Over the weekend, Kara and I hooked up our new Aliner LXE camper and took it for its first official trip. We decided to stay in a KOA campground on Lake Conroe—a nice and attractive spot that was far enough away to feel like a real trip, and close enough that we could high-tail it home if things went south. The whole point was to test all the features, shake loose any kinks or bolts, and break in our new home away from home.
At the end of January we're going on our first long-range trip to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary—first with a jaunt to Disney World (where we had our honeymoon ... Because geeky), then through Florida and Lousiana, stopping at points of interest and various campgrounds as we slowly make our way back to Texas. If something wasn't right with the camper, we would much rather find out while a little closer to home.
As part of the fun and festivities, we settled on a name for the camper: The Tumble Inn.
Sure, an obvious play on our last name, but it's also an homage to an earlier dream of mine, and a nod to my friends, who grew up calling me by the nickname "Tumble."
And though that's a perfectly good name, we also decided to give the girl her own special nickname—something Kara could get giddy over. So I give you ... Tumblelina. Because ... er ... reasons.
With all the naming out of the way, now to the important bits! As shakedowns and dry runs go, this was a really good one. We had all the major elements:
It was cold—The local temperature ended up in the high 30s and low 40s all night, so we had to use the furnace and our 20*F sleeping bags. This has convinced me that I need two LP tanks, a gauge on each one to show their level, and a split regulator so I can run from both without having to manually switch them (say, in the middle of a cold and dreary night).
After a chat with an old friend of mine, who has done quite a bit of camper camping, I also think I should get more electric appliances and rely on those more than propane. The propane keeps our water hot, and can keep the chill off of us, but the furnace, stove, water heater, fridge (when it's on propane) and whatever else can burn through that propane quickly. So it's best to use electric when we're in a site that has hookups, and save the propane for when we need it most.
The bed was just ok—We more or less knew the bed was going to be tough when we went into this, but we kind of needed a "set point."
The bed cushions themselves are as hard as a rock. But if you put one of those sleeping bags on top of it, you can get a certain amount of cushion and comfort. We plan to buy a foam mattress topper for it, and that combined with the sleeping bags should make for a very comfy bed.
I personally think I'd rather have a blanket than a sleeping bag. But I think I could use the sleeping bag as extra cushion and a bit of extra warmth if it's particularly cold. Kind of like a combo bed cushion/comforter.
The shower and toilet were a really good idea—At first, I wasn't entirely sure about the shower and toilet being inside that tiny space. And honestly, I didn't want to have to deal with the mess and potential existential crisis of emptying a toilet tank (more on this later). But after just one night and morning, I'm sold.
The shower is kind of a cramped space, and we're still working out the best solution for a shower curtain, but I was able to soap up and rinse off with little trouble. And I don't think we were in jeopardy of emptying the six-gallon tank on the water heater. I went a little light on hot water usage, but not that light. And there was still plenty of hot water in the tank when we were done for the day.
I was surprised at how well the water heat worked, actually. The water didn't get to 'scalding' really, but it was hot enough that you didn't necessarily want to run it full blast on certain body bits. On a really cold day, in a slightly drafty camper, it was nice to have hot water and be able to get clean, without necessarily having to get dressed, trudge to the local campground shower and bathroom, and then have to dress and come back.
The shower curtain is kind of a thing, though.
We're working on replacements for the cheap and flimsy one the dealer bought for us (presumably at Walmart). We have some ideas.
And as for the toilet ... That came in very handy for what I like to call "the midnight pee." Typically, one or the other of us gets up at least once in the middle of the night, and it's kind of a hassle to go out of the camper and find the restroom, in the dark, in the cold and drizzle. At some point late in the night, Kara got up to take care of business, and all was well. I didn't even hear the act itself, just the flush afterward. Which, oddly, is kind of important to me.
We've made a decision, though, that the onboard toilet is for liquids and toilet paper only. In an extreme or emergency situation we can use it for solids, but we'd like to avoid that forever (and ever, and ever). For starters, I don't particularly want to mess with emptying and cleaning that tank afterward. But also ...
No, that's pretty much all of it. Thats the whole thing, right there. That's just disgusting. Yikes.
We'll deal with that if we ever boondock. You gotta do what you gotta do. But I think I have some other solutions for that. TBD.
