Winter Camping Problem #800000000: Pyramid of Poo and Paper

If it can go wrong, we’ve probably experienced it. Check out my other blogs on the trials of winter camper living.

We’re very new to camper living, so we were bound to make newbie mistakes, despite doing research on how to survive winter in a small camper.

The latest issue: The toilet wouldn’t flush away the waste. Turns out after a bit of googling a pyramid of poo and paper had built up in the black water tank because Shane kept the valve open. Ewwwww. Hence, the liquid ran out, and the solids stayed behind. We needed to close the valve, allow liquids and solids to pool. Then open the valve when it got 2/3 full, and all the waste would flow out the sewer hose. Dilution is the solution. #chemistrynerd 🙂

But closing the valves had its own problems. The grey water tank overflowed into the shower basin and soaked the laundry bag filled with dirty clothes. Doing laundry ended up on the to do list early.

We also feared the liquids in the tanks would freeze since we don’t have a heater. That’s why we kept the valve open.

We’ll have to do a balancing act of closing and opening the valves, and hope it’ll work out. We have a few weeks of winter remaining. However, we technically only have one more week in the camper before we take it in for 2-week service on the hot water heater. We’d like hot water thank you very much. It’s annoying to boil water to do dishes. Sometimes I clean the dishes with cold. Means they’re clean but not sanitized.

If a pyramid of poo and paper doesn’t sound gross enough, know we had to use a stick to stir the poo pot. We had to tear down the pyramid. Nasty, right?

Yet, we’ve managed all our winter camping problems successfully and with aplomb. No yelling, no cursing, not even an exasperated sigh. As the saying goes, shit happens. Literally sometimes, especially in a camper with a toilet. And to be punny, you should just go with the flow.

That’s the secret to handling chaos without feeling out of control. Understand problems are merely opportunities for solutions, and Shane and I work very well as a problem-solving team. I think that bodes well for our future marriage. If we can deal with all the crap that’s happened our first winter in a 15-foot camper–more than most couples deal with in 10 years–then we can probably deal with anything not associated with our deal breakers. 🙂

And to enlighten anyone who wonders how we can do this, live like this, because so many have asked us, know being together through the “thick and thin” is better than being apart. We have each other to rely on. Not to mention, it’s clear we don’t need anything else to make us happy as a couple.

Though it would be nice if we had a break from the camper problems. 🙂 Next we’ll complain about living in a hotel for a couple weeks. 😛

I feel like I’m being watched while I pee.

Our Tale of Sub-Zero Living in a Travel Trailer and the Abominable Snowman

The Abominable Snowman came to our camper door.

His frosty breath battered our door, our vent, our windows day and night as he sought his way in.

Try as he might, he couldn’t quite reach us. We had armored ourselves just enough, and fought his frigid grasp.

He bellowed outside our door.

As if trembling in fear of his anger, our camper shook.

The Abominable Snowman spit and frothed, encasing us in ice, trapping us inside.

Until he wearied of his tantrum and turned his cold gaze toward another prize, we waited in the warmth of our tiny castle. It wasn’t the strongest fortress clearly, but it withstood the worst we would most likely experience this winter.

Except what we encountered on the Oregon Trail…

We spent our time playing games with/against each other, such as The Oregon Trail card games and Quiddler, playing games on our phones (me: Bejeweled Stars, Toy Blast, Toon Blast, and Words Against Friends; Shane: Last Day on Earth), watching Avengers Infinity War (again) off Netflix, and simply enjoying each other’s company.

With plenty of food and flowing fresh water (we combated frozen pipes previously and learned from our battle loss Camper Living in the Winter: Frozen (Water Pipes)….Let it Go!), we could wait out this siege without concern. I made zucchini corn chowder to counter the ice and sub-zero temperature invasion. Soon I will share my kettle secrets.

The Polar Vortex accompanied his friend the Abominable Snowman. With a weakened, wavering jet stream from global warming, a part of the Polar Vortex legion escaped the North Pole and headed south for prey. A fierce freezing force not all could defend against, a dozen lost their lives thus far.

Strong winds and wind chills, the fists of the Polar Vortex, pummeled temperatures dangerously low, -50*F in some places, -21*F where we temporarily call home. While not foolproof against the Abominable Snowman, our planning helped us prevail against the odds. It’s a Wanderful LIfe!

We escaped eventually. Though, the Abominable Snowman lurks nearby still. But we have armed ourselves with new knowledge and will experiment with other fortifications.

