Tag Archives: #winter camping

Do I Control The Universe?

Note: this post was written on the listed days in a diary-type format.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Problem and Preparation

In December 2021, I learned that my adult daughter, Anne, was scheduled to have carpal tunnel surgery in January. Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the hand’s median nerve is irritated. This is caused by repetitive trauma, and it is common in individuals who heavily use power tools, folks who are constantly flexing their wrists (like house painters), and people who use a computer in their job. Compressing the nerve can create all sorts of strange symptoms, from hand numbness, to pins and needle sensations, to muscle weakness. We use our hands thousands of times a day, so you can imagine how disabling carpal tunnel syndrome can be. Luckily, carpal tunnel surgery is straightforward and involves opening up the carpal tunnel to relieve the pressure on the median nerve. However, surgery requires recovery time, and during that period, it is difficult to use your hands for simple tasks.

Anne’s partner, Chris, took some time off, but he is now back to work. I offered to come down for a few days and help her out with jobs like laundry and cooking. I plan to be as helpful as possible while avoiding being intrusive. Along those lines, I have tried to keep my communications open with Anne as we pondered what tasks she would like me to do.

I know that it can be difficult to have a house guest 24/7, so I’m planning on sleeping in Violet the campervan. However, there is a problem, it is January in Illinois, and as I write this, it is a balmy 4F (-16C) outside. So sleeping in Violet will be a challenge.  

If you asked my kids for one of my dadisms, it is likely that one of them would recite; there are no emergencies for those who are prepared. I plan on adapting this philosophy to the task at hand.

I have winter camped in Violet in the past, but every situation has been unique. I have successfully camped in Montanna during freezing nighttime temperatures by wrapping myself up like a burrito in a sleeping bag and then covering the bag with my quilt. I have used a portable electric heater when camping in Wisconsin when the temperature was in the 20s (-6C). I have a built-in Webasto heater that Tom and I installed in Violet last summer. I recently tested it, and I could sleep through an 18F (-8C) Chicago night.  

Camping with Tom in Wisconsin.

I don’t like to be bound in a bag when sleeping, and I won’t have access to shore power as I’ll be stealth camping in Anne’s parking lot. The Webasto uses gasoline from my gas tank, but it also needs 12-volt power from my house battery to operate its blower and electronics. This latter fact could be a problem as I normally recharge my house battery using solar panels, and daylight is in short supply during Midwestern winters. In addition, lithium batteries can be damaged if you attempt to charge them in freezing temperatures. 

Solar panels on my roof easily charge my battery in the summer; not so much during the winter.

It seems like the only reasonable solution will be to combine several techniques to stay warm during this adventure.

Last summer, Grace and I made a heated sleeve to warm my house battery so it could be charged when the temperatures were below freezing; this may be the time to try out our gadget. However, I’ll still need to be conservative in my power usage. I need electricity for my 12-volt fridge, house lights, and electronic devices (like my iPhone and AirPods). I will use the Webasto judiciously, as constant use will drain my house battery. What other heat source do I have?…Hmm, I’m a little heat generator. 

The battery box warmer Grace and I made. The brown disks are 12-volt heating pads.

I’m a side sleeper, and I constantly shift my blankets to regulate my temperature. Because of this, I’m not a fan of encasing myself in a zippered sleeping bag. Instead, I’ll use my 30-year-old flannel-lined sleeping bag opened up as a bottom insulating layer and my Walmart quilt as my top covering. This is my usual camping setup, but it will be inadequate for freezing temperatures. Wool blankets are warm and durable and would be the perfect additional layer. However, a new quality wool blanket is expensive. I went on eBay and bought a used (and dry cleaned) wool blanket in anticipation of this trip. I’ll also try out a small 12-volt electric car blanket. The gadget uses less than 40 watts of electricity per hour, so it should be reasonable to run it off an accessory battery pack. The plan is to heat my bed before I climb into it and run the blanket as needed. Lastly, if I’m in a pinch, I have a camping throw-style blanket that can be used as an additional layer. I think that should be more than enough.