Space was tight, but not unbearable—In most cases, you're going to be more or less on top of each other. There's enough space that each person can sit or lay down without invading the other's personal space, but if you're up and active, it's impossible to do much of anything at the same time while inside the camper.
For example, there will be no cooking or heating of anything while someone is using the shower. Can't happen. Not without disastrous results. And no one wants disastrous results while naked.
Likewise, there will be no splitting of kitchen duties. One person dominates the cooking area. One person *could* prep things on the folding table, but that's about it.
I think most of that can be mitigated, though, by one of us doing something outside the camper while the other does something inside. So, for example, for dinner I was cooking hot dogs on the electric grill outside the camper while Kara was getting the place put together and ready for us to just chill for the evening. In this way, we could actually both be cooking something for us to eat. She could use the propane stove, and I could use the electric grill or the fire pit (if the campground has one).
Probably not going to be much of an issue, though.
Despite being a little tight, the camper actually read more as 'cozy.' I never felt like I was trapped or that I couldn't move. I sometimes got frustrated when I needed to be in an area while cooking, and Kara was doing something there. My biggest frustration was with a lack of counter space, but I think we have some good ideas about how to free that up.
There's not much in way of storage space in the camper, and we're working on that. We think we can do a lot with Velcro and plastic hooks and little hanging bags. There are some points in the camper where you can actually hang heavier stuff, if you have a mind to, so we'll work on that as well.
All in all, the impression we left with was "we can work with this." We have lots of ideas about organization and space utilization. We both like that sort of thing. And we're both good at it. We'll likely end up making that space uber-specialized, so that we have everything in its place, and we can do whatever we need to do with no trouble.
We know it's weather proof ... To a point—First, it was good that it was cold. We were able to see right away that the seals around the door were a joke. We could feel breezes coming through there. And when you're up close to the siding of the camper, you can definitely feel the temperature difference.
We're thinking we can rig up some kind of canvas curtain to block the door while we're in it, which should help keep the heat and cold loss to a minimum. We can make it something that we can Velcro in place, so it's easy to remove and put back up.
There are likely all sorts of spaces like that all over the camper. We'll have to suss them out and find ways to mitigate the loss of cool or warm air. I'm pretty sure it's going to be tough to keep the whole thing cooled down when Summer hits. The AC seems to be a good one—but it's the only piece of equipment we didn't get a chance to test out on this trip.
While we were sleeping, I heard it start to rain. It wasn't a downpour, but I could hear the drops sort of tinkling on the plastic dome that is the window above our bed.
I was a little concerned that we might have leaks at various points in the roof, especially through the the fan vent. We had that wide open and blowing outward to suck the smell of "new furnace" out of the place, and to help with airflow and circulation. But even with it wide open, not a drop of water go in.
It might be different if there's a downpour, but for a light rain, at least, we were fine. I was happy with it.
We've discovered that we'll definitely need some kind of rugs for the front entrance and for the area in front of the shower. Kara has ideas about that. I'm also thinking of getting one of those wrap-around rugs for the front step, which will help keep us from tracking dirt and mud inside.
Drains, leaks, and dumping (oh my)—I bought a water tank that we can use for gray water, but we never actually got to use it. I had hooked up a short water hose to an adapter that the RV dealer gave us, and ran the hose to our new gray water tank. But the whole system is gravity fed. So two things worked against us on that: We were slightly off level (I'm buying a T-level to help with that), and the hose put extra pressure on the line, preventing it from draining easily.
Basically, it was easier for the water to stay in the system than to drain into the tank.
As soon as I unscrewed the hose, though, the gray water made a run for it. I wasn't able to get the tank under it in time, so we basically sent water filled with dish soap and scrambled egg remnants straight onto the concrete pad we were using. It wasn't bad, really, but I wouldn't want to just turn that out with reckless abandon.
Plus, the reason we weren't quite level was because the pad wasn't quite level, so all the water that came out of the drain ended up going under the camper and pooling right at our front step. Which meant we were tracking it in and out of the camper.
That wasn't the only fun water-related story, though.
When we were preparing the camper so we could leave, I wanted to make sure all water was drained from it. This was sort of my dry run for weatherizing it. And though I didn't have antifreeze to run through the lines, I at least had the ability to drain all the known water retaining pipes and tubes.
I opened the plug for the water heater, and let that spew all over me before draining to the ground—kind of a flaw in the design here, Aliner ... FYI.
