Camping With A Camper Plus Unexpected Challenges

Getting Gilmore’s camper ready for solar eclipse celebration at Smoky Mountains Camp­ground in Bryson City. It was one of several camping with a camper trips. PHOTO BY CAROLINE GILMORE

Caroline Gilmore

I have camped in one form or another since childhood, starting with Girl Scout camp, then backpacking and later, car camping.

After I got my second large dog, I up­graded from an 8-foot hexagonal tent to a pop-up camper. While I enjoyed the relative luxuries of camping with a pop-up camper, hitching/unhitching it and setting it up/taking it down were a lot of work for one person, so camping with a camper eventually became an arduous task for me.

Earlier this year, I traded in my 2007 Fleet­wood Yuma pop-up camper and 2006 Subaru Forester for a 2015 Coleman Expedition 16FB travel trailer and a 2015 Toyota Highlander front-wheel drive tow vehicle.

The box of my pop-up camper measured 8 feet by 10 feet and sat on a 13 to 14-foot trailer. The new camper is an 8-foot by 18-foot camper on a 21-foot 5-inch trailer and includes a queen “short” bed, banquette (L-shaped bench) and rectangular table for eating, re­frigerator/freezer, two-burner propane stove, microwave, air conditioner, furnace, water heater, commode and shower. There is even a place to plug in a TV with a crank-up TV antenna. This is a mini house on wheels!

I picked up the camper from the Garner (NC) recreational vehicle (RV) store in late May and immediately made a campsite reservation at the Rolling View Campground in Dur­ham at Falls Lake SRA for the first weekend in June.

Falls Lake is less than 30 miles from me so I thought it would be a good beginner trip. I learned that state park campsites are reserved through Reserve America (www.reserveamerica.com).

I took my dog and a friend with me on the maiden expedition. I drove on winding country roads and narrowly avoided a country road detour. I had been able to drive the pop-up camper forward pretty well. I never really learned how to back it up. When I saw the detour signs, I was concerned that I might have to back up with this much longer camper, but we made it to the campground in good stead.

Initially, I pulled into the campsite the wrong way and discovered that the water and electricity hookups on the camper were on the op­posite side of the campsite hookups. I made a U-turn in a campground loop road, turned the camper around and was able to set up the camper with no problems.

We rode our mountain bikes around the campground and took the dog swimming next to the beach on a beautiful Saturday afternoon summer day. On this trip, we used the sink, air conditioner and commode. I had no experience with using a gray (sink and shower) water tank or a black (commode) water tank, so my trip to the campground dumping station on the way out on Sunday was a first.

The process was pretty straightforward and both tanks appeared to empty okay. When I arrived home, it took about 12 attempts, but I managed to back up the camper into the driveway without destroying my chimney. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. However, in the backing process, I scraped the rear undercarriage of my camper on the driveway tongue and broke the black line cap, but did not break the black line itself. I learned that I need to modify the slope of my driveway tongue in relation to the storm drain to avoid damaging vital camper components every time I go in and out of my driveway.

Early in 2017, I decided to go to Bryson City to view the total solar eclipse in August. It had been almost a decade since I had last towed a camper that far (almost 300 miles each way). The gas gauge in my Highlander moved steadily towards empty in an accelerated manner. The second time I stopped for gas, I somehow got the steel U-shaped gas pump protector barricade in between my camper and vehicle. I bumped the edge of the camper against the barricade, separating some trim from the camper, but the damage was minimal. I had to ask someone coming out of the store to help me disengage my camper from the other side of the barricade.

We were successful and I learned (or thought I learned) that just because the High­lander clears an obstacle doesn’t mean that the camper will clear the same obstacle.

The narrow, winding mountain road I navigated from the highway to the campground had a steep non-guard-railed drop off on the right side. I imagined one of the camper wheels slipping off the edge of the road and the High­lander being pulled off the road and down the mountainside with it. It was very nerve-wrack­ing. We made it to our campsite under the shade trees on the edge of a big field at Smoky Mountain Meadows (SMM) Campground in Bryson City.

On the day of the eclipse, I was able to lie down in the big field and view the total solar eclipse on the cloudless Monday afternoon. It was perfect. When we returned to Durham the following day, I had to negotiate the treacherous mountain road back to the highway, but this time the steep drop off was on the opposite side of the road. Victory!

In September, I camped for two nights at the County Line Campground in Manson (NC) at the Kerr Lake SRA about 50 miles away. I was by myself, but amazingly enough, was able to back the camper down a declined gravel and dirt driveway about 50-60 feet to the campsite without any guidance.

I set up everything but wasn’t able to get the camper completely level due to the steep grade of the campsite and my inexperience at leveling campers.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed a beautiful fall weekend camping on the lake with my dog. Unfortunately, my refrigerator stopped working. I had an ice maker, so used my cooler and ice to keep the food cold for the rest of the weekend.

Sunday morning, I packed up the camper and hitched it to the Highlander to leave. When I tried to move the vehicle forward, the front wheels just spun in place. Two fellow campers heard my tires grinding gravel and came to help. We ended up unhitching my camper and having one of the two men tow my camper out of campsite with his big diesel 4×4 truck.

I later learned that the campsite had a “moderate grade” and that my front-wheel drive vehicle is insufficient to tow my camper out of a campsite like that. I also later learned that refrigerators are designed to shut off if they are operating on too big of a slant.

In October, I ventured 165 miles to a private campground in Holly Ridge (NC) which is across the Intercoastal Waterway from Surf City on Topsail Island for three nights. I maneuvered the camper relatively effortlessly from Durham to Wallace on the straight, flat I-40 and backed the camper into the campsite after only a handful of tries with coaching help from the owner of the fifth-wheel camper on the next campsite.

Unfortunately, the campsite was located right next to the dumpsters and on the corner of a busy campground intersection. Besides, the smell emanating from the dumpsters and the roar of big truck engines within feet of my bed on this $50-per-night campsite, the sewer hookup was too far away from my black line, so

I was unable to use the sewer hookup that weekend.

Luckily, I was hanging out on Topsail Island a lot, so the significant campsite deficiencies had minimal negative impact on my weekend. I made it back to Durham without any significant issues. On this trip, I learned that sometimes you just end up with a bad campsite.

Later that same week, I drove the camper to/from the Garner RV dealership to get it winterized. The 80-mile roundtrip went well. I got home and temporarily parked the camper alongside the curb in front of my house. Later that day, I jumped in the Highlander and pulled forward to back up the camper into my driveway. All in one moment, I heard my neighbor scream “Watch out for the mailbox!” heard the collision and saw in the rearview mirror my cedar mailbox post ripped in two and the mailbox toppled to the ground. I should have known. It’s always something…

I love being able to take the comforts of home with me on camping trips and I appreciate the added security, protection and comfort the hard-sided camper affords.

I am still learning how to back the darned thing, but am having fun traveling with it. I hope to take this camper on a cross country trip someday, but in the meantime, I will continue exploring NC and the East Coast from the mountains to the sea and learning along the way.