Thorough prepping is expensive. Many people are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to put food on the table (plus a few extra cans for the pantry). Alternative power, water, sewage, and refrigeration are back-burnered to the ever-growing “wish list.” So what's a prepper on a shoestring budget to do?
Consider a used camping trailer or recreational vehicle (RV)! You can find a used trailer for as little as $500. We paid $1,200 for a 35-foot RV. Besides weekend camping, the RV offers the following in a self-contained package:
- fresh water holding tank
- water heater
- flush toilet
- gas stove and oven
- 3-way refrigerator (regular electric, battery, and gas)
- temporary sewage disposal
- temporary waste water ("gray water") disposal
- heavy-duty power inverter with deep cycle batteries (can be charged with solar cells or generator)
- propane tanks
- beds to sleep eight
Some models even include 12-volt television, DVD player, and music systems.
Some emergencies are short-term and temporary in nature, such as wildfires, predicted hurricanes, or chemical spills. With a stocked camper or rv, you can temporarily bug out with most of the comforts of home. Many RVs have dual fuel tanks, giving you a much longer travel range than the family car, especially if you aren't traveling at high speeds on the interstate. You may be able to drive to a location out of harm's way and return without ever stopping for fuel. If you have a trailer, you may be able to add an auxiliary fuel tank to your tow vehicle to increase travel range.
As a knowledgeable prepper, you are alert for signs of impending crisis that could result in TEOTWAWKI. Hopefully, you can be on the road to your bug-out location before panic sets in. Just another family on a leisurely camping trip, tra-la-la.
Of course, once panic sets in, with fuel shortages, traffic congestion, and the possibility of armed bandits treasure-hunting the highways, you don't want to be lumbering along in a deluxe Class A motor home. All the more reason to A. Leave early. B. Buy used (old and ugly, but reliable is the goal). And C. Maintain a low profile (no NRA bumper stickers, expensive bikes on exterior racks, etc.).
Pre-TEOTWAWKI, your camper can help you in your quest for a good retreat location. Most sellers will allow a potential buyer to spend the night in a self-contained camper on the property. It's a good way to learn about typical night-time noises, such as trains, wildlife, and neighborhood nuisances. Once you find your retreat, you may choose to park your camper there so you don't have to worry about bug-out traffic. Be aware that unattended campers sometimes attract youth looking for a place to party, thieves looking for sporting goods, and wandering homeless looking for a place to sleep. Cache your food, weapons, and valuables in a storage unit nearby, or build one or more hidden storage spots on your property.
Sheltering in Place
But where the camper can really come through is when you decide to stay home and ride out the emergency, especially if you've done some advance planning and local recon.
Water and Sewage Systems
Keeping the fresh water tanks full gives you several days' supply of water for cooking, drinking, and cleaning. And if you have a well and a generator, you can top of the tanks as needed. Camper water heaters operate on propane, so you'll have hot water for showers, as well.
Campers have separate holding tanks for “gray” and “black” water. “Black” is sewage that will eventually need to be disposed of. There are several options to consider. Adding a few feet of pipe and a connector (and cap) to your regular sewer is the simplest option. You can also purchase wheeled “dump tanks” from camper supply stores. Dump into the tank, then wheel the tank to a dump station and dump it. Finally, you can drive the camper to a local campground and use the dump station to empty the tank. (Check out local options in advance—many public parks allow free dumping.) “Gray” water can be recycled to water plants, livestock, etc.
If you're in a northern location, you'll need to either insulate and heat-tape pipes and tanks, or have them drained and winterized to prevent freezing.
Cooking and Refrigeration
The gas stove and oven in your camper don't need electricity to prepare food. You may need to have a lighter or matches to light pilot lights or burners. Two large gas bottles last a surprisingly long time—and the connections are the same as your gas grill. So a few extra bottles of propane can be used for either the grill or the camper. If you have a large propane tank for your home, you can even buy adapters to fill the smaller gas bottles from the large tank. One large tank and a few small ones can easily last for a year or more.
The typical refrigerator is a “three-way”. It can be run on gas, AC power (regular utility line current), or DC power 12 volt (battery). The most important thing to remember is that the camper refrigerator works best when the camper is level. You may need an assortment of boards or leveling jacks to accomplish this goal.
Most campers are equipped with a heavy-duty power inverter and one or more deep-cycle batteries. Batteries can be recharged with solar panels or generator. A full charge will usually last several days powering refrigerator, lights, and television or computer. Using the air conditioner or furnace blower will consume a lot more power.
When friends and family arrive, where will they sleep? With a camper, your guests (or you) can sleep comfortably and privately.
When and Where to Find Camper Bargains
Fall months are the perfect time for northerners to find bargain priced campers. It's the end of the camping season, gas prices are going higher all the time, and financially-challenged consumers are looking for non-essentials to sell for much-needed cash.
Your best bargain will be with an owner, not a dealer. You can look on Craigslist or local classifieds. Drive through local campgrounds and family neighborhoods and look for “for sale” signs.
In the southern sunbelt states, spring offers the best bargains. Snowbirders may not want the expense of taking the camper back up north or the worry of finding a suitable place to store it.
Some Things to Check When Buying a Used Camper
- Tires—be alert to signs of weather-checking that can make the tire unreliable.
- Make sure brake lights and turn signals are in working order.
- Check interior for signs of leaks, such as ceiling stains.
- Ask the seller to start the refrigerator, then come back the next day to see if it's cold.
- Check water and drain pipes for leaks.
- Inspect gas tanks for missing or damaged fittings.
- If buying a trailer, make sure your vehicle will tow it. Make sure your hitch is the right size and the wiring plugs are compatible.
- Once you've bought the camper, make a “dry run” in your back yard to make sure all systems are operable and camper is properly stocked. (50 cans of food are worthless on a camping trip if the can opener is at home. Trust me, you don't want to buy a can opener in a typical over-priced campground store.)
You can also buy a used camper from a dealer, which may give you some recourse if something doesn't work right, and possibly a financing option. But expect to pay $3,000 or more for a used trailer from a dealer.
Camper Bargains to Avoid
While easier to tow, most pop-up campers won't have the same self-contained features of an RV or full-size trailer. Many older models don't have a bathroom; the “refrigerator” is an icebox (meaning you need to stock it with fresh ice every day or so); and there's no oven, just a three-burner cooktop.
Slide-in truck campers may have self-contained features, but smaller space means smaller holding tanks, smaller refrigerators, and less storage space. Instead of two large propane tanks, they have one small one.One More Advantage of the Camper as Shelter
TEOTWAWKI will bring many challenges. While we can try to anticipate common scenarios, it's hard to anticipate exact reactions to specific challenges. If your group includes children or elderly family members, a disruption in normal routine can intensify a crisis situation. However, the multiple backup systems in the camper can help maintain a semi-normal routine. Even the most crisis-ready prepper will appreciate a flush toilet and hot shower. While children will most certainly have chores and responsibilities, there will be times a battery-operated DVD player will be a real treat. Your crisis can be your child's “adventure.”
A few years ago (while we still lived up north) our neighborhood experienced a week-long power failure in December. Same week as youngest daughter's birthday. We still had a birthday party—lighted by oil lamps, with homemade chili made on top of a kerosene heater, store-bought cake, and ice cream kept frozen in a snow drift by the front door. She still talks about the awesome birthday party she didn't expect.
And when it's all said and done TEOTWAWKI will lead to a New World We Will Build. Yes, we can improvise toilets with garbage bags and five-gallon buckets, and take sponge baths alongside the creek if we have to. But why not enjoy flush toilets and hot showers as long as possible?