me from point A to point B and  hauled lots of gear -- while being thoroughly dependable with more than 200K miles.  The icing on the cake is that I got more than 40 MPG.

Click on photo of MSR Dromedary Bag  to see it at amazon.com.

The most unusual looking gear I bought to be a snowbird was the MSR Dromedary Bags.  Each 10-liter bladder holds over 2.5 gallons.  I got 4 because I wanted to be able to spend at least 10 days between visits into town.  In the past I'd used hard-plastic water containers, but I had no room in the Prius to carry more than 3 of those 1-gallon containers.  In comparison, the bladders become flat and pliable when empty, and can be rolled up to fit in small spaces, taking up almost no space when empty.  At backpacking stores you have several brands of water bladders to choose from.  I selected the MSR brand because it is very sturdy and difficult to puncture.  I carry water on top of my bed; so, I didn't want to take a chance of any leaks.  I decided to spend the extra money and get the best.

Click on photo of  the Domentary Bag spigot to see it at amazon.com.

The bags take some practice to be able to fill and use without spilling water.  But, after a few cycles, I got so I could get them full, as well as transfer water into my drinking bottles inside the car without any spills.  These worked so well, I don't think I'll ever go back to regular hard-plastic containers again, even when not being a snowbird.  I ordered a spigot that I expect will make getting water out of the bag even easier.

Click on photo of the Dromedary Bag shower attachment to see it at amazon.com.

 Since the bags are black, water heats up quickly when set out in direct sun.  This is great for taking showers or pre-heating water for cooking.  I got a shower attachment and look forward to trying that out in the future.  For the most part, I didn't want my water to heat up; so, I got a white shower curtain from a dollar store and wrapped it over the water bladder.  This kept the water inside cool while the bag was in direct sunlight.

The MSR Dromedary Bag covered with the white shower curtain to
keep it out of direct sunlight and the water inside cool.  4/16/15 

The new piece of gear in which I was most surprised at it's usefulness was the little 2-person tent I bought. Although I originally intended it to be a bathroom tent, it proved too small and awkward for that purpose.  Instead it became a storage "shed" when I intended to stay at a place any longer than a week.  I didn't stake or tie down the tent, instead I placed heavy items in each corner (water, food boxes, umbrella stand).  I also used the tent to store large items when the weather was bad (umbrella, tables, chair, rug).  And it was nice to get sometimes-stinky bags out of the car until I went into town (trash and dirty clothes).  I also put any food I was trying to keep cool (produce, eggs, cheese) in the tent at sundown because it got cooler in the tent than in the car at night.

Click on photo of the tent to see it at amazon.com.

The Genji Sports Instant Tent held up to high desert winds and thunder storms, even though it was never staked or tied down.  Although, once it flipped on its side during a storm while I was in Moab getting water.  It proved amazingly sturdy.  I like that it has a full rain fly.  And, I especially like that it's so easy and quick to put up and take down.  It works somewhat like an umbrella, with its jointed supporting rods on the outside.  It is easier than any other tent I've seen to both put up and take down.

The Genji Instant Tent after 4-months of use,  Moab, UT.  5/24/15  

This post is getting too long, so I will continue my product reviews in subsequent blog posts.