With you, my winter camper comrades, I’ll share what I consider the best wisdom of others who have survived the Abominable Snowman too.

RV Winter Camping Tips

RV in the Winter

What Not to Do When Winter RVing

Do’s and Don’t’s of Cold Weather RVing

Yeti, the Abominable Snowman

Moraine State Park: Sunken Garden Trail, Pleasant Valley Trail, Five Point Trail, and Hill Top Trail

Moraine State Park in Butler County, Pennsylvania spans 16,725 acres, and offers a myriad of recreational activities, whether on the water (boating, swimming, and fishing) or land (hiking, biking, horseback riding, disc golfing, sledding, cross-country skiing, and picnicking). You can watch for wildlife too. With 29.2 miles of hiking trails, Moraine State Park will be my place to explore again and again.

In the last two weeks, I have visited the park 4 times and hiked a total of 9.8 miles (plus some if you count all the walking back and forth to find my keys I’d dropped in the snow). I consider Sunken Garden (long loop 3.6 miles), Pleasant Valley (1.9 miles), Five Points (1.3 miles), and Hill Top (long loop 3 miles) all to be very easy hikes. You could even do Pleasant Valley, Hill Top, and Sunken Garden in the same day if you wanted because the trails connect. In the winter, you’ll not find any of the blooms or as many of the birds that draws many visitors into the park, but the hikes are really fun in the snow. You also won’t find any other visitors. 🙂 At least I didn’t see anyone–just their stories in the snow. 🙂

Sunken Garden : The trail leads you through coniferous forest, along a bit of Lake Arthur shoreline, and through the wetland. Even on this cold day, I saw waterfowl on the lake, not yet frozen over, and plenty of birds in the desiccated reeds and surrounding trees. I had the pleasure of spotting dozens of Eastern bluebirds with their brilliant flash of blue in flight and the diminutive red-capped downy woodpecker.

Pleasant Valley: In winter, this trail doubles as a hiking and cross-country ski trail. However, a skier would have to step over tree debris on the trail in some sections. You’ll follow the blue-blazes through a mixed forest along this trail. While I enjoyed the serene forest, I’d say the highlight of this hike happened to be a sight I couldn’t capture with my camera. A weasel in its greyish-white coat scampered across the path in front of me!!! Again, I saw a couple Eastern bluebirds (starting to think Eastern bluebirds are the robins of Pennsylvania) and a male and female cardinal. They flitted away too quickly for pictures too. Thank goodness the trees stood still. 😉 Dryads and Ents are known to walk about. 😉

Five Points: Shane joined me on this short jaunt in the woods. Good thing, because he has four-wheel drive, and we’re not even sure we parked in a lot with all the snow. A cross-country skier had recently (that morning, day before?) taken advantage of the thick powdery blanket, their tracks cut perfect parallel lines along a portion of the trail. We’d opted to hike the short loop because we had other things to do on his only day off, but this loop intersected the Glacial Ridge trail, which the cross-country skier favored. Luckily we didn’t keep following the parallel lines into a parallel universe. Unfortunately the Five Points trail is not very well marked with the yellow blazes, and we did wander off trail because everything was white. However, I used my All Trails map of the trail, and we kept to it, despite all the different ways we could’ve gone. We could’ve played disc golf if we wanted–the course intersects the trail as well. It’s probably a prettier hike in the spring.

Hill Top: I started on the short loop because I’d already spent an hour in the below zero temps enjoying the sunrise on Lake Arthur. However, since few interesting sights stopped me, I made excellent time coming back to the trailhead and decided to continue on the long loop. I’m glad I had my poles with me because I felt like I could ski in my boots on the slight inclines. 🙂 You’ll unfortunately see US 422 at the edge of the area this trail courses. So you won’t be able to completely escape the hum of the human world.

They weren’t the prettiest of hikes, if compared to McConnell’s Mill Park. Still, I enjoy them for the activity, for the brief time in nature, and considering it’s winter and I don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, I can access the roads and parking lots. Not to mention, since snow covers the trail, and they’re not steep or rocky, I can march along like a happy-footed Antarctic penguin. 🙂

Lake Arthur, frozen over. View over US 422 bridge.

Camper Living in the Winter: Frozen (water pipes)…Let it go!!