I’m a pretty organized guy and have a spot for everything. The sack that looks like a sleeping bag is actually my emergency camping throw blanket.

I want to bring some water to make hot tea or coffee in Violet, but I’m concerned that the water will freeze. So I’m going to try to keep some water bottles in an iceless Yeti cooler that I own. I’m hoping that the insulation of the cooler will have a reverse effect by keeping some of the outside cold away from the water. 

My Yeti cooler. It is nice but overpriced. If I had to do it again I would buy a knock-off at half the cost.

I always carry a few emergency food supplies in Violet, things like tea bags and a ration bar. However, I’ll stock up on a few more items before heading out to Champaign/Urbana. I’m not sure what I’ll buy, but it will likely be snack-type items like protein bars and crackers. I’ll be eating my meals with my daughter’s family, but it feels more secure to have a small stash of camper food at the ready for any snacking emergency

Even heating water for tea will be a problem at these temperatures. I have an electric induction cooktop that I use in the summer, but it uses 1800 watts of electricity which will be difficult to replace with my solar panels in winter. I have a backup butane stove, but butane doesn’t flow well below 32F. I think that I can keep a canister of butane in the Yeti and take it out when I want to use it. As long as I can keep it above freezing, I should be able to use my table-top butane burner for heating beverages. 

Using the Yeti to keep things warmer than freezing.

I have already packed a change of clothes, and I always have a travel Dopp kit at the ready. In addition, I’ll take a small shovel and a battery jumper pack for winter emergencies. Naturally, a first aid kit is part of Violet’s basic provisions.  

At the moment, my batteries are fully charged, and they are staying warm in my house. I’ll need to bring them out to Violet and connect them back into her electrical system tomorrow morning. I’ll go to the grocer today to pick up my snack items. I have already charged my iPad, Kindle, and headlamp, so they are ready to go. I think I’m about as prepared as I can be for this adventure. I’m writing this on Tuesday morning; I’ll be leaving for my daughter’s Wednesday morning. Onward ho!

Batteries! The big one is my main battery system and the top one is an accessory battery.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022-Travel Day

Today didn’t start very well. Connecting my house battery to Violet took much longer than I had anticipated and involved a lot of troubleshooting. This was the start of my sadness, as I also dealt with triple-header trauma. Even my sister admitted that I was experiencing a real sh_t show of a day. 

My best friend, Tom, had to move his family into his uncompleted townhouse. It doesn’t have a working kitchen or shower. Tom has worked like a dog to finish this project, and I felt terrible for him. Next, my daughter, Grace, studied for the GRE the entire winter break. Due to COVID, the test is now given at home via computer. It was decided that she would take the test at my wife’s office, but she ran into a major Wi-Fi glitch there and missed the exam. She was demoralized. Lastly, a friend I have known for the last 50 years suddenly passed away due to COVID. She was a kind, sweet, and smart lady who will be missed. Yep, that was the start of my day.

I loaded Violet with my necessary supplies, including food and bottled water. I placed my 12-volt electric car blanket under my top blankets. I neatly folded the wool blanket and placed it on my Walmart quilt. I packed snow boots, and I even took along my pair of Yak Tracks ice cleats. I felt that I was ready for anything.

My experimental blanket setup. The plaid sleeping bag is my bottom insulating layer that is topped by the 12-volt throw blanket (bright blue). My top layers consist of my cheap Walmart quilt and a very warm wool blanket. Naturally, I’ll unfold them when it is bedtime.

