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Life in the back of a truck (part 4)

April 9th, 2009

This is part of an ongoing series on what it’s like to live in a truck camper fulltime. You may read other articles here:

  1. Part One – The fulltime lifestyle
  2. Part Two – Why a truck camper?
  3. Part Three – Weights & Dealing with them
  4. Part Four – Boondocking resource conservation

Gordon recently posed a question over at the Truck Camper Magazine blog that seemed like a great idea for the next part of our Life in the back of a truck series. He’s curious just how long his readers can boondock and what tricks they use to manage it. I got a bit long winded, but here’s my response.

The resources we have to work with are:

  • 46 gallons of fresh water
  • ~300 amp hours of battery in 2 Trojan T-1275 12V batteries
  • 60 pounds of propane in 2 30# tanks
  • A Honda eu2000i generator
  • ~4.5 gallons of gasoline plus whatever is in the scooter and generator (up to around 2 gallons if both are full)

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Still, we manage to do fairly well when we find a place we want to stay for a while. It takes a little effort to conserve resources, but we manage to live quite comfortably for up to a two week stretch without running out of anything or breaking out a military desert survival handbook. Just how do we make these resources last and what sacrifices does it take, you ask? Well, read on to get a taste of the Hitek Homeless lifestyle!

In moderate weather, propane generally lasts us around 6-8 weeks running the fridge and cooking. If we’re in the freezing or below range, two weeks is about tops – gotta keep the kitties warm even if we’re not inside. Warm means around 55. They’ve got fur coats and we’ve got blankets. Unless we’re about to take on water and ready for a ‘luxurious’ shower, we generally don’t even turn on the hot water heater. The stove heats water quicker because you’re only heating enough for an ‘army bath’ rather than the entire hot water tank.

Gasoline is split between the scooter and the generator. That breaks down to something in the middle of  250 miles of exploration or 40 hours of generator time. If we’re in a heavy internet usage mode, we’ll be recharging laptops off the inverter and need to run the generator for about 4 hours every 2-3 days. In cold enough weather to run the furnace, we’ll typically run the generator 1-2 hours every evening.

Electric conservation is really pretty simple. If you’re done with something, turn it off! During the day, there is little need for lights and in the evening, one above the area you’re using is typically enough. Most of the time, there’s only a single light on in the camper unless one of us is cooking or laying in bed reading while the other is on the couch.

Speaking of lighting, we shelled out a small fortune for LED lighting back around Christmas. Except for the ‘vanity colored’ light in the bathroom and a small incandescent over the stove, all of the lighting inside and out of the camper is LED or fluorescent. The LED lights aren’t quite as bright as incandescent, but it’s bright enough for us and uses roughly 10% of the electricity.

And what typically runs us out is… water, or lack thereof. In nice weather, with a secluded spot next to a stream, we can do laundry, dishes and bathe without touching the holding tanks. Of course, you want to boil the water for dishes and at least get it warm for a shower, so a campfire is in order if you’re trying to save propane as well as water! When you’re done, spread the water around a bit instead of create a giant a puddle or toss it back in the stream to contaminate the water supply. The rest of the time, it usually comes down to: how clean do you really need to be?

Military showers and washing hair once a week instead of with every shower will stretch the water budget quite a bit. If we’ve been out a while and are water conscious because we aren’t ready to move, I may go as far as a full blown shower and hair washing in a gallon and a half of water. There’s probably still a bit of shampoo that doesn’t get rinsed out, but the critters don’t seem to mind.

Military showers are simple: get wet, soap up, rinse off. Do all of the above with as little water use as possible. You can either turn off the shower head while soaping up or save more water by using the sink to hold water and a washcloth to get wet and rinse off. I usually prefer to use the sink because if we’ve turned the hot water heater on, I can just let it run into the sink until the water gets hot. You don’t waste any of the cold water that way and end up with a sink full of warm water for bathing.

When it comes to dishes, we usually cook once or twice a day. If we don’t have guests, we usually manage to cook a one pot meal of some sort. Plates get burned in the campfire! Most nights, cleanup consists of one pot, maybe a lid and a couple of forks or spoons. Water glasses and coffee mugs probably aren’t up to restaurant standards. A quick swirl to knock the grinds out of a coffee cup and mostly ignoring water spots on water glasses is pretty typical.

