Saturday, January 29, 2022

Boondocking in Iowa--Sorta . . .

Practicing off the grid at Bellevue State Park, Iowa
Speaking of "sorta," I sorta have a goal to camp at least once a month for all twelve of the months of 2022. January has almost run its course, and I haven't yet camped. I'm not obsessing, though; however, there is a chance I can still camp this January. The weather is better here in SE Iowa these last few days, even though the snow on the ground may stop me from camping because the snow will be too deep in campgrounds to set up. Our local state park has one site cleared, though--a pull-through right next to the campground entrance, a primitive site without hook-ups. That means I could camp there by using my batteries and propane, off the grid. And this is for Iowa and probably much of the Midwest, about as close as one gets to boondocking--camping in primitive sites in a campground. I might head out and "boondock" for one or two nights here at the last of January--if the weather holds and I'm up for it. 

I see the practice of "boondocking" as having several levels of engagement with being off the grid. The lightest engagement is camping at a campground site that has all the hook-ups . . . but just not using them. From there increasing levels of camping off the grid would be to camp at a campground with full amenities but choosing a primitive site (sometimes called "tent sites"). Next would be camping at a campground that has all primitive sites with perhaps a water faucet and vault toilets. A further progression would be a campsite that has a fire ring and nothing else. These are pretty much the sites for boondocking available in Iowa. A few are even for free, but I've found those to be few and far between.

I am excited, though, to experience more primitive camping while using my 16-foot Airstream Basecamp trailer. It's built to travel over terrain that's less flat because of its height above the ground and its rear angle, good enough to find a spot in many primitive sites at designated campgrounds. Being able to set up camp with more elbow room than the more developed campground sites is a real motivator for trying boondocking here in Iowa. This is especially true if I use my solar panels to provide power for evening lights and for the 12-volt refrigerator; then I can stay for longer times than a couple of days. Let me provide some examples of campgrounds I've found that I'm eager to "boondock" at.

Lake Sugema, main campground, with my first travel trailer, the Green Goddess

Lake Sugema Campground

Lake Sugema is mostly a fishing lake, but it is one of the more modern county campgrounds around. Beyond the modern campground loops, though, is a primitive camping section that is more secluded than the rest of the campground. It has a faucet in a central area and a selection of campsites with sun and shade. 

Rock Creek State Park, primitive camping area, an overnight camper
Rock Creek State Park

This state park was hit pretty hard by the derecho winds that swept the state a couple of years ago. I found this out when I mentioned during my state at Rock Creek at how few shade trees the campground had and was told that many broken trees had to be removed. A big surprise was how large the primitive portion of the campground was, with sites having lots of space and with even sites close to the lake. Camping at these primitive sites would provide a whole new experience of the lake and park. 

Geode State Park primitive camping area

Geode State Park

As with the two above campgrounds, Geode also has a primitive camping section that has a separate area. The campsites run along a ridge, away from the rest of the modern campground, providing more quiet and less traffic. Campsites offer either shade or more of a meadow experience, which provide different opportunities for both warm and cold camping seasons.

I've listed these three campgrounds because they are representative of the primitive camping experience available in many traditional county and state parks in Iowa. These three have certain qualities in common.
  • The price for the primitive sites is less than for modern sites.
  • If you don't mind a walk, modern toilet and shower facilities are available.
  • These three primitive campgrounds have fairly level and accessible campsites for trailers. It's not uncommon for "tent sites" to be on sloping and sub-optimal ground. Not so with these campgrounds.
  • Dump stations are available.
  • In an emergency, I could most likely move to an electric site to charge trailer batteries. 
Wildcat Den State Park, off the grid
Perhaps with time, I'll find some Iowa sites for camping that are for free. I know of a couple that are in small woodland plots or near river access--county land. I also have heard of one free camping area along a trout stream in NE Iowa. However, I've never camped in these areas, so I won't recommend them. I'm sure I'll find more campsites as I continue to explore. For right now, I'm enjoying the process of interacting with my year-old Airstream and all its gadgets that allow me to live at ease in more primitive facilities. My main off the grid camping experience this year was at Wildcat Den State Park, which is an Iowa state park that has only primitive camping facilities. These facilities consist of a meadow with a ring of campgrounds, a couple of central faucets, and a vault toilet. Interestingly, my two camping experiences there were during hot weather, and with the last trip also including a stink bug invasion. Air conditioning and zipping closed the trailer have their advantages, I discovered.

In Iowa, weather extremes, especially heat and humidity, will affect my boondocking rambles. Also, the more I primitive camp, the more I'll learn about the capabilities of my unit and the more confident I'll be off the grid. I see no need to go too far or too fast, though--not all at once, anyway. Let me increase my experience as I go, happily setting up camp and then reporting about my experiences. As for a January camping trip--off the grid--we'll see what the weather has to bring for the next few days.

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  1. Tom, I also have a Basecamp X 16 and I'm planning on some winter camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this winter. Next couple of weeks I hope. I've been testing it here in the Cincinnati area learning the possible failures I might encounter. It is fully winterized with the water lines filled with RV anti-freeze, Tanks empty except with a bit of anti-freeze. I'll be taking a couple of 7gal. water containers with me.
    First failure was low voltage, Can't run furnace low voltage warning, Second failure I encountered was a frozen propane regulator... Oh boy no heat, now what do I do to solve that. Googled it and found a couple of things that can be done. One was to use the hand / foot warmers to wrap around the regulator to thaw it out. I found that did not work for me, maybe I didn't wait long enough but after 3 hours I tried another solution. Wrapped a towel around the regulator, poured hot water over it that I boiled with a Jetboil canister stove. Did that a couple of times and had Success! Propane started flowing and furnace worked.
    While researching that I also found that using propane tanks in sub freezing temps can cause a condition where you can't get the full use of all the contents of the tank due to them freezing up as they get lower. Suggestion was to make sure to keep them full when heading out or using an AC electric heating wrap for the tank. Another suggestion was to not close the tank valves so that you don't have that rush of gas causing a freeze in the regulator when you turn them on.
    My plan is to camp at a state park that is open in the winter. The sites are cleared and there is electric, but no water available, so that allows the use of the propane tank heater. I've got 200AH of heated Battle Born Lithium batteries, 180 Watts of rooftop solar and extra 200 Watts of portable solar as well, if I want to be totally off grid I have a Honda generator.
    I've found that the roof top solar in the Winter is not enough to keep the batteries charged with the internal battery heater activated. After over a week of really cloudy skies the voltage of the batteries went down too low to power the furnace, got a low voltage error on the display. So I had to break out the generator to charge up the batteries in order to get the furnace going, but first I had to get the propane working!!!!
    Glad I did all the testing before my trip North! Remembering the Boy Scout motto "Always Be Prepared"
    Best of luck to you on your winter excursion, hope my experience helps you.

    1. Great comment, Mike, and you certainly did persevere and were prepared! If you go to my website, there is a respond by email gadget on the sidebar. If you'd like, we could correspond, and I could write an article about your learning lessons. Thanks!