Despite using a heated water hose, heat tape, and skirting around the camper, we’ve unfortunately succumbed to a very common problem for RVs and campers in frigid temperatures: The water pipes froze. It occurs when temperatures drop into the teens and below. Over the weekend, we received 7 inches of snow, and the temperatures dropped below zero. No doubt our water pipes froze. I’m surprised my blood didn’t freeze inside my veins when we ventured outside.

We thought we had prepared and would prevent this from happening. However, our neighbor informed us that no amount of insulating would hinder water pipe freezing in a camper not built for all-seasons (like his, like ours we discovered recently), or those without Arctic packages (I’ve since learned about this after the fact). He encountered the same problem his first winter and discovered only one thing that works: Keeping the water running at a trickle when he knows temperatures will drop into the teens.

This won’t help us now, though. We’ve got to figure out how to thaw the water pipes. As a hopeful solution, we’ve added foam insulation to the pipes we have access to and installed a very small ceramic heater in the compartment where the water heater and those pipes exist. We’ve positioned the electric space heater to heat underneath the sink and in the shower periodically. Thus far, I’ve only seen a few water drops from the faucet. Perhaps a sign the water pipes are thawing, albeit at such a rate I fear we won’t have water until spring. Or maybe Wednesday when the outside temperatures rise to 45*.

We’ve learned very valuable lessons from this, and I want to pass the wisdom (which we lacked) onto others who read this post and plan on buying an RV or camper they hope to use in all seasons.

The most important tip is to RESEARCH!!! Research which campers are all-season.

Try these sites:

Don’t rely on the “expert” salesman to help you. The sales manager at Camping World neglected to inform us our Geo Pro was NOT an all-season camper, even though he knew our intent to live full-time in a camper and knew we would live in a cold-clime area. We didn’t discover this fact until I called Forest River about the water heater issue (which they have quickly resolved by agreeing to send us the required part to fix the water heater). In the future, we may find our walls (made of fiberglass, which may become brittle in the cold) may buckle because of the cold and moisture. The insides of my clothes cabinets have iced up on the inside! Frost has accumulated alongside the mattress and the camper’s seat cushions. Eventually we’ll have to scrub off mildew and mold, even though we’re using electric heat and a dehumidifier. We can only hope to truly weather winter in our toy trailer meant for spring, summer, and fall.

In the meantime, I will definitely call Camping World Headquarters to complain about their lack of due diligence and ethics. 😡

Watch all the YouTube videos you can find that guide you on your new journey living on the road, in campgrounds, boon-docking, etc. While we did this, we seemed to have missed the information on all-season campers and didn’t know about such a thing to even think to research it. Even if we did it over again, unless we had this foresight, we’d have made the same mistake. We wouldn’t have looked for the right camper for the living conditions beyond comfort, price, hauling weight, and off-grid options (e.g., we have a solar panel and batteries).

But, you’re forewarned! Know where you’ll park your camper or RV; know if you plan to “snowbird” (aka “pack up for the winter and head south, if you’re northern”) or plan to rough it through unkind winters. If you’ll adopt a snowbird life, then you can relax standards for your camper or RV. If you’re going to be a snowy owl, like we are, check out this site that will help you determine your needs and how to go about finding your perfect home no matter where you park it:

Let it snow! Let it snow! But let our water pipes go!

Update: Water runs again! The pipes have thawed! Yay!

It’s a Wanderful Life!

Our Forest River Rockwood Geo Pro 15-ft Travel Trailer

When I graduated in August 2017 with a Ph.D. in environmental geography and specialization in conservation biogeography, I never expected I would live full-time in a 15-foot travel trailer and not have a full-time career in 2019. I had different aspirations: nature conservation education. I didn’t want the tenure path at the university so I was/am content to teach as an adjunct professor. What I really wanted was to educate the public about the “wonders of [] life and the importance of conservation” (to borrow from WAVE Foundation’s mission statement, a non-profit organization at Newport Aquarium where I had volunteered, interned, written the interactive storybooks about their ambassador animals, and finally obtained a paid position as a conservation educator). However, the Universe had a different path for me.

It seems my path will be literal–hiking trails. 🙂

Granted, I will not hike 24-7, nor could I even if I wanted to. However, we’ve found a temporary home for us and our travel trailer at a campground nearby Moraine and McConnells Mill State Parks, where I will wander into wonder as often as possible. We lucked into finding an available campground (with facilities and WiFi, even) within an hour drive of Shane’s work. The majority of campgrounds close from the end of October until the beginning of April. As the owner told me over the phone when I booked the reservation (we pay monthly rates), camping in the winter is rough. Our first adventure as full-time campers started in December, though I didn’t join him until after the New Year. We’ve already had to make adjustments for warmth and surviving winter.

