Off the Beaten Path
Editor's Note: I love this story that was first shared in the October 2013 issue of Cool Tears. From the original editor, Kevin Cross: "Back in January, while we where exhibiting at the Kansas City RV show I was introduced to Bill Gee. During our conversation I discovered that Bill does much more than kick back with a good book or take a leisurely hike when he goes camping. Bill uses his camper to live in while he is exploring and mapping out caves! I asked Bill if he would tell us about his camper and what he does. He has written the following article for us and I am sure you will enjoy it."
Years ago I worked at a Radio Shack store in Omaha. The manager of the service department was a member of the local Jayco camping club. I had a tent at the time, and spent several weekends tent camping with the group. Eventually I was able to save a few bucks and buy a small second-hand Jayco popup camper. That allowed me to become a real member of the Jayco group.
That first camper was destroyed in a thunderstorm in 1993. Straight-line winds turned it over on its side. I was in the storm shelter at the time. The insurance settlement went to another Jayco popup, slightly larger. After some years that was traded on a fancy Jayco popup, this time with a shower and toilet unit. Those midnight excursions are much nicer when the bathroom is just two steps from the bed! It also let me avoid the campground showers. Sometimes I felt I came out dirtier than I went in when showering at a campground.
I have always preferred the road less traveled. In 1996 I went to the Jayco International Rally at the Amana Colonies. For my second week of vacation I went to Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. I had visited a few smaller commercial caves before that and thought they were pretty neat. A cave like Mammoth - the longest cave in the world - would be a definite step up.
The National Park Service offers quite a few guided cave tours at Mammoth Cave. Most of them are electrically lit and go on paved trails. I wanted something a bit different, so I signed up for their wild cave tour. I was not disappointed! It was pretty wild for a ranger-led tour. The first part goes in parallel to a regular tourist trail. After lunch in the Snowball Dining Room, the wild cave tour goes way off trail. It is still not the far reaches of the cave, but it gets into areas that most people never see. I was hooked.
Over the next three years I visited the other three major National Park Service caves. Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are both in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, and Carlsbad Caverns is in southeast New Mexico. All of them offer ranger-led off-trail wild cave tours. Carlsbad offers several of them including one that is not in Carlsbad Caverns.
The campgrounds at both Mammoth Cave and Wind Cave are run by the National Park Service. They are clean and well run, but there are no utilities. Water comes from a few spigots and bathrooms are just vault toilets. Mammoth offers pay showers at a private vendor just outside the campground. At Carlsbad the campground is in White’s City and is privately run. It is really just a parking lot with utilities run in along the edges. I did not care - I had all the water and power I needed on the camper.
In early 2000 I was thinking I needed to get more serious about caving. One evening I was on an IRC chat room where the main topic was popup campers. Another person came on with an alias of “Caver”. He and I got to talking about caving. It turned out he lives in Sikeston, Missouri and was deeply involved in the Missouri caving community. He told me about a bi-annual caving event in Missouri called MVOR, and hooked me up with the organizers so I could get an invitation.
The southern half of Missouri covers the Ozark Plateau, a large dome of limestone. The dome extends into northern Arkansas and a bit of Kansas and Oklahoma. There are over 6000 known caves in Missouri, second only to Tennessee which has nearly 8000. Missouri cavers are still discovering caves at a rate of around 100 per year. There is a lot of opportunity!
Eventually I found Kansas City Area Grotto, a group of cavers from Kansas City. I started attending their meetings and going caving with them. Within a couple of years I found that my Jayco popup camper had some problems.
Caves are almost never located near a regular campground. They are usually on the other end of a forest road, across a cow pasture or otherwise remote. Most cavers camp in tents or the back of their truck, but I wanted to be more comfortable than that. Caving happens year-round, and cold weather is something that has to be dealt with. I found that my canvas popup camper, even with a furnace, was too cold to live in during the winter. It was also very low to the ground, totally unsuited for going off of paved roads.
I shopped around for a year. The man I met on the IRC chat mentioned to me a brand of camper called Chalet. He had just bought one and was really happy with it. I found a competing brand called ALiner which offered a full bath setup. It took some doing to find a dealer, but eventually I found Reliable RV in Springfield. We worked out a deal, and I took delivery of the ALiner in spring 2002. (Note - Reliable RV is still in business but they dropped ALiner some years ago.)
The ALiner was a great camper. It folds down like a popup, but has hard walls with insulation all over. I camped in that trailer in all kinds of weather including winter temperatures down to nearly zero. The furnace had no trouble keeping the inside warm. In very cold weather the water system cannot be used, but everything else was usable.
For the next 8 years I used the heck out of the ALiner. I documented over 75,000 miles on it, camping in states from Michigan to Alabama to New Mexico. The ALiner towed very well. It increased my fuel consumption, but not as much as I had feared. It was quick and easy to set up even in a driving rain. It had plenty of ground clearance.
One thing I really came to appreciate on the ALiner was the tires. The factory tires were way over-rated for the weight of the camper. All three of my Jayco campers had tire trouble, sometimes going less than 8000 miles on a set of tires. They were all running at about 90 to 95% of the rated tire capacity. I suffered several blowouts and tread separation events while traveling. The ALiner tires went over 60,000 miles and were still usable.
I also learned with the ALiner that radial tires on a trailer are far better than bias-ply. They ride smoother and wear better.