It is only a two and one-half hour ride to my daughter’s, but I found myself getting sleepy towards the end of my journey. I didn’t want to show up to Anne’s groggy, and I felt that a 15-minute nap would enliven me. I stopped at the Casey gas station by her house and filled my tank. I found a quiet parking space on the side of the store, pulled in, and climbed into the back for a little snooze. I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and turned on the Webasto, which promptly gave me an error code. Ten minutes later, I fixed the Webasto, but I had robbed myself of two-thirds of sleep time in the process. I drove the 3 minutes to Anne’s apartment.

I had a nice view of a cornfield from Anne’s parking lot. However, the freezing cold prevented me from spending much time outside.

Anne’s partner, Chris, had picked up their kids from school and arrived shortly after I did. It was wonderful to see everyone, and even their dog, Hunter, seemed excited that I was visiting. We spent the evening catching up. I did a few small jobs for Anne, promising to do more the next day. The evening ended by watching Encanto, a kid-friendly movie. At 8 PM, I left the apartment for Violet with the promise that I would return at 7 AM for coffee and to drive the kids to school.  

It was in the low 30’s when I entered Violet. I started the Webasto with the plan to run it for about three hours, allowing me to ramble around Violet’s cabin. The Webasto can get the cabin temperatures in the 60’s, but it is slow as it blows warm air instead of hot air. With that said, the cabin was tolerable after about 30 minutes. I put a privacy cover in Violet’s side window and blocked off the driver’s compartment with insulated drapes. It was now time to change into my sleepwear. I decided to use my normal PJ setup (tee-shirt and lounge pants) as I wanted to see how my blankets worked without the assistance of thermals. I powered up the 12-volt blanket for 30 minutes to heat my bed. Soon I was under the covers talking on the phone, watching YouTube videos, and contemplating the meaning of life. By 11 PM, I was ready to sleep, and I turned off the Webasto to conserve power. I had to ensure that I had enough electricity for two evenings and nights. My blanket combination was toasty, and it was clear that the outer wool blanket was making a substantial difference.  

My little Webasto heater does a good job, but it takes a bit for it to heat the cabin.
I covered my side window and pulled down the insulated drape that separates the front of the cab from the cabin. Yes, I could have done a neater job pulling down the blanket, but it still worked.

The temperature dropped to 28F (-2C) during the night, and there were a few times that I woke up because of the cold. I have been told that I’m a warm resource in bed, but I’m pretty temperature-sensitive, and a little chill wakes me. However, I was just mildly cold, not freezing. I remedied the situation by running the electric blankets in 45-minute intervals during the night. The total time that I ran the blanket was around 3 hours, including the 30-minute initial blanket warmup. By morning, I was 90% satisfied with how well my blanket setup worked, and I was certain that adding the car throw for the next night would bring me the result that I was aiming for. I patted myself on my back. My planning had served me well.

I only used 20% of my auxiliary battery that powered my 12-volt blanket and charged my devices. Pretty good!

Thursday, January 13, 2022

I planned to wake at 6 AM, but I set another alarm for 5:30 AM. I would start the Webasto at 5:30 so the cabin would be tolerable when I had to get dressed at six. At 5:30, my alarm chimed. I started the Webasto and looked down at my phone. I was surprised to see a text message from Anne. “Hey, I just wanted to touch base-Diana threw up last night and has been wheezing/coughing this morning. I need to get her tested for COVID to be safe-I would say wait till I try to do this just so I can make sure she’s not sick-i don’t want you to get sick either.”  

That was something that I didn’t plan for. My van isn’t very big. I have spent extended amounts of time in it, but not many hours in the cold with no place to go. I have rudimentary facilities in Violet, but I prefer to use them only in the most urgent situations. Also, I was unfamiliar with Anne’s town, and with COVID exploding everywhere, I didn’t want to spend time warming up in a public place.

Anne initially planned on getting Diana COVID tested at her school, but that wasn’t possible. She then booked a rapid test for 9:30 AM, but it turned out that it was for Friday at 9:30, not Thursday. Finally, she left with her family, and they drove to a local hospital where both Diana and Chris got tested. Unfortunately, Chris was also feeling off. 

