Friday, May 3, 2019

The "Shakedown" Camping Trip

A tiny trailer owner is looking forward to that long-anticipated trip in her newly purchased tiny camper, gone for at least a month, the tour beginning in the wilds of Michigan. "Are there any tips on this long a journey?" she asks. "This is about double the furthest distance that I ever took my popup, and I will be driving solo. Should I take a few shorter trips first?"

This is an actual post from a popular tiny trailer Facebook group, and the responses were almost unanimous: "shakedown" camping trips are really helpful--not absolutely necessary (Walmarts and hardware stores abound, as one comment indicated). No, not absolutely necessary, but useful.

Shakedown camping trips are great because they are reassuring. Any challenge on that first camping trip, and you can say, "Well, I'm only a half hour from home." Now, that doesn't make the challenge any less, whatever it is, but . . . you are indeed only a hop, skip, and jump from home--and "home" isn't just your house, it's also friends and family, familiar businesses, and all the familiar circumstances available as you proceed to deal with whatever situation you have before you. Since one big reason folks camp is to relax and take it easy, then dealing with adversity in a supportive environment actually is a big deal. If camping is a new interest, or even if you just have a new camper or tent but are experienced, a shakedown trip can verify and reassure you that indeed, your long road trip readiness is optimal.


If you've never towed before, a short trip to a local campground is a good way to start. I actually gained my initial towing experience by practicing backing into my driveway. I live in the last house on a street that "doglegs" around to the next street in a little development on the edge of town. Every morning for a little over a week I'd hitch up, pull my trailer around the block, back in, then pull out, taking the opposite direction, and then back in. I wanted to be able to park the trailer in an exact spot, and my first try took me forty-five minutes. I got better over time. My first time towing beyond that was to the local county park, four miles from my home. I went on a Wednesday, when the campground was almost empty, having scouted out the route ahead of time, so the experience was successful and enjoyable. I didn't have ten campers sitting around in lawn chairs watching me back in. I had a nice flat field across from the campsite, so I could easily pull forward and even things up as many times as I needed. 

A shakedown cruise can answer many questions. How well does the trailer pull? Does it bottom out in low spots. Needless to say, checking all the electrical hookups for towing is essential. Some people have a checklist to make sure nothing was missed: everything hooked up, jacks and stabilizers put up, windows and vents closed, cords and hoses unplugged. Those shakedown trips can help establish safe and easy routines. Two YouTube videos I found helpful were from Airstream owners at the Long Long Honeymoon: "For Beginners: How to Back Up a Travel Trailer," and "The Scoop: How to Back Up a Towable RV/Travel Trailer." This full-time RV couple provides good advice and a little bit of reassuring humor.

Camp Set-up

Having parked at the campground, then the set-up begins, usually not as much an epic event as tent camping, but there is a rhyme and rhythm to it: stabilizing the trailer, securing it, hooking up (usually minimal for tiny trailers), awning, utilitent/portable toilet, outside table and chairs, preparing the cook area. It takes a while but doesn't need to happen all at once. I usually back in, stabilize and secure the trailer, hook up the electric, and if it's hot, put up the awning. I pull enough out of the trailer to be able to get in, and then usually sit down and have a glass of water and maybe have a snack. Then I continue setting up. How much I bring and set up depends on how long the stay will be. Sometimes I don't even unhook the trailer from the car.

Tiny trailer camper all set up for cooking and outside living

Unhooking the trailer from the tow vehicle and having the trailer secure from theft and stable for moving around in takes a bit of research and practice, with a shakedown cruise confirming that all is well. After quite a bit of research, summarized in my article "Security: a Starter Pack for New Teardrop Owners," I've settled on a security strategy for my tiny camper. Now, what I chose was determined in part by the fact that I live in rural SE Iowa in a low-traffic area. As for stabilizing your trailer--it isn't difficult, and having the right equipment makes it even easier. Leveling and stabilizing equipment can be a DIY project by cutting up some wood blocks, or you can buy some plastic blocks, which I chose to because of limited space and weight. In my article "Stabilizing Your Trailer: a Few Essentials," I describe the equipment and process I use stabilize my trailer, including leveling blocks, wheel chocks, and jacks.

Gearing Up

It's best when gearing up to keep two lists while camping: what to add to your gear, and what to get rid of. I keep my list on my phone notepad. At this point in my tiny trailer career, the list is getting smaller. New to my "bring" list this season is a 30 to 15 amp converter, which I've just bought at the local Walmart RV section. Previous items I've added to my list have been metal eating utensils rather than plastic sporks, a paper towel holder, and a yoga mat and small tarp.

As for what items not to take, that's a smaller list because packing something usually requires a bit of thought and energy. On one of our first trips, my wife and I took along an extra sleeping bag, one of those older model cotton Coleman brands, thinking we could use it as an extra blanket if the temperatures dropped. We discovered the bag was too big and bulky, always getting in the way in our tiny trailer. We switched it out for a smaller thermal blanket. Other items we've switched out over time include cooking and bathing items. We've stopping bringing big beach towels and have substituted instead the quick-drying microfiber towels used for backpacking. They are lightweight, easy to pack with a mesh bag, and come with a hanging loop. Definitely not as luxurious as a cotton towel, the quick-drying towels earn their way by not always being in the way. The food we bring to cook has simplified in that we are now bringing less junk food and more simple, fresh food. For me, for instance, bringing a lot of macaroni salad means I eat a lot of macaroni salad, and then I tend to get sluggish and want to take a nap.

Keeping Organized

Keeping organized in a tiny trailer is essential, and it is something that gets better with attention and practice. In an earlier article, "Keeping Organized in a Tiny Trailer, I mention that it's important to bring gear that has multiple uses, and it's important to put things away once you're done with them. Shakedown cruises provide opportunities to discover what works, what doesn't, and to find out what might work better. It's a creative process, one that often includes research. Whether online or at the campground, it's always fun to discover some new way of doing something better. I once saw at one campground a teardrop owner who had brought a small refrigerator and had it set up on a table beneath his camp canopy. That's not something I'd do, but it certainly was an interesting approach to setting up a camp kitchen.

Whatever works for each of us we should incorporate into our camping routine, whether it's hooking up, gearing up, or cleaning up. In a way, every trip is a "shakedown" cruise if we pay attention. Over time, though, the "shakes" become smaller. Like I mention in my article "How the Green Goddess Glamps," over time the camping expeditions become more about comfort and less about coping. Starting the camping season with one or several shakedown trips can definitely increase the cozy and lessen the chaos.

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  1. Thanks for another great blog.

  2. I find myself pretty much blogging what I do. This has been a very rainy spring here in SE Iowa.

  3. David Moult of FB's Teardrop Trailer Lovers posted the following reminders about what to check on your camper at the beginning of the season. I think they're worth adding to this post:

    As the season is upon us it's a good time to check over your trailer for any issues that may have escaped your notice.
    In particular check gas hoses for deterioration and chaffing where they pass through or rub up against anything.
    Ensure you have drop out vents below any gas appliances to ensure any escaped gas is not going to build up and potentially explode.
    Ensure no water can get in around any electrical units, and make sure the chassis is connected to the earth on any 240v consumer unit.
    It's also a good time to check wheel bearing of play and to repack with grease.
    It's come to my knowledge that some professionally built trailers have some potentially fatal installations.
    If you're not competent to check these things for yourself, please get a caravan service engineer to check them for you.
    Let's keep safe and have a great season of making good memories...