In caving I became involved in a major project cave in Missouri. Carroll Cave is now the second-longest cave in the state. I joined the National Speleological Society which is the umbrella organization for North American cavers. I took several week-long courses in cave rescue techniques, and I learned how to use single-rope technique. All of this required much travel - and camping!
The ALiner was a great camper, but eventually it started to show its age and heavy use. The seals where the walls and roof came together were never quite tight, so it leaked a lot of air. On a windy day the drafts were annoying. It was never as drafty as a canvas popup, but I wanted something tighter.
It took several years to find my current camper. I stumbled on it quite by accident while attending the annual Kansas City RV show. Missouri Teardrops had a couple of Campfire campers. These are regular travel trailers, though much smaller than most. They probably qualify as “canned ham” campers. We worked out a deal, the factory built one just for me, and I took delivery in April 2010.
My Campfire is 12 feet long in the box and 6 feet wide. The inside height is about 69 inches. It is a good thing I am short! A tall person would be very uncomfortable. The overall height is only 90 inches even with the high-lift axle that I ordered. The interior height comes from a dropped floor.
The entire frame is made of welded aluminum. There is no wood in the structure. The back two feet of the camper is a wet bath with a toilet and a hand shower. You have to sit down to use it. One side of that area is storage. The refrigerator is next to the entry door. The galley is on the opposite wall with a small sink and a two-burner stove. There are drawers and cabinets under the galley and a small pantry cabinet beside it. The front 4 feet is a dinette that converts into a bed.
The fresh water tank is 15 gallons. The water heater is 6 gallons and has electric spark ignition. The black water tank is about 6 or 7 gallons and the gray water tank is 10 gallons. All of this will get me through a weekend with no problem.
Working with Missouri Teardrops and Sierra Motors was a pleasure. We were able to work out a custom build just for me and get it priced within a few weeks. My camper has a number of options.
The axle is a high-rise using 45-degree drop arms instead of the standard straight-back arms. That raises the entire unit about 3 or 4 inches. I had them insulate all of the water lines. Since I almost always camp where there is no power, I deleted both the microwave (normally above the fridge) and the air conditioner (normally under the galley). Both of those areas are now storage cabinets. They added a second battery box and wired it into the electrical system. I ordered 14 inch tires instead of the standard 13 inch. Two propane tanks, a Fantastic Fan vent, no television prep, an extra 12 volt outlet and four stabilizers round out the major changes I ordered.
The factory did a custom change on their own initiative. All along I was telling them that I camp a lot in cold weather. They decided to run two furnace ducts. One is the normal large duct that vents directly into the living space. The other is a smaller duct that runs all the way around the camper inside the cabinets, behind walls, past the fresh water tank and water pump before venting into the living space. Along that run they cut a bunch of slits in the duct. The result is that warm air gets behind walls and cabinets where it can help keep the water lines from freezing.
They had a great idea and it has worked well. I have camped in some seriously cold weather, yet the water lines have never frozen on me. It is not perfect. The waste water tanks are both under the floor where they cannot be heated, so I have to be careful of them freezing.
Ordering 14 inch wheels and tires proved to be a bad decision. As it turns out, the wheel well openings are not quite big enough to accomodate the larger tires when the trailer bounces. I found after a couple of trips that the tires were bumping into the frame. I talked it over with Missouri Teardrops, and we arranged a change to 13 inch wheels and tires. As long as we were at it, I had them use radial tires instead of bias-ply.
After we did the swap, I had not driven half a mile before noticing how much smoother the camper was riding. Those radial tires made a HUGE difference in the trailer ride quality. I have about 22,000 miles on the camper now, and the tires are getting worn. They are not going to last as long as the ALiner tires did. Even so, it’s been three years which is far longer than I ever went on any of my Jayco campers.
Some years ago I bought an 80 watt solar panel and associated equipment for my ALiner. That equipment is transferred to the Campfire. The 80 watt panel and two 75 amp-hour AGM batteries give me all the power I need for a weekend. In the summer I will never run out of power. I have camped for 16 straight days with no power but the solar panel, and the batteries never got below 80% charge. In the winter the furnace takes a lot of power and there is less sun, so it will not go forever. The solar panel will add two days to a winter camping trip.
Campfire campers are no longer made. Sierra Motors decided to get out of the regular camper business after only three or four years. They are now concentrating on their original business of doing horse trailer conversions.
Having a self-contained camper makes some aspects of caving much more comfortable. The temperature in Missouri caves is about 56 degrees all the time. Most Missouri caves are very wet, so you get soaked completely through during a cave trip. When you come out into a cold January night, it is really nice to have a warm camper to go get a shower, wash off the mud and get a good night sleep before driving home.
In March 2013 I helped with a cave gating project southeast of Springfield, Missouri. When I arrived at the site, there was 6 inches of snow on the ground. It snowed on us for three of the four days we worked on that cave gate. Most of the snow did not stick, but it was cold and damp. I was very glad to get back home to my camper at the end of each day.
One of the attractions of caving is I can usually combine a caving weekend with a camping weekend. I get two favorite activies at the same time! With a travel trailer, I can pull over in any convenient spot and use the toilet. No more hunting for a gas station. I can also hop inside and fix a quick lunch while traveling. I have not done it often, but having a travel trailer lets me get a night of sleep at many Walmart parking lots. The folding trailers - even the ALiner - were not suitable for that.
I plan to get in many more years of camping and caving. The Campfire is going to get many more miles off the beaten path.