I waited in Violet running the Webasto as I mentally calculated the watts going out vs. the limited power coming in from my solar panels. Yes, I could heat the van for many hours, but if I ran the Webasto all day, I would likely run out of battery power by the evening when I needed it the most. I had done so much problem solving and preparation. However, I didn’t prepare for my granddaughter to get sick, causing me to stay for an extended time in Violet at freezing outside temperatures. Finally, Anne texted to tell me that they would return by 10:30 AM, which would be in a few hours. 

Here is a shot of the power reserve of my main battery. I took this sometime on Thursday morning. I had already used 26% of my battery, an amount larger than I originally calculated. This was likely due to the cold zapping some of the battery’s energy. You can also see that the Webasto is using only 39 watts. That’s very efficient, but over time it will still drain the main battery down to zero.

As in any crisis, I adopted my emergency strategy to do nothing initially. Instead, I paused, took a deep breath, calmed myself down, and looked around me. I had done many things to deal with parts of this situation. Last week, I made a patch cord to use an auxiliary battery, just in case I ran out of power. That would give me more Webasto time. I again wondered if I should risk going to a public place like a coffee shop or the library to keep warm. Still, I deemed sitting hours in such an environment dangerous due to the infectious Omicron variant. 

I needed some caffeine, and hot tea sounded perfect. I checked my Yeti cooler and found that my idea to keep my water unfrozen worked, but what about the butane canister that I also insulated? I took out my butane stove and placed it on my induction cooktop. I slid in a hairspray size can of butane and clicked the igniter. A flame appeared! I dug into my food stores and found some emergency biscuits (in actuality, Walkers shortbreads). Hot tea and biscuits, delicious! I changed out of my sleepwear and into my warmer street clothes. Now, I could turn the Webasto down a notch and save a little battery power. Adequately warm, and fed I waited for Anne to return, hopefully with good news.

My butane stove worked despite the cold. My problem-solving had worked!
Hot tea and biscuits, a perfect way to start a cold day.

Anne did arrive, but not with the news that I wanted. Diana and Chris got tested, but it would be 2-3 days before their results. Anne said that she would also take Diana to the 9:30 Friday test. Since that was a rapid test, she would have the results Friday. I couldn’t use their apartment; I was uncomfortable spending long periods in public places; I was discharging my house batteries faster than I was charging them. The writing was on the wall. I told Anne that I couldn’t stay and help her; I had to return home with guilt and shame.

When I started this post I thought that the message would be that you could avoid problems with thought and planning. However, it appears that I had another lesson to learn. Yes, all of my planning benefited me. It kept me warm enough in freezing temperatures; it provided me with unfrozen water to make a hot cup of tea. It gave me food, so I didn’t have to go hungry. I won’t mention how I used the largemouth capped bottle hidden in a cupboard, but it was helpful, and I was glad that I had planned to take it. 

All of my plans amounted to little as I couldn’t achieve the goal that I had set out to do; to give my recovering daughter a coupled days of peace and a little bit of pampering. The demands that I was placing on Violet the campervan exceeded her abilities. Soon there would be no place to go.

I handed Anne a coffee cake that I brought for Thursday morning breakfast and gave her my apologies and goodbyes. Two and one-half hours later, I was back in Naperville, unpacking all of those things that I had just packed the day before. I felt bad.

I couldn’t install a shower in Tom’s new house to make his move more pleasant, I couldn’t solve Grace’s GRE Wi-Fi issue, and I certainly didn’t have the power to save the life of my friend, Patti. I couldn’t even do a dad thing like helping my daughter for a couple of days as she was recovering from surgery. Four things over 24 hours that showed me that I was powerless.

I believe in preparing for emergencies, and my planning did serve me well. However, I also know that unfortunate things happen even with the best planning. Sometimes, you have to let life play out as you stand by and watch. No one, including me, controls the universe. Lesson learned.