Dish washing still takes water, but we’ve found that you can save a lot of it by picking the largest pot to hold your soapy water. There’s no reason to fill up an entire side of the sink with dishwater. Just put enough soap and water into the pot to clean the dirty dishes. Grab a dishcloth and you’ll get plenty of soap and water on the dishes to get them clean. Pile all of the washed dishes up in the same side of the sink and rinse the entire batch at once. Not all at once… that takes too much water! Just rinse one above all of the others, allowing the runoff to help get soap off of the next dishes as a sort of pre-rinse. It doesn’t take a lot of water pressure to rinse dishes. A thin trickle will do it; it just takes a little longer.

Garbage is also a consideration. Just how much do you want to pack out and how ripe is it going to be? We use basic clay cat litter, so I feel no qualms about digging a hole to bury it in away from the camping area and any trails. Leftovers don’t exist! Unless there’s a fire ban, we’ll typically burn any paper or cardboard packaging materials. After shopping, I’ll usually unpackage things like meat and repackage in freezer bags sized for the two of us. It stacks better, I can do any necessary butchering all at once, we can thaw out just what we’re going to eat that day, and we get rid of those icky styrofoam containers in the store parking lot rather than have them stink up the camper later. Things like banana peels, apple cores and coffee grounds get tossed under a bush where they rapidly degrade or feed something.

Even with all of that, we still end up with metal and plastic garbage that can’t be burned. Well, you could, but come on… who wants to breathe burning plastic or turn cans into balls of slag at the bottom of a fire pit? Normally, we just use our grocery bags for garbage collection, but if we’re out long enough that the bags start overflowing or stinking, they go in an actual garbage bag, get tied up nice and tight and tossed in the cab of the truck where we don’t have to smell it until we’re ready to air the cab out and leave.

Food has never really been an issue. Since we don’t have a microwave or oven, we’ve got lots of extra room for food. The Arctic Fox 1140 has plenty of storage space and we could probably go two months between shopping trips if we really tried. All those nights around the campfire do call for the occasional mixed drink. How do you carry a lot of fruit juice around without taking up too much room? Frozen juice! There are several brands of very tasty frozen juice mix that actually uses 100% juice. The trick is finding some you like at a good price. When you do though, you can easily store enough for five gallons or so without taking up too much freezer or fridge space.

So how long do we actually stay out in the middle of nowhere? Usually after a week or so, we’re ready to find a new spot and start looking for whatever we need – water, dump station, a nice big trashcan and maybe a few gallons of gasoline or propane. If we have a nice spot and plenty to do, two weeks is pretty typical. Longer than that and Jenn starts telling me I stink. With better water conservation and a stream for bathing, I’d say a month is pretty doable before we’d have to start doing things like distilling our own drinking water, worrying about food spoiling or going through Internet withdrawals.

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5 Responses to “Life in the back of a truck (part 4)”

  1. Sheila says:

    You may want to try washing yourselves with tea tree oil and some water. Would smell good and can be used for cuts. Here’s a website I found for its uses. Edit: website removed.

    Also you forgot to mention how long you can boondock with your toilet setup (what kind of toilet is it?). Thanks!

  2. johnny says:

    Note: I removed the URL above as it is a commercial site selling tea tree oil. We get so many spam comments, it is simpler to remove the potential spammed URL and leave what appears to be a standard comment in place. If you are curious about tea tree oil, google it. =)

    As to how long our black tanks hold out… at least twice as long as our water. I typically dump the black tank every other fill up in order to prevent as much toilet paper and other gunk from sticking to it as possible and give the bacteria and enzyme additives more time to break down solids.

    One water conservation / holding tank saver we use is a simple spray bottle left in the bathroom. Rather than run excess water trying to free solids from the bowl, we use a spray bottle to clean up anything that may stick to the sides.

  3. charles Soehnlein says:

    where are you guys nothing since 6/52009

  4. jenn says:

    Hey, Charles. We have been busy exploring Alaska. Internet connectivity has been sparse up here for us. I keep wanting to do a pictorial, but every time I try to upload a photo the internet times out. Instead, I think that I am going to post a brief travel log over the next few days.

    Currently, we are on the Kenai Peninsula, relaxing next to a beautiful rushing river in the Chugach National Forest. We got here yesterday after a few great days of fishing in the Prince William Sound. I think that we are going to stay here and relax for a couple of days.

    Your regularly scheduled program shall return after a few brief….

  5. Ron Johnston says:

    Congrats on your article full time RVing. I was most interested in Boondocking and how you planed your usage of the necessary things to extend your stay. I will keep this in my save box for future ref..

    Thanks Ron J

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