I didn't see any harm in letting that one just drain to the ground—it was just pure water, after all. And after a few minutes, it was empty and I put the plug back on.
I drained the grey water tank, as described above. I'll do that differently in the future, collecting the water in a container and dumping it somewhere appropriate.
And so we come to the most fun a camper can provide.
I avoided this task to the very last minute. For starters, on the tour that the guys at the dealership gave me, this was one of the most complicated things I was shown. It was deceptive. They use terms like "cartridge," and "easy fill valve" and "disposal valve." But when you look at this thing, and think about how it actually works, and what it actually contains ...
There's nothing simple about it.
And there was no way around it.
I was going to have to carry a tank filled with pee and toilet paper and blue goo, and dump it without getting it all over me.
In my head, there was no way I was getting out of this without getting blue pee water in my mouth. *Shiver.*
But this was the ride I signed up for. This was part of the package. It was this, or we just rent hotel rooms from now on. It had to be done.
So I took a deep breath, opened the door to the toilet cartridge, and started figuring things out.
I pulled the cartridge free, as shown by the overly simplified directions, and was dismayed to see "moisture" around the brim of the tank. I really figured that *everything* should be contained, with no room for leaking. But that didn't seem to be possible.
I ignored that, and pushed the little plastic door down over the flap of the tank hole. Then I pulled the handle free, so that I could roll the cartridge to the septic drain.
So far, so good.
I was able to turn the top from the septic drain by hand, and get that open. Which meant that I was soon staring down into a white and blue-smeared abyss of the PVC pipe of Disgusting Doom.
And ... It wasn't that bad.
No smell, no remnants, and no existential horror. Yet.
I adjusted the cartridge so it was standing, and per the instructions I twisted off the cap for the drain pipe. Then, in a move I learned from Indiana Jones as he swapped a bag of sand for an ancient idol—I acted.
I tilted the drain pipe into the septic pipe, and let the contents splash merrily into the darkness below. I gave the whole thing a good shake, just to get rid of any toilet paper remnants. And I managed to fight the gag reflex as I thought about what it would look, feel, smell, and sound like if there were ... *gag* solid bits in the tank.
Ok, all melodrama and OCD convulsions aside, if I'm going to honest about the whole thing—it wasn't that bad. In fact, it was as easy as the RV guys led me to believe.
To that point.
I went back to the camper, and (after wiping the cartridge down with a Clorox wipe) inserted the whole mechanism back into the slot where it belonged.
At this point I noticed a small, clear plastic gauge with water in it. This is the toilet reserve tank level, showing how much water is in the toilet tank, on standby for flushing. It is apparently independent of the rest of the camper's water supply, because it was down to about 2/3 of maximum even though we were still hooked up to the campgrounds water line.
I wanted to drain all water from the system, mostly as a matter of practice and routine, so I told Kara to start flushing the toilet.
This worked, thankfully. I watched the water level go down immediately.
And then I watched water start pooling under the tank, and draining into the crevices and cracks under the camper's floorboards.
Apparently, when I reinserted the cartridge, I didn't get it lined up or pushed in correctly. Something was amiss. Which meant that instead of the water going into the toilet tank, it was going all over the under flooring of the camper.
I quickly grabbed paper towels to dry up some of the mess, and pulled the cartridge so I could give it another shot.
This time, I had Kara check from her side, and we verified that the drain hole was aligned with the toilets drain hole. When she did a dry flush, it opened and closed the tank with no trouble.
So we used the rest of the water up, letting it flow into the drain tank, and I then took that back to the septic drain and had a much less nauseating time sending it off.
Lessons were learned—On the whole, the trip was the kind of success I hoped for, and even our "disaster" was pretty tame. We managed to give just about every aspect of the camper a first use, and nothing blew up, fell apart, or killed anyone.
We learned some of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the camper—the Tumble Inn. And we have a whole list of things we need to buy, build, modify, and install for our next trip.
On the whole, I think it was a great maiden voyage. And I can't wait to get back out there and try it out again.
I'm actually kind of excited about the modifications and updates we can make to it. That's where Kara and I both shine. We're good at space. We're good at organization. We may not always agree on the best way to handle it, but we're both good at coming up with clever solutions to these sorts of problems.
We may take one more small weekend trip before our big trip at the end of January. But even if we don't manage that, I feel pretty good about where we are with the Tumble Inn. And I'm really looking forward to the adventures ahead.