1) Shane insulated around the bottom of the camper.

2) Shane insulated the inside of the camper by hanging grey wool blankets over the 3 windows. Otherwise, you felt the cold seep into your bones.

3) We use a small electric space heater instead of relying on the propane furnace. Water vapor is a by-product of burning propane as fuel, and, with the frigid outside air, condensation would build inside the camper. However, the space heater eliminates that potential problem and keeps us toasty warm. 🙂 Sometimes a little too toasty. Something I never thought I’d say in the winter.

As you may note in the image above, we have a full sized mattress. We opted to redesign the living space so we didn’t have to make a bed every night and unmake it every morning. Shane works long hours nearly every day; I have physical limitations and would end up dislocating my shoulder no doubt moving everything every day (I partially dislocated my shoulder dancing by myself, soooo…). Not to mention, I would end up hurting myself on that uncomfortable-to-me pad. However, a full-time mattress means less moving around space. We’re left with ~20 inches exposed of the original seat/mattress pad to sit on for meals. I’ve added a gel foam cushion and the decorative pillow for support (not pictured: my daypack and knee pillow for side sleeping behind decorative pillow that fill the space).

We modified the kitchen as well. Since I love to cook and Shane loves to tinker with things, he built shelves for me to store spices and teas. He also added a magnetic strip to the wall near sink for knives, and I put up sticky hooks for my cooking utensils. In a 15-ft. travel trailer, space is very, very limited. I’m actually not sure some of my friends can even fit inside. They’re giants; I’m a Hobbit, as evidenced by the fact I have second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, and afternoon tea/snack. 🙂

Finished Project!

You’ll find lots of tips on Pinterest for small space storage–the magnetic strip for knives stemmed from such a search. I’d actually created a “The Wanderful Life” board that inspired the name of this blog site. I’ll eventually figure out how to pin my blog and associated images. 🙂 Find my board here:

My first week in the camper has mostly been settling in, organizing all the things I brought that made Shane laugh the second he saw my packed car. He knew the struggle it would be to fit things. I actually still have pantry items in my car, as well as two pair of hiking boots, two hiking hats (one for sunny hiking, the other rainy hiking), and my trekking poles (godsends to those who have bad knees, hips, etc.). But, I did store most of the things. We have one undersink cabinet and two drawers in kitchen. Under the bed, we have storage space on one side. Additionally we store things under the mattress.

The Instant Pot wouldn’t fit inside the door. Like some of my friends wouldn’t fit inside the camper. And I need a step stool to reach some things still. But, Walmart carried a collapsible one that stores well and serves as my foot stool too. Not pictured in this: my protein powder. You can see it in the image above, but clearly I had to make myself a protein drink after working so hard to organize and store everything. Note the plywood Shane used to construct a bedframe for mattress support. He’s so handy. ❤

It must be noted I’ve bumped my head multiple times every day as I get things out. I may be concussed. So if this is a rambling blog, I blame the brain bruises. Speaking of bruises, I bruise easily since I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). I swear you can look at me, and I’ll bruise. 🙂 But, last night the bathroom door shut on my leg, and I have a purplish love bite from the door and shower edge on my ankle.

I had one other bathroom problem: I…ummm…pooped (all animals poop! LOL) and couldn’t find the toilet paper. At first. And then…

This occurred because, even though we have a shower, we haven’t used it. The water heater never worked (on a brand new camper. Grrr! We’re not sure where the fault lies, but I’m guessing since Camping World, where we purchased the Geo Pro, closed down, and the technicians who would be unemployed didn’t care about the last camper sold.). Until we have it repaired under warranty, we’ve been carting our toiletries to the campground facilities. The building is chilly, and you can shower with only hot water and not boil yourself at all. Roughing it, for sure. If I pretend I’m camping though, this is a luxury since we backpack and never have a shower. I’d carried dirty dishes to their bathrooms as well but have since used my kettle to boil water for washing dishes in our sink. We have wills and ways. 😉

My plans for this blog will be weekly updates on full-time camper living, including posts about camper cooking and wandering into wonder. I will create a separate post with photos from the few hikes I have done. I believe this may be too long as it is. But, you tell me! What would you like to know?? I am rather isolated in the campground. Only 7 other campers here and I’m the only one present during the day since I don’t work outside the camper. Please leave comments or start a discussion because I might need some company other than…